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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
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Illegal Enclosures (S370ab: 1884)

Editor Charles H. Smith’s Note: A letter to the Editor printed on page three of The West Surrey Times and Guildford Gazette (Guildford) issue of 10 May 1884. Related to S371a, S373b, S373c, and S373d. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S370AB.htm

To the Editor of "The West Surrey Times."

     Sir,--Every true Liberal now acknowledges that the enclosure of Commons, even when effected under the provisions of the Enclosure Acts, is an unjustifiable robbery of the poor for the benefit of landowners; and the statement of this truth by Mr. Chamberlain was recently received with ringing cheers when his words were quoted in the House of Commons. How then shall we characterise those enclosures which have not even the sanction of the law? Surely these are not only virtual but actual robberies, and it behoves every honest man to check, and, if possible, to punish them.

     It has long been a common practice of landowners to enclose and throw into their fields the strips of grass along the sides of country roads, thereby not only depriving the poor of a little grazing ground for domestic animals, but at the same time destroying much of the picturesqueness and charm of our rural districts. A case of this kind having recently come under my notice, I wish to be allowed to state the facts for the consideration of your readers, and also to exhibit the grounds for my belief that such enclosures are altogether illegal, and that the remedy is in the hands of the ratepayers of each district if they will but exercise their powers.

     In the southern extremity of the parish of Godalming, there is fine wide grassy road running for nearly a mile between Chiddingfold and Hambledon, with a width of perhaps a hundred feet on the average. The green sward on the sides of this road has been walked and ridden over by successive generations of Englishmen for many centuries, and the whole of it forms an undeniable highway. Walking along this pleasant road a few weeks back I found a man at work building a bank and planting a hedge to enclose a large piece of the green roadside, and he told me he was doing so by the orders of Mr. Godman, one of the neighbouring landowners. Being convinced that this enclosure was illegal, I wrote to the chairman of the Godalming Highway Board, calling his attention to it, and begging that the encroachment might be stopped. After a time I was duly informed that the Board did not consider that any encroachment had been made on the highway. This means that the Highway Board refuses to claim any right over more than a strip thirty feet wide of all our country roads, and such a decision is an open invitation to landowners to enclose all beyond this width as fast possible.

     In thus acting, however, the Highway Boards are ignorant of their duties and powers; and as they are elected bodies it is necessary that they should be instructed by those whom they represent. On bringing this case to the notice of Mr. J. Bryce, M.P. and Chairman of the Committee of the Commons Preservation Society, he has been so good as to send me a full statement of the law as to the enclosure of roadside strips; and as the solicitors to the society are Messrs. Horne, Hunter, and Birkett, Mr. Hunter being perhaps the greatest authority on the law as to commons and wastes, we may assume the statement to be correct. The most important passages of this statement are the following:--

     "It has been decided that no part of the space between the hedges, whether metalled or not, if it all forms part of the highway, can be legally enclosed without an order of the justices, and therefore the first question to be decided is, whether or not the green strip forms part of the highway. In very few instances this would be found not to be the case, and the onus of proving the contrary would lie upon the person enclosing."

     "The width of a highway is nowhere defined by statute, but the provisions of the Highway Act which give a summary remedy in the case of encroachments within a certain distance of the centre of the road are frequently misconstrued, and read as if they sanctioned the enclosure of all land outside that limit."

     "The Highway Authorities have no power to sanction an enclosure of a roadside strip; and therefore enclosures made with their sanction are equally illegal as those made without."

     "It is, on the contrary, the duty of the Authorities to remove all obstructions of a highway, and if necessary to take proper legal proceedings for the purpose; and under the Highway Acts they have a summary remedy is certain cases, but where a case does not fall within them they ought to have recourse to the old rules of Common Law."

     "No effluxion of time will legalize an encroachment upon the highway."

     "Any member of the public can require the removal of an encroachment, and is competent to take the necessary legal proceedings."

     The above statement of the law clearly shows that the Highway Boards systematically neglect their duty, since any one can see that all over the country these roadside strips have been and are being enclosed. I therefore urge upon all Liberal Clubs or other Associations of Liberals, that they should form a "Commons and Highway Preservation Committee" whose duty should be to obtain evidence as to all recent illegal enclosures and take steps to obtain their restoration to the public. The need of such committees is great. On Compton common a considerable encroachment has been made within the last few months, and the many beautiful green lanes and roads around Guildford will sooner or later be irretrievably injured by similar encroachments, if the public do not make a vigorous stand in defence of their rights.

Alfred R. Wallace.
Frith Hill, Godalming.

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