UK Land Ownership - Bettany Hughes - Breaking the Seal - Enclosures (2000)

Tony Gosling tony at
Sun Mar 9 12:11:12 GMT 2014

UK Land Ownership - Bettany Hughes - Breaking the Seal - Enclosures (2000)

So much of Medieval Suffolk was owned by the church and, as I drove 
through it with Phillip Schofield, I began to realise just how much 
the ownership and use of our land has changed since the Middle Ages. 
Back then, there was an open field system by which the common people 
rented strips from the lord and farmed them in unfenced fields. It 
was an arrangement that lasted for centuries.

I suppose the first big sign of change in ownership came in 1536 when 
Henry VIII started to close monasteries. He took away their lands and 
the abbeys fell into ruins. like this one at Bury. If you look at the 
documents of that time, you can see that, whilst existing landowners 
increased their stake, there were also new types of land owner such 
as merchants and lawyers.

But the biggest change was undoubtedly enclosure. Ever since the 
Middle Ages, a gradual process of fencing off and hedging fields had 
been underway. It happened more in certain parts of the country than 
others, but by the mid 1700s enclosure was stepping up a gear.

Dr Brian Short
The impact on the landscape was enormous. The Midlands in particular 
were severely affected by enclosure. It was the great landscape 
reshaper. Many poor and small farmers lost out at that time - they 
were often given allotments which were uneconomic, and they sold them 
out and became a kind of landed proletariat who, thereafter, had to 
sell their own labour for money, rather than having land to live off. 
So it affected enormously both the landscape and society at the time.

I hear Aylesbury has some pretty good enclosure records, showing just 
how things changed. Enclosure replaced the strip field system. But 
what happened when the strips disappeared? Leigh Shaw-Taylor is the 
man with the answers.

This is drawn up in 1799, a map of Weston Turville just south of 
Aylesbury. Prior to the enclosure, there were three very large open 
fields. One here, one here and one here, and a small one down here.

So big field but still with the tiny strips.

That's right. So, as a result of enclosure, the Commissioners, having 
decided who had what land and what rights, then reallocated people, 
consolidated lots of land. Elizabeth Saunders for instance gets this 
big rectangular piece of land here, the Mercer Company get this block 
here, and here, and another piece here - they're big land owners, 
Marquis of Buckingham this one here.

The perceived wisdom is that enclosure took away the farming rights 
of the peasantry. This isn't strictly true. By the 1750s enclosure 
was regulated by government. You needed an Act of Parliament and 
about 4,000 such acts were passed by 1810.

As part of the process, a committee would visit your village to 
establish who had common right dwellings. The cottages owned or 
rented, with rights to use the land. Leigh followed up a number of 
these. Robert Fitkin owned one cottage. His tenant, James Burnham was 
a labourer and he would have lost his rights to land with enclosure. 
But interestingly, he was untypical. Only 6 of this village's 50 
labourers had common land rights. And what you don't have to begin 
with, you can't lose.

And so who are the winners, I mean who's really benefiting from this situation?

Definitely the big landlords, who get higher rents, rents can double 
at enclosure, and probably farmers, the more substantial farmers.

And can you still see the physical effects of this in Weston Turville today?

Very much so. The landscape of Weston Turville is very much the one 
created by the Georgian enclosure.


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