The poet, John Clare, was born into a largely illiterate labouring family in Helpston, Northamptonshire, 230 years ago today.  His poetry covered nature, folk literature, social injustice, and the inner self, and he was a unique observer of what England was like in the early nineteenth century.  In his late teens an Enclosure Act altered the nature of the village where he lived, and utterly changed Clare’s world disrupting his ability to roam the land and dislocating his sense of place.  Enclose brought economic benefit to landowners and the country as a whole, but led to the forced social dislocation of thousands of people who moved into the towns and cities.  Dying in 1964, he spent his last 23 years in a Northampton asylum where he wrote his greatest poetry.

What follows examines the enclosure movement from different perspectives and explores how Clare wrote about it in his poetry.  The text is a slightly edited chapter from the Scott & Vare book: Foundations for Sustainable Development: a History of Learning and Environment.

John Clare (1793 – 1864) was a poet, an environmentalist, and through his poetry, an environmental educator – although he would not have recognised such modern descriptions.  

As the child of a largely illiterate casual labouring family Clare had a limited Dame School education [ii] and began to work on the land as a boy.  Over time, thanks to a local oral tradition of folk tales and song, and influenced by reading James Thompson’s Seasons,[iii] an ability to write verse developed which eventually led, in 1820, to a critically well-received book – Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery – which sold 3,000 copies.  Although his poetry ranged over nature, folk literature, social injustice, and the inner self, it is his ability to observe and depict the rich detail and dynamics of the natural world that stands out.  But this early writing success faded and his struggles to support his family, combined with a dislocation from his community, took a heavy psychological toll.  He spent his last 23 years in a Northampton asylum where he wrote his best work which was mostly published after his death.  His poetry only became widely read after the early 1900s.

The Poetry Foundation’s entry on Clare [iv] quotes RKR Thornton’s contribution to the Dictionary of Literary Biography which emphasises another aspect of his writing: “As an observer of what it was like in England in the early nineteenth century, not only for the peasant but also from a peasant point of view, he is irreplaceable,” declared Thornton. In Clare’s prose, Thornton concluded, “we… see reflected there in sharp clarity the very essence of a period, a place, a language, a culture, and a time.”

Clare was someone who understood our need for a connection to land and place and landscape, and was badly affected by the 1809 Enclosure Act for Helpston (the village where he lived).  This granted local landowners permission to divide up and fence-off land and separate communities from age-old access, excluding the people who had worked, lived and celebrated there.  This act of parliament meant that Clare was no longer able to roam at will over the countryside, and his poetry was heavily influenced by the changes. 

George Monbiot describes the effect of the enclosure act on Clare like this:[v]

“Almost everything Clare loved was torn away.  The ancient trees were felled, the scrub and furze were cleared, the rivers were canalised, the marshes drained, the natural curves of the land straightened and squared.  Farming became more profitable, but many of the people of Helpston – especially those who depended on the commons for their survival – were deprived of their living.  The places in which the people held their ceremonies and celebrated the passing of the seasons were fenced.”

Monbiot then added a comment that positions Clare not as an isolated individual rooted in place and time, but as part of a long, global continuum of forced dislocation and alienation: “What Clare suffered was the fate of indigenous peoples torn from their land and belonging everywhere.”

This is, of course, only one view of the enclosures.  Another is a tale of improvement: a modernisation of agricultural practices, gains in productivity and an increased ability to feed a growing population keeping Thomas Malthus’s predictions at bay.[vi]

England’s enclosures began after the Black Death [vii] had near-emptied parts of the countryside of people and land holdings were consolidated and fenced.  But it was in the 18th and 19th centuries that acts of parliament were passed enabling this to happen in a more systematic way until it ended in 1869 when egregious attempts to enclose Clapham and Wimbledon Commons in London and the Epsom Downs in Surrey concentrated parliament’s mind.

Henry Hobhouse (2005) has made a detailed improvement-productivity argument for enclosure in England.  He writes: “In the period 1660 –1860, 2.5 million hectares (6 million acres) were brought into better cultivation by enclosure from common land, scrubland, wasteland, poor timberland, and so forth.”

He argues that enclosure (before 1845) was driven by a need to produce more food; that is by population growth.  Over that period the population had risen from around 5 million (in 1660) to over 18 million and it was eight techniques which, taken together, made feeding that population possible. [viii]  Hobhouse argues that the main benefits of enclosure over the previous system of land held in common (a system into which Clare was born) was that it made possible appropriate husbandry “sensible rotations, manuring, fallow cultivations”.  It is also obvious that it facilitated family enterprise and investment which made contributions to both the individual and the common good. [ix]  Such a gimlet-eyed economist’s perspective will not be to everyone’s taste as it is clear that enclosure led to the forced social dislocation of thousands of people who moved into the towns and cities.  

John Clare saw no benefit in the enclosure of Helpston in 1809.  His poem: To a Fallen Elm [x] draws up the plusses and minuses in what Timothy Ziegenhagen [xi] describes as “a complex expression of loss and anger”.  As such, it seems appropriate to give Clare the last word.  This is an extract from The Mores.[xii]  

Far spread the moorey ground a level scene 

Bespread with rush and one eternal green 

That never felt the rage of blundering plough 

Though centurys wreathed spring’s blossoms on its brow

Still meeting plains that stretched them far away 

In uncheckt shadows of green brown, and grey 

Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene 

Nor fence of ownership crept in between 

To hide the prospect of the following eye 

Its only bondage was the circling sky 

These paths are stopt – the rude philistine’s thrall 

Is laid upon them and destroyed them all 

Each little tyrant with his little sign 

Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine 

But paths to freedom and to childhood dear 

A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’ 

And on the tree with ivy overhung 

The hated sign by vulgar taste is hung 

As tho’ the very birds should learn to know 

When they go there they must no further go 

Thus, with the poor, scared freedom bade goodbye 

And much they feel it in the smothered sigh 

And birds and trees and flowers without a name 

All sighed when lawless law’s enclosure came 

And dreams of plunder in such rebel schemes 

Have found too truly that they were but dreams.


Further Reading

Bate, J. (2003). John Clare: a biography. London: Picador [xiii]

BBC. (nd). In our Time John Clare. Web link:

Hobhouse, H. (2005). Forces of Change: an unorthodox view of history. New York, NY: Shoemaker & Hoard.

Romantic Circles. A refereed website devoted to the study of Romantic-period literature and culture: Web link: 

Scott, W. & Vare, P (2018). The World We’ll Leave Behind.  London: Routledge / Greenleaf


[i] From John Clare’s poem The Mores:

[ii] See:

[iii]  The poem is here:

[iv]  This provides a brief critical summary of Clare’s poetic contribution, mapping this onto his difficult life.

[v]  The article is here:

[vi]  See Scott & Vare (2018); chapter 41.

[vii]  The black death ravaged England in 1348/49 and 1361/62 and again in 1665/66.

[viii]  These were: better tillage, new implements, better ratio between seed sown and seed harvested, suiting crop to soil, crop rotations, manuring, new crops, and the application of all the above to cattle husbandry.

[ix]  Although not always, as Repton notes in Fragments on the Theory and practice of Landscape Gardening: “By cutting down the timber and getting an act to enclose the commons [he] had doubled all the rents.  The old mossy and ivy-covered pale was replaced by a new and lofty close paling; not to confine the deer, but to exclude mankind …”

[x]  To a Fallen Elm:

[xi]  “Domestic Tree”: Freedom and Home in “The Fallen Elm”

[xii]  The poem is here: The spelling and punctuation is Clare’s original.

[xiii]  Andrew Motion’s review of the book is here:

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