12 - Enclosures
“The enclosures were a revolution of the rich against the poor” – Historian Karl Polanyi
Enclosure was when fields and and common land that had previously been worked co-operatively and accessible to everyone was privatised by statute. Common land granted right such as pasturage, turbary and estovers. This process of enclosure took place over all over the UK over quite a long period time, but its effects were considerable with over 6.8 million acres of common land being enclosed. In Cardiganshire (now Ceredigion) in 1796 the total acreage of unenclosed land was 200k, by 1873 it had shrunk to below 50k. The commons were almost sacrosanct to the Welsh. A witness to the Commons Committee in 1844 said that
“The right of cynefin or ‘sheep walk’ upon a mountain attached to a farm is of more value to a farmer than the farm itself. The people of Wales look upon the rights of common as invaluable..the first question a Welshman asks when he comes to take a farm is ‘what kind of common right can you offer’?”
Enclosure in Wales was not straightforward and officials often encountered problems such as missing maps, badly defined or nonexistent boundaries and encroachment by ‘squatting’ farmers. One unique attempt to ‘claim’ back common land was to build what were called tai ‘Un Nos’ (one night houses). The principle of ‘tai un nos’ dates back to a medieval law granted to shepherds and farmers and holds the premise that a house built in a single night became the freehold property of the builder. Smoke had to be coming out of the chimney by sunrise and the extent of the attached land was decided by throwing an axe from the doorway and planting a hedge along this line. This encroachment became a form of protest – you can still see the ruins of these houses to this day at places like Mynydd Bach.
Rhyfel y Sais Bach (War of the Little Englishman) 1820-1829
Mynydd Bach (near Llanrhystud). was an epicenter of the fight against the closure of common land. In 1820 an Englishman, Augustus Brackenbury purchased 850 acres of common moorland from the Enclosure Commissioners on Mynydd Bach. The local inhabitants had used the land to cut peat (turbary) since time immemorial however Blackberry wanted to use it for shooting and began fencing it off. There were the subsequent threats and the frustration of local inhabitants came to a head when he started to build a large house. One night this house was burnt to the ground. Apparently he was held over a fire and roasted until he promised to depart and never return. The men who set fire to the house were dressed as women and had blacked out faces so he was not able to prosecute anyone.
Not deterred by this he returned in 1826 and built a second ‘castle’ with a moat. Again tensions rose as he accosted a young girl for ‘traspassing’ and Brackenbury began destroying the turf stacks which the locals used for fuel. Between 600-1000 locals came together and looted the castle. This time he managed to identify some of the assailants and they were tried at the Court of Great Sessions in Cardigan. (Remember at this point that the Welsh had no rights to a trial in their own language). Here is the account:
“All the witnesses were English, but nine out of ten on the jury did not understand either the witnesses or the judge. The jury expressed a wish that the evidence of the principal witnesses should be interpreted in Welsh for them, but Sergeant Heywood objected on the ground that by law all proceedings in a court of justice should be in English. In con-sequence the prisoner, who had been clearly identified, was acquitted because the jury did not understand the evidence.”