Researching enclosure

This page will help you to find out when the land within a parish was enclosed, and how it was enclosed, for example, whether it was by private agreement or parliamentary award. It will then detail the types of record that might exist, and how to understand them.

When was the parish enclosed?

How was enclosure achieved?

Researching private enclosures

Researching enclosures by Act of Parliament

What to look for within an enclosure award

Shawell enclosure, 1664

Articles of agreement for the enclosure of Shawell, drawn up in six parts, 1664. Courtesy of The Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland, DG 28 Box 2504/11.

When was my parish enclosed?

The enclosed landscape at Lowesby

The enclosed landscape at Lowesby

In most parishes enclosure was not a single event, but a series of occurrences that might have been spread across several decades or even centuries. Maps and written surveys or terriers detailing strips of land laid out in the open fields frequently also reveal closes of enclosed ground, perhaps near the parish boundaries. Although many Leicestershire parishes were fully enclosed following an Enclosure Act and Award, perhaps in the late 18th century, that was usually just the final and best-documented stage in a long process, some of which may have left no contemporary documents at all.

Estate map of Wymondham, 1652

Part of an estate map of Wymondham in 1652, surveyed for Sir William Sedley, showing a fully enclosed landscape. Courtesy of the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland, Ma/367/1.

Details of all known enclosures in Leicestershire were collected into two tables in the early 1950s and published at the end of the section on agrarian history in volume II of the Victoria County History of Leicestershire, on pp. 254-64. This volume can be found in many county libraries and in the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland, and should be your starting point for any study of farms and farming. The essay which precedes these tables is also an excellent introduction to the agrarian history of this county, and may mention the parish of your interest.

These two tables are fully referenced with details of where to look for more information about the enclosures they mention. A few records of early enclosures have come to light since they were published in 1954, so in some cases there will also be other information that can be found. Understanding a little about the process of enclosure will help you to identify and interpret those documents that have survived.

How was enclosure achieved?

Enclosure in Leicestershire can be considered in three phases: before 1598, private enclosures after 1598 and enclosure by Parliamentary Act and award. Because of the impact of early enclosures on those who didn’t own land, from 1489 it became illegal (until 1598) to remove land from the common field system in order to farm it privately, yet there were plenty of places across the county where land had been enclosed by the latter date. The story of these early enclosures is examined in a thesis by L.A. Parker, ‘Enclosure in Leicestershire, 1485-1607’ (PhD, University of London, 1948), which is available as a free searchable download through British Library Electronic Theses Online. Parker identifies a peak between 1490 and 1510, following which new enclosures fell away, before increasing once more in the 1580s, when fifteen villages were affected, and the 1590s, when land in twenty-nine villages was enclosed. Unsurprisingly, many of the earliest Leicestershire enclosures took place in parishes where there was a single landowner, so no formal agreement was necessary. Although that reduces the likelihood of there being any documentary evidence, when open revolt against enclosures broke out at the southern tip of Leicestershire in 1607, parliament responded with a commission of inquiry. The commissioners’ returns have been published and list 71 places in the county that had been affected by enclosure or mergers of land. The returns sometimes provide both the date and the acreage involved.

The second phase was ushered in by an Act of 1598, which allowed lands in the open fields to be exchanged and merged by agreement. In places with few landholders, this could be achieved by a simple swap or series of swaps, or even just an informal agreement to use each other’s land, which eventually became permanent. Most of these enclosures involved only part of the land of a manor or parish, and created closes around the edges of the open fields, so as not to interfere with the rights of others. Many of those making such arrangements may have deliberately avoided legal documentation, which could have been complex and expensive if the lands involved were subject to different restrictions, rights or liabilities, instead relying on the goodwill and integrity of the other party. Such agreements could break down if the parties fell out, or when one died, if an heir did not wish to continue the arrangement. To minimise the possibility of disputes or claims, articles of agreement were sometimes drawn up and executed by both parties. Those desiring greater legal certainty might choose to bring a collusive legal suit, resulting in a judgement enrolled with the Court of Exchequer or the Court of Chancery at Westminster, creating records which will be at The National Archives.

Private enclosures such as these were best suited to parishes where there were very few landowners, or where only small amounts of land were involved. Larger numbers of landowners were less likely to reach unanimous agreement on the terms, while some who might be willing to arrange a swap might not have the legal power to do so. Most parishes contained an element of glebe land belonging to the church, and an incumbent was legally unable to bind his successors. Likewise, those with only a life interest in the land, or who held land as a trustee, had no power to agree a binding settlement. Only Parliament had the power to make changes to such landholdings. In a forerunner of what was to come, landholders in Peatling Parva presented their articles of agreement to parliament for sanction in 1665. A similar case was presented from South Croxton in 1756, but the preferred form which was now developing – the third and final phase of enclosure – was the Parliamentary Act and award.

Enclosure by Act of Parliament did not entirely supplant private enclosure, as an individual Act was expensive and time-consuming to obtain, but in 1794 agriculturalist John Monk was able to write of Leicestershire, ‘There are very few open fields in the county; and those few, in all probability, will be inclosed in the course of a very few years’. Between 1751 and 1800, 134 enclosure Acts were passed for Leicestershire parishes. Other midland counties were also enthusiastically following this route, and in 1801 Parliament passed a public general act which allowed local commissioners to agree enclosures within broad parameters through delegated powers. This simplified the process and reduced legal costs, and by 1842 the final 22 Leicestershire parishes and the ‘extra-parochial waste’ of Charnwood were fully enclosed.

Researching private enclosures

The references provided within the section on agrarian history and the first table in volume II of the Victoria County History of Leicestershire, together with those listed by L.A. Parker in his thesis, ‘Enclosure in Leicestershire, 1485-1607’ (PhD, University of London, 1948, available as a free download from British Library Electronic Theses Online) are the best starting points. The documents mentioned may be all that survive, but can contain more information than the authors were able to include in their written pieces dealing with the whole county. Other documents that were in private hands when those works were written may since have been deposited in county record offices, while more detailed cataloguing and digitised search facilities may reveal the existence of others.

Most documents relating to enclosure in this period, including cases relating to disputes, and  agreements for enrolment by the courts of Exchequer or Chancery, are at The National Archives. Their research guide on enclosure records gives further pointers to identifying these. A smaller number of private agreements and evidence of local disputes are at the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland, where there is a card index. As private agreements can often involve major landowners who also held land in other counties, it is possible that Leicestershire agreements may be held by the record office holding all that family’s estate papers, or may still be in private hands. It is worth searching the A2A catalogue for documents relating to your parish, but as many record offices have yet to digitise all their catalogues, this will not necessarily reveal every document that survives.

A transcript of the evidence presented to the inclosure commissioners in August 1517 has been published (in its original language, i.e. Latin) by I.S. Leadam, The Domesday of Inclosures, 1517-1518 (London, Royal Historical Society, 1897) and mentions several Leicestershire landowners and places. The 1607 depopulation returns for Leicestershire heard evidence on the impact of enclosure in several parishes within the county, and these records were published in full, with an introductory essay by L.A. Parker, in volume 23 of the Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society (for 1947). For parishes in south Leicestershire, L.A. Parker’s follow-up article ‘The agrarian revolution at Cotesbach, 1501-1612’, published in volume 24 of the Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society (for 1948), is also worth reading and is available online.

There are many other articles about individual villages within that society’s Transactions which mention enclosure, and it is worth consulting the online index covering volumes 1-74 (to 2000) and subsequent issues summarised on the society’s website.

Although not directly related to enclosure, later surveys and similar documents may provide details of enclosure agreements, so the Record Office indexes should be checked carefully for any documents relating to land in the parish. Peatling Magna, for example, was enclosed in the 1650s, and a survey of Mr Orton’s land reveals that this enclosure agreement, confirmed by a decree in Chancery, extinguished both the tithes and the poor rate that was previously payable on the land.

Survey, Peatling Magna

This extract from a survey of land in Peatling Magna includes details of the agreement that was reached when the parish was enclosed. Courtesy of The Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland, 35’29/411

Glebe terriers can also provide evidence of the progress of enclosure; these are written surveys of the lands owned by the church which should have been compiled every three years by the incumbent and churchwardens. The number of glebe terriers that survive suggests that they were not always produced that frequently, but there are several for most Leicestershire parishes. Enclosed land, known as ‘closes’, may appear either within the church’s own lands or adjacent to the land of the church. A series of terriers can help to chart the progress of enclosure within a parish. The parish of Seagrave, in north Leicestershire, for example, was finally enclosed by a Parliamentary Award of 1766 following an Act of the previous year, but glebe terriers of 1730 and 1735 mention several closes. One of the glebe lands (strips in the open fields) in Ansley Field was described as being ‘aboue the Closs in berrygate’, and in Nether Field the terrier records ‘One Land next Johnsons Closs’. Presumably Johnson was the farmer who either first enclosed or then held that close.

Seagrave glebe terrier

Part of a Glebe Terrier for Seagrave, 1730. Courtesy of The Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland, 1D/41/2/576.

Early maps may also show enclosures, often at the edge of the parish, but occasionally much closer to the village. Newtown Linford was included in the major Parliamentary Award of 1829 which dealt with the enclosure of Charnwood Forest, one of the last parts of Leicestershire to be enclosed, but a map of the village dated 1773 clearly shows an enclosed landscape. The so-called Backside closes opposite the church appear to be amalgamations of earlier strips, and can still be seen in the landscape today.

Newtown Linford, 1773

Detail from a map of Newtown Linford, 1773 (south is at the top). Courtesy of The Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland, DG 20/Ma/236/1.

Researching enclosures by Act of Parliament

It was not always possible to obtain agreement. Draft articles of agreement to inclose the whole parish were drawn up for Glenfield in 1723, but were not executed, for reasons that are not recorded. In the manner of a parliamentary award (but predating any Leicestershire Inclosure Act), these articles name three commissioners, who were to investigate the claims of landholders and allocate land to them, and their appointment suggests some disagreement was expected. It is clear just where the power lay within the parish. The first proposed allocation was to gentleman William Martin, who was to receive the land know as Full Brooke, perhaps the best land in the parish. The rector’s preferences also seem to have been met, as he was to receive a plot adjacent to his parsonage, plus other land on the edge of the parish adjacent to his glebe land in Kirby Muxloe, where the open fields had been fully enclosed almost a century earlier. However, the proposals were presumably met with objections, as Glenfield was not enclosed until 1809, well after most Leicestershire parishes.

In parishes with many landholders, agreement could be difficult to reach, and owners of small amounts of land in particular might object, as their share of the costs could outweigh any benefits to them. A Parliamentary Act and Award allowed a majority of landowners to proceed, despite opposition from a minority. It had the added advantage of creating a binding settlement on institutional owners who might have welcomed the change, but who were legally powerless to give their voluntary agreement. From the 1750s, Parliamentary Awards became the usual method of enclosure in the county.

Charnwood Forest enclosure

Cover from the printed list of claims of proprietors in respect of the enclosure of Charnwood Forest. Courtesy of The Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland, DE 41/1/128.

Enclosures following Acts of Parliament are much easier to research than private enclosures, as the Act and Award have left a clear documentary trail of much of what took place and when. A list of Parliamentary Acts and Awards for Leicestershire can be found in volume II of the Victoria County History of Leicestershire (pp. 260-264), available in many county libraries and the county record office. Between 1730 and 1842 there were 157 Acts of Parliament that enclosed land in Leicestershire, some of them covering more than one parish. Soil quality, the distribution of land ownership, the terms of existing leases (which were automatically terminated) and the prices of meat, grain and fleeces all affected timing, as enclosure was most attractive when the costs could be recovered fairly quickly. In many cases, the Act and Award were just the final stage of a lengthy process, as some of the land might have been enclosed decades or even centuries earlier.

Enclosure by Parliamentary Act and Award could be a lengthy and also expensive process. The principal landowner(s) who sought enclosure needed first to seek the support of other major landowners in the parish. If they were favourable, a public meeting would be called, where anyone landowner could express their support or concerns. If owners of three-quarters or more of the land in the parish were in agreement, they would instruct lawyers to prepare an Inclosure Bill, naming the commissioners who would be appointed to oversee the process, and then arrange to have the bill presented to Parliament. If the bill passed its readings and the committee stage, it became an Act. Many Enclosure Acts for Leicestershire are held at the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland, and others are held at Lincolnshire Archives (as they affected the tithe owners and Leicester was within the diocese of Lincoln when almost all of the acts were passed). These contain information about the promoters of the scheme, but the separate award and map, if they survive, are far more informative.

The Act appointed the commissioners, whose duties were to obtain details of claims, to appoint a surveyor and to devise an apportionment of land that would satisfy all those with legal rights. There would usually be three commissioners, one to look after the interests of the lord of the manor, one for the tithe owner and one to protect the interests of all other landowners. After all the legal rights to land in the parish or township had been assessed and valued, the surveyor produced a map of the land to be inclosed, overlaid with the proposed new roads and new allotments of land, based on the relative values calculated. This would be agreed by the commissioners and publicised. Once any legal challenges were overcome, the award would take effect. A final version of the map might be produced, but many have not survived for Leicestershire, and for some places may never have been prepared. A list of all the enclosure maps for England and Wales is included within:

R.J.P. Kain, J. Chapman and R.R. Oliver, The Enclosure Maps of England and Wales 1595–1918: A Cartographic Analysis and Electronic Catalogue (Cambridge, 2004), and the index of maps included within this is available online through the publisher’s website.

Surviving minute books of the meetings of enclosure commissioners can provide details of negotiations and objections. Through enclosure the whole landscape was transformed. Large prairie-type fields were divided into small closes, straight roads created to link villages where there had only been meandering muddy footpaths, and in some places even streams were straightened or diverted. A farmer might have had 100 individual strips of land spread across the whole parish, which were exchanged for a compact block of land. There was a huge amount of work to be done, and a limited time to make the changes between harvest and when the next crops would need to be planted if a whole growing season was not to be lost. Once the apportionments were made, new leases or copyholds had to be agreed, and some copyholds might be converted to leases or to freeholds as part of the process. Owners then had to hedge their boundaries and pay a share of the overall costs, which could amount to between £3 and £10 for each acre.

The earliest awards tend to be written on a dozen or more large sheets of parchment measuring several feet across in both directions, while later awards were usually bound into a more manageable book. In both cases there are usually marginal notes signposting each of the individual allotments and the other important points. There would usually have been three copies: one enrolled with the county, one given to the incumbent to hold on behalf of the parish, and one for the lord of the manor.

Enclosure award, Oadby, 1760

Part of the enclosure award for Oadby, setting out the allotments of land for the vicar and for the poor. Courtesy of the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland, EN/A/241/2.

The award details the land to be enclosed, sets out the various allotments of land, including any allotment made to the tithe owner(s) in lieu of future tithes, provides details of new roads and paths and lists the apportionment of costs.

What to look for within an enclosure award

Some enclosure awards are written up in books, but many are on large sheets of parchment that are difficult to look through. However they are presented, they are very long documents, but you do not have to read every word. Both types will usually have marginal notes or headings to help you to identify what you are looking for, and the check list below includes the key points you should find.

When looking at an enclosure award, the key points to note are:

  1. How much land was enclosed – was it the whole parish, or was part of the parish already enclosed or left unenclosed? Were earlier enclosures included, either to achieve a neater apportionment of land or to take the opportunity to completely extinguish tithes?
  2. How many open fields were there immediately before enclosure? By the mid-eighteenth many parishes had 4, 5, or 6 field rotations.
  3. Were tithes extinguished and, if so, was that achieved by the allotment of land or by the agreement of corn rent payments? If land was given, is it possible to work out how the apportionment was calculated? Power was divided unequally, and tithe owners were in a strong negotiating position. Landowners were often prepared to give up more than the logical one-tenth of their land for the benefit of retaining all the proceeds of any additional productivity.
  4. How much power does the major landowner appear to have? Does he get the best or nearest land?
  5. Were the new lands laid out in a way that was convenient to the farmers, or were some farms a long way from the farmer’s house? Does a modern map show farmhouses built in the enclosed fields?
  6. How many landowners were there, and how many acres did each have within the parish? The acreage of each does not necessarily match the size of the farm, as a large landowner might let his land to several farmers, or a smaller owner-occupier might rent additional land to give a larger farm. Farms can also extend across parish boundaries. However, any indication of the size of farms will add to your understanding of farming in the parish.
  7. Try to identify where any old enclosures mentioned were situated (road descriptions may help to locate them if there is no map).
  8. Note any furlong and old enclosure names mentioned, which may give clues to earlier land use.
  9. What public roads were planned? Were they constructed? Did anyone have a private road built at the expense of all the landowners in general?
  10. Does the village enclose before or after its neighbours? Is it possible to work out what the trigger for this enclosure was?

A map may accompany the award – see the separate research guide on this website covering Maps before the Ordnance Survey

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