Enclosures of Farm Land in Fontmell Magna

January 22, 2007
Enclosure map
New Field and Longcombe Bottom

New Field and Longcombe Bottom

Take a short walk out of the centre of our village in an eastward direction and you can see several fairly large fields, quite different from the majority of small, hedge-lined ones in the rest of the parish. These large fields were originally ‘open fields’ which in mediaeval times had provided subsistence farming strips for the community. The picture on the left shows where New Field, Longcombe Field and Littlecombe Field were situated (with Toothill Field and Laywales Field on their boundaries). The land rises up towards what was called Fontmell Common Down. These fields remained ‘open’ until the middle of the 19th century.
The picture on the right shows where Netton Field

Netton Field

Netton Field

was situated (with Shortland Field and Quarrenden Field on the south side). Notice that they were called ‘fields’, while an enclosed piece of land was called a ‘close’. Netton Field was divided into 20 to 25 strips, usually a furlong or ‘farrow long’ (an 8th of a mile) and you may find it difficult to imagine what it was like to work in those conditions. Many disputes occurred and were dealt with by the Manor Court where the estate steward and the bailiff attempted to resolve them, often with the help of the parish constable. So how was the change from an ‘open field’ system to enclosures achieved?

Open fields to the east of the village

Open fields to the east of the village

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 the manor (as it was called) of Fontmell Magna passed from control by Shaftesbury Abbey to the Arundell family of Wardour Castle (just over the border into Wiltshire). The new owners frequently surveyed their manors, and such records have survived from 1575, 1588 and 1599 which show that already several farms were occupied by lease holders and copyholders (deeds held in the Manor Court and recorded in the court rolls). There is a gap then until the records of 1698. This does not mean of course that in the intervening years no surveys were undertaken, but simply that copies of such documents have not survived. The introduction of the Land Tax in 1692 (to pay for the war against Louis XIV) at first only charged landowners (such as Arundell), but was soon filtered down to tenants and small-holders. This meant that the estate managers were constantly required to conduct surveys and adjust the rents. In the 18th century further surveys took place in 1717, 1719, and 12 more between 1736 and 1803. There are also a series of tenants’ contract books between 1711 and 1798. But perhaps the most interesting document is the Enclosure map of Fontmell Magna drawn by Ingman in 1774.

Enclosure map

Enclosure map

The map on the left is an extract of the complete map of the manor. The reason why this map is so important is that it was made at a time when farming in the village was undergoing significant changes. As we have already seen, there were some tenant farmers in the late 16th century which meant that there must have been several enclosed farms already established. Throughout the 17th century the process of change from open-field cultivation to enclosures continued and increased rapidly in the 18th century. The Ingham map shows just how far the reorganization had reached. Unfortunately the original map is now so fragile that it cannot be presented in the Search Room of the Dorset History Centre, but I was allowed to inspect it in their conservation laboratory.
Most of the land had already been enclosed (hedged or fenced) as meads (meadows) or closes (for agriculture or pasture), with intriguing names such as Pineywell Close, Bad Barn Close, Swelley Close and Goose Close, Hither Hanging Ground and Yonder Hanging Ground, Trench Mead, Great Leg Mead, Goggs Mead and Odd Mead. But to the north and east of the village there were still some large areas called ‘fields’ and marked with lots of narrow strips of land. On the northern boundary with Compton Abbas was Upp Field, a large area partly of open strips and partly of common.
Enclosures (or more usually ‘inclosures’) in Fontmell during the Arundell period (1540 to 1809) were at first achieved by individual agreements between tenant farmers and the landowner. In the 17th and 18th centuries Local Inclosure Acts provided the legal basis of agreements. It is probable that in the 16th and 17th centuries formal enclosure agreements in Dorset (and in Somerset and Devon) were on a much smaller scale the in Midlands counties such as Northampton, Leicester and Warwickshire. During the period of the French Wars between 1789 and 1815 farm commodity prices rose very steeply, and the situation was made worse by a succession of bad harvests in 1796, 1801 and 1813. These factors put pressure on the landowners to increase the productivity of their agriculture. In 1801 the Inclosure Consolidation Act was introduced and refined under the Inclosure Act of 1845.
Manor Farm, Compton AbbasThe picture shows Manor Farm House in the early 20th century. In the middle of the 19th century this farm (originally called Fontmell Hill Farm) was the largest in the parish and was run by John Hall. The 1841 census reveals a substantial list of people named as farmers or yeomen who were working enclosed land:
John Bennet, Richard Bishop, Isaac Boswell, Mary Cole, Stephen Cole, Charles Davis, Peter Denness, Thomas Easton, Lucy Garrett, John Hall, John Haskell, James Hiscock, William Hunt, Robert Hussey, John Lawrence, Thomas Mayo, Charles Mayo, James Mayo, Mary Miles, Samuel Mockridge, James Moore, James Ralph, James Rebbeck, Henry Rideout, Henry Snook, Ann Stay, John Wareham and James Wright.
This suggests a total of at least 28 enclosed farms occupied by tenant farmers and small holders. We cannot be certain when the last open field in Fontmell was enclosed, but it may have been in the late-Victorian period. The whole process of enclosure was, of course, not without prolonged opposition. Although in the long run it undoubtedly brought about major advances in agricultural productivity, it created considerable deprivation for the dispossessed members of the community who could no longer use the common grazing land and ‘waste’ that had traditionally been available to them. The elaborate legal procedures to obtain enclosure agreements were also lengthy and expensive. They involved commissioners, surveyors and clerks and in some cases, as much as 5-10 years of litigation.
If we compare the 1774 Enclosure map with the 1839 Tithe map it becomes clear that little had changed. The pattern of open fields is very similar in both maps. In a later article we will be examining the whole issue of tithes in Fontmell Magna in some detail.

Author: Ian Lawrence