The Acts of Enclosure

THE GOOSE AND THE COMMON

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose

The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine

The poor and wretched don’t escape
If they conspire the law to break
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back

Authors unknown, circa 1700s

The first two verses of this rhyme popped up in my newsfeed on Facebook recently.  It was being circulated as a commentary on certain present-day events, but I recognised immediately its original meaning.

This is a seventeenth protest rhyme against enclosure of land in the English countryside.  A little googling resulted in this fuller version, although as with any such rhyme passed on by word of mouth, a number of versions have survived.

Although this ryhyme is thought to date from the 18th century, the process of enclosure started in England as long ago as the 13th century. The term ‘enclosure’ (or, to use the archaic spelling, ‘inclosure’) refers to two distinct practices: firstly, the consolidation of smallholdings into larger farms, and secondly, the fencing off of formerly ‘common land’, which would from that time be owned privately.  The rhyme refers to the latter.

The point about ‘common land’ is that it is for the use of all local folk.  They could perhaps graze animals there, or hunt the odd rabbit or goose as an addition to whatever they could grow on their own small plot of land.  Enclosure of the land meant all hunting, grazing, fishing and other rights would now be for the amusement and benefit of the landowner.  Henceforth, the shooting of a wild animal on that private land by someone whose ancestors had been doing this for centuries as a perfectly respectable way of supplementing mealtimes would be ‘poaching’, punishable by the law, and resulting in imprisonment or even transportation.  What land did remain for the common good was often of poor quality and unsuitable for grazing.

During the Georgian era this process of enclosure speeded up, and from 1773 enclosure was by Act of Parliament.

The process of enclosure had several consequences, not only for our countryside but also for the development of English society as a whole.  Understandably, the process of enclosure itself was met with resistance, resulting in bloodshed and criminalisation of individuals.  Larger farms opened the way for more efficient farming practices, resulting in a surplus of labour.  Life became harder and families became hungrier in the rural areas at exactly the same time as the great industrial northern towns and cities were starting to boom.  In this way we can see that enclosure contributed to the ‘push’ factors away from the rural lands at exactly the same time as the industrial revolution created the ‘pull’ factors.  This certainly is borne out by my own family history.

Most of us, I’m sure, will have agricultural labourers in our ancestry.  Some genealogists complain that ‘ag labs’, as they’re referred to, are pretty much all they have.  I can understand their frustration, because unless our ag labs had regular run-ins with the law there is often very little information to be found about them.  We might easily imagine they lived small, uninteresting lives.  But it’s little things like this rhyme that let us know this was not necessarily so.  Our ancestors were fully aware that their lands were being taken and their rights eroded.  They were aware of the unjustness of what was happening.  It might even be imagined that the chanting or singing of this rhyme would be considered seditious.  In any event, just this little bit of background information may help us to think differently about an ancestor with a history of poaching convictions.

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