Were the enclosures of rural land responsible for the supply of workers to factories in the 18th and 19th century in England?

  • "Corn laws." The postulate in the question is false. Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 3:48
  • 2
    The corn laws were abolished when? The peak of the enclosures was when? There's some really basic research missing behind this question. It also doesn't account for Henrician or Elizabethan enclosure. Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 4:00
  • @hawkeye: your question needs clarification: I believe it is accepted that both factors you mention were responsible to some degree for the increased supply of factory workers. Are you looking for a number? 50%, 60%? or "insignificant" "very signficant"? Or for someone to tell you one side is just not so?
    – user2590
    Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 4:01
  • 2
    More incorrect postulates: "commons which they used to meet their farming needs for food" - Incorrect. The commons were in general land not well suited for farming, used for pasture. Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 6:29
  • 2
    The question is essentially good, but the postulates and arguments are all bad. Can we fix it? :-) Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 7:31

2 Answers 2


Most people in medieval England would have gotten their food from subsistence farming on land rented from a manor and payed for in labour, while during the Industrial revolution most people in England would have lived in cities. The question is if the enclosures was responsible for the supply of labour to factories.

The answer is no.

Enclosing land was a process that started already during the Tudors, as this system of paying in work and getting payed in land was growing increasingly inefficient. The Inclosures act of 1773 and later enclosure acts as such only helped speed up that process, which would have happened anyway.

But the enclosing itself did not create a surplus of labour for factories, because people would still have to eat, and the land still needed to be farmed. The enclosures only helped landlords reorganize the small strip farming system used into larger, more efficient fields.

The real change, and what created real surplus in labour was the increase in yield you got from the land, meaning that more people could be supported with the same amount of farming work. This does come partly from the enclosures, as the fields could be used more efficiently, but the big change comes from the inventions in farming that happened during the 18th century, spearheaded by such people as Jethro Tull, no sorry, I mean Jethro Tull.

That meant that all these other people could be fed without working on the farms, which meant that they were available for other work. This agricultural revolution is the primary cause of the work surplus that lays the ground for the industrial revolution.

Proof for this can be found in looking at how many people that lived on the country side. Between 1500 and 1850, the time of the enclosures, rural population approximately doubled. At the same time, the population living in cities went from approximately a couple of hundred thousand, to around 12-13 million. If the supply of labour came from people being forced from the land, the population in the country side would have decreased, not doubled.

  • Just point you say "reorganize the small strip field system used in to larger more efficient fields" In actual fact the reverse is the case. The Medieval 3 field system used very large fields which people had strips in. However the size of the fields & the general organisation meant that the agriculture was not intensive. Also as the system was universal it meant land not fit for say ploughing was ploughed and vice versa. By reducing the size of the fields and in essence introducing monocultures, Leicestershire & Northamptonshire were virtually turned over to grazing, Food production soared. Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 7:15
  • 1
    @PurplePilot "strip field system" vs " very large fields which people had strips in" - Same thing. "the general organisation meant that the agriculture was not intensive" - Yes, because it was organized into small strips of different crops instead of having monocultures. Thank you for the elaboration of exactly how moving from a strip field system improved yield. :-) Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 7:19
  • 1
    For anyone interested, and in, or visiting, the UK there is still a fully working three field system at the village of Laxton in North Nottinghamshire. Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 18:18
  • 1
    The discussion about feudalism is entirely irrelevant. Feudalism ended in England about 200 years before the Inclosures Act.
    – user2590
    Commented Sep 3, 2013 at 1:34
  • 1
    @LennartRegebro - How did Tull's (Anderson's) flute help bring about the Agricultural Revolution? Isn't he from a much later time? Perhaps you are mixing him up with Pied Piper, who was instrumental in attracting many young workers to the fields?
    – user2590
    Commented Sep 4, 2013 at 6:54

No. As EP Thompson admirably demonstrates in Making of the English Working Class, the proletariat was already in existence in Britain and Ireland at the peak of the enclosures in a "pre-factory" system. As Engels and Marx demonstrate, and as reaffirmed in the Italian influenced Autonomist tradition, the purpose of the factory was to smash pre-existing forms of proletarian composition; from Thompson's work, the frame knitters and the London Mob.

The enclosures leading up to the factory system displaced a rural crofting population into agricultural labour, where they already competed with an Irish rural proletariat who had been displaced en masse by the most brutal forms of primary accumulation or enclosure known.

Enclosure relates to the destruction of the rural moral economy, the factory system to the destruction of the urban moral economy.

And Hammond and Hammond (1911) Village Labourer 159ff. Enclosure, in relation to wage labour, was about forcing agricultural wage labour, "[T]he large farmer wanted a permanent supply of labour which was absolutely at his command. Moreover, the roundsman system maintained his labourers for him when he did not want them.… The report of the Poor Law Commission in 1834 showed that these prejudices were as strong as ever. 'We can do little or nothing to prevent pauperism; the farmers will have it: they prefer that their labourers should be slaves.'"

  • I commend to you the extensive literature precisely on Thompson's work. Marx's primary sources were the parliamentary reports, and his discussion of factory sociology is held in high regard even in conservative analyses of his work. I commend reading on this topic to you. Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 22:13
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat Commented Sep 3, 2013 at 10:25
  • 2
    @SamuelRussell: "the purpose of the factory was to smash pre-existing forms of proletarian composition" IMO this is patently false: Factories arose out of the industrial revolution: The development of modern machines and production techniques made factories an efficient way to produce large amounts of goods for a great number of people quite quickly. To propose some sort of conspiratorial social agenda about this has no basis except in an all too vivid imagination. I respect your learning-but all the intellectual machinations you can muster will not succeed in turning the truth upside down.
    – user2590
    Commented Sep 3, 2013 at 23:21
  • Tronti, Bologna, Marx and Engels in particular The Length of the Working Day; Harry Braverman (of course), but also Dunayevskaya and CLR James. This is a very real literature, and it is a well argued account. Thompson on the Frame knitters even. Saying it ain't so is not going to invalidate 170 years of scholarship on this point. Other opinions, are of course, acceptable in their scholarships. Commented Sep 4, 2013 at 1:28
  • I'm sorry, but if you're going to deny historical methodology then there are other stack exchanges suitable for your speculation. Commented Sep 4, 2013 at 8:31

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.