Land Enclosure and its effects

by N A Rogers-Davis


In his article "Wealth & Poverty in Angmering (C16 to C19)", Mr RW Standing rightly argues that Land Enclosure (or Inclosure) was not the overriding reason for wealth and poverty in the village as a result of an 1809 Inclosure Act relating to Angmering, as was largely suggested by the Angmering historian Edwin Harris (1866-1942), but a process that had been going on for several hundreds of years. Other events at the beginning of the 19th century also had significant impact. However, enclosure of the land did change the fortunes of many of Angmering's inhabitants and others throughout the land. But what did it all mean and what were its effects?

What is "Enclosure"?

Enclosure (or Inclosure) was initially the process of enclosing land formerly subject to common rights. Later, enclosure was also achieved by agreement of owners of land parcels or strips.  Enclosure was usually accomplished by the use of fences, ditches, or hedges. Such land included fields cultivated by the open-field or strip system, wasteland, and the common pasture land.

Strip allocation/ownership worked well for many hundreds of years.  Originally, each 'owner' was allocated a number of strips separated from each other by turf borders.  The strips were scattered over the open fields so that each one of them had a share in various qualities of land.  Use of this land was restricted to the planting and growing season.  After the harvest, the village livestock were grazed 'in common' on the land and every year, one third of the land was required to remain fallow and used for common pasture.  Much later (see below), the care of the land became lax and thus less productive.

When did it begin?

There has been much speculation as to when Enclosure first began but it is generally accepted that the process was in place by the start of the 13th Century.  Indeed, Statutes passed in 1235 and 1285 permitted landlords to enclose wastelands on condition they left sufficient land for their free tenants.  Enclosure in reality was a rather small scale process until rapid expansion of the Flemish wool trade after the 14th Century.  The demand for wool pushed up wool prices for a while which meant that increased efficiency was required in sheep care, breeding and clipping to meet demand.  This could not be accomplished if sheep were allowed to roam freely and feeding was haphazard. 

The monetary advantages resulting from intensive cultivation of large, fenced fields and particularly from the conversion of land into fenced sheep pastures moved landlords to make agreements with tenants or to expel them, illegally or for the slightest default, in order to enclose large areas. Under the Tudors, the hardship of dispossessed tenants, increasing vagrancy, and social unrest resulted in statutes designed to limit the practice.

A further reason for enclosure also occurred under the Tudors and that was the creation of hunting parks by the nobility, the grazing of villagers' livestock being excluded from what had previously been common land.

It was not until the latter part of the 18th Century that Enclosure started to accelerate again.  The reasons for this were primarily the need to feed an increasing population and a greater financial awareness of landowners who saw the opportunity of increased profits.

How did the process operate?

Enclosure was occasionally agreed by local parties and not documented, but on other occasions, following discussions between the landowners and the yeoman farmers (often tenants), formal deeds were produced.

It had been the practice that where agreement could not be obtained by all parties, or where perhaps large tracts of land were involved, or where the powerful landowners saw the opportunity for acquiring even more land at little or no expense, a Private Act of Parliament was obtained.  However, the obtaining of a Private Act was an expensive business and in view of the need to enclose more land for the principal reason of greater yields of crops and animal weights, the General Inclosure Act of 1801 was passed which allowed enclosure provided the consent of the majority of landowners was obtained.  The last significant Act, the General Act 1845 allowed a body of commissioners to authorise enclosure of specific lands without recourse for agreement by Parliament.  Land enclosure, however, continued up to about 1900.

Why was it considered necessary?

One of the main needs for enclosure by the late 18th Century, as explained earlier, was to improve efficiency of agricultural production.  What had prevented this was the development of the open-field system and strip farming that certainly was favoured by the Romans during their occupation and had been used by even earlier occupants.  Ownership of these land strips became even more fragmented over the centuries as a result of land being distributed through divided inheritance.  Land strips owned by one person were often scattered over a fairly large area and it was not an efficient process to cultivate strips or fertilise them.  Indeed, one of the main problems was that some strips had not been fertilised in living memory and were exhausted and unproductive.

Agreeing to allocate one parcel of land to approximately equate to the total area of the strips previously held was generally satisfactory although arguments arose on whether the land allocated was of the same quality as that allocated to another strip or land owner.

What was the general impact of Enclosure and other other causes of poverty?

It was probably the enclosing of the common land that caused the greatest problem.  For centuries, villagers had had the right to graze their livestock on common land and this was denied them when the commons were enclosed.  From subsisting fairly well up until that point, these people - often husbandmen - saw a fall in their standard of living and brought them to poverty. Many sought work as agricultural or general labourers, all reliant upon a wage. The yeoman farmers were reasonably unaffected by the process initially and, indeed, with more efficient farming methods through larger blocks of land, many increased their wealth and thereby their status.

The removal of the husbandmen from what was in effect an 'upper working class', created a class gap that was to continue well into the 20th Century.  Moreover, it laid a basis of discontent that was to rear its head during the 1820s and 1830s.

The effects of the end of the Napoleonic War in 1815 were not too dissimilar to those of all others wars before and afterwards; the result of major wars was inevitably change.  The male population had reduced and those soldiers returning from mainland Europe expected something better as a result of their efforts.  The seeds of dissatisfaction, already sown in the minds of these new labourers resulting from the land enclosures, were increased as a result of the Corn Laws that followed. During the war, farmers obtained high prices for their corn but prices fell steadily for the next 15 years after the war's end.  The 1815 Corn Law sought to prevent the importation of cheap continental corn imports and protect the landed classes who were being squeezed financially - they did, however, successfully petition for the abolition of income tax.  The workers had had their wages slashed as a result of landowners' financial stress, the former perceiving that the middle and ruling classes were getting richer at their expense.  The rising contribution to the Poor Law rates (Sussex for example already having the highest rates in England) placed an intolerable burden on farmers which in turn had a knock-on effect on the wages of agricultural labourers.

In an attempt to reduce costs, farmers started to introduce threshing machines which signalled the end of labour intensive harvesting. By 1831 poverty was rife in southern England with farm workers seething with discontent. The first of the "Swing Riots" occurred in Orpington, Kent, in 1831 and by November of that year they had spread to Sussex.  Emigration was the answer for many.

Some of the former husbandmen (ousted as a result of the enclosure of the commons) were literate and, being bitter, tended to become leaders of the rioters. The writer and 'political agitator', William Cobbett, was particularly critical of the effect of enclosures in his 1820s works. It  was not until the 1840s that some normality returned to the agricultural industry.  But the process of increasing ownership of large tracts of land was just beginning.  Yeoman farmers with only modest acreages of land were pressurised to sell and the large landowner became even more powerful. 

What was the impact more locally?

Locally, in Sussex the powerful and wealthy grabbed the land, often at little or no cost.  Seventy years on, their families sold land at £850 per acre.  Probably the most aggressive of the 'land acquirers' was the 11th Duke of Norfolk.  He caused much heartache, for example, by enclosing Horsham Common.  The Pelham family too were avaricious in acquiring land.

It was, in the main, the enclosure of the commons land (with age-old rights - principally for grazing) that caused the furore and led to poverty of a significant proportion of the rural community.  In Sussex, during the period 1750-1900, over 18,500 hectares (45,700 acres) of commons were enclosed at the expense of villagers.

Bitterness remained for many years and generations.  As an example, local historian and left-wing politician, Edwin Harris, influenced perhaps by the diminishing land held in Donnington by his own forefathers, wrote in his 1914 electioneering pamphlet and local history:

"The Dukedom of Norfolk became possessed of the greater part of the 2,596 acres it holds in Angmering, in 1828, by purchase.  A considerable area was also enclosed, without payment, under various enclosure awards, the last of which took place about the time of the Crimean War.

Double hedges still shew to what extent this was effected in Angmering.

And the Duke of Norfolk (rapidly growing rich, through the calculated operation of various laws, which diverted sweated labour into vast wealth grinding centres, of which he took a heavy toll), by enclosure, and purchase, began to heap mile on mile of land into one mighty domain.

The farms of Preston Place Farm 172 acres, and Pigeon House Farm exactly haft that area, 86 acres ................. are almost entirely composed of enclosed public lands for which the ancestors of the present owners, who enclosed them, did not pay a single farthing. (At that time a series of unjust laws gave power to the rich to enclose and divide amongst themselves the Common Land that had been public property for 700 years).

Similar remarks apply to the Glebe lands of Angmering, Rustington, and Amberley.  Practically the whole of the Glebe in Angmering, now, or lately, belonging to these three Churches, were acquired by them at that time.  For in the day of plunder the Church all over England stood in with the rich. 

For this reason the Woolvyn's, the Hammond's, the Parson's, the Bukere's, the Bishop's, and others, whose names recur from 1200 onwards as free copyholders, are today, of necessity, unpossessing and landless wage earners.

........................ A tract of common land, as near a possible two miles long by half-a-mile wide, dividing East and West Angmering (omitting the central triangle enclosed by roads and the borders of the main street), which for seven centuries had been the common possession of the people, were, by laws passed by a parliament of landlords under cover of the great wars, now divided between the Pechell's (now Somerset's), the Olliver's, the Gratwicke's, and also that it should be said, the Church.

An unforseen result however followed.  After struggling for some years on a gradually diminishing pittance, between sixty and seventy Angmering workmen, following the lead of other districts, practically ceased work altogether, and threw themselves and their families on the parish."

One of the most famous cases of land enclosure locally was in the 16th Century when Sir Thomas Palmer enclosed the commons at Ecclesden in Angmering and threatened villagers.  The complainants took the matter to the Star Chamber but lost their case.


There is little doubt that Enclosure led to improved efficiency of use of the land and greater yields to feed a rising population.  The irony is that it drove many countless villagers into poverty and fuelled the start of emigration.  On the social side, the rich became even richer and distinct class gaps emerged.


N A Rogers-Davis
(Article written in 2003 but first published and Introduction added in May 2007)


Reference Sources
The Enclosures in England - an Economic Reconstruction (1918) : Harriet Bradley
Columbia Encyclopedia
Sussex Record Society Vol. XVI
Sussex Arch. Collection Vol. 120
A History of Sussex (1995) : JR Armstrong
The Sussex Story (1992) : D Arscott
An Historical Atlas of Sussex (1999) : K Leslie & B Short
A Short History of Angmering  - Study No.3 (1914) : Edwin A Harris
Edwin A Harris - Angmering's Political Firebrand : NA Rogers-Davis