Land Enclosure in Brightwell

"An Act for allotting and enclosing lands in the parish of Brightwell, in the county of Berks." Anno Quinquagesimo Primo. Georgii III. Regis.

In 1811 the major farmers and landowners of Brightwell applied to Parliament to have a Private Act of Enclosure - and in 14th May 1811 the Bill was passed.

The first paragraph of the Act names the major Brightwell landowners and states that whereas they "...and all of their respective tenants, are or claim to be entitled, and do enjoy Common of Pasture for their Cattle, in and over the said Open and Common Fields, Common Meadows, Common Pastures, Waste Grounds, and other Commonable Lands, or some part thereof respectively: and whereas the Lands and Grounds of the different Proprietors in the said Open and Common Fields, and Common Meadows, lie intermixed and dispersed, so as to render the cultivation thereof very inconvenient, and the same, in their present State, are incapable of any considerable improvement."

The last phrase is the most important because it signalled the end of the old agricultural system of three huge open arable fields consisting of hundreds of narrow strips of land all owned by different people in which beans, barley, wheat and other crops would be grown in rotation. This system with its roots in Anglo-Saxon times was thoroughly outdated.

The Act laid down the way in which the hundreds of narrow strips (Lands) were to be measured and the total acreage of each owner re-allocated as fields to be enclosed by hedges, fences and ditches to produce the pattern of countryside that we now know. This would produce well-drained, cattle-proof, fields in which a farmer could choose to grow whatever crop best suited him. But what of the villagers with only one or two cows and having with their property the rights of Common: that is the right of access to the Commons at certain times of the year? Under the old (Anglo-Saxon) system they would keep their one or two cows in a stable against the house during the winter (some of these stables can still be identified in the village - but have long since been incorporated into the houses). In the spring they would exercise their rights of Common. That is the right to keep cattle on Mackney (Cow) Common or Slade End Common. After harvest in the three Open (arable) Fields the cattle would have access to these fields for a short while - and in the process manure them. Then in the winter they would have to be taken back to the home ground. Not only were there rights of Common in the old system but some villagers might have rights of estovers, of turbary, of pannage or of piscary.

Under the Act the two Commons were to be broken up at the same time as the Open Fields. The smallholder with his/her one or two cows, but probably no other land, would be allotted one or two acres under the new system. However, the cost of fencing, hedging and ditching their land would in many cases be prohibitive and in such cases there would be great hardship. He/she might well have to sell the cows and the small allocation of land and descend in status to that of day labourer.

Although there was a certain inevitability about the progression from the old, Anglo-Saxon, system to a system of farming commensurate with the Agriculture Revolution, this change would have entailed a great deal of distress. The Rector of the time, the Reverend Thomas Wintle, was against the Enclosure of Brightwell and one suspects that this was on the basis of the hardship which he foresaw would be the lot of some of his poorer parishioners.

Leon Cobb

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