England Enclosure Records and Maps

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England Gotoarrow.png Land and Property Gotoarrow.png Enclosure Records and Maps

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.

There were three types of enclosure:

  • Informal enclosure (with no legal documentation)
  • Enclosure by formal agreement
  • Enclosure by Private or General Act of Parliament.

Historical Background

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 enclosur. Records of these can be found in Chancery records.

The dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530's led to the distribution of these lands to those 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.

Common lands were abolished and replaced with assigned allotments of land--strip farming.

In 1607, a mob of some 3000 angry men and women tore up new enclosure hedges and fences and filled in ditches. There were called the 'Levellers.' Their protest led to a Royal COmmission enquiry into the high incicence 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 about that same time. This 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.

Strip farming was replaced with fenced fields and common lands further vanished.

Enclosure by Parliamentary act enabled a landowner to:

  • Confirm earlier informal/formal enclosure
  • 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.