John Mitchinson considers the economic and psychic dangers of land appropriation.
The village of Laxton in Northamptonshire seems much like any small English settlement with the remains of a motte and bailey castle, a medieval church and a pub.
Look more closely and you will discover that it is also a unique ‘heritage asset’: the last village in England to be farmed under the open field system, with 14 different tenant farmers responsible for a series of strips of land maintained and governed through the ancient manorial court, known as the Court Leet. For well over a thousand years, this was how most English land was managed.
The story of how we moved from a collective form of land management to a situation where less than 1% of the population owns more than half the land is, more or less, our national story but it isn’t well known and it certainly isn’t pretty (a good place to start is Guy Shrubsole’s bestselling primer, Who Owns England?)
The enclosure of England happened in two main phases: one driven by sheep, the other by technology.
The first phase, which stretches from the 11th through to the end of the 16th Century, had been enabled by the single biggest land grab in English history, when William of Normandy claimed the entire country for the Crown and parcelled out the best estates to his cronies. Within 20 years of the invasion, 4,000 Anglo-Saxon thegns were replaced by fewer than 200 Norman barons and clergy and their ‘rights’ were imposed through violence. The infamous Harrying of the North of 1069 barely warrants a mention in most histories of England but even conservative estimates conclude that three-quarters of the population north of the Trent were either killed or displaced during William’s two year campaign.
In the south, the feudal system might have been less obviously brutal but it was never fair. As the price of wool increased in early modern Europe, English landowners made the simple calculation that their land was worth more as sheep pasture than rented farmland and proceeded to clear their lands of people. The depredations of plague in the 14th Century made that process even easier but, of the 3,000 medieval villages that we know to have disappeared, almost all vanished as the result of enclosure rather than disease.
As Sir Thomas More observed in Utopia: “Your shepe that were wont to be so meke and tame, and so smal eaters… be become so great devowerers… they consume, destroye, and devoure whole fields, howses and cities.”
The next great push to enclose land was done under the guise of ‘improvement’. Increase in crop yields through selective breeding, the use of fertiliser and the development of agricultural machinery meant higher profits and lower wage bills for landowners. And the violent removal of the rural poor was now done at the behest of Parliament. Between 1604 and 1914, some 6.8 million acres of common land – a fifth of all England – was enclosed by more than 5,000 separate Acts of Parliament. As George Orwell wrote in 1944: “The land-grabbers did not even have the excuse of being foreign conquerors; they were quite frankly taking the heritage of their own countrymen, upon no sort of pretext except that they had the power to do so.”
One corollary of this was a massive fall in the rural population. From 1801 to 1901, people living in rural areas of England and Wales crashed from 65% of the population to 23% (in France 59% of the population were still rural in 1901). The so-called Agricultural Revolution, which was the death knell of the English peasant, created an impoverished and itinerant workforce ripe for exploitation in the urban factories of the Industrial Revolution.
In his 2009 article, ‘A Short History of Enclosure in Britain’, the farmer and activist Simon Fairlie pointed out that the history of the enclosure of land in England “provides a template for understanding the enclosure of other common resources, ranging from the atmosphere and the oceans to pollution sinks and intellectual property”. This idea has been taken up by writers such as Shoshana Zuboff and Mark Andrejevic in the idea of “digital enclosure”, whereby tech companies like Google, Microsoft and Facebook that use interactive technology to track user behaviour are creating “digital enclosures” by claiming ownership over the information generated by their users.
We need to be alert to these thefts as there may be far more than economics at stake. In the 1820s, the great poet of rural England, John Clare, was driven to madness by the psychic damage that enclosure had caused: Inclosure came and trampled on the grave / Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave…/ And birds and trees and flowers without a name / All sighed when lawless law’s enclosure came.
John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher and co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was one of the founders of BBC’s QI.