The Book of Trespass

I have been interested in the history of our relationship with land for a number of years and have been searching for a good introduction to the history of enclosure in England for some time but without ever really seeing something that looked quite right. When I read a review of this book in The Guardian I immediately pre-ordered it, something I’ve never done before, and I’m very glad I did.

Nick Adams has produced a lovely book that covers a huge amount of ground in a detailed and rigorous way without being dry and academic. The chapters each explore particular aspects of the history of land ownership and control through his visiting a particular site (usually large estates). He mixes anecdote on his visit, history and law and shows how they are in fact closely related. Each chapter contains his own illustrations and these came through beautifully even on my kindle, I’m sure the physical book looks lovely.

The theme running through the book is that what we take for granted in modern English land ownership is the product England’s history and who has held power. Central are the Norman Conquest and the centuries of enclosure that followed, where patterns of common ownership were overturned and replaced by private ownership by landed aristocracy and later by those who had made their fortunes in industry and/or the British Empire, often relying on slavery. I was familiar with some of these themes in broad terms but lots of detail is brought to bear and I certainly learned a lot.

Nick’s politics come through very strongly, and while I don’t think I would agree with him on all sorts of detailed policy this is fine. He does come nicely back towards the end of the book to recognise that the history of land ownership and control in England is the country’s foundational injustice and that different views and approaches are possible between people who agree on this.

I think for example he seemed to come close to equating the enclosure of land within a country with the erection of borders between countries. This is simplistic and goes too far: enclosure is an act of theft against people already living there, the people living there have a right to organise themselves and decide who can join them. Open borders tip over into a utopian fantasy at odds with human nature.

Land Value Tax gets a few mentions: I’m a supporter but this probably isn’t the book for trying to find the details of that debate. It does a good job of setting out the premise that people who hold title to land ultimately need to pay a rent to its rightful owners, i.e. the rest of us. On a practical note for the future, the contrast between England and the recent Scottish reforms was really instructive (and a nice reveal at the end) and shows what the first stages of reform might look like. And there were nice mentions for how so many European countries go much further on rights of access to land without tipping into anarchy.

I was surprised that the English Civil Wars didn’t feature more prominently, a couple of references to the Diggers aside. Land use and reform must have been an issue, even if only one underlying questions of the franchise, but perhaps that’s an idea for a future book!

Overall though this is a lovely book and deserves to be widely read, and I recommend it very highly indeed.

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