THE ENCLOSURE ACTS
Bernard O'Connor 2000
After the Napoleonic wars at the beginning of the 18th century there was a period of peace and economic growth. The technological improvements of the Industrial Revolution had created enormous job opportunities in the industrial towns. There was a rise in population, notably in the industrial towns and cities which led to increased demand for food. Few town houses had gardens for growing crops or keeping animals. People also did not have the time. As a result there was a huge market for farmers to supply.
This partly explained the many developments during the Agricultural Revolution. Landowners, agriculturalists and farmers wanted to increase yields. How did they get to know about the new ideas to improve farming like Jethro Tull’s Seed Drill, using a steam engine to pull a plough, operate a pump, a grain elevator and threshing machine? They were able to read the details published in an increasing number of agricultural magazines and journals. Other revolutionary ideas included the Duke of Norfolk’s idea of cross breeding animals to increase meat, milk and wool yields and “Turnip” Townsends four-course crop rotation method. This involved making use of all the land in the parish that could be farmed. The old three-field system involved changing the use of the fields from wheat to oats or vegetables each year, leaving one large field out of cultivation. This rested the soil so that nutrients were allowed to build up. These were added by letting cattle, sheep and goats graze on it and their droppings helped improve the soil when it was cropped the following year.
These were open fields, There were few fences, hedges or walls separating property. The ridges and furrows that dominated medieval farms were found on the ridge top and on the clay vale. However, tenants who did not look after their plots were not popular when weeds spread onto adjoining plots. The problem of stray animals grazing someone else’s crops caused problems too.
One development that would benefit farmers in this area was the deep plough. This was a large, cast-iron plough share that could be used to break up the iron pan. This pan was a layer of iron-rich sand found only a few feet below the surface of sandy soils. Rainwater dissolved the iron in the sand and it crystallised along the water table. The pan reduced drainage of the soil and a deep plough could break it up.
In order to take advantage of these developments there had to be a revolution in farming. Instead of having three large fields divided into numerous long strips which were rented out by the Lord of the Manor, some reorganisation was needed. An Act of Parliament was needed to bring about these changes. As many of the local landowners were also members of parliament it was not too difficult to get a law passed. Everton and Tetworth were considered as two townships when the 1802 Inclosure Act was passed and have since been considered two separate civil parishes. (Local and Peers Act 42 Geo. III, cap. 44; Carlisle, Topog. Dict. 1808, Lewis, Topog. Dict. 1849’; VCH Beds, ii. p.226)
“When the Act for settling and describing the divisions of counties declared that the isolated part of the parish of Everton, situated between Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire and belonging to Huntingdonshire, was annexed to Huntingdonshire it created no new position.”
(VCH, Hunts. p. 370)
Commissioners were brought in to map the whole parish and record on it who owned or rented every strip of land, every piece of woodland, every pond. The village common was included as well as the woods. Until this period everyone in the parish could graze animals on the common, could gather nuts, fruit and firewood from the woods and the poorest people could build a hut in which they lived without paying rent.
The local Enclosure Acts allowed the major landowners in the area to reorganise their widely separated landholdings. This produced larger estates for the likes of Samuel Whitbread, the Lord of Potton Manor, the Burgoyne family of Sutton, the Peel family of Sandy, the Astells of Woodbury Hall and the Pyms of Hazells Hall.
The commissioners were often “entertained” at the manor house at the lord’s expense. Once the mapping had been done each member of the parish was allocated plots of land. The more important you were the more plots you received. The Lord of the manor got the first choice, then the local yeomen, vicar and so on down the social order. As most people did not own land they were allocated plots which they could rent. Human nature being what it is the Lord of the manor chose the most fertile, best drained land closest to his house. By the time the ordinary villagers had their choice there was not much left. It was often the poorest soil, land liable to flood and plots furthest away. As one of the requirement of the Act was the new plots to be enclosed, hedges were planted, fences constructed and stone walls built. The poorer members of the village could not afford this and ended up selling their plot to the adjacent landowner. Along with losing the common and grazing rights, they also were not allowed to trespass in the woods. Man traps were introduced as deterrents. Hanging and even deportation for sheep stealing was common!
Landowners could now introduce the new technology, many of which required less labour. As a result many agricultural labourers were laid off. They lost not only their regular source of employment but also their accommodation. Being an estate village many of the houses were built by the landowners and rented out to their tenants. They were tied cottages. If you were given the sack you were evicted from your cottage. So began an out-migration of rural poor. There were jobs available in the factories and workshops of industrial towns and cities as well as domestic work for the growing number of middle class families.
Much of the sandy wasteland of Everton, Sandy and Gamlingay Heath was brought under cultivation. Trees were cut down and roots dug out. The iron pan was broken up which improved drainage on the heathlands and allowed the expansion of market gardening. The introduction of mass-produced drainage pipes in the second quarter of the 19th century enabled the lowering of the water table on the clay lands. Steam-driven pumps, new agricultural machinery, Jethro Tull’s seed drill and improved crop and animal breeds all helped increase food production. Improved transport with the development of the steam engine also allowed goods to reach the markets more quickly and cheaply. As a result farmers’ profits were increasing. They could afford to experiment with the new manures that were being marketed across the country.
There were experiments to increase the fertility of the soil. These included the spreading of animal manure, seaweed, lime, shells, rags, soot, blood, fish bones and crushed animal bones onto the soil. By the 1860s it led to the exploitation of the local fossil bed. See Everton’s coprolite industry. Before that there was an unending demand for animal manure. When the railway came in 1851 the new steam trains carried truckloads of Bedfordshire vegetables to the London markets and returned each day laden with horse manure. Carriers made good business carrying cartloads of manure from station yards to the surrounding farms.