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enclosures

enclosures. The process of ‘enclosing’ land into ‘private’ holdings goes back many centuries, and was a development from the system of open field farming which predominated in much of northern Europe during the medieval period, although in all periods enclosure was frequently of common and waste as well as cultivated land. Enclosure changed agricultural practices which had operated under systems of co-operation in communally administered landholdings, usually in large fields devoid of physically defined territorial boundaries. Instead, agricultural holdings were created which were non-communal, and within man-made boundaries which separated one farm from another. Communal obligations and rights were abolished.

In the 16th cent. landlords tried to enclose their land in order to keep more sheep. This process was condemned by the church and opposed by the government, which passed legislation designed to prevent enclosure. By the 1630s and beyond government opposition was breaking down, and a good deal of ‘by agreement’ enclosure took place in the period c.1630–c.1750, with large areas of land, particularly in the midlands, being converted from mixed arable farming to pasture. The extent of ‘by agreement’ enclosure is still debated, largely because it was not necessarily recorded.

From 1750, and in complete contrast to the 16th-cent. practice, Parliament began to pass bills to allow for the enclosure of the land under certain clearly defined conditions. As a result, between 1750 and 1830 in England more than 4,000 enclosure Acts were passed, and approximately 6.8 million acres across the country subjected to enclosure. In rough terms 21 per cent of the land area of Britain was enclosed by parliamentary Act in this period. The process varied regionally, the Welsh borders and south-eastern England experiencing very little enclosure, while more than half the land surface was enclosed by Act in Northamptonshire, Cambridgeshire, and Oxfordshire. The process continued through the 19th cent. with another 3 per cent of the land area enclosed by 1914, when there were hardly any open fields remaining. Only in the Nottinghamshire village of Laxton does a common field system continue to operate to this day.

Enclosure in Scotland occurred primarily in the 18th cent., in the Lowlands in the 1760s and 1770s and in the uplands at the end of the century. The extent of enclosure was rather less than in England, at least in terms of the acreage involved, but then again the area of land available in Scotland to enclosed farms was relatively small. It also seems likely that enclosure in Scotland was frequently the final deed in a long-drawn-out process of change.

John Beckett

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