What was enclosure and why was it such a big issue in the Regency? Cara’s post on the changing face of London reminded me of the great changes that took place in agriculture in our period.
If you’ve ever taken a train ride in England you may have noticed gentle swells in the land, the rig and furrows of medieval farming. (They’re easier to spot from trains than roads, I find, because you’re higher.) Generally they’re visible on pasture land, because modern ploughing will destroy them, although they could be up to three feet high. Crops grew on the rig (ridge) and the furrow provided drainage. Each rig represented one day of ploughing. Typically the land consisted of these cultivated strips, and the unplanted areas, although technically belonging to the lord or landowner, were designated common land, for the use of tenants and workers. There’s only place left in England that still has the Open Field system, the village of Laxton in Nottinghamshire, I found a picture of the Laxton fields, but it doesn’t really look like much–flat land, no hedges–more like a prairie.
The first great wave of enclosures came in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when land was enclosed for grazing as the wool industry grew. By the Regency period, it was again big business and enclosure had a profound impact on country life. The common land was a source of fuel, grazing and foraging for animals, and even food for farmworkers. They eked out their wages, and the equally small wages women made from traditional cottage industries such as hand spinning, button- or lacemaking, and straw plaiting (for hats), with the resources of the common land. Once the land was enclosed, they lost their livelihood.
My question (grasping wildly at straws)–what books have you read that capture the feel of the English countryside? I recommend Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson, which is about country life in 1880s Oxfordshire. She mentions the old people of her village who remembered the land before enclosure.
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