- Where Did the Workers Come From? - November 12, 2020
- The War against ‘Unbridled Capitalism’ - September 18, 2020
- Follow the Money: Why Do Universities Oppose the Higher Education Bill? - July 12, 2018
When I was in high school, I “knew” why the Industrial Revolution occurred in Great Britain. Tenant farmers were forced off landlords’ estates by the British enclosure laws; they moved into the cities and fueled the new factories. This seemed rather obvious (otherwise, where would the workers have come from?) and it was the conventional wisdom.
In 1928, for example, the celebrated historian Paul Mantoux had said, “Industry was in fact the only refuge for thousands of men who found themselves cut off from their traditional occupations. The manufactures were to offer them the living they could no longer earn on the land.” 
This conventional wisdom, however, was wrong.
It is true that, in the decades around 1800, Parliament colluded with landlords to close up land that had existed as open fields for centuries. There were 33 enclosure acts between 1720 and 1730; they increased to 506 between 1790 and 1800, and to 906 between 1800 and 1810.
This process was consistent with Karl Marx’s views of how feudalism led into capitalism. Marx saw the parliamentary enclosures as one more step in the expropriation of land that had gone on since the 1400s. 
History and social studies teachers like mine in the late 1950s went along with it, too.
But not now. In 1953, J. D. Chambers studied an English county, Nottinghamshire, to see how population ebbed and flowed. Chambers’ study showed that during the period from 1801 to 1850 the fastest-growing villages were “those that had been enclosed by act of Parliament before 1800.”  He found that the enclosures, which enabled greater crop production at lower cost, might actually have maintained local population by providing agricultural jobs and, to the extent that domestic industry (home production such as weaving) expanded, providing village jobs as well. In other words, enclosures did not dry up the number of agricultural workers and may have increased them.
That doesn’t mean the enclosures weren’t heart-wrenching, and it appears that many or most tenants did not get the compensation due to them when the enclosures occurred. But it’s far from clear that they left for cities as a result.
Some historians have challenged Chambers’s findings, but they have held up rather well. In 1978, N. C. R. Crafts used data from a broader number of counties than Chambers’s Nottinghamshire and used a somewhat different time frame. He found “a small but perceptible positive association between parliamentary enclosure of common fields and outmigration. ”  Overall, however, Crafts conceded that “[t]his paper certainly does not . . . support a hypothesis of mass expulsion of labor by parliamentary enclosure.” 
So where did the workers come from?
It turns out that historians had largely ignored the natural growth of population in England during the eighteenth century. Indeed, people living during the 1700s did not know whether population was increasing or decreasing! (Thus, Malthus’s 1798 fears of excess population were easy to adopt.)
A population survey had been conducted back in 1695, leading to an estimate of 5.5 million people in England. But a survey in 1777 came up with only 1.3 million! A devastating decline, it seemed. The comparison was unreliable, however. The first survey was based on the “hearth tax,” and the second was based on the “house tax” (a tax calculated on the basis of a house’s number of windows!).
Historians now agree that the population grew substantially during the eighteenth century. They are still disputing why it grew, but H. J. Habakkuk, writing in 1953, argued (happily) that it was caused by more births, not fewer deaths—with “more births creating an increase in the demand for labour.”
Today, Marxists seem to be reconciled to the downfall of the enclosure theory and accept that enclosures did not force people into the cities. In 2001, Leigh Shaw-Taylor (whose argument seems to be Marxist) concluded that “[m]ost laboring households in the arable lowlands of southern and eastern England were not proletarianized by parliamentary enclosure, for the simple reason that they were thoroughly proletarian already. “
Okay, maybe those proletarians were not that happy. However, she suggests that those unhappy people had long been free to leave for the cities. Perhaps it was not until opportunities in the cities were substantial and visible that rural “proletarians” ventured there. And. . . that was because of the Industrial Revolution.
 Mantoux, Industrial Revolution, 187.
 Mantoux, The Industrial Revolution, 146.
 Marx wrote in Capital: “The advance made by the eighteenth century shows itself in this, that the law itself becomes now the instrument of the theft of the people’s land, although the large farmers make use of their little independent methods as well.” See Capital, ed. Friedrich Engels, trans. Stephen Moore, from 3rd German edition (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1955, 359.
 J. D. Chambers, “Enclosure and Labour Supply in the Industrial Revolution,” Economic History Review New Series 5, no. 3 (1953): 319-43.
 N. F. R. Crafts, “Enclosures and Labor Supply Revisited,” Explorations in Economic History 15, 172-183 (1978), 182.
 N. F. R. Crafts, ”Enclosures,” 82.
 Mantoux, Industrial Revolution, 352.
 H. J. Habakkuk, “English Population in the Eighteenth Century,” Economic History Review New Series 6, no. 2 (1953): 117-133, at 133.
[Originally posted on Jane Takes on History]