The problems and penalties of ‘progress’

I have recently read an account of a large rice growing project in Northern Nigeria which may in future produce a lot of rice but which drives the existing users of the land into destitution. Our Parish has recently been remembering a similar course of events from 250 years ago.

Perhaps the only claim to any particular significance that our Parish of West Haddon has is that it occupies the high ground to the north of the Watford Gap opposite to Daventry to the south. However, 250 years ago in 1765 it attracted more notice: there was a very considerable riot. This arose from the enclosure of the land in the Parish.

This process, enabled by an act of Parliament, and occurring simultaneously in two adjacent Parishes, brought about transition from an ‘open field’ system, going back hundreds of years. There were three large fields with individually owned strips of land, but managed collectively in rotation. Each year one field was left fallow and grazed by all the village livestock which also had access to common land and there were special areas such as a reed bed for thatching. This was to be changed to individual holdings consolidated into one place, each person receiving a proportion corresponding to his or her previous individual rights and property and his or her rights within the commons.

Problems can be seen if we contrast the position of someone with 20 cows wanting control over what bull mated with them, with the position of someone with 1 cow preferring any bull to no bull. In addition each person was responsible for planting their new boundary with Elm suckers and then fencing it. These costs were much higher for small lots and were prohibitive, and so many with small entitlements sold them.

However, there was a third category of interested parties. Much of the land in the Parish was owned by outsiders. The Enabling Act in Parliament was only obtained at the third attempt after lobbying by those opposed and those in favour. In 1759, anticipating eventual success a Thomas Whitfield, working in the city of London bought the Manorial Estate, including a sixth of the land. He never visited the Parish but he was very active in lobbying for the Enabling Act. He had reason to expect that after success rents would be considerably higher, possibly double. A quieter operator, John Walker beavered away buying up little bits knowing that after enclosure with them all in one place they would be more valuable. The opposition of tenant farmers like John Underwood could not prevail against the absentee speculators and the process was set in motion.

Traditionally, Llamas day when the Communion bread was made from the new harvest was also the day when people could turn their livestock into the new seasons fallow. A traditional village football match was advertised to take place on that day and there was plenty of beer. All the fencing materials for the division of the land were assembled in one place, valued by some estimates at £1500, but by evening they were all burned. Some of those responsible, not all of them from West Haddon, were caught but others were not.

Nobody received more than 12 months imprisonment, but one man subsequently acquitted was grossly treated and chained up for 6 months. This may have been through the machinations of one Sir Thomas Ward, an absentee landlord and JP.

This brings us back to the rice in northern Nigeria, trumpeted as farming progress”.Nigeria has signed up to a New Alliance for Security and Nutrition. The UK government has channelled £140 million of aid money to support this development. Land has been taken over by Dominion Farms of Nigeria a multinational company that is clearing the land for a huge rice plantation for profit. The local farmers are very badly affected by this. They have been evicted from their land. They were not consulted and no locals were hired by the company. They were promised compensation and the building of schools and hospitals,but that has not happened. In addition, they have been cut off from the public water system, their fishing ponds were filled with sand and they have been forced to abandon traditional grazing rights.” [BBC 27th May 2015]. In 20 or 30 years they and their plight may be forgotten. In 1801 Arthur Young, originally an enthusiast for the progress and farming potential of enclosures wrote this ‘Go to an ale house kitchen of an old enclosed country, and there you will see the origin of poverty and poor rates. For whom are they to be sober, for the Parish? ‘If I am diligent shall I have leave to build a cottage? If I am sober, shall I have land for a cow? If I am frugal shall I have half an acre of potatoes? You offer no motives, you have nothing but the Parish officer and a workhouse.

“These things are driven by hunger for gain, but perhaps something worse is revealed by this advocate of enclosures in 1794. The use of common land by labourers operates upon the mind as a sort of independence but after enclosure the labourers will work every day of the year, their children will be put out to labour and so there would follow that subordination of the lower ranks of society which in the present times is so much wanted.”

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