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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 14

Appropriation of Common Lands

Appropriation of Common Lands.

Why prosecute the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common,
But leave the greater felon loose
Who steals the common from the goose?

The abuse of Manorial Lordships indicated in a foregoing paragraph rapidly thinned down the area of commons and commonable lands. The term "Common Lands" generally indicates lands that are in a state of nature in waste, the severalty of which is not in any individuals. Commonable lands are those portions which during a certain time each year are in severalty, viz., "Lammas Lands" (which from seedtime to 12th August are divided among occupiers that each till their own portion); commonable bay-fields (which are thrown open after hay harvest); &c. The village greens are most probably remnants of old unappropriated common field lands. From returns made to Parliament in 1873 the following would appear to be the

Total Estimated Acreage of the Commons and Common Field Lands in each County in England and Wales.

Area of Commons.
County. Total Area. Apparently capable of Cultivation. Apparently Mountain, or otherwise unsuitable for Cultivation. Area of Common Field Lauds.
England: Acres. Acres. Acres. Acres.
Bedford 295,516 4,630 19,981
Berks 455,035 7,663 15,932
Backs 468,574 10,438 4,680
Cambridge 547,427 5,919 7,476
Chester 715,835 8,541 9,092 715
Cornwall 857,608 45,457 22,803 901
Cumberland 973,510 27,550 160,168 2,045
Derby 642,794 8,536 12,603 1,757
Devon 1,657,749 85,172 79,835 1,157
Dorset 626,225 36,041 2,672 7,603
Durham 699,626 15,400 39,061 1,207
Essex 994,608 12,974 4,909
Gloucester 810,995 14,601 468 7,313
Hereford 540,539 6,794 3,409 2,498
Hertford 390,828 5,345 11,096
Huntingdon 230,486 597 3,672
Kent 1,002,972 5,066 3,110 4,309
Lancaster 1,205,037 23,542 45,333 3,298
Leicester 511,428 676 135
Lincoln 1,725,641 12,468 964 17,081
Middlesex 178,466 4,316 1,567
Monmouth 345,722 9,949 17,853 67
Norfolk 1,352,291 16,406 104 3,954
Northampton 633,286 2,947 17,549
Northumberland 1,236,655 19,712 3,502 51
Nottingham 529,281 1,513 10,899
Oxford 467,306 3,834 8,959
Rutland 92,696 2,268 9,656
Salop 852,493 18,879 14,935 525
Somerset 1,043,879 23,251 9,577 8,522
Southampton 1,027,673 41,502 6,388
Stafford 729,248 11,462 819 1,540
Suffolk 943,166 7,478 56 2,579
Surrey 479,921 42,936 4,009
Sussex 925,076 21,222 3,091
Warwick 565,448 1,216 2,440
Westmoreland 508,115 27,740 144,604 784
Wilts 869,233 8,395 891 22,670
Worcester 463,730 4,519 4,253
York, City and Ainsty 52,479 601 559
York, East Riding 742,701 10.599 440 11,405
York, West Riding 1,727,176 60,642 165,181 10,849
York, North Riding 1,336,268 53,721 200,051 787
Total 32,456,742 732,518 907,531 250,868
page 128
Area of Commons.
County. Total Area. Apparently capable of Cultivation. Apparently Mountain, or otherwise unsuitable for Cultivation. Area of Common Field Lauds.
Wales: Acres. Acres. Acres. Acres.
Anglesey 179,105 3,351 2,179 447
Brecon 472,716 22,277 120,288 1,554
Cardigan 434,969 6,167 27,097 372
Carmarthen 616,873 12,308 46,789 527
Carnarvon 372,405 6,643 23,399 107
Denbigh 385,253 9,923 38,155 296
Flint 162,564 1,619 2,918 301
Glamorgan 518,045 25,928 30,717 823
Merioneth 383,934 13,816 82,550 118
Montgomery 504,704 23,154 85,958 1,909
Pembroke 388,761 7,034 7,910 660
Radnor 281,102 19,246 48,985 6,325
Total 4,700,431 151,471 516,945 13,439
England 32,456,742 732,518 967,531 250,868
Wales 4,700,431 151,471 516,945 13,439
Total 37,157,173 883,989 1,484,476* 264,307
Total subject to Common Rights 2,632,772 acres.

And this was not a complete return, being based upon the tithe documents. As evidence of their imperfection, a Parliamentary report states that on an investigation of some 917 enclosures, it was found that 104 had taken place in parishes where the tithe documents made mention of no common lands at all. A return of 1843 (including only land upon which commutations of tithe had taken effect) specified 1,800,000 acres of common and waste out of 8,600,000 so far commuted. Proportioning this to the whole area of England and Wales, the Tithe Commissioners estimated that there would be altogether 8,000,000 acres of common and waste. This included wastes not subject to common (a very large item), but did not include Lammas lands (a considerable one).

Between the two authorities it seems fair to assume that probably four million acres (or over a tenth of the entire acreage) of England and Wales are still subject to common rights. Prior to 1800 some 1,600 or 1,700 Enclosure Acts had been passed, and from 1800 to 1845, 2,000 more were enacted—altogether 3,600 or 3,700 separate measures for the robbery of the poor by the landed rich. Sir James Caird (who understates the number of enclosures as 2,500) reckons the amount of land thus enclosed as 2,142,000 acres, but adds significantly that "besides this, a very large extent of country has been reclaimed without the intervention of Parliament." We might suggest to Sir James the more Shaksperian word "conveyed," which would be far more expressive and appropriate altogether.

In 1845 the reformed Parliament found time to pass an Act dealing with these private enclosures and with the cognate subject of the reclamation of wastes. On the evidence of a committee almost entirely composed of great landowners, and presided over by Lord Worsley, it was decided to encourage and cheapen enclosures in the interest of the great landlords, who, it appears, had to pay about £1,500 legal charges in getting their filching bills through. The specious plea that these lands were comparatively unproductive was used to blind the public into assent to an Act that validated and perpetuated the ancient frauds upon the people. True that clauses 30 and 31 allowed a proportional quantity of the lands to be appropriated according to population for purposes of recreation and amusement, and of a certain portion for allotments to the labouring poor, moreover clause 15 protected such of the village greens as were left; but the main object of the Whig and Tory magnates in this 1845 Act was made transparent, for it laid no hand upon offenders who had notoriously encroached, and by clause 50 it gave perpetual and unchallenged right of ownership in every case of 20 years' possession.

Under this Act 614,800 more acres were enclosed between 1845 and 1869, in which year Mr. William Cowper, M.P., and Mr. Vernon Harcourt rendered great service to the people by carrying a Select Committee "to inquire how far the provisions relating to the labouring poor were being carried out, and whether in order properly to protect the interests of the public the Act required amendment in respect to its provisions for places of public recreation and for allotments for the labouring poor." Under the vigorous cross-examination of these two gentlemen, one of whom is now a Peer and the other an Ex-Cabinet Minister, it was elicited that out of 368,000 acres which were subject to the provisions regarding playgrounds and cottage allotments, only 2,223 acres had been set apart for the former and 1,742 for the latter. Also that none but agriculturists were reckoned in calculating the population of "the labouring poor." Moreover that in a large number of the new enclosures, extending over 89,791 acres, no allotments whatever had been made—the Act leaving the Commissioners an option which they had improperly exercised for the deprivation of the rights of the poor. In other cases, one of which Sir W. Harcourt succeeded in stopping before it received the seal of the Commissioners, as much as 1,904 acres of common were enclosed and but one acre reserved for the people, that one acre (save the mark) to be used as a school playground only. Of course—as in all cases of Parliamentary enquiry—the officials were whitewashed and the finest excuses made for them in the report, such gentlemen being traditionally allowed to steal horses while those who pay their salaries must not so much as "look over a fence." However, following on the report of the Select Committee, a new Bill was passed, making many improvements upon the state of things, extending power to make half-acre allotments (instead of quarter-acre each) to the labourers, and preventing the extortionate rents that allotment wardens had been permitted to exact: these in many cases being three or four times the amount of the "fair agricultural rent." These rents and others were being applied in reduction of highway and poor rates (a splendid idea of the landlords in their Act of 1845), but it was now ordered that all residue should be employed in improving or fencing the recreation and allotment lands, or in hiring or purchasing land to add thereto. The final paragraph of the Select Committee's report of 1869 was as follows:—

"24. The general question of the action of the Inclosure Commission has necessarily come before your Committee in the course of their inquiries. Since the passing of the Act of 1845, the large increase in the population of the country, the increased value of land, the acknowledged need for maintaining public rights of way, the still greater necessity for providing recreation grounds and garden allotments for the labouring poor, taken with the large decrease of waste lands, have evidently very much increased the responsibility of this Commission. Your Committee believe that the alterations in the law which are suggested in this Report would affect beneficially the action of the Commission. At the same time they are of opinion that the constant attention of Parliament will be required on the annual introduction of the Inclosure Bill."

And undoubtedly such constant attention is still necessary. From 1845 to 1875 the general results of the Inclosure Commission were as follows—
Total Extent and Estimated Value of Land set out for Public Purposes, and Cash Expended thereon, to close of 1875.
For exercise and recreation 1,758
For field gardens 2,195
For public quarries and gravel pits 823
For fuel 1,168
For schools and churches 622
For burial grounds 106
For other miscellaneous purposes 85
For public roads (2,000 miles in extent, independent of occupation roads) covering 7,350
page 129
The value of this, at £20 an acre, being all out of the best of the laud 282,140
Cash expended on the construction of public roads and other public works connected with enclosures 473,500
Extent of Land allotted to Lords of Manors:—
  • One-fifteenth of the wastes, 414,000 acres, 27,600 acres, divided among 620 Lords, at an average of 44½ acres to each.
Extent of Land allotted to Common-right Owners:-
  • 526,890 acres divided among 21,810 common-right owners, at an average of 24 acres to each.
Extent of Land Sold:-
  • 34,450 acres to 3,500 purchasers, at an average of 10 acres to each.

Number of Separate Estates thus created out of Commons; by which it will be seen that an appreciable addition has been made to the number of small Landholders.

Lords of manors 620
Common-right owners 21,810
Purchasers 3,500

Of whom 4,836 were farmers, 3,456 tradesmen, 3,168 working-men, 2,624 esquires, 2,016 widows, 1,984 gentlemen, 1,280 clergymen. 1,067 artisans, 800 spinsters, 704 trustees of charities, 576 peers and baronets, 512 professional men, &c., &c.

Total Acreage Inclosed, and Estimated Value. Acres.
Acreage of lands dealt with, of which were 590,000
Commonable lands, not subject to public allotments 176,000
Wastes of manor, subject to public allotments 414,000
Estimated Saleable Value of the Wastes in their natural state, without Buildings, Drainage, or Fences.
Lands in high country: 214,000 at £10 per acre 2,140,000
Lauds in low country: 200,000 at £20 per acre 4,000,000

In 1871 a further Select Committee reported that the veto invested in Lords of the Manors was being employed to impose terms not consistent with the spirit or sometimes even with the letter of the Inclosure Acts, and that the officials representing the Crown Manors had frequently stipulated that the nomination of valuers should be left absolutely to their discretion, in spite of the provisions of Section S3. The Committee demanded refusal of assent to such conditions and the prevention of a mis-use of the Lords of Manors' veto. Moreover, they recommended the appointment of a Special Committee for the consideration of each annual Inclosnres bill, and laid down emphatically the dictum that "It rests with those who ask the assistance of Parliament and seek its authority, in order to procure for themselves advantages which, without that, they could not obtain, to make out a clear case of public advantage."

Since the Commons Act of 1876, 89 applications for Regulation and Enclosure of Commons have been made to the Land Commission, embracing together some 113,774 acres in all. Of these

Parliament has sanctioned the regulation of 22.529 acres
And the enclosure of 22,430 acres
Whilst there are under consideration 10,173 acres
55,132 acres

All the remaining cases have been refused or withdrawn.

* Much of this is, no doubt, capable of improvement for pasture.