Landholding in England/Chapter 20

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"In the period from 1792 to 1820, there were 2287 Enclosure Bills passed, and the number in each session was great in proportion to the dearness of corn at the time."—Letter of Mr John Walter, M.P., to the Electors of Berkshire, 1834.

ENCLOSURE went on at even a more wholesale rate in the nineteenth century. During the ten years of George IV., 192 Enclosure Acts were passed, and 72 in the seven years of William IV., enclosing respectively 250,000 and 120,000 acres. There were about 50 Enclosure Acts a year in the first forty years of the nineteenth century. Fisher says: "These lands belonged to the poor. Had they been allotted in small farms they might have been made the means of support of from 500,000 to 1,000,000 families, and thus rendered compulsory taxation under the poor law system unnecessary; but the landlords seized on them and made the tenants pay the poor rate."[1]

During the forty years of which Mr Fisher here speaks, the Corn Laws were in operation, and enclosure was keeping pace with the price of corn. The dearer the quarter of wheat, the more Enclosure Bills. The subject of the Corn Laws is too important to be treated as part of another question, especially as it cannot be treated to any good purpose except in considerable detail. I will only say that enclosure received a fatal impetus in the days when rents were fixed on the expectation of wheat at 80s. the quarter. There came a time when enclosure went mad, when even the village greens were ploughed up for corn, and when wastes were enclosed which must be tilled at a loss unless corn was at famine prices. In those days, private Bills became too slow, and the process too troublesome. It was necessary to obtain the consent of every person who had land to be enclosed, and although it was in most cases not difficult to persuade them to consent, it was not always easy to find them, or to find persons who could legally act for them. There would be persons under age, there were married women, there were lunatics. To get the legal consent of such persons was troublesome, and sometimes uncertain. So to make short work with them all, the "General Enclosure Act" of 1845 was passed, and a permanent "Enclosure Commission" (now called "the Land Commission") was appointed to submit proposals to Parliament.

Eleven years before this act was passed, Mr Pryme, a member of the first reformed Parliament, tried to get some of the newly-enclosed land allotted to the poor. On the 25th of February 1834, he moved that the Committee on every Enclosure Bill should certify in their report whether a portion of land, as near the village as might be, and not less than in the proportion of one acre to every twenty-five inhabitants, had been directed to be allotted "out of the communable lands or waste grounds." Pryme said the idea was not new. The experiment had been tried. In November 1830, when rick-burning was going on, it was found that labourers having allotments were never concerned in outrages. In a Cambridgeshire parish, half-an-acre of land was given to each labourer, on the understanding that he would be discharged if he did not pay the rent. It had been necessary to discharge only two, the poor rates had diminished, and the habits of the labourers had greatly improved. The motion was rejected by a great majority, on the plea that it would take from the landowner a portion of that which was his by right. Pryme replied, very justly, that the same might be said against taking land for a new road. If roads are a public benefit, so is the diminution of pauperism. The testimony is everywhere and at all times the same—give the poor man a bit of land, and poor rates decrease, and the character of the poor improves. But the House elected rather to build workhouses. This story is an example of the way in which in England property in land is regarded, as compared with other property. To take a few acres of land—sure to be the poorest land in the parish, and as certainly stolen from the poor at some time or other, was "taking from the owner a portion of that which was his by right"; but the alternative, of levying a heavy poor rate on the owner to pay for a workhouse was just as much a taking from him that which was his, only in the latter case he was only deprived of money. The money was to be spent in making paupers, while the allotments would have diminished the number of paupers, but so sensitive was the House about land (knowing too well by what sort of title much of it was held), that the return to the poor man of what was once his own was represented as taking from the rich man a part of that which was his by right. The rejection of Mr Pryme's proposal was a fitting prelude to the New Poor Law.

About 618,000 acres had been enclosed under the Act of 1845, when, in 1869, Mr Fawcett arrested the movement towards enclosure, and inaugurated a movement towards the preservation of open spaces for health and recreation. Next came the Commons Act of 1876, passed by a Conservative Government. Without repealing the Act of 1845, the Act of 1876 laid down new principles; and in 1889 the "Land Commissions" were merged in a "Board of Agriculture," represented in the House of Commons by a responsible Minister.[2] In 1870, the Enclosure Commissioners had estimated that more than one-third of the land enclosed since 1845 was common field or pasture (distinguished from common). The Act must therefore have caused the extinction of many small holdings. The proportion of common field enclosed under earlier Acts was probably much greater, and very little now remains; but up to 1900, in the two manors of Stratton and Grimstone, near Dorchester, the common field system survived. The two sorts of enclosure, common and common field, have the closest relation to each other. When commons are enclosed, small holdings soon disappear.

There are two theories about the origin of commons. One is that they are the survival of the division of the conquered British lands, made by the victorious Saxons. As common-right has had, from the first we know of it, every appearance of remote antiquity, I incline to this view. The other is that they are only "the waste of the Manor"—the land which the lord allowed his villeins to use "in commonage" for pasture. In either case, they evidently represent very ancient rights, for the Statutes of Merton and of Westminster the Second (1246 and 1285) both stipulate that if the lord encloses any part of the manorial common he must leave sufficient pasture for his freehold tenants. Anciently, the right of pasture on the common attached to "ancient arable land" only: and as there had to be some rule, when the population increased, the number of cattle which a tenant could depasture on the common was the number he could feed in winter on the produce of his land in summer.

By custom, swine, donkeys, goats, and geese may feed on a common, but, strictly speaking, only oxen, horses, cows, and sheep are "communable cattle"—beasts of the plough, and animals which manure the land. They are described as "levant and couchant" ("up-rising" and "down-lying"—i.e. stalled and fed). No doubt, originally, "levant and couchant" meant animals the freehold tenant kept on his land when not upon the common; but levancy and couchancy now mean the number of cattle the land is capable of feeding, whether they are there or not. Only those beasts which helped to plough it could be turned out on the waste land; only the sharers of the common fields could claim a right on the wastes. The ploughing was done by fixed rule, sometimes by large ploughs owned in common and drawn by twelve or sixteen oxen. These oxen would be afterwards turned to feed on the common, and in the winter would pick up what they could on the common fields, which they enriched in return.

I ought to say that the manuring of land by the natural means of cow dung and sheep dung has an importance which is too little realised. For many years now a great deal of manuring has been done by other means—by the importing of "guano" and other fertilising products from other countries. But in the long run this will render barren the soils from which these manures are taken; and if the process is carried on indefinitely the fertility of whole regions will be destroyed. In the course of ages, Nature will repair this by the same means which rendered those regions fertile at first; but the human race cannot afford to wait until the consequences of its own depredations shall be remedied. The substances of which I speak are not to be found everywhere. They can be exhausted.

The absolute necessity for pasturage is shown in the arrangements for the town-lands. In each vill, or township, there were usually three large open fields; in a large village there would be several sets of such fields. They were divided into small strips—originally of an acre or half-an-acre each—and were separated by narrow strips of turf, known as balks, linches, lanchards, or lanchets. These strips were often distributed by lot. Each family drew one lot at a time, until everyone had one strip, and then the drawing went on again, until all the strips were apportioned. Thus it happened that a man would have several non-contiguous strips. The fact was, that in the common field system the land was held, not by the individual, but by the community; and this is further shown by the practice of throwing the whole field open, when the crops were got in, and using it as common pasture for half the year. The period when the land is thrown open always has reference to the crop the field or meadow is devoted to during the close time. Thus at Hackney, the Downs seem to have been arable land, while the marshes were common meadows. The open time for all was from Old Lammas Day (12th August) to Old Lady Day (6th April). So the open time is from Lammas Day to the then end of the civil year. Hackney Downs and Marshes are still occupied in severalty during a part of the year. In old times, villagers who thus held land in common were called "customary tenants," and a little later, "copyholders." They paid no rent for the town-lands, but tilled the lord's own demesne in return for their holdings. It was recognised that they should not be disturbed as long as they performed their "soccage"; but they were subject to "fines" on deaths or sales, from which fines freeholders were exempt. The freeholders performed military service.[3]

As late as 1883, when Seebohm wrote on village communities, instances of the system still remained in Lincolnshire. The common fields of Barrowden and North and South Luffenham consisted of 4600 acres. In Barrowden there were 40 owners out of a population of 636. Their buildings were all congregated in the village; and the arable land was divided into 2790 strips, each averaging less than half-an-acre—some were only twelve feet wide. In North Luffenham, 1493 acres were held in 1631 strips. When the corn had been cut, the whole of the land was thrown open to be roamed over by animals as common pasturage for the parish. The "three-course husbandry" was followed—a rotation of wheat, barley and fallow for each field. In North and South Luffenham there were also 391 acres of common, "waste of a manor"; and in Barrowden there was also a tract of common land known as the Cow Pasture; and in North Luffenham there were 143 acres of common pasture. The "Cow Pasture" was held in severalty to get a crop of hay, and the cattle only went in when the hay was carried.

It is very easy to see the effect which the abolition of this system must have had on village life, and ultimately on town life. A strong inducement to remain in the village was gone, and the work on larger farms by no means absorbed all the labour formerly expended on the "open field." But parishes like Barrowden and the Luffenhams might have been found everywhere till comparatively recent times. About twenty years ago the traces of the town-lands round a Berkshire village were pointed out to me—the ridges and furrows were still quite visible. The right of common is very tenacious; it has not even been decided whether it is ever lost more than temporarily, even when the land has been built over, or turned into a reservoir, so as to be quite incapable of producing crops on which to feed cattle. But there is no such right in respect of a house which has no land attached to it, and no means of housing cattle.[4] The legal aspects of "common-right" became very practical when Sir Thomas Mary on Wilson tried to enclose Hampstead Heath, but, as the Metropolitan Board of Works bought the Heath, the suit was not fought out.

Theoretically, no enclosure can now be made without the consent of the Board of Agriculture, and the sanction of Parliament. By the Act of 1893, the lord of a manor if he enclosed could be challenged to show that no rights of common existed; or he could plead the Statutes of Merton and Westminster II., and say that he had left common land enough. It is now held that owners other than lords of manors can enclose under these statutes, but cannot enclose any land over which a right of common is enjoyed for a particular number of beasts, which beasts need not be attached to a tenement. This of course does away with the chief principal of common—land on which those dwelling near can pasture their cattle. Such commonage is "commonage in gross," and is comparatively rare. The lord must leave pasture enough for all, if they exercised their rights, even though they may not do so (this was decided in the great suit of Banstead Commons). The new principle is the reassertion of the old—enclosure must be for the benefit of the neighbourhood. But the extinction of small holdings still goes on almost unnoticed. Mr Slater gives an instance of the enclosure of two villages near Dorchester, without any parliamentary sanction, no longer ago than 1900. "It was brought about, I am told, by the present lord of the two manors, by the refusal of the copyholders, who held by a tenure of lives, to 'relife.' The consequence has been that all the copyholds, except a few cottages, have fallen into the hands of the lord of the manor; all Grimstone has been let to a single farmer, and Stratton divided into three or four farms." In these manors the common field system survived till very late, and so did the manorial system of village government.[5] All the cultivators were copyholders, holding for three lives, and the widow of a holder had the right to continue the holding during her widowhood. The copyholds were "livings," "half-livings," or less. A half-living consisted of four or five "nominal acres" in each of the common fields, with common rights upon the meadow, common fields and common down. A whole living was twice as large. The tenants elected two "viewers" and other officers, and the whole estate was a little picture of the times when landlord and tenant had equally well-defined rights and duties. Now that the tenant is only an agricultural labourer he has no right to anything but a bed in the Union in which to die.

A careful analysis of the annual volume of Agricultural Statistics for 1905 shows that in the thirty years from 1875 to 1905, not less than 49% of the area under wheat has gone out of cultivation; that for the whole of the corn crops (including wheat), 26% less land is used than was the case in 1875. Green crops are less by 15% than a generation ago. Yet the area under cultivation is increased by over 1,000,000 acres. "A glance at the table will show in what direction these acres have disappeared. They are now to be found in the permanent grass-land, which has increased by about 4,500,000 acres. In no other country do we find 60% of the cultivable laid land down as permanent pasture." It is often asserted that though we have less cereals, we have more cattle; but the increase in cattle is not at all in proportion to the increase in area. Considered from this point of view, there were 731 cattle to every 1000 acres in 1875, but in 1905, only 589. And if we take into account mountain and heathland used for grazing, there are only 337 cattle in the 1000 acres. "Since 1871 the numbers employed in agriculture have decreased by 31%." Again, it is said that our soil is too poor for corn, and our system too bad. But with the exceptions of Belgium, Holland and New Zealand, we can, even with our system, grow more bushels of wheat to the acre than any country in the world. Then it is said that we are a manufacturing people and that our population is too large; Belgium is also a manufacturing country, and has 972 persons to the 1000 acres, while we have but 558 in the United Kingdom. Yet Belgium feeds herself, and sends us over 1,000,000 cwts of wheat and flour yearly. It is obvious that the excuses put forward for the state of agriculture in this country will not hold water.[6]

  1. "History of Landholding in England," [[Author:Joseph Fisher|]], of Youghal.
  2. Board of Agriculture Act, 1889.
  3. "Two features distinguish common-field or meadow-land from private land on one hand, and common land on the other, 1. It is owned by several persons in strips or plots, unfenced from each other, but well-ascertained, and marked by small bound-stones, etc. 2. During part of the year, the whole is used in common."—Sir Robert Hunter, "Preservation of Open Spaces," etc., p. 160.
  4. Hunter.
  5. For a full and most interesting account of these village communities, probably almost the last survival of the Wessex type, see Slater's "English Peasantry," pp. 19-35.
  6. See an article by Mr R. Brown in Land Values for December 1906.