The End of an Era

The Enclosure Acts of the 18th and 19th century in England

The ‘Enclosure Acts’ passed between 1760 and 1840 had a significant effect on society and the rural landscape of England. Even today reference is made to them as a significant turning point in the history of agriculture, developments of 19th century society and horse racing.

The ‘Enclosures’ refer to claims to land – open fields, common and waste land – made by big farmers and estate holder. These ‘land grabs’ were given legal status in thousands of very public and sometimes controversial private Acts of Parliament. This was only possible because both Houses of Parliament were largely composed of landowning classes and clergy.

To put this time into a broader setting: It was a momentous time. It started with the reign of George III, the American war of Independence, the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. The Industrial Revolution was well underway and the Enclosures boosted the developing Agricultural Revolution.

This article looks at the changes the Enclosures brought about and how their effects are still with us today.

Before the Enclosures

In 1765 England was very much a rural society with a population of 7 million. Subsistence agriculture with its ‘open fields’ system was still the way of life in the country. There were few roads of sufficient quality to transport goods any distance, no canals and no railways.

harvest2In this system of open field agriculture, the village collaborated and tried to produce everything it would need to support its population. Farmers were assigned strips of land for cultivation each year; allocated by the village council according to old property rights and customs. These strips were often scattered across the local area in order to ensure that no one got more of the good land than anyone else. Crops were grown according to age old rules and fields lay fallow every third year. There was no room for experimentation.

Uncultivated and waste land, ‘the common’, could be used by villagers on the basis of legal or customary rights to collect fuel, graze cows or sheep, or let pigs or fowl forage. This provided up to half their income. Much good agricultural land was still uncultivated.

Most villagers also participated in cottage industries, such as weaving, spinning, carpentry, etc, and all the family had work to do: men, women and children.

Although life under this system was hard, it did give the labourer and small farmer some independence and standards to maintain. They had a sense of being in control of their lives and forming part of a community and a place where they belonged.

Before 1760 the ‘open field’ system had already been abandoned in Kent, Devon, Cornwall, Sussex, Suffolk and Essex and much common land had been enclosed. At that time, however, farmers and labourers had been given a sensible form of compensation and small tenant farmers still had a living.

The Enclosures


The new enclosures which took place between 1760 and 1840  focused on the consolidation of agricultural land and more efficient use of of it. This development was promoted by ‘improving landlords’, people who were well educated, loved the countryside and were dependent on their estates to generate wealth. These landlords invested a great deal in the cultivation of waste land, drainage and of course fencing, thereby able to raise rents substantially.

Increasing corn production and generally making agriculture more productive was necessary to keep pace with the growing population, but it meant doing away with the open field system and access to common land.

Little regard was paid to the effect this would have on small farmers and labourers, although many landowners were quite glad to see the yeoman freeholders (tenant farmers and peasant proprietors) disappear. Because they were answerable to no one they, the yeomanry, were perceived as troublemakers and a potential threat to the landowners’.

The Effects of the Enclosures

The impact the Enclosures had on labourers and small farmers meant that they lost their rights to fields and the ability to grow crops – as well as access to open land to graze their livestock or collect fuel. The financial compensation given to them was generally not enough to buy or maintain a small plot of land, let alone fence it off. Tenant farmers could no longer pay their rent in kind, they had to pay cash.

To add to this misfortune, many cottage industries also disappeared, as machines were able to produce these goods more efficiently.

This left labourers and small farmers dependent on big landowners for employment. As there was no shortage of such labour the wages were kept very low. The alternative was to go to the towns and cities to find employment in a factory, however the arrival of a lot of workers from the countryside ended up depressing wages in factories as well.

The harvests of 1792 to 1813 were very bad and the price of bread was rising rapidly, because of the Napoleonic wars not enough additional corn could be imported. The authorities realised they had to come up with some solution to avoid wide spread famine.

They tried to get the big landowners to pay their labourers a living wage, but this fell on deaf ears. So in 1795 they came up with the ‘Speenhamland’ system, which was a form of wage supplement paid out of the parish rates, just like the help given to the poor. This was adopted across most of England and effectively meant that labourers became ‘pauperised’.

This supplement was paid to working people to make each labourer’s wage equal to 3s per week plus 1s 6d a week for every other member of his family. This was also paid to factory workers and working women with illegitimate children. As the cost of bread rose so would the supplements.

Some of the increase in the population to around 11 million by the early 1800s can be put down to this form of payment for every child. Other factors were the use of child labour in factories and the declining mortality rate.

The Agricultural Revolution and the Agrarian Ideal

On the positive side, the enclosures were a benefit to the nation. Land could be used for its most appropriate purpose rather than geared to subsistence farming. New crops could be tried out and innovation in crop rotation (grain, clover, turnips) meant no more need to leave fields fallow every third year.

Fencing cattle and sheep in meant better control over their feed and their breeding and thus higher quality meat and dairy products. By products could also be used more effectively.

As canals and turnpikes were completed, all by private enterprise, transporting and trading goods became a lot easier.

The effect of the enclosures on the countryside was the introduction of hedgerows, mainly hawthorn, or dry stone walls. Woodlands were planted and meadows and wetlands drained. It became the countryside we are familiar with today.

Stowe 3It was also the time of the great landscape gardeners. Land was used to create beautiful vistas or showcase monuments. Other areas were maintained for leisure pursuits, like hunting and fishing. Hedgerows and drainage channels gave riders and their horses something to jump over, providing ideas for what would become the National Hunt.

For the displaced farmers and labourers, the fact that some of ‘their’ farmland had been turned into landscapes for aesthetic purposes only supported their increasing suspicion that land was now the exclusive property of the rich.

An agrarian ideal developed, which suggested that the land belonged to the people and that its abundance could and should support them. This idea was taken up by many great thinkers at the time.

Thomas Paine, revered for his ‘Rights of Man’ (1791) recommended ‘establishing a fund to compensate every person for the loss of his or her natural inheritance by creating an inheritance tax that would allocate a fixed percentage to this fund.’ Everyone assumed that the people had a right to a portion of the wealth that was created from the land even if not the land itself.

Longer term Impacts

Arthur Young, once a practical and literary proponent of making better use of land and enclosures, admitted in 1801 ‘by nineteen out of twenty Enclosure bills the poor are injured and most grossly’.

Many small farmers and labourers, or even tenant farmers who could not pay their rent, were displaced by the enclosures. It had destroyed their sense of belonging to a place, being self-reliant and able to support a family. Others, too, were forced to move as rights of ways were closed off and land on which beggars, poachers and highwaymen had survived was enclosed and guarded closely.

Wage labour was a different way of life. It often meant moving between towns and villages in search of work and living in badly built and overcrowded housing.

For many it felt like being dispossessed and ending up as refugees in their own country, and there was no one interested in their plight.

working classBy the late 18th century, there was already a working class in England, a pre-requisite for the success of the industrial revolution. The agricultural population now migrating to towns and cities added to this very rapidly. Urban areas grew without planning or control and conditions were appalling.

As G M Trevelyan, a historian, commented on the ensuing moral decline of the working class: ‘The net result of the enclosures and of Speenhamland was that the labourer had small economic motive for industry, sobriety, independence, or thrift. …  In every way it was made as hard as possible for the poor to be self-supporting.’

The landowning classes felt no responsibility for the social changes their enclosures brought with them. It was the time of ‘laissez faire’..

Public authorities were equally reluctant to step in. All they managed to do was introduce bills and measures to quash any dissent and to stop, by force if necessary, any attempts at a united movement of the lower classes.

From the supportive and inclusive society of subsistence farming, it was now very much a ‘them and us’. The end of an era.


Much has changed since then and yet we still face the same questions.

Even in relatively wealthy countries, the gap between the super rich and the working poor continues to widen and the debate about redistribution of wealth rages on.

Since ‘Speenhamland’ the controversy continues over whether employers should pay their employees a living wage or whether the state should provide additional support funded through general taxation.

As one technological revolution after another reduces the need for human labour, we are now debating the universal basic income.

Will we eventually find the right answers? What do you think?


Further resources

GM Trevelyan – British History in the Nineteenth Century and After

Juergen Kuczynski – The Rise of the Working Class

Ellen Rosenmann  –  On Enclosure Acts and the Commons

BBC radio programmes –  In Our Time – the Enclosures of the 18th Century & Against the Grain, the history of farming

Image credits

Harvesting – Alexander Anderson

Hedgerows – Hedge Britannia by pete c

Stowe – Univox Ltd

Streetscene – Jessie Lansdel from