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In 1765 the squire of the manor of Stillington, Stephen Croft, decided the best course to make the most from his lands was to enclose 'the common, open fields and Ings of the Parish of Stillington'. To do this he had to apply for a private Act of Parliament which would cost him £6,000 - this was the usual practice after 1760. After consulting with other landowners in Stillington he went ahead: three quarters would have had to be in agreement in order for him to apply for the Act.
Note that Laurence Sterne is mentioned: it is still recalled, generations later, that Sterne's low popularity with his parishioners in Stillington plummeted even further after the Act was implemented in 1767. It was generally believed that he encouraged Croft, one of his patrons, to go ahead with the Act and colluded with him to rob villagers of their Common Rights by giving up his tithes in exchange for land, which was a condition required for an Enclosure Act to pass through Parliament. Sterne had brokered a similar deal at Sutton on the Forest to gain 60 acres of land in 1762 which saved him from financial ruin. As Sterne had spent much of the previous two years abroad nursing his delicate health, and when in England he was much taken up with his literary endeavours, so this notion is unlikely to be entirely true.
January 17th 1766
The Bill was presented to The House:
'A Petition of Stephen Croft, the Younger, Esquire, Lord of the Manor of Stillington, in the County of York, and Owner of several Estates, within the said Manor and Parish of Stillington, and also Impropriator of the Great Tythes there; of the Reverend James Worsley, Clerk, Prebendary of the Prebend of Stillington aforesaid, Patron of the Vicarage of Stillington aforesaid, of the Reverend Lawrence Sterne, Clerk, Vicar of the said Parish, and of William Stainforth Esquire, and of several other Persons, whose Names are thereunto subscribed, being also Owners of Copyhold Messuages, Cottages, Estates, and other Properties, within the said Parish; was presented to the House and read; Setting forth, That, within the said Manor and Parish, is a Common, or Waste, called Stillington Common, and also several Open Fields and Ings, which, in their present Situation, are incapable of Improvement; and that it would be of great Advantage to the several Persons interested in the said Common, Fields and Ings, if they were inclosed and divided into specific Allotments, and all Right of Common, and Average thereon, or upon any other Commonable Lands in the said Parish, were extinguished, or if the said Common was so inclosed, and a Power given to the several Proprietors and Owners of Estates, in the said Fields and Ings, to flat and inclose the same, first making Satisfaction to the Impropriator for the Tythes thereof; and after the flatting and enclosing the same, all Right of Common, or Average, was to cease: And therefore praying, that Leave may be given to bring in a Bill for the Purposes aforesaid, or any of them, in such Manner, and under such Regulations, as to the House shall seem meet.'
It was ordered that 'Mr. Cholmley, Sir George Savile, and Sir Joseph Mawbey, do prepare, and bring in, the same.'
February 3rd 1766.
The Bill was ratified and brought before the House by Mr Cholmley for its first reading. A second reading was ordered.
February 10th 1766.
The Bill was read for a second time and was committed to the following for investigation into its particulars:
'Mr. Cholmley, Mr. Fonereau, Sir John Turner, Mr. Clive, Mr. Sullivan, Mr. De Grey, Mr. Norris, Mr. Edmonstone, Mr. Coventry, Mr. Tudway, Mr. Bootle, Lord Coleraine, Sir Edward Turner, Sir Jarrit Smith, Mr. Burrell, Mr. Calvert, Sir James Dashwood, Lord Grey, Lord George Cavendish, Sir John Delaval, Lord Garlies, Mr. Coutts, Mr. Shelley, Mr. Shiffner, Mr. Pennant, Mr. Paterson, Sir William Codrington, Mr. Ridley, Mr. Whichcot, Mr. Molesworth, Mr. Wood, Mr. Harris, Mr. Penton, Mr. Parker, Mr. Egerton, Mr. Willoughby; and all the Members who serve for the Counties of York, Nottingham, Northumberland, and Durham: And they are to meet this Afternoon, at Five of the Clock, in the Speaker's Chamber.'
February 27th 1766
Mr Cholmley reported back from the committee to the House that investigations into the Bill had been carried out to the satisfaction of all members involved. It was found that the allegations in the Bill (that the land was incapable of improvement in its present state) were true. All questioned agreed to this with the exception of the proprietors of sixty acres of land who refused to consent to the enclosure and the proprietors of a further twenty seven acres who were not at home when the investigations were carried out. This was out of a total of approximately six hundred acres.
The proprietors of eight Common Rights refused consent. A further seven were away from home and therefore unable to consent to or deny the allegations. This was out of eighty-nine.
Furthermore no one had appeared before the committee at any time to dispute the allegations.
The committee concluded that, as the majority consented, the Bill should be read for a third time after amendments had been made which the committee had thought fit after carefully going through the wording of the Bill.
This amended Bill was then tabled to be brought before both Houses once it had been read twice through with the amendments.
March 3rd 1766.
The Bill was read for a third time. It was passed and entitled:
‘‘An Act for enclosing and dividing the Common Waste Grounds, Open Fields, Open Meadows, Grounds, and Ings, within the Parish of Stillington, in the County of York’’.
Mr Cholmley carried the Bill to The Lords to obtain their consent.
March 18th 1766
It was reported that the Bill was passed by The Lords without any amendment. The King gave his assent.
A commission was then formed to ensure the Act was carried out properly. A map made for this purpose has survived. This is held by The Borthwick Institute of Historical Research. A copy is held by North Yorkshire Archives at Northallerton and another, a modern reproduction, is in the keeping of Stillington Primary School. A transcription of the list of all those who were allocated land by the commission, out of the 1361 acres subjected to the enclosure, has been in the care of a local family for a number of years.
The present layout of the roads and public rights of way in and around Stillington were laid out in accordance with the terms of the Enclosure Act.
There are a number of hedgerows still in existence, most especially to the south of Stillington, that were planted during that time.
A Historical note
Enclosure paved the way for the modernisation of agriculture. Discrete fields rather than open strips enabled efficient crop rotation, which in turn increased productivity. Landlords could use the enclosure process to do away with small, uneconomical or even illegal holdings, creating larger farms for which they could charge more rent.
However even the most fervent advocates of enclosure had to admit it came with a price - all enclosed manors saw a rise in the cost of Poor Relief as the right to graze a cow on the Common, gather firewood or run a pig in woodland were swept away in the name of progress and the means of support for some were swept away with them.