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The Enclosure Acts and the Industrial Revolution


They hang the man, and flog the woman,
That steals the goose from off the common;
But let the greater villain loose,
That steals the common from the goose.

English folk poem

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.

In his pivotal essay “English Enclosures and Soviet Collectivization: Two Instances of an Anti-Peasant Mode of Development,” libertarian historian Joseph R. Stromberg observes,

The political dominance of large landowners determined the course of enclosure….[I]t was their power in Parliament and as local Justices of the Peace that enabled them to redistribute the land in their own favor.

A typical round of enclosure began when several, or even a single, prominent landholder initiated it … by petition to Parliament.… [T]he commissioners were invariably of the same class and outlook as the major landholders who had petitioned in the first place, [so] it was not surprising that the great landholders awarded themselves the best land and the most of it, thereby making England a classic land of great, well-kept estates with a small marginal peasantry and a large class of rural wage labourers.

In turn, this led to new practices of agriculture, such as crop rotation, and resulted in a dramatic increase in productivity over time. (Of course, this may have happened naturally, with common users cooperating for greater productivity.) Whatever the long term effect, the immediate one was to advantage those fortunate enough to become individual owners and disadvantage peasants. The immediate effect was to devastate the peasant class.

When access was systematically denied, ultimately the peasantry was left with three basic alternatives: to work in a serf-like manner as tenant farmers for large landowners; to emigrate to the New World; or, ultimately, to pour into already-crowded cities, where they pushed down each others’ wages by competing for a limited number of jobs.

History of the Enclosure Acts

The British enclosure question is extremely complex, varying from region to region and extending over centuries. Enclosure reaches back to the 12th century but peaked from approximately 1750 to 1860, a time period that coincides with the emergence and rise of the Industrial Revolution.

Economic historian Sudha Shenoy states that, “Between 1730 and 1839, 4,041 enclosure bills passed, 581 faced counter-petitions, and 872 others also failed.” How far-reaching were those remaining thousands of successful acts? According to a study by J.M. Neeson, Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700–1820 (winner of the 1993 Whitfield Prize of the Royal Historical Society) enclosures occurring between 1750 and 1820 dispossessed former occupiers from some 30 percent of the agricultural land of England.

Perhaps the most significant measure was the General Enclosure Act of 1801 (also called the Enclosure Consolidation Act), which simplified and standardized the legal procedures of ensuing Acts.

Historians J.L. and Barbara Hammond in The Village Labourer 1760–1832 (1911) describe the workers who were driven into factories by the Enclosure Acts:

The enclosures created a new organization of classes. The peasant with rights and a status, with a share in the fortunes and government of his village, standing in rags, but standing on his feet, makes way for the labourer with no corporate rights to defend, no corporate power to invoke, no property to cherish, no ambition to pursue, bent beneath the fear of his masters, and the weight of a future without hope. No class in the world has so beaten and crouching a history.

Cumulatively and within a few generations, the enclosures created a veritable army of industrial reserve labor. The displaced and disenfranchised were reduced to working for starvation wages that they supplemented through prostitution, theft, and other stigmatized or illegal means.

When the workers swelled the ranks of the poor, the government stepped in once more — this time to assist capitalists who petitioned for tax-funded favors. As even the anti-libertarian historian Christopher A. Ferrara explains, “England’s response to the crisis of poverty among the landless proletariat” was a

system of poor relief supplements to meager wages, adopted de facto throughout England (beginning in 1795) in order to ensure that families did not starve. The result … was a vast, government-subsidized mass of wage-dependent paupers whose capitalist employers, both urban and rural, were freed from the burden of paying even bare subsistence wages.

In turn, the palpable misery of this class fueled the rise of a vigorous socialist movement that blamed the Industrial Revolution for the exploitation of the masses. (The socialists were aware of the impact of enclosure but ultimately blamed industrialization.) And exploitation by industrialists undoubtedly existed; for one thing, some used governmental means. But the masses were there to be exploited largely because powerful land owners had used political means to deny to peasants their traditional rural livelihood. Exploitation was possible because other opportunities had been legally denied.

It would be deceptively simplistic to blame the Enclosure Acts alone for the impoverishment usually ascribed to the Industrial Revolution. Many factors were in play. For example, the majority of people in pre-Industrial England dwelt in the countryside, where they often supplemented their income through cottage industries, especially the weaving of wool. This income evaporated with the advent of cheap cotton and industrialized methods of weaving it. Many influences contributed to the desperation of an unemployed army of workers.

What enclosure does illustrate without question, however, is that the abuses ascribed to the Industrial Revolution are far from straightforward. Blaming industrialization for workers’ misery is not merely simplistic, it is also often incorrect. Whether or not some exploitation would have existed within free-market industrialization, the abuses of the Industrial Revolution were standardized, institutionalized, and carried to excess by government and the use of the political means.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).