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Sep 1, 1979

Parliamentary Enclosure and Uprooted Labor

What was the historical relationship between enclosure and industrialism?

N. F. R. Crafts
Oxford University

“Enclosure and Labor Supply Revisited.” Explorations in Economic History 15 (April 1978): 172–183.

Did the British government’s parliamentary enclosure acts uproot the rural population and thus create an increased supply of labor for industry in early nineteenth century England? Marxian Maurice Dobb argued in Studies in the Development of Capitalism (1946) that the parliamentary enclosures did create a new mobile labor force for “capitalist” industry’s needs. On the other hand, since J.D. Chamber’s seminal article [“Enclosure and Labour Supply.” Economic History Review5 (1953): 319–343] the orthodox position has held that the government enclosures did not cause a “real flight from the countryside.”

However, on non-Marxian grounds and through empirical economic analysis of population movements in early nineteenth century England, we have substantial reasons for doubting the orthodox view of Chambers. First, Chambers’s evidence is inadequate to maintain that the population increases that occurred in parliamentary enclosed villages were used in rural improvement projects associated with the enclosures, Secondly, Chambers erroneously argued that population grew more rapidly in parliamentary enclosed villages than in other villages possessing common land. And thirdly, at the county level, we find a small but positive association between government enclosure of common land and outmigration.