Skip Navigation

Welcome to Bedford Borough Council

Home > Guides to collections > Inclosure Records Introduction

Inclosure Records Introduction

Inclosure and awards and the papers that go with them are not easy to understand. This article will not be enough for someone who intends to make a serious study of an award, but they should show ordinary local or family historians just what unexpected evidence lurks in these records.

You have all seen diagrams of a village under the old open field system of agriculture. In the centre is the church, and houses and cottages are grouped around the green and along the street, each having a garden or small fenced paddock for the horse or cow overnight. The lord of the manor's mansion is surrounded by a fenced-off park and some fenced fields - the old demesne land. But apart from these, the rest of the village lies in two or three huge arable fields, each up to 700 acres in extent, and each made up of a number of furlongs or blocks of unfenced long, narrow, quarter-acre strips. Along the stream lie the meadow, and any infertile ground is left as common woodland and pasture, where a villager can dig for sand or stone, and collect firewood. Whether you owned or rented a farm, your arable land was in strips scattered throughout the arable fields, which had to be cultivated according to a three year rotation, and at certain times of the year your land was used as pasture by the village's cattle and sheep.

Over the centuries people had tried to enclose land so that it could be in one person's ownership, as today, and by 1750 many parishes had been enclosed completely, and in most others there was a good area of enclosures. But where open field agriculture survived, there could be no improvement in strains of wheat or breeds of cattle, no improved crop rotation or new crops, no sub-soil drainage, or protection against a neighbour's rampant weeds. Indeed, the improvement in productivity and value was perhaps the main inducement to procure an act of parliament for the enclosure of open field land. The first in Bedfordshire was Sutton (1741), the last Totternhoe (1891), but in this county the great majority of enclosures came between 1794 and 1819.

Enclosure Papers

The first move in an enclosure was to obtain a private act of Parliament, and for this you needed the approval of the owners of the greater part of the land in the parish, and more particularly of any Oxford or Cambridge College (if a landowner). The Diocese and incumbent could very nearly dictate their own terms, for no bill could pass through both houses of Parliament if one of these should be opposed to it. Thus those promoting the enclosure, usually a group of local landowners, would engage a local attorney to act as their agent, and the first documents to begin to pile up in his strongroom are lists of all the owners of property in the parish, often based on the land tax returns, with perhaps a brief description of the properties, acreages and value, and whether `for' or `against' the enclosure. In time, with the assistance of a London Parliamentary agent, the bill would go through and become an Act, and the bundles or correspondence begin to pile up.

The provisions of most Acts were very similar. Two or three commissioners were appointed - often these were the stewards of large estates, or independent gentlemen with experience of the work. They appointed a surveyor (though sometimes he had been named in the Act), and his first task was to survey the village and measure every piece of land, and find the owner, occupier, and value. This sometimes produced not only a written survey, but also a pre-enclosure map (e.g. Stevington). The latter could be used later as a base on which to sketch out the post-enclosure landscape.

Notices were issued (by nailing to the church door) for all who had rights on the commons or had property in the open arable fields to submit their claims, stating which owner acquired the property, and how. The claims which provoked the most dissension were those relating to "ancient cottages".

The right to put beasts on the parish commons was usually attached to open-field arable land - perhaps one sheep to each acre, and a cow for every ten acres. However, villages contained "ancient cottages", the occupier of which from time immemorial had the right to put a cow and a few sheep on the commons although they had no arable land. Instead of this right the owner would, at the enclosure, get a small allotment of land. However, other, newer cottages often claimed the same right, and these cases were argued and evidence presented and the commissioners' decision recorded in their minutes. In Leighton Buzzard there were so many claims by people who said they had the right to dig stone and sand on the Heath, as well as to pasture beasts, that there is a separate book of evidence, in which witnesses recount their life histories, and the memories of their fathers and grandfathers. After all this had been decided, the commissioners asked where proprietors would like their new pieces or allotments of land to be situated.

To produce a more economical road system (the upkeep of public highways could be a heavy burden on the parish) the commissioners published in local newspapers schedules of the old public highways that were to be closed or altered, and of the new roads and footways proposed to be set out. Roads were of more than local interest. Sometimes there was also a plan (e.g. Kempston) and objections were heard and decided upon.

All the time the commissioners were regulating the culture of the open field land in the transition period before it came into private ownership, and deciding on payments for, say, turnips planted by one owner but harvested by another.

The cost of any enclosure was heavy, and the money was raised by periodic rates levied on proprietors, but you might find also that there are special rates to pay for drainage and for the fencing and ditching of the new allotments. Contractors for the work sent in their bills, which might also give the names of local labourers, and there will be bills for the commissioners' expenses. A great deal of money was spent on making up the new Highways, and again there will be bills among the enclosure papers.

The commissioners held regular meetings at local inns (and there are bills for their meals and refreshments) and the clerk kept a record of their decisions in the minute book. Minute books are more likely to survive that the much more interesting but ephemeral papers, but it is the latter which are likely to contain the best evidence about many of the families in the village and to shed light on the local community at a time of change, so count yourself lucky if they survive for your village.