Parliamentary Enclosure and the end of The Medieval Fields

The medieval open fields, in spite of the piecemeal enclosures near the village, remained largely intact until well into the 19th century. By then times were changing and all over the country medieval open fields were being swept away and replaced by the pattern of hedged fields with which we are familiar today. Most of this enclosure of medieval fields was carried out by Acts of Parliament when a sufficient number of local land-owners organized a Parliamentary Bill. In our immediate area many villages enclosed their common fields long before Great Shelford. Trumpington fields were enclosed in 1809, Cherry Hinton's in 1810 and Stapleford's and Little Shelford's in 1814. Thus even by 1820 Shelford parish was an island of old fashioned medieval open fields in a sea of new enclosed fields. Even so it was to be some time before anything happened in Great Shelford. It was not until 1834 that a Bi11 was presented to Parliament by the major land-owners of the parish to obtain authority for enclosing the medieval fields. The Act was passed in the same year and then events moved swiftly. The result was the greatest transformation that the village had ever witnessed. The amount of land owned by everyone in the old fields was carefully assessed as well as their various rights over meadow and pasture and a professional land surveyor employed to draw up a plan of exactly where the new enclosed fields were to be. Everyone with any rights of any kind on or over land was carefully allotted a fair share of that available. In fact, even by modern standards, the redistribution of the land was very fair and a great deal of effort was put into seeing that, as far as possible, everyone received exactly what they were entitled to. Sometimes there were difficulties for there was a basic dichotomy between the need for a compact piece of land to farm and the desire to have a fair share of the good land as well as the poor. Nevertheless the result in general was as fair as was humanly possible and there is no evidence of small landowners suffering at the hands of the more powerful larger ones. By 1835 the proposed plan of the new fields had been completed and accepted, and within a few months the whole landscape of the parish was totally altered. The medieval fields disappeared and everywhere new fences and hedges sprang up round the edges of the new fields.

Obviously the greater part of the land was given to the major land-owners, who wanted it to be fairly compact and near their existing farmhouses. Amongst these was St. John's College who by this time owned Granham's Farm, having bought it in 1714. On enclosure they were allotted nearly 100 acres immediately N.E. of Granham's Farm in what had been part of the old Bean End Field. In addition they were given about 170 acres N.W. of the farm on the east side of the stream which had previously been the open meadow and pasture land of Sheep Common and Crow Lands. Thus both a compact farm and all types of soil were achieved. Similarly Edward Green who owned de Freville Farm was allotted nearly 150 acres of land on Stone Hill S.W. of the Cambridge Road stretching N.W. from his farm. This included a variety of old arable and meadow land. However he was also given another 90 odd acres of land on Clark's Hill N.W. of Hinton Way and some distance from his farm. Amongst the smaller landowners a whole group each received long narrow allotments along the N.E. side of the Cambridge Road varying between one and four acres in area. These, while being nowhere.near their homes in the village, at least consisted of both old arable land on chalk and former pasture land on gravel and clay. Inevitably some people were not so fortunate. Samuel Prest, whose farm stood opposite the Baptist Chapel in High Street, was allotted 15 acres of land on either side of Mingle Lane over half a mile away. Even worse was Stephen Hagger, who lived on High Green and whose 10 acres of new land were near the main Colchester Road 1? miles away. Nevertheless inconvenient as this may seem, it was probably much better than before enclosure when those 10 acres were divided into seven or eight individual strips dotted about the parish.

One new major land-owner who appeared as a result of enclosure was Jesus College. The College at this time was legally the Rector of the parish and as such owned a small amount of arable land (Glebe Land) and certain common grazing rights. On enclosure the College was allotted some 75 acres of land for this. Far more important was that the Tithe payments, which had from time immemorial been paid to the church and later to the college were now abandoned and instead the college was allotted land in lieu of Tithes. This of course represented some 10% of the land available and nearly 390 acres were allotted to the college. Thus the college became owners of about 470 acres in all and became by far the biggest landlords in the village. All but 30 acres of this land was along the River Cam N.W. of the village abutting on to Rectory Farm near the church. The college therefore acquired a large and valuable farm in return for the loss of the Tithes.

Fair though the reallotment of the land was there were certain disadvantages. Perhaps the most important, for the smaller land-owners at least, was the loss of their rights over the common meadow and pasture which had now been enclosed. These rights included the use of land for digging gravel, clay and chalk, as well as for grazing animals. The loss of the right to dig for clay and chalk etc. , was compensated for in the new field arrangements. A small piece of land on White Hill, just N.E. of the present Nine Wells House was allotted for the digging of chalk by the villagers. The large chalkpit which exists there is ample evidence that this right was exercised in the late 19th century. Similarly a small square field of three acres on Stone Hill off the Cambridge Road was allotted for use as a gravel pit and a separate road made to give access to it. The field still exists, now allotments, and the road is the present Stone Hill Road, now lined with houses. This is a good example of how quite modern looking roads have their own history. Certainly one would not realise without carrying out historical research that Stone Hill Road originated in 1835 as the access track to the parish gravel pit. The villagers were also given a claypit for their communal use and this also exists as a long, narrow and rather wet field on the north side of Granham's Road, N.E. of Granham's Farm. It is now used by the County Council as a storage depot.

As well as producing the fields we now see the enclosure also affected other aspects of the landscape beyond the village. Most of the existing roads were improved, usually by enlarging them to a standard width and in some cases by realigning them. Both the main roads through the parish, the present A 130 London Road and the A 604 Colchester Road, were made 60 feet wide between the adjacent hedges. This has obviously been a great advantage in this century. In this way as in many others we owe a debt to the foresight of our predecessors. Most of the old lands were similarly widened. Hinton Way and Granham's Road were made a standard 30 feet wide and in addition the N.E. parts near the A 604 were realigned to give them the exactly straight appearance we see today. Weary commuters, speeding home from Cambridge via Granham's Road, can thank the planners of 1835 for the fast straight run from the A 604 to the top of Clark's Hill. Other tracks through the medieval fields were abandoned at this time, being formally closed up by the enclosure. One was the old riverside road from High Street along the river to Hauxton Mill. This had probably gone out of use except as a way into the adjacent fields centuries before, and now the fields were all in one ownership there was no need for it to remain a public right of way. Another lane which disappeared was one which ran from the end of Mingle Lane across the fields towards Granham's Farm. In the old days this was a useful access way into both the open fields and the old enclosures in the area. But enclosure made it useless, and so it was stopped up and allotted to the adjacent land- owners. Other lanes were carefully preserved and given official sanction as rights of way if they still had a purpose. One such was Bar Lane which led from High Street, opposite The Grove, into the old medieval fields. With the land beyond allotted to Jesus College its value as a public way was ended but it was also used as a rear access to the gardens and yards of properties on the N.W. side of High Street and High Green. So it was made officially a public path. Although now useless it is still a public right of way and as a result remains open and clear of any later building.

Another aspect of the work of enclosure was the construction of so-called public drains which radically improved the drainage of some parts of the parish. The most important of these was the realigning of the old brook which ran north from Tunwells Lane to Trumpington. It was straightened and new culverts put under Granham's Road and Tunwell's Lane. This produced much better drainage of the High Green area which was to be important later on when many new houses were erected there. Two other old streams draining from the Granham Farm area to the main brook were improved and three completely new drains were put in linking the Cambridge Road with the stream to the east of it. These latter were to help the drainage of the main road. Another important set of drains was dug between the River Cam and the Cambridge Road leading into the river near Hauxton Mill. These successfully drain the area formerly known as Rod Meadow which had been impossible to cultivate up to this time.

Page last updated October 29th 2009

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