A pair of Shire Horses being led down the side of a curving hedgerow in a recent painting. Might the curve of the hedge reveal a hidden history of the field?
Does anyone else remember learning about ‘Open Field Systems and the Enclosures’ at school? I don’t think it looks likely to be covered in my children’s school history lessons, but I do remember it was covered in mine.
I must confess that I don’t remember the experience with any great fondness, or as something that registered much interest with me at the time, or indeed for many years after. I don’t think I should judge my history teacher too harshly for this, as we did cover a rather sweeping and erratic arc of British history, so I guess that perhaps I should just be glad it was included at all.
My memory of covering the subject is reduced to laboriously copying out a pair of maps from our history text books, showing a hypothetical village before and after enclosure. The first with three large fields, and innumerable wiggly strips in them, all ranged round a village in the centre; the second with the outlines of the three large fields present, but now divided into neat rectangular fields, surrounding little scattered farmsteads.
I suspect that was about the sum of what was taught, together with the date of the invention of Jethro Tull’s corn drill. Before we knew it, we had covered ‘Open Field Systems and the Enclosures’ and ’The Agricultural Revolution’, then in a flash we were on to learning the date of invention of the ‘Spinning Jenny’ and the like as we moved on to the ‘Industrial Revolution’.
It is little surprise that the subject had no resonance for us. It was after all, like the bulk of history seemed to be, just something that happened a long time ago, to a load of other people, somewhere else, unconnected to us. It seemed as if it could be summarised by saying that an improved system of farming was developed in the past and the fields were rearranged to assimilate this, and well, we thought, so what?
Even a few years later, when my interest in the history of the countryside that was around me grew and I encountered the subject again in books I was reading, it seemed that open field systems had really only been a significant landscape feature in the great plains of the Midlands, and had little to do with the landscapes I encountered daily in the Surrey Hills, suburban Middlesex and The Chilterns.
Yet, as my studies on British countryside have continued over the years, I have increasingly come to the conclusion that the matter of open fields systems and their disappearance is actually one of the most striking and interesting parts of British rural history. I think their impact and legacy still stretches down to us as a society today.
The restructuring of the countryside through enclosure of these fields led us to the basis of our current economic model, albeit its worst excesses now curbed by subsequent social reform and the later creation of the welfare state. The people who this change affected were the forefathers of many of us, the many Enclosure Acts of the eighteenth century being within the scope of the memory of those only about six generations back.
In my later studies, I realised that this fundamental change in land use, had a profound effect on the social fabric of England, turning a significant part of the population from a people with a degree of independence, self autonomy and access to the means of subsistence, to wage earners in an economy that operated outside of these values and had little regard for their wellbeing.
W.G. Hoskins’s account of the history of the parish of Wigston gives what I think is the most balanced and well researched accounts of the effects of the enclosures in one place that I have ever read. He gives this insight about Wigston on the eve of enclosure:
“The peasant economy... still remained fundamentally solid and stable for most of those who lived under it. Its major characteristics were unchanged: its self-dependence, its self –subsistence, its self-help, its thrift, its real savings- in goods, not money- its localism. There was still an essential relationship between the human spirit and its physical background.....it was still fundamentally a community of small peasants living in a familiar, almost timeless, world in which there was plenty of hard work and yet plenty of leisure, and in which a man could still have dignity and respect.”
-‘The Midland Peasant’ (Hoskins)
I don’t mean to idealise the society that came before it, but to many struggling to cope in our modern world, it would seem there may have been much worth noting about this that is of contemporary relevance. I can’t also help but note that this was the societal structure that we abandoned to launch headlong in to the adventure of modernity.
Is it too sweeping an assertion to suggest that these open field systems and the economies that existed around them were a widespread phenomenon across Britain?
As a geographical phenomenon, it is certainly true that the visible remains of these systems form a most obvious landscape feature in those areas of the Midlands which still posses their old ‘ridge and furrow’. These wave like features in the fields provide a direct and poignant link to the men of the time and the oxen and horses which they worked with to make them.
To assume the converse, however, that a landscape without this particular type of feature has no connection with this older system of farming would be wrong. It seems that in other areas one just has to look harder to find the evidence of a connection.
A more intimate, local view of this came to me when I started to study the landscape history of the area I lived in, around South Buckinghamshire, in much greater detail. It seems surprising to contemplate that open fields even existed at all in much of that locality, based on the general appearance of the landscape.
The distinctively different landscapes of the Vale lands and the Chilterns lie right next to each other, divided by the sharp scarp slope of the Hills.
The area actually gives a good example of the contrast between the two types of countryside. There are the North Bucks lands of the Aylesbury Vale, which bear substantial evidence of the remnants of the open field systems, much of this land being farmed this way until the 18th and 19th centuries. Moving south in to the hilly ‘Chiltern’ countryside, there seems to be much less to suggest the land was ever farmed this way.
W.E. Tate, in his book “The English Village Community and The Enclosure Movements”, gives an idea of the amount of enclosed land in the vicinity at around 16-1700, though he acknowledges some of the underpinning evidence is shaky. He cites the Chilterns as having around 30- 50% enclosed land (compared to the figure for the adjoining Vale at 15 to 30 % enclosed). He further suggests that the figure throughout the Chilterns varies with the East/ South East Chilterns figure being probably even as high as 50- 70 % enclosed land at the time.
These and other pointers seem to suggest that if open fields existed in much of the area, they are likely to have disappeared anything from 100 to 400 hundred years earlier than the main period of parliamentary enclosures in the 1700s. What possible evidence could be left on the ground then of this earlier farming system, after 400 to 800 years?
O. Rackham, in his book “The History of the Countryside,” gives a clue of one possible feature that might be found, mentioning:
“ ...there are small fields which preserve the shape, including the double curve, of individual strips consisting of one or more selions”
“The History of the Countryside” (Rackham)
(A selion being the fundamental unit of the open field system, a double curved strip of land nominally 1 furlong (220 yards) long and 2 perches (11 yards) wide.)
This plan shows the distinctive shape of the 'fossiled furlong' found on the Bucks HLC. This field would have been enclosed whilst still within the the worked open field around it and so preserves the distintive curved shape of the the old 'selions' or strips.
It seems that these isolated and slightly strangely shaped fields may have originated where an individual had somehow established a permanent fence /hedge around his strips in the open field. This seems to have been more likely where he had managed to secure ownership of adjacent strips by exchange or purchase, making the effort of such piecemeal enclosure more worthwhile.
No-one seems to have a clear idea of how this worked within the open field system, but it is clear that it did. Hoskins cites a few examples in the “The Midlands Peasant” and is able to date one such enclosure in the village of Wigston, using documentary evidence to around 1620. This was over a hundred and fifty years before the parliamentary enclosure of most of the village’s lands.
Might it be possible that a similar example might be found closer to hand, belying the apparent absence of such open field systems more locally? A study of the Bucks HLC record revealed one field recorded as such in the village near where I worked. Even more curiously though, a careful examination of the local 1: 25 000 map revealed another, much more local field of a very similar size and shape.
This is the curved hedge running up the edge of the field shown in the plan, the curved shape following the line of the medieval ploughing.
This one was not shown on the Bucks HLC, but sure enough it had all the features of a ‘fossilised furlong’. It appeared to be 2-300 yards long, the typical length of about a furlong. At about 80 yards wide, it probably represented about 6-8 strips, or ‘selions’, and had the characteristic double curved S shape hedge on either side.
I had cycled past this field many times and never noticed it as different to all the others in any way. It seems that, as with so much of British rural history, the answer was hiding in plain sight. Here, nearly on my doorstep, was clear evidence to me that this neighbouring village had once too had its own fairly self contained, open field peasant economy.
This is the early enclosed field that I had cycled past lots of times without noticing anything particular about it, but the two matching curved hedgelines and the charateritic furlong length give it away as an early enclosure field.
Given these little hidden snippets of evidence of the presence of previous open field systems in places where I never would have expected their existence, is it stretching a point too far to suspect that similar fieldwork and research around the suburb (once a village) where I grew up would reveal similar findings? I think it most likely, and if so, it means there was a fair chance that the very land our school was built on may once have been host to a such a farming system and the very different form of society to ours, that went with it.
It would have been the great, great grandfathers of some our grandfathers that had lived through and witnessed the Enclosure Acts completing the last phase of a fundamental displacement of a people from the land. They would have witnessed the final severance of much of the nation’s populace with an ancient, balanced and grounded way of life.
Perhaps if my history teacher had put it like that, we might have found that little section of our history lesson on ‘The Open Field System and the Enclosures’ one of the most interesting and relevant things that we ever learnt at school?
‘The Midland Peasant’ –Economic and Social History of an English Village, W.G. Hoskins 1957
“The History of the Countryside” – O. Rackham, 1986
“The English Village Community and the Enclosure Movements” W.E. Tate, 1967
Buckinghamshire Historic Landscape characterisation, maps accessible through Buckinghamshire Heritage Portal