Enclosure Acts

An understanding of the Enclosure Acts is necessary to place aspects of the Industrial Revolution in their proper context. The Industrial Revolution is often accused of driving poor laborers en masse out of the countryside and into urban factories, where they competed for a pittance in wages and lived in execrable circumstances.

But the opportunity that a factory job represented could only have drawn workers if it offered a better situation than what they were leaving. If laborers were driven to the cities, then some other factor(s) must have been at work.

The Enclosure Acts were one factor. These were a series of Parliamentary Acts, the majority of which were passed between 1750 and 1860; through the Acts, open fields and “wastes” were closed to use by the peasantry. Open fields were large agricultural areas to which a village population had certain rights of access and which they tended to divide into narrow strips for cultivation. The wastes were unproductive areas — for example, fens, marshes, rocky land, or moors — to which the peasantry had traditional and collective rights of access in order to pasture animals, harvest meadow grass, fish, collect firewood, or otherwise benefit. Rural laborers who lived on the margin depended on open fields and the wastes to fend off starvation.

“Enclosure” refers to the consolidation of land, usually for the stated purpose of making it more productive. The British Enclosure Acts removed the prior rights of local people to rural land they had often used for generations. As compensation, the displaced people were commonly offered alternative land of smaller scope and inferior quality, sometimes with no access to water or wood. The lands seized by the acts were then consolidated into individual and privately owned farms, with large, politically connected farmers receiving the best land. Often, small landowners could not afford the legal and other associated costs of enclosure and so were forced out.An understanding of the Enclosure Acts is necessary to place aspects of the Industrial Revolution in their proper context. The Industrial Revolution is often accused of driving poor laborers en masse out of the countryside and into urban factories, where they competed for a pittance in wages and lived in execrable circumstances.

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