Enclosure

During the eighteenth century English landowners started to re-assert control over their estates. Many sought to improve the profitability of their lands by controlling the cropping regime. At the same time, an increased understanding of the underlying principles behind soil fertility led to the introduction of four-course crop rotation. the requirement to manage the crop rotation was incompatible with the piecemeal operation of open strip fields. These two factors provided the drivers for large scale enclosure of open fields and common lands.

Some of the largest estates were enclosed by the simple order of the landowner. If he owned all the lands involved, and there were no rights of common, his word was law. Other landowners sought to gain control of the rights of common within their estate, by purchase, coercion or force. Many used the law. Where the owners of the majority of land within a parish could agree to enclosure, an Act of Parliament could be obtained to force the enclosure of the parish. This inevitably benefited the larger landowners, as the requirement was for the owners of the majority of land by area to agree - which was often not the same as the majority of landowners within the same area.

The enclosure of Weeting was authorised by an act of parliament 1774 entitled "An Act for Dividing Allotting and Inclosing the Common Fields Half Year Inclosures Lammas Meadows Brecks Heaths Commons and Waste Lands within the Parish of Weeting in the County of Norfolk". This appears to have been at the instigation of the Earl of Mountrath who was consolidating his estate in the parish at the time. The act appointed commissioners who were supposed to be able to take an independent view of the claims to land within the parish and to make fair allotments of the areas enclosed. The commissioners for Weeting were Philip Case, Robert Quince, Joshua White, William Rogerson and Thomas Wright. None owned lands in the parish and were so deemed to be impartial. A study of the social networks of the time might reveal just how independent, or otherwise, these gentlemen were…

Once installed the commissioners appointed a surveyor, James Ellis of Middlesex, to prepare a map of the parish and to tabulate the landholding of each proprietor. The commissioners met with the proprietors of the parish and took note of the claims of rights of common, sheepwalk and shackage that each person presented. With all this information available to them, the commissioners then decided how to divide up the lands to be enclosed. Their findings were recorded in the Enclosure Award and Enclosure Map - these documents survive and are in the keeping of the Norfolk Records Office.

As well as defining the areas to be enclosed, the award also defines who is to maintain the new boundaries, and the form that the boundaries should take. The commissioners specified that the fences shall be made with ditches four feet wide and three feet deep perpendicular with a bank laid with a spring and stake bound hedge. On the low ground, where hedges would have died from waterlogging, it was decreed that the allotments shall be divided with ditches eight feet wide.

The commissioners also took a view on the road system of the parish and defined a network of roads, driftways and footpaths through the newly enclosed lands. Some of these new roads seem to follow exactly the same line as the pre-enclosure roads, others were designed to provide access to enclosures without the need to pass through other proprietor's lands.

So what affect did this have on the inhabitants of Weeting? The immediate impact was probably limited, as Faden’s map of 1797 shows areas of heath surrounding the village. Most of the roads around Weeting are depicted with dotted lines rather than solid. This convention is normally taken to show roads crossing areas of open fields. If this interpretation is correct then it would seem that it was largely a matter of business as usual for those working the land.