18th August 1944. Owners of the Land.
Today in 1944 in the magazine Tribune George Orwell in ‘As I Please’ said: ‘Stop to consider how the so called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force hiring lawyers to provide them with title-deeds in the case of the common land…they did not even have the excuse of being foreign conquerors…’
One of the first things landowners did was to enclose as with Henry, Baron Hastings of Ashby-de-Zouch who bought a Leicestershire castle where he enclosed 31 acres. As Lord Chamberlain to Edward IV in the 15th century, he was a powerful baron until falling foul of Protector Gloucester who had him beheaded.
The Dissolution of the Monasteries along with their support of the poor and needy threw many into crime and poverty giving rise to the Tudor Poor Laws a situation made worse by ‘inclosures’ (enclosures) for the prosperous running of sheep.
The 17th century saw seven instances of Acts for Parliamentary enclosures, the earliest being Radipole Parish in south Dorset 1604: by the reign of George I, in the early 18th century there were eighteen Acts.
Enclosures really began in earnest c 1750 when figures reached a hundred mainly in the Midland Counties of Leicestershire, North Warwickshire, and Rutland for ‘Emparkment’ and private woodland; thereafter it was for agricultural purposes with 2,000 local Acts in the 2nd half of the 18thc and similarly between 1800-1845. Whole villages were resited where they conflicted with the amenities of the newly gentrified landowners.
In the process the losers were the independent peasantry deprived of their traditional few acres many of whom were to be recruited as labourers by the increased numbers of yeoman and tenant farmers.
An 1803 Act saw Needwood Forest, in Staffordshire and Derbyshire, of over 9,000 acres, enclosed and completed by 1811, when Commissioners deforested the area which was acquired by various claimants,
One of the effects of creating restricted areas in these forests was the increase in poaching which saw the ‘Black Act’ 1723 passed in response to the Waltham deer poachers, known as the Wokingham Blacks as they ‘blacked-up’ to disguise themselves.
This created a felony (hanging offence) to appear armed in park or warren, or hunt or steal deer with blackened faces or disguise, a repressive Act for those desperate for food, which had once been readily available and free, becoming an adjunct to the 1715 Riot Act.
The occupation of land was a sine qua non to becoming a member of the landed gentry and MP with many aspiring to the aristocracy, a situation obtaining down to World War I. However it was a Welsh solicitor MP, David Lloyd George who saw by attacking this embedded power that society in general, could start to inherit their share of the nation’s wealth.(1)
The 1910 Budget taxed land and forced large chunks onto the market becoming the basis of a property law which had the effect of reducing the power of the aristocracy and its purpose in membership of the House of Lords.
The 1925 Law of Property Act, part of inter-related legislation introduced by Lord Chancellor, Lord Birkenhead (1922-25), modernised the law on Real Property with the Act of 1925 dealing principally with transfer of property via Lease and Deed. The Law completed in the realm of private law the revolution which had been wrought in 1910 in public law in for example in the fields of taxation and reduction in lordly power.
One effect of the reforms in land ownership has been the increase in private house/land ownership in the 20th century as the people recovered their birthright added to which is the ironic pleasure now to tread in the footsteps of their once lords and masters via courtesy of the National Trust.
(1) Lloyd George later Liberal Prime Minister.