John Clare (1793-1864) was born at a time of great social upheaval, just months after the beheading of Louis XVI and the outbreak of war with France, which was to last until the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. He also lived through the upheavals of the land enclosure movement and agricultural revolution, which changed the face of the countryside and the way of life in rural England. His father was a farm worker who managed to pay for his son’s schooling, though this was cut short as conditions worsened, but Clare had by then learned to read and write so he could continue his own education. Parliament, dominated by landowners, authorised the enclosure of large tracts of common land by private acts, without considering the effect on those who had enjoyed rights of use and pasturage for centuries. Land enclosures, and the improved agricultural techniques which this permitted, was important in increasing food production at a time when the population of England was growing rapidly. While additional work was initially provided for agricultural labourers in the fencing and walling needed, this was temporary. The introduction of new, labor saving machinery further reduced the opportunities for work.
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