Blogs > Liberty and Power > “Enclosure”, Libertarians, & Historians

Jun 19, 2006 10:36 am

“Enclosure”, Libertarians, & Historians

Libertarians are debating anew, the case for & against “enclosure” in England. My co-blogger, Roderick Long has put up my friend Joe Stromberg’s ;libertarian article from 1995, ‘English Enclosures and Soviet Collectivization: Two Instances of an Anti-Peasant Mode of Development’, from which I take the libertarian points below. Thereafter, I try to answer the question: What are the results of _specialist_ research on ‘enclosure’?

First, the libertarian evaluation.
1. The case pro: ‘Technical improvements, new crop rotations, more effective organization. England’s growing population was fed more effectively; & subsequently a portion became wage labourers in incipient industries. Enclosure commissioners were fair & the process was incremental. True, marginal peasants were moved off the land over the course of several centuries. But the dislocation was not great.’

The case con: ‘True, food supply and strictly economic efficiency increased in the long-run. But the main body of English peasants were expropriated outright by those with political power. For those dispossessed, it was an unmitigated socio-economic disaster.’

2. For purposes of _libertarian_ discussion/evaluation, the structure of English agriculture, pre-“enclosure” :- (1) ‘open fields in which peasants owned narrow strips, randomly interspersed’ (2) ‘wastes, areas on the margin on which customary rights to pasture, collection of firewood etc, had developed over time’ (3) ‘large areas of land on which landlords or their large-scale tenant farmers pursued commercial agriculture and stock raising especially in south and central England. All overlain by many tenurial complexities.’

For the same purpose, England post-“enclosure”:- ‘a classic land of great, well-kept estates, a small marginal peasantry, a large class of rural wage labourers.’

3. The libertarian picture of the “enclosure” process: ‘Slow & complex. Such consolidations date from Tudor times to the late 18th/early 19th centuries (which rather stretches the concept to breaking point.)’

‘Typically initiated by several, or even a single, prominent landholder. In the great spurt of enclosures in the late 18th/early 19th centuries, by Parliamentary petition. A Parliament of large landowners set up Parliamentary commissions of large landowners, who worked out the details and engineered the appearance of consensus. Thus the great landholders awarded themselves the best land and the most land.’

‘Who fell by the wayside? Those with only customary claim to use the land, & marginal cottagers & squatters who depended on the wastes for bare survival as semi- independent peasants. In addition, the legal costs built into enclosure often did for those better situated. Thus district by district, squatters, cottagers and small farmers -- self-supporting husbandmen -- were driven out, to become a free-floating labour pool or emigrate to America.’

4. Libertarian evaluations: ‘Thus one class legislated about the property and opportunities of another class. It is fair to see “enclosure” as collectivisation of agriculture for the benefit of a narrow class. Was it the only way to increase agricultural efficiency? Did efficiency increase to the degree often supposed?’

Authorities: The Hammonds on ‘The Village Labourer’ (of course), 1st ed 1911; two works on the ‘industrial revolution’, one translated 1928 & revised 1961, the other from 1948; an article by W E Tate from 1942; two _general_ economic histories, 1949 & 1965; & a piece written before 1970 by two agricultural historians. -- For the purposes above, these are adequate.

Now to the historian’s question. The answer is drawn from recent _specialist_ research into enclosures, based, inter alia, on Commissioners’ working papers & the like.

5. The structure of English agriculture. _From late-medieval times onwards_: (1) Landlords, whose lands were _always_ let out. Increasingly, landlords supplied fixed capital (farm-houses, buildings, ditches, etc.); they took the long-term risk (e.g., of long-term changes in soil productivity) (2) Tenant-farmers, who might rent from more than one landlord. Tenants supplied working capital (implements, livestock, seeds, fertilisers, etc.); they maintained hedges etc., & took the short-term, harvest risks. (3) Owner-occupiers, who were always small farmers. Many tradesmen & craftsmen also owned small quantities of land; many were part-time farmers (4) Agricultural labourers. Many also had cows, pigs, &/or poultry.

6. The greater part of the agricultural land was owned by _landlords_; the lesser part, by _owner-occupiers_ and very small landowners. Thus during enclosures, landowners, both large & small, enclosed _their own land_.

The actual farming was done, overwhelmingly, by tenant-farmers & also, of course, by the owner-occupiers. Many small owners also _rented_ land as tenant-farmers, very often more than they owned.

7. The strips in ‘open fields’ were farmed individually by _tenants & owner-occupiers_, but major farming decisions had to be made & followed collectively. These related to crop rotations & as to which field was to be left fallow. There were also certain ‘common rights’ over open fields: e.g., after harvest everyone’s livestock was turned into the field. ‘Open fields’ had ‘common lands’ & ‘wastelands’ attached to them. Everyone’s livestock grazed on the common.

Certain _older_ cottages_ had ‘common rights’ attached to them. If such cottage-owners had or rented some meadow, & therefore could cut hay for the winter, they could pasture as many beasts on the common as they could ‘over-winter’. They could also use waste & common to cut turf, & collect fuel & berries. Many labourers _rented_ such cottages & therefore kept a cow or two, & so also a pig or two. Many kept geese, ducks, & other poultry. Many cottages, however, had _no_ common rights. Nevertheless, in many areas, their occupiers could use common & waste on payment of a ‘fine’ (fee). But in many parishes, even by the early 16th century, the commons were ‘stinted’ & regulated -- i.e., there were limits on the numbers & types of beasts permitted, & the times of grazing. Other commons were already overgrazed.

8. Open fields prevented _individual_ management of holdings, e.g., in selecting crop rotations. In particular, to change land from arable to pasture & vice versa, required collective agreement & so occurred very infrequently. If individual strips were temporarily laid to pasture (‘leys’), there were obvious problems since adjacent strips were in crop. Many open fields were also subject to tithes. Because of all these hindrances, landlords, owner-occupiers & even tenants, had consolidated & withdrawn land into enclosures by exchange & purchase, wherever possible, from the late medieval period onwards. Openfields had also been enclosed _by agreement_ of all the landowners concerned. By around 1550, some _45%_ of England’s surface area was already so enclosed.

The enclosures made over the 16th century, equalled some 2% of the surface area of England. Enclosures occurred as commons became insufficient for the added population & as opportunities increased for pasture farming in the areas best suited, i.e., as specialisation increased. As pastoral farming required less labour, employment fell in these areas. Also, landlords began combining farms (‘engrossing’.) There were great outcries & protests & much 16th century legislation _against_ enclosure. But by its end, even small landowners were enthusiastic enclosers.

During the 17th century, enclosures by agreement covered an additional _24%_ of England’s surface area. Thus by 1699, some _71%_ was _already enclosed_.

9. _Parliamentary_ enclosure was strictly _regional_: confined to a belt in the Midlands with large, regular open fields. That is, in just the area where enclosure by agreement was nearly impossible. But even here, such enclosures continued pari passu. -- Between 1700 & 1914, some _24.4%_ of England’s surface area was enclosed by _Parliamentary_ means, overwhelmingly in the Midlands. The easier enclosures came first, the more difficult, later.

10. The process of Parliamentary enclosure was lengthy & complex. Many Bills were insignificant, referring to small remaining pieces of open field or low value common. But for others:- Each parish had its own complex of interests: large, medium, small landowners; tithe owners; owners of common rights. Consensus & consent had to be secured _before_ a Bill could be presented, with the requisite ‘consent document’ attached. This listed all landowners, the value of their lands, whether they supported the enclosure, opposed it, or were ‘neutral’. -- Large, medium & small landowners are found in _all_ three categories. Witnesses then had to go to Westminster to confirm the signatures. Parliament required the proprietors of at least 75% of the land by _value_ to be in favour; 80% was more preferred. The Bill went to a committee, which was generally packed with supporters. Nevertheless, Bills could fail. Between 1730 & 1839, 4,041 enclosure Bills passed, 581 faced counter-petitions, & 872 others also failed.

The enclosure Act named Commissioners, generally three, selected by the proprietors. The lord of the manor (who owned woodland, quarries, & minerals), chose one; the tithe-owner or a large landlord chose the second; the third represented all the other proprietors. Over time, many Commissioners became noted specialists. Commissioners took over the running of the lands concerned until their work was accomplished. They appointed surveyors, who measured existing holdings & later marked out new holdings & roads. Commissioners also valued lands, consulted owners on their preferences, received claims for allotments.

From the total of open fields, commons & wastes, Commissioners allocated holdings to all landowners, large & small, _pro rata_ to their previous holdings in the open fields & the value of their common rights. The overwhelming bulk of landowners got more land than previously. But a _few_ small landowners got less. This, on account of two subtractions from the total, one occurring in the bulk of enclosures, the other in a minority.

(a). Tithes were a complication. Some proprietors already owned their tithes, & some lands were already free of tithes. Where the lands owed tithes, Commissioners allocated land to tithe-owners, to free the remaining land from tithes. In most enclosures, this was one reduction in the total to be reallocated.

(b). As part of the enclosure, new roads were laid out, built, & double fenced, with new bridges where needed. Ditches were dug for drainage, as needed. The tithe-owner’s land was fenced. In a _minority_ of enclosures, the Commissioners sold small parcels of land to meet these & other costs (see further). In these cases, this was a second subtraction from the pool. The land was purchased by landowners, large & small, & especially by craftsmen & tradesmen (see above.)

Besides landowners, others also had common rights. These others had to be inquired into. Cottages with common rights had old enclosures or meadow attached, to produce the hay needed for beasts to be ‘over-wintered’. Commissioners inquired of the oldest inhabitants, to establish who else had long used the commons & waste, & how they had used it. Some commons were extensive, others were smaller & stinted. Commissioners valued such common rights as existed (mainly pasture, & collection of turves & wood for fuel); they increased the land attached to common-right cottages in compensation. Many such cottages rose substantially in value afterwards. Some commons had substantial ‘encroachments’ -- farm buildings, piggeries, stables, etc. Commissioners then obtained compensation or land from the encroaching landowners, to be divided amongst the other owners of common rights.

When the Commissioners had worked out the new allotments, dissatisfied proprietors could & did object, and Commissioners made further adjustments. At this stage, proprietors also exchanged & purchased land amongst themselves.

Small landowners were usually allocated land _first_, near their houses. Some, however, wanted to be near roads or water. Larger landowners came later. They often asked for, or were _given_, land in two blocks, sometimes more, to include _both good & poor soils_ (this was a legal requirement.) But landowners also wanted to re-use existing buildings, where possible, have access to roads, etc. Commissioners also had to move tenant farmers to new farms & compensate them for remaining leases.

In addition to the capital works listed above, the costs of enclosure included:- Commissioners’ fees & expenses; surveyors’ fees; Parliamentary costs (an enclosure act was a private Act); solicitors’ fees (two were needed, one in the country & one in Westminster); travelling expenses -- to secure consents & bring witnesses to Parliament. In ¾ of the enclosures, landowners paid these costs by instalments. Often the large landowners were the most tardy in paying. Landowners also had to fence their new allotments, & large landowners had to erect new buildings, refurbish old ones, put in drainage, embankments, new roads, where needed. Substantial investments were required before wastelands could grow crops: Removal of stones & weeds, ploughing (additional weed control, breaking up the soil), dressings of lime, manuring, drainage, etc.

11. Landowners, large & small met enclosure costs by mortgaging their lands or borrowing; enclosed land was worth more. Small owners resorted to local credit networks of tradesmen, widows, professional men, & others.

12. Common rights were essential to many small landowners. After harvest, they had the entire field to graze their stock, besides the common. Also everyone’s animals passed over their land, fertilising it. After enclosure, many did not have enough land to keep the same number of stock. Those who could rent additional pasture stayed on. Others had to sell, mostly to other small owners. But many could now rent far more land as tenants.

13. No compensation could be given to _tenants_ of common-right cottages, & cottagers who used the commons by sufferance or payment of a fee (above). Many cottages were rented by craftsmen, including weavers, hosiery-knitters, wheelwrights, carpenters, bricklayers, etc. But many tenants were agricultural labourers. Many of these found the additional land (now attached to common-right cottages) inadequate for stock-raising. Many such tenants pooled their allotments, however. The bulk of those tenants who had simply used the commons & wastes, could no longer keep stock or poultry.

In both groups of tenants, many agricultural labourers were reduced to day-labour, to farm cowmen, or had to move to other districts. Where enclosure increased the arable, & especially the raising of new, labour-intensive root-crops & vegetables, there farm employment increased. _Total_ farm employment _increased_ from the late 18th to the mid-19th century. Otherwise, non-agricultural employment also rose in larger villages & in towns:- in agricultural processing (e.g., flour- & bone-mills, warehouses, tanneries, etc.), in bakeries, dairies, breweries, & shops, in transport (horse-drawn), in water- & gas-works, etc., etc.

14. Thus specialised research gives a very complex picture. It is for libertarians to convert this (if they so wish) into something for discussion/evaluation.

M. W. Beresford, ‘Habitation versus improvement: the debate on enclosure by agreement’, in F. J. Fisher, ed, Essays on the Economic and Social History of Tudor and Stuart England, Cambridge UP, 1961.
G. E. Mingay, Parliamentary Enclosure in England…1750-1850, Longman 1997.
Joan Thirsk, ‘Enclosing and engrossing’, ch. 4 in J. Thirsk, ed, Agrarian History of England and Wales, VolIV, 1500-1640, Cambridge UP 1967.
----, ‘Agricultural policy’, ch. 16 in J. Thirsk, ed, Agrarian History of England and Wales, Vol V.ii, 1640-1750, Cambridge UP 1985, pp. 317-21, 378-82.
J. R. Wordie, ‘The chronology of English enclosure, 1500-1914’, Econ. Hist. Rev., 36/4, Nov 1983.
J. A. Yelling, Common Field and Enclosure in England 1450-1850, Macmillan 1977.
-----, ‘Rationality in the common fields’, Econ. Hist. Rev., 35/3, Aug 1982.

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More Comments:

Sudha Shenoy - 6/26/2006

1. "most peasants got screwed..."
What 'peasants'? Tenants or small landowners? In Parliamentary enclosures (late 18th/early 19th century; confined to Midlands): Tenants paid nothing; they got shifted to new farms. Some small landowners stayed on; others sold out -- to_other_ small_ landowners; some who sold became tenants farming more land than they owned before, with the capital they now had.

Earlier enclosures were by consent; such enclosures covered _71%_ of England by 1699. _Tenants_ took the initiative in many of these. By around 1600, even small landowners strongly favoured enclosure.

3. In the 16th century,the Crown _opposed_ (opposed) enclosures by consent & passed anti-enclosure legislation. With Parliamentary enclosure (over 200 years later), landowners of at least 75-80% of the land, by value, had to agree; even then not all Acts passed. And _every single landowner_ got land to equal previous holdings in the open fields _plus_ land to compensate for 'common rights'.

Sheldon Richman - 6/24/2006

Sudha--Thanks for taking the time to write this. I agree that this is a complex issue, and libertarians and their adversaries have probably tended to oversimplify. It strikes me as quite likely that most peasants got screwed by the "industrial revolution"--what else is new? Peasants always get screwed, and state intervention inevitably occurred. Even Birdzell and Rosenberg acknowledge this. But it would be good to get all the details right. I did a post on this some time ago here.