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Parliamentary Inclosure 

and Its Effect on Footpaths

 The process of land enclosure is often skated over in history books even though it played an integral part in the development of the agricultural landscape of much of lowland England.   It is very putting off in this context that sometimes the word is spelt with an ‘E’ and sometimes with an ‘I’ (as in the title of the various Acts of Parliament).   The dictionary states merely that ‘Inclosure’ with an ‘I’ is merely a variation on ‘Enclosure’ with an ‘E’, but I feel that there is a subtle difference that is very meaningful.   ‘Enclosure’ has the warm feeling of something being put carefully in a safe shelter, whereas ‘Inclosure’ has the feeling of something being placed behind a barrier that restricts access.   This is how many people viewed Parliamentary Inclosure at the time).   Be that as it may, the process of land enclosure happened in a variety of ways from as early as the 13th Century, but enclosure by Act of Parliament only occurred much later, chiefly from the mid 18th to the late 19th Century.

 In the early days, each manor had a system of land holding in return for service; each free man holding an amount of land appropriate to his status.   The most productive land was in large open fields, arable for crops or pasture for grazing animals.   To facilitate crop rotation, there were usually three or four arable fields, (one to be left fallow every year, one for grain, one for pulses, and possibly one for roots or another grain).   Each field was divided into strips.   Each free man was allocated the number of strips appropriate to his status.   These were not all together in one place, but scattered throughout each field to ensure that good soil was fairly distributed. 

Good pasture land was also in open fields.   It was not divided into strips but all free men had the right to graze there the number of animals applicable to their status (usually based on the size of their arable landholding).    Animals could also be grazed on the fallow arable field all year and on the cultivated arable fields only after the harvest; - a good way of ensuring that adequate manuring.  

The commons, waste and woodland was largely open land to which most inhabitants had rights, some very limited, but nonetheless assuring that poorer people had the chance to supplement their meagre means by such things as raising a goose or a pig on the common or collecting firewood.

 With the open fields there would have been general access to most parts of the manor, but a regular pattern of footpaths would have developed leading to places of work, the commons and woodland, the church, the mill, links with longer distance paths to neighbouring villages and towns, or the longer distance paths themselves.   The paths that existed were only those essential to the economic life of the manor, not recreational in any way.

 As the economy developed, populations grew, towns and trade flourished and a money economy developed.  This meant that any goods produced in excess of need could be sold and the proceeds used to buy goods or, perhaps more importantly, an interest in land.  As a result a range of tenancies or, even, outright ownership developed.   Growing demand for grain brought pressure for more effective production methods and the larger landholders pressed for the bringing together of holdings of scattered strips to enable more efficient cultivation of arable land.  This was achieved gradually from the late 14th Century by ‘local agreement’, though how much agreement there was is debatable as larger landholders would always have had the upper hand in any such discussions.   Sometimes the agreement was recorded in manor court records, but many seem to have proceeded without any surviving legal document.   The Black Death, which killed between 30 and 50 per cent of the population in the 1350s, dealt a temporary blow to the economy and society, but growth resumed.   In the 15th Century, increased demand for wool and meat brought further pressure for enclosure, this time of the pasture lands of the manor, to accommodate flocks of sheep and herds of cattle that could be more safely kept in fenced enclosures.   Some proposals sought legal recognition in the manor courts, assizes or Chancery and the first Private Acts of Parliament appeared in the early 1600s.   However, many enclosures still went ahead without legal documentation, presumably on the basis of ‘local agreement’. 

Though the first enclosures by an Inclosure Act of Parliament happened early in the 17th Century, they only became the order of the day from the 1750s onwards.   In the later 18th Century population growth and further demand put great pressure on the production system and there was still money to be made.   The main areas of land that had not already been enclosed were the poorer soils of the commons.   Developments in agricultural machinery now made cultivation of these areas more attractive and it is with them that the individual Inclosure Acts were mainly concerned, requiring a separate Act to set up the assessment and then approve each Award.        

There was no standard format laid down for these private acts, but Parliamentary procedure did impose a common approach to the process.    Each Act detailed the area to be considered, the Commissioners to be appointed to carry out the investigation, the way the Surveyors would work, how the award would be calculated, the assignment of highways, carriageways, bridleways, pathways, and drains.   After local investigation and consultation, the resulting Awards and Map had to be submitted to Parliament for approval.   Land awarded had to be fenced by the new owner and many small landowners could not afford to do this and so their allocations were often sold off to those who could during the resolution of the Awards.   It often took many years after the initiating Act for the Award to be approved.  

The Awards include details of the routes of proposed footpaths over the enclosed land, but rarely, if ever, any details of paths closed by the award.    Phrases similar to this one, from Whitgreave, Staffs 1773, appear in some Acts:-

     ‘On setting out and making such new roads, all other roads shall be stopped and all that former Roads and Ways, or so much of them as shall not be set out and appointed as aforesaid, shall be deemed Part of the Lands to be divided and inclosed by Virtue of this Act, and shall be allotted as Part thereof.’


Despite its legal pomposity, it seems clear that all previous Roads and Ways not noted in the Awards were removed.   However, unless there are contemporary estate, or other, maps covering the area concerned it is impossible to discover what previously existing paths were closed by any Award.  Theoretically, any closures should have been notified to the local Justices of the Peace, but there is little evidence of this happening, though many footpaths must have been closed in these enclosures.

On the other hand, the enclosure encouraged some landholders, who now held large plots away from the centres of settlement, to build their farm buildings there.   This would have entailed the provision of carriageways for access and footpaths for labourers to get to work, but this would have taken place after the Award and would not have figured in the Award and Map..


This enclosure process was simplified by the ‘Inclosure Consolidation Act of 1801’   This introduced standardised clauses for the setting up of the investigation, together with a range of provisions that should be covered in devising the Award, making life easier for Parliament at a time when many applications were being made.  


Yet another change was made by the General Inclosure Act of 1836 which allowed the initial investigation to take place without an initial Act of Parliament so long as two thirds of the landholders involved agreed, but a Bill was still required to approve any Award.   The bigger landlords could now even more easily instigate an Award.


Later the Inclosure Act of 1845 decreed that an enclosure could proceed without an Act of Parliament altogether, so long as the process was directed by Commissioners selected from the Independent National Body of Commissioners approved by Parliament.   Progress had to be detailed in an Annual General Report for the approval of the Principal Secretary of State and both houses of Parliament.   This again made things easier for the larger landholders, but, on the other hand, there was also a stipulation that due allowance must be made for ‘recreation’, which resulted in some allotment of land from the commons to Trustees to make sure that it was made available specifically for the poor.  This led to the ‘Poors’ Lands’ allotments which still exist in many communities, now usually controlled by the Parish Council.  Such allotments can be seen  at Sonning Common and Gallowstree Common, both on Horseponds Road,  and at Emmer Green on Blackhorse Lane.    Some protection was also given to village greens to make sure that they were made available for recreational purposes.

The last Inclosure process was completed in the 1880s.

 Popular reaction to the Inclosure process was mainly a strong resentment of the power of the larger landowners to do what they wanted.   A rhyme, composed by the villagers of Thornborough, Bucks in 1798, shows their concern on the prospect of a local Inclosure Act:-                                              

                         The time alas will soon approach

                         When we must all our pasture yield

                         The Wealthy on our rights encroach

                         And will enclose our common field. 


   There was particularly strong animosity at the loss of rights on the commons and riots ensued in many places.   Locally, in 1839, villagers and their supporters from around Otmoor destroyed banks and fences erected under an Inclosure Act.   They were arrested and taken to Oxford, but a friendly crowd attacked the soldiers guarding the captives and released them. 

 The various manoeuvres of the Newton family in Benson, Ewelme and Berrick between 1807 and 1830 to secure sufficient land to be able to demand an Inclosure Act resulted in attacks on their property by smaller landholders in which barns and threshing equipment were burnt.   The family ultimately achieved their aim.

However, loss of footpaths caused little comment.   The poet, John Clare of Helpstone, Northants, a poor countryman himself, wrote a poem in 1821, the year in which the commons of his parish were enclosed in which he does bewail the loss of footpaths and being forced to walk on roads instead.


There once were lanes in nature’s freedom dropt,

There once were paths that every valley wound,-

Inclosure came and every path was stopt;                                                       

Each tyrant fix’t his sign where paths were found,                                                                                                                                                                                     

To hint a trespass now who cross’d the ground:

Justice is made to speak as they command;

The high road must be each stint’d bound.

- Inclosure, thou’rt curse upon the land

And tasteless was the wretch who thy existence plann’d.


In the Award for Helpstone in 1820 three Public Footways of the breadth of three feet were specified – all with names indicating that they were existing paths. Obviously not every path was stop’t’, but we must allow him some poetic licence.  In addition, two public bridle and footways with no width were each set out running along a named Private Carriage Road and Driftway thirty feet wide, perhaps suggesting that the two footpaths had been realigned along the private carriage roads – the ’high roads’ of Clare’s lament.   In addition, six Public Carriage Roads & Highways are also detailed, and it is possible that some or all of these could have superseded previous footpaths.


In the process of the Inclosure Acts generally, many footpaths must have been closed, particularly with enclosure of common lands, but it is difficult to trace exactly how many were eliminated altogether.      Footpaths were definitely the poor relation.   Roads and Carriageways had details of construction, responsibility for repair, and responsibility for fencing specified.   Footpaths, on the other hand,  only had their width stated, and even the grass and herbage on them was decreed to be the property of the owners of land over which they passed.   No responsibility was placed upon the owners to maintain the surface of these footways.

On the positive side the Inclosure Acts did describe for the first time the precise routes of many footpaths in the country, giving them a legal status ‘at all times for ever hereafter’, in the words of many Awards,.   However, it would take until the middle of the 20th Century before work on the Definitive Footpath Map would begin to give footpaths real protection.

Roger Kendal

March 2013