A Repertoire of Opposition to Enclosure

A Repertoire of Opposition to Enclosure

The Northampton Mercury contained an ‘advertisement for a football match’ at the end of July 1765 to take place over two days, August 1st and 2nd: ‘This is to give notice to all Gentlemen, Gamesters and Well-Wishers to the cause now in Hand. That there will be a FOOT-BALL play in the Fields of Haddon … for a Prize of considerable value … All Gentlemen Players are desired to appear in any of the Public Houses in Haddon aforesaid each day between the hours of ten and twelve in the Forenoon, where they will be joyfully received and entertained.’

On Monday 4th August 1765, the Northampton Mercury reported thus:

‘We hear from West Haddon in this County, that on Thursday and Friday last a great Number of People being assembled there in order to play a Foot-Ball Match, soon after meeting formed themselves into a Tumultuous Mob, and pulled up and burnt the Fences designed for the Inclosure of that Field, and did other considerable Damage; many of whom are since taken up by a Party of General Mordaunt’s Dragoons sent from this Town.’


Football matches are just one example

Of a whole repertoire of opposition

To the supporters of enclosure:

Grumbling, counter-petitioning,

Refusal to cooperate with surveyors,

Tearing down hedges and fences,

Writing formal letters of opposition,

Leaving threatening letters of opposition,

Refusal to sign enclosure bills,

Refusal to sign sundry legal documents,

Stealing boundary markers,

Removing indicators of field boundaries,

Writing local landscape poems,

Expressing anger in public,

Expressing feelings of violation,

Ensuring those feelings were shared communally

And transmitted through the generations:

Here is an example – a full generation

After enclosure had hit this particular village:

‘To the Gentlemen of Ashill, Norfolk,

This is to inform you that you have by this time brought us under the heaviest burden and into the hardest Yoke we ever knowed; it is too hard for us to bear … You do as you like, you rob the poor of their Commons right, plough the grass up that God send to grow, that a poor man may feed a Cow, Pig, Horse, nor Ass; lay muck and stones in the road to prevent the grass growing. If a poor man is out of work and wants a day or two’s work you will give him 6d. per week … There is 5 or 6 of you have gotten the whole of the land in this parish in your own hands and you would wish to be rich and starve all the other part of the parish…’

And here’s John Clare:

‘Inclosure came and trampled on the grave

Of labours rights and left the poor a slave

And memorys pride ere want to wealth did bow

is both the shadow and the substance now …’

And John Clare again:

‘That good old fame the farmers earnd of yore

That made as equals not as slaves the poor

That good old fame did in two sparks expire

A shooting coxcomb and. hunting Squire

And their old mansions that was dignified

With things far better than the pomp of pride …

Where master son and serving man and clown

Without distinction daily sat them down …

These have all vanished like a dream of good …’

And the folklore passed through the generations:

‘The law locks up the man or woman

Who steals the goose from off the common

But leaves the greater villain loose

Who steals the common off the goose.’

And when we look at the opposition to enclosure,

And the repertoire of dissent,

We must remember that not only

Are the textual records incomplete

(You have to keep secrets, don’t you?),

But that the repertoire of dissent’s

Oral opposition within an oral culture

Is, of course, impossible to recapture:

The hatred, bitterness, sense of violation,

Feelings of robbery, jobbery, misery and theft,

The loss of gleaning rights and rights of estover,

The loss of pasture and right to roam:

All, of course, the intangible history

Of all those villagers and commoners

’Condemned to the enormous condescension of posterity’.

In conclusion, john Clare again:

The Lament of Swordy Well:

In Swordy Well a piece of land

That fell upon the town

Who worked me till I couldn’t stand

&crush me now Im down

There was a time my bit of ground

Made freeman of the slave

The ass no pindard dare to pound

When I his supper gave

The gypseys camp was not afraid

I made his dwelling free

Till vile enclosure came & made

A parish slave of me

Alas dependence thou’rt a brute

Want only understands

His feelings wither branch & root

That falls in parish hands


What of letter writing & formality,

Using the goose and common trope?

A case study:

A letter sent to the Marquess of Anglesey:

‘Where is now the degree of virtue which can withstand interest? …

Should a poor man take one of Your sheep from the common, his life would be forfeited by law. But should You take the common from a hundred poor mens sheep, the law gives no redress. The poor man is liable to be hung from taking from You what would supply You with a meal & You would do nothing illegal by depriving him of his subsistence; nor is Your family supplied for a day by a subtraction which distresses his for life! … Yet the causers of crimes are more guilty than the perpetrators. What must be the inference of the poor? when they see those who should be their patterns defy morality for gain, especially when, if wealth could give contentment, they had enough wherewith to be satisfied.  And when the laws are not accessible to the injured poor and Government gives them no redress.’

The Marquis replied thus:

‘Excepting as the mere fact of the Inclosure, the forming of which no one has a right to contest, All your statements are without foundation & as your language is studiously Offensive I must decline any further communication with you.’


‘The law locks up the man or woman

Who steals the goose from off the common

But leaves the greater villain loose

Who steals the common off the goose.

  The law demands that we atone

When we take things we do not own

         But leaves the lords and ladies fine

        Who take things that are yours and mine.’

For anyone for whom John Clare is a new discovery: