UK Land Rights & Ownership – Bettany Hughes – Breaking the Seal – Enclosures (2000)

So much of Medieval Suffolk was owned by the church and, as I drove through it with Phillip Schofield, I began to realise just how much the ownership and use of our land has changed since the Middle Ages. Back then, there was an open field system by which the common people rented strips from the lord and farmed them in unfenced fields. It was an arrangement that lasted for centuries.

I suppose the first big sign of change in ownership came in 1536 when Henry VIII started to close monasteries. He took away their lands and the abbeys fell into ruins. like this one at Bury. If you look at the documents of that time, you can see that, whilst existing landowners increased their stake, there were also new types of land owner such as merchants and lawyers.

But the biggest change was undoubtedly enclosure. Ever since the Middle Ages, a gradual process of fencing off and hedging fields had been underway. It happened more in certain parts of the country than others, but by the mid 1700s enclosure was stepping up a gear.

Dr Brian Short
The impact on the landscape was enormous. The Midlands in particular were severely affected by enclosure. It was the great landscape reshaper. Many poor and small farmers lost out at that time – they were often given allotments which were uneconomic, and they sold them out and became a kind of landed proletariat who, thereafter, had to sell their own labour for money, rather than having land to live off. So it affected enormously both the landscape and society at the time.

Enclosure commissioners measuring out Henlow, at the height of the enclosures in the eighteenth century. From Tate, English Village and Enclosure movements

I hear Aylesbury has some pretty good enclosure records, showing just how things changed. Enclosure replaced the strip field system. But what happened when the strips disappeared? Leigh Shaw-Taylor is the man with the answers.

This is drawn up in 1799, a map of Weston Turville just south of Aylesbury. Prior to the enclosure, there were three very large open fields. One here, one here and one here, and a small one down here.

So big field but still with the tiny strips.

That’s right. So, as a result of enclosure, the Commissioners, having decided who had what land and what rights, then reallocated people, consolidated lots of land. Elizabeth Saunders for instance gets this big rectangular piece of land here, the Mercer Company get this block here, and here, and another piece here – they’re big land owners, Marquis of Buckingham this one here.

The perceived wisdom is that enclosure took away the farming rights of the peasantry. This isn’t strictly true. By the 1750s enclosure was regulated by government. You needed an Act of Parliament and about 4,000 such acts were passed by 1810.

As part of the process, a committee would visit your village to establish who had common right dwellings. The cottages owned or rented, with rights to use the land. Leigh followed up a number of these. Robert Fitkin owned one cottage. His tenant, James Burnham was a labourer and he would have lost his rights to land with enclosure. But interestingly, he was untypical. Only 6 of this village’s 50 labourers had common land rights. And what you don’t have to begin with, you can’t lose.

And so who are the winners, I mean who’s really benefiting from this situation?

Definitely the big landlords, who get higher rents, rents can double at enclosure, and probably farmers, the more substantial farmers.

And can you still see the physical effects of this in Weston Turville today?

Very much so. The landscape of Weston Turville is very much the one created by the Georgian enclosure.

The Land Is Ours – UK land rights teach-ins

The Land is a free gift to mankind and there is an acre of Britain for every single person who lives here so why should anybody pay rent, a mortgage or be homeless?

Land reform

The Diggers, The Chartists, The Crofters, The Irish Land League and today’s criminalized squatters have been spoiling for a fight about the iniquity of eviction, landlessness and destitution for hundreds of years. Britain has a land-mass of around 65 million acres and around 65 million people, that’s roughly a football pitch per person, or around three acres for the average family.
Britain was a free gift to its people, just as the Earth was to mankind. Back in medieval England most land was farmed collectively, few actually owned it but did have the right to a cottage, to stay, and to pass those rights down the generations. But the landowners’ parliament instituted 17th- and 18th-century land privatization, enclosure, evicting hundreds of thousands. A vast factory workforce of destitute landless citizens was created, ripe for the dark satanic mills of England’s industrial revolution.
Across the Irish Sea one million died between 1847 and 1851 in the Irish Famines and a further million were forced to emigrate. So in the late 1800s, with fire in their bellies, the Irish led the way in taking back the land, setting a precedent for today’ solution.
Exploiting the balance of power in London, four laws were forced through delivering interest-free government loans. Penniless Irish tenants could now buy land and build new homes, repayments being far less than those crippling rents. It was one of history’s most successful land reform programs to date.
Figures are hard to come by today but 40,000 ‘land millionaires’, 0.05 percent of the population, now own around half of Britain, most of which they have never set foot on. A further 30 percent is owned by 1 percent of the population, and the remaining 20 percent is owned by banks, corporations and other institutions. Though many have ‘bought their own home’, actually the bank owns it until they pay off their mortgage.
This leaves around 50 percent of the population, or 30 million people, effectively landless, either with a big mortgage, renting or homeless. Britain today too carries the shame of roughly 200,000 homeless people, either overcrowded, sleeping on friends’ floors or sofas, squatting or sleeping on the streets.

A Short History of Enclosure in Britain

Over the course of a few hundred years, much of Britain’s land has been privatized — that is to say taken out of some form of collective ownership and management and handed over to individuals. Currently, in our “property-owning democracy”, nearly half the country is owned by 40,000 land millionaires, or 0.06 per cent of the population,1 while most of the rest of us spend half our working lives paying off the debt on a patch of land barely large enough to accommodate a dwelling and a washing line.

The great property swindle

The myth spun about Britain is that land is scarce. It is not — landowners are paid to keep it off the market
Modern British history, excluding world wars and the loss of empire, is a record of two countervailing changes, one partly understood, one not understood at all. The partly understood change is the urbanisation of society to the point where 90 per cent of us in the United Kingdom live in urban areas. Hidden inside that transformation is the shift from a society in which, less than a century and a half ago, all land was owned by 4.5 per cent of the population and the rest owned nothing at all. Now, 70 per cent of the population has a stake in land, and collectively owns most of the 5 per cent of the UK that is urban. But this is a mere three million out of 60 million acres.
Through this transformation, the heirs to the disenfranchised of the Victorian era have inverted the relationship between the landed and the landless. This has happened even while huge changes have occurred in the 42 million acres of rural countryside. These account for 70 per cent of the home islands and are the agricultural plot. From being virtually the sole payers of such tax as was levied in 1873 (at fourpence in the 240p pound), the owners of Britain’s agricultural plot are now the beneficiaries of an annual subsidy that may run as high as £23,000 each, totalling between £3.5bn and £5bn a year. Urban dwellers, on the other hand, pay about £35bn in land-related taxes. Rural landowners receive a handout of roughly £83 per acre, while urban dwellers pay about £18,000 for each acre they hold, an average of £1,800 per dwelling, the average dwelling standing on one-tenth of an acre.