Between 1700 and 1900 the landscape of Berkshire was transformed. The open fields (particularly predominant in the north), common lands and manorial wastes were swept away, to be replaced by small fields surrounded by hedgerows. During these two centuries over half of the county was thus affected.
The process which brought about this change is known as enclosure. Legally enclosure means the abolition of rights of common enjoyed by tenants of a manor over some or all of the open lands in a parish, and the redistribution of the land into individual ownership. Practically, it meant the end of strip farming, of common pasture, and of rights over the waste. Physically the change was dramatic. Huge social, economic and technological changes also followed enclosure, the effects of which historians continue to debate. (Some of the technological changes can be studied through the New Technologies website, http://www.victorianfarming.org/).
Enclosure could be achieved by both formal and informal means. Sometimes it was achieved simply by a neglect in enforcing manorial rights or by an informal and undocumented agreement. Such enclosures are very hard to trace, though it is clear from other evidence that they must have occurred. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, formal agreements came to be preferred. These could be, and many were, in the form of a local agreement drawn up in the form of a deed. Enclosure by informal means or by formal but local agreement accounts for all enclosure before 1700 and for a majority of enclosure in the eighteenth century, though thereafter its popularity as a method declined sharply as it was superseded by enclosure by Act of Parliament.
Enclosure by Act of Parliament provided the most secure and watertight agreement of all. Those wishing to secure an enclosure by this means would proceed by promoting a private Bill which, when passed as an Act of Parliament, would have the force of law. Under the Act, commissioners were appointed whose job it was to superintend the enclosure and to prepare a formal document known as an Award, allotting to all parties involved enclosed land in proportion to the extent of the common rights they had previously enjoyed. Once made, the Award was legally enforceable.
Parliamentary enclosure accounted for more than one-third of all enclosure in Berkshire, and generated a significant body of documentation, much of which survives to this day.