BICENTENARY OF BRIGHTWELL'S OWN ACT OF PARLIAMENT
hundred years ago Brightwell underwent what in today’s jargon would be called a
seismic change. A locally sponsored (Brightwell) Bill was enacted by Parliament
in 1811. This Act for enclosure of
the commons and open fields is identified in the statute book simply as Geo
3. Within months of the Act being
passed His Majesty’s Commissioner and his aids got to work. Surveyors measured the land from Thames
to Tadsey bridge and the soil throughout the parish was assessed by the quality
men. Subsequently the arable and common land was reallocated by the Commissioner,
Mr John Davis of Bloxham. He
ordered highways and byways that had been used by the villagers from time
immemorial to be blocked off and new roads, some private, to be constructed.
Prior to enclosure Brightwell, like many
parishes across England, was farmed using the open field system that had been
in existence for centuries - in some cases from Anglo-Saxon times. Each of 3 or 4 huge open fields was
divided into hundreds of long, narrow strips of land - usually less than one
acre. It was a system of farming that
no longer had a future. A land
owner might have a hundred strips scattered across the 3 fields and his plough or
harrow would have to be dragged by horse or oxen from one strip to another often
along ill kept tracks. In addition,
he would be required to grow the same crops as his neighbour irrespective of his needs. Drainage was a constant bone of
contention for to achieve anything a land owner needed to get all his
neighbours to take part and many were from out of the county even living abroad.
How much better to have your strips all in one piece, enclosed by a stock-proof
hedge and well drained? The Revd. William Mavor reporting on
Berkshire to the Board of Agriculture in 1809 left no doubt as to his opinion
of the old open field system:-
“What system of barbarism can be greater than that of
obliging every farmer of a parish
possessing soils, perhaps totally different, all to cultivate in the same rotation!
What gross absurdity to bind down in the fetters of custom 10 intelligent men, willing to adopt the
improvements adapted by enclosures, because
one stupid fellow obstinate for the practice of his grandfather”.
In 1811 it was possible to bring a Bill before
Parliament if the owners of three quarters of the land of a parish were in
agreement. This had already happened in Sutton Courtney (1804) and Blewbury
(1805); so meetings were held in Brightwell in 1810 and early 1811 to test the
feeling of the population. The parish was divided into two camps. The
landowners, many of whom did not live in the parish and some not even in the county,
were pro enclosure. The other
camp, championed by the Rector, the Revd. Thomas Wintle, were the working people
who may have owned only one or two strips of land, or perhaps no land but had grazing
rights for one cow or a few sheep.
It was this second camp who were to be the eventual losers for although
they would be offered a small plot of land in recompense they would be unable
to meet the cost of hedging and fencing their allotment as the Act required and
would be forced to sell their land and become land-less day workers. So the ‘little man’ was to lose out to
the landowner - which was as it had ever been and was to be expected in a
country governed by a parliament dominated by landowners; and it would be a hundred years before the order was
The great map produced by Commissioner Davis
was finally posted up in St Agatha’s in 1813 after 2 years of wrangling. It can be imagined the entire
population would have pored over this map; some identifying their strip(s) of
land among the many hundreds on the map and then searching for their new
allocation of land. Luckily, this
map is still in existence and this year it will be returned home to Brightwell
for a time for us to see, thanks to the good offices of the Berkshire Record
Office where it has been in safe keeping.
Looking back from 2011 we can see the
inevitability of the demise of the old open field system. It meant that the new systems of cultivation
brought in by the Agricultural Revolution could become established in
Brightwell to the general benefit of the parish. The worst fears of the Reverend Wintle regarding his flock
were not realized and if we compare the census returns for Brightwell in 1811
with those of 1821 we see that little changed in the population and certainly
no mass exodus from the parish by unemployed farm workers.
And what of Sotwell? They opted not to take part, much to the chagrin of those
Brightwell landowners and farmers who had land in both parishes and were left struggling
to operate both agricultural systems. Eventually, Parliament passed a General
Enclosure Act forcing the remaining, recalcitrant, parishes to enclose - and in
1842 harmony between the farmers and landowners of Brightwell and Sotwell was
History Group is arranging the return of the Enclosure map to the parish and we
will keep you informed when and where.
In the mean time if you would like to read more of this intriguing part
of our history BHG Reports 1 & 2 can be bought in the Village Shop.