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Ridge, Furrow and Hedges at Barton on the Heath

Ridge, Furrow and Hedges at Barton on the Heath – Why and When?

From the Medieval to late Tudor times, Barton village was surrounded by 2 huge, almost entirely unhedged or fenced fields, known as ‘open fields’, where villagers grew their crops, and grazed their animals. These two open fields were known as the ‘north’ field and the ‘south field’, one field arable and the other left fallow in an annually rotating cycle. Each of these open fields of about 500 acres was divided into smaller areas of 10 to 15 acres known as ‘furlongs’. Each furlong was further subdivided into about 20 to 30 strips, and the outlines of these strips are the ridges and furrows that we see to this day. Each villager had rights to farm varying number of strips – the Lord of the Manor would have had the largest number, perhaps 200, the Rector had 95, other villagers had smaller numbers of strips, or even none at all.

In the early 17th century the open fields at Barton were ‘enclosed’ by the landowners William Bury and William Brent, by a process known as ‘Unity of Possession’, meaning that as they owned all the land they had a virtually free hand in the division of land at Barton. Although there is no surviving documentation of the enclosure, we can be fairly sure of what happened and when.

The earliest known enclosure at Barton had occurred before 1517, for a small area of 45 acres, enclosed by John Bury, one of William Bury’s ancestors.  However, a date of 1620 for the larger and more important enclosure at Barton is recorded on William Sands’ (1720-1802) monument in St Lawrence Church, stating that William Sands was born in the ‘hundredth year after the enclosure’. Although it would be prudent to be wary of such a precise date, it looks about right – the 1585 and 1619 Ecclesiastical Terriers show the land in those years as still strip-farmed, but the Barton Manor sale contract  of 1625 and the 1677 tithe returns both show the village lands as ‘enclosed’.

William Bury would have agreed with his major tenants and the Rector Richard Briscoe to divide the 2 open fields into 30-40 smaller fields, granting each tenant rights over one or more of the new fields. All these new fields were then ‘enclosed’ with hedges and fences. Most of the hedges and fields we see today in the village date from this period, and we can match many names of the pre-enclosure furlongs and post-enclosure fields with current day maps and locations. Those fields in Barton still exhibiting ridge and furrow have not been extensively ploughed for the last 400 years, evidencing the swing from arable towards pastoral farming in Barton since the early 17th century.

However, there would have been tragedy for those small farmers in the village, who had little or no land granted to them in the enclosure process. Many would have either been forced to accept jobs as wage labourers working for the larger tenants of William Bury, or would have left the village for employment or even penury elsewhere. However, overall the process of ‘enclosure’ throughout England allowed large leaps in agricultural efficiency, without which the country as a whole could not have fed its growing population, which almost doubled between 1700 and 1850. I leave a fuller account of the ensuing controversies over the social and economic effects of enclosure for another time!

Colin Maynell                                                           

Barton on the Heath     

December 2012

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