Volume 5 - From Stanmore Common to Chandos Country

R S Brown, 1976

pages 40, 41

Historial Explanations


Among the various aspects of historical revelation, we have on occasions referred to the Enclosure Acts and some readers have expressed doubt as to the precise function of these Acts. The following explanation may help to clarify the situation.

Although the process of enclosure of waste and common lands had continued intermittently from the Middle Ages, with a particular outburst of activity in the 16th Century, it was only in the 18th Century, when methods of agriculture were changing, that it came to be generally regarded as a necessary and progressive measure.

From about 1760, the normal method of carrying out an enclosure of a major portion of the common lands was by private Act of Parliament. The Act, when passed, authorized the enclosure in principle, and instructed that commissioners be appointed to survey the lands to be enclosed, whether open field, common or waste, to hear the claims of those with rights in the lands and to allot all landowners an equivalent, either in land or money, for the rights they would lose as a result of the enclosure.

A large scale plan of the survey was prepared and an award drawn up embodying the decisions of the commissioners. These awards, with their plans, are invaluable sources of local information. From them can be learned the distribution of landownership, the types of tenure and the names of landowners and tenants. They record the lands forming endowments of charities and schools, the course and breadth of highways, the existence of footpaths and rights of way, the liability for cleansing surface drains, the ownership of hedges and fences. They also distinguish between titheable and non-titheable land, frequently, as in the case of Harrow, extinguishing the tithes for a money payment or land allotment, and specify the special allotments made for public services, such as the maintenance of the parish poor.

Towards the middle of the 19th Century, it was found that the procedure of obtaining an Act of Parliament for every enclosure was too lengthy. Accordingly in 1801, a General Enclosure Act was passed, followed in 1836 by a further Act which permitted enclosure by the consent of the majority of landowners, without recourse to Parliament being necessary. In 1845 the process was further simplified by another Act, which set up a body of standing Enclosure Commissioners who could authorize the enclosure of land by provisional order and enclosure award.


Another ancient term which still retains a modern connotation is 'The Parish ...' the relationship of which to local civil administration is not always fully understood and the following information may clarify the matter for the reader.

The parish, as a unit of local administration, has two aspects, originally quite distinct one from the other. Ecclesiastically, the parish is the area which is committed to "the charge of one person or vicar, or other minister having cure of souls therein". Civilly, it was a place for which a separate poor rate was, or could be, made. The parish as a civil unit came into prominence under the Tudor sovereigns, who placed upon it many duties including responsibility under the supervision of the Justices of the Peace, for the upkeep of highways and the care of the poor. New parish officers. the Surveyors of Highways and the Overseers of the Poor, were created to carry out these functions, the administration of which devolved upon the Vestry, or assembly of all rate-paying inhabitants of the parish. The Constable, too, was an all-important executive officer of the civil parish. Originally an official of the manor or township, with the primary functions of preserving the king's peace and keeping watch and ward, he gradually acquired his share of new duties, becoming responsible for suppressing beggars, removing vagrants, lodging the impotent poor, inspecting alehouses, collecting rates, supervising papists and dissenters, raising recruits for the militia and a host of other tasks.

It is important to remember that, until the middle of the 19th Century, the boundaries of the ecclesiastical and the civil parish were normally identical. When a new ecclesiastical parish was created, civil responsibility for the area was taken over by the inhabitants. Reforming legislation of the 19th Century, however, rapidly diminished the importance of the civil parish in the system of local government. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, by removing poor relief and the right to levy a Poor Rate from the parish authorities, largely destroyed the civil responsibilities of the parish, which nevertheless, remained the unit of administration for ecclesiastical affairs. Increases in population necessitated the splitting up of the old ecclesiastical parishes into two or more new parishes, while the ancient civil parish remained undivided; and so gradually the old identity of boundary ceased to exist. All the civil parishes of Middlesex have now been absorbed into the Boroughs, but the ecclesiastical parishes have continued to multiply.

The most important records of the ecclesiastical parish, traditionally stored in the parish chest, are the Registers of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, Churchwardens' Accounts and Rate Books and documents relating to Church Charities and schools, tithes and the administration of glebe lands.

The principal records of the civil parish are the Vestry Minute Books, Account Books of Overseers of the Poor of Constables and of Surveyors of Highways.