Local historians, Charles Tebbutt and Rosa Young, have published extensive research into St Neots’ history. What follows has largely been gleaned from their work.
In the mid-1700s new ideas about farming were sweeping the country. There was a feeling that the medieval farming practice of strip farming on open fields and leaving one field fallow every year was uneconomic, inefficient and time consuming.
Some landowners had begun exchanging strips in order to create blocks of land that could be farmed more easily. In order to rearrange the strips into larger fields, the existing Land Laws needed abolishing (cancelling). This could only be achieved by an Act of Parliament, with each parish having its own Act. 80% of the landowners had to support it.
‘The Inclosure Act for St Neots’ was presented to parliament in 1770
by Sir Stephen Anderson, the Earl of
A survey of all the fields was done in 1771 identifying who farmed each strip of land and re-allocating the strips to the landowners and house-owners. People who rented their houses were not entitled to a strip.
As it was one of the early enclosures only the arable (crop) land that was enclosed. The survey identified 300 acres of commons (e.g. Islands Common, Lammas Meadow) which remained under the old open field system.
Everyone who owned a house in St Neots had the right to graze their animals (horses and cows mostly) on the Common and farm a strip for hay (cut grass). According to the Inclosure Award there were 154 Common Rights held by 86 people. In 1848 they were selling at £38. As part of the 1771 Enclosure map is torn it is thought that there were between 150 and 160 houses in St Neots at that time.
Sir Stephen Anderson had bought the Priory lands before 1757 from Francis Williams. As the Lord of the Manor, he was awarded the most strips and had the first choice. He chose the fields above Longsands. strips of land adjacent to each other with the best, well drained soil. He also got 27 common rights which, in 1787 he gave to the Rowley family of Priory Hill in exchange for them giving £30 a year to the vicar to deliver an afternoon lecture each Sunday.
Other people like the Vicar of St Mary’s Parish church and other important landowners like the Rix, Foster and Stevens and Ingersole families got the next best choices of strips.
The ordinary house-owner got the last choices, often the poorest, badly drained soil (liable to flood) and furthest away from their property. Often they sold their plot to a wealthier neighbour and gave up farming to find work in the town.
Once the fields were given out, the new owner had to enclose their lands. put up a fence, wall or plant a hedge.
Those who did not own a house –the majority of the people in St Neots - got nothing. They tended to be agricultural and other labourers employed by local farmers, craftsmen and traders. .
After the enclosure the St Neots common rights (permission to graze animals) were selling in 1874 at £45 per year.
Sir Stephen Anderson sold his land in St Neots in 1793 to Owsley Rowley who changed the fields to parklands, (Priory Park) landscaped it with trees and built a large farmhouse. He had an ice-house built below ground at the top of Priory Hill where layers of straw and blocks of winter ice collected from ponds were stored, on top of which meat and fish were placed to keep them from going off in the summer.
Eynesbury was enclosed in 1795 and Eaton Socon in 1797. These later enclosures included the commons and meadows. As a result the commoners lost their rights to graze their horses and cattle on the commons and cut hay.
Those homeless people who squatted on the Common lands would have been evicted (forced off). They would have to have tried to rent cheap accommodation in town.
(Sources: Young, R.
(1996), 'St Neots Past', Phillimore. P.77;
Tebbutt, C.F. (1978), St Neots – History of a
The Enclosure Act in the St Neots area
1. If there were six people to a house, what would the population have been in St Neots in 1770.
2. When was land in the parishes of St Neots, Eynesbury, Eaton Socon and Eaton Ford enclosed?
3. Who were the main landowners in St Neots, Eynesbury, Eaton Socon and Eaton Ford?
4. Why did they want to enclose the open fields and commons?
5. What did landowners have to do once they got their new fields?
6. Why did some landowners buy other people’s fields?
7. Who did not benefit from the enclosures?
8. Why did some people think enclosure was a bad idea?