The Inclosure Acts,[a] 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).
Before the enclosures in England, a portion of the land was categorized as "common" or "waste".[b] "Common" land was under the control of the lord of the manor, but certain rights on the land such as pasture, pannage, or estovers were held variously by certain nearby properties, or (occasionally) in gross by all manorial tenants. "Waste" was land without value as a farm strip – often very narrow areas (typically less than a yard wide) in awkward locations (such as cliff edges, or inconveniently shaped manorial borders), but also bare rock, and so forth. "Waste" was not officially used by anyone, and so was often farmed by landless peasants.
The remaining land was organised into a large number of narrow strips, each tenant possessing a number of disparate strips throughout the manor, as would the manorial lord. Called the open-field system, it was administered by manorial courts, which exercised some collective control. What might now be termed a single field would have been divided under this system among the lord and his tenants; poorer peasants (serfs or copyholders, depending on the era) were allowed to live on the strips owned by the lord in return for cultivating his land. The system facilitated common grazing and crop rotation.
Any individual might possess several strips of land within the manor, often at some distance from one another. Seeking better financial returns, landowners looked for more efficient farming techniques. Enclosure acts for small areas had been passed sporadically since the 12th century, but advances in agricultural knowledge and technology in the 18th century made them more commonplace. Because tenants, or even copyholders, had legally enforceable rights on the land, substantial compensation was provided to extinguish them; thus many tenants were active supporters of enclosure, though it enabled landlords to force reluctant tenants to comply with the process.
With legal control of the land, landlords introduced innovations in methods of crop production, increasing profits and supporting the Agricultural Revolution; higher productivity also enabled landowners to justify higher rents for the people working the land. In 1801, the Inclosure (Consolidation) Act was passed to tidy up previous acts. In 1845, another General Inclosure Act instituted the appointment of Inclosure Commissioners, who could enclose land without submitting a request to Parliament.
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.
A poem from the 18th century reads as a protest of the inclosure acts:
They hang the man and flog the woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
Yet let the greater villain loose
That steals the common from the goose
The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine
The poor and wretched don't escape
If they conspire the law to break
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law
The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back
The Inclosure Acts 1845 to 1882 mean:
Categories: Lists of legislation by short title and collective title | Acts of the Parliament of the United Kingdom concerning England and Wales | Enclosures | United Kingdom Acts of Parliament 1801 | United Kingdom Acts of Parliament 1845 | Agriculture legislation in the United Kingdom | History of agriculture in England | History of agriculture in Wales | English land law