Common Theft

Issue section: 

Review of 'The Village Labourer', JL Hammond and Barbara Hammond, Nonesuch £18

The Village Labourer, originally written in 1911, is about the dispossession and proletarianisation of the English peasantry. This process, called enclosure, is taught in schools as a story about the way agriculture was made more efficient. I was taught at school that, without enclosure, Malthus's prediction that England would run out of food for its growing population would have been realised. England's massive population growth in the 18th and 19th centuries, coupled with the pressure placed on the country's economic resources by the Napoleonic Wars resulted, so I was taught, in the rationalisation of agricultural production by means of the enclosures.

This version of history, however, misses out entirely the effects on the poor of this process, and this book tells that story. It uses examples of actual enclosures of villages to demonstrate the social effects of the process. It would be a useful read for anyone studying the subject.

Prior to enclosure, however poor they were, English peasants had a degree of economic independence. Most of them owned a few strips of land, which they grew food on. More importantly, all villagers, including even squatters, had customary rights to the common land, which they could graze animals on, and cut turf and wood for fuel. These rights to the commons allowed the poor, who often had seasonal and irregular work, to survive and feed their families.

Enclosure took away these rights. The wealthy landowners, who owned most of the land in a village, would petition the government for an Enclosure Act. A notice had to be pinned on the church doors of all of the parishes affected by the enclosure petition. This book tells the story of the enclosure of Otmoor in Oxfordshire, where popular opposition to the enclosure was so great that demonstrations outside the churches prevented the landowners' men from affixing the notices to the church doors. The landowners' friends in parliament still allowed the enclosure to take place.

After parliament had granted an Enclosure Act, the rich man or men of the village would then appoint the commissioner, the official responsible for overseeing the enclosure, allocating parcels of land and dealing with disputes. Prior to enclosure all villagers held numerous strips of land scattered across the fields of the village. These strips were redistributed every year - if you got infertile land one year you might receive better land the following year. Enclosure consolidated every man's strips into plots of land that would not be redistributed, so each villager would be stuck with what was allocated to him.

Predictably, the commissioners, appointed by the rich landowners, gave them the best land, often leaving the poor with useless, infertile plots. Plots were also often allocated to the owners of cottages rather than their tenants, leaving the poor with nothing and their landlords with yet more land. If this were not bad enough, the costs of enclosure, including the costs of presenting the bill to parliament and fencing all the plots of land (estimated by the authors at up to £5 per acre of land enclosed) would be shared between all the villagers. These costs were ruinous for the poor, who were forced to sell their land to the rich at whatever price was offered.

The results of enclosure are well summed up in this book by the quote from a villager from Maulden, Bedfordshire, bemoaning the results of enclosure: 'I kept four cows before the village was enclosed, and now I don't keep so much as a goose - and you ask me what I lose by it!'

Enclosure was the robbery of the peasantry by the landowning class. Although previously suffering massive poverty, the peasantry had been economically independent. Enclosure cast them into the position of landless labourers, working for whatever wage the big landowners would pay. Others migrated to the growing cities to be worked to death in the factories of the industrial revolution.

Opposition to enclosure by those who lost out from it is hardly touched on in the GCSE curriculum, but 15 years after the enclosure of Otmoor the peasantry was still in rebellion and an appeal from the Oxford magistrates to the government, asking for troops to quell the rebellion, warned, 'Any force which government may send should not remain for a length of time together, but that to avoid the possibility of an undue connexion between the people and the military, a succession of troops should be observed.'

This book demonstrates that one of the preconditions for Britain becoming the 'workshop of the world' was the dispossession of the poor, and the crushing of their opposition. Enclosure turned a once independent peasantry into an unfree workforce in thrall to those who had seized hold by robbery of the means of production in the fields and in the towns.