Bicentenary of Brightwell’s own Act of Parliament

Exactly two hundred years ago Brightwell underwent what in today’s jargon would be called a seismic change. A locally sponsored (Brightwell) Bill was enacted by Parliament in 1811. This Act for enclosure of the commons and open fields is identified in the statute book simply as 51 Geo 3 Cap. 83. Within months of the Act being passed His Majesty’s Commissioner and his aides got to work. The surveyors measured the land from Thames to Tadsey bridge and the soil throughout the parish was assessed by the quality men. Subsequently the arable and common land were reallocated by the Commissioner, Mr John Davis of Bloxham. He ordered highways and byways that had been used by the villagers from time immemorial to be blocked off and new roads, some private, to be constructed.

Prior to enclosure Brightwell, like many parishes across England, was farmed using the open field system that had been in existence for centuries - in some cases from Anglo-Saxon times. Each of 3 or 4 huge open fields was divided into hundreds of long, narrow strips of land - usually less than one acre. It was a system of farming that no longer had a future. A landowner might have a hundred strips scattered across the 3 fields and his plough or harrow would have to be dragged by horse or oxen from one strip to another often along ill kept tracks. In addition, he would be required to grow the same crops as his neighbour, irrespective of his needs. Also, the achievement of proper drainage was very difficult as owners of several adjacent strips of land had to be in agreement and prepared to share the cost. How much better to have your strips all in one piece, enclosed by a stock-proof hedge and well drained? The Revd. William Mavor reporting on Berkshire to the Board of Agriculture in 1809 left no doubt as to his opinion of the old open field system :-

“What system of barbarism can be greater than that of obliging every farmer of a parish possessing soils, perhaps totally different, all to cultivate in the same rotation! What gross absurdity to bind down in the fetters of custom 10 intelligent men, willing to adopt the improvements adapted by enclosures, because of one stupid fellow obstinate for the practice of his grandfather”.

In 1811 it was possible to bring a Bill before Parliament if the owners of three quarters of the land of a parish were in agreement. This had already happened in Sutton Courtney (1804) and Blewbury (1805); so meetings were held in Brightwell in 1810 and in early 1811 to test the feeling of the population.

The parish was divided into two camps. The landowners, many of whom did not live in the parish and some not even in the county, were pro enclosure. The other camp, championed by the Rector, the Revd. Thomas Wintle, were the working people who may have owned only one or two strips of land, or perhaps no land but had grazing rights for one cow or a few sheep. It was this second camp who were to be the eventual losers; for although they would be offered a small plot of land in recompense they would be unable to meet the cost of hedging and fencing their allotment as the Act required and would be forced to sell their land and become land-less day workers. So the ‘little man’ was to lose out to the landowner - which was as it had ever been and was to be expected in a country governed by a parliament dominated by landowners. It would be a hundred years before the order was changed.

The great map produced by Commissioner Davis was finally posted up in St Agatha’s in 1813 after 2 years of wrangling. It can be imagined the entire population would have pored over this map; some identifying their strip(s) of land among the many hundreds on the map and then searching for their new allocation of land. Luckily, this map is still in existence and this year it will be returned home to Brightwell for us to see, thanks to the good offices of the Berkshire Record Office where it has been in safe keeping.

Looking back from 2011 we can see the inevitability of the demise of the old open field system. It meant that the new systems of cultivation brought in by the Agricultural Revolution could become established in Brightwell to the general benefit of the parish. The worst fears of the Reverend Wintle regarding his flock were not realised and if we compare the census returns for Brightwell in 1811 with those of 1821 we see that little changed in the population and certainly there was no mass exodus from the parish by unemployed farm workers.

And what of Sotwell? They opted not to take part, much to the chagrin of those Brightwell landowners and farmers who had land in both parishes and were left struggling to operate both agricultural systems. Eventually, Parliament passed a General Enclosure Act forcing the remaining, recalcitrant, parishes to enclose - and in 1842 harmony between the farmers of Brightwell and Sotwell was restored.

The Brightwell History Group is arranging the return of the Enclosure map to the parish and we will keep you informed when and where. In the mean time if you would like to read more of this intriguing part of our history BHG Reports 1 & 2 can be bought in the Village Shop.

Leon Cobb