University of Nottingham

Changing landscapes, changing environments: enclosure and culture in Northamptonshire, 1700-1900

Project outline

Supported by English Heritage and the John Clare Trust, this project sought to examine the long term cultural impact of parliamentary enclosure - the enclosing of common land by Act of Parliament 1760-1845 - on both the Northamptonshire landscape and the communities living there.

The project had four main aims: 1) to explore enclosure in relation to the Northamptonshire aristocracy; 2) to evaluate the visual and cultural impact of enclosure for contemporaries; 3) to examine the culture of formal religious observance in the parish; 4) to ascertain how traditional belief systems were affected by the wave of rationalisation heralded by enclosure.

Detail from: 'Paulerspury' by George Clarke, A History of the County of Northampton: Volume 5: The Hundred of Cleley (2002), pp. 245-289 Paulerspury Rectory 


The project's research activities and achievements have included: the building of a database detailing all 213 enclosures in Northamptonshire; the organisation of a two-day interdisciplinary conference; the creation of an online exhibition; the publication of peer-review papers. More broadly, the project has helped to increase our understandings of the impact of enclosure, and to enhance the popular understanding of the landscape.

Drawing on the Victoria County History for Northamptonshire, nineteenth-century parliamentary papers, and local journals, the project team built a database containing details of all 213 parliamentary enclosures in the county. A gazeteer of all eighteenth and nineteenth-century church building projects in the county was also compiled and more detailed research undertaken into sites where enclosure coincided with the rebuilding of churches and/or the replanning/depopulation of settlements. Artistic representations of the Northamptonshire landscape, particularly the works of George Clarke of Scaldwell were also used alongside a series of field visits to examine distinct landscape types within the county.

Two key themes emerged, (a) the Church and (b) environment and parish culture. The former focused on the enrichment of the Church as Rectors exchanged their right to tithes for substantial landholdings at enclosure; and the latter on the long war waged by local parishes against species perceived as 'vermin', notably sparrows. Both have shed considerable light on the ways in which the world was perceived locally in the wake of enclosure.

One of the most interesting findings of the project is that only rarely were changes in the landscape as a result of enclosure carried through into remodelling of the local church. Given the extent to which the churches were enriched by the process, and the extent to which agriculture became more profitable after enclosure, it might have been expected churches would have been 'upgraded' and that we would have found a correlation between the date of enclosure and church improvement.

In June 2009 the project held a two-day interdisciplinary conference sponsored by the AHRC, the Historical Geography Research Group and Economic History Society called 'Landscape, enclosure and rural society in post-medieval Britain and Europe.' The keynote speaker was Professor T Williamson, University of East Anglia.


Ongoing influence

Created after the close of the project, as part of a project website, Ian Waites' online exhibition of George Clarke of Scaldwell's drawings continues to attract and inform vistors beyond the life of the project.

A relational database for material relating to gravestone inscriptions gathered during the final phase of the project is in development. The materials should suggest answers to a series of questions abut popular attitudes to religion. The project team are also investigating the potential for a follow up project application on this theme.

The project's Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Briony McDonagh, who is now a Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Hull, developed two further projects from her research undertaken during the Changing Landscapes project. She won a prestigious Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship to work on her 'Elite Women & the Agricultural Landscape, 1700-1830' project (March 2010-Jan 2014). This was followed up by a successful application for an AHRC Early Career Fellowship (Feb-Oct 2014), which is enabling her to write a monograph on this research: Beyond the Park Pale: elite women and the agricultural landscape 1700-1850 (contracted to Ashgate for submission in 2014).

Award details

Duration: June 2007 - June 2011

Principal Investigator:
Professor Matthew Cragoe

Higher Education Institution:
Department of History, University of Sussex

Project team:
  • Professor Owen Davies, University of Hertfordshire
  • Dr Ian Waites, Lincoln School of Art and Design
  • Dr Briony McDonagh, University of Hull
  • Dr Sarah Webster, University of Hertfordshire
  • Georgina Dockry, University of Hertfordshire (PhD)

Selected publications

The team have published a monograph and a number of peer-review journal articles. 

I. Waites (2012) Common Land in English Painting 1700-1850 (Boydell Press).

B. McDonagh (2009) 'Women, Enclosure and Estate Improvement in 18th-century Northamptonshire', Rural History 20.2, pp. 143-62.

I. Waites (2009) 'The prospect far and wide: An eighteenth century drawing of Langley Bush and Helpston's unenclosed countryside', John Clare Society Journal 28.

B. McDonagh (2011) '"All towards the improvements of the estate": Mrs Elizabeth Prowse at Wicken (Northamptonshire), 1764-1810', in R. W. Hoyle (ed.) Custom, Improvement and the Landscape in Early Modern Britain (Ashgate), pp. 263-88.

B. McDonagh (2011) 'Enclosure, agricultural change and the remaking of the local landscape: the case of Lilford (Northamptonshire)', Northamptonshire Past & Present 64 (2011), pp. 45-52.

I. Waites (2011) 'Extensive fields of our forefathers: some prospect drawings of common fields in Northamptonshire by Peter Tillemans, c.1719-21', Midland History 36.

B. McDonagh and S. Daniels (2012) 'Enclosure stories: narratives from Northamptonshire', Cultural Geographies 19.1, pp. 107-121.

M. Cragoe and B. McDonagh (2013) 'Parliamentary enclosure, vermin and the cultural life of English parishes, 1750-1850', Continuity and Change 28.1 (2013), pp. 27-50.


Landscape and Environment Programme

School of Geography
University Park
University of Nottingham
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

telephone: +44 (0) 115 84 66071