The Enclosure Acts

The Enclosure Acts



The Enclosure Acts were essentially the abolition of the open field system of agriculture which had been the way people farmed in England for centuries. The ownership of all common land, and waste land, that farmers and Lords had, was taken from them. ³ Any right they had over the land was gone. New fields were designed, new roads were added, and the land was eventually re-allocated to different farmers and Lords. Originally this process was agreed upon through informal agreement but Parliament took over during the 17th century. Between 1604 and 1914 there were over 5,200 bills enacted by Parliament which equates to a little more than one fifth of England. ³

A before and after look at how land was divided during The Enclosure Acts in England

Main Causes

England utilized an Open Field system for much of its history before the start of the Enclosure. This system worked well because it suited what was needed by society at the time. Agricultural and cultivation systems were not very advanced, but it allowed each village to be self-sufficient. This was extremely necessary because transportation was still very primitive. However, over time things began to change. Transportation became much easier with the implement of new roadways, canals and waterways were easier to navigate, and agricultural knowledge increased.³ In the end, the open field system was not capable of reaping all of the benefits of the newly industrialized England. Therefore, by taking control of the land, the government was able to decide the uses for the land based on what suited it best. This increased the efficiency and profitability of farming. Efficient agriculture was greatly needed at this time due to the fast increase in population; demand for food was at it’s all time highest. ³

Stages of the Enclosure process (Before 1801) ¹
Stage 1
-Owners of at least 3/4 of the village had to agree to the enclosures
-A petition was drawn up, which asked Parliament to pass an Enclosure Act for the village
-Notice was posted on the church door informing villagers of the enclosure ¹
Stage 2
-A small committee from Parliament came to hear any objections the village people had
-Parliament then either passes the act, or rejects it depending on the advice from the earlier committee
-Commissioners are then appointed to observe the enclosure of the land ¹
Stage 3
-A detailed map is drawn up of the current land holdings, marking the land into individual plots
-Landowners must then prove their legal entitlement to the land they are currently farming
-A new map is drawn, giving legal land owners their share
-Landowners then build fences and roads on their new land ¹

“The political dominance of large landowners determined the course of enclosure….[I]t was their power in Parliament and as local Justices of the Peace that enabled them to redistribute the land in their own favor.

A typical round of enclosure began when several, or even a single, prominent landholder initiated it … by petition to Parliament.… [T]he commissioners were invariably of the same class and outlook as the major landholders who had petitioned in the first place, [so] it was not surprising that the great landholders awarded themselves the best land and the most of it, thereby making England a classic land of great, well-kept estates with a small marginal peasantry and a large class of rural wage labourers.” ⁶

Joseph R. Stromberg, Library Historian

Breakdown of who owned the land before and after Acts were put in place

Effects of the Enclosure Act on English Society

For over 500 years, politicians, historians, and world preservationists have argued about the enclosure acts. The subdivision and fencing of common land into individual plots is the biggest issue. Those in favor of this change insisted that it was necessary and not optional for the growth and development of the economy. Those against this change claimed that it deprived the poor people of making a good living, which will lead them to live unsustainable lives.The Enclosure Acts took away the rights the local people had to the rural land during prior generations. ² As a result, the people were taken away from their comfort zones. They were offered alternative land that was smaller and of poorer quality, most times not even having water or wood supplies. The landowners could not afford the legal costs of enclosure, so they were pushed out towards the cities where they could survive on their paycheck. The seized lands were then turned into privately owned farms with extremely politically intertwined farmers who got the finest lands. Even as of 2009, in England, a property-owning democracy, nearly half the country is owned by 40,000 land millionaires. That is 0.06 percent of the population, leaving most of the people to spend the greater majority of their lives working to survive and maintain a small piece of land barely big enough to sustain a modest living situation. ²
There were positive effects that occurred as a result of the enclosure acts. Due to the fact that all of the land was being utilized, less land was wasted. The boundaries that separated previous farms no longer existed, freeing up that unused space. Well farmed land was no longer surrounded by poorly farmed land, which helped crops grow. As a result of animals needing to be bred together and separate from other types of animals, less diseases were spread among them which increased the amount of food that was produced. ¹

Before Enclosure (Open field system):

  • Farmer’s strips of land are scattered around the village in large, unfenced fields
  • Strips of land owned by one farmer
  • Church ¹


After Enclosure:

  • Farmer’s land now enclosed
  • New farm buildings
  • Road hedge ¹


Effects on Romantic Writers
Nature is one of the main themes that can be seen throughout Romantic poets, and The Enclosure Acts was something of particular interest to some of the writers during this time period. “The Deserted Village” by Oliver Goldsmith is one poem who’s influence can be recognized as The Enclosure Acts. Because small farms were being destroyed throughout England in the re negotiation process of all of the land, some of the smaller villages were forced into changing how they lived because they had to adapt to the new land administered by the government. Romantic writers during this time used their skills of literature to express their emotions through their poetry. ⁸

As Rosenman states “First, [The Enclosure Acts] 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”. ⁷ The sense of loss and trauma is what can be seen in Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village.”

Ye friends to truth, ye statesmen who survey
The rich man’s joy encrease, the poor’s decay,
‘Tis yours to judge, how wide the limits stand
Between a splendid and a happy land.
Proud swells the tide with loads of frightened ore,
And shouting Folly hails them from her shore;
Hoards even beyond the miser’s wish abound,
And rich men flock from all the world around.
Yet count our gains. This wealth is but a name
That leaves our useful products still the same.
Not so the loss. The man of wealth and pride
Takes up a space that many poor supplied;
Space for his lake, his park’s extended bounds,
Space for his horses, equipage, and hound

Even though Goldsmith was an Augustan poet and not a Romantic poet, the movement towards the Romantics were influenced by what the Augustans endured. England was one of the first countries to become industrialized because of the open land being enclosed by the acts presented by the government which caused mixed emotions among the farmers. Goldsmith presents a negative view of the situation in the above passage because he saw the acts as a way for the rich to take over the land which also forced some of the farmers and people in smaller villages to migrate into the cities.
But this action described by Goldsmith led to a new type of poetry with the Romantics. Because of the disappearance of the small farmers, large capitalist cities became the new norm for people living in England. With his Preface to his set of poems Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth The Preface to Lyrical Ballads.jpgWilliam Wordsworth, one of the best known Romantic poets, started a new wave of ideas and themes in his work. He stressed the importance of being in tune with nature and being open to change while stressing the importance of shaping the mind in order to experience life in a freer, more direct manner. ⁴ With the loss of land during the Enclosure Acts, the farmers really needed to change not only the way they lived but also the way they thought. Even though many of the people were displaced and effectively put out of business because their land was taken away from them, they still needed to adapt if they wanted to survive. What Wordsworth, along with many other Romantic poets, was trying to say is that we need to focus on society and not focus not the individual needs in order to live a better life, which was something the people, specifically the farmers, in England during the Enclosure Act time period, needed to incorporate into their daily lives.

Works Cited

1.”Enclosure Acts- Great Britain 1700-1801.” Enclosure Acts. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 May 2014.
2. Fairlie, Simon, (2009), The Land: Issue 7, “A Short History of Enclosure in Britain,” WEB, April 25, 2014.

3. Frank A. Sharman (1989) An Introduction to the Enclosure Acts, “The Journal of Legal History”, 10:1, 45-70.

4. Mahoney, John L. William Wordsworth, a Poetic Life. N.p: Fordham UP, 1997. Print.

5. “Managing and Owning the Landscape.” Parliament UK. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2014.

6. McElroy, Wendy, (2012), The Future of Freedom Foundation, “The Enclosure Acts and The Industrial Revolution,” WEB, April 23, 2014.

7. Rosenman, Ellen. “On Enclosure Acts and the Commons.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. 12 May. 2014.

8. Tanenhaus, Sam. The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge. New York City: New York Times Company, 2011. Print

Images (Order of Appearance)
“Parliamentary Inclosures.” Llyn. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 May 2014. <

Divison of Land in 1700s:
Owners of Land Before and After Enclosure Acts:

“Enclosure Acts- Great Britain 1700-1801.” Enclosure Acts. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 May 2014.
Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village” Poem Cover:
Lyrical Ballads: