The English Enclosures

Following up last week’s video about the tragedy of the commons, I have created a video about the enclosure of the English commons around the 18th century:

Here is a transcript (added 2012-06-16):

The English Enclosures were a wrenching change for English society. They have been described as a “revolution of the rich against the poor.” And although they happened in England, they have broader relevance.

England was becoming the first industrial society. It was becoming a market economy. And it was a colonial power. So much of what happened in England happened elsewhere later. Today, the metaphor of enclosure is often applied to the expansion of copyright and patent law.

In feudal times, land was owned by the nobility. Peasants used land that wasn’t theirs in order to grow food to survive. In return for using the lord’s land, they owed duties to the lord. They would provide him with a certain proportion of their crop, and they would also have to work with him and obey him in other ways. Even free men needed access to resources, such as firewood in the forest, in order to make a living. Over time, these rights to access land were codified and became traditional.

So when feudalism faded away, peasant villages still used shared and common land, such as shared pastures, shared cropland, sharing access to forests and fens for peat. Nonetheless, despite the fact that this regime was successful for hundreds of years, ultimately the commons were extinguished. They were eliminated and they were transformed into private property owned by individuals. The question I want to address is: Why?

One of the primary arguments given at the time was that the commoners were lazy. These were masterless men in a class society. They worked for nobody but themselves. When they had grown enough food to live, they had holidays, they had festivals, celebrations.

Our Forests and great Commons (make the Poor that are upon them too much like the Indians) being a hindrance to Industry, and are Nurseries of Idleness and Insolence.

So said John Bellers – a Quaker reformer who was trying to help the poor, and yet you can see his condescending attitude toward them.

When a labourer becomes possessed of more land than he and his family can cultivate in the evenings . . . the farmer can no longer depend on him for constant work.

This is an agricultural magazine for landowners at the time. And the argument it’s making is that if poor people can sustain themselves – if they can be independent – then they won’t have to work for anybody else, and this will be bad for the country as a whole.

Another argument was theft. Even though common right had been established and in place for hundreds of years, commoners were accused of taking things that weren’t theirs. “New hands shall learn to work, forget to steal. New legs shall go to church, new knees shall kneel.” This poet is writing about the enclosure of a fen.

Beyond these justifications, one of the primary motives for enclosure was wool. The nobility had not been very good at maing a profit with their land. That wasn’t their goal: they wanted prestige. But with the onset of capitalism, landowners realized they could make a lot of money in textiles, which was one of the driving industries of capitalism. The problem was, the land they would like to raise their sheep on was occupied by the commoners. If they could take that land back and raise sheep, they could make a lot of money.

But there was a problem. Typically, the commons were not actually owned by just a landlord. They were divided up, with different pieces belonging to different people. Often, a peasant might own a little garden, or a strip of a shared field. New if all the people in a district agreed to enclose, they could just amicably separate things up. An individual might choose to enclose the little bit that he had: but that might be a thin strip of farmland, which isn’t very practical to fence – although it did happen, apparently. But where not everybody wanted to enclose there had to be another solution.

And that was Parliament. Which was a representative, at that time, not of everybody, but of the wealthier land owners. If Parliament passed laws mandating that a district enclose, then even those who didn’t want to go along with it would have to. That’s what happened.

What they did is they looked at the proportion of ownership in a district. If the owners of eighty percent of the land wanted to enclose, Parliament would pass a law obliging the other twenty percent to go along and enclose also. You can imagine who the eighty percent were – and who the twenty percent were. The eighty percent would typically be wealthy land owners, and the twenty percent were probably the poor who were probably getting along with just barely enough to eat.

Furthermore, the peasants were at a disadvantage because they were illiterate. This was a time when law was becoming written. In the past it had been traditional common law: often agreements were oral. Now things were written down. If a poor man was asked to prove that he had common right to use land he couldn’t produce any documents. Tenants were in the worst position of all. They had had a right for hundreds of years to use land, but the government, when they were looking at rights, looked at ownership of land. So in the case of enclosures, owners of property could be compensated for the loss of common right, but tenants weren’t. They were left high and dry.

In many cases, enclosure acts required the owners of land to actually physically enclose the land with fences. For a poor peasant this could be an expensive proposition. He would have to build a fence. And to do that, he often had to sell some of his land to afford the cost. Once he had done the enclosure, he would discover, in many cases, that he didn’t have enough land left to survive, to live on, and he had to sell the rest and go elsewhere looking for a way to make a living.

The injustice of the enclosures was fought hard by the poor, who did things like destroying the crops of enclosers. Here’s a peasant complaining: “Should a poor man take one of your sheep from the common, his life would be forfeited by law. But should you take the common from a hundred poor men’s sheep, the law gives no redress.” The landlord to whom he is writing said, you’re being rude, I’m not going to talk to you. And presumably, he lost his common right.

This produced a huge increase in pauperism, that is destitution, extreme poverty, in England, which was one of the major social problems of the time. Harsh laws were passed trying to deal with this. Some of them made it so that a man without work could be forced, obliged to work for anybody who would take him. Some these people were imprisoned, even maimed. A second charge of vagrancy after a first offence could result in execution. Another solution was transportation. Paupers could be picked up off the streets, collected together on ships, shipped overseas to places like Australia and North America to work. The hardships were great. In some cases the majority of the people on a vessel would be dead within a few years from how difficult life was overseas. Even children would be swept off the streets and just plonked on a ship to be shipped out.

Of those who remained, they still had to find a way to make a living with their villages disintigrating with no way to grow food. Well, the Industrial Revolution was happening at this time and the factories in the cities had a great need for cheap labor. So the peasants, former peasants, were perfect for this.

What they found was a life very different from what they had before. The peasants before had grown enough food to eat and then, when they could, they’d taken it easy. In the factory, the hours were very long: 14 hour days were not untypical. Children had to work. Many of the machines were built to the height of children – because that’s who their workforces were. And the pay was very very little; it was just barely enough to survive. Here is Alexander Baring, a banker, complaining to the government about the price of bread: “the labourer has no interest in this question,” he says, “whether the price be 84 shillings or 105 shillings a quarter, he will get dry bread in the one case and dry bread in the other.” In other words, for the industrialist if the price of bread goes up he’s going to have to pay more to his workers, because his workers are being paid barely enough to eat.

The environmental effects were awful as well. The smog and the smoke was so thick that in the nineteenth century there were parliamentary hearings to find out whether children were growing up with rickets from the lack of sunlight – as indeed they were, and scientists were starting to realize. A representative of industrialists went before Parliament, in fact, in one case, and said: There’s not a problem! We’ve got the modern conveniences in our factories – we’ve got gas lighting. It can substitute for the sun, the kids will be fine. Of course they weren’t.

Not in the short run. For a generation or two there was absolute misery. In the long run, the enclosures may well have contributed to the success of the Industrial Revolution which produced much of the wealth that we enjoy today in the developed countries.

Despite the great injustices of the enclosures, we must be careful not to be too romantic about the village life that preceded them. The people in those villages had very little freedom to choose where they lived, who they lived with, or what they did in their lives. They had faced the ever-present worry about starvation. But in the nineteenth century, many thinkers looking at the horrors of industrialism of their day looked back on rural England as something better: something romantic. And this influenced our understanding today of culture, of authorship – and the idea of copyright law.