Enclosure and the Agrarian Revolution

The Strip System

Until the eighteenth century, British society was basically rural and agrarian. Most people lived in villages or small market towns.

Strip fields, photo by Peter Barr, available through Creative CommonsThe predominant agricultural system was for each village to have three or four very large fields, which would be divided into a number of strips. Each tenant would hold one or two strips in each field. Another area of land, the common, would be set aside for common grazing. There would also be waste ground and woodland. 

Crops would be rotated. One year, a field would have wheat sown in it, the next barley, and the third it would lie fallow (unplanted) to give it recovery time. Although the system was not efficient, while the population remained small, it was sufficient.

Enclosing the Land

Enclosure entailed moving to a system of farming smaller, enclosed fields lying next to each other, which were worked by just one person as a farm or small-holding. It was a huge change legally, socially and in farming practice.

Before 1740, any enclosures were voluntary. After 1750, any enclosure needed its own separate Act of Parliament. This allowed proper legal transfer. It also allowed the lands of an entire village to be enclosed. Any opposition had to be considered, but on the whole, larger landowners profited at the expense of smaller.

The main period of enclosure was between 1750-1850, when some four thousand separate Acts were passed by Parliament, mainly affecting the Midlands, Eastern, and Southern England. Peak activity was between 1760-1780 and during the war with France 1793-1815, when agricultural prices were high and food imports difficult.

Not only were the fields enclosed, but the commons and waste land too. This meant that small tenant farmers had nowhere to graze their animals and many became farm labourers working for the bigger land-holders.

Crop Rotation

Clover field, photo by Trish Steel, available through Creative CommonsMajor scientific advances about land fertility were made in the eighteenth century. It was discovered that clover replenished the nitrogen content of the soil, and the introduction of vegetables, especially turnips, meant they and the clover could be fed to cattle, with the manure used as fertiliser. So the three year rotation became a four year one of wheat-turnips-barley-clover and the fallow year was omitted.

Other Advances

  • New machinery was invented for greater efficiency of sowing, reaping and threshing. In the 1840's, some machines became steam-driven, as can be seen in Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles
  • Railways helped to distribute food produce to the new cities
  • Selective breeding led to improved strains of cattle and sheep
  • Wetlands could be more effectively drained
  • New construction methods produced purpose-built farm buildings
  • Better fertilization meant that new vegetables like potatoes could be grown on poor soil, though the potato blight of the 1840s caused widespread famine in Ireland.

Social Changes

By 1850, Britain was no longer predominantly a rural society. The population had grown and shifted to the new towns and cities of the Industrial Revolution. Many farm workers also emigrated. Rural depopulation was caused by enclosures, loss of handloom weaving, and low wages.

Enclosures changed the face of the landscape as much as the Industrial Revolution, for example in the creation of smaller, hedge- or wall- enclosed fields.

Whilst some writers praised the Agrarian Revolution, like William Cobbett, others, like John Clare, a poor Northamptonshire poet, bemoaned the loss of common land and the freedom to walk anywhere. Wordsworth wrote a number of poems about dispossessed farmers and shepherds, such as The Last of the Flock, Michael and The Vagrant Woman, reflecting the widespread rural poverty between 1790-1830.

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