The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Enclosures of the 18th Century

Category: 18th century

The enclosures of earlier times had been made to turn arable lands into sheep pastures. The enclosures of the 18th century were different. They transformed the communally cultivated open fields into large farms on which the new and more scientific mixed farming could be profitably carried out. In addition, much com­mon land on which the villagers had certain custom­ary rights of pasturage or wood or turf cutting, as well as other land that had previously been waste, was now enclosed.

Those of the smaller farmers who were tenants were gradually ruined by rents that became several times as high as had been customary. Land farmed on the new methods could be made to pay these increased rents but this was no help to men whose farms and capital were too small to adopt them successfully.

Many of the small freeholders were also forced to sell out by the impossibility to compete with the up-to-date methods of their wealthier neighbours. Heavy land taxes introduced after 1688 made landlords rent their estates to tenants farming from 200 acres up­wards and doing their own repairs, and this led to general consolidation of holdings and the squeezing out of small tenant farmers.

The eighteenth century saw a marked decrease of farms under 100 acres and increase of those over 300 acres. It has been calculated that between 1740 and 1788 the number of separate farms declined by over 40,000. The process went on at an increased speed. The number of Enclosure Acts passed through Parlia­ment indicates roughly how the movement developed. From 1717 to 1727 there were 15 such Acts, from 1728 to 1760, 226, from 1761 to 1796, 1,482 while from 1797 to 1820 there were 1,727. In general, more than four million acres were enclosed under these Acts.

Beginning in Norfolk and Essex, the enclosures reached their height in the last part of the century when they began seriously to affect the Midlands.

From about 1760 the whole situation was trans­formed. The growth of population changed England from an exporting to an importing country at a time when few countries had any considerable surplus of corn. Prices rose rapidly and began to fluctuate. It was now possible to make great fortunes: it was also possi­ble to lose them. When the war with Napoleon cut off the European grain supply prices fluctuated still more wildly and corn growing became a gamble. This both attracted capitalists to invest in landed property and weakened the position of the small farmers.

Enclosure Acts were obtainable with the consent of four-fifths in number and value of the occupiers of land in the parish to be enclosed. Where, as the case often was, most of the occupiers were tenants of one or two big landowners this consent could easily be obtained, and  in general, improper pressure and bribery were widely and freely employed.

After an Act had been obtained the land was real-lotted among the holders. Even when this reallotment was fairly carried out it was usually accompanied by considerable hardship. Tenants at will might, and of­ten did, lose land which their families had cultivated for generations. The work of redistribution was car­ried out by a powerful commission, which was under the influence of wealthy landowners to such an extent that reallotment amounted practically to confiscation. The lot assigned to each small proprietor was usually worth much less than the one of which he had been despoiled. Copyholders and leaseholders were often persuaded to sell out and the difficulty which they had in finding the considerable sums of money to meet the legal expenses of the enclosure and the cost of fencing their new farms made them more ready to do so.

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