Ellen Rosenman, “On Enclosure Acts and the Commons”


Between 1750 and 1850, approximately 4000 Enclosure Acts were passed converting commonable land into the exclusive private property of large landowners. According to the working-class politics of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these acts impoverished small farmers and destroyed the agrarian way of life that had sustained families and villages for centuries. Historians have debated this account of their effects, but for the politicized working classes the Enclosure Acts represented a profound trauma, an extended moment in a narrative of dispossession that undergirded resistance to aristocratic power and urbanization.

Detail from Rubens, Het Steen

Figure 1: Detail from Peter Paul Rubens, A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning, c. 1636, illustrating a pre-Enclosure landscape

According to the working-class politics of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Enclosure Acts (or Inclosure Acts) stole the people’s land, impoverished small farmers, and destroyed the agrarian way of life that had sustained families and villages for centuries[1] Historians have debated this account of their effects, but for the politicized working classes the Enclosure Acts represented a profound trauma, an extended moment in a narrative of dispossession that undergirded resistance to aristocratic power and urbanization. While this essay provides some factual background, its primary aim is to explain why the Enclosure Acts took on the significance they did within working-class politics. Assumptions about English history, especially about the imputed relationship between the land and the people, produced a single, powerful interpretation that, if not always or entirely accepted by professional historians today, held sway over popular opinion.

For centuries, English agriculture depended on common land–land that was privately owned but to which others enjoyed the legal right of access (the term “commoner” originally meant someone who had access to common land). Waste land was also accessible to local inhabitants. It was universally understood that common and waste land were to be used for planting crops, grazing livestock, gleaning, foraging, and sometimes hunting and fishing; they also provided wood and turf that could be used as fuel. Though small-scale agriculture could be arduous and unpredictable, life organized around the commons was relatively democratic, egalitarian, and self-sustaining, especially compared to the urban life that succeeded it.[2] Every year, a locally elected council met in a public place to distribute plots of land, schedule their multiple uses, and set the “stint” or fee for pasturing animals to prevent over-grazing. Each allotment consisted of long strips of land, often separated from each other to ensure that no individual would receive the best parcels. This arrangement placed farmers side by side, available for mutual aid. After the harvest, poorer families could glean the grain that remained on the ground. Then horses, cows, and sheep grazed the field, depositing their manure as fertilizer for the next year’s crops. Unfarmed land supported turkeys, pigs, and geese, which could forage in the woods. Communities also set limits on the income level that qualified inhabitants to use common land; in one village, an income of more than £4 a year was the ceiling, while other villages set aside pasture land for the very poor who could not afford to purchase access (Neeson 74). Christopher P. Rodgers et al. define the ideal of commonable land as “good neighborhoods” in which “sustaining the resource,” “equitable access,” and “balancing conflicting demands” guide decision-making and land use (34, 35, 36).

Of course, rural communities were not the homeostatic paradises implied by this description. Wealthier farmers often dominated the councils and could arrange the practice of stinting and the assignment of land for their benefit. Access was not equal; land was distributed “not by a modern notion of social justice but by proportionality based on property rights and ancient custom” (Rodgers et. al. 36). Nevertheless, commonable land provided a supportive structure within the fragile economy of small-scale agriculture. When it was enclosed, the majority of villagers, who did not own land, could not farm independently but had to hire themselves out, a less secure and less profitable arrangement.

Although the enclosure of common land had been taking place since the time of the Tudors, advances in agriculture in the eighteenth century made consolidation of land profitable, inciting large-scale farmers and estate owners to claim more and more land.[3] The rapid increase of enclosure between approximately 1750 to 1850, often effected by Parliamentary acts rather than private transactions, made it a highly visible and controversial practice. The passage of the Inclosure (Consolidation) Act of 1801 reflected the recognition of the accelerated pace of enclosure. While commoners were compensated for their losses, they were generally given smaller and less arable parcels of land or allowed to remain only on the condition that they take on the prohibitive expense of fencing their allotment. Approximately 4,000 parliamentary acts were passed in this period, leaving virtually no common land.[4] Historians have disagreed about the impact of enclosure: early accounts saw the destruction of common land as a devastating blow to small farmers and the poor, while the revisionist claims that followed asserted that poverty had always plagued rural families and that, in some places, the enclosure acts alleviated it by increasing the profitability of agriculture. More recent scholarship has tended to see these latter claims as an over-correction, though disagreement remains. It is probably fair to say that the Enclosure Acts had a significant though not exclusive impact on the massive shift to an industrial, urban society in which agricultural workers lost whatever measure of economic independence they had possessed.[5]

Not only did the Enclosure Acts contribute to an economic crisis, they also redefined the land and its relationship to the people. The image of a happy, prosperous village was an idealized vision of England itself, in which “the people” were industrious, independent farmers with ties to specific plots of land going back through generations. With the rise of large-scale agriculture and the removal of small farmers from land that had historically been theirs to use, this image became increasingly difficult to sustain.  Moreover, while commons were often consolidated into larger agricultural units, some of the land was annexed to estates for show, creating broad vistas and carefully designed wild areas. This repurposing turned farmland into landscape, eliminating its use value and redefining it as an aesthetic resource that signified the wealth and taste of landowners. No longer the foundation for an agrarian England, land became the exclusive cultural capital of the elite.[6]

According to working-class politics, this transformation of the land destroyed a symbolic connection to a national past. Common land was not only a specific plot of earth; it was “the land,” the materialization of a national essence, a metonym for England itself. Working-class politics had long claimed that the land–both the earth itself and the symbolic national belonging it conferred–belonged to the people. A popular broadside, “The Wrongs of Man” (1816), sums up this assumption, directly linking the people, the land, and the nation:

The Rights of Man art in the Land,
Let the feudal Lords say all they can;
A Nation is the People’s Farm,
(qtd. in Chase  The People’s Farm  1)

While it might seem quixotic to rally around “the people’s farm” in a time of urbanization and industrialization, we should remember that these processes occurred unevenly and at times unsteadily. Periodically rocked by economic crises, industrial capitalism was not self-evidently the wave of the future. Much production still occurred in small workshops or in homes, and agriculture remained a way of life for a significant portion of the mid-century population, though often combined with other seasonal employment, including factory work. If the agrarian ideal was threatened with new developments, it was not a foregone conclusion that it was to be definitively overcome by a radically new system.[7]

Several writers played important roles in disseminating the central tenets of the agrarian ideal: that the land belongs to the people and that its abundance can and should support them. This ideal had a long pedigree, extending back to the Diggers of the 17th century, who opposed private property and promoted the establishment of small rural communes, and through John Locke’s idea of the state of nature, which writers often referenced directly. Echoing the “Wrongs of Man,” Thomas Spence, one of the most prominent influences on the populist agenda, considered these ideas unquestionable truths: “‘few . . . would be foolish enough to deny . . . that the country of any people in their native state is properly their common, in which each of them has an equal property, with free liberty to sustain himself and family with the animals, fruits and other products thereof’” (5-6). Spence’s identification of “their common” with “the country” succinctly expresses the people’s simultaneous claim to land and to national belonging. Other well-known writers such as William Cobbett, publisher of the working-class paper Political Register and author of Rural Rides, and radical thinker Thomas Paine echoed these beliefs. According to Cobbett, the people have “‘the right to have a living out of the land of our birth in exchange for our labour duly and honestly performed; the right, in case we fell into distress, to have our wants sufficiently relieved out of the produce of the land’” (qtd. in Thompson 761). Already a revered figure for his Rights of Man (1791), which circulated widely in England, Thomas Paine contributed to these claims with Agrarian Justice (1797), which also invoked the idea of the state of nature in its assertion that “the earth . . . [is] the common property of the human race” (para. 11). These thinkers did not promote the same remedy to the people’s current unlanded state. Influenced by the successful resistance to the enclosure of the commons in map iconNewcastle, Spence argued that land should be owned by local communities, which would function as mini-democracies providing for all inhabitants. Cobbett was not theoretically opposed to private property held by individuals rather than communities if the people were still able to thrive but, in the face of widespread dislocation and poverty, did not rule out land redistribution.[8] Paine recommended establishing a fund to compensate every person for the loss of his or her “natural inheritance” by creating an inheritance tax that would allocate a fixed percentage to this fund. But all assumed that the people had a right to a portion of the wealth that inhered in the land, if not to the land itself.[9]

In the nineteenth century, Chartist newspapers and speakers kept these agrarian ideals in circulation alongside their agenda of full male suffrage. (See Chris R. Vanden Bossche’s BRANCH essay, “On Chartism,” for an explanation of Chartism.) One of the most outspoken and radical activists, Julian Harney, explicitly joined this platform with the ideas of earlier agrarian writers in the title of his essay “The Charter and Something More,” which reiterated the familiar claim that “THE LAND BELONGS TO ALL” by virtue of the people’s “natural right” (351).[10]

Thus, as understood by working-class politics, the Enclosure Acts undermined crucial dimensions of national identity. First, it destroyed the place-based sense of identity that was crucial to the construction of “the people.” Villagers had a sense of identity rooted in a specific area and embedded in a web of familial and neighborly relations that had defined that place through generations.[11] This association between identity and place is so intuitive, so prevalent in western culture that geographer Tim Cresswell terms it a “metaphysic.” With wage labor came enforced mobility as workers were compelled to travel to different villages, towns, and cities to eke out a living. The imbrication of “the people” and “the land” underlay the trauma of the Enclosure Acts, giving rise to a narrative of not only economic loss but dispossession in which farmers saw themselves as refugees in their own land. Oliver Goldsmith’s well-known poem “The Deserted Village” (1770) is driven by this sense of paradise lost, dwelling on the profound tie to place as it surveys the landscapes, buildings, and people that have been erased by enclosure.[12]

Added to this sense of dislocation was the loss of a specific kind of personhood–or more accurately, manhood–defined by self-reliance, industry, and the ability to support a family. The Northern Star, the chief newspaper of Chartism, mourned the extinction of the “hardy sons of the earth” who typified Englishness (“THE LAND!”). Radical politics consistently looked to an imputed past as the model for the future. This fealty to a single version of England, understood as originating in its ancient Anglo-Saxon origin, is one of the defining features of working-class politics.[13] National identity itself was at risk; with the betrayal of a foundational culture, the land itself is dying:

No more thy glassy brook reflects the day,
But choked with sedges, works its weedy way . . .
Sunk are thy bowers, in shapeless ruin all,
(Deserted Village ll. 41-43, 47)

Given this context, it is not surprising that populist politics turned to a variety of land schemes in an attempt to restore pre-enclosure communities. In the late 1840s and 1850s, freehold land societies attempted to recreate these communities on a micro-scale. Selling shares to individuals, they then purchased large tracts of land and sold smaller portions to shareholders, who, theoretically, could work their portion within the larger community marked off by the boundaries of the larger tract like members of a rural parish. Promoting land ownership as the road to suffrage, freehold land societies also appealed explicitly to the metaphysical connotations of land, reminding potential investors, “There is an universal instinct in the soul of man to be the absolute possessor of a piece of land” (Parnell 1).

The Chartist Land Company was a large-scale, explicitly political version of freehold societies.[14] Conceived by the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor in 1842 and formally established by the Chartist National Delegates Meeting in April 1846, the Company, like freehold societies, purchased large tracts of land through subscriptions and then sold smaller parcels to subscribers. It attempted to re-create village life by building cottages, hospitals, and schools, and setting aside one hundred acres for common use. On 17 August 1846, the first estate, named map iconO’Connorville after its founder, celebrated its inauguration with a festival that attracted almost 12,000 visitors. By 1847, the Land Company had over six hundred branches, 70,000 subscribers, and five estates. As with freehold land societies, the vote was a strong enticement to join, but the Land Company also appealed to subscribers through the values and history it engaged. In historian Malcolm Chase’s words,

land reform had always been integral to the social programme Chartists anticipated would follow the enactment of the Charter. This . . . reflected the long pedigree of agrarian agitation–from opposition to enclosure, through Thomas Spence, to early 1830s interest in communal land-holding–which ran like a red thread through English radicalism. (Chartism 167)[15]

Not surprisingly, the Land Company did not succeed in renovating England one garden plot at a time. To some extent, it was undermined by its idealism: with limited knowledge of agriculture, subscribers could not magically reincarnate the small farmers of the past and, so, struggled economically. To some extent, it was the victim of its own success: it had not developed a structure capable of managing the claims of 70,000 subscribers. Unable to establish itself on a legal footing, it also became vulnerable to state intervention. A Parliamentary investigation in 1848 accused the Land Company of shoddy documentation and misleading promises, beginning a process that brought it to Chancery Court in 1851. By 1858 its holdings were dissolved, though some cottages still remain today. (Freehold land societies survived, ironically, by joining the inexorable current of capitalism and promoting themselves as mortgage societies for the middle classes.) Its disastrous end should not obscure the powerful hold it had over the imagination of the working classes and the version of England it attempted to sustain.

Thus, the Enclosure Acts and the commons they appropriated were crucial to the social and political imaginary of the working classes. Certainly, the reliance of radical politics on a static myth of national identity was a form of nostalgia, opposed to change and based on an idealization of rural life. But opposition to the Enclosure Acts was not only nostalgic. Although the preoccupation with rural life seems anachronistic in the face of urbanization and industrialization, it is a reminder that agriculture was still a significant part of the nineteenth-century economy and that industrial capitalism was not the self-evident future of England. Attending to the presence of the rural ideal in working-class politics usefully supplements the view of urban, middle-class professionals. From the perspective of the working classes, England appeared to be a different nation. With a strong measure of historical accuracy, this perception expands our understanding of mid-century England and insists that novels, journals, and parliamentary reports focused on urbanization and industrialization reflect a class-specific version of the nation rather than providing a transparent account of the truth.

Just as significant, valorization of “the land” maintained the memory of a way of life that, whatever its hardships, offered a more supportive social structure and more economic self-determination than agricultural wage labor or factory work. The appearance of several recent critical works that take up the idea of the commons in contemporary life–Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968), Donahue’s Reclaiming the Commons (2001), and Reid and Taylor’s Recovering the Commons (2010)–positions the debates of the nineteenth century within an ongoing modern problematic involving private property, resource allocation, and the common good.  Despite coming to diametrically different conclusions–“Tragedy” predicts the destruction of the commons as individuals try to maximize their own economic interests, while Reclaiming and Recovering foresee responsible stewardship and a more just society–these explorations suggest the ongoing relevance of this moment in nineteenth-century history.

published December 2012

Ellen Rosenman, professor of English at the University of Kentucky, is currently working on a book on the relationship between penny fiction and radical politics. She is the author of Unauthorized Pleasures: Accounts of Victorian Erotic Experience (Cornell UP 2003) and the co-editor, with Claudia Klaver, of Other Mothers: Beyond the Maternal Ideal (Ohio State UP 2008). She also edits the Victorians Institute Journal.


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[1] Working-class politics is a broad phrase. I use it to invoke the genealogy (or genealogies) established by E. P. Thompson and to embrace the array of thinkers, speakers, writers, publishers, and activists who agitated for greater social and economic rights for the working classes. The most prominent organization representing these interests was Chartism, which promoted a six-point charter to reform suffrage; see Chris Vanden Bossche’s BRANCH essay for an analysis of Chartism and its tactics.  Because of my emphasis on the land, on the agrarian tradition, and on the possibility of property redistribution, I use the term interchangeably with “radical politics” and “populist politics,” following the example of Chase and Burchardt.

[2] This description comes from Neeson, based on historical accounts and observation in rare villages that still practice common land use. See also Bunce 7, Buchardt 22, and Cosgrove 41-42.

[3] This claim has been disputed by Clark and Clark, who argue that most common land was enclosed by the sixteenth century. However, their definition of common land is land that is available to “all comers” (1009). While most common land was either held by an estate or accessible only to local inhabitants, it did not function only as private property, but was understood to be available to others by right.

[4] Exceptions to this generalization are forests, which the government was not able to enclose effectively (Griffin) and certain coastal commons (Rodgers et. al., especially 163-5).

[5] In an early work on the subject, Chambers and Mingay state that “the effects of enclosure were rarely great or immediate” (104), while more recently Shaw-Taylor argues that many small farmers were employed as wage laborers before the heyday of parliamentary enclosure (641) and that data indicating a rise in poor relief during enclosure does not necessarily point to a specific or single cause (659). Qualifying the claim that enclosure destroyed farmers’ livelihood, Burchardt nevertheless finds a “moderate pessimism consensus” (21) about the acts’ effects among historians.

[6] See Silbey for a theoretical definition of this phenomenon: “power is expressed in the monopolization of space and the relegation of weaker groups in society to less desirable environments” (ix). See also Cosgrove 199 and Bunce 7-8 for discussions of this phenomenon in relation to the Enclosure Acts.

[7] See, for instance, Jones’s claim that “there was no belief in the inevitability of industrial capitalism in the 1830s and 1840s” (59). Even in the highly mechanized textile industry, the majority of workers were employed outside factories in 1850 (Freedgood 2). See also Buchardt 41.

[8] See Thompson 746-61.

[9] A somewhat more complicated figure is Robert Owen, who promoted and organized several rural communitarian experiments, but whose paternalistic approach offended many radical political figures (see Thompson 779-806).

[10] Chase calls the phrase “The Charter and Something More” the “banner” under which Chartism redefined itself after Parliament rejected its final petition for full male suffrage in 1848 (Chartism 336).

[11] The work of Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart, and more recently K. D. M. Snell, reflects this sense of English identity. See Cresswell for an analysis of the valorization of place-based identity and the related critique of mobility in Williams and Hoggart 35.

[12] George Crabbe’s “The Village” (1810) offers a less idealized view of the rural past, emphasizing poverty and hardship.

[13] Though Thompson identifies a conflict between the idea of a natural rights, possessed by every person, and a right that inhered in a specific national history, populist periodicals and speakers did not always make this distinction, so I have felt free to conflate the two ideas here (88).

[14] For discussions of the Chartist Land Company, see Bronstein 11-15, Burchardt 39-40, Chase (Chartism: A New History 166-68, 249-61, 327-31), and Hadfield.

[15] See also Burchardt: “Only if we see the Land Plan in the context of the long-standing tradition within radicalism does its popularity make any sense” (40).