Enclosure movement


An economic and social process during the 17th and 18th centuries that gradually destroyed the old open-field system of agriculture in Britain. The resulting efficiency led to a surplus of farm laborers increasingly dependent on wages. As the surplus grew in the late 18th century, agricultural workers from marginalized areas looked to emigration as a means of economic relief.

As a part of a favorable economic transformation that laid the foundation for the Industrial Revolution, British landowners raised productivity by increasing specialization and by alternating use of arable and grass lands, which in turn led to greater demand for what had previously been considered marginal land. In order to improve production by draining land, hedging fields, and rotating crops, lands previously used collectively by village farmers were taken over by large landowners. During the early 18th century this was done locally by private agreement. By the 1760s, it became a matter of national legislation. Between 1760 and 1793, 1,611 enclosure acts were passed, favoring larger landowners and causing much rural distress. The Highlands of Scotland were particularly hard hit, leading to a large Scottish immigration to British North America and later, the United States.

See also British immigration.

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