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Enclosures, Common Rights, and Women: The Proletarianization of Families in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries

  • Jane Humphries (a1)

This article argues against the mainstream view that eighteenth-century common rights were of little significance to working people. Markets in common rights and in their products provide an index of value, and when neither common rights nor derived products were bought and sold, values are imputed from the market prices of similar goods. Since women and children were the primary exploiters of common rights, their loss led to changes in women's economic position within the family and more generally to increased dependence of whole families on wages and wage earners.

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1 Chambers, J. D., “Enclosure and the Labour Supply in the Industrial Revolution,” Economic History Review, 5 (No. 3, 1953), pp. 319–43.

2 Ibid., p. 117.

3 Crafts, N. F. R., “Enclosure and the Labour Supply Revisited,” Explorations in Economic History, 15 (04 1978), pp. 172–83; Lazonick, W., “Karl Marx and Enclosures in England,” Review of Radical Political Economics, 6, pt. 2 (Summer 1974), pp. 159; Turner, M. E., “Parliamentary Enclosure and Landownership Change in Buckinghamshire,” Economic History Review, 28 (11 1975), pp. 563–79; Yelling, J. A., Common Field and Enclosure in England, 1450–1850 (London, 1977); Snell, K. D. M., Annals of the Labouring Poor: Social Change and Agrarian England, 1660–1900 (Cambridge, 1985); Allen, Robert C., “The Growth of Labor Productivity in Early Modern English Agriculture,” Explorations in Economic History, 25 (06 1988), pp. 117–46; Allen, Robert C., “Agrarian Fundamentalism and English Agricultural Development,” paper presented at the Harvard Economic Workshop, 10 6, 1989.

4 “Since they [cottage labourers with customary useage of the commons] had no proprietary rights they do not appear in the enclosure award or land tax returns…” (Chambers, “Enclosure,” p. 104); see also Clapham, J. H., An Economic History of Modern Britain, vol. I: The Early Railway Age (Cambridge, 1967).

5 Clapham, Economic History, p. 113; Tilly, C., “Demographic Origins of the European Proletariat,” in Levine, David, ed., Proletarianization and Family History (London, 1984), pp. 185; Levine, D., “Production, Reproduction and the Proletarian Family in England, 1500–1851,” in Levine, ed., Proletarianization, pp. 87–128.

6 These estimates and the quotation are from Tilly, “Demographic Origins,” p. 8; see also Snell, Annals, p. 168; Lazonick, “Karl Marx,” p. 87.

7 Sometimes even sympathetic authorities choose to emphasize the ideological or sociological implications of the loss of the commons. The Orwins' emphasis on the erosion of collective responsibility, Thirsk's on the boost given to individualism, and Mill's on the reduced sense of independence, although raising important points, obscure evidence that working people suffered specific economic injuries. See Orwin, C. S. and Orwin, C. S., The Open Fields (Oxford, 1967); Thirsk, Joan, ed., The Agrarian History of England and Wales (Cambridge, 1967); Mills, Dennis R., “The Nineteenth Century Peasant at Melboum, Cambridgeshire,” in Smith, Richard M., ed., Land, Kinship and Life Cycle (Cambridge, 1984).

8 Malcolmson, R. W., “Ways of Getting a Living in Eighteenth Century England,” in Pahl, R. E., ed., On Work (Oxford, 1988), p. 51. Similarly, Martin, J. M. emphasizes the prevalence of common rights among cottagers and small-scale landowners in the Feldon of Warwickshire, and June Sheppard stresses the universality of access to the wastes for all established households in the Yorkshire townships which she surveyed. See Martin, J. M., “Village Traders and the Emergence of a Proletariat in South Warwickshire,” Agricultural History Review, 32, pt. 2 (1984), pp. 179–88; and Sheppard, June A., “Field Systems of Yorkshire,” in Baker, A. R. H. and Butlin, R. A., eds., Studies of Field Systems in the British Isles (Cambridge, 1973), pp. 145–87. For the classic view of a pre-enclosure democratic pattern of ownership, see Slater, G. E., The English Peasantry and the Enclosure of Common Fields (New York, 1968). And for a qualified view, which still includes beneficiaries whose common rights were legally insecure, “the cottager with little or no land who none the less kept a cow remained as an important figure in the late eighteenth century common field community,” see Yelling, Common Field, p. 229.

9 Confutation of this view has been based on the stability of size distributions of farms before and after enclosure; see Chambers, J. D., “Enclosures and the Small Landowner,” Economic History Review, 10 (11 1940), pp. 118–27; Mingay, G. E., Enclosure and the Small Farmer in the Age of the Industrial Revolution: Studies in Economic History (London, 1968); Collins, K., “Marx on the English Agricultural Revolution: Theory and Evidence,” History and Theory: Studies in the Philosophy of History, 6 (No. 3, 1967), pp. 351–81. But Michael Turner's investigation of several Buckinghamshire villages suggests that after enclosure many independent smallholders were replaced by tradespeople, professionals, and petty rentiers from the towns. Their influx left the distribution of holdings unchanged, but “on the other hand the personal constitution of landownership was sometimes restructured completely”; see Turner, “Parliamentary Enclosure,” p. 569.Martin's, J. M. documentation of extensive traffic in common rights before enclosure and in allotments after enclosure provides supporting evidence from Warwickshire; see Martin, “The Small Landowner and Parliamentary Enclosure in Warwickshire,” Economic History Review, 32 (08 1979), pp. 328–43.

10 Gonner, E. C. K., Common Land and Enclosures (London, 1912), p. 365; Yelling, Common Field, p. 230.

11 Annals of Agriculture, 16 (1791), p. 483; for other examples see Snell, Annals, pp. 190–91; Martin detects “a distinct decline in generosity over time” in the compensation meted out to the village poor by enclosure commissioners, see “Village Traders,” p. 185.

12 Gonner, Common Land, p. 367; Giles, P. M., “The Enclosure of Common Lands in Stockport,” Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, 62 (19501951), pp. 73110, details how apparently unusually disinterested burghers enclosed and sold local commons allegedly to finance the construction of a prison and workhouse, but then belies this picture of public-spirited generosity with evidence of subsequent misappropriation of the proceeds.

13 Parkinson, R., A General View of the Agriculture of the County of Huntingdon (London, 1813), p. 256; Bailey, J. and Culley, G., A General View of the Agriculture of the County of Northumberland (London, 1813), p. 36.

14 Hammond, J. L. and Hammond, B., The Village Labourer, 1760–1832 (London, 1919); Hobsbawm, E. J. and Rude, G., Captain Swing (London, 1969); Thompson, E. P., The Making of the English Working Class (New York, 1963); Snell, Annals; Neeson, J. M., “The Opponents of Enclosure in Eighteenth Century Northamptonshire,” Past and Present, 105 (11 1984), pp. 114–39.

15 Thirsk, The Agrarian History of England and Wales, pp. 10–13, 204, 403; Wrightson, K., English Society, 1580–1680 (London, 1982), pp. 126–27.

16 Young, A., General Report on Enclosures (London, 1808), p. 12.

17 Bailey and Culley, Northumberland, p. 263.

18 Annals of Agriculture, 16 (1791), p. 502.

19 Young, A., “An Inquiry into the Propriety of Applying Wastes to the Better Maintenance and Support of the Poor,” Annals of Agriculture, 36 (1801), p. 515; Hunt, E. P., Arthur Young on Industry and Economics (Bryn Mawr, 1926).

20 Plymley, J., A General View of the Agriculture of Shropshire (London, 1813), p. 145.

22 Pringle, A., A General View of the Agriculture of the County of Westmoreland (London, 1813), p. 354; Young, General Report, p. 12.

23 Davis, Thomas, A General View of the Agriculture of the County of Wiltshire (London, 1813), p. 40.

24 Parliamentary Papers, 5 (1844); for an excellent summary of the modern treatment of rent increases as a motive to enclose, see Turner, Michael, English Parliamentary Enclosure: Its Historical Geography and Economic History (London, 1980), p. 98 ff. and references cited therein.

25 Young, “An Inquiry,” p. 515; here Young anticipates the framework and conclusions, if not the method, of a recent comment on the welfare implications of enclosure. Nick von Tunzelmann's use of dynamic optimization to evaluate actual and feasible time paths of consumption per head for industrializing Britain suggests that a less brutal pace of enclosure would not have retarded growth significantly, see his “The Standard of Living Debate and Optimal Economic Growth,” in Mokyr, Joel, ed., The Economics of the Industrial Revolution (London, 1985).

26 Young, General Report, pp. 3–4.

27 Ibid., pp. 6–7.

28 Ibid., pp. 12–13.

29 Young, “An Inquiry,” p. 510; Levine, D., Reproducing Families: The Political Economy of English Population History (London, 1987), p. 67.

30 “…setting the profit of the calf against the loss sustained when the cow is dry”; Mr. Kent's estimate appears as a footnote in SirSinclair, John, “Observations on the Means of Enabling a Cottager to Keep A Cow,” Communications to the Board of Agriculture, 4 (1805), pp. 358–69.

31 Clapham, An Economic History, p. 496.

32 Davies, David, The Case of Laborers in Husbandry (New Brunswick, 1977); Eden, Frederic Morton, The State of the Poor (London, 1928). See also the historians of diet: Drummond, J. C. and Wilbraham, A., The Englishman's Food: A History of Five Centuries of English Diet (London, 1950); Oddy, D. J. and Miller, D. S., eds., The Making of the British Diet (London, 1976); Burnett, John, Plenty and Want: A Social History of Diet in England from 1815 to the Present Day (London, 1966).

33 Burnett, Plenty, pp. 254–55; Drummond and Wilbraham, The Englishman's Food, p. 245.

34 Burnett, Plenty, pp. 254–55; Drummond and Wilbraham, The Englishman's Food, pp. 247–48.

35 Davis, Wiltshire, p. 41; “An Account of the Produce of Milk and Butter from a Cow, the Property of William Cramp of Lewes in the County of Sussex,” Communications to the Board of Agriculture, 5 (1801), pp. 122–25.

36 Mr. Barker (to Lord Winchilsea), reported in Winchilsea, Lord, “Cottages,” Communications to the Board of Agriculture, 1 (1797), p. 80.

37 Winchilsea, Lord, “Cottages,” p. 81.

39 Bailey and Cully, Northumberland, p. 236; Plymley, Shropshire, pp. 224–25.

40 Pringle, Westmoreland, p. 322; Giles, “Enclosure in Stockport,” pp. 87–88; this is not to deny that population growth put pressure on stint agreements, see Turner, English Parliamentary Enclosure, chap. 6.

41 Brownlow, Lord, “Queries Concerning Cottagers,” Communications to the Board of Agriculture, 1 (1797), p. 85.

42 Ibid.; for other evidence of the lucrative hiring out of common rights, see Pringle, Westmoreland, p. 321.

43 Arbuthnot, , quoted in Kussmaul, Ann, Servants in Husbandry in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 1981), pp. 2223.

44 Brownlow, “Queries,” p. 86.

45 Collins, E. J. T., “Labour Supply and Demand in European Agriculture, 1800–1880,” in Jones, E. L. and Woolf, S. J., eds., Agrarian Change and Economic Development: The Historical Problems (London, 1969), pp. 6194; Parliamentary Papers, 21–22 (1861).

46 Levine, Reproducing Families, p. 67.

47 For a modern orthodox perspective on the efficiency of open field agriculture, see McCloskey, D. N., “The Enclosure of Open Fields: Preface to a Study of its Impact on the Efficiency of English Agriculture in the Eighteenth Century,” this JOURNAL, 32 (03 1972), pp. 1535; but Havinden, M. A., “Agricultural Progress in Open Field Oxfordshire,” Agricultural History Review, 4 (1961), pp. 7383, demonstrates that enclosure was not a necessary condition for progressive farming; the link between the commons and the discipline of agricultural labor is a major theme in Snell, Annals, p. 170 ff.

48 Sinclair, “Observations,” pp. 358–59.

49 Winchilsea, “Cottages,” p. 80.

50 In SirSinclair's, John scheme the cow was maintained by arable farming, which “requires unquestionably more labour on the part of the cottager, and of his family: at the same time, the occupation of so great an extent of ground is not so necessary …,” “Observations,” p. 358.

51 Ibid., p. 367.

52 Winchilsea, “Cottages,” p. 80; Vavasour, Henry, “Reference to the Flemish Manner,” Communications to the Board of Agriculture, 4 (1805), p. 308.

53 See also Barnett, D. C., “Allotments and the Problem of Rural Poverty, 1780–1840,” in Jones, E. L. and Mingay, G. E., eds., Land, Labour and Population in the Industrial Revolution (London, 1967), pp. 162–86.

54 Yelling, Common Field; Snell, Annals.

55 Snell, Annals; Barnett, “Allotments.” Note here too the farmers' apparent reluctance to encourage cowkeeping by selling hay to their laborers, a stance which MrBarclay, argued against on the grounds that a laborer who was dependent on a farmer for hay would “keep more closely by his work.” See Barclay, Robert, “On Labourers in Husbandry Renting Land,” Communications to the Board of Agriculture, 1 (1797), pp. 9192.

56 Martin, “Village Traders.”

57 Winchilsea, “Cottages,” p. 81.

58 Brownlow, “Queries,” p. 90.

59 Pringle, Westmoreland.

60 Everitt, Alan, “Farm Labourers,” in Thirsk, , ed., Agrarian History, pp. 396465.

61 Stevenson, William, A General View of the Agriculture of the County of Surrey (London, 1813), p. 459.

62 In his Annals, Keith Snell gives £5.20, £6.87, and £7.87 as average female earnings in Surrey, Kent, Essex, and Hertfordshire in 1801–5, and 1806–10, and 1811–15. Of course, any one gathering activity would be unlikely to provide year-round employment, but different kinds of selfemployment, often including cottage industry, could be patched together and integrated with domestic work and childcare.

63 Horn, Pamela, Labouring Life in the Victorian Countryside (Dublin, 1976).

64 Sinclair, “Observations,” p. 364.

65 Cobbett, William, Rural Rides (London, 1922); Davidson, Caroline, A Woman's Work is Never Done: A History of Housework in the British Isles, 1650–1950 (London, 1982).

66 Parliamentary Papers, Commons Inclosure, p. 55ff.

67 Ibid., p. 71.

68 Hammond and Hammond, Village Labourer, p. 107.

69 Ibid., p. 129; Wrightson, English Society, p. 175.

70 Parliamentary Papers, Commons Inclosure, p. 77.

71 Yelling, Common Field, p. 227; Martin, “Village Traders,” p. 183, quotes Homer to the effect that gleaning rights were a “special boon” to the cottagers precisely because the product did not vary with good or bad harvests and so was “most advantageous when most wanted to be so”.

72 Morgan, David H. notes that on some farms, laborers, particularly those with access to stocks, were prohibited from keeping pigs and poultry; see “The Place of Harvesters in Nineteenth-Century Village Life,” in Samuel, Raphael, ed., Village Life and Labour (London, 1975), pp. 2772.

73 Harries, E., “Letter,” Annals of Agriculture, 25 (1796), p. 488; Jennie Kitteringham, “Country Work Girls in Nineteenth-Century England,” in Samuel, ed., Villiage Life, pp. 73–139, also suggests that, with hard work, it was possible to glean enough to supply bread for a family during the winter months.

74 Eden, State of the Poor, p. 547.

75 Pinchbeck, Ivy, Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution (New York, 1969).

77 For an excellent survey of this debate, see Thomas, Janet, “Women and Capitalism: Oppression or Emancipation? A Review Article,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 30 (1988), pp. 534–49.

78 For the important references, see ibid.

79 Richards, Eric, “Women in the British Economy since about 1700: An Interpretation,” History, 59 (10. 1974), pp. 337–57; Tilly, Louise A. and Scott, Joan W., Women, Work and Family (New York, 1978); Baines, D. C., “The Labour Supply and the Labour Market, 1860–1914,” in Floud, Roderick and McCloskey, Donald, eds., The Economic History of Britain Since 1700 (Cambridge, 1981); Snell, K. D. M., “Agricultural Seasonal Unemployment, the Standard of Living and Women's Work in the South and East, 1690–1860,” Economic History Review, 34 (08. 1981), pp. 407–37; Joseph, George, Women at Work (Oxford, 1983).

80 For example, Kitteringham, “Country Work Girls”; Kussmaul, Servants.

81 Snell, Annals.

82 Modem research confirms fragmentary historical evidence suggesting that in the absence of facilities for bottle-feeding, sterilization equipment, appropriate food, and pure water, breastfeeding was essential for infant survival, see UNICEF, The World's Children (Paris, 1978); Brenner, Joanna and Ramas, Maria, “Rethinking Women's Oppression,” New Left Review, 144 (0304. 1981), pp. 3371; Jane Humphries, “The Sexual Division of Labour and Social Control: An Interpretation,” Review of Radical Political Economics (forthcoming).

83 Eden, The State of the Poor; Davies, The Case of Labourers. Data for a group of families in Lincoinshire in 1868 also suggests that the harvest earnings of women represented about 7 percent of annual income. But these women were able to work for additional wages in the Sping, increasing their yearly contribution to 12 to 14 percent. Inclusion of the harvest earnings of children boosted the contribution of autumnal wages to around one-seventh of the whole livelihood: see Horn, Labouring Life in the Victorian Countryside. Recasting David Morgan's judgment in terms of rural families, not individual workers, such earnings could indeed be the key to survival, “The Place of Harvesters,” p. 38.

84 “Report from his Majesty's Commissioners for Inquiring into the Operation of the Poor Laws in England and Wales: Appendix B I,” Parliamentary Papers, 30 (1834).

85 Haden, C. T., Practical Observations on the Management and Disease of Children (London, 1827), pp. 24, 124.

86 Pinchbeck, Women; Kussmaul, Servants; Snell, Annals.

87 Hammond and Hammond, The Village Labourer; Hobsbawm and Rude, Captain Swing; Wrightson, English Society.

88 Morgan, “The Place of Harvesters,” p. 58.

89 Pinchbeck, Women.

90 Eyre, G. E. Briscoe, The New Forest, Its Common Rights and Cottage Stock-Keepers (Lyndhurst, 1883), pp. 5455.

91 Winchilsea, “Cottages,” p. 78; Pinchbeck, Women.

92 MrCrutchley, , “Answers to the Queries Respecting Cottagers Renting Land,” Communications to the Board of Agriculture, 1 (1797), p. 94.

93 Thompson, Thomas, “Reasons for Giving Lands to Cottagers to Enable them to Keep Cows,” Communications to the Board of Agriculture, 4 (1805), p. 427.

94 Babington, Thomas, “Account of Some Cottagers,” Communications to the Board of Agriculture. 4 (1805), p. 394.Social benefits significantly collapsed into benefits to ratepayers. The Board of Agriculture's schemes were intended to reduce applications for relief, and similarly Arthur Young's calculations of the costs and benefits were in terms of the impact on poor law expenditures. The logic was impeccable: if families' incomes were not to be supplemented from the rates, and if wages were not to increase, underemployed women and children had to be found work.

95 Pinchbeck, Women.

96 SirPulteney, William, “Account of a Cottager,” Communications to the Board of Agriculture, 4 (1805), p. 344.

97 Kerr, Barbara, Bound to the Soil: A Social History of Dorset, 1750–1918 (London, 1968), pp. 8081.

98 Norfolk Federation of Women's Institutes, Within Living Memory, quoted in Horn, Labouring Life, p. 30.

99 See Davidson, Woman's Work.

100 Sturt, George, Change in the Village (London, 1912), p. 23.

101 Thompson, Flora, Lark Rise to Candleford (London, 1954), p. 14.

102 Plymley's views are typical: “the commons operates upon their minds as a sort of independence: this idea leads the man to lose many days work by which he gets a habit of indolence: a daughter kept at home to milk a poor half-starved cow, who being open to temptation soon turns harlot, and becomes a distressed ignorant mother instead of making a useful servant.”Shropshire, p. 225.

103 Ibid., p. 225, his emphasis.

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