From Academic Kids

Inclosure (also commonly enclosure), refers to the process of subdivision of common lands for individual ownership.

Enclosure in England

This is the most well known process of enclosure in the English speaking world.

There were two main processes to enclosure in England. One was the division of the large open fields which had been common in some areas of the country into individually managed plots of land, usually hedged and known at the time as "severals". All of the strips of land in these open fields had been privately owned, but communually ploughed (due to the difficulty of ploughing in many heavier European soils) and open to communal grazing after the harvest or in fallow years. A farmer might own or rent several strips in a field; in the medieval manors usually had two to three large open fields, so that crops could be rotated. In the process of enclosure, these were consolidated and divided into severals, to be individually managed. Most open-field manors in England were enclosed in this manner, with the notable exception of Laxton, Nottinghamshire.

The second process of enclosure was the division and privatisation of common fens and marshes, moors and other "wastes" (in the original sense of "uninhabited places"). These enclosures created new private plots, as opposed to those in the fields (which simply segregate land which was already privately owned).

This history of enclosure in England is very different from region to region. Contrary to popular belief, not all areas of England had open-field farming in the medieval period. Parts of south-east England, notably parts of Essex and Kent retained a pre-Roman system of farming in small square enclosed fields. In much of west and north-west England, fields were similarly either never open, or early enclosed. The primary area of open field management was in the lowland areas of England in a broad swath from Yorkshire and Lincolnshire diagonally across England to the south, taking in parts of Norfolk and Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, large areas of the Midlands, and most of south central England. It is these areas which were most affected by the first type of enclosure, particularly in the more densely settled areas where grazing was scarce and farmers relied on open field grazing after the harvest and on the fallow to support their animals.

The second form of enclosure affected particularly those areas, such as the North, the far south west and unique regions such as the East Anglian Fens, where grazing had been plentiful on otherwise marginal lands, such as marshes and moors. Access to these common resources was an essential part of the economic life in these strongly pastoral regions. In the Fens, large riots broke out both in the seventeenth century, when attempts to drain the peat and silt marshes were combined with proposals to also partially enclose them.

From as early as the 12th century, some open fields in Britain were being enclosed into individually owned fields. In Great Britain, the process sped up during the 15th and 16th centuries as sheep farming grew more profitable. In the 16th and early 17th centuries, the practice of enclosure was denounced by the Church and the government, particularly depopulating enclosure, and legislation was drawn up against it. However, the tide of elite opinion began to turn towards support for enclosure, and rate of enclosure increased in the seventeenth century. This led to a series of government acts addressing individual regions, which were given a common framework in the Inclosure Consolidation Act of 1801.

The reasons for the increased extent of enclosure are many, both economic and social. In particular, the demand for land in the seventeenth century, increasing regional specialisation, engrossment in landholding and a shift in beliefs regarding the importance of "common wealth" (usually implying common livelyhoods) as opposed to the "public good" (the wealth of the nation or the GDP) all laid the groundwork for a shift of support among elites to favour enclosure. Enclosure was also believed to be necessary to implement certain technological improvements, though some historians have found that these were also implemented in open field manors. It is true that enclosed land was freed from the constraints, for better or for worse, of communal management. Enclosures were conducted by agreement among the landholders (not necessarily the tenants) throughout the seventeenth century; enclosure by Parliamentary Act began in the eighteenth century. Enclosed lands normally could demand higher rents than unenclosed, and thus landlords had an economic stake in enclosure, even if they did not intend to farm the land directly.

While the villagers received plots in the newly enclosed manor, for small landholders, this compensation was not always enough to off-set the costs of enclosure and fencing. Many historians believe that enclosure may have been an important factor in the reduction of small landholders in England, as compared to the Continent, though others believe that this process had already begun from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Enclosure did face a great deal of popular resistence, and the impact of the loss of common rights (including not simply the right of cattle or sheep grazing, often restricted to landholders, but also the grazing of geese, foraging for pigs, gleaning, berrying, fuel gathering,etc) on the household economies of smallholders and landless labourers is not yet fully understood.

By the end of the 19th century the process of enclosure was largely complete.

External references

  • In The Sibling Society (ISBN 0679781285), the American poet Robert Bly said that inclosure caused deep damage to the previous closeness between fathers and sons—an estrangement he says continues to this day.
  • In Chapter Seven of Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Peter Kropotkin describes inclosure at great length. [1] (
  • Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (1944)
  • Keith Lindley, Fenland Riots and the English Revolution (1982)

See also


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