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Enclosure was the process of enclosing agricultural lands with boundaries such as fences, walls, hedges or ditches. Enclosure allowed land to be farmed by one individual rather than being shared by a community.
A landowner's decision to enclose was usually driven by economics:
- The need to consolidate holdings
- To improve the return on his investment
- To introduce new ideas in crop or livestock raising.
Enclosure also enabled urban development. Little enclosure took place on heathland, moorland, or in industrial areas.
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There were three types of enclosure:
- Informal enclosure (with no legal documentation)
- Enclosure by formal agreement
- Enclosure by Private or General Act of Parliament.
Informal inclosures have taken place since the Iron Age. The Black Death in the 14th century led to the collapse of the feudal system and the amalgamation of abandoned farms with working farms. Aerial views of land still show the outlines of old enclosures.
The Black Death and the resulting depopulation also led to the conversion of arable land to pasture land. The fear of famine arising from this situation caused the British government to appoint a Royal Commission of Inquiry in 1517, and some landowners were charged with unlawful enclosure. Records of these can be found in Chancery records.
The dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530's led to the distribution of their lands to persons in the King's favor. This in turn lad to the creation of Tudor estates with mansion houses and surrounding buildings, deer parks, and formal gardens--all informal means of enclosure of lands once held in common. Estate records can contain lists of tenants.
In 1607, a mob of some 3000 angry men and women tore up new enclosure hedges and fences and filled in ditches. They were called the 'Levellers.' Their protest led to a Royal Commission enquiry into the high incidence of enclosures in the counties of Berkshire, Buckingham, Huntingdon, Leicester, Lincoln, Northampton, and Warwick. Northamptonshire was the worst with over 27,000 acres informally enclosed in the 30 years prior to 1607, affecting more than 118 towns and villages.
Enclosure by formal agreement began around the time of the protests and the creation of the Royal Commission. It was to ensure that enclosures were legal. Enrollment of formal agreements can be found in manorial records and in Chancery Court records. Some agreements were merely a way of laying legal claim to land as a guard against future spurious claims.
Enclosure by Parliamentary act began in the late 17th century. This was more popular in the south, where there were large agricultural holdings, than in the north of England, which was more concerned with industrial expansion and where there were vast tracts of moorland which would never be enclosed.
There were two aspects to Parliamentary enclosure:
- the consolidation of holdings by enclosing the open fields.
- enclosing of common lands. Common lands were abolished and replaced with assigned allotments of land--strip farming. Strip farming was later replaced with fenced fields and common lands further vanished.
Enclosure by Parliamentary act enabled a landowner to:
- Confirm earlier informal/formal enclosures.
- Improve the quality and quantity of his land.
- Settle disputes about tithes and about boundaries.
The Process of Parliamentary Enclosure
The process of Parliamentary enclosure included the following:
- Landowners and usually the vicar would agree to enclose their lands.
- Public notice of intent was posted on the church door or in a local newspaper.
- A meeting was held, with tenants in attendance, to discuss the issue. Then a petition would be drawn up to request Parliament's permission to submit a Bill for approval. Opposition might result in a counter petition to Parliament.
- The House of Commons received and granted the petition and the bill was sent to Parliament where it would be enacted.
- From 1798, copies of all Enclosure Acts were sent to the local Clerks of the Peace, and it is these copies that usually appear in county archive offices.
- Commissioners for Enclosure would be appointed and would hear all complaints, weigh evidence, and pronounce the final awards. There would be lots of compaints. The commissioners' job was to hear all the claims and award compensation for loss of common rights in the form of allotments of land commensurate with the size, value and tenur of the original common right. They would also oversee the laying out of roads etc.
- Surveyors would draw up plans and maps.
- Enclosure of the land would be carried out.
This process produced a wealth of documentation.
Between 1761 and 1844 there were more than 2500 Parliamentary acts for enclosure, and over 4 million acres of cultivated land were affected. Another 1800 acts were for the enclosure of 1.25 million acres of waste land which were never successfully cultivated.
General Enclosure Acts
The first General Enclosure Act of 1801 speeded up the process by doing away with the need for private bills.
The General Enclosure Act of 1836 allowed enclosure of arable lands--
- With the agreement of 2/3 of the local landowners, there was no need for a parliamentary act. Landowners could appoint their own commissioners.
- If 7/8 of the landowners agreed, they could carry out their enclosures without commissioners.
The final General Enclosure Act of 1845 preserved open spaces and village greens.
Look for records at the National Archive in London and at county archive offices. The National Archive's Domestic Records Information leaflet #86 is a good source for more background information and references to records.
Enclosure records can help locate properties and name neighbors. Other records which can tie into enclosure records for research include:
- Census records
- Poll books (voting registers)
- Land tax records, from 1690 but best from 1798 when a printed form was introduced
- Estate records, particularly running accounts of payments, maps or plans, and rentals
- Manorial records, particularly those of the Court Baron which dealt with property transactions
- Probate records
The National Archive and some country archive offices are beginning to index enclosure records online.
Also, look in the online catalog of the Family History Library for England or for a county of interest and the topic of Land and Property.
Hoskins, W. G. The Making of the English Landscape. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, c1955. (Family History Library, book 942 H2hwg).
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