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The Village Labourer: 1760-1832: A Study in the Government of
England before the Reform Bill
John Lawrence Hammond & Barbara Hammond
This edition differs from previous editions of The Village Labourer in two respects. The original
Chapter One has been omitted: this chapter described the concentration of power in the hands of a
small class, which was the leading feature of our political development in the eighteenth century.
Secondly, the Appendices have been reduced, but the student who wishes to pursue the subject of
enclosure further will find, at the end of this volume, full details of four important and representative
In their preface to the edition published in 1913 the authors discussed some of the controversies
that had arisen on the topic of the enclosures. It seems worth while to reproduce here the substance
of that preface. Two main criticisms have been passed on the treatment of enclosures in these
pages: the first, that the writers have drawn an unjust picture, because they deliberately excluded
the importance of enclosure in increasing the food supplies of the nation; the second, that the
hardships of the poor have been exaggerated, and that, though the system of enclosure lent itself to
abuses, there was no evidence that wrong was done in the mass of enclosures.
The writers submit the following considerations: (1) It has been the accepted view of all modern
critics, with the single exception of dr Hasbach, that the enclosures of this period, or at any rate the
enclosures that took place after 1795, made the soil of England immediately more productive. That
this is the usual view was stated in the text; its correctness was not discussed or questioned. The
subject of this volume is the fate of the Village Labourer, and so far as he is concerned, the facts
which they are accused of neglecting suggest two reflections: (a) the feeding of Manchester and
Leeds did not make life cheaper to him; and (b) if agriculture suddenly became a great industry,
multiplying as some say England's resources twenty-fold, an equitable readjustment must have
increased the prosperity of all classes engaged in that industry. The greater the stress laid on the
progress of agriculture, the greater appear the perversity and injustice of the arrangements of a
society under which the labourer became impoverished. If it is argued that the misery of the labourer
was the price the nation had to pay for that advance, it is worth while to point out that that was not
the view of Young, or Davies, or Eden, or Sinclair, or Cobbett, and that the actual revolution that was
accomplished was not the only alternative to the old unreformed common field system. (2) The
authors desire to point out how little they have relied on solitary instances for their general
statements. Complaint has been made of the publishing of the story of the attempted enclosure of
Sedgmoor, but those who read that account carefully will see that the passage from Selwyn's letters
are important as disclosing the state of mind of a chairman of an Enclosure Committee; they will
note also that his letters show that it was a common practice for Members of Parliament to arrange
meetings in order to manipulate Committees in the interest of private persons. Selwyn's view of the
responsibilities of a chairman of one of these Committees has therefore a special significance. The
main question for the historian is this: Were the poor sacrificed or not in the enclosures as they were
carried out? The writers have given their reasons for thinking that they were sacrificed, and
needlessly sacrificed, and no evidence has come under their notice in the criticisms published to
shake that view. They have set out the actual methods of procedure that were adopted for
converting England from the old to the new system, and they think it is clear that those methods
were such that the poor were bound to suffer unless Parliament expressly intervened for their
protection. This was apparent, or became apparent, to observers at the time, and proposals that
would have helped the poor were made by Arthur Young, by Eden, by Davies, by Suffield, and by
the Board of Agriculture. Those proposals were disregarded, not necessarily from wickedness or
rapacity, but because the atmosphere of the ruling class was unfavourable. Young referred to his
own proposal six years later in a passage which is worth quoting:
'I have been reading over my Inquiry into the Propriety of applying Wastes to the better Maintenance
of the Poor. I had almost forgotten it, but of all the essays and papers I have produced, none I think
so pardonable as this, so convincing by facts, and so satisfactory to any candid reader. Thank God I
wrote it, for though it never had the smallest effect except in exciting opposition and ridicule, it will, I
trust, remain a proof of what ought to have been done; and had it been executed, would have
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diffused more comfort among the poor than any proposition that ever was made' (Autobiography,
July 14, 1806).
One further fact of interest and importance in this connection may be mentioned. Michael Sadler,
the Factory Reformer, was, unhappily for England, thrown out of Parliament after the passing of the
Reform Bill. He was in the House of Commons for only three years. One of the most important
speeches that he made in his brief career there, was a long speech reviewing the disastrous change
that had come over the agricultural labourers in recent times. The chief cause he found in the
disappearance of the small farmer, the pulling down of cottages, and the enclosures. He said that
the enclosures had inflicted on the poor as a class 'the most irreparable injuries.' Like Thelwall, with
whom he would have been slow to recognise any affinity, he argued that enclosure might have
benefited the poor, but that in practice it had ruined them. 'Inclosures might indeed have been so
conducted as to have benefited all parties; but now, coupled with other features of the system, they
form a part of what Blackstone denominates a "fatal rural policy"; one which has completed the
degradation and ruin of your agricultural poor.'
Two subjects are discussed fully in this volume for the first time. One is the actual method and
procedure of Parliamentary Enclosure; the other the labourers' rising of 1830. More than one
important book has been written on enclosures during the last few years, but nowhere can the
student find a full analysis of the procedure and stages by which the old village was destroyed. The
rising of 1830 has only been mentioned incidentally in general histories: it has nowhere been treated
as a definite demand for better conditions, and its course, scope, significance and punishment have
received little attention. The writers of this book have treated it fully, using for that purpose the Home
Office Papers accessible to students in the Record Office. They wish to express their gratitude to Mr
Hubert Hall for his help and guidance in this part of their work.
The obligations of the writers to the important books published in recent years on eighteenth-century
local government in the text, but the are manifest, and they are acknowledged writers desire to
mention specially their great debt to Mr Hobson's Industrial System, a work that seems to them to
throw a new and most illuminating light on the economic significance of the history of the early years
of the last century.
Mr and Mrs Arthur Ponsonby and Miss M. K. Bradby have done the writers the great service of
reading the entire book and suggesting many important improvements. Mr and Mrs C. R. Buxton, Mr
A. Clutton Brock, Professor L. T. Hobhouse, and Mr H. W. Massingham have given them valuable
help and advice on various parts of the work.
The Village Before Enclosure
To elucidate these chapters, and to supply further information for those who are interested in the
subject, we publish an Appendix containing the history, and tolerably full particulars, of four separate
enclosures at Croydon, Haute Huntre, Stanwell and Wakefield.
At the time of the great Whig Revolution, England was in the main a country of commons and of
common fields;(1*) at the time of the Reform Bill, England was in the main a country of individualist
agriculture and of large enclosed farms. There has probably been no change in Europe in the last
two centuries comparable to this in importance of which so little is known to-day, or of which so little
is to be learnt from the general histories of the time. The accepted view is that this change marks a
great national advance, and that the hardships which incidentally followed could not have been
avoided: that it meant a vast increase in the food resources of England in comparison with which the
sufferings of individuals counted for little: and that the great estates which then came into existence
were rather the gift of economic forces than the deliberate acquisitions of powerful men. We are not
concerned to corroborate or to dispute the contention that enclosure made England more
productive,(2*) or to discuss the merits of enclosure itself as a public policy or a means to
agricultural progress in the eighteenth century. Our business is with the changes that the enclosures
caused in the social structure of England, from the manner in which they were in practice carried
out. We propose, therefore, to describe the actual operations by which society passed through this
revolution, the old village vanished, and rural life assumed its modern form and character.
It is difficult for us, who think of a common as a wild sweep of heather and beauty and freedom,
saved for the enjoyment of the world in the midst of guarded parks and forbidden meadows, to
realise that the commons that disappeared from so many an English village in the eighteenth
century belonged to a very elaborate, complex, and ancient economy. The antiquity of that elaborate
economy has been the subject of fierce contention, and the controversies that rage round the
nursery of the English village recall the controversies that raged round the nursery of Homer. The
main subject of contention has been this. Was the manor or the township, or whatever name we like
to give to the primitive unit of agricultural life, an organisation imposed by a despotic landowner on
his dependents, or was it created by the co-operation of a group of free tribesmen, afterwards
dominated by a military overlord? Did it owe more to Roman tradition or to Teutonic tendencies?
Professor Vinogradoff, the latest historian, inclines to a compromise between these conflicting
theories. He thinks that it is impossible to trace the open-field system of cultivation to any exclusive
right of ownership or to the power of coercion, and that the communal organisation of the peasantry,
a village community of shareholders who cultivated the land on the open-field system and treated
the other requisites of rural life as appendant to it, is more ancient than the manorial order. It
derives, in his view, from the old English society. The manor itself, an institution which partakes at
once of the character of an estate and of a unit of local government, was produced by the needs of
government and the development of individualist husbandry, side by side with this communal
village. These conditions lead to the creation of lordships, and after the Conquest they take form in
the manor. The manorial element, in fact, is superimposed on the communal, and is not the
foundation of it: the medieval village is a free village gradually feudalised. Fortunately it is not
incumbent on us to do more than touch on this fascinating study, as it is enough for our purposes to
note that the greater part of England in cultivation at the beginning of the eighteenth century was
cultivated on a system which, with certain local variations, belonged to a common type, representing
this common ancestry.
The term 'common' was used of three kinds of land in the eighteenth-century village, and the three
were intimately connected with each other. There were (1) the gable fields, (2) the common
meadowland, and (3) the common or waste. The arable fields were divided into strips, with different
owners, some of whom owned few strips, and some many. The various strips that belonged to a
particular owner were scattered among the fields. Strips were divided from each other, sometimes
by a grass band called a balk, sometimes by a furrow. They were cultivated on a uniform system by
agreement, and after harvest they were thrown open to pasturage. The common meadow land was
divided up by lot, pegged out, and distributed among the owners of the strips; after the hay was
carried, these meadows, like the arable fields, were used for pasture. The common or waste, which
was used as a common pasture at all times of the year, consisted sometimes of woodland,
sometimes of roadside strips, and sometimes of commons in the modern sense.(3*)
Such, roughly, was the map of the old English village. What were the classes that lived in it, and
what were their several rights? In a normal village there would be (1) a Lord of the Manor, (2)
Freeholders, some of whom might be large proprietors, and many small, both classes going by the
general name of Yeomanry, (3) Copyholders, (4) Tenant Farmers, holding by various sorts of
tenure, from tenants at will to farmers with leases for three lives, (5) Cottagers, (6) Squatters, and
(7) Farm Servants, living in their employers' houses. The proportions of these classes varied greatly,
no doubt, in different villages, but we have an estimate of the total agricultural population in the table
prepared by Gregory King in 1688, from which it appears that in addition to the Esquires and
Gentlemen, there were 40,000 families of freeholders of the better sort, 140,000 families of
freeholders of the lesser sort, and 150,000 farmers. Adam Smith, it will be remembered, writing
nearly a century later, said that the large number of yeomen was at once the strength and the
distinction of English agriculture.
Let us now describe rather more fully the different people represented in these different categories,
and the different rights that they enjoyed. We have seen in the first chapter that the manorial courts
had lost many of their powers by this time, and that part of the jurisdiction that the Lord of the Manor
had originally exercised had passed to the Justice of the Peace. No such change had taken place in
his relation to the economic life of the village. He might or he might not still own a demesne land. So
far as the common arable or common meadow was concerned, he was in the same position as any
other proprietor: he might own many strips or few strips or no strips at all. His position with regard to
the waste was different, the difference being expressed by Blackstone 'in those waste grounds,
which are usually called commons, the property of the soil is generally in the Lord of the Manor, as
in the common fields it is in the particular tenant.' The feudal lawyers had developed a doctrine that
the soil of the waste was vested in the Lord of the Manor, and that originally it had all belonged to
him. But feudal law acknowledged certain definite limitations to his rights over the waste. The
Statute of Merton, 1235, allowed him to make enclosures on the waste, but only on certain terms; he
was obliged to leave enough of the waste for the needs of his tenants. Moreover, his powers were
limited, not only by the concurrent rights of freeholders and copyholders thus recognised by this
ancient law, but also by certain common rights of pasture and turbary enjoyed by persons who were
neither freeholders nor copyholders, namely cottagers. These rights were explained by the lawyers
of the time as being concessions made by the Lord of the Manor in remote antiquity. The Lord of the
Manor was regarded as the owner of the waste, subject to these common rights: that is, he was
regarded as owning the minerals and the surface rights (sand and gravel) as well as sporting rights.
Every grade of property and status was represented in the ranks of the freeholders, the copyholders
and the tenant farmers, from the man who employed others to work for him to the man who was
sometimes employed in working for others. No distinct line, in fact, can be drawn between the small
farmer, whether freeholder, copyholder or tenant, and the cottager, for the cottager might either own
or rent a few strips; the best dividing-line can be drawn between those who made their living mainly
as farmers, and those who made their living mainly as labourers.
It is important to remember that no farmer, however large his holdings or property, or however
important his social position, was at liberty to cultivate his strips as he pleased. The system of
cultivation would be settled for him by the Jury of the Manor Court, a court that had different names
in different places. By the eighteenth century the various courts of the manorial jurisdiction had been
merged in a single court, called indifferently the View of Frankpledge, the Court Leet, the Court
Baron, the Great Court or the Little Court, which transacted so much of the business hitherto
confided to various courts as had not been assigned to the Justices of the Peace.(4*) Most of the
men of the village, freeholders, copyholders, leaseholders, Or cottagers, attended the court, but the
constitution of the Jury or Homage seems to have varied in different manors. Sometimes the
tenants of the manor were taken haphazard in rotation: sometimes the steward controlled the
choice, sometimes a nominee of the steward or a nominee of the tenants selected the Jury:
sometimes the steward took no part in the selection at all. The chief part of the business of these
courts in the eighteenth century was the management of the common fields and common pastures,
and the appointment of the village officers. These courts decided which seed should be sown in the
different fields, and the dates at which they were to be opened and closed to common pasture.
Under the most primitive system of rotation the arable land was divided into three fields, of which
one was sown with wheat, another with spring corn, and the third lay fallow: but by the end of the
eighteenth century there was a great variety of cultivation, and we find a nine years' course at Great
Tew in Oxfordshire, a six years' course in Berkshire, while the Battersea common fields were sown
with one uniform round of grain without intermission, and consequently without fallowing.(5*)
By Sir Richard Sutton's Act(6*) for the cultivation of common fields, passed in 1773, a majority of
three-fourths in number and value of the occupiers, with the consent of the owner and titheholder,
was empowered to decide on the course of husbandry, to regulate stinted commons, and, with the
consent of the Lord of the Manor, to let off a twelfth of the common, applying the rent to draining or
improving the rest of it.(7*) Before this Act, a universal consent to any change of system was
necessary.(8*) The cultivation of strips in the arable fields carried with it rights of common over the
waste and also over the common fields when they were thrown open. These rights were known as
'common appendant' and they are thus defined by Blackstone: 'Common appendant is a right
belonging to the owners or occupiers of arable land to put commonable beasts upon the Lord's
waste and upon the lands of other persons within the same manor.'
The classes making their living mainly as labourers were the cottagers, farm servants, and
squatters. The cottagers either owned or occupied cottages and had rights of common on the waste,
and in some cases over the common fields. These rights were of various kinds: they generally
included the right to pasture certain animals, to cut turf and to get fuel. The cottagers, as we have
already said, often owned or rented land. This is spoken of as a common practice by Addington,
who knew the Midland counties well; Arthur Young gives instances from Lincolnshire and
Oxfordshire, and Eden from Leicestershire and Surrey. The squatters or borderers were, by origin, a
separate class, though in time they merged into the cottagers. They were settlers who built
themselves huts and cleared a piece of land in the commons or woods, at some distance from the
village. These encroachments were generally sanctioned. A common rule in one part of the country
was that the right was established if the settler could build his cottage in the night and send out
smoke from his chimney in the morning.(9*) The squatters also often went out as day labourers. The
farm servants were usually the children of the small farmers or cottagers; they lived in their masters'
houses until they had saved enough money to marry and take a cottage of their own.
Were there any day labourers without either land or common rights in the old village? It is difficult to
suppose that there were many.(10*) Blackstone said of common appurtenant that it was not a
general right 'but can only be claimed by special grant or by prescription, which the law esteems
sufficient proof of a special grant or agreement for this purpose.' Prescription covers a multitude of
encroachments. Indeed, it was only by the ingenuity of the feudal lawyers that these rights did not
attach to the inhabitants of the village at large. These lawyers had decided in Gateward's case,
1603, that 'inhabitants' were too vague a body to enjoy a right, and on this ground they had deprived
the inhabitants of the village of Stixswold in Lincolnshire of their customary right of turning out cattle
on the waste.(11*) From that time a charter of incorporation was necessary to enable the inhabitants
at large to prove a legal claim to common rights. But rights that were enjoyed by the occupiers of
small holdings or of cottages by long prescription, or by encroachments tacitly sanctioned, must
have been very widely scattered.
Such were the classes inhabiting the eighteenth-century village. As the holdings in the common
fields could be sold, the property might change hands, though it remained subject to common rights
and to the general regulations of the manor court. Consequently the villages exhibited great
varieties of character. In one village it might happen that strip after strip had been bought up by the
Lord of the Manor or some proprietor, until the greater part of the arable fields had come into the
possession of a single owner. In such eases, however, the land so purchased was still let out as a
rule to a number of small men, for the engrossing of farms as a practice comes into fashion after
enclosure. Sometimes such purchase was a preliminary to enclosure. The Bedfordshire reporter
gives an example in the village of Bolnhurst, in that county. Three land speculators bought up as
much of the land as they could with a view to enclosing the common fields and then selling at a
large profit. But the land turned out to be much less valuable than they had supposed, and they
could not get it off their hands: all improvements were at a standstill, for the speculators only let from
year to year, hoping still to find a market.(12*) In other villages, land might have changed hands in
just the opposite direction. The Lord of the Manor might sell his property in the common fields, and
sell it not to some capitalist or merchant, but to a number of small farmers. We learn from the
evidence of the Committee of 1844 on enclosures that sometimes the Lord of the Manor sold his
property in the waste to the commoners. Thus there were villages with few owners, as there were
villages with many owners. The writer of the Report on Middlesex, which was published in 1798
says, 'I have known thirty landlords in a field of 200 acres, and the property of each so divided as to
lie in ten or twenty places, containing from an acre or two downwards to fifteen perches; and in a
field of 300 acres I have met with patches of arable land, containing eight perches each. In this
instance the average size of all the pieces in the field was under an acre. In all cases they lie in
long, narrow, winding or worm-like slips.'(13*)
The same writer states that at the time his book was written (1798) 20,000 out of the 23,000 arable
acres in Middlesex were cultivated on the common-field system.(14*) Perhaps the parish of
Stanwell, of which we describe the enclosure in detail elsewhere, may be taken as a fair example of
an eighteenth-century village. In this parish there were, according to the enclosure award, four large
proprietors, twenty-four moderate proprietors, twenty-four small proprietors, and sixty-six cottagers
with common rights.
The most important social fact about this system is that it provided opportunities for the humblest
and poorest labourer to rise in the village. Population seems to have moved slowly, and thus there
was no feverish competition for land. The farm servant could save up his wages and begin his
married life by hiring a cottage which carried rights of common, and gradually buy or hire strips of
land. Every village, as Hasbach has put it, had its ladder, and nobody was doomed to stay on the
lowest rung. This is the distinguishing mark of the old village. It would be easy, looking only at this
feature, to idealise the society that we have described, and to paint this age as an age of gold. But
no reader of Fielding or of Richardson would fall into this mistake, or persuade himself that this
community was a society of free and equal men, in which tyranny was impossible. The old village
was under the shadow of the squire and the parson, and there were many ways in which these
powers controlled and hampered its pleasures and habits: there were quarrels, too, between
farmers and cottagers, and there are many complaints that the farmers tried to take the lion's share
of the commons: but, whatever the pressure outside and whatever the bickerings within, it remains
true that the common-field system formed a world in which the villagers lived their own lives and
cultivated the soil on a basis of independence.
It was this community that now passed under the unqualified rule of the oligarchy. Under that rule it
was to disappear. Enclosure was no new menace to the poor. English literature before the
eighteenth century echoes the dismay and lamentations of preachers and prophets who witnessed
the havoc that it spread. Stubbes had written in 1553 his bitter protest against the enclosures which
enabled rich men to eat up poor men, and twenty years later a writer had given a sombre landscape
of the new farming: 'We may see many of their houses built alone like ravens' nests, no birds
building near them.' The Midlands had been the chief scene of these changes, and there the
conversion of arable land into pasture had swallowed up great tracts of common agriculture,
provoking in some cases an armed resistance. The enclosures of this century were the second and
the greater of two waves.(15*) In one respect enclosure was in form more difficult now than in earlier
periods, for it was generally understood at this time that an Act of Parliament was necessary. In
reality there was less check on the process. For hitherto the enclosing class had had to reckon with
the occasional panic or ill-temper of the Crown. No English king, it is true, had intervened in the
interests of the poor so dramatically as did the earlier and unspoilt Louis XIV, who restored to the
French village assemblies the public lands they had alienated within a certain period. But the Crown
had not altogether overlooked the interests of the classes who were ruined by enclosure, and in
different ways it had tried to modify the worst consequences of this policy. From 1490 to 1601 there
were various Acts and proclamations designed for this purpose. Charles I had actually annulled the
enclosures of two years in certain midland counties, several Commissions had been issued, and the
Star Chamber had instituted proceedings against enclosures on the ground that depopulation was
an offence against the Common Law. Mr. Firth holds that Cromwell's influence in the eastern
counties was due to his championship of the commoners in the fens. Throughout this time, however
ineffectual the intervention of the Crown, the interests of the classes to whom enclosures brought
wealth and power were not allowed to obliterate all other considerations.
From the beginning of the eighteenth century the reins are thrown to the enclosure movement, and
the policy of enclosure is emancipated from all these checks and afterthoughts. One interest is
supreme throughout England, supreme in Parliament, supreme in the country; the Crown follows,
the nation obeys.
The agricultural community which was taken to pieces in the eighteenth century and reconstructed
in the manner in which a dictator reconstructs a free government, was threatened from many points.
It was not killed by avarice alone. Cobbett used to attribute the enclosure movement entirely to the
greed of the landowners, but, if greed was a sufficient motive, greed was in this case clothed and
almost enveloped in public spirit. Let us remember what this community looked like to men with the
mind of the landlord class. The English landowners have always believed that order would be
resolved into its original chaos, if they ceased to control the lives and destinies of their neighbours.
'A great responsibility rests on us landlords; if we go, the whole thing goes.' So says the landlord in
Mr. Galsworthy's novel, and so said the landlords in the eighteenth century. The English aristocracy
always thinking of this class as the pillars of society, as the Atlas that bears the burden of the world,
very naturally concluded that this old peasant community, with its troublesome rights, was a public
encumbrance. This view received a special impetus from all the circumstances of the age. The
landlord class was constantly being recruited from the ranks of the manufacturers, and the new
landlords, bringing into this charmed circle an energy of their own, caught at once its taste for
power, for direction, for authority, for imposing its will. Readers of Shirley will remember that when
Robert Moore pictures to himself a future of usefulness and success, he says that he will obtain an
Act for enclosing Nunnely Common, that his brother will be put on the bench, and that between
them they will dominate the parish. The book ends in this dream of triumph. Signorial position owes
its special lustre for English minds to the association of social distinction with power over the life and
ways of groups of men and women. When Bagehot sneered at the sudden millionaires of his day,
who hoped to disguise their social defects by buying old places and hiding among aristocratic
furniture, he was remarking on a feature of English life that was very far from being peculiar to his
time. Did not Adam Smith observe that merchants were very commonly ambitious of becoming
country gentlemen? This kind of ambition was the form that public spirit often took in successful
Englishmen, and it was a very powerful menace to the old village and its traditions of collective life.
Now this passion received at this time a special momentum from the condition of agriculture. A
dictatorship lends itself more readily than any other form of government to the quick introduction of
revolutionary ideas, and new ideas were in the air. Thus, in addition to the desire for social power,
there was behind the enclosure movement a zeal for economic progress seconding and almost
concealing the direct inspiration of self-interest. Many an enclosing landlord thought only of the
satisfaction of doubling or trebling his rent: that is unquestionable.