The Enclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries were a series of Acts of Parliament that changed the rural landscape of Britain and changed the relationship between the classes.
Before the Enclosures, each village had a patchwork of open fields totaling several hundred acres. The arable areas were divided into strips without any kind of fence or division between them.
And the community farmed them as a community – that is everyone who lived in the village as the owner or the tenant of a dwelling – deciding together when to plant and when to let animals in to graze.
Strip farming wasn’t an arbitrary idea. It reflected the fact that land is not as good everywhere. So the whole area was divided into strips. Every person would have some strips of the good land. Every person would have some strips of the middling land. And every person would have some strips of the poorest land. Fairness for all. And there were paths and rights of way so that everyone could get to their land.
From a purely economic point of view the paths reduced the amount of land available for agriculture. From a community point of view it meant continual contact and involvement of everyone.
Common land was common to the people of the community. Nominally it belonged to the lord of the manner, but the community had rights on the common land, including the right to take turf or wood or fruit from the trees or to keep and graze animals on the land.
With the Enclosure Acts, the legal title to most farm land and common passed from the community to one single man. That man was often the lord of the manor or a substantial farmer in the area. The Enclosures meant a change in the way the land was farmed. It usually meant the land was closed off and fenced – hence the term ‘enclosures’.
Some grazing rights over common land continued, but for the most part, the fields were enclosed, the strips ploughed up, and the owner took the benefit of all of it.
So was it robbery under the guise of law, as the historian EP Thompson said?
Was it a way to change the social and economic structure, as Karl Marx argued?
Marx said that the Enclosures created the industrialised working class and began the capitalist society. His argument was that in the pre-Enclosure days a man could be poor but free. He could live in a hovel. By exercising his rights over grazing land, he could have enough to keep body and soul together.
After the Enclosures, he had nothing but his labour – and so began the drift to the cities.
Were the Enclosures needed to modernise Britain and turn unproductive land to productive use? If so, for whose benefit was that done?
And assuming the changes were needed to modernise Britain, how did it come to be legally allowed and enforced?
It has been said that the class relationship in pre-industrial Britain was a relationship of obligation. The lord of the manor had the armed force to protect the village and the court to regulate relationships. For their part, the serfs and yeomen had an obligation to pay rent or to fight or to work in the Lord’s fields.
The new commercial class rose to dominate the British power landscape. And they saw everything as capital – money, buildings, people. Nothing had an intrinsic worth except in so far as it was useful to advance wealth. In capitalist Britain, everyone was interchangeable. No man had a place except as a commodity described by his ability to work.
But maybe the old way was all fur coat and no knickers as my father used to say. Maybe the ‘obligations’ of the established rural order were just a trick. Maybe it was a sleight of hand to keep the serfs and yeomen in place.
The First World War nearly ended in revolution in Britain. The Second World War nearly did the same. If the Welfare State had not been brought into being in 1948, it is possible that Britain would have gone that way. The Welfare State promised and delivered free medical treatment, secure housing, and free education.
And now in 21st-century Britain, the Conservative Government is intent on breaking up the Welfare State. It seems that no one wants rented housing if they can own their own property. Everyone wants to be a capitalist in their own dwelling. And we compromise on paying for education. After all, we say, won’t those clever enough to get to university get well-paid jobs? But we cannot stomach the destruction of the National Health Service.