Thursday, 9 February 2017

1788 - The biggest enclosure of them all?

The biggest enclosure of them all

Land was the first community asset to be ‘privatised’, taken over for private use and benefit. Way back in the mists of time, long before King Alfred burnt his cakes, long before the British Isles were so named, all the land was common land; none was ‘owned’ by anyone but parts used by small family groups for their subsistence. It would have been the same in Terra Australia. Over centuries in those northern isles, larger, more belligerent groups established areas of exclusive use – and chieftains, war-lords and Lords of the Manor declared such areas as ‘my land’. Thus the concept of private property as opposed to common, or community, land took hold.

As populations increased and society became more sophisticated these concepts of land access were codified by Acts of Parliament – copyhold, tenancies, freehold title, Crown Land – but commons with their age-old rights providing large parts of the population with shelter and sustenance remained. It should be noted that the commons recognised a form of collective ownership of rights; specified persons only had ‘rights of common’.  It was not a free-for-all.

Contrary to the myth of ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ – as enunciated by W Lloyd in 1833 and promulgated by G Hardin in 1968 - generally commons were well managed by local committees and various courts of manorial jurisdiction to provide the ongoing needs of the community; these elemental communities ‘lived’ sustainability and were not just a band of neo-liberal, economic rationalists each seeking maximum personal benefit as Lloyd and Hardin would have us believe.

Enclosure – social upheaval - 1788
The real ‘tragedy of the commons’ was the vast social upheaval and degradation (Q7) generated by their enclosure. Innumerable Acts of Enclosure passed by the Parliament at Westminster usurped huge areas. These Acts  - enacted with skulduggery((Q3&5) of every description - made it legal for large landowners to privatise what had previously been common land used by many of the lower echelons of society in a variety of ways for their subsistence. This is well documented by the Hammonds in their classic study, ‘The Village Labourer 1760 – 1832’; they report that enclosure meant, ‘the peasant with rights and status (Q6), with a share in the fortunes and government of his village….. makes way for the labourer with no corporate rights to defend, no corporate power to invoke, no property to cherish, no ambition to pursue…….’ (‘corporate’ has different connotations today! CC)

Between  1700-1760, 152 Acts allowed the enclosure of 240,000 acres of common fields and waste, between 1761-1801, 1500 acts, 2,400,000 acres – in 40 years, 10 times more than in the previous period of 60 years - and between 1802 and 1844, 1,100 acts enclosed 1,600,000 acres (quoted by the Hammonds, see adjoining table, figures rounded). Notice that when white Australia was founded in late 18th century, enclosure activity was at a peak. The founding of white Australia and Acts of Enclosure were very closely connected not just in time but also in the prevailing attitudes.

The UK elite, effecting and benefitting from the enclosures, really only took any notice of those who could make themselves heard; persons of some substance or influence. The illiterate cottager who simply enjoyed the various rights of common that his father enjoyed stood no chance (Q4) against an Act of Enclosure; dissenters were required to provide written chapter and verse of their rights and argue them in front of Commissioners. Indeed such lowly citizens were barely considered in the deliberations in Westminster. The attitude of the ruling classes according to the Hammonds was, ‘….the wider the sphere brought into the absolute possession of the enlightened class, the greater would be the public gain (Q1).’ An early ‘trickle down’ proposition! So it is not surprising that when Westminster’s expedition arrived here in 1788, the concept of Enclosure came with them; the idea of commons and persons using the land just for living were of no consequence (Q2).

Settlement  mind-set
Thus at the beginning of white settlement of Australia the ‘Establishment mind-set’ was one of ‘enclosure’ – the concept of ‘commons’, where land is not owned by any but used by many, was in their view outdated, bad, inefficient, if indeed they thought about it at all. From my understanding, Australia then was like a vast, continent-wide, agglomeration of Aboriginal Commons – the land not ‘owned’ at all but used, shared, nurtured and venerated by the numerous tribes of the indigenous population according to their needs and culture. White man did not see this at all, it was  ‘terra nullius’ and the commoners were ‘brushed aside', much as in England - but much, much worse; see, Mapping the Massacres. Henry Reynolds has written of this in his ‘Frontier’ (Allen & Unwin 1996); Dr Reynolds examines the close parallels between the conflicts in Europe and the British settlement of Australia; ‘the Aboriginal experience can be profitably compared to those of the squatters on the shrinking commons, the foresters and men of the fens who struggled to maintain a traditional economy in opposition to the ever growing commitment to absolute property rights.’

Tasmania was different
Van Diemen’s Land would seem to be the one place where the concept of ‘the commons’ did flourish for a few years. ‘Van Diemen’s Land was aught but a vast common’ quotes James Boyce, p70, Ref32, in his very well researched history, Van Diemen's Land (Black Inc. 2008), Ironically, many had been sentenced to transportation because they had been caught using the commons of England in traditional ways – trapping and snaring game, ways that had been made illegal under the Game Laws and Acts of Enclosure. Boyce’s Introduction contains many references to the convicts’ acceptance of sharing resources with Aboriginals and each other – land, water, game – and their adaptability to go bush, to obtain ‘the essentials of life from the new land’. The early chapters contain many specific references to Van Diemen’s Land as a common and its effect on the early settlers, how the free access to the natural resources led to much entrepreneurial activity and even ideas of independence and democracy; anathema to the authorities, birth-right concepts for the ‘Village Labourer’ if the Hammonds, were correct (Q6). Such moves were stamped out – almost but not entirely - by Governor Arthur to produce a servile population to meet the needs of the increasing number of free settlers on their large land grants.

Aboriginal philosophy
A deeper connection between the idea of commons versus enclosures was brought to mind a year ago at a Fedtalk by Aboriginal academic and activist, Dr Mary Graham, QUT. She spoke about Aboriginal philosophy in comparison to ‘western’ modes of thought saying that Aboriginals had no difficulty in holding to different concepts simultaneously. In contrast, western views were ‘either or’, ‘this or that’, ‘alive or dead’. This is an exact parallel as between enclosures (this is mine, not anybody else’s) and common land that has many users and uses. This is also shown in the western, legalistic ‘Native Title’ when ‘Aboriginal Common’ would have been more representative of traditional status. Dr Graham’s talk may be viewed here.
Much is to be learnt from Aboriginal philosophy and traditional respect and reverence for the land.

In short, Australia was founded with the concept of enclosure foremost and this preeminence continues to this day; the concept of commons – owned by none, used by many in various ways – is not part of modern Australia’s DNA. Laudable ambitions to ‘reclaim the commons’ here need to recognize the challenges this presents. 

Was 1788 the biggest act of enclosure of them all?  
When the date becomes ‘free’, should we commemorate Enclosure Day on 26th January?

Colin Cook
Commoner of Ashdown Forest, (1964 – 1981)
Sussex, UK

Saturday, 4 February 2017

The Village Labourer 1760 - 1832; quotations

'The Village Labourer 1760 to 1832', 'A study in the Government of England before the Reform Bill' by J L Hammond and Barbara Hammond was first published in 1911 with a new edition in 1920. It is very pertinent to the study of the enclosure of common and waste land in England and as background to the settlement of Australia commencing in 1788. The full text of the 1920 edition is available at:
However, it is not easy to read online - dues to discontinuities and mis-scans - so these selected quotations have been posted here for ready reference in other posts. They are reasonably lengthy so that the context is provided to some extent. The italics are all mine - the text, original.

The Village before Enclosure – ‘Trickle down effect’
Page 12
A man who had caught the large ideas of a Coke, or mastered the discoveries of a Bakewell, chafed under the restraints that the system of common agriculture placed on improvement and experiment. It was maddening to have to set your pace by the slow bucolic temperament of small farmers, nursed in a simple and old-fashioned routine, who looked with suspicion on any proposal that was strange to them. In this tiresome partnership the swift were put between the shafts with the slow, and the temptation to think that what was wanted was to get rid of the partnership altogether, was almost irresistible. From such a state the mind passed rapidly and naturally to the conclusion that the wider the sphere brought into the absolute possession of the enlightened class, the greater would be the public gain.

Enclosure Procedure – Power and powerlessness
Page 28/9
It is clear, then, that it was only the pressure of the powerful interests that decided whether a committee should approve or disapprove of an Enclosure Bill. It was the same pressure that determined the form in which a Bill became law. For a procedure that enabled rich men to fight out their rival claims at Westminster left the classes that could not send counsel to Parliament without a weapon or a voice. And if there was no lawyer there to put his case, what prospect was there that the obscure cottager, who was to be turned adrift with his family by an Enclosure Bill promoted by a Member or group of Members, would ever trouble the conscience of a committee of landowners? We have seen already how this class was regarded by the landowners and the champions of enclosure. No cottagers had votes or the means of influencing a single vote at a single election. To Parliament, if they had any existence at all, they were merely dim shadows in the very background of the enclosure scheme. It would require a considerable effort of the imagination to suppose that the Parliamentary Committee spent very much time or energy on the attempt to give body and form to this hazy and remote society, and to treat these shadows as living men and women, about to be tossed by this revolution from their ancestral homes.

Q3 Enclosure – deliberations in the House of Commons
Page 33
One petitioner in 1800 commented on the extraordinary haste with which a New Forest Bill was pushed through Parliament, and suggested that if it were passed into law in this rapid manner at the end of a session, some injustice might unconsciously be done. The Speaker replied with a grave and dignified rebuke : ‘The House was always competent to give every subject the consideration due to its importance, and could not therefore be truly said to be incapable at any time of discussing any question gravely, dispassionately, and with strict regard to justice.'  He recommended that the petition should be passed over as if it had never been presented. The member who had presented the petition pleaded that he had not read it. Such were the plausibilities and decorum in which the House of Commons wrapped up its abuses.
Enclosure procedure – small proprietors and cottagers
Page 39 
Most Enclosure Acts Specified a date before which all claims had to be presented. It is obvious that there must have been very many small proprietors who had neither the courage nor the knowledge necessary to put and defend their case, and that vast numbers of claims must have, been disregarded because. they were not presented, or because they were presented too late, or because they were irregular in form. The Croydon Act, for example, prescribes that claimants must send in their claims ‘in Writing under their Hands, or the Hands of their Agents, distinguishing in such Claims the Tenure of the Estates in respect whereof such Claims are made, and stating therein such further Particulars as shall be necessary to describe such Claims with Precision.' And if this was a difficult fence for the small proprietor, unaccustomed to legal forms and documents, or to forms and documents of any kind, what was the plight of the cottager? Let us imagine the cottager, unable to read or write, enjoying certain customary rights of common without any idea of their origin or history or legal basis knowing only that as long as he can remember he has kept a cow, driven geese across the waste, pulled his fuel out of the neighbouring brushwood, and cut turf from the common, and that his father did all these things before him. The cottager learns that before a certain day he has to present to his landlord's bailiff, or to the parson, or to one of the magistrates into whose hands perhaps he has fallen before now over a little matter of a hare or a partridge, or to some solicitor from the country town, a clear and correct statement of his rights and his claim to a share in the award. …………  The commissioners can reject his claim on the ground of any technical irregularity,……...

Enclosure Procedure – skulduggery
Page 40
'Sir William Meredith moved, That it might be a general order, that no Bill, or clause in a Bill, making any offence capital, should be agreed to but in a Committee of the whole House. He observed, that at present the facility of passing such clauses was shameful : that he once passing a Committee room, when only one Member was holding a Committee, with a clerk's boy, he happened to hear something of hanging ; he immediately had the curiosity to ask what was going forward in that small Committee that could merit such a punishment ? He was answered, that it was an Inclosing Bill, in which a great many poor people were concerned, who opposed the Bill ; that they feared those people would obstruct the execution of the Act, and therefore this clause was to make it capital felony in anyone who did so. This resolution was unanimously agreed to.' 

The Village after Enclosure – loss of rights and status
Page 81
The enclosures created a new organisation 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 and if the blazing ricks in 1830 once threatened his rulers with the anguish of his despair, in no chapter of that history could it have been written, ' This parish is at law with its squire.' For the parish was no longer the community that offered the labourer friendship and sheltered his freedom: it was merely the shadow of his poverty, his helplessness, and his shame.
'Go to an ale-house kitchen of an old enclosed country, and there you will see the origin of poverty and poor-rates. For whom are they to be sober? For whom are they to save? For the parish? If I am diligent, shall I have leave to build a cottage? If I am sober, shall I have land for a cow? If I am frugal, shall I have half an acre of potatoes? You offer no motives; you have nothing but a parish officer and a workhouse !  Bring me another pot — .' From,  Annals of Agriculture, vol. xxxvi. p. 508.

The Last Labourer’s Revolt 1830 Chapter X – inequality and distain
Page 217/8
The lives of the judges, the landlords, the parsons, and the rest of the governing class were not become more meagre but more spacious in the last fifty years. During that period many of the great palaces of the English nobility had been built, noble libraries had been collected, and famous galleries had grown up, wing upon wing. The agricultural labourers whose fathers had eaten meat, bacon, cheese, and vegetables were living on bread and potatoes. They had ' lost their gardens, they had ceased to brew their beer in their cottages. In their work they had no sense of ownership or interest. They no longer ' sauntered after cattle ' on the open common, and at twilight they no longer ‘played down the setting sun' ; the games had almost disappeared from the English village, their wives and children were starving before their eyes, their homes were more squalid, and the philosophy of the hour taught the upper classes that to mend a window or to put in a brick to shield the cottage from damp or wind was to increase the ultimate miseries of the poor. The sense of sympathy and comradeship, which had been mixed with rude and unskilful government, in the old village had been destroyed in the bitter days of want and distress. Degrading and repulsive work was invented for those whom the farmer would not or could not employ.

The Last Labourer’s Revolt Chapter XI – crackdown or oppression?  
Page 248
The bands of men and boys who had given their rulers one moment of excitement and lively interest in the condition of the poor had made themselves liable to ferocious penalties. For the privileged classes had set up a code under which no labourer could take a single step for the improvement of the lot of his class without putting his life and liberties in a noose. It is true that the savage laws which had been passed against combination in 1799 and 1800 had been repealed in 1824, and that even under the less liberal Act of the following year, which rescinded the Act of 1824, it was no longer a penal offence to form a Trades Union. But it is easy to see that the labourers who tried to raise their wages were in fact on a shelving and most perilous slope. If they used threats or intimidation or molested or obstructed, either to get a labourer to join with them or to get an employer to make concessions, they were guilty of a misdemeanour punishable with three months' imprisonment. They were lucky if they ran no graver risk than this. Few of the prosecutions at the Special Commissions were under the Act of 1825. A body of men holding a meeting in a village where famine and unemployment were chronic, and where hardly any one had been taught to read or write, might very soon find themselves becoming what the Act of 1714 called a riotous assembly, and if a magistrate took alarm and read the Riot Act, and they did not disperse within one hour, every one of them might be punished as a felon. The hour's interval did not mean an hour's grace, for, as Mr Justice Alderson told the court at Dorchester, within that hour ' all persons, even private individuals, may do anything, using force even to the last extremity to prevent the commission of a felony.'