You may not find this terrifically amusing, but I thought I would write about it because it was terribly significant and I had never heard about it before I started researching my book. I feel particularly driven to set the record straight after Clive Anderson appallingly misrepresented the facts on QI. I am going to use Mr. Darcy and Pemberley for the purposes of illustration. It is particularly convenient to do so since most of this happened in the North.
Pemberley was a vast estate with huge tracts of land. Mr. Darcy did not work the land himself. He was a gentleman. Instead, he had tenants to work it for him. In return, they got to live on the land in cottages owned by the Darcy family. They also got to use the common lands for their own sustenance. This is where I think it gets interesting.
A portion of Pemberley's lands would have been set aside as commons and would not have benefited the Darcy family at all, well, not directly at least. The tenants would have had a system for dividing up the land and allocating it amongst themselves from year to year to grow crops for their own families. In addition, some of the land would have been for grazing, and each tenant would be allowed to graze a certain number of cattle, sheep, chickens, etc. on that land for their own use. In fact, there are some places where this system is still followed. At least there is one. I saw a program about it on the BBC.
This system was in place from at least the middle ages. All estates had common lands and that's how the system worked and how people survived. We know this as feudalism. As early as the 1100s, however, people started chipping away at the system. Landowners started enclosing the common lands, and taking it for their own use. This was not very popular with the peasants, obviously, and even led to riots in Tudor times.
Clive Anderson said the lands were public and that the rich people just came along and took them for themselves. This is gross error, and as a former barrister, Mr. Anderson should know better than to make such misrepresentations to the public. The land always belonged to the rich people. It was just set aside for the use of the tenants of the owners. And they didn't just come along and take it; there were acts of parliament which authorized the taking. That said, it was still shocking and terrible.
In the 18th Century, methods of agriculture became more efficient, and the number of peasants required to work the land decreased. By the latter part of the century, there were wars in France and embargoes on grain. His Majesty had armies to feed, and not enough bread. It became very important to the common good that landowners produce grain on their land as much as possible. These forces were impetus for parliamentary Acts of Enclosure. Under the Common Law, you couldn't just take away people's rights to use the common lands. There had to be legislation removing those rights. And there were little local acts going back to the 12th Century. But in the late 1700s, there began to be national ones, with a consolidating act in 1801 to tidy them all up and make them into one.
Mr. Darcy was considered by Mrs. Reynolds to be the best landlord and the best master, so he probably didn't do any inclosing. His father might have, but then Mrs. Reynolds says Mr. Darcy is just like his father, so that seems unlikely. Perhaps Pemberley remained under the old system until the Victorian era, specifically the 1840s and 1850s when another spate of enclosures took place.
I actually read one of the inclosure acts. It allowed landowners to enclose the common land, but they must compensate the tenants with other land somewhere else. This, of course, was not generally followed. The peasants were just kicked off the land and the landowners kept a few people around to tend the fields in a more efficient manner on a large scale and got rich and fat.
Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice
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