In medieval times farming was based on large fields, known as open fields, in which individual yeomen or tenant farmers cultivated scattered strips of land. From as early as the 12th century, however, agricultural land was enclosed. This meant that holdings were consolidated into individually-owned or rented fields. Usually, it was seen as a more economical way of farming, and became increasingly common during the Tudor period.
Enclosure by Act
Originally, enclosures of land took place through informal agreement. But during the 17th century the practice developed of obtaining authorisation by an Act of Parliament. Initiatives to enclose came either from landowners hoping to maximise rental from their estates, or from tenant farmers anxious to improve their farms.
From the 1750s enclosure by parliamentary Act became the norm. Overall, between 1604 and 1914 over 5,200 enclosure Bills were enacted by Parliament which related to just over a fifth of the total area of England, amounting to some 6.8 million acres.
There is little doubt that enclosure greatly improved the agricultural productivity of farms from the late 18th century by bringing more land into effective agricultural use. It also brought considerable change to the local landscape.
Where there were once large, communal open fields, land was now hedged and fenced off, and old boundaries disappeared. But historians remain divided over the extent to which enclosure forced those at the lowest end of rural society, the agricultural labourers, to leave the land permanently to seek work in the towns.