What we owe to the Enclosures

By Michael Blakstad

Enclosure contract 1661, X’s mark the consent of illiterate farmers.

Meon Matters, August 1915

Enclosures of farmland have had a bad press. Particularly in the 19thcentury, 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. The firstwas 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, awarding land at Oxenbourne and Ramsdean Downs, mostly to two wealthy landowners, John Bonham Carter and Sir William Jolliffe. Smaller farmers were given 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 find work where they could.  A lucky few ‘farm servants’, usually young men and women, 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. By 1871, 91% of rural workers in the South East were in this category, struggling to survive.

1920s photograph of Barnards Cottages, with four doors where there are now two.

Early East Meon censuses show many agricultural labourers 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’.

The Enclosures were, however, probably inevitable and only part of the cause of rampant rural poverty of the Victorian age. The population of England doubled between 1801 and 1851, and again by 1911. The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 had removed the guaranteed high prices which had been 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 on the land. 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.

The Enclosures were part of the inevitable process whereby farming in Britain became more efficient, which was necessary for its survival; larger farms were more productive and employed fewer workers. Many unemployed agricultural labourers migrated to the cities or to the colonies. In 1801, 66% of the population had been rural, by 1851 this was reduced to 46%, and by 1911, 21%.

Sunset over South Down

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 to research Farming in the Meon Valley from before the Romans until the 20thcentury. If you would be interested in researching any period or aspect of our agricultural heritage, please do contact michaelblakstad@gmail.com.