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What is an Inclosure?

Updated on April 16, 2010

Inclosure, in English law, was the act of dividing and setting apart for private ownership (by fences, ditches, and other barriers) an area of land formerly in common use. Under the manorial system, "open" or "common" arable land was typically divided into small strip holdings, farmed either by freemen, by villeins or serfs, or by the lord of the manor. When the practice of inclosure (or enclosure, in English spelling) began in the 12th century, private ownership, if not acquired by royal or feudal grant, was brought about either by mutual agreements among strip holders or by seizing and holding for a period of time, in adverse possession.

Starting with the Statute of Merton (1235), landlords were legally permitted to inclose "wastelands" not needed by tenant farmers. However, the economic gain from cultivating large fenced fields became increasingly obvious. Toward this end, in the 18th century "agrarian revolution," many landlords dispossessed tenants on the slightest pretext. Despite various reform statutes, inclosure flourished until the mid-19th century, when Parliament passed genuinely restrictive laws in the public interest.

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