New book reveals how Hornsey's fields were fenced in for profit

Hornsey Parish Church. Print by William Ellis, 1791

Hornsey Parish Church. Print by William Ellis, 1791 - Credit: Hornsey Historical Society

The opening to David Frith's cracking new book on The Hornsey Enclosure Act is rather brutal.

The purpose of the legislation, he writes was to “enclose, divide and allot to individual tenants or freeholders the commons and waste lands of the manor that had by custom previously been used by all."

At a stroke this did away with vital rights of grazing and collecting fuel for the poor. There had always been enclosures in England and the process accelerated from the mid-18th century. Between 1750 and 1815 around one sixth of the country was fenced off, and by 1873, just 7,000 families owned four fifths of England's green and pleasant land.

View down Muswell Hill. TM Baynes, 1822

View down Muswell Hill. TM Baynes, 1822. - Credit: Hornsey Historical Society

Of the 232 acres enclosed in Hornsey, 15½ were allotted to the poor and almost three times that was sold to pay the commissioners who oversaw the scheme. Hornsey's act came into force in 1813 and Frith helps to set the historical context with a fascinating description of the area at the time of The Battle of Trafalgar, and its relationship with its neighbours.

The appointed commissioners and those who benefited from “awards” of land - included The Earl of Mansfield, Harringay art collector and slave owner Edward Gray, and the Spaniard Jose Cayetano de Brenales who owned a large swathe of Muswell Hill.

The centrepiece of this beautifully illustrated book is the Hornsey Enclosure Map which was originally drawn on vellum. Hornsey residents can have fun trying to identify the former landowner of the plot on which their house now stands.

Frith's book contributes much to our understanding of how modern Hornsey developed. His research has been painstaking and his style is highly accessible for a non-specialist. Little is known about the lived impact of the act on the disenfranchised poor - as Frith points out: “Unfortunately, the deprived poor of Hornsey left no records.” 

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Instead he quotes E.P Thompson: “Enclosure … was a plain enough case of class robbery, played according to the fair rules of property and law, laid down by a Parliament of property-owners and lawyers.”

The Hornsey Enclosure Act 1813 is available from £12.00 + p&p

The Hornsey Enclosure Act is published by the Hornsey Historical Society

David Frith's The Hornsey Enclosure Act is published by the Hornsey Historical Society - Credit: Hornsey Historical Society