Enclosure. A necessary evil, but at such cost

A Just and Upright Man cover R J Lynch updated June 2014

The visible crises in A Just and Upright Man are the murder of Reuben Cooper and James Blakiston’s search for the killer, and Blakiston’s equally urgent wish to deny—to himself as much as to anyone else—that he is in love with Kate Greener. Those are the matters the book is concerned with. No-one, though, can get away from the troubles in the wider world that surrounds them and the threat of enclosure weighs on Blakiston and everyone else in Ryton.

We look back now on the enclosures in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as things from which we benefited. At the most, necessary evils. In Poor Law, the second book in the series, Blakiston himself ponders on this: Times were hard for those without land, and getting harder. He was confident in what he was doing; future generations would be grateful for the larger farms, the transfer of strips of land in common ownership to more effective units, the modern farming methods that meant fewer people could produce bigger crops. Better agriculture would make the country richer, and so would the mining and manufacturing industries that were growing as men and women no longer needed on the land expanded the workforce in the towns and pit villages. Still, many of the people who had worked the land were paying a terrible price now for the benefits others would have in the future. The Rector would say that all was ordered for the best in God’s world, and the poor would have their reward in the life to come. Walter Maughan on the other hand would say that the poor were being punished by God for sins known to Him though invisible to us. But these comforts were not available to Blakiston.

Blakiston was a Sussex man before family ruin forced him to the northeast of England, and enclosure came to Sussex decades before it reached Durham. When his employer, Lord Ravenshead, asks what he knows of enclosure, Blakiston says,

‘My Lord, in Sussex all the land is enclosed. There are no common lands left.’
‘And have the enclosures been successful?’
‘For the landowners and the larger farmers, My Lord, yes. For the ordinary people, enclosure has been disastrous. They have been ruined. Cast out to make their living where and how they might.’

Tom Laws, a labourer whose marriage to Lizzie Greener brought him tenancy of a farm, knows nothing of this. We can feel his shock in this passage as he learns what the gentry can do to a hard working labourer:

‘We are poor men, master. The wife and me have three bairns still at home. You know how it is with us, for you were one of us not so long ago. Meal is dear and meat near impossible. Without the chickens and the pig and potatoes from the garden, and milk from the cow, we would starve. Now I must kill the cow because their lordships will take the common I feed it on. That land belonged to all of us and soon it will be theirs alone.’
‘It is hard, I grant. You will still have the chickens and the pig and the garden.’
‘Aye,’ said Zeke. ‘But for how long?’
‘I don’t understand.’ ‘What do you know of enclosures?’ asked John.
‘Nothing. I was never part of one. And neither were you.’
‘No. But my cousin in Barton, James Savile, he was in one. After the Act was passed the commissioners came to divvy up the land. James was to get a little piece to make up for everything they took away from him. So he didn’t have his grazing or his turbary but he would have some land. What they call his allotment. Not the best land, mind, the squire would get that, but land.’
‘Yes. That’s fair.’
‘Of course it is. But they had to pay for the fencing, see, man.’
‘Well, if you’ve got some land of your own, of course you have to fence it. You’ll be feeding someone else’s pig instead of your own, else.’
‘No, man. James didn’t just have to pay for his own little bit fence. He had to pay for the squire’s and the rector’s an’ all.’
‘No, John. No, that can’t be right.’
‘Right? We’re not talking about right, man. We’re talking about what’s in the Act, and who wrote the Act, and that wasn’t the cottagers and the squatters. It’s the squire and the rector and their pals in Parliament who wrote the Act. And that’s what it said. The squire and the rector and all them that were getting big bits of land out of it, they didn’t have to pay one penny for fencing. But all the poor little buggers that were getting enough land to raise a pig and grow cabbages, they’re the ones who had to pay for all the fencing. Their own and everybody else’s.’
‘I don’t believe it.’
‘You can believe it or not, man. It’s true. And that’s what’ll happen here an’ all. Mebbes Lord Ravenshead might be ready to pay for his own fences but yon greedy bugger in Durham Cathedral, he’ll not, the miserable Welshman that he is. And as for the Blacketts, who believe we are nothing…we’ll get no mercy there.’
‘So what happened to your cousin James?’
‘Exactly what they meant to happen when they wrote their bliddy Act. “Oh, James, man, can you not pay your bit fence money? Well, divven’t ye worry, man. We’ll help you out. We’ll buy your bit land off you for five pound and you can have yourself a nice drink and we’ll have all the land for ever. And you can forget about your bliddy pig.” And that’s what’ll happen to me and me pig and me cabbages and me chickens.’
‘I knew nothing of this,’ stammered Tom.
‘You know it now,’ said John Robinson. ‘We were wrong to talk behind your back. You are not our enemy.’
‘Mebbe not,’ said Zeke. ‘But I warn you, Tom Laws. Watch out for Isaac Henderson.’
‘Zeke’s right,’ said John. ‘Isaac hates you. If he can bring you down, he will.’ He stepped closer to Tom. ‘You are a fool to let him take your rabbits. It brings him onto your farm. He has big eyes, that one. He sees things he should not.’

Did I make that up? I did not. What John Robinson describes is exactly what some rapacious landlords did to swindle their labouring men out of the small pieces of land—the “allotments”—that the law said they should have. When I learned that while researching A Just and Upright Man I was determined to get it into the book and expose this awful piece of history to a wider view.

In Poor Law there is another insight into the effects of enclosure when Tom Laws, newly elected against his will as one of the Overseers of the Poor, tells Blakiston this:

It is not farmers who say that an old widow-woman must be removed to her place of settlement, a place she may not have seen since she came here as a young bride. It was not farmers who built the Woodside Poor House two year ago and said the poor must enter it or starve. But it is farmers who are made Overseers of the Poor and have to carry these things out on behalf of their betters, and farmers who get the blame. When a labourer has no work and must go to the mines or see his children sent as apprentices to some place from which they will likely never return, it is a farmer who has to tell him. Our people go off to the towns and the pit villages and they do not like it and they blame us.’
‘I am sorry.’
‘And when enclosure comes…’
‘…and it will come, as it has come everywhere…’
‘…people will see some farmers with big farms and many small men driven from the land. It will be the Bishop of Durham’s doing, and the Blacketts’ doing, and it is they who make money from enclosures but it is us the people see and us they blame. People have long memories. They remember not only their own grievances but those of their fathers and their grandfathers.’

Economic historians will tell you that enclosure paved the way for the Industrial Revolution, for two hundred years of world domination by the Royal Navy and for the birth of the United States of America as a bastion of freedom and I don’t doubt that all of that is true—but the price paid by the poor was a dreadful one.

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