Enclosure – fencing off common land and handing it to private landowners – has been going on in England since the 1200s. It increased substantially in the Tudor period, and then again with the Enclosure Acts of the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, almost half of Britain is owned by just 0.06% of the population.
Common land was a feature of British agriculture for centuries. Much of it was privately owned, with legal rights of access for peasants to graze animals, and was split into small parcels to grow crops. But this was inefficient. Bigger plots meant bigger profits for the landowners. And so, one way or another, it was fenced off.
It’s fair to say enclosure wasn’t a popular policy. When land was enclosed, villagers who had no land of their own were unable to farm, and had to hire their labour out to feed themselves, losing whatever economic independence they may have had. Many ended up deserting the countryside altogether, and headed off to the towns to look for work.
Over the years, there were many protests and rebellions against what many rural people saw as the theft of their land. In 1549, 16,000 peasants stormed Norwich under yeoman farmer turned rebel Ben Kett – 3,000 were killed, and Kett was hanged for treason.
And on this day in 1607, 1,000 peasants protested against enclosure by the Tresham family at Newton in Northamptonshire. They were led by John Reynolds, AKA ‘Captain Pouch’, so named because he carried with him a small pouch, the magical contents of which he claimed would protect the protesters from harm.
The local militia were instructed to quell the rebellion, but refused, so the Treshams used their own servants. In the battle that ensued, 50 people died. Captain Pouch was captured, and subsequently hanged, drawn and quartered. When his pouch was opened, it was found to contain nothing more than a piece of cheese.