Carolyn Lesjak, “1750 to the Present: Acts of Enclosure and Their Afterlife”


Although certain events, such as the General Enclosure Act (1801) and the Swing Riots (1830), punctuate the history of enclosure in Britain, enclosure was in actuality a centuries-long process that involved thousands of Acts of enclosure, numerous forms of resistance from commoners and the newly industrial working class, and the destruction of an entire way of life subtended by common right. Given its long durée, enclosure challenges the idea of a discrete historical “event,” a challenge this entry attempts to take up, both in terms of considering how we look back to the past and forward into the future as members of a now fully global commons.

It might seem strange, in 2015, to return to the history of enclosure and its status as a movement, a set of practices, a politics, and an ideology, given its rootedness in a landscape and a population that is now on the path to extinction. If the period from approximately the 16th-19th centuries marks the beginning of the depopulation of the British countryside, developments today signal its global end. “The global countryside,” Mike Davis reports in his recent Planet of Slums, “has reached its maximum population and will begin to shrink after 2020″ (2). Hardly a natural phenomenon, the burgeoning growth of megacities and megaslums and the consequent shift in the world’s population from the countryside to these urban centres is occurring, much like it did in nineteenth-century Britain and earlier, through a complex set of intertwined social, political, geographical and economic factors, processes, parliamentary acts and governmental actions—and inaction. Also, as in the nineteenth century, this shift in population goes both ways, as urbanization also extends to the countryside. Davis comments about developments in southern China, for example, that “Indeed, in many cases, rural people no longer have to migrate to the city: it migrates to them” (9). In 1829, George Cruikshank captures this same dynamic visually in an etching entitled “London Going out of Town, or the March of Bricks and Mortar,” in which animated haystacks, trees, and fences bemoan the onslaught of “Mr. Goth brickmaker in Brixton” and the destruction his bricks and mortar bring: an uprooted tree cries “I must leave the field,” while the fences reckon “I fear [we] will be found to be no defense against these Barbarians who threaten to . . . destroy us in a ‘manor’ of ways,” punning on the Lord of the Manor’s attempt at the time to pass a bill to enclose the fields of Hampstead (see Fig. 1).

Cruikshank etching

Figure 1: Etching by George Cruikshank of “London Going out of Town, or the March of Bricks and Mortar” (1829, reproduced with permission from the London Museum)

While it may seem a long way from the British countryside to the chawls and favelas of today’s megacities and mega-slums, seeing today’s “urban climacteric” (Davis’s term) as the logical outcome of the set of practices and policies that coalesced around acts of enclosure in Britain usefully helps us to see the ways in which enclosure was at once a local phenomenon, and one that, from its outset, had a potentially global reach, if not the fully realized means to impose its order on a global scale. Cruikshank’s bricks and mortar, for example, did not stop at the English countryside; the twin processes of enclosure and deforestation extended across the British empire and beyond, providing, among other things, the wood for English furniture—a process that Elaine Freedgood traces in her analysis of Jane Eyre and its references to the mahogany that comes from Madeira and Britain’s colony, Jamaica. Enclosure, she writes, “requires deforestation; deforestation in turn guarantees the legible demarcation of space—its visibility and its representability” (39). A long view also usefully reminds us that what was destroyed by the centuries-long history of enclosure—the commons, common right, communal wastes and forests, a certain form of labor independence—contained a nascent worldview too, but one which envisioned a radical alternative to what has now come to pass in our “planet of slums.” The lived experience of the commons captured by the poet John Clare, and shared by his fellow labouring commoners, constituted nothing short of an alternative epistemology, a “distinct ecology…dependent on the unenclosed,” according to Peter Linebaugh (“Enclosures” 18-19). Clare himself equates the “lawless law” (one of his terms for enclosure) with the destruction of the “rights of freedom,” rights figured in a range of spatial registers both local and expansive, from the felling of an individual elm tree that “barked off freedom” (“The Elm Tree” 141) to the “right to roam” (Jonathan Bate’s phrase), which not only names Clare’s immediate experience of what was lost when his native village of Helpston was enclosed, but implies, as well, a profoundly different relationship to the geography of social space itself and our place within it. (Bate approvingly cites E. P. Thompson’s claim that “Clare may be described, without hindsight, as a poet of ecological protest: he was not writing about man here and nature there, but lamenting a threatened equilibrium in which both were involved” [50]). Finally, a return to the “event” of enclosure also forces us to think metacritically about the very notion of an event (which frames and organizes BRANCH itself; see Herbert Tucker, “On the Event of the Second Reform,” who asks: “Event: what’s the long and the short of it?”) and, most importantly and pressingly, about the distinct representational challenges centuries-long historical events pose both for criticism today and for the fiction and non-fiction writers living through enclosure and its aftermath in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

I. The Longue Durée of Enclosure

The ability to connect the British countryside and urban slums is not limited to a retrospective history of enclosure. Contemporaneous riots and other forms of resistance to specific acts of enclosure and the fact of enclosure, more broadly, register how deeply entwined the fate of the country and the future of the city were. Certainly divisions—especially the central division forming the title of Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City—have, historically, obscured such connections, so much so that Williams’s overall aim, registered by his titular “and,” was precisely to show how this division as such never existed and instead to chart the deep interconnectedness of the countryside and the city in the development of nineteenth-century agrarian capitalism.

Likewise, the operative nature of this division cannot be underestimated, enforced, as it has been, in numerous ideological ways by the left and right alike. On the one hand, as Ian Dyck notes, in William Cobbett and Rural Popular Culture (to which I will return), critical studies of this period’s labour politics have been more interested in industrial workers, aided by age-old stereotypes of the rural labourer as constitutionally incapable of a radical politics. The figure of Hodge (a fourteenth-century invention), whom Thomas Hardy describes in his essay on “The Dorsetshire Labourer,” typifies the limitations of the rural labourer in the urban imagination. “This supposed real but highly conventional Hodge,” Hardy notes, “is a degraded being of uncouth manner and aspect, stolid understanding, and snail­like movement:

His speech is such a chaotic corruption of regular language that few persons of progressive aims consider it worthwhile to enquire what views, if any, of life, of nature, or of society, are conveyed in these utterances. Hodge hangs his head or looks sheepish when spoken to, and thinks Lunnon a place paved with gold. Misery and fever lurk in his cottage, while, to paraphrase the words of a recent writer on the labouring classes, in his future there are only the workhouse and the grave. He hardly dares to think at all. (38-39)

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in large part share this view, a view famously perpetuated in their reference to “the idiocy of rural life”(40)—although “idiocy” here, as Eric Hobsbawm clarifies in his introduction to The Communist Manifesto, actually refers to “the narrow horizons” of rural life rather than to “stupidity,” as it is commonly understood. Hobsbawm nonetheless acknowledges that Marx “shared the usual townsman’s contempt for—as well as ignorance of—the peasant milieu”(11).

Yet, in practice, peasant farmers and industrial labourers often joined together, as they did in June 1791 in response to a Private Enclosure Act that redistributed 6,000 acres of commons to local landlords, freeholders and tithe-owners. The mob that ensued, composed of both those farmers being driven from their land and industrial laborers (the future for many newly landless farmers), embodied, as Robert Anderson argues, the close connection between enclosure and industrial capitalism. If we return to an earlier moment, when the first bills of enclosure were being passed in Parliament in 1621, the complex nature of enclosure as a twinned agricultural and urban process is clear. Discussing the debates around the 1621 bill, Christopher Hill notes that enclosure “[affected] more than the profits of individuals. If the English economy was to continue to expand, a more specialised division of labour was essential. More food would have to be grown to feed the industrial areas, food prices must be lowered, and corn import ended” (18). The fact that enclosure would lead to the depopulation of the countryside was understood. Indeed, up until 1597, the Tudor government had passed bills to prevent enclosure on precisely these grounds, as Hill documents. Later, as well, the anti-Jacobin turned radical journalist and editor of the Political Register, William Cobbett, riding through the rural English rural countryside in the 1820s, continually links the worsening conditions of the farm laborers he sees to the “infernal stock-jobbing system” (184), a link materialized for him in an old oak-table being sold at auction in the Weald of Surrey. The table, at which a “Master Charington” used to sit down with his farm laborers, is no longer needed, as communal food and board, previously staples provided by farmers to their workers, have been replaced by a system of wages alone. As Cobbett queries rhetorically, “if the farmer now shuts his pantry against his labourers, and pays them wholly in money, is it not clear, that he does it because he thereby gives them a living cheaper to him; that is to say, a worse living than formerly?” (183). In Cobbett’s telling, the Master has now become the Squire, his daughters the “Miss Charingtons,” a “species of mock gentlefolks” (183), and the table itself destined to make its way “to the bottom of a bridge that some stock-jobber will stick up over an artificial river in his cockney-garden.”  This particular encounter so incenses Cobbett that he decides to purchase the table himself and “keep it for the good it has done in the world” (184). Had he not, who knows but it might have become part of the drawbridge to Wemmick’s Walworth castle in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations providing passage between London and its growing suburbs—which developed in the mid-to late nineteenth century and are equally part of the afterlife of enclosure. By 1912, with working- and middle-class suburbs absorbing the burgeoning masses of a vast metropolitan London, the working-class writer Edwin Pugh writes in The City of the World that the suburbs “feed the City” while making suburbanites into “black-coated hordes” (quoted in Hapgood, 177).

Whether in its earliest moments or later suburban incarnations, the dynamic of enclosure necessarily included at its center what Philip Corrigan and Derek Sayer refer to as the “great ‘freeing’ of labor” (96), a dynamic explicitly theorized by Marx in Capital, in the chapter on “Primitive Accumulation”—a conceptual framework, significantly, that has received renewed attention by contemporary theorists such as Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, specifically in relation to the current processes of globalization. As Negt and Kluge argue, primitive accumulation is ongoing, the misnomer “primitive” being understood to refer to a discrete historical moment rather than a logic that continues to organize capitalist development today. But to return to Marx, and a passage on enclosure and its relationship to the expropriation of property, worth quoting at length:

Communal property — always distinct from the State property just dealt with — was an old Teutonic institution which lived on under cover of feudalism. We have seen how the forcible usurpation of this, generally accompanied by the turning of arable into pasture land, begins at the end of the 15th and extends into the 16th century. But, at that time, the process was carried on by means of individual acts of violence against which legislation, for a hundred and fifty years, fought in vain. The advance made by the 18th century shows itself in this, that the law itself becomes now the instrument of the theft of the people’s land, although the large farmers make use of their little independent methods as well. The parliamentary form of the robbery is that of “Bills for Inclosure of Commons,” in other words decrees by which the landlords grant themselves the people’s land as private property, decrees of expropriation of the people. (885)

Marx identifies a number of key aspects of the enclosure movement here. First is the actual timeline of enclosure, which extends from the end of the 15th to the mid-nineteenth century, and, as I will argue, therefore defies commonsense understandings of historical events as discrete, locatable, and terminal—especially given that communal property continues to be fought over and expropriated beyond Marx’s own time and right into the present. How then to capture the historical process of enclosure without doing damage to its “non-evental” aspects, or “slow violence” (to borrow Rob Nixon’s suggestive term for capturing the processes of climate change), perpetrated over the course of multiple centuries but not visible in any simple, transparent way? Second is the importance of the eighteenth century within this long timeline, given the shift in political relations that occurs in which “the law itself becomes now the instrument of the theft of the people’s land” via Acts of Parliament, also known as “Bills for Inclosure of Commons.” And as Marx goes on to clarify, the sleight of hand involved in claiming communal property as private property is evident in the very need for parliamentary acts and the ideological warfare against the “expropriated poor” accompanying them. Regardless of which side one was on, however, nothing less than a “redefinition of agrarian property itself” was at issue, as Thompson underscores: “But what was ‘perfectly proper’ in terms of capitalist property-relations involved, none the less, a rupture of the traditional integument of village custom and of right: and the social violence of enclosure consisted precisely in the drastic, total imposition upon the village of capitalist property-definitions” (238).

Finally, Marx directly links the expropriation of land and the expropriation of people, tying rural labourers and urban workers to one another, and making clear that enclosure and industrial revolution go hand in hand. In an earlier passage, for instance, he stresses that “Nowhere does the antagonistic character of capitalist production and accumulation assert itself more brutally than in the progress of English agriculture (including cattle-breeding) and the retrogression of the English agricultural labourer” (828).

The numbers alone bear out these claims. If enclosure in the 16th century was largely “by agreement” and, in fact, condemned by both the church and the government, who sided with the commoners’ claims regarding “common rights,” by the 1750s the government had taken the lead and over the course of the period from 1750-1830 passed over 4000 Acts of Enclosure, resulting in over 21% of the land (approximately 6.8 million acres) being enclosed (see Ellen Rosenman’s BRANCH essay on “Enclosure Acts and the Commons”). By the end of the century, virtually all the open fields in Britain were gone. How this looked and was experienced of course varied from parish to parish, region to region within Britain, the detailed social history of which, in recent years, has been increasingly well documented, as new archival research and new access to archives, as well as a “localist” turn within nineteenth-century scholarship, has brought renewed attention to the individual particulars of enclosure and to individual landowners. These “small stories” are indispensable to the social history of enclosure, as are the individual responses to enclosure that works such as Cobbett’s rides or Clare’s poetry records. At the same time, however, these local histories risk losing the long view in their necessarily synchronic approach to history. In contrast, a reading across a large swath of time and space—the very kind of swath that defines the history of enclosure—allows for a diachronic reading of history in which structural determinations and limitations (of geography, of capitalist logic) can emerge and be made visible, even as they seem to defy historical representation by dint of their scope, nature and lack of “eventfulness.”

The historical record regarding the actual parliamentary acts that destroyed the commons, as well as forests and wastes, and the riots that often followed are well documented and provide us with a good picture of what the Annales School refers to as the history of “events” (historians and sociologists such as Fernand Braudel and Francois Simiand call this histoire événementielle or “eventual history”) rather than long-term structures. Representative, and perhaps most well-known, are the Swing Riots of 1830 (Fig. 2), in which agricultural workers in Elham Valley, near Kent, destroyed threshing machines, burned ricks, smashed barns and workhouses, and maimed cattle—in short, attacked the visible signs of the new capitalist relations being imposed on agrarian production and rural life, more broadly. But, as with the larger challenge to representing enclosure, these objects must also stand in, inadequately, for a centuries-long process of impoverishment and dispossession, an impoverishment no less recognized by lords than by commoners. Lord Carnarvon, for example, noted in Parliament in 1830, that enclosure, “by making the agricultural labourer dependent for the payment of his hardly-earned wages on poor-rates, miserably and churlishly doled out, had rendered the condition of the poor of the country more abject than that of the poor of any other nation . . . with the farmers . . . no longer able to feed and employ their labourers” (reported in Hansard, n.p.). Or, as the labour historians John and Barbara Hammond put it, “Before enclosure the cottager was a labourer with land; after enclosure he was a labourer without land.” The Hammonds also detail the specific changes in the crucial sixty-year period from 1770-1830, changes that must surely resonate with neo-liberal doctrines today and their effects on working conditions, generally, and academic labour, specifically. Such changes included: the move from yearly contracts to shorter-and shorter-term contracts of as little as a day; from payment in kind, which included meals, to payment in cash; to working alongside one’s employer to being a “free labourer” with no security. Likewise, existing social safety nets such as poor relief were gradually reduced, and the burden of church tithes increased, as they, like other forms of payment, moved from in kind to cash allotments that were very high for the poor. All of these factors came into play in the Swing riots, in which rioters demanded higher wages, lower tithes, and the destruction of threshing machines; all of these actions were replayed countless times during the longue durée of enclosure.

Figure 2: Print by Henry Heath entitled “Swing!” (1830, reproduced with permission from The British Museum)

But, as my reference to the longue durée of enclosure suggests, enclosure was at once a series of discrete events and something akin to an “attritional catastrophe”—the term Nixon uses to describe catastrophes like climate change that “overspill clear boundaries in time and space” and “are marked above all by displacements—temporal, geographical, rhetorical, and technological displacements that simplify violence and underestimate, in advance and in retrospect, the human and environmental costs” (7). In short, the changes wrought by enclosure were violent, and its long-term human and environmental costs high—and in no way captured by events such as parliamentary acts or riots. Enclosure, in essence, did away with an entire way of life; and to recognize this is not synonymous with being nostalgic for an older traditional mode of living now lost. Rather, such a recognition begins to address the constitutive violence of capitalism and the often “uneventful” local ways in which it was resisted and alternative forms of life fought for. The historian J. M. Neeson, for example, argues in this vein that rural laborers have been seen as passive in the face of enclosure largely because their actions were under the radar of conventional historians, even left-wing ones such as Neeson’s own mentor, Thompson. Because opposition to enclosure often occurred at the most local level, innumerable campaigns on the part of commoners—ranging from refusals to consent and foot-dragging, to petitions and threats to enclosers and/or their property—were left unrecorded, leaving a spotty archive, especially when it comes to understanding village arguments for common right and the patient, slogging work and strategies for preserving it (think community involvement today). “The unfolding village history of argument and obstruction that this longevity represents,” Neeson argues, “is as instructive as the parliamentary record of petitions against enclosure and refusals to sign Bills, and the incidence of riots in enclosing villages—the kind of opposition historians have looked at most closely. If we neglect it we get a truncated view of protest, and we lose the history of wars of attrition waged skilfully over a decade or longer” (262). Similarly, we lose the kind of history Cobbett narrates, a history from below, in which the inevitability of capitalist production as the only way forward is not a given. Common right, in particular, as Neeson underscores, protected labourers from “wage dependence,” thereby granting them a significant independence—from compulsory labour and its attendant structures of time, leisure, value, community, consumption and property relations (41-42). Again, this need not lead to nostalgia for the past, but instead can point towards a different future, in which new visions of the commons would be possible—at a time when our respective fates as members of a fully global world are more closely tied to one another than ever before.

Land rights and common rights, Linebaugh reminds us, have historically been connected to political rights. In The Magna Carta Manifesto, Linebaugh stresses that two charters made up Magna Carta: the charter we all know establishing juridical and individual political rights and a Charter of the Forest, guaranteeing the right to commoning (recovered in 1217), which in turn recognized subsistence rights, e.g., the right to widow’s estovers (wood needed for housing repairs, implements, etc.), and to subsistence usufructs (the temporary use of another person’s land). Against the prevailing tendency to see commoning provisions as out of date, Linebaugh insists that they are more relevant than ever in the current neoliberal era. The parallel between economic and political rights in Magna Carta underscores for Linebaugh that “political and legal rights can exist only on an economic foundation. To be free citizens, we must be equal producers and consumers” (6). It also speaks to a post-9/11 world in which Magna Carta liberties are at risk and need to be seen as inseparable from a planetary common:

Capitalists and the World Bank would like us to employ commoning as a means to socialize poverty and hence to privatize wealth. The commoning of the past, our forebears’ previous labor, survives as a legacy in the form of capital and this too must be reclaimed as part of our constitution. Chapter 61 [re: lawful rebellion in Magna Carta] giving liberty to the communa totius terrae provides the right of resistance to the reality of a planet of slums, gated communities, and terror without end. (279)

Linebaugh here echoes the early Marx in his recognition that all capital is the congealed labour of past generations and appeals to the forgotten Charter of the Forest as a means forward in its invocation of the right to resist economic injustice. In this formulation, then, the commons becomes an activity; the labour of our forebears—commoning—has not only literally produced the world we live in, but remains to be reclaimed in the present as communal rather the private wealth, in the commons rather than in capital.

Carolyn Lesjak is associate professor of English at Simon Fraser University and is the author of Working Fictions: A Genealogy of the Victorian Novel (Duke UP, 2006), as well as numerous articles on nineteenth-century British literature and culture and Marxist theory.  She is completing a project on the material basis of character in Victorian literature and its relationship to notions of the common(s).


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