Enclosures in the Meon Valley
By Michael Blakstad
Enclosures of farmland have had a bad press. Particularly in the 19th century, a rash of Acts of Parliament enabled landowners to enclose land by fencing in their fields, which up till then had been open spaces divided into strips of land mostly cultivated by tenant farmers.
Three official Enclosures are recorded in the parish of East Meon, enclosing land at Oxenbourne and Ramsdean Downs. The first was a formal Agreement in 1661; it is notable that most of the signatories were illiterate and marked their consent by making crosses.
The later Enclosures were by Acts of Parliament in 1845 and 1861. The 1845 Act enclosed 612 acres, awarding 135 to a prominent local landowner, John Bonham Carter: a further 158 were distributed among members of the Weeks family and the rest divided into smaller portions. The 1861 Enclosure awarded a further 122 acres, 38 to Bonham Carter and 20 acres to another wealthy landowner, Sir William Jolliffe. In other words, the bulk of the farmland was awarded to wealthy landowners, while small farmers were confined to reduced holdings, often of poor land, or forced to give up farming altogether.
This Victorian land grab forced many farm workers to seek new places to live and to look for work where they could find it. A lucky few ‘farm servants’, usually young men and women, still lived on the farms where they worked while ‘agricultural labourers’ were forced to find employment where they could, usually only at harvest and sowing times. Many were migrant, moving from parish to parish in search of work. By 1871, 91% of rural workers in the South East were in this category, struggling to survive.
Early East Meon censuses show how many agricultural labourers were crowded into inadequate accommodation. What are now two cottages at Barnards, for example, were subdivided into four households; the 1861 census shows one of these, No 8, High Street, housing the Sloper family of 12, four of them (including a 19-year-old girl, Jane) listed as ‘agricultural labourers’.
It can, however, be argued that Enclosures were inevitable and contributed relatively little to the rampant rural poverty which pervaded Hampshire in the Victorian age. Firstly, the population of England was growing astronomically – it doubled between 1801 and 1851, and again by 1911. Secondly, British farming was under intense pressure to become more efficient. The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 had removed the guaranteed high prices designed to protect British produce: grain imported from the Continent once again undercut local prices. New technology, including steam-powered machinery, and new farming techniques, including improved fertilisers and better irrigation, reduced the numbers of workers needed. Steam-powered ships carried cheap food from North America. In the South East of England, where farms mainly cultivated cereal crops, successive years of disastrous weather in the 1870s ruined crops.
Farming in Britain had to become more efficient to survive, and larger farms were more productive and employed fewer workers. Many migrated either to the cities, or to the colonies. Of the farm workers who remained, most had to take second jobs. In 1801, 66% of the population had been rural, by 1851 this was reduced to 46%, and by 1911, 21%.
As a footnote, the beauty of the Meon Valley owes a great deal to the Enclosures. Land allotted by Acts of Parliament was divided into regular field patterns and. today’s landscape, defined by fences, walls and hedges, was the result. Perhaps we should not be too hard on the Enclosures.
East Meon History Group plans in 2015/2017 to conduct research into farming in the Meon Valley from before the Romans until the 20th century. If you would be interested in researching any period or aspect of our agricultural heritage, and if you have any records of our farms, please do contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many details of the East Meon Enclosure documents held in the Hampshire Records Office are available in the digital archive, click here.