Access To Land

A Short History of Enclosure in Britain

The Land Issue, Summer 2009

This article written by Simon Fairlie, a farmer and writer, and published in 2009 describes in-depth the historical process of enclosures and its current effects on agriculture and on rural areas.

While, Hardin in its "Tragedy of the Commons" claimed that private property such as the enclosures are a solution to the management of the Commons, Simon Fairlie argues strongly against it and use English history to prove its point.

In this article, he compares the open field system to the enclosures one. The former allows economies of scale whereas the latter promotes freedom. However, the enclosure system has been heavily criticized for its negative effets and consequences.

The enclosure system took place from the 14th until the 19th century. It corresponds to the privatisation of collective (or commons) lands in favour of an individual. It has been promoted by the State as a means to improve fields and innovate. This state propaganda towards enclosures allowed its strong rises : "between 1760 and 1870, about 7 million acres ( one sixth of the area of England) were changed, by some 4,000 acts of parliament, from common land to enclosed land". The enclosures are also been established by violent means such as illustrated in the paragraph about Scottish clearances.

Yet, its violent and unfair establishment is not the only defect noted by the author. He claims that enclosures are the main reason for rural depopulation and decline of small farms ; issues still relevant nowadays. Indeed, the innovation allowed by enclosures are for the author "a trojan horse for consolidation and engrossment of land". This point is supported by the example of a 300 acre holding established on former fens. This enlargement is associated with the development of a "gang-labour system of employment" (hard work conditions).
His claims are illustrated by some interesting datas : from 1801 to 1901 rural population in England and Wales decreased from 65% of the total population to 23% (from 1851 to 1901, it is equivalent to a decrease of 1,4 million people in rural areas whereas the population has been increased of 14,5 million people). By comparison, in France in 1901, 59% of the population was still living in rural areas. Concerning the work conditions and the enlargement, in 1935, in the UK, there was one worker for every 12 ha whereas across the whole of Europe it was one worker for every 3,4 ha.

Enclosure process started to slow down in the end of 1800’s due to the decline of England agricultural economy and the establishment of county’s smallholdings. However these holdings started to be bought and enlarged again in the late part of the 1900’s. Hardin himself admitted later than there could be a tragedy of the commons only if the commons are badly managed. According to the author, commons land are the solution to have equity if the common sense allows their good management.

You can find the original article by following this link :


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