Rights of Common


Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820

J.M. Neeson

Some gleaning made from this uncommon text,

So as to share knowledge in common:

Timothy Nourse in Campania Felix, or a Discourse of the Benefits and Improvements in Husbandrywrote thus of commoners in 1700:

‘very rough and savage in their Dispositions’ with ‘leveling Principles’ which make them ‘refractory to Government’, ‘insolent and tumultuous’.

Worse than animals, he averred,

commoners had to be chastised

and controlled rather than cultivated.

In 1781, an anonymous observer of squatters and those living on common land in forest, heathland or on ‘waste’ viewed them as ‘more perverse, and more wretched’, living in ‘habitations of squalor, famine and disease’ amounting to ‘most fruitful seminaries of Vice’ where lies ‘sloth the parent of vice and poverty begotten and born of this said right of Common. I saw its progress into the productive fields of lying, swearing, thieving – I saw the seeds of honesty almost eradicated.’

He commented on those living in Hampshire forests on common land; ‘idle, useless and disorderly’, attracted to ‘pilfering and stealing.’ He was similarly minded when in Herefordshire’s Black Mountains:commoners were subject to ‘IDLENESS, the fell ROOT of which VICE always finds it easy to graft her most favourite plants.’

Ah! Protestant self-help thrifty busy virtues,

Where are you when we need you?

You lazy good for nothing commoners.

Go and read Robinson Crusoe,

(Tawney and Weber too for us)

If only you could read.

But don’t follow W.H. Davies:

‘What is this life if full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.’

Stop wasting time.

Gathering fuel on the commons indeed.


Tending to and milking a cow.

Looking out for rabbits.

Gathering fruits, berries and nuts.

Being satisfied with that you have.

Or exchanging surplus so as to just get by.

Lending or borrowing tools.

Enough is not as good as a feast, I say.

I call that a fast.

We need more of everything – apart from commons,

And shared open fields, of course.

And commoners and squatters, of course.


More enclosure. More arable. More pasture.

Greater efficiency. Higher yields. Higher rents.

Higher profits.

And more labourers working for a wage.

And those labourers will have more children.

And a greater population is needed for the King,

The army, the Empire, and our endless wars against the French.

Neeson wrote that the ‘argument about the legitimacy of ending common right in the eighteenth century was more than a conflict between the moral economy and the self-interested individualism of agrarian capitalism. Increasingly it was also a debate over how best to serve the national interest. Or, more exactly, and crucially, a debate about what sort of society best served that interest …’

And, ‘best served by the industry, independence and patriotism of a flourishing peasantry’ or ‘served best by a multitudinous, fecund, ever-growing proletariat, no matter how poor …’

‘But behind both views was a fundamental concern

with Britain’s economy and political hegemony.’

A List of Wars from the 18th Century to the end of the Napoleonic Wars

1. War of the Spanish Succession 1701-14

2. Great Northern War 1717-20

3. War of Austrian Succession 1740

4. Carnatic Wars 1744-63

5. Seven Years War 1756-63

6. Anglo-Mysore Wars 1766-99

7. First Anglo-Maratha War 1775-82

8. American Revolutionary War 1775-83

9. French Revolutionary Wars 1792-1802

10. Napoleonic Wars 1802-15

11. Second Anglo-Maratha War 1802-05

12. War against the USA 1812

13. Anglo-Nepalese War 1813-16

Enclosers, of course, weren’t thinking of all these endless wars

as they took over the common fields …

Neeson again: ‘But this does not mean that “good” agriculture triumphed over “bad”, like some conquering hero in a gothic romance. It means that one mode of agricultural production gave way to another. (“Backward” agriculture is itself an astonishingly narrow concept. It assumes that productivity alone defines the many relationships, social as well as economic, that agriculture represents.) In the end, enclosers enclosed for a number of reasons: chief among them the prospect of higher rents, a belief in the efficiency of larger, consolidated holdings, and an emotional and intellectual commitment to a more individualized production, to private enterprise. The conquering hero is more accurately described as an investing landlord or an enterprising freeholder. But neither the higher rents nor the (arguably) more efficient units of enclosed villages, nor the change in the zeitgeist of the agricultural establishment should be taken to mean that before enclosure agriculture was necessarily badly run, or backward. Communal regulation did not mean inadequate regulation. The system may have been less productive if we define productivity in terms of agricultural production, though we should note that the jury on this is still out.’

It wasn’t just the fuel – wood, turf, furze, bracken,

Or the food or the grazing that gave sustenance,

It was also the community of reciprocity;

The sharing, the mutuality

That fashioned a community,

And the arranged or happenstance meeting

In field, lane, pathway, Holloway, baulk or common,

And the ensuing conversation

And sharing of the time of day

(‘Good morrow, Gossip Joan,

Where have you been a-walking? …’);

And ‘wasting time’ didn’t mean laziness,

It might have been incomprehensible to the elite,

But the lower orders could have an eye for the picturesque too,

You didn’t have to be educated to have an eye for the sublime:

John Clare textualized what many saw and felt:

‘How fond the rustics ear at leisure dwells

On the soft soundings of his village bells

As on a Sunday morning at his ease

He takes his rambles just as fancys please

Down narrow baulks that intersect the fields

Hid in profusion that its produce yields

Long twining peas in faintly misted greens

And wing leafed multitudes of crowding beans

And flighty oatlands of a lighter hue.’

But it’s true to say that the Protestant virtues

Of frugality, economy and thrift

Were also fashioning this way of life.

But the critics of commons could only see

A lazy, indolent absence of ambition –

But if needs were few, then there was time

For recreation and ‘Saint Monday’ traditions;

There was no tyranny of the clock,

No outlook that ‘time was money’ …

But energy was there in abundance,

And to use an anachronism,

‘Time-Management’ too, as in this case study

Of enclosure and the Beautiful Game:

The Northampton Mercury contained an ‘advertisement for a football match’ at the end of July 1765 to take place over two days, August 1stand 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 …

Gentlemen, these few lines are to inform you that God Almighty have brought our blood to a proper circulation, that have been in a very bad state a long time, and now without alteration of the foresaid, we mean to circulate your blood with the leave of God.’

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 ae 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: