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Parliamentary enclosure, vermin and the cultural life of English parishes, 1750–1850

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 April 2013

University of Sussex.
University of Nottingham.


This article explores the impact of parliamentary enclosure on the cultural life of English villages after 1750. It focuses on parish-sponsored vermin control, arguing that the popular ‘hunting’ sanctioned by parish vestries under Tudor legislation, and persisting into the early nineteenth century, created a highly participatory recreational culture which continued to exist under the radar of the game laws. Using a sample of parishes from the heavily enclosed county of Northamptonshire, the article demonstrates that this communal activity survived the reworking of the landscape by parliamentary enclosure, and that, by extension, the level of disruption to village cultural life was less than has been suggested.

Enclosures parlementaires, nuisibles et vie culturelle dans les paroisses anglaises, 1750–1850

Cet article explore l'impact de la politique parlementaire des enclosures sur la vie culturelle des villages anglais après 1750. Il met l'accent sur le contrôle des bêtes indésirables encouragé par les conseils paroissiaux. Les auteurs soutiennent que cette «chasse» populaire aux nuisibles (approuvée par les autorités municipales appliquant une législation des Tudors qui persista jusqu'au début du XIXe siècle) a créé une culture de loisirs hautement participative qui a même continué d'exister malgré l'imposition de sévères lois sur la chasse. Cette étude qui repose sur un échantillon de paroisses du comté de Northamptonshire, une région touchée de plein fouet par le mouvement des enclosures, montre que cette activité communale survécut au remaniement parlementaire du paysage rural, et que, de ce fait, le niveau de perturbation de la vie culturelle du village fut nettement inférieur à ce que l'on avait supposé jusqu'à maintenant.

Parlamentarische einhegungen, schädlinge und alltagskultur in der englischen dorfgemeinde, 1750–1850

Dieser Beitrag untersucht die Auswirkungen der parlamentarischen Einhegungen auf die Alltagskultur englischer Dörfer nach 1750 und richet zu diesem Zweck sein Augenmerk auf die von den Gemeinden finanzierte Schädlingsbekämpfung. Unsere These ist, dass die gängige Jagdpraxis – sie war von den Gemeindeversammlungen, sanktioniert durch die Gesetzgebung der Tudors, in Gang gesetzt worden und bestand bis ins frühe 19. Jahrhundert fort – zu einer populären Freizeitkultur mit breiter Beteiligung führte, die auch nach der Einführung der Wildgesetze weiterlebte. Am Bespiel ausgewählter Dorfgemeinden in der stark eingehegten Grafschaft Northamptonshire zeigen wir, dass diese kommunale Aktivität trotz der Veränderungen der Landschaft durch die parlamentarischen Einhegungen fortbestand, woraus sich schließen lässt, dass auch die Einschränkungen des dörflichen Alltagslebens insgesamt weniger ausgeprägt waren als man bisher angenommen hat.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013

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1 Tom Williamson provides a stimulating modern overview of these changes. See Tom Williamson, The transformation of rural England: farming and the landscape, 1700–1870 (Exeter, 2002).

2 Hammond, J. L. and Hammond, B., The village labourer, 1760–1832: a study in the government of England before the reform bill (London, 1911), 211–12Google Scholar. Also, see K. D. M. Snell, Annals of the labouring poor: social change and agrarian England, 1660–1900 (Cambridge, 1985); J. M. Neeson, ‘English enclosures and British peasants: current debates about rural social structure in Britain c. 1750–1870’, Jahrbuch für Wirtschaftsgeschichte 2000/2 (2000), 22–5.

3 Neeson, J. M., Commoners: common right, enclosure and social change in England, 1700–1820 (Cambridge, 1993), 226–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The change was focused particularly on small farmers holding under 30 acres: Turner, M. E., ‘Parliamentary enclosure and landownership change in Buckinghamshire’, Economic History Review 28, 4 (1975), 565–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Martin, J. M., ‘The small landowner and parliamentary enclosure in Warwickshire’, Economic History Review 32, 3 (1979), 328–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Neeson, Commoners, 223.

5 Chambers, J. D. and Mingay, G. E., The agricultural revolution, 1750–1880 (London, 1966)Google Scholar; Wordie, J. R., ‘The chronology of English enclosure, 1500–1914’, Economic History Review 36, 4 (1983), 483505CrossRefGoogle Scholar; J. V. Beckett, ‘The disappearance of the cottager and the squatter from the English countryside: the Hammonds revisited’, in B. A. Holderness and Michael Turner eds., Land, labour, and agriculture, 1700–1920: essays for Gordon Mingay (London, 1991), 49–68.

6 Birtles, Sara, ‘Common land, poor relief and enclosure: the use of manorial resources in fulfilling parish obligations 1601–1834’, Past and Present 165, 1 (1999), 74106CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Shaw-Taylor, Leigh, ‘Parliamentary enclosure and the emergence of an English agricultural proletariat’, Journal of Economic History 61, 3 (2001), 640–62Google Scholar; for the place of common rights in the poor's ‘economy of diversified resources’, see Steve Hindle, On the parish? The micro-politics of poor relief in rural England, c 1550–1750 (Oxford, 2004), 47–8. Access to commons was also restricted in Europe: see de Moore, Tine, ‘Participating is more important than winning: the impact of socio-economic change on commoners' participation in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Flanders’, Continuity and Change 25, 3 (2010), 405–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar, here 410; Martina de Moor, Leigh Shaw-Taylor and Paul Warde eds., The management of common land in North West Europe, c. 1500–1850 (Brepols, 2002).

7 Birtles, ‘Common land’, 83–4, 86–97.

8 For a wider discussion of the impact of parliamentary enclosure on the landscape and communities of Northamptonshire, see McDonagh, B. and Daniels, S., ‘Enclosure stories: narratives from Northamptonshire’, Cultural Geographies 19, 4 (2012), 107–21CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 R. W. Hoyle (ed.), Our hunting fathers: field sports in England after 1850 (Lancaster, 2007); D. Allen, Otter (London, 2010); J. E. Archer, ‘A flash and a scare’: arson, animal maiming and poaching in East Anglia, 1815–1870 (Oxford, 1990); Griffin, Carl. J., ‘More-than-human histories and the failure of grand state schemes: sylviculture in the New Forest, England’, Cultural Geographies 17, 4 (2010), 451–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Also, see Griffin, Carl, ‘The bestial and the beastly: animal maiming, intimacy and the politics of shared life in 18th- and early 19th-century England’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37, 2 (2012), 301–16CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For work on vermin, see Roger, Lovegrove, Silent fields: the long decline of a nation's wildlife (Oxford, 2007)Google Scholar; Fissell, Mary, ‘Imagining vermin in early modern England’, History Workshop Journal 47 (1999), 129CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Lovegrove, Silent fields, 1–4, 31, 74–9: in Scotland, legislation occurred a century earlier, with acts being passed in 1424 and 1457.

11 Lovegrove, Silent fields, 27–9; Dannenfeldt, Karl H., ‘The control of vertebrate pests in Renaissance agriculture’, Agricultural History 56, 3 (1982), 542–59Google Scholar. For the relationship between the economy of makeshifts and Tudor poor relief, see Hindle, On the parish?

12 For the place of this legislation within the growing devolution of powers to parish authorities in this period, see Marjorie Keniston McIntosh, Poor relief in England, 1350–1600 (Cambridge, 2012), 231.

13 Keith Thomas, Man and the natural world: changing attitudes in England 1500–1800 (London, 1983), 274.

14 Lovegrove, Silent fields, 44–5.

15 The published material on manorial courts and village by-laws does not mention vermin control as a function of manorial courts: W. O Ault, Open field farming in medieval England: a study of village by-laws (Abingdon, 1972).

16 Northamptonshire Record Office (hereafter NRO), D(CA)11. If the Culworth tenants had chosen to be amerced the 4d rather than kill moles, the fines would presumably need to have been applied to a mole-catcher's stipend.

17 J. C. Cox, Churchwardens' accounts from the 14th to the close of the 17th century (London, 1913).

18 Palmer, J., ‘Vermin catching in Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire’, Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire Life 14 (1987), 1214Google Scholar; NRO, YZ7032 (1665 and 1673 orders). Interestingly, other tasks in the open fields such as drawing the drainage furrows and collecting stones were undertaken communally at Finedon.

19 Thomas, Man and the natural world, 74; Lovegrove, Silent fields, 258–60; Dannenfeldt, ‘Control of vertebrate pests’, 549–51. H. P. R. Finberg ed., The agrarian history of England and Wales, 8 vols. (London, 1972–1980), iv, 431, suggests moles were primarily hunted in May and June.

20 Lovegrove, Silent fields, 172–3. They were regarded with equal hostility on the continent: Johannes Klose, ‘Aspects of bird evaluation in Brandenburg-Prussia: towards the significance of socio-economic conditions for biodiversity perception between the 16th and the 20th century’, in Michael Markussen, Ralph Buse, Heiko Garrelts, María Manez Costa, Susanne Menzel and Rainer Marggraf eds., Valuation and conservation of biodiversity: interdisciplinary perspectives on the convention of biological diversity (Springer, Berlin, 2005), 264; London Evening Post, 12 September 1749.

21 Jones, E. L., ‘The bird pests of British agriculture in recent centuries’, Agricultural History Review 20 (1972), 107–25Google Scholar, here 117–19.

22 The Dublin Journal, 13 July 1745.

23 Whitehall Evening Post, 7 August 1755.

24 John Middleton, General view of the agriculture of Middlesex (London, 1813), 477.

25 Dannenfeldt, ‘Control of vertebrate pests’, 551.

26 Lovegrove, Silent fields, 53.

27 Thus they occur only for Braunston and Crick in the west, whilst they exist for Burton Latimer, Irthlingborough, Ringstead, Rushden, Thrapston and Finedon in the east. It was sometimes said that moles were actually preserved for the good they did in ‘loosening the soil’: Parliamentary Papers (hereafter PP) 1846, IX Report from the Select Committee on the game laws, 261, q. 5958–9 (evidence of John Shitler).

28 Lovegrove notes that most payments for moles come from the open field areas of the East Midlands. See Lovegrove, Silent fields, 193.

29 It has been calculated that 6.5 million sparrows were slaughtered in a sample of 79 Bedfordshire parishes 1685–1873; see Palmer, ‘Vermin catching’, 12–14.

30 William Ellis, Agriculture improv'd: or, The practice of husbandry display'd, 2 vols. (London, 1745), ii, 120–31.

31 Lovegrove, Silent fields, 172.

32 Also see J. S. Elliott, Bedfordshire vermin payments (Luton, 1936).

33 This was widely practised: John Lawrence, The modern land steward (London, 1806), 65; Stephen Glover, The history of the county of Derby (Derby, 1829), 312.

34 NRO, 28p/37 and 50.

35 This role was more usually discharged by small boys hired by individual farmers: Jones, ‘Bird pests’; Stewart, John, ‘The political economy of agrarian education: England in the late nineteenth century’, Agricultural History Review 42, 2 (1994), 126–39Google Scholar; Heward, Christine, ‘Reconstructing popular childhoods’, Children and Society 7, 3 (1993), 237–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36 Gentleman's Magazine 92 (1802), 407.

37 Judy Wright, Selling sparrows (Dunstable, 2006), 88, suggests that large numbers of parishioners were involved in eighteenth-century Bedfordshire.

38 E. W. Watson, Ashmore Co. Dorset: a history of the parish with index to the registers, 1651 to 1820 (Gloucester, 1890), 39; R. Carr, ‘Country sports’, in G. Mingay ed., Victorian Countryside, 2 vols. (London, 1977), ii, 475–87; Manning, R. B., ‘Unlawful hunting in Britain, 1500–1640’, Forest and Conservation History 38, 1 (1994), 1623CrossRefGoogle Scholar, here 20.

39 NRO, 119p/38 (Everdon); 92p/119–20 (Crick); 143p/56–7 (Guilsborough). Similar examples were recorded at Ashby St Ledgers (NRO, 15p/94); at Norton in 1772, the churchwardens listed the names of the men who brought in sparrows and hedgehogs but not those who handed over foxes, perhaps implying that those killing foxes were not resident in the parish (NRO, 243p/71–2).

40 NRO, M(F)165 (1750 rental) and 15p/94 (churchwarden's accounts). See the accounts for 1770 and 1771 for reference to the coachman and gardener.

41 NRO, 320p/31 and POW/7.

42 NRO, 364p/24.s: Few bringing in sparrows and hedgehogs at Blakesley in the 1760s and 1770 appear to have contributed to the church rate: those that did mostly held medium-sized properties rated between £20 and £120 (NRO, 33p/25).

43 Thomas, Man and the natural world, 275; Lovegrove, Silent fields, 174; Glover, History of the county of Derby, 312.

44 For John Clare's views on cruelty to animals, see Perkins, David, ‘Sweet Helpston! John Clare on badger baiting’, Studies in Romanticism 38, 3 (1999), 387407CrossRefGoogle Scholar, especially 394–400.

45 ‘A country clergyman’, in Bird murder; or, good words for poor birds – a tract for the times (London, 1862). See Times, 13 June 1872, for debates on Wild Fowl Protection Bill, especially the speech of Mr A. Herbert.

46 Palmer, ‘Vermin catching’, 12–14.

47 Public Advertiser, 23 May 1760.

48 Stephen Hollowell, ‘Aspects of Northamptonshire inclosure: social and economic motives and movements’ (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Nottingham, 1998); Lowerson, J. R., ‘Enclosure and farm holding in Brackley, 1829–51’, Northamptonshire Past and Present VI, 1 (1978), 3348Google Scholar. For neighbouring Lincolnshire, see T. W. Beastall, The agricultural revolution in Lincolnshire (Lincoln, 1978), 22–41.

49 John Goodridge, The independent spirit: John Clare and the self-taught tradition (Peterborough, 1994).

50 Northampton Mercury, 26 April 1784.

51 Northampton Mercury, 2 September 1776.

52 Northampton Mercury, 31 August 1778; R. W. Bushaway, ‘From custom to crime: wood gathering in eighteenth and early nineteenth century England: a focus for conflict in Hampshire, Wiltshire and the South’, in J. Rule ed., Outside the law: studies in crime and order, 1650–1850 (Exeter, 1982), 68.

53 Schneider, Z. A., The King's Bench: Bailiwick magistrates and local governance in Normandy, 1670–1740 (Rochester, NY, 2008), 205–6Google Scholar; Knoll, M., ‘Hunting in the eighteenth century – an environmental history perspective’, Historical Social Research 29, 3 (2004), 936Google Scholar.

54 P. B. Munsche, Gentlemen and poachers: the English game laws, 1671–1831 (Cambridge, 1981), 5; Frank McLynn, Crime and punishment in eighteenth-century England (London, 1989), 202–18.

55 Night poachers were prosecuted under 9 Geo IV, Cap. 69. Munsche, Gentlemen and poachers, 8–27; H. Hopkins, The long affray: the poaching wars in Britain (London, 1985).

56 Northampton Mercury, 31 August 1778 (Rushden); 21 September 1778 (Moulton).

57 Northampton Mercury, 9 September 1776. The commissioners' advertisement calling the meeting to finalise the division of land appeared on 3 February 1777.

58 Northampton Mercury, 1 February 1779.

59 Northampton Mercury, 5 July 1779.

60 Northampton Mercury, 29 January 1779.

61 Northampton Mercury, 31 August 1778; 9 August 1800 (resolutions of meeting); 20 September 1800 (notice re: objections from farmers). Munsche, Gentlemen and poachers, 90. Associations of this type were founded as early as 1740 in some counties.

62 Northampton Mercury, 31 October 1818.

63 Munsche, Gentlemen and poachers, 93.

64 Also known as Stowe IX Churches.

65 McDonagh, B., ‘Enclosure, agricultural change and the remaking of the local landscape: the case of Lilford (Northamptonshire)’, Northamptonshire Past and Present 64 (2011), 4552Google Scholar.

66 Edward Christian, A treatise on the game laws (London, 1817), 157–8.

67 Leicester Chronicle, 26 July 1854.

68 T. L. Cunningham, The law dictionary, 2 vols. (London, 1783), 122.

69 Lovegrove, Silent fields, 211; Carr, ‘Country sports’, 477.

70 J. Giles, The new law dictionary (London, 1762), 315.

71 E. Griffin, Blood sport: hunting in Britain since 1066 (New Haven, 2007), 139. Foxes were one of the few animals to be both hunted as game and killed as vermin, and the Buller ruling utilised the dual status of foxes as a way to extend to those hunting foxes with hounds the right of vermin-catchers to enter another's property.

72 Richard Burn, Burn's justice of the peace and parish officer, 29th ed., 6 vols. (London, 1845), vol. iii, 249; ‘Trials relating to foxhunting’, Sporting Magazine 38 (1838), 220–2.

73 NRO, M(F)66.

74 Jones, Eric L., ‘The environmental effects of blood sports in lowland England since 1750’, Rural History 20, 1 (2009), 5166CrossRefGoogle Scholar, here 56.

75 D. Itzcowitz, Peculiar privilege: a social history of English foxhunting, 1753–1885 (Hassocks, 1977); Carr, Raymond, English fox hunting: a history (London, 1976)Google Scholar.

76 Carr, ‘Country sports’, 480, 483.

77 Thomas, Man and the natural world, 63–5.

78 NRO, 213p/6.

79 NRO, 320p/1.

80 NRO, SSF/A 113.

81 Oxford English Dictionary.

82 See Second annual report of the poor law commissioners for England and Wales (London, 1836), 59; PP, Select Committee reports on the poor law, 1837–38, XVIII, Thirty-fifth report, 5, qq. 11472–11476 (evidence of Thomas William Overman); PP 1837–38, XVIII, Forty-eighth report, 328–9; PP 1843, XLV, Poor Law Amendment Act … Gilbert's Act incorporations, 79–80 (Higham on the Hill); PP 1843, XLV, East Preston Gilbert's Incorporation, 215. They did not disappear completely: the compilers of a report on church rates in the 1850s remarked that the column marked ‘For other purposes’ might in some parishes include sums for sparrows, moles and foxes, ‘but these … payments are being discontinued’. PP 1859, XX, 3–4.

83 Lovegrove, Silent fields, 1–15.

84 Letter of ‘a soldier’: ‘The Militia – are the British a military people?’, Daily News, 10 April 1852.

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