Progress and Poverty: An Economic and Social History of Britain, 1700-1850

By M. J. Daunton | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4 Open Fields and Enclosure: The Demise of Commonality

Enclosure came, and trampled on the grave Of labour's fights and left the poor a slave.

( John Clare, C. 1821-4)

The sentiments of John Clare, the Northamptonshire poet, were put more prosaically by a lace-dealer of that county. 'I lament that this field is now agoing to be enclosed', wrote David Hennell of Wollaston. 'Some that have large quantities of land are set upon it, and pay no regard to the many little ones that may be injured, and I fear many ruined.' 1 All change is likely to inspire laments, exaggerating destruction and ignoring benefits: were Clare and Hennell correct in seeing enclosure as socially disruptive, an attack upon the poor?

Much depended upon the way in which enclosure arose. Clare and Hennell saw it as a force coming from outside the village community, imposed by men of property and influence who dispossessed the poor of their fights. But was this how enclosure was experienced in all parts of the country? Perhaps in some areas enclosure emerged by agreement within the village community. The nature of open-field agriculture was highly diverse, with a variety of agrarian systems and social organization which had an important influence on how the process of enclosure was implemented, and the degree of social conflict it generated.

Even if enclosure was, to use E. P. Thompson's words, 'a plain enough case of class robbery', 2 there still remains the possibility that it contributed to an increase in agricultural output which allowed an escape from subsistence crises and falling real wages. Clare and Hennell were sceptical of such a comforting interpretation, preferring to believe that enclosure had only a limited impact on agricultural productivity, and that its major role was in permitting landowners to raise rents and renegotiate leases. Rather than providing an escape route from the dire consequences which alarmed Malthus, dispossession could have stimulated

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