The Inclosure Acts

From Wikipedia:

“The Inclosure Acts, which use an archaic spelling of the word now usually spelt “enclosure”, cover enclosure of open fields and common land in England and Wales, creating legal property rights to land previously held in common. Between 1604 and 1914, over 5,200 individual enclosure acts were passed, affecting 6.8 million acres (2,800,000 ha; 28,000 km2).

The powers granted in the Inclosure Act of 1773 of the Parliament of the Kingdom of Great Britain were often abused by landowners: the preliminary meetings where enclosure was discussed, intended to be held in public, often took place in the presence of only the local landowners, who regularly chose their own solicitors, surveyors and Commissioners to decide on each case. In 1786 there were still 250,000 independent landowners, but in the course of only thirty years their number was reduced to 32,000.

The tenants displaced by the process often left the countryside to work in the towns. This contributed to the Industrial Revolution – at the very moment new technological advances required large numbers of workers, a concentration of large numbers of people in need of work had emerged; the former country tenants and their descendants became workers in industrial factories within cities.”


“In medieval times farming was based on large fields, known as open fields, in which individual yeomen or tenant farmers cultivated scattered strips of land. From as early as the 12th century, however, agricultural land was enclosed. This meant that holdings were consolidated into individually-owned or rented fields. Usually, it was seen as a more economical way of farming, and became increasingly common during the Tudor period.

Originally, enclosures of land took place through informal agreement. But during the 17th century the practice developed of obtaining authorisation by an Act of Parliament. Initiatives to enclose came either from landowners hoping to maximise rental from their estates, or from tenant farmers anxious to improve their farms.

From the 1750s enclosure by parliamentary Act became the norm. Overall, between 1604 and 1914 over 5,200 enclosure Bills were enacted by Parliament which related to just over a fifth of the total area of England, amounting to some 6.8 million acres.

There is little doubt that enclosure greatly improved the agricultural productivity of farms from the late 18th century by bringing more land into effective agricultural use. It also brought considerable change to the local landscape.

Where there were once large, communal open fields, land was now hedged and fenced off, and old boundaries disappeared. But historians remain divided over the extent to which enclosure forced those at the lowest end of rural society, the agricultural labourers, to leave the land permanently to seek work in the towns.”

From: An Economic History of the English Garden (2019), by Roderick Floud:

“At the core of landed society, as its name implies, was the agricultural estate. By the late seventeenth century, England was far from the ‘merrie England’ of labourers or small farmers exercising their common rights and cultivating their strips of land in the open fields; an active land market had seen to that. Some land had been inherited by noble families from generation to generation, even in some cases from the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, but much more had been bought and consolidated into large estates. Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the sixteenth century had seen a huge land grab of a quarter of the cultivated land in England. Much of it went to the friends of the king and of his ministers, such as Thomas Cromwell. Meanwhile, beginning in the sixteenth but accelerating through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, landlords used their wealth and political power to consolidate their landholdings and to extinguish common and customary rights over land, the process known as ‘enclosure’. Tenant farming continued, for the landowners could not physically farm vast acreages themselves, but they controlled the land, benefited from rising rents and, increasingly, exploited the mineral resources that lay beneath their territory.”

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