1802 Berkswell Enclosure Act

The process of ‘enclosure,’ or the transition from medieval open or common farming to the individually-owned fields and farms we see today took place over hundreds of years, but intensified from the mid-18th century onwards. The UK Government says that between 1604 and 1914 Parliament enacted more than 5,200 local enclosure bills covering around 6.8 million acres of land.

The Enclosure of Berkswell
Berkswell parish had been subject to piecemeal enclosure throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, but the process was completed with the Barkeswell Inclosure Act passed on 19th March 1802. This Act would enclose, divide and allot the parish’s remaining 300 acres of common and waste land, the majority of which lay in ‘Balsal Heath’ and ‘Beech Wood’ (p.153). The Commissioner appointed to oversee the process was John Wedge, from the nearby manor of Hill Bickenhill (p.154).

John Wedge’s job was to survey and measure the land in question and to allocate it between the parish’s major landowners and anybody else who could make a case. He was also charged with identifying up to two acres to extract gravel to be used in maintaining the public roads, and to auction off roadside verges and other ‘spare’ bits of land (although the people living nearby were to be given first option; pp.159-160).

As part of the process, Wedge produced a written Award detailing the measurements of each parcel of land, together with a Map showing all the land, boundaries, buildings and other features. His beautiful and intricately detailed map, which can be consulted at the County Record Office, accurately depicts each building and field down to the presence or absence of a porch, pond, tree or field gate.

The Act was not simply a land giveaway, but also attempted to establish landowners’ responsibilities for maintaining the parish’s collective and private resources. The Award gave instructions, or

proper Orders and Directions for mounding, hedging, fencing, draining, and ditching the Several Allotments, and for keeping and maintaining such Hedges, Ditches, Fences, and Drains in Repair, and also for making and laying out proper publick and private Roads, Causeways, Bridges, Drains, Watercourses, Watering Places, and other Conveniences (p.162).

Landowners were also banned for three years from keeping sheep or lambs in the new enclosures, to make sure they didn’t eat the new quickset hedges!

Encroachments: organising the lives of Berkswell’s poorest inhabitants
An important aspect of the Enclosure process was to regularise unauthorised occupations or ‘encroachments.’ In Berkswell as elsewhere, many of the parish’s poorest inhabitants, lacking land of their own, had built cottages on the edge of (i.e. encroaching onto) the common or waste, and as a result weren’t paying tithes or rent to the Manor.

Wedge was charged with surveying all such cottages, which were divided into two groups:

  1. First Schedule: encroachments made in the last twenty years (i.e. 1782-1802). This contains only three names: Simon Granger, Francis Eden, and George Smith.
  2. Second Schedule: encroachments made more than twenty years ago (i.e. before 1782). This contains 38 names.

Wedge surveyed the cottages and their land, allocated small amounts of additional land where necessary, and set the annual charge for each cottager to pay to the Manor. The properties were all converted to leasehold tenancies of the Manor. The resulting map and lists are a rich source for learning more about Berkswell’s poorest inhabitants in the last quarter of the 18th century.

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