Past Talks

Common Right to Private Property: how enclosure shaped the Oxfordshire landscape

Date: 18th March 2019
Speaker: Deborah Hayter

Common Right to Private Property – how enclosure shaped Oxfordshire’s landscape
Deborah Hayter 18 March 2019

Deborah Hayter posed the question of how the ownership of land in the UK has moved from a landscape without boundaries at the time of the early farming tribes to the situation today where all land is owned by someone.  The answer is enclosure in several guises.

Parliamentary enclosure dominated the period from 1750 to 1830, with remnants reaching into the twentieth century. 

Common land is defined as land subject to the rights of other people to graze animals, collect wood or cut turf for fuel etc.  ‘Waste’ is land not being ploughed for crops, such as meadows and woods.  This also includes extensive area of moors, fells and heathland. The Lakeland Fells are the largest area of common grazing land.  All common land has an owner, whether it is a local authority, the National Trust or a private individual.

Example rights of common are:

§  Pasture. Right to pasture cattle, horses, sheep or other animals on the common land. The most widespread right.

§  Piscary. Right to fish.

§  Turbary. Right to take sods of turf for fuel.

§  Common in the Soil. This is a general term used for rights to extract minerals such as sands, gravels, marl, walling stone and lime from common land.

§  Mast or pannage. Right to turn out pigs for a period in autumn to eat mast (beech mast, acorns and other nuts).

§  Estovers. Right to take sufficient wood for the commoner's house or holding; usually limited to smaller trees, bushes (such as gorse) and fallen branches.

§  Ploughbote. Timber allowed to a tenant for repair of tools.

§  Housebote. Wood allowed to a tenant for repair of the house.

§  Firebote. An allowance of fuel.

§  Common of Sere. Right to pick up dead or dry wood.

Much of the mediaeval common land of England was lost due to enclosure. Once enclosed, the uses of land listed above became restricted to the owner, and it ceased to be land for the use of commoners.

Only a small proportion of what had been common land now remains: 

1690s - 25%-30% (8-9 million acres of waste or common land)
Today – 1.3 million acres of commons in England & Wales (in 9000 separate units, including village greens)

Relicts of common rights include the right of property owners in the ‘seven towns of Otmoor’ to graze animals on the moor.  Numbers of beasts may be restricted and this is known as a ‘stint’ of animals. 

The Norman period, with its warm summers, saw more acreage under the plough and resultant ridge and furrow in the landscape.  By the 14th century, however, summers were wetter and colder, and the black death devastated communities.  There was less arable land and more pasture and, consequently, more enclosure to confine the animals.  The 16th & 17th centuries saw enclosure for deer parks (emparkment) and a general shift from arable to pasture.  At this time, there was also some enclosure by agreement between landowners to consolidate land into larger, more workable holdings.  A 1604 map of Lower Heyford shows an early example of 125 acres worked as one unit, probably by a yeoman farmer who had profited under the open-field system and who would have been a major employer. 

Parliamentary enclosure gave us a pattern of fields in sharp contrast to the existing layout.  Regular fields were drawn on a map by a surveyor and straight hedges planted across the ridge and furrow of the open fields.  Formally, tracks radiated out from the village, where farmhouses were situated, to the fields.  After enclosure, farmhouses began to be built out in the fields.  Post-enclosure roads were often straight (and are sometimes mistaken for Roman roads), of a standard width, including verges, and had hawthorn hedges planted each side.  A 1635 map of Laxton, Notts shows the land held in yardlands (strips) and is the only place in the country where this ancient system is still maintained. 

Landowners had to get a parliamentary bill before an enclosure award could be made, because it involved customary law.  The award included details of the allotments and a map.  A qualityman was appointed to ensure that the distribution of land equated to its worth.  Landowners had to pay a share of the fencing costs. This was overly burdensome for smallholders who often sold on their holdings soon after enclosure. 

The whole of Oxfordshire was enclosure, whether in the early period or under parliamentary enclosure.   

Despite the hardship caused to the poor, public opinion was in favour of enclosure as it was seen as the key to increasing agricultural output to meet the needs of a growing population.  However, enclosure was viewed by the labouring classes as a land grab whose aim was to enrich those who were already prosperous.  In many parts of Oxfordshire, as elsewhere, there were protests, the most notable in this area being the Otmoor ‘Riots’ of 1830. 

Landowners whose common rights were lost were compensated with an allocation of land.  This did not apply to farmers renting land.  Enclosure had a serious effect on the diet and welfare of the poor.  

One acre in six was taken by the church in lieu of tythes and it emerged as a major landowner.  Many Victorian rectories were built on the profits of parliamentary enclosure. 

A nursery rhyme from c. 1674 sums up the feelings of those disadvantaged under enclosure:

They hang the man and flog the woman
That steal the goose from off the common,
But let the greater villain loose
That steals the common from the goose.

The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own,
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.

                                                                Anon.