As the population of England grew in the early modern period and towns and cities demanded more food, improved equipment and methods. We have noted that improved irrigation, crop rotation, equipment and fertilisers had made farming more efficient: large fields were more productive than the strip of land under open field system and successful farmers were keen to enlarge their holdings by ‘persuading’ their less successful neighbours to move to other locations.
The process of enclosure had started in the Middle Ages, and most had been by agreement, or arm-twisting, between tenants. Where landlords, lay or monastic, owned the entire manor, the eviction of the open-field farmers was easy enough. At the end of the farming year, after the corn harvest, they were ordered to go; their farmsteads were demolished and the multitudinous strips of open fields were laid down to grass. The two or three arable fields were replaced by a number of large pastures, enclosed by a hawthorn hedge and a ditch. Upwards of twenty per cent of land in England was enclosed during the seventeenth century, though little is recorded; the only surviving formal contract for enclosure in East Meon was drawn up in 1661, of land ‘within the tything of Oxenbourne. In the first extract, nine copyholders promise to pay the lord of the manor for permission to enclose common lands and convert them into separate ownerships without any loss in rents or dues to the lord. In the first extract, nine copyholders promise to pay the lord of the manor for permission to enclose common lands and convert them into separate ownerships without any loss in rents or dues to the lord.
The dispossessed were usually assigned lesser lands and perhaps a cottage. At the same time, improved methods of farming required fewer people to do the work; those who were moved to less productive land often failed to support themselves and their families and became agricultural labourers – today, they would be described as zero-hours workers, with no guarantee of employment. Similarly, when living-in servants got married and were obliged to move out of the farm household, they too became labourers. Farm work in the parish was seasonal, and it was virtually impossible to earn enough across the year to support a family; many agricultural labourers fell into poverty, depending on the parish. Some took to the road in the hope of finding work in other villages, and in doing so exposed themselves to serious insecurity.
The farm labourer/poet John Clare wrote about the effects of Enclosure in his Northamptonshire village: “To a fallen elm”:
Inclosure came, and every path was stopt;
Each tyrant fixed his signs where paths were found.
To hint a trespass now who crossed the ground
Justice is made to speak as they command.
The high road now must be each stinted bound:
– Inclosure, thou’rt a curse upon the land
And tasteless was the wretch who thy existence planned.
Between 1690 and 1790, land values doubled. It has been estimated that in 1690 the gentry and aristocracy between them owned between sixty and seventy per cent of land in England. One hundred years later this had risen to between seventy and seventy-five percent.