I’ve been getting increasingly upset lately about the enclosures, particularly those of the 18th and 19th Centuries.
This happens mostly when we are out walking. Having difficulties getting around our countryside and cities. Public footpaths that aren’t as public as they’re supposed to be. Field systems that forbid access entirely or force you into ridiculously long ways of getting somewhere, and are maddening.
True there is more public land in cities, but even here landowners are not above fencing off entire parkland or former housing areas for decades while they wait for their precious ‘land values’ to increase. (Yes, I mean you, all you housing market ‘renewal’ developers and present and previous ‘owners’ of our ‘Festival’ Gardens’ site in Liverpool.) The power to wilfully create empty homes has existed from well before the ‘Clearances’ and is still with us now.
So I thought I’d have a bit of a rant about this, the fact that we have so little access to the land we live on – and spare Sarah from being the only one who regularly has to listen to all this stuff.
Now let’s get one thing straight from the start here. There never was a rural idyll. A time when the good peoples of Britain lived on the land and from the land in perfect peace and harmony, singing ‘Hey nonny no’ as we skipped about the fields of our verdant Eden. It never happened and even if it had it would have been sickening.
But we did have more access to our own lands than we have now, the lands that were the whole basis of our livelihoods, our ‘economy’ if you like. Now we are the servants and victims of an economic system we neither control nor, for the most part, understand. How did this happen? How were we all separated from our own lands, the whole basis of our economy, and left landless and therefore powerless? Well here’s one version of the story.
It’s called ‘The Enclosures.’
England, in the 13th century, was a largely arable country. All of the land was ‘owned’ by the Lords of the Manor who’d had it doled out to them after the Norman Conquest of 1066. But though these Lords owned it they didn’t try to restrict access to most of it. As well as providing income for the Lords through taxes in kind from what was grown or reared on it, the arable land could also be used by the common people for their own crops and animals. And they could gather firewood from woodlands, as well as keep their pigs there.
As I said at the start though, this was no rural idyll. The poor were resolutely poor and none of them had enough oxen, say, to pull a plough. So the work was organised co-operatively. As were decisions about what to grow, when to harvest, and when to allow the animals onto the land. This ‘common land.’
But beginning in the 13th century common land began to be ‘enclosed’. Laws were made up to allow land to be taken out of common usage and be used instead for the grazing of sheep, increasingly a more prosperous crop for the Lords and Monasteries who owned the land than the arable farming that had happened up to then.
This was not popular and the English peasants revolted about it several times. And were of course savagely put down for their cheek. Fields were stolen and whole villages were cleared to make room for more sheep. But the poor did get some support from high places. This, for example from Thomas More in ‘Utopia’ from 1516. (Yes that Thomas More, author and Chancellor of England, later slaughtered by serial-killer Henry VIII, though not for his views on enclosure):
“Your shepe that were wont to be so meke and tame, and so smal eaters, now, as I heare saye, be become so great devowerers and so wylde, that they eate up and swallow down the very men them selfes. They consume, destroye, and devoure whole fields, howses and cities . . . Noble man andgentleman, yea and certeyn Abbottes leave no ground for tillage, thei inclose all into pastures; they throw down houses; they pluck down townes, and leave nothing standynge but only the churche to be made a shepehowse.”
By this time the English had built enough castles to stop the people of Wales having their own country any more. And soon they would ‘unite’ with Scotland. Creating the situation where the highly populated northern glens would later be ‘enclosed’ and the people ruthlessly cleared from the land for mainly, yes, sheep, during the notorious ‘Clearances’.
The people of Scotland were forced to either emigrate or move into the expanding cities and work in the factories of the Industrial Revolution.
This was happening in England and Wales too. And there is a school of thought that this was deliberate. That people were forced off the land so that their only option would then be to become factory labourers. Industrial slaves really.
The opposing school of thought though, is that this wasn’t the case and that the vast enclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries (even conservative estimates say 7 million acres, equivalent to one sixth the area of England) were necessary to improve farming methods and feed the rapidly growing population.
Either way, the people were not asked. As we saw up on Thurstaston Common the week before last, the local gentry (‘nobs’ or nobles as I called them in discussions on that post) merely had to get together and ‘petition’ a still largely un-democratic Parliament (as in, most of us who then owned no land weren’t allowed to vote), and their fellow peers would most likely let them have whatever neighbourhood land they wanted. Between 1750 and 1850 there were 4,000 of these ‘petitions’ and by the last of them, the working people of Britain had had their land stolen from them.
In fact, still thinking of Thurstaston Common, this single hill in the Wirral is a perfect microcosm of the evils of enclosure, late days style. Although the ‘petition’ for Thurstaston was and is publicised as ‘knocked back’ – to this day the hill contains two ‘compensatory’ (to the nobs) aberrations. Two gaps in the map of this preserved ‘common land’. One is the previously reported transplanted ‘nob house’, now a fairy tale wedding hotel. The other is a gap that isn’t even explained in the printed version of the Wirral A-Z map. A square space in the middle of the ‘common’ that is, yes you’ve guessed it, seasonal sheep-grazing land. The thieves are still amongst us.
Now I’m aware that this attitude of mine, that the people were deliberately deprived of their access to living off the land so they could become the new factory fodder, is seen by many historians as a Marxist point of view. But that quite pleases me in a nostalgically political sort of way. And anyway, this is my rant and I’m happy to have spent these last thousand words or so having it.
And unlike many a blog post which I’ll write straight off the top of my head, I’ve taken some time to research this one. And one of the most informative, and unashamedly opinionated sources I’ve found, ‘The Land’ magazine, suggests that the achievements of land enclosure have led to much else:
“But over the last three decades, the enclosure debate has been swept up in a broader discourse on the nature of common property of any kind. The overgrazing of English common land has been held up as the archetypal example of the “tragedy of the commons” — the fatal deficiency that a neoliberal intelligentsia holds to be inherent in all forms of common property. Attitudes towards enclosures in the past were always ideologically charged, but now any stance taken towards them betrays a parallel approach to the crucial issues of our time: the management of global commons and the conflict between the global and the local, between development and diversity.”
So, one century the land is enclosed. In another genetically modified seeds are enclosed. What will we lose common ownership of next?
OK, rant over.
If you’re interested in a bit more balance I can recommend this BBC radio programme. It took some of the wind out of my sails and definitely toned down the full on rant I’d planned. The academics on there, for example, talk about the fact that the four-field system of crop rotation, one of the ‘improvements’ facilitated by enclosure, was a good thing (though a couple of permaculture gardeners of my acquaintance, hello Sarah and Gemma, think this was still a stage on the way to unthinking monoculture. All potatoes in a field one year, all legumes the next. Not so much intelligent land use as all about profit.).
And on the whole I still think we were robbed and that the land owners of this country mostly stole the land they now profit from so mightily. And I despise them for it still.
And I very much like the look and tone of ‘The Land’ magazine. Illustrations here are examples of the classic wood-cut illustrations they find and use.