Friday, January 13, 2012

Mr. Beard's Regency Tour Day 14: Good Fences Make Good Neighbors: Enclosure

"Not so large, I dare say, as many people suppose. I do not mean to complain, however; it is undoubtedly a comfortable one, and I hope, will in time be better. The inclosure of Norland Common, now carrying on, is a most serious drain. And then I have made a little purchase within this half year -- East Kingham Farm, you must remember the place, where old Gibson used to live. The land was so very desirable for me in every respect, so immediately adjoining my own property, that I felt it my duty to buy it. I could not have answered it to my conscience to let it fall into any other hands. A man must pay for his convenience, and it has cost me a vast deal of money."

-- John Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 33

Mr. Dashwood's comments, on the surface, don't seem to have all that great an importance in the grander discussion of the nature of socio-economic disparity and economic realignment in Georgian and Regency England. His off-hand mention of "the inclosure of Norland Common", however, touches upon a rather significant series of land reforms that had major an impact on the rural lower classes in England.

Enclosure (inclosure was just the older way of spelling it) is the process by which land was consolidated, separated from neighboring properties, and deeded to private owners. The name comes from the way  these lands were marked off from others: enclosure with a wall, hedge, fence, or other obvious marker of division. Much of this process involved consolidation of irregular areas into more contiguous lands, but there were also cases of just simple conversion from common-use to private use. The combination of consolidation, demarcation of borders, and simple ownership assignment eliminated any ambiguity about who owned what and effectively eliminated most common-use land.

For a good chunk of English history, an open system was in place in many areas where peasants could make use of common land for grazing, small-scale planting, small-scale forestry, and similar subsistence activities. Although various minor cases of enclosure occurred throughout the centuries,  the process really picked up speed during the Georgian era with a many Enclosure Acts being passed by Parliament between the mid-18th century to the mid-19th century. While this was a act passed by the legislature, it should be noted that the process of acquiring enclosed land during most of the Georgian era involved a private citizen petitioning Parliament (until the mid-19th century at least), and so many of these Parliamentary acts were the culmination, in a sense, of private concerns and petitions rather than autonomous top-down decisions by the government. Even excluding the major Enclosure Acts, many smaller-scale private acts were passed by Parliament at the direct petition request of individuals.

It should be noted that in some cases enclosure was done to basically cut down on what amounted to illegal use of private property. A man might own a swath of land, but a lack of clear borders allowed people to come in certain areas, pick berries, graze their live stock, et cetera. That being said, in other cases there were centuries-old common areas that were destroyed by enclosure.

The act of enclosure, given that it removed many economic/food-related rights from peasants in local villages and nearby areas, had wide-spread  secondary effects. Once land was controlled by an owner, usage, if allowed, would require rent, which poorer families may have not been able to afford. Whereas previously they could potentially get by making limited use of common land, many now how to seek out employment. Arguably, without the Enclosure Acts, the huge number of cheap laborers necessary to help fuel the Industrial Revolution in England would not have been available.

Even if one is not particularly politically inclined, it's easy to see how these acts might be viewed with suspicion by some.  A person (and many have) could make the argument that formerly self-sufficient people were forced to go seek out work, sometimes far from home (thus disrupting village life), whereas a small percentage of individuals found themselves in a stronger economic position.

The often unpleasant labor conditions of the early Industrial Revolution or the low-security life that accompanied service were arguably tolerated because of the flood of workers desperate for new means to sustain themselves. Was enclosure nothing more than people of superior means consolidating resources and land at the expense of people of lesser means? Some argue that rather strenuously.

On the other hand, the ostensible logic behind enclosure was in some cases simple protection of property rights and in other cases was about improving efficiency of the land. Some historians suggest that by pushing people out of low-level subsistence farming, enclosure may have ultimately contributed to greater social mobility potential in the long-run. General improved economic efficiency combined with the slowly eroding social resistance to things like trade and investment among gentry arguably led to a consolidation, enrichment, and investment cycle that benefited the nation as a whole. Under this argument, the workers flooding into the factories of the Industrial Revolution, in turn, expanded the economy and helped shift the poorer English away from having effectively zero chance at social mobility.

It's also undeniable that in many areas, over-use and agricultural inefficiency was a legitimate motivation for enclosure. This is the so-called "tragedy of the commons". In such a situation, as no one involved in the use of land/resource has true ownership, they will not take special measures to conserve it because others using the resources may not. This cycle of use and self-interest leads to the depletion of the resource.  The various people who supported enclosure often based their argument on economic reasons (fencing associated with enclosure allowed high-value pasturage), agricultural efficiency, and land restoration.

Did this mean that every enclosed area was actually some horribly depleted over-farmed and over-logged deadland that needed the help of the gentry to rescue it? Doubtful. While there were  areas where this was the case, it's not as if during the process of enclosure, the government first did some sort of complicated land-use analysis. Mostly they were responding to petitions filed by people with enough wealth to hire lawyers to file petitions.

Many enclosed area had been successfully maintained for centuries. Though, as noted above, in some cases enclosure was about making property borders more concrete rather than a more active attempt to expand land holdings. The nature and appropriateness (depending on one's point of view) of enclosure likely varied by case.

Given this is a tremendously controversial topic among historians and economists (of which I'm neither), I think I'll stop here and just note that regardless if you feel enclosure was some sort of land-grab by the elite or if it was a painful but necessary part of an economically maturing England that  benefited everyone, it played a role in changing the nature of the English countryside and working classes.


Angelyn said...

Excellent overview of a controversial subject. Few present the other side of this argument--that land is being converted to more efficient use.

Grace Elliot said...

Lovely piece.
On a different note, are you related to Bethany Beard the editor?

J.A. Beard said...

Angelyn and Grace, Thanks.


Bethany is my wife.

J.A. Beard said...

A rather nice advantage for me, I'd say, well, except that she doesn't bother to always sugar-coat it when she edits my stuff. :p