Why did contemporaries engage in such fierce debate over the impact of enclosure in eighteenth century England?
The eighteenth century carried a number of problems including inflation, the effects of the French wars, the growth of industry and the demand for more food and this compelled farmers to use all available land in a more productive manor. The main obstacle to improvements in agriculture was thought to be the open field system of farming and this led to enclosure occurring first in the form of private agreement between landowners and then by Parliamentary enclosure from about 1750. Enclosure changed agricultural practices which had operated under systems of co-operation in communally administered landholdings, usually in large fields which were devoid of physical territorial boundaries. In their place it created systems in which agricultural holding was on a non-communal, individual basis where man-made boundaries separated one person's land from that of his neighbours.
Open-field farming and landownership structure was thereby replaced by individual initiative and individual landholding; specific ownership of land was registered; shared ownership was separated (by identifying common rights of property); and communal obligations, privileges and rights were declared void for all time. Parliamentary enclosure occurred particularly during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars when 18 percent of England's land was enclosed and this prompted much contemporary debate.
Much of the debate in the eighteenth century was about the principles and efficiencies of the open field system and indeed the supporters of enclosure claimed the communal system was hugely wasteful and inefficient. Much opposition to enclosure however felt that this system was flexible; capable of significant improvements without enclosure and indeed that it was better to have a lot of self supporting farmers then one large market producing farm. The fierce debate about the impact of enclosure therefore originates from...