In Defence of Our Land: Historical Similarities Between the Enclosure of Common Land from the Thirteenth to Nineteenth Centuries and the Privatisation of Public Land in the Twenty-First; or, Why the Class War Never Changes, Only its Historical Form

These extracts are from John Wright’s recently published book, A Natural History of the Hedgerow (2016). I began reading it partly out of my love and hatred of hedgerows, about which I have written before on this blog in an article on Land Values, but also as an escape from the violence, injustice, political corruption and urban squalor of estate demolition. Little did I expect that, far more than a natural history of the hedgerow, Wright’s book also contains a social history of the struggles arising from the enclosure of common land in England and Wales between the Thirteenth and Nineteenth Centuries; and reading it I was struck by how similar the motivations and injustices of enclosure were to the conflicts arising today from the privatisation of land through the programme of estate demolition, not only in London but across the UK. Above all, I was struck by the class basis to both wars, the similarity between the arguments used by the ruling class to justify its appropriation of the common land from an already impoverished working class, the collusion of parliament and judiciary in that injustice, the arrogance with which the landlords convince themselves – if not their tenants – that it is for their own good, and the contempt and cruelty with which the rights of working men and women were and still are trampled on and dismissed. I was also interested by the brief accounts of the latter’s rebellions, which echo down to our own struggles to save our housing estates from demolition, their residents from eviction, and our land from privatisation. Every generation thinks that its historical moment is without precedent; but as this text shows, the class war between the rich and the poor never changes, only the forms it takes at different moments in history. For the agricultural workers and tenant farmers of the Thirteenth to Nineteenth Centuries one of the most violent forms of class war they faced was the enclosure of the common land on which they depended for their subsistence; for the working-class residents of council and social housing in the Twenty-first Century the contemporary equivalent is the demolition of the estates in which they live. Whether we should take hope and courage from these rebellions or despair at their repeated defeats depends, of course, on our own willingness to survive – and even to win – this war; but we should never be mistaken about its class basis, or to what ends it is waged.

The True Levellers' Standard Advanced

Inclosure and Enclosures

Slowly at first, from the Thirteenth Century to the close of the Nineteenth, thousands of miles of hedge were planted and walls erected, enclosing common fields and common waste. Subsistence farming as a communal way of life was gradually being replaced by enterprise farming and individualism. For this to happen it was necessary for common land to be taken into private ownership; and so, in its various guises, common land died, slowly and painfully.

The words ‘enclosure’ and ‘inclosure’ are frequently used interchangeably, but, although they are connected, there is a fundamental difference between them. An enclosure is a physical boundary and the land within it, and to enclose denotes the act of placing a boundary around a piece of land. Inclosure is a legal term that refers to the conversion of common land into private land. When land is inclosed the rights of the commoner are ‘severed’, a term that also occurs in the very different context of shellfish collection when the common right to fish in delimited areas of tidal waters is severed by a ‘several order’. Once common ownership is lost, it tends to stay lost.

This is straightforward enough, and it enables one to discuss these two different matters without confusing them, but one can still run into conceptual difficulties. For example, if a common open field, area of waste or meadow was acquired outright by one person this means that the field was inclosed because rights of common have been removed. If (and this rarely happened) it had no surrounding hedge or wall, it would still be inclosed, but it would not be enclosed. It is even possible to inclose an area of land while removing its hedges so that it is no longer enclosed. For the purposes of this book I intend to follow the modern convention and dispense almost entirely with the word inclosure and use enclosure for both meanings, trusting that context will make the usage clear. It is also true that enclosure and inclosure often occurred at the same time, so any distinction between them is usually moot.

The enclosure period is a long one, divided roughly into ‘early enclosure’ and ‘parliamentary enclosure’, the former beginning in the Thirteenth Century, the latter in the Eighteenth Century. Much enclosure of land during the early centuries was pragmatic and piecemeal and for the most part by agreement. Until 1235, the common waste, woodland and pasture – though deemed to belong to the lord – could not be taken out of common by him. As demand for land increased, the waste became a temptation to both landless sons of farmers and to lords sympathetic to their pleas and the prospect of more rent. A certain amount of encroachment took place, with small enclosures springing up here and there, which became semi-regularised in time after a fine was paid. You could get away with almost anything if you were prepared to pay the fine; in this case the fine was paid annually and became indistinguishable from rent.

However, a formal path to enclose parts of the waste was made clear in the Statute of Merton of 1235. The statute may have been liberal and progressive in intent, but the risk it presented – that the lord could enclose the waste for himself – was obvious even then. To ensure that the waste on which the peasants relied so heavily to pasture their oxen and stock did not disappear completely, a provision was made that parts could only be enclosed if the commoners were left with sufficient for their needs. Making sure such a clause was enforced would be difficult for an illiterate and immobile peasantry, and as circumstances changed it became honoured only in its breach. Considered to be the first English statute, the Statute of Merton was not an auspicious start, heralding as it did the opening shots in a long war which the English and Welsh peoples would eventually lose – the war of access to their own land.

A darker period was to follow during which land was enclosed by force, a period sometimes known as the Tudor Clearances. Like just about everything in history, there is disagreement about just how hard these times were. But it is a matter of historical record that many of those who suffered loss of land rights were vocal and sometimes active in their own defence. There was also a contemporary literary genre of polemicism decrying the actions and low motives of the enclosers.

Economic and political reasons made enclosure attractive – if not always necessary – for those who might gain from it. What drove it during this period was, famously, sheep. A declining population meant there were now relatively few people to till the soil, and as a result land became cheap. With wool at a premium and sheep needing relatively little labour, sheep farming on a massive scale became both viable and attractive. The Statute of Merton was a further spur, enabling lords and large landowners to remove the rights of the peasantry to common land, thereby making it available for sheep.

There is a contrary view that claims Tudor enclosure wasn’t as bad as was once thought. Because of the drop in population, so the argument goes, villages and settlements became unsustainable due to lack of facilities; and with so few to work the land, sheep farming was the only possibility. While such situations may well have arisen, the well-recorded views of those who opposed enclosure suggest that the main motivation for privatising common land was greed. The methods were certainly underhand, if for the most part legal: rents would be racked up to force eviction, and appalling penalties applied to anyone who continued to use their lost common rights.

The hardship and suffering that many endured resulted in the one thing that monarchs fear above all other – rebellion. There were doubtless many localised acts of violence and destruction, but the period is notable for several organised rebellions. Each of these has been honoured with a name, providing a sorry roll-call of doomed fights against repression and theft: Jack Cade’s Rebellion of 1459, Kett’s Rebellion of 1549, the Midland Revolt of 1607, and the Diggers’ actions forty-two years later. These, and many more, are reminders of the iniquities of the past, and of the alienation from the land that we suffer even today.

Robert Kett, a Norfolk yeoman farmer, was initially the target of locals rebelling against enclosure. Seeing the justice of their cause, this ‘gamekeeper turned poacher’ joined and then led what was to become one of the largest and bloodiest rebellions in England (though the blood was shed mostly by his followers). Despite his ultimate failure – he was hanged from the walls of Norwich Castle in 1549 – his legacy remains, as do his words:

The common pastures left by our predecessors for our relief and our children are taken away. The lands which in the memory of our fathers were common, those are ditched and hedged and made several; the pastures are enclosed, and we shut out.

Kett presented twenty-nine demands to the authorities, only one of which mentions enclosure directly:

We pray your grace that where it is enacted for inclosing that it be not hurtful to such as have enclosed sovereign grounds, for they be greatly chargeable to them, and that from henceforth no man shall enclose any more.

It was not just rebels who objected. The most distinguished person to express a contrary opinion was Thomas More who, in his dystopian satire Utopia (1516), railed against enclosure and the greed of those wishing to cash in on the wool trade:

Your sheep that were wont to be so meek and tame and so small eaters now, as I have heard say, be become so great devourers and so wild that they eat up and swallow down the very men themselves. They consume, destroy and devour whole fields, houses and cities. For look in what parts of the realm doth grow the finest and therefore dearest wool, and there noble men and gentlemen, yea and certain abbots, holy men no doubt, not contenting themselves with the yearly revenues and profits, leave no ground for tillage: they enclose all into pasture, they throw down houses, they pluck down towns and leave nothing standing but only the church to be made a sheep house.

Fearing lower revenues, loss of a source of military conscripts and general unrest, various monarchs passed eleven Acts of Parliament to prevent wholesale enclosure, the first in 1489 and the last one hundred and fifty years later. All of them were ineffective. Homelessness became the crime of vagrancy, and for a brief period recidivists could become enslaved. In 1607 came the Midland Revolt in which thousands of angry men and women began pulling down hedges and fences and leveling ditches, the latter causing them to be termed ‘Levellers’. In the mid-Seventeenth Century the religiously inspired ‘Diggers’ (who also called themselves ‘The True Levellers’) fought against enclosure by simply ignoring it, digging and planting where they would. They did not pull down hedges and fences, but were opposed to enclosure nevertheless. In the words of their manifesto:

The earth (which was made to be a common treasury of relief for all, both beasts and men) was hedged into enclosures by the teachers and rulers, and the others were made servants and slaves; and that earth, that is within this creation made a common storehouse for all, is bought and sold and kept in the hands of a few.

Parliamentary Enclosure

Parliamentary enclosure saw the ultimate demise of open-field and other forms of common agriculture, and most common land had disappeared by the end of the Nineteenth Century. The very first Act was passed in 1604 to enclose land at Radipole, Dorset, but the heyday of parliamentary enclosure began around 1750, then ebbed and flowed until its work was done. As we have seen, much had already been accomplished in reordering the land by this time; perhaps as much as 75 per cent of it was already enclosed. The Acts affected only England and Wales.

The enclosures of the preceding centuries had progressed apace and were even speeded up by ‘enclosure by agreement’. This was a process whereby an entire parish could be enclosed after negotiations between the interested parties, mediated by an official Enclosure Commissioner who guided proceedings and attempted to settle the inevitable disputes. However, the history of land usage and ownership needed the sharp axe that only Parliament could wield to cut through the tangle. The local courts could adjudicate in individual cases, but only Parliament had the power to sweep away these obstacles in their entirety. This was done mostly through private enclosure Bills, instigated by members of the public and examined by bands of itinerant Commissioners and surveyors who met as a committee at public meetings in the parish concerned. Private Bills became Acts only after approval by Parliament.

Those concerned were chiefly the large landowners, but also small farmers who saw advantage in the reordering of the countryside. The whole process of reaching agreement, allotting land fairly, making maps, marking out the enclosures on the maps and, not least, marking out new roads, was one of the largest undertakings in British history. Although some of the Acts were tidying-up exercises, by 1914, when the last straggler was bought into the fold, 5,200 enclosure Bills had been enacted in law, transforming 6.8 million acres of land in England alone, and another 1.7 million acres in Wales.

Of course, not everyone agreed that a complete removal of the open-field system, with its associated rights of common, was a good thing. Those against and those for fell, inevitably, into who would lose and who would gain. There were, however, cheerleaders for both sides, ready to offer their opinions, canvassed or not. The often extreme passions that are still roused by enclosure revolve around issues of justice and political rights, countered by arguments about agricultural utility and social utilitarianism. Numerous fiercely argued pamphlets and newspaper articles for each side can be found from the very start of the parliamentary enclosure period.

The open-field system was criticised for being unwieldy and conservative; unable to easily adopt modern farming methods and new crops and institutionally resistant to change. Others pointed to the fact that it had lasted for a thousand years and had served well, and noted that open fields had, in fact, embraced new methods, adapting them to their special situation. Although much ink was used in the defence of the relative practicalities of one agricultural system over another, most of it was spilt in arguments over justice. But even if it was admitted that enclosure improved agricultural yields and profits, who was it who benefited? Not those who were dispossessed of common access to the waste and effectively thrown from their villages.

The frequently smug assertions of those promoting wholesale enclosure make uncomfortable reading. In the mid-Nineteenth Century, Lord Worsley, the MP for North Lincolnshire, spoke of the poor as squatters upon the commons, rather forgetting that they had very right to do as they pleased upon the commons, since it was they who owned them. Even the normally sensible agriculturalist Thomas Hale, writing in 1758 at the start of the period of extensive parliamentary enclosure, took the questionable stance of suggesting that the tenant farmer would benefit from enclosure, even while admitting that rent would increase ‘to three of four, and sometimes to ten time its former price.’ He also repeats the commonly expressed sentiment that as far as the poor were concerned, it was all for their own good.

The advantage that a poor man has by keeping two or three sad creatures of cattle of any kind upon the common land, are not nearly equal to what he and his family would find by being sure to know where to get constant employment as labourers. The privilege is indeed a source of idleness: and that can never be for private or public advantage.

Defenders of the poor were equally vocal. Writing in objection to the General Enclosure Act of 1801, which made enclosure much easier, a correspondent of the Windsor and Eton Express argued:

This iniquitous scheme for augmenting the wealth of the rich by the robbery of the poor, so far transcends all former acts of spoliation of a similar kind, in extent and in recklessness of general and individual rights, but it comprehends not merely wild and sterile heaths, but lands which have been rendered productive by the labour of the occupiers.

Riots were a regular occurrence throughout much of the parliamentary enclosure period, as were attacks on hedges and ditches. The dispossessed also attempted redress by simply ignoring an act of inclosure. In 1849 the Exeter and Plymouth Gazetteer reported how commoners were excluded from common land on which they had enjoyed rights to winter pasturage after its enclosure by the lord of the manor. When they put their sheep to pasture regardless, the sheep were duly impounded. At this point a Mr. Landwick decided that he had suffered enough and:

Congregated together some 40 or 50 men at one of the public houses on the eastern side of the town. Having given them drink he led them in a tumultuous manner through the town, joined every step by similarly disorderly persons, hurrahing, using threats, and some with sticks; and when they found the gates too strong, they got ladders.

Mr. Landwick succeeded in retrieving his sheep, but quickly found himself in court. A preliminary hearing suggested that he would have been better advised to have requested from the Commissioner a revision of the order suspending the common rights, to which he replied that’ ‘When men attempted to maintain their rights, it could not be done in drawing-room style.’ This assertion poignantly encapsulates the powerless predicament of the working man. Those who see enclosure as beneficial argue that most of those who lost their rights did not actually have those rights in the first place, but simply used the commons for grazing even though they had no customary right to do so.

The Enclosure Commissioners were required to take into account everyone who had an interest in the land and apportion it as best they could, according to the size and quality of the various holdings. For some recipients, the holding they were awarded did not compensate for what they had lost, and many found it impossible to make a living. The most seriously affected were those who had no formal right to any land – such as the cottagers and labourers – but may have used common pasture anyway.

By the time of the parliamentary enclosures, the yeoman farmer was largely a character of the past, replaced, for the most part, by people who owned land but did not farm it themselves. Be they lord, a distant financial company or a local man, most landowners were landlords. Hale’s estimate of how much rents would increase proved exaggerated; but it was still large at around 50 to 100 per cent. Optimism about the benefits of enclosure to agricultural productivity proved even more ill-founded as the increased yields improved by little more than 10 per cent. How a rent increase could be sustained for so little improvement in production is a puzzle even now. But, since farmers could not easily leave their land for pastures new, it seems likely to be a simple matter of the rich landlord getting richer and the poor farmer getting poorer. The tenant farmer, it seems, fared little better than those with no claim to land at all.

– Extracts from John Wright, A Natural History of the Hedgerow (London: Profile Books, 2016)


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