inclosure

inclosure or enclosure, in British history, the process of inclosing (with fences, ditches, hedges, or other barriers) land formerly subject to common rights. Such land included fields cultivated by the open-field or strip system, wasteland, and the common pasture land. Inclosure accompanied and accelerated the breakdown of the manorial system. In England the practice, dating from the 12th cent., received legal sanction through statutes (1235, 1285) permitting landlords to inclose wastelands on condition they left sufficient land for their free tenants. Its great development, however, came with the rapid expansion of the Flemish wool trade after the 14th cent. The monetary advantages resulting from intensive cultivation of large, fenced fields and particularly from the conversion of land into fenced sheep pastures moved landlords to make agreements with tenants or to expel them, illegally or for the slightest default, in order to inclose large areas. Under the Tudors, the hardship of dispossessed tenants, increasing vagrancy, and social unrest resulted in statutes designed to limit the practice. However, the process continued virtually unchecked, reaching its peak in the late 17th cent. In the early 18th cent. there was very little inclosure, but from 1750 to 1800 inclosure by private act of Parliament increased dramatically. The General Enclosure Act (1801) standardized much of the process, and an act of 1845 provided for the incorporation of all inclosures in a single act each year. By this time, however, the movement toward general inclosure was largely completed. Although the process remained harsh for the small farmer, the period of parliamentary inclosures paralleled a period of increasing industrial use of labor. Inclosed land did promote more efficient farming and was able to produce an ever-increasing agricultural output during the early 19th cent., when the population was growing rapidly.

See E. C. K. Gonner, Common Land and Inclosure (2d ed. 1912, repr. 1966); W. E. Tate, The English Village Community and the Enclosure Movements (1967).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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