Mapping out their past: enclosure records

Stratfield Mortimer enclosure map (1804), Berkshire Record Office

Enclosure is the process of consolidating land holdings by means of enclosing common lands, open fields and manorial wastes with boundaries (usually hedges or fences) to be farmed by an individual rather than by common right. An ancient practice, having been used in England and Wales since at least the 12th century, the decision to enclose lands was often driven by simple economics: for the landowner it was a way to maximise rental on his estates and for the farmer it offered the opportunity to increase productivity.

The shift from open-field farming to enclosed systems spelled a dramatic change in the visible composition of the British landscape, especially following the introduction of parliamentary enclosure in the mid-18th century. The reforms also touched all levels of society: from the landed gentry and tenant farmers to smallholders and agricultural labourers. Fortunately for genealogists, however, this complicated process of re-apportioning out the land created a paper trail which can be useful in learning more about our ancestors' lives and the parishes in which they lived. In this post I will attempt to highlight some of the documentary sources created by the enclosure movement and explain how best to employ them in your research.

Informal enclosure

The earliest enclosures of common lands and manorial wastes were invariably completed by an informal agreement and it will often be found that no legal record was produced. In cases where the landowner was more scrupulous, however, he may have decided to commission a map for his own records; these might be discovered among estate papers or manorial records, either in the local record office or as part of a private collection.

Ancient field systems at Abbotsbury, Dorset © Sarah Charlesworth

Where enclosure had proved controversial or was resisted by force (such as Kett's Rebellion in Norfolk in 1549 and the Midland Revolt of 1607), entries in court records may give information about participants. From the 1630s, steps were taken to check the growth of land enclosure and details of prosecutions appear in the records of the local and central law courts. Cases brought before the Court of Star Chamber, for example, were dealt with very effectively; the records of these hearings can be consulted at The National Archives (STAC 2-3).

Enrolled Decree

The problems inherent in this ad-hoc system eventually led to the introduction of a more formal procedure and by the early 17th century enclosure by enrolled decree had become the preferred method. This was usually based upon a local agreement and took the form of a deed signed by the interested parties, ensuring that the enclosure was legal and binding.

These records were usually enrolled with one of the equity courts as a permanent record of the judgement and can now be consulted at The National Archives. Those enrolled with the Court of Chancery will be found in the Decree Rolls (C 78), and those with the Court of the Exchequer may be entered on the Remembrancer’s Rolls (E 159 or E 368) or in the Entry Books (E 123-131). It should be noted, however, that these records represent only a small proportion of documented enclosures and are rarely accompanied by a map.

Parliamentary enclosure

To avoid the convoluted process of enclosure by enrolled decree, many landowners went to the great expense of carrying out enclosure by private act of parliament from the 1760s onwards. Each act usually appointed a number of commissioners, who had the duty of assessing the parish to be enclosed, hearing the claims of those having either open or common right, and allotting all proprietors an equivalent in land. The final decision on how the land was to be redistributed was expressed in an ‘award’, which was legally binding on all parties concerned.

The sheer cost of this procedure meant that in 1801 the first general Enclosure Act was passed in a bid to consolidate previous legislation and simplify the process. Perhaps most importantly, the act did away with the need for private bills; as such, it is estimated that roughly half the total number of parliamentary enclosures took place in the decades immediately after 1801. Later acts provided for a permanent body of enclosure commissioners with the authority to sanction enclosure without submitting to parliament, thereby shortening the process further.

Padworth enclosure award (1814), Berkshire Record Office

The enclosure award itself usually begins with a preamble containing the provisions of the act and a detailed account of the area to be enclosed. The rest of the document outlines each of the allotments, providing details of the landowner and tenant (or their legal representatives) and a description of the land to be enclosed. Each allotment is assigned a number, which corresponds to an accompanying map. These maps are usually in the form of a scale plan of the parish and will often feature field names, boundaries and other topographical features.

When used alongside contemporary sources, such as tithe records, land tax assessments and poll books, enclosure records can be particularly useful to the genealogist in helping to trace land ownership. Later examples of the awards can also be used in conjunction with early census returns, while the study of enclosure maps alongside contemporary surveys can help to build a better picture of the local environment.

Location of records

Each of the Enclosure Acts generally provided that the original award should be deposited in the parish chest and that a copy be lodged with the clerk of the Quarter Sessions. These will now be found at the relevant county record office, although a few examples have been digitised and made freely available online, such as those for Berkshire, Norfolk and Worcestershire.

In terms of survival rate, it is estimated that some 70% of enclosure records are available for the period 1750-1830; coverage, however, very much depends on the location. Whilst it is thought that 68% of the records for Bedfordshire have survived, for example, only a mere 2% of those from Kent and Pembrokeshire can be accounted for. It is therefore best to check the holdings of the relevant record office before making a visit. It's also worth looking at the Enclosure Maps of England and Wales catalogue online at This excellent website provides a fully searchable and descriptive database of all the known parliamentary and non-parliamentary enclosure maps, providing details of location, date and other particulars.

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