Turvey’s Farming Past

Ridge and furrow markings


Turvey is a farming village but in the twenty first century very few of its inhabitants work on the land. However, a tour of the village and a walk across the footpaths of the Parish give evidence of the way the land was owned and worked in earlier times. To understand what happened in Turvey it is better to know a little of the general history of farming and landownership in England. A general outline of the history of farming is given below although no one Parish is ‘typical’ – Turvey included!

The Open Field System

The Three Field Farming System, usually known as Open Field Farming, took account of the fact that the quality of land in any village varied: some arable land is good and productive and some less so. From Saxon times onwards, land in most villages was divided up so that families had some good and some poor land.

Three big fields were divided up into strips, called furlongs, and farmers were allocated several furlongs in each field.  The furlong was literally a ‘furrow long’.  The plough that turned the earth was pulled by a team of oxen, usually at least four – but this is open to debate.  The plough, a mould board plough, turned the earth one way and as the plough team needed space at the end of each furrow to turn, so the earth would continue to be turned inward making a sort of long mound!  In between furlongs the land was left to grass to show the boundary between one persons’ holding and his neighbours. These grassy areas were called balks.  They were used not only as a land division but as a means of access across the open fields.

Usually the furlongs allotted to each farmer were separated from one another, sometimes by quite big distances. Each year the crops grown in the fields varied but everyone had to grow the same crop in the same field – usually one field would grow wheat or rye to make bread, one would grow barley for making ale or beer, and one would be left fallow, nothing was grown there, so that the ground had time to recover some of its goodness.  Often sheep would graze the remains of the crops left after harvesting; they provided natural fertilizer as they went!  The decisions about what was grown where were supposedly made by all villagers at village meetings – often called moots (hence the name Moot Hall).

There was also Common Land in every village where all villagers, whether they had a right to land in the open field or not, could graze cattle.  Pigs were generally let loose to feed in the woodlands.

Most villagers did not own the land they farmed but rented it from the Lord of the Manor.  In Mediaeval Times they would be expected to fight if their Lord was asked by the King to provide men for an army. Later, tenants would pay rent by means of tithes and taxes on what they produced in the fields, usually this was a tenth of their crop.

Evidence of the Open Field system can be seen in the landscape today.  It is easy to spot fields with a regular pattern of undulations across the land, especially where this is now grassed – there are several fields like this in Turvey.

The Problems with the Open Field System

This system worked reasonably well for centuries, but it had its limitations. It was impossible to experiment with new crops, for example, and leaving a field empty each year was a great waste; particularly as crops were found that could replace the goodness in the soil and be used as fodder for animals.  Common grazing meant that animals were often thinner as they had to forage further for food.  They were also more susceptible to disease spread from less diligent farmers. Arable land was wasted by the balks between the furlongs and once again, less conscientious farmers affected the livelihood of their neighbours. It also prevented landowners, particularly those with large amounts of land, from doing what they wanted with their own property.

Early Enclosures of Land

The Statute of Merton in 1235 had allowed the Lord of the Manor to enclose some of the Common Land for his own use, provided that enough was left for his tenants to graze their own animals.  The Statute of Westminster in 1285 was important in formalising land law and rights of ownership.  Large landowners took advantage of enclosing tracts of land for their own use, often to form deer parks for hunting or to enlarge their own parkland for leisure.

Elizabethan Enclosures

In the reign of Elizabeth I there was a great increase in the enclosure of land for sheep farming. This had been happening from the fourteenth century, but the value of English wool had gone up and landlords began to enclose the open fields as well as Common Land.  In some cases, fewer tenant farmers meant that land had gone into disuse anyway and sheep farming was an efficient way of increasing the value and usefulness of the land.  However, the enclosures probably contributed to social difficulties and poverty: it was widely condemned, particularly by the church. There were a number of uprisings across the country by peasants against their overlords.

The Seventeenth Century

Enclosure continued piecemeal throughout this period and was no more popular than it had been earlier. In 1607 James I ordered his Deputy Lieutenants to put down the Newton Rebellion, which took place at Newton near Kettering, when villagers pulled down hedges and filled in ditches of enclosed land held by the Tresham Family.  The Riot Act was read, and a pitched battle took place in which 40 or 50 people were killed.  It was one of the last confrontations between the landowners and the peasantry.

Parliamentary Enclosures.

A population explosion in the mid eighteenth century made it necessary for the land to become more productive because there were far more people to feed.  The development of factories in towns and cities increased the demand for efficient food production in the countryside.

Experiments and new developments in farming dating from about the same time meant that farmers needed parcels of land together where they could be free to grow what crops they liked. There were also experiments in breeding stronger, larger and healthier livestock – again, farmers needed their own fields to do this. The Open Field System was inefficient and out of date. The land needed to be divided up and fenced off so that farmers could work efficiently.

This was done by means of local Acts of Parliament called Inclosure Acts.  Not only the Open Fields would be divided up and fenced off, but also the Common and Waste Lands and woodlands were divided up and enclosed.  These enclosures were said to favour the rich and lead to huge social unrest, but nothing is ever that simple and in many areas all villagers benefited from Enclosures.

Certainly, it meant that villagers with no rights to farm the Open Fields had nowhere to graze their animals, but new jobs were created on the enclosed land, not least by the need to put up fences and dig ditches.  Earlier Parliamentary Inclosures were all effected by private Acts of Parliament where three quarters of the landowners in any parish could petition Parliament to enclose the land.

There were so many petitions for Private Inclosure Awards, that in 1801 the General Enclosure Act was passed.

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