‘Open Fields to Enclosure: The Parliamentary Enclosure of Burwell’- commemoration of a 200th anniversary


At a time when there are many anniversaries such as those of the two world wars it would be very easy to miss the anniversary of an event that more than any other shaped the village of Burwell.

The anniversary to which I refer is the 200th anniversary of the enclosure of Burwell’s arable fields by Act of Parliament.

Some of the larger proprietors of land in the parish first approached Parliament for an act to enclose in 1808, but because not enough people wanted it the proposition was turned down. In 1813 a second attempt was made and despite opposition from the Jockey Club an Act was granted in 1814.

The Enclosure Commissioners first met in July 1814 and between then and May 1816 changed the face of agriculture in the arable fields, these were the upland fields, they had no power to alter any of the fen lands in the parish.

Prior to 1814 anyone who farmed land in the parish usually had a number of small strips of land spread out across the parish and one of the aims of enclosure was to ensure where possible that each farmer had his land together in blocks, thus making it easier for him or her farm, and thereby increase the production from the land. Particularly important as when the enclosure of Burwell commenced the country was a war with Napoleon Bonaparte.

In changing the layout of the land and the way the land was farmed the commissioners found it essential to change many of the village roads.

Many of the small roads and tracks that led across the former open fields disappeared, some roads were altered and some new roads created. For example, the Swaffham Road was straightened from Crownall Farm (the edge of the village) to the Dyke and Ness Road as we see it today was created. The section of Ness Road from the junction with The Causeway to Haycroft Way did not exist before 1815.

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A small track had run south of the present road to the two windmills which then stood on either side of what is now Toyse Lane, but anyone travelling to Fordham in 1814 had to go down North Street, then turn right into Howland Balk, go up to the junction with Haycroft Way and turn left in to Ness Road; a road by that name existing from there to The Ness, and on to Fordham at that time.

Another major change imposed by the Enclosure Commissioners was the removal of Common Rights held by some villagers over the fields.

That is, when the harvest was in those with Common Rights could take their animals, which made up the town herd, and put them out to graze the arable fields irrespective of who owned the land.

In compensation for the loss of this right a small plot of land was granted. Most of these plots, known as allotments, were awarded close to the village, the majority lying on either side of The Causeway, Buntings Path and Toyse Lane.

The impact of the changes to the roads and the creation of small plots of land in compensation for the loss of Common Rights has since 1816 largely shaped the way Burwell has developed into the village we see today.

The enclosure was not without its issues, the original award was made at the beginning of May 1816 and not unsurprisingly there were some complaints about the awards made.

Some people sold land and others requested exchanges be made. The surveyor turned out to be less than trustworthy, taking and running off with money taken from some of the villagers and not completing the job for which he was contracted, as a result the final award was not published until 1817.

To mark the anniversary I have produced and privately published a book entitled, ‘Open Fields to Enclosure: The Parliamentary Enclosure of Burwell’.

This A4 hardback book sets out in detail over eight chapters (160 pages of A4) the process of enclosure from start to finish and includes over 100 full colour maps. For every person awarded land the book details what they were awarded with a map showing where the land awarded was located.

The book, priced at £25, will be available in September through Amazon. Anyone wishing to purchase a copy in August at a pre-release price of £20 can contact me via email at staploe.historical@outlook.com.

Only 150 copies have been printed.