Today in London policing history, 1983: Colin Roach dies in Stoke Newington Police Station

Who Killed Colin Roach?

Colin Roach died of a gunshot wound he received in the foyer of Stoke Newington police station on the 12th of January, 1983. The precise time of death was never established, but it was somewhere between 11:30 and midnight.

Colin Roach

On January 12th, Colin, 21, unemployed, black, asked a friend to drive him over to Stoke Newington High Street to visit his brother. His friend thought Colin seemed ‘petrified’, and on the journey he talked about someone who was going to kill him.
Colin got out of the car in the High Street and then walked into Stoke Newington police station. Concerned, Colin’s friend went to get Colin’s father, who lived in Bow. His concern was justified – as Colin walked into the front entrance of the police station, a sawn-off shotgun was pushed into his mouth and he was blown away. The police claimed that he did it himself.

His friends insisted that though he was worried about something following his release from a three month jail term a week or two before, he wasn’t suicidal nor a suicidal type. He’d spent the day normally enough visiting friends, buying parts for his car etc.

Colin’s father James arrived at the police station, looking for his son, at 12:15 pm. The front doors were taped off as a crime scene, so he was taken to the rear of the station and led to a room upstairs. Mr Roach was then questioned until 2:45 – only then did the police reveal that his son was dead. James Roach was held at the station until 4:45 am and was not permitted to see Colin’s body.

He was then taken home by the police, who then searched Colin’s bedroom. James’ wife Pamela, who had just been informed of her son’s death, was forced down into a chair by a policewoman who gripped her around the neck, when she stood up in alarm at hearing the police turning Colin’s bedroom. The officers left the Roach household, having found nothing of significance, and without offering apologies or condolences.

The Context

Colin’s death was hardly a unique incident: relations between police in Hackney and much of the local community had been close to broken down for a number of years; to the point where the natural assumption of a sizeable section of the community was to assume the police had themselves killed Colin.

‘The community hated us and we hated them. It wasn’t a black thing. It wasn’t as complex as that. If you went out in uniform or plain clothes you could feel the hatred’.
Detective Constable Declan Costello.

‘The officers involved in these atrocities can do this because they are not accountable to anybody. They cover up their crimes by picking on the weak – unemployed and uneducated people who do not have any knowledge of the law. There are no rights for black people, and if you are poor it’s worse; as far as the law is concerned you have no place in society. You are a dog; when they kick you, you move’.
Hugh Prince, victim of Hackney police.

Police had been accused of targeting black people locally for several years.

The informally named “sus law” allowed police to stop and arrest anyone they thought was acting suspiciously. Many in the black community felt they were being unfairly targeted. Wrongful arrests, unlawful use of force, racial abuse, raids on people’s homes and use of stop and search. Sus was targeted at young Black people overwhelmingly by police, mainly white, who took little trouble to conceal an often racist hostility to the local Black population.

Just a few examples:
In May 1971, Aseta Simms died in Stoke Newington Police Station in suspicious circumstances.

In December 1978, Black teenager Michael Ferreira was stabbed during a fight with white teenagers in Stoke Newington. His friends took him to the nearby police station, where the cops seemed more interested in questioning them than assisting Michael, who died of his wounds before reaching hospital.

This incident led to the setting up of Hackney Black People’s Defence Organisation.

On 24th April 1979 Hackney resident Blair Peach was killed by police, hit over the head during a protest against the National Front in Southall. Peach was killed by an officer from the notorious Special Patrol Group. The SPG’s lockers were searched as part of the investigation into the death, uncovering non-police issue truncheons, knives, two crowbars, a whip, a 3ft wooden stave and a lead-weighted leather cosh. One officer was found in possession of a collection of Nazi regalia. The failure of the police to properly investigate the murder of Blair Peach – and their general harassment of youth, led Hackney Teachers’ Association to adopt a policy of non-cooperation with the police.

November 1979: A conference of anti-racist groups in Hackney called for the repeal of the “sus” laws that allow police to stop and search anyone they are suspicious of. In 1977 60% of “sus” arrests in Hackney were of black people – who made up 11% of the borough population.

February 1980: Five units of the notorious paramilitary Special Patrol Group began to operate in Hackney with no consultation. When the Leader of the Council criticised the police for this, Commander Mitchell responded by saying “I don’t feel obliged to tell anyone about my policing activities”.

In response, Black youth became hostile to police and began to resist racist violence, physically if necessary. Although incidents were common, resistance reached a high point locally with three days of rioting in Dalston, Stoke Newington and Hackney during the 1981 anti-police uprisings.

In November 1982, Hackney Black People’s Association demanded an independent public enquiry into the conduct of the police in Hackney. Their concerns were specifically about corruption, and violence against black people.

The Colin Roach Campaign

The morning after Colin’s death, the newspapers were filled with the suicide of a black man in Stoke Newington police station. The police had issued a press release was issued at 1:30 am – while James Roach was being questioned and an hour before he had even been informed of his son’s death. The family, accompanied by a Tower Hamlets councillor who they knew, went to the police station to try to find out more about Colin’s death – and were treated with suspicion and hostility.

In response Colin’s friends organised a demonstration for 14th January. About 90 black and white youths gathered outside the police station with placards and asked for an explanation from the police superintendent. This was refused. Some of the demonstrators then blocked the traffic on Stoke Newington High Street: as a result, 50 police officers poured out of the station and attacked them, arresting eight people.

Hackney Committee for Racial Equality called for a public enquiry into the incident, Hackney Black People’s Association called for one into local policing. Local councillors and leftish MP Ernie Roberts started making noises about Colin’s death.

A meeting of ‘community leaders’ was called the next day. Police gave their account of the incident, including a post-mortem report which supported their argument that Colin had shot himself. Local police commander Bill Taylor said the police had called the meeting to be ‘as open and helpful as we can’, to ‘allay misunderstandings’. He was challenged by community activists and leaders, though local MP Clinton Davies tried to quieten down the questions, insisting all contentious issues should be left to the inquest.

The community leaders left asserting that ‘several questions still needed answers’. Somewhat unimpressed by police statements and by what passed for community ‘leadership’, local youth staged another demonstration outside the police station on January 17th. Police eventually launched a baton charge, making 19 arrests. The crowd dispersed but remained in the area in small groups for some hours. The same night a public meeting at Hackney Black People’s Association, attended by 150 people, formed a Support Committee for the Roach family. The meeting demanded an independent public enquiry into Colin Roach’s death.

A march from the town hall to the police station was arranged for the following Saturday. The march attracted 500 people who observed a two minute silence outside the police station. The stewards’ calls for a peaceful demonstration were ignored by a part of the crowd. ‘Scuffles’ broke out as the demonstration dispersed. Perhaps coincidentally a jeweller’s shop window was smashed nearby and several thousand pounds worth of stock taken. A large group of youths ran down Stoke Newington High Street breaking windows. In the subsequent fighting two police were injured and 22 people arrested.

The Roach Family Support Committee organised further demonstrations over the next few months, which were also met with severe police reactions and arrests. Eighty people in total were arrested outside Stoke Newington police station during the six protests, including an elected councillor and Colin’s father, James. Three hundred people attended Colin Roach’s funeral.

The campaign’s demand for an independent public enquiry was fobbed off by William Whitelaw, the Home Secretary, who initially said that the coroner’s inquest into the death would perform the same function, but then later admitted that its scope was much narrower.

In May 1983, the inquest jury agreed 8-2 that Colin Roach had committed suicide. However, the jury also criticised the conduct of the police, especially in their dealings with the Roach family. Police relations with the family were referred to the Police Complaints Board (since replaced several equally ineffective brandings, all just as fucking useless) who ruled that no officers would face any disciplinary action.

The Roach Family Support Committee in response set up its own Independent Committee of Inquiry, examining the death of Colin Roach and the wider issue of policing in Hackney. In 1988, it published a 313-page book, ‘Policing in Hackney 1945-1984’.

The Independent Committee of Inquiry’s report included:

– Testimony from witnesses (surrounding Colin’s death,the subsequent demonstrations and policing generally)
– Challenges to the inquest process and its findings
– Accounts and criticism of police action
– Details of the community response to the police
– Criticism of the accounts in the media of Colin – Roach apparently having mental health problems and this contributing to his death
– Rebuttals of suggestions in the media that the justice
campaign was ‘extremist’
– The history of policing in Hackney from 1945-1984
including policing anti-fascism, previous police racism, etc.
– An examination of the wider issue of police accountability

The Independent Committee of Inquiry concluded that the inquest’s verdict of suicide was not actually proven, and that there was evidence to suggest other explanations. For example, the weapon was never forensically linked to Colin Roach. He was not wearing gloves, but the gun did not have his fingerprints on, nor could it have been concealed in his bag. Two different police officers claimed to be the first to discover gun cartridges in Colin’s pockets (which again had no fingerprints on them).

The report also called for organisations in Hackney to ‘break links’ with the police until a proper inquiry was held and the issues around Colin’s death and wider police racism and abuse were resolved.

Aftermath

The death of Colin Roach and the response to it overshadowed the community and the police throughout the rest of the century.

An annual demonstration took place every January to remember Colin and other victims of local police racism and violence continued for several years through the 1980s and early 1990s, the ‘We Remember’ march (a tradition continued now more widely by the United Friends and Families Campaign’s annual march every October).

Policing remained a central concern for Black people locally. Colin’s death sparked a campaign for breaking contact with and defunding of the police, which came close to becoming longterm council policy.

In July 1982, Hackney Council set up a Police Committee. A Support Unit was also established which monitored crime and policing and published reports critical of police powers.

Hackney Council then resolved to withhold its statutory annual contribution of £4 million to the Metropolitan Police. Which predictably generated more outrage in the press. A month later it was determined that this was not legal and so the contribution was actually paid.

In 1984, Keith Newman, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, criticised Hackney as an area in which ‘extreme activists seek to represent practically any police intervention as harassment’, singling out the campaign for an independent public inquiry into the death of Colin Roach as an example of this. Anthony Kendall, the Leader of Hackney Council, attacked Newman for his ‘irrelevant and irresponsible political views’ which demonstrated ‘just how dangerously unaware he is of the real facts of life in areas like Hackney’.

Obviously, as the 1980s went on, left labour Councils gradually became more and more moderate, and Hackney was no exception; anti-police rhetoric gradually got toned down until it vanished altogether under New Labour…

Meanwhile, Hackney Teachers Association (a branch of the National Union of Teachers) began discussions about non-cooperation; this had started during the Justice For Blair Peach Campaign, but came to the fore after the death of Colin Roach. One third of Hackney schools ended up excluding the police from their premises in the 1980s. The Police Out of School Policy became widely supported by teachers, parents and kids.

Police violence and community resistance continued; with incidents like the arrest and beating of Trevor Monerville in 1987, which left him with brain damage; and the death in custody of Tunay Hassan in Dalston police copshop a few months later.

Mounting anger again came to a head, and Hackney Community Defence Association (HCDA) was formed to providing the victims of police crime with a campaigning voice – a self-help group for the victims of police crime. HCDA investigated allegations against the police, provided mutual support for victims and campaigned against police injustice. HCD went on to name many officers involved in racism, violence, and drug-dealing and corruption. (A post for another day)

Along with Hackney Trade Union Support Unit and other local activists, HCDA launched the Colin Roach Centre on 12 January 1993 (the tenth anniversary of Colin’s death) as a local action & resource centre.

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Much of this was cheekily nicked from other places. including reports from the time, and from the excellent Radical history of Hackney blog and their article for Datacide

Today in London radical herstory, 1611: thief, performer, libertine, fence Moll Cutpurse arrested, for cross-dressing

“Though no remarkable thing happened at her nativity, such as the flattering sooth sayers pretend in eclipses, and other the like motions above, or tides, and whales, and great fires, adjusted and timed to the genitures of crowned heads, yet, for a she politician, she was not much inferior to Pope Joan ; for in her time she was superior in the mystery of diving in purses and pockets, and was very well read and skilled too in the affairs of the placket among the great ones.”
(‘Mary Frith, otherwise Moll Cutpurse, The Complete Newgate Calendar, Volume I’)

Mary Frith, alias Moll Cutpurse, also known as the Roaring Girl: thief, adventurer, fence, stage performer, also possibly highwaywoman…

The facts of Moll or Mary’s life are extremely confusing, with many exaggerations and myths attached to her name. Sensationalised biographies and stage plays written both during her life and after her death helped to create and perpetuate many of these myths; to distort the reality of an already interesting life.

Mary Frith was born around 1584-85 to a shoemaker and a housewife, possibly in or around Aldersgate Street. She was commonly said to have, as a young girl, rejected what were then seen as a women’s dress, role and place: all accounts of her life emphasise how she cut her hair short, dressed in men’s clothes & hung out in taverns smoking a pipe, drinking and swearing.

A popular pamphlet claiming to recount her life claimed “She was above all breeding and instruction. She was a very tomrig or hoyden, and delighted only in boys’ play and pastime, not minding or companying with the girls… She could not endure that sedentary life of sewing or stitching; a sampler was as grievous to her as a winding sheet; and on her needle, bodkin and thimble she could not think quietly, wishing them changed into sword and dagger for a bout at cudgels. Her headgear and handkerchief (or what the fashion of those times was for girls to be dressed in) were alike tedious to her…” (The Complete Newgate Calendar)

But the swirl of myths that grew up around Mary’s life partly evolved to enable male commentators to pigeonhole her in one or more boxes; pretty much all with the aim of fitting her back into the gender stereotypes that were expected – whether moral and conforming to social mores, or immoral and transgressing them. Not only were published accounts of her life written by men, but those men ‘adapted’ the facts to fit their prejudices, and to follow the stereotyped patterns criminals were supposed to conform to in fictional biography. In Mary Frith/Moll Cutpurse’s case this amounted attempting to represent her cross-dressing as indicating she was a “sexual aberration, a prodigy, a monster”, anything from a transvestite usurping male power, as a “hermaphrodite transcending the borders of human sexuality, as a virago, as a tomboy, as a prostitute, as a bawd, and even as a chaste woman who remained a spinster.” On top of this, writers tried to jemmy her into other clichéd narratives of the era – the royalist rebel fighting puritan Parliament, or the righteous thief defending the poor against the rich.

“the mythmaking process of transmuting the historical figure of Mary Frith into the mythic Moll Cutpurse… the main strategy the author(s) pursued was to integrate scanty historical records into the preexisting parameters of criminal biography as they had been evolved for male criminals and, if need be, to transcend or invert the pattern…  As a result of this transmutation… the historical figure, who already in her lifetime had gone through a mythologising process, was reduced to a depersonalised entity.”

Debate about the sexual and gender identity of Mary Frith has also been popular in recent decades. What did her cross-dressing indicate? Gender rebellion or role reversal? transgressive sexuality?

The traditional picture of Moll has mainly been drawn on her fictional representations as the Roaring Girl in such plays written about her while she lives, The Madde Pranckes of Mery Mall of the Bankside by John Day, 1610 (the text of which is now lost) and Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s The Roaring Girl, as well as anonymously published biographies, notably ‘The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith. Commonly Called Mal Cutpurse. Exactly Collected and now Published for the Delight and Recreation of all Merry disposed Persons…’ and
‘The Womans Champion; or The Strange Wonder Being a true Relation of the mad Pranks, merry Conceits, Politick Figaries, and most unheard of Stratagems of Mrs. Mary Frith, commonly called Mall Cutpurse, living near Fleet-Conduit; even from her Cradle to her Winding-Sheet.’

In her teenage years Mary Frith became a cutpurse, robbing people’s purses in the street:

“I had but very little choice, so I listed my self of another Colony or Plantation (but who neither sow nor reap) of the Divers or File-clerks. A cunning Nation being a kind of Land Pirates, trading altogether in other men’s Bottoms, for no other Merchandises than Bullion and ready Coin, and keep most of the great Fairs and Marts of the world. They are very expert Mathematicians, but excellently good at Dialing; as also they are rare Figure Flingers, and most dexterous at the Tactics; they had been long incorporated, and had their Governors and Assistants as other Worshipful Companies; and had a good stock for the maintenance of their Trade.”
(The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith. Commonly Called Mal Cutpurse)

Her career as a purse snatcher began for certain in her teens; in 1600, she, Jane Hill, and Jane Styles, all three ‘spinsters dwelling in the City of London’, were indicted by the Justices of Middlesex for having, on 26 August 1600, snatched a purse kept in a breast pocket and containing 2s and 11d in cash, from an unknown man at Clerkenwell. However, it is suggested that the trial jury found her not guilty of this offence.

“The petty crime that led to the arrest of the fifteen-year-old Mary Frith reveals that in her formative years as a delinquent she was plying her craft with two female partners. She was obviously working in a small female gang to reduce the risk of detection. Partnership with two women is likely to have been less combative than a partnership with men as regards dividing the loot into equal shares…”

Potential pickpockets tended to drift into delinquency at an early age. Thus all the members of a gang of nineteen “cutpurses” whom Simon Forman, in 1598, “had in Examination abought” the theft of his “purse” were between fifteen and twenty years old. The youngest, Jeames Harborte, was fifteen, that is, Mary’s age, Roger Goth was sixteen, and the oldest, Jhon Tucke and Robarte Frenche, were twenty years old. There were academies specialising in introducing boys into the art of stealing. Such a “schole howse” for pickpockets was denounced to Lord Burghley in 1585. It had been “sett upp” by one Wotton, gentleman and former merchant at Smart’s Quay near Billingsgate, “to learne younge boyes to cutt purses.”

On 18 March 1602, cordwainer Thomas Dobson and the silktwister William Simons, both of the parish of St. Giles outside Cripplegate, gave evidence to Middlesex magistrates, that “Marya FFrithe” should appear at the next session of gaol delivery on suspicion of having taken “a purse with XXVs of Richard Ingles.”

In 1608, Mary seems to have turned accuser: on 13 May that year, “Maria Feith de Southworke,” spinster, and John Clementes, servant to Edward Carrell, of Hastings, Sussex, (both men being soldiers), accused Edward Welles and Gilbert Dadson of felony.

Facsimile engraving from a 17th century original  of Moll

1609 On 8 September 1609, “Maria ffrythe,” living in the parish of St Olave, Southwark, “Spinster,” was alleged to have burgled the house of Alice Bayly in St Olave by night and stole 7 [pounds sterling] 7s in money, “twoe angells of gold,” “one twentie shillinge peece of gold,” “twoe half crownes of gold,” a gold ring rated at 6s, and “twoe cristall stones sett in seluer” valued at 20d.

Again, it seems Mary was found not guilty (in March 1610). This does not necessarily mean that she did not break into the house: she may have come to an arrangement with Alice Bayly, who was present at the hearing, to return part of the stolen goods. Such deals with victims were common, because recovered stolen goods, in the event of a conviction, would be confiscated by the crown.

‘Moll’ was recorded as having been burned on her hand four times, a common punishment for thieves.

Cross-dressing in male attire and a high-profile ‘debauched’ lifestyle, however, got her into as mch trouble as thieving, but may have helped her gain a kind of profile that enabled her to escape petty thievery and set up independently in business, as a fence.

How early she took to cross-dressing is unknown – the assertions in the sensationalist biographies and theatrical portrayals, that she dressed as a boy from an early age, may or may not be accurate. There is a tradition that relatives embarrassed either by her criminal activities or her unorthodox social behaviour tried to ship her off to the early colonies in New England: She had an uncle, brother to her father, who was a minister, and of him she stood in some awe, but not so much as to restrain her in these courses ; so that seeing he could not effectually remedy that inveterating evil in her manners, he trepanned her on board a merchant ship lying at Gravesend, and bound for New England, whither he designed to have sent her. But having learned to swim, she one night jumped overboard and swam to shore, and after that escape would never go near her uncle again.”

“Among the rest Tobacco was grown to be the great Mode, and much in use, and a sect of Swaggerers there were which from thence were denominated the Puffers and high Huffers; I was mightily taken with this vanity, because of its affected singularity; and no Woman before me ever smoked any, though I had a great many to follow my example…”
(The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith. Commonly Called Mal Cutpurse)

‘Moll’ was notorious for frequenting the tobacco shops and smoking: almost as much as transvestism, pipe-smoking became crucial to her image in her youth. Her stage portrait on the 1611 title page of The Roaring Girl shows her smoking a pipe.

Smoking was not only the latest fashion, but also had become associated in popular culture with music, and lecherousness. It “became a stage convention about 1599 to poke fun at the gallants who affected smoking tobacco and playing the ‘bass viol da gamba’ to ensnare women. The foppish Fastidius Brisk in Ben Jonson’s Every Man Out of His Humour (1599) plays on the viol while smoking and courting Saviolina.(35) Gregory Gudgeon, the city lecher in Thomas Middleton’s The Family of Love (1602), keeps “a viol da gambo and good tobacco.” “

Mary Frith was not the first female smoker in England: by 1589 “men & women were indulging in the new custom of smoking earthernware or silver pipes. By 1615 smoking was “commonly used by most men & many women.” But Mary was unusual and pioneering for a woman, in hanging out in tobacco shops, generally the exclusive haunts of men.  This may be the aspect of her smoking that caused civic and ecclesiastical authorities outrage: a lower-class woman frequenting the tobacco shops suggested to them an infringement of both gender boundaries and of class privileges.
“The authorities considered smoking as becoming the upper classes but as unbecoming to the lower orders. King James in his proclamation issued on 17 October 1604 levied a heavy custom on the weed and distinguished between “the better sort” of people who “have and will use the same with Moderation to preserve their Health,” and “a number of riotous and disordered Persons of mean and base Condition, who, contrary to the use which Persons of good Calling and Quality make thereof, do spend most of their time in that idle vanity.”

Another of Moll’s alleged feats (as claimed in her later ‘Confession’) was her ride between the London boroughs of Charing Cross and Shoreditch on the famous performing horse Marocco while wearing male attire, in order to win a wager from the horse’s owner, William Banks. She carried with her a banner and a trumpet to give her ride a dramatic air and related how she caused a riot in the streets after she was recognised, some of the crowd clamouring for her to be pulled from the horse and others cheering her on.

Perhaps Mary Frith’s most notable aspect was her wearing of clothes marked out for men.

Her notoriety as a cross-dresser, dating from some point between 1602 and 1610, had already led to her becoming a public figure, early in her life.

So much so that her name and her cross-dressing entered literature, while she was still in her 20s. Two works were written about her in 1610-11. First the 1610 drama or poem, The Madde Pranckes of Mery Mall of the Bankside by John Day, the text of which is now lost. Another play (that has survived) came a year later by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, The Roaring Girl. Both works dwelt on her scandalous behaviour, especially that of dressing in men’s attire. Both portrayed her as gender-nonconforming to an extent, such as her assertion in The Roaring Girl that she will never marry.

Not only was she portrayed on stage, she herself performed – at least a few times of stage, and possibly in the street.

The Epilogue of Middleton and Dekker’s The Roaring Girl, or Moll Cut-Purse, published in 1611, famously promises the Fortune Theatre’s audience,
“The Roaring Girl herself, some few days hence, / Shall on this stage give larger recompense”.

And a few days later in April 1611, ‘Moll’ did indeed make her stage debut at the Fortune playhouse “in mans apparell & in her bootes & with a sword by her syde.” She later told the Bishop of London that “there vppon the stage in publique viewe of all the people there presente in mans apparrell,” she “playd vppon her lute & sange a songe” and made “some other immodest & lascivious speaches,” for about half an hour, the average length of an afterpiece.

Merely appearing on the stage itself was transgression – women were barred officially from performing in plays (Never forgetting however, that cross-dressing for men was a staple of the theatre – boys played female parts, since women were generally barred from the stage). If she did also perform in the street, she may well have been breaking the strict licensing rules around performance – unlicensed playing in taverns and streets went against the 1606 regulations issued by the company of musicians in the interest of public order. Offenders were fined 3s. 4d. for each infringement to the regulations.

Gustave Ungerer suggests that Mary Frith created a public persona as a cross-dressing performer, inventing her own professional signature, “a commercially and professionally motivated ploy to increase her income”, to get ahead in the cut-throat entertainment business of Southwark and the City of London. Possibly with a scheming eye towards rising from the lowest rungs of the social ladder – from cutpurse, to performer, through to businesswoman.

For obvious reasons, ‘Moll Cutpurse’s’ dressing ‘as a man’ opens up questions around her sexuality and attitudes towards sex and gender; however, women’s transvestism of the time could also be turned towards crime, as much as a “quest of her sexuality”. There was a notable transvestite scene in the capital, which had appeared in the 1570s and was to reach its peak in the 1620s.

Women wearing men’s garb seems to have been increasingly notable in that period: this caused a stir among the socially conservative, who fretted that this was an ‘affront to nature’ as well as being irreligious and a danger to the norms of society. In the years after ‘Moll’s’ famous stage debut, the controversy reached a height, and led to the publication Hic Mulier, a pamphlet attacking cross-dressing women.

For since the days of Adam women were never so Masculine: Masculine in their genders and whole generations, from the Mother to the youngest daughter; Masculine in Number, from one to multitudes; Masculine in Case, even from the head to the foot; Masculine in Mood, from bold speech to impudent action; and Masculine in Tense, for without redress they were, are, and will
be still most Masculine, most mankind, and most monstrous.” (Hic Mulier, 1620)

The author of Hic Mulier slams women dressing as men and appeals to their menfolk to intervene and correct them! Also, hilariously, identifying God as the first fashion designer: Remember how your Maker made for our first Parents coats — not one coat, but a coat for the man and a coat for the woman, coats of several fashions, several forms, and for several uses — the man’s coat fit for his labor, the woman’s fit for her modesty. And will you lose the model left by this great Workmaster of Heaven?”

The implication in the text is that this ‘fashion’ extended to various classes of society: part of the problem as usual was that what was stylish, if a bit risqué and exciting among the upper classes couldn’t be allowed to spread to the lower orders, as this might make it subversive and threaten stability.

Interestingly, a riposte to Hic Mulier, Haec Vir, published in 1620, partially refuted the charges: the characters Hic Mulier (manly Woman) and Haec Vir (Womanly Man) debate feminity and masculinity, with Hic Mulier here accusing her opposite of being effeminate and blaming masculine women on ‘soft’ men, but veering a bit into proto-feminist self-determination as well… It’s a fascinating mix, part dig at the male courtiers around alleged bi- or homosexual king James, part assertion of female autonomy, part complaint about metrosexual guys nicking yer earrings & eyeliner … Whether as a moral or to evade the censor, the two agree to go back to gender-appropriate clobber at the end.

What is partly being attacked in Hic Mulier appears to be women dressing in a sexually dominating way, or in clothes which emphasise overt sexual desire and autonomy. This was associated with whores, but also feared and hated by men who held sexual autonomy, desire, action, to be a male prerogative, to be denounced and pushed down when it came to women.

King James – generally keen to spread misogyny whenever he could – also intervened in the debate in 1620, commanding the clergy to teach, “against the insolencie of our women, and their wearing of broad brimmed hats, pointed dublets, their hair cut short or shorn, and some of them stilettoes or poinards, and such other trinckets of like moment.”

There was a relationship between transvestism and crime. Quite apart from any rebellion against rules and social codes, transvestism was also used to commit and disguise theft.

Were her street performances, her appearances in male garb, her posing in tobacco shops, at least partly a smokescreen to distract an audience, while accomplices robbed them?

According to London diarist John Chamberlain, Mary “used to go in mans apparell,” and thereby “challenged the fetid of” the town fops. Male performers and fops used to strut the streets displaying their fine clobber, helpfully providing a target for pickpockets.

In Moll’s examination by the Bishop of London in January 1612, she acknowledges that her new career as a public figure dressed up in male attire was designed as a commercial joint venture between herself and a gang of footpads. Thus, she “confessed” to having “vsually associated her selfe with Ruffinly swaggering & lewd company as namely with cut purses, blasphemous drunkards & others of bad note & of most dissolute behaviour.” The examination also confirms that while mounting her street and floor shows she was deftly practising her light-fingered art: she “confesseth” to the Consistory of London that “she is commonly termed Ma[ll] Cutpurse of her cutting of purses.”

Moll “voluntarily confessed that she had long frequented all or most of the disorderly & licentious places in this Cittie as namely she hath vsually in the habite of a man resorted to alehowses, Tavernes, Tobacco shops and also play howses there to see plaies & pryses.” Needless to say that these haunts, the theatres included, were an ideal hunting ground for a criminally minded pack of thieves waiting for Mary Frith’s beck and call. What better “pryses,” that is, presses, crowds, to relieve of their purses than guests in taverns, befuddled by drink and dazzled by Moll playing on her lute and singing a bawdy song and most likely performing a jig, or guests in a tobacco shop mesmerised by Moll smoking a pipe. pickpockets thrived under the screen cast by the music of popular entertainers.

But her Cross-dressing may also have become a performance in itself: challenging the gallants and fops on their own turf, making a name for herself… as well as asserting her own control over her image, a partial refutation of the rumour, myth and dismissal in the male-strom.

“…She let it be known in unmistakable words that she was not a transvestite, nor a hermaphrodite, nor a sexually ambiguous character of any kind. She addressed the audience of the Fortune Theatre, some 2,340 spectators, telling them unashamedly and disarmingly “that she thought that many of them were of opinion that she was a man, but if any of them would come to her lodging, they should finde that she is a woman.” This declaration was classified by the ecclesiastical judges as “immodest & lascivious speaches” that she “also vsed at that time.” There was, however, nothing lascivious about the reaffirmation of her womanhood. Her disclosure may also have been meant as a rejection of Middleton and Dekker’s fictional representation of her as a hermaphroditic ideal.”

However, Moll’s appearance at the Fortune was with the consent of these two authors, after the scripted play about her life was performed, suggesting all parties were to an extent co-operating for the purposes of making money, with a healthy dose of publicity thrown in to enhance everyone’s rep. On Moll’s part this may have contained some ambivalence, or not. Was she eying a more permanent move from street cockiness & performance for criminal purposes, into the theatrical life (marginally less illegal and marginal, though only just, at the time) ?

Gustave Ungerer suggests that crucially her performance demonstrated how she “appealed to the lower classes, the groundlings of the Fortune Theatre, and also drew the middle-class audiences, the gallants she used to challenge in their own field.” She had honed her art in the streets, taverns and tobacco shops, absorbing the subversive and irreverent oral tavern culture, and developing a mashup of bawdy, bantering comic give n take standup and burlesquing musical interlude. In her twenties, probably at the peak of her creative ability, ripe for a sideways move onto the boards, already having an image readymade (the male attire).

“In her promotion of this view, her male dress or playing apparel had become, as it were, her signature as a popular entertainer. A graphic demonstration of the costume change is afforded by the unauthorised woodcut of the original edition of The Roaring Girl. It shows the image of a woman dressed up in male clothes, brandishing a sword, smoking a pipe, but not playing the lute. The caption, printed lengthwise on the left-hand margin, reads: “My case is alter’d, I must worke for my liuing.” The wording sealed the demystification of Mary Frith’s sexual and gender ambiguity, signaling her desire to legitimate her profession and to earn her livelihood as a cross-dressed entertainer.”

However, if this was Mary’s aim, it was to be stymied by the City authorities.

A woman in male dress (in breach of the sumptuary laws) entertaining an audience in a public theatre, was provocation enough; her history of dress violations, outdoor pranks, and unlicensed entertainments must have also been noted. However, another not unimportant factor was the crowds any repeat of the show had the potential to draw in: uncontrollable throngs with the chance of disorder, not to mention the gangs of cutpurses (whether in deliberate league with Mary or not!)

“an adversary of mine, whom I could never punctually know, cited me to appear in the Court of the Arches, where was an Accusation exhibited against me for wearing indecent and manly apparel…”

Mary Frith was arrested in April 1611, shortly after the Fortune show, and committed to the Bridewell, the not-quite-prison/proto-workhouse, an institution dedicated to containing and attempting reform of Londoners seen by the authorities as living immoral or troublesome or unruly lives. This included prostitutes, the destitute, poor orphans, those who outraged social conformity and people living on the margins. The Bridewell had started life as a royal palace, become disused and been pressed into service first as a kind of hostel for relief of the urban poor. This rapidly evolved into a correctional facility; the kind of moral improvement by force developed here laid the groundwork for four centuries of the workhouse and poor laws.

Released after a short stay, Moll’s card was now clearly marked. She was arrested again for being dressed indecently, on 25 December 1611, and accused of being involved in prostitution. She was picked up “in Powles Church,” obviously St. Paul’s Walk, near the cathedral, “with her peticoate tucked vp about her in the fashion of a man with a mans cloake on her to the great scandall of diuers persons who vnderstood the same & to the disgrace of all womanhood.” The constable who apprehended her sent her back to Bridewell, where she spent Christmas and the next few weeks locked up,

She was then interrogated by the Bishop of London on 27 January 1612. The Bishop of London reprimanded her for her habits – for the wanton pleasure of smoking and for making music in public – both activities seen to be inventions of the devil, made to inflame the passions of the addicts and of the listeners and to entice them to fall into debauchery.

In her interrogation Mary did confess to being still “associated … with cut purses” and to frequenting the “lewd company” of “blasphemous drunkardes & others of bad note & most dissolute behaviour.”

While ‘Moll’ in her theatre performance had asserted that her crossing of gender boundaries was NOT transgressive, disruptive, immoral or reprehensible, and thus not punishable, this didn’t wash with the guardians of public morality. The Bishop accused her of being a prostitute, since a cross-dressed woman was implying the assuming of the sexually active role of man, which according to the contemporary moral prism suggested a whore. While women entered prostitution and employed cross-dressing for social, economic, and security reasons, there is no evidence available to prove that Mary Frith was a cross-dressed prostitute.

In reply to the bishop pressing her “to declare whether she had not byn dishonest of her body & hath not drawne also other women to lewdnes by her perswasions & by carrying her selfe lyke a bawde”, Mary “absolutly denied that she was chargeable with eyther of these imputacions.”

The bishop, unable to pin the charge of prostitution, nonetheless, “thought fit to remand her to Bridewell … vntill he might further examine the truth of the misdemeanors inforced against her without laying as yet any further censure vppon her.”

Like all Bridewell inmates, Mary would have undergone the regular punitive regime of reform consisting of corporal punishment and hard work, a process that used to last two or three months, especially if inmates showed no tendency to be ‘reformed’. Inmates were dressed in blue garments and ordered to beat hemp and flax; and regularly beaten themselves. In compliance with the rules of the governors, she had to account to them, in their weekly routine sessions, for her misbehaviour and immorality.

Other cross-dressing women had already been subject to this process: Joanna Goodman, who in 1569 was whipped for dressing as a male servant, and Mary Wakeley, who in 1601 was detained for her misconduct as a transvestite…

Katherine Cuffe suffered the same fate, in February 1599, for cross-dressing as a boy and “for her wicked lyfe and great offence” committed within the boundaries of the Inner Temple. She confessed to the court which met in Bridewell on 13 February 1599 that Ambrose Jasper, the cook of the Inner Temple, had asked her “to come in boyes apparrell” to his room “for that he would not haue her come in her owne apparrell least that she should be espyed.” In compliance with her lover’s cunning strategem, she turned up in male disguise, flouting the rules of an all-male academic institution. She “laye” with Jasper “allnight” and he “had th’vse and carnall knowledge of her bodye a little before Christmas last.”

Depictions, Moralism, Myth

As with many figures, both real and imagined, Moll Cutpurse’s life and image was co-opted to reinforce prejudices or sell tickets/pamphlets, sometimes both. In Moll’s case this process began in her own youth with the staging of The Roaring Girl and other literary representations, but as with many another historical figure layers of myth and moralising were alter laid on top, until the ‘real’ Mary was buried under legend. It was not unusual in the 18th and 19th centuries for more or less accurate hack biographies/fake autobiographies to be rushed out on the occasion of a celebrity death (with execution literature a speciality); often ‘facts’, legends or anecdotes from one life would be pasted into another for sensationalist appeal. Much as woodcuts made for one purpose would be re-titled and used for another.

Moll’s various depictions are early examples; how much of the ups and downs of her life are true to life is uncertain. An added layer of mystification is added, as she was clearly at least partly party to the myth-making about herself; when others were out to profit by inventing her life, she might as well do it herself, and slyly profit from the jumble of moralising, titillation, and projection.

Do clothes make the Man?

There is a strong link between ‘Moll’s notorious cross-dressing early career and her later rise to businesswoman: clothing. From offending against the ‘sumptuary laws’ regulating appropriate attire for her sex and class, she moved into a trade where clothing was itself a popular commodity, and stolen cloth and apparel was often altered to be unrecognisable when sold on (if it couldn’t be profitably returned to its former owner). It’s worth reading Natasha Korda’s The Case of Moll Frith: Women’s Work and the “All-Male Stage” here, where the links between both costume and its creation/repair, and the fencing and secondhand trade in clothing and the theatre, are pointed out. Korda emphasises how workers in the theatre also doubled as clothing-dealers – notably around the Fortune Theatre, where Moll made her appearance – showing individuals moving between the two,  as economic necessity dictated. But stage performance and the performance of trading, dealing, fronting up a gang, are also linked: Mary Frith created Moll as a character, in many ways, although others wrote some of the scripts, she cannily played the role when she needed to. And if the fame it brought was double-edged, she was able to turn it to her advantage to continue to make a good living.

The 1611 ‘Roaring Girl’ play also can be read to be expressing concerns about clothing (among other things), and how much clothing makes the person, more specifically, does male clothing makes a man a man, and make Moll a man for wearing it? This is expressed throughout the play in jokes and comments, and, as Marjorie Garber observes, the multi-layered sex/gender costuming (two women, played by young boys, dressing as men, one later revealing herself as a woman, the other (Moll Frith) asserting her continued femaleness though in male dress). Obviously also theatre didn’t just involve ‘dressing-up’, wearing a costume, but the idea that disguising by changing clothing actually altered Moll’s ‘case’ is definitely thrown up. Pre-saging some current 21st century debates about the nature of gender… However, how much the real ‘Moll’ bought into any of this is speculation.

The Roaring Girle, was not Frith’s only on-stage representation. Later in 1611, Nathan Field’s play Amends for Ladies was performed, very much a riposte to the Middleton/Dekker play, and Moll appears as a subversive, transgressive personality, parading the sins of thieving and lust, But clearly introduced only as condemnation. Such subversive attitudes must be punished and so Moll is put in the pillory as an emblem of everything seen as wrong with the over-independent female.

In Mary Frith’s case the Bridewell treatment failed to change her ways:
‘They might as soon have shamed a Black Dog as Me, with any kind of such punishment; for saving the reverence due to those who enjoined it, for a half-penny I would have Traveled to all the Market Towns in England with it, and been as proud of it as that Citizen who rode down to his Friends in his Livery-Gown and Hood: or that Parson who being enjoined to wear the Surplice contrary to his will’

On 9 February 1612 Mary was required to do a penance for her “evil living”, standing in a white sheet at St. Paul’s Cross (the scene of her transgression) during the Sunday morning sermon. A letter from John Chamberland, a keen observer of town and court life, to Dudley Carlton, noted that “last Sonday Mall Cut-purse a notorious bagage (that used to go in mans apparell and challenged the feild of divers gallants),” had done penance in public; Chamberlain noted she was later suspected of having been “maudelin druncke.” “She wept bitterly and seemed very penitent, but it is since doubted she was maudlin drunk, being discovered to have tippled of three-quarters of sack”.

Ungerer suggests the severity of her treatment in the Bridewell may have influenced her to give up the public performance aspect of her life, as it was attracting too much repressive attention, and turned to ‘brokerage’ as an alternative career… By the time of her marriage she was already fencing goods on her own account.

According to the (admittedly dubiously accurate) biographies of ‘Moll’, doing penance in the pillory didn’t dampen her enthusiasm for cross-dressing: “this penance did not reclaim her, for she still went in men’s apparel, very decently dressed”. If anything she or her mates may have turned the pillory appearance to advantage, as allegedly many in the attending crowd had their clothes slashed (or got pockets picked?): “Besides, many of the spectators had little cause to sport themselves then at the sight ; for some of her emissaries, without any regard to the sacredness of the place, spoiled a good many clothes, by cutting part of their cloaks and gowns, and sending them home as naked behind as Aesop’s crow, when every bird took its own feather from her.

A Lawless Vocation yet bordering between illicit and convenient, more advantageous by far to the injured, then the Courts of Justice and benefits of the Law, and more equal to the wrong-doers, who by such an hazardous seizure have as thems”
(The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith. Commonly Called Mal Cutpurse)

By 1614 (possibly), and by the 1620s certainly, Mary Frith was, according to her own account, working as a fence and a pimp.  It appears from a Star Chamber bill of 1621 that by 1621 Mary Markham, alias Mary Frith, alias Mary Thrift, alias Mal/Moll Cutpurse, was running a licensed fencing business or lost property office in the city of London; probably around Fleet Street. The Bill of 1621 locates Moll’s brokerage and receiving house in Fleet Street, as does The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith. She was still living in this area at her death nearly 40 years later.

Elsewhere she is said to have rented a shop in Shoe Lane (the southern end of the notorious Saffron Hill rookery), which ran down to meet St Bride Street, slightly north of Fleet Street.

“she turned fence that is to say, a buyer of stolen goods ; by which occupation she got a great deal of money. In her house she set up a kind of brokery, or a distinct factory for jewels, rings and watches which had been pinched or stolen any manner of way, at never so great distance, from any person. It might properly enough be called the Insurance Office for such merchandise, for the losers were sure, upon com position, to recover their goods again, and the pirates were sure to have a good ransom, and she so much in the gross for brokage, without any more danger, the hue and cry being always directed to her for the discovery of the goods, not the takers.”

Her old connections among street-thieves and cutpurses would have served her well in the ‘brokerage’ business – doubling as a fence and also a recoverer of stolen goods on behalf of the owners – for a fee. This kind of industry was to be perfected by figures like Jonathan Wilde a century later: combining effectively running gangs of thieves and selling stolen goods, (but dobbing them in to the authorities if it was profitable) and returning goods to the robbed for a price.

Fencing stolen goods was a not uncommon way, in those times, for independent women to make a living. Largely excluded as they from any skilled, paid work regulated tightly by the male-only urban Guilds – run by men and dominated by the powerful masters in various trades – early modern working women found work where they could in London’s black economy of unregulated crafts and trades, becoming second-hand clothing dealers, pawnbrokers, peddlers, hawkers, tipplers, victuallers, and so forth. These ‘disorderly’ commercial practices were as common as they were frowned on by the guilds and City authorities: increasing guild restrictions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries on female labour only pushed more women into this sector. The famously litigious Guild structures were generally keen to prosecute women who imposed on their male only rules (as well as non-Guild men who tried to set up in regulated businesses, and the Guilds’ own journeymen who attempted to combine collectively to fight for better conditions and pay). In this sense, as Natasha Korda points out, women’s work in the era Mary lived in should probably be seen as a spectrum from legal to illegal – criminal ways of making a living were hardly less heavily punished in many cases than legal methods when a woman took them up.

Selling of secondhand and stolen goods – a huge business, with the distinction between the two at most times loose at best – operated on this spectrum on the edge of legality; much of the merchandise in question often being clothes, fabric, household items. Women were often movers and shakers in this trade, as well as its offshoot –  quasi-official activity in the return or custody of stolen goods, and thence to emergent ‘thief-taking’.

The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith (allegedly auto-biographical, though this may be utterly untrue) describes her operation:

“In my house . . . I set up a kind of Brokery or a distinct factory for Jewels, Rings and Watches, which had been pinched or stolen. . . . I might properly enough call it the Insurance Office for such Merchandize, for the Losers were sure upon Composition [i.e. payment of a fee] to recover their Goods again, and the Pyrates were as sure to have good ransome, and I so much in the Grosse for Brokerage [i. e. a percentage of the whole for acting as agent] without any more danger; the Hue and Cry being always directed to me for the Discovery of the Goods not the Takers. A Lawless Vocation yet bordering between the illicit and convenient, more advantageous by far to the injured, then the Courts of Justice and benefits of the Law, and more equal to the wrong-doers. . . . My House was the Algiers where they traffiqued in safety . . . and publiquely exposed what they got without the danger of Inquisition. . . . I may be said to have made a perfect regulation of this thievish Mystery, and reduced it to certain rules and orders, which during my administration of the Mistressship and Government thereof, was far better managed then afterwards it was. . .”

The fight to stay alive being what it was, many combined several trades, from necessity, so for instance alehouse owners might move into buying and selling goods, already having premises; broadening your options was generally useful.

The markets in second-hand and stolen goods and clothing merged and morphed: frippers (used clothing dealers) worked as pawn-brokers (and vice versa), pawnbrokers as receivers of stolen goods, and receivers as “thief-takers.” ‘Brokers’ with knowledge of criminal networks could return stolen property to its owners, others altered the goods beyond recognition for resale, or sold “the stolen goods vnto duchmen, Scotts and French Brokers,” as a letter from the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of London to the Queen’s Attorney General complained in 1601.

My case is altered

As Natasha Korda points out, the caption of the woodcut used to illustrate Middleton & Dekker’s Roaring Girl, “My case is alter’d, I must worke for my liuing”, contains sexual innuendo – ‘case’ was commonly used as slang for female genitalia. The play repeatedly suggests that Moll’s anatomical sex has been altered by her male apparel, as when Sir Alexander Wengrave declaims “Heyday, breeches! What, will [my son] marry a monster with two trinkets?”

Mary’s true motives are hard to read and impossible to pin down at this distance. What if any gender bending was actually involved here? The temptation to put 21st century labels on her should probably be resisted (though Ellen Galford’s 1984 novel ‘Moll Cutpurse, Her True History’ turns her life into an enjoyable lesbian romp)

It’s not really a reliable clue, since the ‘auto’ bit of the autobiographical The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith might well not be gospel, but in it ‘Moll’ makes pains to separate herself from at least one other ‘cross-dresser’:
“There was also a fellow a cotemporary of mine, as remarkable as my self, called Aniseed-water Robin: who was clothed very near my Antic Mode, being an Hermaphrodite, a person of both Sexes; him I could by no means endure, being the very derision of natures impotency, whose redundancy in making him Man and Woman, had in effect made him neither, having not the strength nor reason of the Male, nor the fineness nor subtlety of the Female: being but one step removed from a Natural Changeling, a kind of mockery (as I was upbraided) of me, who was then Counted for an Artificial one. And indeed I think nature owed me a spite in sending that thing into the world to Mate and Match me, that nothing might be without a peer; and the vacuum of Society be replenished, which is done by the likeness and similitude of manners: but contrariwise it begot in me a natural abhorrence of him with so strange an Antipathy, that what by threats and my private instigating of the Boys to fall upon, and throw Dirt at him, I made him quit my Walk and Habitation, that I might have no further scandal among my Neighbours, who used to say, here comes Malls Husband.”

Aniseed-water Robin seems to have been a well-known seller of aniseed-water who was indeed said to be hermaphroditic, and appears in various verses and accounts, in some of which s/he was claimed to have impregnated him/herself…!

If this is genuinely Mary or really represents her views/acts, there could be all sorts of reasons for her distinguishing herself from ‘Robin’ –The dislike of a cunning operator for competition in the cross dressed local celeb stakes? A transvestite for self-promotional gain fearing a more genuine intersex outsider? Or was it “here comes Malls Husband.” she objected to? – still refusing to countenance even the mocking suggestion of marriage?
Her contempt for Robin could of course be an insertion from a dubious biographer with his own dodgy agenda… This does echo the arguments in the ‘Haec Vir’ pamphlet somewhat…

Stephen Orgel suggests that the Mary shown in the surviving sources was essentially conservative, with “middle class aspirations”, or at least seeking a socially & economically stabile position, if through ‘edgy’ means; “a wit, a trickster, an outlaw, though on the whole not dangerous”. The contemporary sources do tend to emphasise her fundamental support for royalty, law and society, while provoking and at the boundaries of what was acceptable in her own interest, or at least learning early from her run-ins with law and order to cunningly operate in the hinterlands…

Although she was portrayed as a ‘sexual aberration’, and despite the theatrical assertions that she ‘would never marry’, in fact in March 1614, she DID marry – to one Lewknor Markham, an ‘esquire of Nottingham’. However, this may well have been a marriage of convenience, giving Moll useful legal cover in the case of actions against her for fencing stolen property. Moll’s criminal and then notorious theatrical past had laid on her a reputation as anything from monster, to sexual aberrant, to hermaphrodite; marriage conveyed status, respectability, cultural normalcy. She also used the marriage and her old and new names cunningly to outwit legal pursuit over the dubious origin of the goods she sold:

“Mary Frith took advantage of her rise in status as a married woman in claiming to be, as the case required, either a feme sole, a single woman, or a feme covert, a married woman under coverture whose legal identity was covered by her husband. As feme sole, she could pose both as a spinster, as Mary Frith, and as a married woman, as Mary Markham, who with respect to property and business was as independent of her husband as if she were unmarried. As feme covert, however, she could not contract and was liable to lose her right for independent action with regard to property and real estate as well as her right to sue and be sued on her own behalf. Thus, in 1624 when Richard Pooke, hatmaker, sued “Mary Frith alias Markham of London, Spinster,” for some unpaid beaver hats, the attorney warned Pooke not to sue her as feme sole under the name of Mary Frith, for she had already defeated other complainants by claiming that she was feme covert, married “to one Markham.” She did, indeed, resort to this legal double game in defending herself against Pooke’s complaint, arguing “that she is Maryed to the same Markham and soe being a feme Covert, she cannot be ympleaded as feme Sole”

Mary probably entered her marriage on condition that she had the right to run a business on her own account, and the couple certainly had not lived together for several years prior to her 1624 court appearance. Either her view on marriage had evolved from the time of Middleton and Dekker’s play, or she always took a flexible approach to matrimony, with her own interests in mind, and the social (and legal!) advantages to the forefront of her thoughts… From pickpocket she had risen socially, carefully building herself a position of intermediary between thief and victim, between law and crime – a fertile and profitable hinterland (as Jonathan Wilde was to later prove).

Fertile, profitable, but still unstable. A fence sat always on the fence, between abetting the underworld and acting for the lawful. When prosecutions were largely private, litigation against a receiver of stolen goods was often on the cards. In 1621, Mary was indited by Richard Dell and his wife Margaret, after apparently naming them as having robbed Henry Killigrew, gentleman, relived of “certen peeces of gold and some seales and other thinges” by a prostitute he was dallying with, down Blackhorse Alley. Killgrew had been advised to seek Mary’s hep with recovering his valuables, and she had fingered the Dells, confirmed by Killigrew identifying Margaret Dell as his sometime night-time companion.  Margaret Dell was committed to the Compter prison.

Richard Dell labelled Mary Markham as “a notorious infamous person, and such a one as was well knowne & acquainted with all theeves & cutpurses.” Mary retorted that she had a royal commission to examine thieves, and threatened that if the Dells “gaue her any ill wordes or language, she … might and did giue them some reply in some tart or angry manner agayne.”

Such murky dealings cemented Mary Frith’s reputation as a somewhat dubious broker, which lasted until her death in 1659. Merlinus Anonymus, a mock almanac by the royalist Samuel Sheppard, published in 1653, has the following calendar entry for 11 March: “Mrs. Frith tax’d for conivance and acquitted by a Jury of pick pockets’.

In Merry Mad Queries for the People’s Information (1659), a copy of which was acquired by the publisher George Thomason on 13 June 1659, a week after Mary Frith had signed her will, one query reads: “Whether Mrs. Mary Frith commonly called by some Mall Cut-purse, having formerly done so good service at the Bear Garden, and many other things for the good of the Nation, being now aged and having no children of her own body lawfully begotten, as ever I heard of, might not do a pious Act to appoint one to succeed her to help the people to their purses again when she is gone?”

And in Sir John Berkenhead’s Libri Theologici, Politici, Historici, Nundinis Paulinis (una cum Templo) prostant venales … Done into English for the Assembly of Divines (1651/52) Berkenhead couples William Lilly, the astrologer of the Parliament, and Mary Frith, the retriever of stolen goods, listing a spoof joint book venture of Lilly and Frith; “Pancirolla Medela. A way to find out things lost and Stoln; by the said William Lilly. With a Claris to his book, or the Art of his Art. By Mistris Mary Frith.” Berkenhead was seemingly poking fun at both Lilly’s dubious divinations and on the impotence of Mary Frith to beget children, though dressed as a man.

Being recouered of their former sences

In the early 1640s Mary Frith was declared insane and hospitalised in Bethlehem Hospital. The administration, the running of the asylum, and the vicious and inhuman ‘treatment’, (generally beating and punishing the inmates), lay in the hands of the governors of Bridewell, subsidised by the City parishes. How had Moll Cutpurse ended up there? Sectioned after some arrest and committal to the Bridewell? Pretending madness in order to avoid the political turmoils and survive the economic disruption of the civil war?

She is recorded as being released after being cured of insanity: the Bridewell governors meeting on Friday, 21 June 1644, “thought fitt & ordered … that Gilbert Stopford, Katherine Killingham alias Killigrew, Anne Parrett, Mary Frith, Margery Houghton, Robert Crockett and Mary Thornton shal bee delivered & discharged out of the Hospital of Bethlem, London, being recouered of their former sences & may bee kept & provided for in any other place as well as in the hospitall of Bethlem. And that they bee every of them respectively sent to the severall Parishes from whence they came.”

One of the most famuous tales recounted of Moll Cutpurse, is that in her 60s she robbed Parliamentary Civil War supremo General Fairfax “of two hundred and fifty jacobuses on Hounslow Heath, shooting him through the arm for opposing her, and killing two horses on which a couple of his servants rode, a close pursuit was made after her by some Parliamentarian officers quartering in the town of Hounslow, to whom Fairfax had told his misfortune. Her horse failed her at Turnham Green, where they apprehended her, and carried her to Newgate.” From where she is said to have escaped, or bribed her way out…

Is this true though? It’s a great story, which we’d love to believe just because it so outrageous; but doubt has been cast on it. It runs somewhat against the patterns of her life, and of petty crime generally, for a London-bred thief and fence to ‘go out on the roads’. The publisher George Horton, who put out the 1662 account, The Womans Champion; or The Strange Wonder Being a true Relation of the mad Pranks, merry Conceits, Politick Figaries, and most unheard of Stratagems of Mrs. Mary Frith, had a specifically anti-parliamentary agenda, being a dedicated royalist with a penchant for ensuring an anti-republican slant was overlaid on works he sponsored. Cocking a snook at parliamentary general Fairfax was not the only apparent royalist attitude this work attributes to Mary – whether accurately or not is anyone’s guess.

She had lived for some time before at a house in Fleet Street, possibly around the site of the present no 133 Fleet; dying there aged around 78 on 26 July 1659 of ‘dropsy’ (oedema, or fluid retention).

She was buried in nearby St Bride’s Church, in an unmarked grave.

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Some good reading on Moll/Mary:

Gustave Ungerer, “Mary Frith, Alias Moll Cutpurse, in Life and Literature.”

The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith

Mary Frith, Otherwise Moll Cutpurse in The Complete Newgate Calendar, Volume I

Natasha Korda,  The Case of Moll Frith: Women’s Work and the “All-Male Stage”

See chapter 6 in Linda Woodbridge, Woman and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womanhood, 1540-1620

Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, The Roaring Girl

Ellen Galford,  Moll Cutpurse, Her True History’  (historical novel)

Today in London musical history, 1707: Jack Hall hung for burglary at Tyburn… But he Gets Immortalised in Song

‘Up the ladder I did grope,
That’s No Joke, That’s No Joke’

(From the popular song ‘Jack Hall’ later ‘Sam Hall’)

“Sam Hall’ is an old English folk song which prior to the mid-nineteenth century was called ‘Jack Hall’, remembering a burglar and thief who was hanged in 1707.

Jack or John Hall was born of poor parents who lived in a court off Grays Inn Road, London, who sold him for a guinea at the age of seven to be a ‘climbing boy’. Such boys and girls were sent to climb up inside chimneys to clean them. Young Jack Hall very sensibly soon ran away from this horrible occupation, and started to make a living as a pickpocket. Later he turned to housebreaking, for which he was whipped in 1692 and sentenced to death in 1700. He was reprieved, then released, but returned to crime and was re-arrested in 1702 for stealing luggage from a stagecoach. This got him branded on the cheek and imprisoned for two years.

Finally, after he was captured in the act of burgling a house in Stepney, he was hanged at Tyburn, on 17 December 1707.

In the style of the time, Jack’s exploits made him a celebrity, half folk hero and half folk-devil. Like many another petty (and not so petty) crim through the centuries, his story was quickly marketed and sold, in the form of cheap ballads and longer ‘confession’. There were sold in the streets and pubs, often whipped out fast enough to be flogged at the hanging of the condemned.

Jack’s actual criminal career was nothing madly special, but a canny songwriter turned his tale into a catchy song, which became hugely popular and lasted through the centuries, to be still sung today. Jack Hall’s defiance in face of the rope in the ballad made him the archetype of the condemned man who ‘died game’.

Did he sing at his execution? “the said Sam being a rogue of the deepest dye, who growled blasphemous staves, over the back of a chair, on the eve of his execution.”

The ballad Jack Hall was probably written around the time of his death, but in broadsides and passed down orally, the song survived for centuries. It was reprinted as a broadside in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s, mutating, altering, as folks songs tend to do, producing different versions.

In the 1840s music hall singer W. G. Ross altered the song, changing the name to Sam Hall in the process. [Ross used to be a popular singer of the long descriptive songs of that day — some of his songs took half-an-hour to execute and detailed the entire plot of a novel or a drama.]

On 10 March 1848 Percival Leigh noted the following account of an evenings entertainment in an early Music Hall:

‘After that, to supper at the Cider Cellars in Maiden Lane, wherein was much Company, great and small, and did call for Kidneys and Stout, then a small glass of Aqua-vitae and water, and thereto a Cigar.  While we supped, the Singers did entertain us with Glees and comical Ditties; but oh, to hear with how little wit the young sparks about town were tickled!  But the thing that did most take me was to see and hear one Ross sing the song of Sam Hall the chimney-sweep, going to be hanged: for he had begrimed his muzzle to look unshaven, and in rusty black clothes, with a battered old Hat on his crown and a short Pipe in his mouth, did sit upon the platform, leaning over the back of a chair: so making believe that he was on his way to Tyburn.  And then he did sing to a dismal Psalm-tune, how that his name was Sam Hall and that he had been a great Thief, and was now about to pay for all with his life; and thereupon he swore an Oath, which did make me somewhat shiver, though divers laughed at it.  Then, in so many verses, how his Master had badly taught him and now he must hang for it: how he should ride up Holborn Hill in a Cart, and the Sheriffs would come and preach to him, and after them would come the Hangman; and at the end of each verse he did repeat his Oath.  Last of all, how that he should go up to the Gallows; and desired the Prayers of his Audience, and ended by cursing them all round.  Methinks it had been a Sermon to a Rogue to hear him, and I wish it may have done good to some of the Company.  Yet was his cursing very horrible, albeit to not a few it seemed a high Joke; but I do doubt that they understood the song.’

WG Ross performs As Sam Hall

WG Ross made his fortune singing this song, becoming a huge attraction in early Music Halls all over England.

The main difference between different versions of ‘Sam Hall’ is between the more mournful and simpler number, and a generally longer and more defiant song, in which the singer Damns all those who condemned him, those watching him die, and the hearers. Perhaps the less angry and more subdued version originated in the more moralistic Victorian era, when penitent crims were more the fashion, not unbowed and abusive rebels.

The British melody of the song was taken from the song “Captain Kidd”, aka “Robert Kidd”, written shortly after the execution of William Kidd in 1701, but this also appeared to be based on the tune “Ye Jacobites by Name” (Roud # 5517), whereas the version more common in the USA (“My name it is Sam Hall, T’is Sam Hall…”) is a variant of the tune to “Frog Went A-Courting”

An example of the more defiant version

Oh my name is Sam Hall, Sam Hall
Oh my name is Sam Hall
And I hate you one and all
You’re a gang of muckers all
Damn your eyes.

Oh, I killed a man they said, so they said
Yes, I killed a man they said
For I cracked him on the head
And left him there for dead
Damn his eyes.

So they put me in the quad, in the quad
Yes, they put me in the quad
With a chain and iron rod
And they left me there, by God
Damn their eyes.

And the parson he did come, he did come
And the parson he did come
And he looked so ******* glum
With his talk of Kingdom Come
Damn his eyes.

And the sheriff he came too, he came too
And the sheriff he came too
With his boys all dressed in blue
They’re a gang o’ muckers too
Damn their eyes.

So it’s up the rope ye go, up ye go
So it’s up the rope ye go
With your friends all down below
Saying “Sam, I told you so”
Damn their eyes.

Saw my Nellie in the crowd, in the crowd,…
She was looking stooped and bowed,
So I hollered, right out loud,
“Hey, Nellie, ain’t you proud?
God damn your eyes.”

So this’ll be my knell, be my knell
So this’ll be my knell
Hope God damns you all to hell
An I hope you sizzle well
Damn your eyes.

And now I goes upstairs, goes upstairs
And now I goes upstairs
Here’s an end to all my cares
So tip up all your prayers
Damn your eyes.

The more subdued version:

Oh my name it is Sam Hall chimney sweep, chimney sweep
Oh my name it is Sam Hall chimney sweep
Oh my name it is Sam Hall and I’ve robbed both great and small
And my neck will pay for all when I die, when I die
And my neck will pay for all when I die

I have twenty pounds in store, that’s not all, that’s not all
I have twenty pounds in store, that’s not all
I have twenty pounds in store and I’ll rob for twenty more
For the rich must help the poor, so must I, so must I
For the rich must help the poor, so must I

Oh I went up Holborn Hill in a cart, in a cart
Oh I went up Holborn Hill in a cart
Oh I went up Holborn Hill, where I stopped to make my will
Saying the best of friends must part, so must I, so must I
Saying the best of friends must part, so must I

Up the ladder I did grope, that’s no joke, that’s no joke
Up the ladder I did grope, that’s no joke
Up the ladder I did grope and the hangman pulled the rope
And ne’er a word I spoke, tumbling down, tumbling down
And ne’er a word I spoke tumbling down

Oh my name it is Sam Hall chimney sweep, chimney sweep
Oh my name it is Sam Hall chimney sweep
Oh my name it is Sam Hall and I’ve robbed both great and small
And my neck will pay for all when I die, when I die
And my neck will pay for all when I die

The third verse of the song recounts travelling in the condemned cart up Holborn Hill, the steep hill up the side of the Fleet River valley, from the old Holborn Bridge (before the Holborn Viaduct was built).

This was a central section for the ritual journey from Newgate Prison to the hanging tree at Tyburn, as today’s Marble Arch. Holborn Hill was known as ‘the Heavy Hill’ – going up the  Heavy Hill became slang for being hung (joining a teeming rich list of terms for this punishment, a nexus of eighteenth century life.)

The song migrated to Ireland, and an Irish version was sung, where instead of Holborn Hill, the singer recounts being taken to ‘Coote Hill’ –  Cootehill in County Cavan – to die.

From England and Ireland, ‘Sam Hall’ crossed the Atlantic, and produced US versions… Black folk singer Josh White, country legend Tex Ritter, and later Johnny Cash, sang this version:

Well, my name, it is Sam Hall, Sam Hall
Yes, my name, it is Sam Hall, it is Sam Hall
My name it is Sam Hall, and I hate you, one and all
And I hate you, one and all
Damn your eyes!

I killed a man, they said, so they said
I killed a man, they said, so they said
I killed a man, they said, and I smashed in his head
And I left him layin’ dead
Damn his eyes!

But a swinging I must go, I must go
A swinging I must go, I must go
A swinging I must go while you critters down below
Yell up: “Sam, I told you so”
Well, damn your eyes!

I saw Molly in the crowd, in the crowd
I saw Molly in the crowd, in the crowd
I saw Molly in the crowd, and I hollered, right out loud
“Hey there, Molly, ain’t you proud?
Damn your eyes!”

Then the Sherriff, he came, too, he came, too
Ah, yeah, the Sherriff, he came, too, he came, too
The Sherriff, he came, too, and he said “Sam, how are you?”
And I said, “Well, Sherriff, how are you?
Damn your eyes!”

My name is Samuel, Samuel
My name is Samuel, Samuel
My name is Samuel, and I’ll see you all in hell
And I’ll see you all in hell
Damn your eyes!

Tex Ritter’s howlingly excellent version (1935)

Here’s another version, sung by Richard Thompson with a fun call and response

And a personal fave – a version by the mighty Frank Tovey (Fad Gadget)

 

‘The parson he did come
And he looked so fucking glum,
And he talked of Kingdom Come
Kingdom Come. Kingdom Come,
He can stick it it up his bum,
Damn his Eyes!’

 

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There’s a hugely comprehensive examination of the evolution of the song song and the tune in Bertrand Bronson’s Samuel Hall’s Family Tree (California Folklore Quarterly, I (1) 1942) where he relates he English tune to the same tune as “Stand up now, Diggers All” written by the True Levellers at St George’s Hill… possibly by Gerard Winstanley himself. But the tune goes back even further, to the fifteenth century…

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Just a couple of Jack’s arrests:

“John Hall , of the Parish of Stepny , was indicted upon three Indictments; the first, for that he the 7th Day of December last, feloniously did steal 10 Holland-shirts, 12 Neckcloths, 3 Pair of Sleeves, 3 Pair of Thread-Stockings, and other Goods, the Goods of a Person unknown ; the second, for that he at the same Time and Place, feloniously did steal a Hair Portmanto-Trunk, a silk Night-Gown, a silver Watch, 5 Guineas, and divers other Goods of John Edwards ; the third, for Stealing at the same Time, a Hair-Trunk, a Parchment Deed in writing, a Perriwig, and 5 Guineas, and other Goods of Gilbert Cale . It appeared by the Evidence, that the Goods were put in the Trunks, and sent to the Bristol-Coach, at the 3 Cups in Bread-street, and the Coach going out early in the Morning, the Coach-man stopt in St. Giles’s to call for 2 Passengers, that he was to take in, and in the mean while he was gone, the Prisoner, with 2 more, took the Trunks, and put them into a Hackney-Coach, and carried them to Ratclif High-way, where they stopt at an Alehouse, and 2 of them went their ways, and left the Prisoner with the Goods; but the Man of the House mistrusting they were stole, gave notice to the Headborough, who sent his Beadle before, and the Prisoner seeing the Beadle come, ordered the Coach to drive down Old Gravel-lane, which he did, and stopt at another Ale-house, where the Headborough seized him, and the Goods: At first he said, That they were his Masters, but at last confest the whole matter. He denied it all at his Tryal, saying, He met some of his Ship’s Crew, in the Morning, in Monmouth-street, who gave him a Pint of Brandy, which intoxicated him; and said, that if he would go with them to Wapping, they would treat him; but this being but a feigned Excuse, for he could not prove it, the Jury found him guilty of the 2 last Indictments; and there being no Evidence to the first, he was acquitted of that.”

(Newgate Calendar, 15th Jan 1703)

An account of the crime that got Jack stretched:

“John Hall, Richard Low, Stephen Bunch.
Theft: burglary.
10th December 1707

Guilty
Sentence
Death

John Hall , Richard Low and Stephen Bunch , were all three Indicted for breaking open the dwelling House of Captain John Guyon of the Parish of Stepney , between the Hours of one and two at Night, on the 25th November last, and taking from thence a blue Cloth Wastcoat, a pair of Cloth Breeches, 3 Suits of Lac’d Head-cloaths, four Yards of yellow Ribbon, four Yards of green Ribbon, two Silver Spoons, and a Dram Cup, the Goods of the said John Guyon . The first Witness was Madam Guyon, who depos’d, That on the 25th of November, about one or two a Clock at Night, she heard a noise of Thieves in the House, and got up and alarm’d the Neighbours; that on a sudden three Men rush’d into the Room, two Men came up to her, and said, Damn you, deliver your Mony; and gave her a blow on the Face, and bid her go to Bed, That she repl’d, that she had no Mony there, but what she had was in the next Room; upon their going to which Room she lockd the Door upon them, Being ask’d, whether she knew any of them? Reply’d, That the Person that struck her was a tall Man, much of the Stature of Low, but she could not swear to any of their Faces; she viewing them by no light than that of the Moon. The Maid’s Evidence was much the same with her Mistress, except in this particular, That Hall holding a Pistol at her Breast, and a Candle in his Hand, gave her the perfect knowledge of his Countenance, so that she swore positively against Hall.

Another considerable piece of Evidence, was that of one Briggs, a Boy of eleven Years Old, at the Green Man near Billingsgate, who depos’d, That six Men came to his Father’s House, about four a Clock in the Morning, and being near, had the opportunity to see and hear what pass’d, which was after this manner, (Viz.) That one of them pull’d a Dram Cup out of his Pocket; and another, out of a Handkerchief, took a Wast-coat trim’d with Silver-Thread, and Buttons, with three Head-dresses, with Knotts, which agreed exactly, with those that the Prosecutor lost. That he heard Bunch say, We have made a pretty good Hand on’t too Night; and Hall reply’d, that he hop’d they should make a better Hand on’t to Morrow Night. Being ask’d, how he could distinguish one from another? reply’d, that when they spoke aloud, they call’d one another Brother Stitch, but when they spoke softly, they call’d one another by their proper Names. That before they went away, they made an Appointment to meet at the Three Fighting-Cocks in Bun-hill Fields, between Five and Six a Clock that Night; and this Evidence acquainting his Father with it, he suspecting them to be ill Persons, acquainting some stout Men with it, they engag’d to go to the place to take them, but not finding them in the House, as they came away they met them going thither; in their pursuit, the Prisoners fir’d several Pistols at them, but at last they apprehended them.

Low took the Fact upon himself, to excuse the other two: But the Evidence being very clear, and the Prisoners Old Offenders, the Jury found them all Guilty of the Indictment.

[Death. See summary.]”

(Newgate Calendar, 10th Dec 1707)

Read a copyright free version of a supposed (unlikely, really) autobiography of Jack Hall, published in 1708, titled Memoirs of the Right Villanous Jack Hall.

Housing vs Open Space: The Wanstead Flats campaign of 1946

Infill Me… Infill Me… They’ve All got it Infill Me..

Amidst a crisis of genuinely affordable housing in London, with huge rent inflation, a shortage of social housing, and property as commodity speculation causing homelessness, poverty and hardship…

… Pressure has been growing for new housing to be built, often in places where there is little space for it. In particular, existing Council estates are being touted as the place to expand social housing stock – whether by building over small green spaces or garages, or by adding floors to existing blocks.

In many places these ‘infill’ proposals have arose fierce opposition, usually from residents on these estates facing losing green areas next to their homes, more overcrowded and shadowed cramming around them, and in B some cases, blatantly unsafe ideas of what can be stuck on top of their homes.

Advocates of infill accuse these residents of being ‘NIMBYs’  – Not In My Backyard – opposed to social housing, or just wanting it built elsewhere. Some councillors proposing infill have resorted to anonymous trolling of campaigners to try to shout them down; moral blackmail and names are thrown at campaigners to try shame then into shutting up.

NIMBYISM exists, but that’s not what we’re seeing here… In most cases, infill takes place where councils have also entered into hand in glove partnerships with developers to allow the to build private flats, often too replace demolished social housing. Many estates facing infill have often also experienced managed decline over decades. Campaigners generally support new social housing being built, but are asking the questions – why do we with little space have to lose it and face greater crowding; why was social housing given up in neighbouring areas? Do the most overcrowded estates deserve less space or have less say? Do they automatically have to pay the price for decades if catastrophic housing policy, for years of councils enthusiastically championing social cleansing, moving more well to do people in and dispersing the less ell off? and enabling the profits of large housing builders ? For councillors and c propagandists for infill, it’s a case of Yes – In YOUR Backyard…

More power to housing campaigners regarding to lie down, be labelled Nimbys and accept second class status because their tenure should not mean that they have no say in their environment…

The debate on whether to preserve open space or build social housing over it is not a new question. The conflict between housing for all and green space for all has been fought before, with similar dynamics and accusations. The campaign to preserve Wanstead Flats from development after World  War 2 is worth examining here…

Wanstead Flats had seen a campaign of protest and direct action against fences erected by the Lord of the manor in 1871, preventing it being built on. Along with much of the rest of Epping Forest, it had been preserved as land for public access in the late 19th century.

However, the huge need for public housing after World War Two resulted in pressure to build new homes on the Flats. This led to a dispute between advocates of social housing, and campaigners protesting that open green space was also very much needed.

Saving the Flats: The Wanstead Flats campaign of 1946

75 years after the attempted enclosure of Wanstead Flats by Henry Wellesley, Earl Cowley in 1871, another campaign was launched 75 years later, against the compulsory purchase of around half of Wanstead Flats for housing development immediately after the Second World War. 

B24FABA2-A73E-42F5-B8AA-5D506E2F7E3B.jpgLying immediately to the north of Forest Gate, the Flats was a popular destination for Eastenders, not only for just wandering, picnicking and hanging out, but for more organised events like fairs, bands and music hall performance at the bandstand, boating and fishing on the lakes and sport such as football and cricket. The crowded East End, with mainly working class people living in often run-down housing and working long hours, had a long and strong tradition of use of open spaces further east and north, and parts of Epping Forest or outlying places were important destinations, Fairlop Oak, Chingford Plain, as well as the Flats, were traditional gathering places…

Wanstead Flats had been recognised as a vital green space or “wedge” by the London County Council (LCC) in 1935 and the City of London, as Conservator of Epping Forest, organised a conference held at the Guildhall in 1939 to develop proposals for improvements on the Flats.

The outbreak of war in September 1939  put these ideas on hold, and instead Wanstead Flats itself hosted a variety of civilian and military uses during the War. These included allotments, anti-aircraft gun batteries, barrage balloons and bomb shelters. The bandstand was used as a collection point for salvaged wood from bomb damaged buildings and surplus food grown on the allotments. Later, parts of the Flats were closed off for use as a troop assembly point before and during the D-Day invasion of France in 1944. The area was also used as a German Prisoner of War camp.

By 1945, Wansted Flats were also being used for housing. Under emergency wartime powers, 102 “hutments” were already housing West Ham residents on the area north of Capel Road. East Ham borough authorities also proposed temporary housing between Manor Park and Aldersbrook.

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The wider context has to be appreciated here. The terrible destruction wreaked on East London during wartime bombing had made an already appalling housing situation across the East End much worse. Before the war the quality of much East London housing had been bad, and the war had not only seen mass destruction, but the sacrifices people had made had resulted in a build-up of expectation. People demanded improvements in their daily lives, and weren’t prepared to go back to the austerity of the 1930s.  A demand for better homes was a major part of this, symbolised un 1946 by the development of the mass squatting movement. The new Labour government felt under pressure to come up with solutions, and fast.

The Second World War obviously affected all across the country, but had a serious impact on the housing stock in East London in particular, and dockland areas had suffered the heaviest bombing. West Ham had been severely damaged during World War Two. The Royal Docks and associated industry had been primary targets (Target A), for the Luftwaffe air raids. During the London Blitz of 1940-41 thousands of high explosive and incendiary bombs had fallen on the area. Later, 68 V1 flying bombs and 33 V2 rockets hitting the area added to the destruction. In total 14,000 houses were destroyed and many more were damaged within West Ham. By 1945 23 % of West Ham was designated as severely war damaged and was described as an area of “rubble strewn gaps and patched houses.”

The population of the borough of West Ham had declined from a high of around 320,000 people in the mid 1920s, but some 50,000 people were expected to return from evacuation or military service at the end of the war. By 1946 West Ham council had over 10,000 people awaiting homes, and many homeless people were crowded into unsuitable housing or living in temporary “Rest Centres”, some of them in local schools which were imminently to be returned to educational use. Other people were forced to live outside of the area splitting up families and friends.

With little on offer, some people locally took to squatting; as elsewhere, initially in disused army buildings. In the Summer of 1946, West Ham council reported that squatters had taken over former military huts on Wanstead Flats.

Responsibility for delivery was divided between the Ministries of Health, Works and Town and Country Planning, but housing itself would in fact be built by local authorities, ultimately co-ordinated under Aneurin Bevan, leftwing MP for Ebbw Vale, and Minister of Heath in the newly elected Labour Government. Bevan could see that housing would be a defining issue for the government, and had pledged to build 200,000 houses a years. He was determined to provide new housing quickly for the war weary population and expressed frustration with any delays. But like many in the Labour hierarchy, he saw planning as a centralised affair and harshly disapproved of people trying to improvise collective solutions for themselves. he authorised repression and obstruction for many of the squatters’ initiatives.

Proposed housing development on Wanstead Flats had already been backed by Bevan. He had little time for conservation of open space: in January 1946, speaking in a debate in the House of Commons about the emergency housing situation in East Ham, he declared:

“The people must have shelter… The Commoners of Epping Forest must surrender to the overwhelming needs of the people.”

The 1944 Town and Country Planning Act introduced by the wartime coalition government led by Winston Churchill had given local authorities sweeping powers to deal with “blitz and blight” through reconstruction and redevelopment. To alleviate the housing situation West Ham council was determined to quickly provide better housing for the post-war population. It had already launched the “Homes Now” campaign to pressure the government over delays in providing finance and materials for housing.

A Map of the area proposed for the Compulsory Purchase

In March 1946  West Ham council decided to make an application under the Town and Country Planning Act to compulsory purchase 163 acres of Wanstead Flats, lying between Capel and Aldersbrook roads. Homes would be built here to house around 7000 people. The majority of this land lay outside of the West Ham borough boundaries; West Ham council noted that the London County Council (LCC) had already made applications for land in Chingford and Chigwell for housing outside of its own boundaries.
West Ham council favoured the idea of self contained cottage estates located away from heavy industry, a pattern that had been set by interwar developments further east, like Becontree. The trend was for population shift from the more heavily damaged areas in the south to the north of West Ham, and the open land of Wanstead Flats was an obvious target for development

However, the West Ham proposals were not universally popular. They were opposed by the Corporation of London, who had oversight of Epping Forest including the Flats, and all the other neighbouring local councils. Lord Mayor of London Sir Frank Alexander wrote personally to Bevan criticising the proposals.

Stanley Reed

On the ground, a vocal campaign was organised locally. Stanley Reed, a West Ham schoolteacher who lived on the Lakehouse Estate. became secretary of the Wanstead Flats Defence Committee, a broad based coalition of over 160 organisations including trade union branches, religious groups, political parties and sports organisations who came together to oppose the proposals. The committee organised public meetings, house canvassing, letter writing campaigns and lobbied local politicians.

If there were attempts to portray the battle as being between classes, that doesn’t seem to have been the case; not were Labour politicians all in tune with Bevan. Leah Manning the Labour MP for Epping was a vocal opponent of the proposed developments and presented Parliament with a 60,000 signature petition against the plans, attacking the plans during a Parliamentary debate as “vandalism.”. She spoke at many meetings against the proposals and was apparently prepared to sit down in front of the bulldozers…

Lewis Silkin, Minister for Town and Country Planning, and a former Chair of Planning for the LCC, ordered a public inquiry into the compulsory purchase, which opened on the 2nd December 1946 at West Ham Town Hall, Stratford (now the Old Town Hall). A leading argument against was that it was beyond the power of West Ham council to bid for compulsory purchase in the Forest. Wanstead Flats was undoubtedly a designated open space and was described as such in the Abercrombie’s Plan for London. However West Ham argued that it was attempting to follow government guidance to separate housing from industrial development.

The Inquiry lasted 4 days and saw some acrimonious exchanges. There were catcalls from the public gallery when the West Ham Town Clerk described the inquiry as a battle between “haves and have-nots” followed by cries of “shame!” when Wanstead Flats was described as an “unattractive open space.”

In April 1947 the inquiry ruled to reject the application. However Lewis Silkin did accept that the compulsory purchase was not “ultra vires” (beyond the council’s power) and the 1878 Epping Forest Act did not exempt the land from an attempt to compulsory purchase it.

 

Wanstead Flats remained, and remained, open space, enjoyed by 1000s.

West Ham Council went on to embark on a comprehensive redevelopment programme across the borough, and West Ham and East Ham councils jointly prepared proposals for development in the Pitsea and Laindon areas of Essex, although ultimately this development was undertaken by the Basildon Development Corporation.

The proposals by East Ham council for permanent development for schools on the Manor Park Triangle were eventually rejected following a later public inquiry in the early 1950s.

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The City of London, West Ham, East Ham, Wanstead and Woodford and Leyton councils later formed a committee to look at development of Wanstead Flats, producing some proposals which were implemented during the 1950s and is still used today.

The tension between preservation and development was central to the defeated Wanstead proposals. There were compelling arguments on both sides – much needed housing, or open space, vital to East End leisure and relaxation. That there was fierce mass support for preserving the Flats as space for pleasure shows that there was a sense of desire not just immediate need, or at least a balance between the two.

Similarly current infill developments now contain genuine arguments about new housing, ways to solve the crisis, vs open space, the ability to breathe a bit, use of intricate slivers of ground that make estate life a little easier… Local councillors shouting at campaigners that they are nimbys don’t have the same excuse of war damage that gave the Wanstead proposals weight; on the contrary, some of the responsibilities for shortage of social housing lies at local authorities’ doors. In tandem with deliberate National  housing policies & the rise of property finance as vital component of the speculation economy… there has also been mismanagement, co-operation with right to buy & stock transfer… Officers and councillors often also think they know better, that collective suggestions from below should always be subservient to themselves as experts, officers (tho only the ones who agree with their position) or elected officials…

Who has a ‘right to the city’ – it’s a complex question. The city needs to be available to us all though, and a balance between housing & open space has to be struck. In contrast to authoritarian pen-pushing and smoothing the way for developers’ profits and social cleansing, we need a movement that puts collectivisation of the empty private flats; control of housing policy from below for need not profit; genuine decision-making for all at its heart…

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The 1946 campaign was not the last contestation of open space on the Flats. A proposal to build temporary police prefabs there for policing the 2012 London Olympics was opposed by local campaigners under the banner of ‘Take Back Wanstead Flats’

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A Light Shining in Hanwell: battles for open green space in West London

Residents of Hanwell, West London, have recently shown that if enclosure of open space is not just a historical process but an ongoing threat to public access to land, so too resistance is alive and kicking, and can win victories.

In the last decade two open spaces lying next to each other, Brent River Park and Warren Farm, have seen campaigners fight off attempts to fence off or sell off land people have been accessing for decades. These struggles have involved a whole range of tactics from investigation, petitioning, legal casework and sabotage. An inspiration to all those struggling in London (and beyond) to keep green space public, accessible and free.

But we shouldn’t be surprised Hanwellians show such determination- this area has seen resistance to enclosure before…

Brent River Park – ‘Fencegate’

In April 2019, residents of Hanwell in Ealing, west London, were dismayed that part of their park had been fenced off. St Margaret’s open space sits by the Grand Union Canal and is part of Brent River Park. The neighbouring landowner, the Hobbayne Trust, finding that part of the park is unregistered land, tried to nick it.

Section of Ealing Parks Map showing the fenced off land

What some campaigners have called ‘Fencegate’ began when the Hobbayne Trust fenced off part of St Margaret’s Open Space between Billets Hart Close and the Grand Union Canal on 25 April 2019. This annotated section of the Ealing Parks map shows the piece of the park which was fenced off.

In enclosing this land, the Hobbayne Trust effectively extended the boundary of the neigbouring William Hobbayne Community Gardens, which it has owned since 2014, to incorporate part of St Margaret’s Open Space.

Although Ealing Council owns most of St Margaret’s Open Space, the ownership of this small piece of land is unknown. It is unregistered land, which means that no-one has ever provided evidence of ownership to the Land Registry. However, it has been designated as Public Open Space by Ealing Council and been freely accessible to the public since the mid 1990s. Ealing council has treated it as part of the neighbouring park and has maintained it since the early 2000s. It is clearly marked as part of Ealing Parks on the council’s parks map, and also designated as a Grade 1 Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC).

The adjoining land on which the William Hobbayne Community Gardens now stand was previously owned by British Waterways, who registered the land on 13 October 2006. The lease on part of this land which became the William Hobbayne Community Gardens was gifted to the Hobbayne Trust by British Waterways in 2008.

The Hobbayne Trust bought the land from the Canal and River Trust, the successor body to British Waterways, for £80,000. In the sale documents the boundary of the land is clearly marked. It does not include the land fenced off in April 2019.

The Hobbayne Trust signed an agreement with Laing Homes, the company which which built neighbouring Billets Hart Close, and which still owns the freehold of the land under the road. This agreement gave the Hobbayne Trust vehicle access across Billets Hart Close. The Hobbayne Trust paid Laing Homes £3,500 for this access. None of the residents on Billets Hart Close were informed of this transaction.

As mentioned above, in April 2019 the Hobbayne Trust fenced off the piece of St Margarets Open Space. To see the extent of the new enclosure, compare this Google street view photo from summer 2018 with the one taken a year later. The orange bag caught in the tree makes it easy to do a before and after comparison.

August 2019 – Down With the Fence

The Hobbayne Trust’s fence was thus extended upstream, beyond the boundary of its land, to enclose part of St Margaret’s Open Space.

According to Ealing Council’s Local Plan, this land is designated as Public Open Space. It is listed as such on council documents available online dating from 2010. These, in turn, refer to plans dating from 2004. Residents have copies of conveyancing documents which list it as Public Open Space in 1996. It has therefore been Public Open Space and freely accessible to the public for almost a quarter of a century.

Section of Ealing Local Plan

In May 2019 number of residents contacted the Hobbayne Trust and Ealing Council challenging the enclosure of the land and asking the Trust and the Council to remove the fence.

On 27 June 2019 the Hobbayne Trust issued a statement which it distributed to nearby households and posted by the Grand Union towpath. It said:

“You may be aware that the Hobbayne Charity has recently fenced a small section of land to the north of the Community Gardens bordering the canal.“This action was taken so as to rectify a drafting error dating from 2006.”

2006 was the year in which British Waterways registered the land on which the Community Gardens now stand (see above).

The Hobbayne Trust claimed that British Waterways made a mistake in drawing the boundary when it registered the land – this, however, was not borne out by the available evidence. The north-western boundary of the land which now forms the community gardens has been there since 1996 according to the conveyancing documents (and memories) of those who have lived on Billets Hart Close since it was built. An Ordnance Survey map from 1960 also shows the boundary in exactly the same place as it was before the Hobbayne Trust moved its fence.

Section of Ordnance Survey map 1960

There is no evidence of any mistake being made here. When British Waterways registered the land that now forms the Community Gardens, its plan of the area reflected the boundaries that had existed for decades.

In the same statement, the Hobbayne Trust also said that it intended to put a gateway onto Billets Hart Close to provide a second access to the Community Gardens, in addition to the main one on St Margaret’s Road. This access would go from Billets Hart Close to the Community Gardens via the newly enclosed land. This would necessitate the removal of the railings and hawthorn hedge on St Margaret’s Open Space at the end of Billets Hart Close.

On 29 July 2019 the Hobbayne Trust applied to register its ownership of the fenced off land, claiming that it had been in possession of the land since 2008.

Local residents didn’t buy the trust’s explanation of the land’s history…

… Nor did the Land Registry, which rejected the trust’s claim of ownership on 1 August 2019.

Meanwhile, fed up with waiting for the trust or for Ealing Council to move the fence, some residents took the law into their own hands. Over the August 2019 bank holiday, they broke the new fence down.

Down with the fences!

In resorting to Direct Action to remove fences around enclosed land, the residents echoed long and proud traditions of defending open space not just by lobbying and campaigning, but practical measures.

In this case as so many others, their action proved a turning point in the dispute.

On 29 August 2019, sixteen households on Billets Hart Close again wrote a joint letter to the Hobbayne Trust’s chairman, challenging the enclosure of the land and asking that the fence be removed. The letter was copied to Ealing Council.

The letter made the following points:

Before the Trust fenced it off, the land had been freely accessible to the public since 1996.

It is designated as Public Open Space in Ealing Council’s Local Plan and has been described as such in numerous council documents. There are also documents from Laing Homes dated 1996 showing it as Public Open Space.

The land had been been maintained by Ealing Council, at public expense, since at least 2004.

The Hobbayne Trust had not provided residents with any evidence of its ownership of the fenced off land. It had not registered as the proprietor of the land at the Land Registry.

The north-western boundary of the Hobbayne Trust’s land is clearly marked on the transfer documents from when it bought the land from the Canal and River Trust in 2014. The same boundary is also marked on residents’ conveyancing documents from when Billets Hart Close was built in 1996-97.

The residents of Billets Hart Close were not informed about the erecting of the fence. The Hobbayne Trust made no attempt to consult or engage with local residents before erecting the fence.

The letter concluded:

“We call on the trustees to remove the fence around the piece of the park they have enclosed without further delay. This land is public space and the public would like it back.”

In response to the residents’ letter, the Hobbayne Trust called a meeting. Its representatives met with 20 local residents on 14 October 2019, saying that they wanted to rebuild trust with the local community.

At the meeting the Hobbayne Trust’s representatives confirmed that they did not own the land and had fenced it off without having any legal title to it. They said that they were in ‘a legal process’ to acquire the land and that the Canal and River Trust was in the process of establishing its ownership in order to transfer the land to the Trust. They failed to mention that their application to claim ownership of the land had been rejected by the Land Registry two months earlier…

Also, the Canal and River Trust had not made any attempt to register the land, nor did they ever claim the disputed area.

At the same meeting, the Hobbayne Trust’s representatives also re-stated their intention to put a gateway onto the disputed land to give access to the Community Gardens from Billets Hart Close. They were unclear about whether this was to be for pedestrians only or for vehicles. They denied all knowledge of the agreement signed on 20 July 2017 by the Hobbayne Trust, together with the payment of £3,500, for vehicle access to Billets Hart Close.

In a written statement presented at the meeting, the Hobbayne Trust said that it had informed the residents at the end of Billets Hart Close of its proposed action to enclose the land. However, no residents on Billets Hart Close received any such communication from the Trust.

After a number of residents wrote to Ealing Council over the summer, the Council responded in November 2019, via separate letters and emails to local residents. It stated that:

The council did not believe the Hobbayne Trust had a legal entitlement to the land it had fenced off;

The fence had been constructed by the Hobbayne Trust without the council’s consent;

The Council believes that it has a greater claim to ownership of the land than any other party and is preparing to register its ownership of the land through adverse possession, on the grounds that it has occupied and maintained the land for the required period;

The council expects the Hobbayne Trust to remove its fence.

The removal of some of the panels enabled the public to reclaim its right of way across the land: the faint reappearance of the footpath (a desire line), quickly showed this right was being regularly exercised.

The council did not issued any enforcement notice (or, if it has, it hasn’t said so publicly) and the Hobbayne Trust did not remove the remains of the fence. Residents continued to fight for the complete removal of the fence and the return of the land to the public…

The job of removing the fence was eventually completed in March by the Canal and River Trust (CRT) when residents reported that the fence encroached on the Grand Union Canal towpath land.

Residents hope that in future Ealing Council will be more active in protecting such public open space. Early signs are encouraging: the council has said again that it will register the land.The ultimate aim of the local campaigners is to see the land become part of the statutory local nature reserve being proposed by the Brent River and Canal Society for neighbouring Warren Farm and its surrounding meadows.

The Warren Farm Campaign

Warren Farm, which lies just across the Brent River from the piece of disputed land on St Margaret’s open space above, has seen an even longer campaign to fight off the land being given into private hands by Ealing Council.

In the Elizabethan Period, Warren Farm was a tenancy of the Osterley Park Estate. The estate was owned by Sir Thomas Gresham, who opened one of Britain’s first paper mills, by the River Brent in the 1570s. Appropriately enough for this story, Gresham was also a pioneer of enclosure in this area: in 1576 his fencing off of common land caused riots.

In the Victorian period, Warren Farm was a working farm. Ordnance Survey maps from the early 1890s show a public footpath across the site. This right of way was diverted and a newer route runs along the railway.

In 1925, the Countess of Jersey sold Warren Farm to the London County Council (LCC) for sports usage, but the Depression and World War II disrupted these plans, but after the war Warren Farm was run as a farm by the local St Bernard’s Psychiatric Hospital until 1961, and the LCC and then ILEA (the Inner London Education Authority) used the land as a variety of sports pitches for schoolchildren and clubs. In the 1960s the changing rooms were erected and football, cricket, netball, tennis, shot-put and long jump pitches were on the site. When ILEA was dissolved in 1990, Warren Farm passed to the London Borough of Ealing (LBE). Later, a children’s day centre the Pride and Joy Child Care Nursery were based there.

By the 2000s Ealing Council claimed they did not have the funds to maintain the land. The site maintenance stopped. Changing rooms were vandalised and became derelict.In 2009 the London Borough of Ealing launched plans to rent Warren Farm to Queen’s Park Rangers (QPR) football club on a 200 year lease at a peppercorn rent. Effectively gifting Metropolitan Open Land (MOL) to a private company for 200 years. Under the plan there would have been no more public community access.

In opposition to this plan, the Save Warren Farm (SWF) group was founded in 2014. The group raised money and fought the QPR deal, seeking a Judicial Review against Ealing, on the grounds that the council had acted unlawfully in disposing of Warren Farm. The Judicial Review was turned down, however, and QPR were imminently expected to start works on Warren Farm.
No works began, however, and questions arose as to whether QPR could in fact afford to proceed with their plans.

Desire Lines on Warren Farm

In 2016, Save Warren Farm applied to register a footpath across Warren Farm as a Public Right of Way. Ealing Council refused the application. An appeal to the Planning Inspectorate was rejected the following year. In 2016, QPR had their Planning Permission extended by 4 years, with their original plans for Warren Farm scaled back and with the introduction of landfill planned across the site.
In 2017, Ealing Council introduced a new waste collection scheme which meant all households required new wheelie bins. The bins were stored on Warren Farm, but were set on fire twice that same year…By 2019, nature had reclaimed much of the abandoned Warren Farm site. QPR’s ecological surveys concluded that Warren Farm was ‘species poor’ and of ‘little to no ecological value’. A new campaign group, Hanwell Nature, gathered evidence which challenged this assertion. Fundraising began and a Judicial Review was now granted on the basis that Ealing Council failed to undertake an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). In 2020, Ealing Council pulled out of the Judicial Review hearing brought by the Hanwell Nature campaign, apparently not wanting to waste taxpayers money defending the Judicial Review. QPR’s extended planning permission had run out prior to the hearing and QPR had by now found an alternative site.

In the autumn of 2020, the Brent River & Canal Society (BRCS), a charity founded in 1973 whose aim is to protect and enhance Brent River Park (of which Warren Farm is part), released a new vision for Warren Farm Nature Reserve. Initially inspired by young conservationist Kabir Kaul, the BRCS forward-thinking vision asked Ealing Council to work with them in creating Warren Farm Nature Reserve, obtaining Local Nature Reserve (LNR) status for Warren Farm, Jubilee Meadow, Blackberry Corner, Trumper’s Field and Fox Meadow, with the future potential of adding the Imperial College London owned land and the Earl of Jersey’s Field. This would create one large Local Nature Reserve comprised of meadow habitats, with Warren Farm at its centre – preserving meadows for wildlife, humans and for future generations.

 sign the Warren Farm Nature Reserve petition here

Enclosures and Hanwell’s History

Hopefully locals’ plans to unite all the open space above into a Nature reserve will bear fruit… their stalwart defence of their green space should inspire us all.

But it is not surprising that these attempts by the Hobbayne Trust and Ealing Council/QPR to deprive people of open space have been so stoutly fought off. This area has form, as they say, for resistance to enclosures of land.

Common land was vital to the existence of many people before the industrial revolution, when most lived on the land, and worked on the land. Working people might own one or two animals, which they woud graze on commons; wood in common land was gathered for burning for fuel, as was turf; food stuffs were also there to be gathered. Access to commons could make the difference between survival and starvation, and the right to use them had grown up through centuries of struggle against landowners often keen to restrict what people could use. Through the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, local landowners increasingly tried to enclose land – fence it off for more intensive agriculture, denying poorer folk the resources previously available to them. Much of England’s land was enclosed by 1830. But this process was widely resisted, by legal campaigning, direct action like sabotage, by riots and revolts. Read more on this in the London area.

As noted above, parts of the Hanwell area were owned by the aristocratic residents of Osterley House, and Thomas Gresham had faced rioting and sabotage in response to his enclosing of common land to build Osterley Park. There were further troubles at Osterley Park over enclosure in 1614, when several women cut down trees belonging to Sir William Reade, who had inherited the house.

Hanwell itself saw a struggle by the wealthy to enclose Heathland, at the end of the 18th century. This sparked resistance, of which some mention has survived.

Moves to enclose the parish had been discussed by the parish vestry in 1792, but a meeting of tenants called by the vestry apparently voted against wholesale enclosure. This may have been due not so much to idealogical opposition as from fear of local reaction, as there are reports of local discontent and some threats to farmers, over regulation and restrictions in the local commons fields. Attempts by the vestry to cut back numbers of animals that could be grazed in the common had been met with objections, as customary use that had evolved over centuries allowed for more grazing than the new rules allotted. Through the 1790s, repeated orders issued by the parish officers regarding the restrictions were ignored; in 1796 the vestry appealed to the Lord of the Manor to punish the transgressors as they were powerless to enforce their rules. This constant stubborn resistance climaxed in August 1798 with the removal of a lock and  chain barring access to the ‘Common South Field’, which was partly owned by a farmer, Mr George, and the driving in to graze of a large crowd of livestock by local rebels.

Surveying land for enclosure

Attempts to survey the parish a few years later, a usual precursor to enclosure, may have met with a bit of theft… In 1803, the vestry voted to have the parish surveyed and mapped, and hired a professional land surveyor for the job. The parish surveyor Mr Grimault refused to co-operate with him however… despite this, the survey was carried out, and handed in to the vestry in November 1803. In June 1805, however, the document mysteriously went missing, “taken away, or misplaced.” Someone trying to slow the process down?

Despite all this, the Vestry managed to push through the enclosure in March 1813. Not without another act of defiance, however: in May, local youth arranged a cricket match on newly enclosed Hanwell Heath, and the constable was urged by the vestry to “use their utmost exertions to prevent the lads from this Village from assembling on the heath on Sundays.” Both the enjoying themselves on the Sabbath  and invading newly enclosed land being offensive to the authorities… Feelings of attachment to their common died hard.

In the wider area around Hanwell, access to Common land in this part of the old county of Middlesex was fought over for centuries.

The huge expanse of nearby Hounslow Heath was the arena for resistance to enclosure for several hundred years… Attempts to enclose common land in the Heston area about 1600 seem to have been defeated by a group of tenants led by Sir Gideon Awnsham. Complaints were also made in Heston in 1634 about recent enclosures of the common lands.

1834, Ickenham labourers dug up and allotted themselves several parcels of land, in defiance of manor courts who spent twenty years unsuccessfully trying to evict these latter-day diggers

An Inspiration

The area of land fenced off in St Margaret’s open space may be small – but small pieces of land can be dear to people. Councils, developers, landowners often think they can take spaces away without fightback – not this time. 

What has so far helped the Hanwell residents in their campaign has been a cunning use of direct action hand in hand with meticulous research. We love it! 

The Hanwell campaigns shine a light of inspiration to the many other local campaigners fighting off attempts to build on open space and close off access to land… 

Campaigners all over are fighting off attempts to enclose and develop small green spaces, especially land on council estates. Peckham Green was recently fenced off and built over by Southwark Council, despite local objections; on several Southwark estates, tenants are facing proposals to build over small green areas used by them but considered waste by council penpushers. The same story is beginning to crop up all over the capital. But the Hanwell story shows the faceless planners don’t always win…
If the council or another body wants your green space – get together! Research the real ownership, find out what your neighbours want – fight back! (The Open Spaces Society can often help)

Campaigners may feel lairy about what seem like extreme actions like pulling down fences; legally risky, chance of arrest… In this case, having the legal proofs of the land not belonging to the Hobbayne Trust gave the fence destroyers some security in their actions… With other spaces, legal ownership issues may be more clear cut the other way. However, direct action is a powerful weapon. And ownership of open space is often twofold – there’s legal title, yes, but counterposed to that is also how people who use the place feel about somewhere, are invested in it, feel like it is theirs. Access to places can go back centuries, but attachment to open space can build up over much shorter time; it is not easily dismissed. And how did the ‘legal’ owners of land get to own most of it anyway? Violent expropriation of everyone else, by force, lawyers, authority… 

How strongly people feel about a place has implications in how people are willing to fight for it…

The relationship of the St Margaret’s and Warren Farm campaigns with Ealing Council also show the contradictory and uncertain nature of the ownership of public land. Local authorities have been in charge of managing public space for a century and a half, by and large. But is been and up and down ride, especially in recent decades, with budget cuts and other pressures bearing on ownership of open spaces. Money is tight. The temptation to offload it (as Ealing tried to do with Warren Farm to QPR), to cross one headache off the budget list, is strong… (Or to close if off to many users by letting it be used for paying festivals much of the summer, as happens elsewhere).

But open spaces, vital as they are to people’s lives, belong to us all. The legal title of landowners and trusts is generally dubious, historically; the stewardship of local authorities need constant monitoring by us all from below…

 

 

Today in London’s media history, 1814: Times proprietor John Walter bypasses printers to instroduce new steam-press

The first edition of the Daily Universal Register was published on 1st January, 1785. It was in competition with eight other daily newspapers in London. Like the other newspapers, it included parliamentary reports, foreign news and advertisements. Proprietor John Walter made it clear in the first edition that he was primarily concerned with advertising revenue: “The Register, in its politics, will be of no party. Due attention should be paid to the interests of trade, which are so greatly promoted by advertisements.”

However, he was happy to negotiate a secret deal where he was paid £300 a year to publish stories favourable to the government.

In 1788 John Walter decided to change the name and the style of his newspaper. Walter now started to produce a newspaper that appealed to a larger audience. This included stories of the latest scandals and gossip about famous people in London. Walter called his new paper The Times.

John Walter handed over the running of The Times to his son John Walter II in January, 1803. He died in 1812.

In 1810 John Walter II’s harsh response to a printers’ strike gave The Times another advantage – a tradition of ‘flexible’, ie non-union labour. Walter prosecuted 21 printers for conspiracy for organising a strike, and they were jailed (one man died in prison).

As a result, the paper was boycotted by the printers’ societies. The highly skilled printers and compositors were gaining a stranglehold on printing, because without their skills, the presses wouldn’t run.  Although still in its infancy, the power of the Fleet Street printers, expressed through their strong sense of solidarity, and insistence on their control over the working practices, often came up against the newspaper employers’ interests. Walter wasn’t the first – or last – media mogul to attempt to circumvent the workers with new technology…

In 1814 Walter installed a steam-powered Koenig printing machine in his printworks, which increased the speed that newspapers could be printed. By the end of that year, the Times was selling over 7,000 copies a day.

At the end of the 18th century printing was still performed on wooden presses. These ran very slowly, producing inconsistent impressions of varying quality, and could only be operated with a great deal of physical human effort and strength. In addition, the small size of the platen, the plate in the press which forced the paper against the type, slowed down the process of printing on a large scale – a handicap for a newspaper. (Some printers got round this by composing pages in duplicate and working them on separate presses.)

The development, in 1800, of the Stanhope press went some way to increase pressroom capacity. Made of iron, the Stanhope took advantage of new techniques in casting metal, had a platen double the size of the wooden press and allowed a full-size forme to be printed at one pull, allowing a vastly quicker print run.

The Stanhope was a significant advance in the pressroom; it was, however, still based on human pulling power and not on mechanical energy, which inevitably limited its speed.

The solution emerged with Friedrich Koenig and Andreas Bauer’s development of the Koenig and Bauer steam powered cylinder printing machine, in 1810-12.

This was first applied to book printing, but had obvious implications for much larger scale printing of newspapers than was then possible. Several newspaper proprietors were invited to see Koenig’s new cylinder machine, among them James Perry of the Morning Chronicle and John Walter II of The Times. Walter saw the potential in Koenig’s idea, and ordered two steam-driven machines for The Times; but so as to ensure a monopoly he demanded that no other such machines were to be for newspaper production during the life of the patent within 10 miles of the City of London.

Walter still had to launch the new press in the face of the established practices of the Times printers. Don’t forget that working class attitudes towards new technology were, at the time, justifiably suspicious: new machinery almost always benefitted the masters, resulting in loss of skilled jobs, cut wages, cheaper labour. The period when Walter was planning his revolution in newspaper printing was the era of the Luddites, smashing the mechanised looms that were impoverishing them. In London, too, there was a recent tradition of machine-wrecking, among the Spitalfields silkweavers and before that, the sawyers of Limehouse

To avoid this provoking a strike, disorder, or getting his new press smashed up, Walter arranged for the parts of the machine to be shipped secretly to a workshop adjoining The Times offices on Printing House Square; where they were put together, hidden away from the composing and pressrooms.

The printing of the first issue was a clandestine affair. Bauer [Koenig’s business partner] bound his men over with a £100 bond to divulge nothing of the new press. Still, rumours were rife on Printing House Square and some of the compositors and pressmen threatened to withdraw their labour. Walter tricked his staff on the evening of 29 November 1814, telling them that the presses had to be held for important news expected from the Continent. At six o’clock in the morning, Walter entered the press room and astonished the men by announcing the issue of 29 November 1814 had already been printed by steam, that if they attempted violence there was a force ready to repress it, but if they were peaceable their wages would be paid until similar employment could be procured. In the event, the edition passed into circulation with little agitation from the workforce.

170 years later, of course, Rupert Murdoch reprised this trick, planning to beat the Fleet Street printers (whose power over the presses had grown mighty) by introducing new professes and shifting to a fortified HQ in Wapping – thus sparking the 1986-7 News International lockout

Stealing the Commons: A Short introduction to Battles for Open Space in London

Open Space – or Closed Space?

It’s easy to take open space for granted in the city…

Parks, commons, woods, from the heaths to the slivers of green at the edge of the canals… Green places in the heart of London, places of refuge, pleasure, places for picnics, games… They can be a lifesaver, when work and stress and all rises up and threatens to overwhelm you… you can lie on your back while the wind dances in the trees. When you’ve got no garden, when your family drives you nuts, when you just love the grass. For the mad endless football matches, falling out of trees, hide and seek as the sun dapples the moss; for dancing round your phone in the summer evenings… trying not to giggle at the t’ai chi cult, wiping the tear away as you daughter’s bike wobbles round the lake for the first time, even for when you’re masochistic enough to go running on rainy mornings…

The benefits of having access to open green space are obvious, for exercise, mental health and wellbeing, teaching children about wildlife and nature, having somewhere green to just relax; quite apart from the playgrounds, sports facilities, water features, running tracks, that go with them.

But we shouldn’t assume that the open green spaces that we know and love are just there, an entitlement. In most cases they exist because people fought hard in the past, for access, to save them from being built on or sold off, or walled off for the exclusive use of the rich. And because we have free access to them now doesn’t mean it will always be like that… We have grown used to access to green space.

Centuries of hard fought battles saved many beloved places from disappearing, and laws currently protect parks, greens and commons. But times change… Pressures change. Space in London is profitable like never before. For housing mainly, but also there are sharks ever-present looking to exploit space for ‘leisure’. And with the current onslaught on public spending in the name of balancing the books (ie cutting as much as possible in the interests of the wealthy), public money spent on public space is severely threatened.
Many are the pressures on open green spaces – the costs of upkeep, cleaning, maintenance, improvement, looking after facilities… Local councils, who mainly look after open space, are struggling. Some local authorities are proposing to make cuts of 50 or 60 % to budgets for parks. As a result, there are the beginnings of changes, developments that look few and far between now, but could be the thin end of the wedge.

So you have councils looking to renting green space to businesses, charities, selling off bits, shutting off parks or parts of them for festivals and corporate events six times a year… Large parts of Hyde Park and Finsbury Park are regularly fenced off for paying festivals already; this could increase. Small developments now, but maybe signs of things to come. Now is the time to be on guard, if we want to preserve our free access to the green places that matter to us.

Already space in the city is being handed to business – London’s Canary Wharf, the Olympic Park and the Broadgate development in the City are public places governed by the rules of the corporations that own them.

Private public space – where they can tell us what we can and can’t do; space they can ban us from, keep us out of. Public spaces that operate under private control are plagued by corporate restrictions: social gatherings, playing musical instruments, making a speech, releasing balloons and many other pursuits can be banned. It can be closed to public access for private events. And increasing privatisation of space in cities is often tied up with CCTV, surveillance, control of our behaviour.

Not that public bodies aren’t doing their bit: Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) allow councils to make illegal ‘social problems’ like sleeping rough in an attempt to drive homeless people from town or city. Councils are also dealing with developers that give them control over paths. Planning laws are being ‘relaxed’ nationally to allow developers a freer and quicker ride when they want to build . Everywhere slivers of green not protected by law are vanishing; or social housing with access and views over green space is being replaced with new developments for the rich (as at Woodberry Down, or West Hendon). Councils are building on small areas of green space on council estates, bulldozing parks to build more flats (usually private) or demolishing blocks to hand the land to developers.

The threat to open space is part and parcel of the massive changes underway in the city, attempts to permanently alter the capital in favour of the wealthy, driving those who can’t afford it to the margins or out of the city entirely.

It may seem like parks, and other green spaces are givens; things that can’t be taken away. But what seem like certainties can be lost before we realise. Look at way social housing have been dismantled over the past 30 years. In the 1960s council housing was taken for granted as a right by millions: it has been reduced to a last resort, which current government proposals could sweep away. Or the way the NHS is being parcelled up into private providers… there are many who see green space as a luxury and something that can be got rid of or at least shunted off into the hands of some quango… Whatever gains we have, whatever we win, whatever rights we enjoy, came from long generations of battling  – the moment we stop, rest on our laurels, powerful forces start pushing back against everything we have won.

However, it is worth remembering, that open space has always been contested space – in London as much as elsewhere. From resistance to its enclosure, to its role in hosting radical crowds and disorderly gatherings, as a venue for immoral and illicit pleasures, which the respectable wanted to put a stop to. If landowners, the rich, authority, have usually seen open space as a resource for their profit, or as a problem to be controlled, there has always been opposing views, and those willing to struggle to keep places open, and to use them for purposes at odds with the rich and powerful. From an invaluable source of fuel and food, to the playground for our pleasures; from refuge from the laws made by the rich, to the starting point of our social movements…
THE COMMONS ARE OURS!

Enclosure and Resistance

Many if not most of the open spaces – commons, woods, greens – of any size that remain today in London (and nationally), exist because they were preserved from development by collective action. Many of the commons and parks that enrich life in the capital wouldn’t be there if they hadn’t been actively defended by legal actions and campaigns, or by rioting, tearing down fences & re-opening up enclosed land. Even much of the space eventually lost and built over, was defended for centuries.

For uncounted centuries, common lands, forests and wastes provided people with myriad ways of making a living; from collecting wood for fuel, gathering fruit, herbs, and other foodstuffs, to hunting for animals for food, and grazing of livestock. In Saxon times, most land was open to use by all. After the Norman Conquest all land was redistributed to a new ruling class, who introduced many laws to force peasants into serfdom to work for the wealthy, restricted the poor’s access to land, and prevented them from hunting. Many serfs however managed to rent a small plot of land to feed themselves. Overwhelmingly villages consisted of a patchwork of open fields ploughed by different people, paying money or in kind to the landowner.
Over the years resistance opened up many ways for the poor to make a living. Although what we called common land was not ‘held in common’, was always owned by the Lord of the Manor, over the centuries customs and traditions grew up about what people were allowed to take, use and where from…

But none of this took place without resistance from those being excluded from the land.
While the Statute of Merton in 1235 established the legal power for landowners to enclose land, and hundreds of laws were passed against ‘trespass’ (and other crimes such as travelling around, being homeless or Roma), resistance was constant.

Just a few of the countless struggles against enclosure of open space in the London area:

with links to longer posts on some spaces… more will be added as we write ’em

1263 – City crowds threw open lanes blocked up by justiciars… and followed it up in 1264 by destroying fences round the king’s brother’s park in Isleworth.

1292 – Eastenders defeated the Bishop of Stepney’s attempt to enclose two woods in Bethnal Green, used by locals for chasing hares, rabbits etc…

1314, Pinner Park – residents illegally felled trees belonging to the Archbishop of Canterbury; in 1323 – fences round the park were broken down.

What started at the discretion of the Lords was fought over, often violently, and concessions won by hardfought struggles came to be viewed as ‘common rights’.

From the sixteenth century, pressure for profit from land rents began to see land being enclosed – fenced off, with smaller open fields being ploughed together into much larger farms. Already in the 1510s this was forcing people off the land and into destitution; over the next 300 years, enclosure would increase hugely, creating a mass exodus from the best farming land, pushing hundreds of thousands first into marginal lands, wastes and woods, and then into the growing cities. The impetus for enclosure came entirely from the search for greater profits for the landlord classes. Propagandists for the process made much of how it improved agricultural efficiency – historians still argue about whether this was even true. But enclosure ultimately made fortunes for the landowning aristocracy; and as much of this money was also later funnelled into industry, it was a huge driver for Britain’s industrial revolution.

This was fought every step of the way…

1515 or 1516 – Moorfields, archers destroyed fences put up by rich residents to prevent them using fields.

Across the south of the country a series of rebellions, riots and disturbances erupted in 1548-49, protesting the hardships caused by enclosure; this is sometimes known as the ‘Commotion Time’.
The largest revolt in Norfolk – Kett’s Rebellion – needed an army to put it down.

In the London area in 1548-9, there was resistance at Ruislip and at Enfield

and trouble also manifested in struggles in London, as attacks were made on enclosures on the suburban common fields. Martial law had to be declared in the capital.

Riots, direct action, trespass and sabotage against denial of common rights and fencing off of common land became commonplace (to coin a phrase!)

1576 – locals massed to tear up fences and pull up palings round Osterley Park, while queen Elizabeth was visiting the enclosing lord of the manor

1592 – the bailiff of Westminster and a crowd tore down fences on Neat House Fields, (round modern Victoria) and Charing Cross.

In 1607 enclosures sparked a widespread series of insurrections across the midlands.

A map showing how Sydenham Common has been built over in four centuries

At the same time, there were mass movements near London. On Sydenham Common in Lewisham, an enclosure attempt 1605-15 was resisted by locals who marched to petition the king, as well as fighting pitched battles to defend common.

At Greenford, West London, fences surrounding enclosures were destroyed nu crowds in 1613.

In 1618, it was reported that locals had encroached on Harrow Weald Common and built cottages in defiance of the lord of the manor (Lord Northwick), nicking bits if his land for gardens, in response to him enclosing the common in 1607.

Riots, rebellion, direct action against their being denied common rights became commonplace.

The huge changes in land use taking place in the early sixteenth century, the mass dislocation of peoples, formed a major motivation for the support for the parliamentarian side in the English Civil War, and for the communal ideas of groups like the True Levellers (Diggers), who took over land to work it on common in 1649. Ironically, however, many of the leaders of the puritan side supported enclosure, and king James I and Charles I (though an enthusiastic land-grabber himself) had backed those fighting off enclosures.

1641: Royal grounds enclosed on Hounslow Heath were attacked and entered by irate peasants.

1648, Hanworth, Lord Cottington’s enclosures attacked and fences thrown down.

1649: The local poor of Eltham & Lee tore down fences in Horn Park.

On Enfield Chase: enclosures here by ‘incomers’ (many New Model Army officers) were resisted by rioters in 1659.

The 1659 events at Enfield also prompted local writer William Covell to set down his ideas about collective use of land in opposition to enclosure.

It wasn’t only land that was being enclosed – early capitalists were beginning to privatise other natural resources of the earth, like water. The building of the New River from Hertford to feed water use in the city of London 1609-13 was based on private capital and exploited for profit.

Locals break into Richmond Park to ‘Beat the Bounds’, 1751

The main big wave of enclosures took place in England, from 1750 to 1830. 5000 enclosure acts saw 21% of the country fenced off, totally changing the nature of agriculture, to the profit of the landowners and the dire loss for the poor; reducing farmworkers to waged labourers with little or no access to their own land or common rights.

Richmond Park – enclosed by king Charles I in 1637; in 1751, locals broke in to ‘beat the bounds’. A legal case eventually opened up access to the park, 1750s.

At Hampton, in 1686, women were accused of having pulled down enclosure fences.

Bushy Park – blocked rights of way were opened up 1754 after radical shoemaker Tim Bennett challenged the landowner.

In 1766/7 Stanwell locals defeated landowners attempting enclosing of Hounslow Heath.

Hampstead Heath, 1776: Actress Mrs Lessingham caused a riot by building herself a house on common land. (In 1906: Soap magnate William Lever, bought the same house, and tried but failed to block right of way on land here, due to local opposition.) Hampstead Heath was finally secured against enclosure and development in 1868 after forty years of campaigning.

Enclosure Surveyors at work

Sydenham Common: In 1754 fences were thrown down and reclaimed rights to gather fuel in Cooper’s Wood. But in 1792 Michael Bradley was murdered by landowner Samuel Atkinson, for exercising common rights in enclosed Colson’s Coppice.1794,

1794: Streatham Common – locals burnt the furze (gorse bushes common right allowed them to collect for fuel) before landowner could collect it, and demolished his fences.

1797- 1802, Harrow – an Association for Opposing Harrow Inclosure Bill fought enclosures. Although in 1810 commoners were breaking fences in 1810 in a desperate attempt to stop the physical process of enclosures, the battle was lost.

1798, Hanwell – locks were removed from gates and former common fields had cattle driven on to them in defiance of farmer. In 1813 newly enclosed land here was invaded for unruly sports.

1801, Bedfont – locals defeated an attempt to enclose Bedfont Common.

There was opposition to enclosures in Harlington in 1801, which delayed enclsoure here till 1819.

There was also trouble around Ruislip and Harmondsworth in 1801 over enclosures ((Harmondsworth had a centuries long tradition of stroppy tenants fighting with the lords of the manor).

1803 – Roxeth Common was finally enclosed, after years of stout resistance.

1803, Wormwood Scrubs – a court case in the King’s Bench defeated fencing off of the Scrubs.

Between 1812 and 1885, Staines residents fought a long battle to prevent enclosure of Staines Common, first through petition and legal challenge, but as late as 1885 direct action was still being used to obstruct landowners.

1812, on Wimbledon Common – there had been failed attempts to enclose the Common in the late 17th century, and in 1723; both failed. In 1812 the lord of the manor obstructed locals common rights, cutting down all trees and selling timber. Protest followed.

Protesting Ex-commoners turned their cattle onto the ex-commons and bye-roads of Hillingdon in 1817, (enclosed by act in 1812) and Finchley between 1816 and 1823, (enclosed by act in 1811).

In 1817, new fences erected on the common at Kingston on Thames (under a Parliamentary Enclosure Act) were destroyed by locals.

1820s, Loughton – 300 people rioted several times to prevent tree felling in Epping Forest; especially troublesome were 13 local women who “beat Rigby’s workmen and took from them their axes… and detained them.”

1834, Ickenham labourers dug up and allotted themselves several parcels of land, in defiance of manor courts who spent twenty years unsuccessfully trying to evict these latter-day diggers… This was an area where the 1830 Swing Riots had spread.

In the nineteenth century as London expanded, new pressures on open spaces emerged… The city was rapidly increasing its size as housing was needed for thousands of new residents; from the 1840s hundreds railway lines were built, cutting through open space. Much if the farmland around London was built on; but the millions now crowded into tightly packed streets needed open space more than ever. Struggles over open space became more and more about a fight for leisure space, somewhere to hang out, a relief from the pressure of work and overcrowding. If anything, Londoners fought harder in the late 1800s to protect green space, as it became more of a precious commodity…

1837, Hackney Downs – locals swarmed onto the lammas land and seize all crops from a tenant who’d overstayed short term lease beyond lammas day (common rights extended slightly here to, er, looting!)

Primrose Hill: 1842: popular pressure kept the Hill open in defiance of developers.

1850s, Stockwell Green – the Green was enclosed by a fence, but locals accustomed to partying there broke it down. A 20 year struggle followed but the green was eventually built over.

1851, Highbury Fields – threatened with development for posh housing, which a popular agitation prevented.

1855: The ‘Sunday Trading Bill’ Riots saw working class crowds attack the fencing off of Hyde Park for enjoyment by the rich.

1862, Old Oak Common, Acton – a dispute regarding common rights at Acton saw fences destroyed on the Common.

1864-76, Banstead Commons – local protest eventually blocked plans to enclose them.

In 1864, Lord Spencer, biggest landowner in South London, tried to sell much of Wimbledon Common, and enclose more as a park. Protest led to a committee saving the Common through legal action.

The Wimbledon campaign also helped give birth to the Commons Preservation Society, who led high profile legal defences of common land and open spaces, and to the passing of the Metropolitan Commons Act of 1866, which protected many open spaces in London from being built over.

1865: William Willingale trespassed on Epping Forest to cut wood on the traditional day, was arrested, and sparked a long campaign that ended in the re-opening of the Forest for public access. Half the forest had previously been enclosed 1851-71.

Epsom Downs & Commons: There was opposition to enclosure of a part of the Downs by locals in 1865.

In 1867 there were mass invasions on Hounslow Heath in defiance of landowner by locals to poach; in 1872 the caretaker was beaten up when he challenged 3 local men protesting the illegal ‘encroachment’ by the landowner.

In 1868 a local committee formed to oppose recent enclosures on Mitcham Common. In 1890 protests against enclosures & gravel digging led to an Act to protect the Common.

1868 – 100 years of protests against encroachments on common land in Peckham Rye Park lead to its purchase in 1868 for a public park.

1868, Tooting Common – repeated destruction of fences (voted on in open meetings in the local Infant School), defeated WS Thompson’s attempt to fence off the Common. The enclosures were ruled illegal; the Common was bought for the public in 1875.

1868 – 70, Wandsworth Common. Already decimated by three railways lines being run across it, and other encroachments, an 1860s attempt to develop the rest led to a mass local working class campaign, and ended in  direct action.  2000 people pulled down fences in 1869, and 100s more did so at Plough Green in 1870. As a result landowner Lord Spencer (him again) gave the land to the Wandsworth Common Defence Committee, and it remained open to all.

1870 mass meetings on Blackheath in May, convened by the Advanced Liberal Association of Greenwich, against plans to enclose part of the heath.

1870, 2000 people met at Mill Pond Bridge, Rotherhithe, to oppose efforts by the Metropolitan Board of Works to build on part of Southwark Park.

In 1870, working class ideological opposition to enclosure – the systematic robbery of the land from the labouring classes by the rich – crystalised in the creation of the Land and Labour League, which dedicated itself to regaining the land for the workers.
This organisation reflected a long radical tradition among popular movements, harking back to the Chartist Land Plan, the ideas of Thomas Spence and the Diggers…

1871, Wanstead Flats – 1000s of local working people pull down enclosure fences; protests save Flats. In 1946, the Flats were saved again from development by a local campaign. Locals also fought the building of a temporary police compound here during the 2012 Olympics.

In December 1875, large crowds (up to 50,000 people at one point) destroyed fences erected as lord of the manor tries to sell part of Hackney Downs to railways company.

Hilly Fields: Between 1875 and 1896, a long public agitation saved the Fields from development.

1876, Plumstead Common: “a series of wild and violent riots” in July defeated enclosures here (there had already been direct action in 1866, and 1870 over landowners encroaching on common land.)

Tearing down enclosure fences on Plumstead Common, 1876

1876, Chiselhurst Common, repeated destruction of fences around common land, and public meetings, defeated GH Baskomb’s attempt to sell it off. In neighbouring Camden Park, the landowner, William Willett, tried to enclose the land here: locals defeated the idea and proved it was common land.

1878, Eelbrook Common, Fulham – a protest meeting at plans by Ecclesiastical Commissioners to enclose it turned rowdy, and enclosure fences were destroyed.

1882, West End Green, West Hampstead: a crowd tore down hoardings round the green, scheduled for development, and burned them. Just down the road, Fortune Green was saved from being built on by local opposition in 1896.

1880s, Alexandra Palace Park – protests over plans to sell it for development end with proposals shelved.

1883, Coulsdon Commons – legal action ended fencing off and quarrying.

1886, Highgate Wood – local campaign stops the wood being sold off to speculators for development

Clissold Park, Stoke Newington: 1886-89: Grounds of the local big house saved from development by local campaign and opened as public park.

1880s, Petersham Park – locals in alliance with the Commons Preservation Society defeated a plan to appropriate part of the Park for a vicarage. In 1896, owner Lord Dysart, wanting to build on the land, closed footpaths & fenced off land. Local pressure led to the Bill’s failure.

1888, Town Mead, Fulham – locals destroyed fences during a long, ultimately unsuccessful resistance.

1890, West Wickham Common – Lord of the Manor Colonel John Lennard enclosed and sold 20 hectares for building, then put up a “strong unclimbable spiked iron fence”. Local opinion forced him to sell the land to the Corporation of London, who opened it up.

1891, Ham Common – Protests against landowners (the Dysart family) ban on removal of game, or gravel, and claim that common fields and footpaths were private property. Early one morning 4 notice boards were chopped down. Culprits were acquitted.

In the 1890s, the Local Vestry’s attempt to encroach on Barnes Common to extend the cemetery was defeated.

1892, Leyton – 3000 people pulled down railings protecting a railway that had been unpopularly run across common lammas land to the East London Waterworks, & wrecked the railway. The land remained open, and remains open.

1897, One Tree Hill, Honor Oak – 1000s rioted over several weeks in protest against the enclosure of the open land here for a golf course. After long legal wrangling the Hill was bought for the public in 1905.

1898, Croham Hirst, Croydon: Owners Whitgift’s Hospital tried to flog half of it off for development in 1898. Croydon residents successfully campaigned to get the local council to buy it for the public.

Parliament Hill, 1899: Saved from development by campaigning.

1900, Eltham Common – protests forced the War Office to back down on a plan to steal the Common to build army officers quarters.

In 1902, Wimbledon Green (on edge of Wimbledon Common) was enclosed despite a number of riots and destruction of fences.

Empty land in Plaistow was also squatted by the unemployed during the recession of 1905-6

In 1908 part of Woolwich Common was lost to the War Office for the officers quarters and a polo ground.

1912, The Rookery, Streatham, was preserved for public use by a local committee. In 1923, the same committee revived to save neighbouring Norwood Grove from development.

1920, Petts Wood – a campaign prevented sell off of the wood. In 1973, Petts Wood residents opposed plans to build 60 flats in Covet Wood. The Wood was bought by the Council instead and preserved as an open space.

West Wickham & Hayes Commons saw a Ministry of Transport plan in 1924 to build an arterial road through the woods defeated after local protests.

Wanstead Flats was saved from development for housing by a campaign in the 1940s.

From Wild Wood to Pleasure Garden

Open Space as the haunts of rebels, outlaws and outcasts

For centuries the ring of forests and heaths around London provided refuge for outcasts, rebels, robbers, squatters, fugitives and later political radicals; making new communities as well as fighting for survival, and often resisting the landowners and authorities by force… The legends of Robin Hood arose from real people… This caused a sense of fear and encirclement among the rich – the respectable feared the conspiracies, plots and revolts they saw as brewing in the wild lands. Forests had of course always been to some extent threatening to settled man, being full of wild beasts, wild folk, the unknown… The pressure to clear forests came not just from economics, the need for wood, farmland, etc, but also to tame the uncontrolled, threatening wilderness…

Places like St Johns Wood, Epping Forest, Hounslow Heath, Enfield Chase, Putney Heath were all well known haunts of rebels and robbers, poachers, highwaymen, smugglers, political rebels, gypsies, squatters, ex-soldiers turned maurauders, for centuries.

As enclosure drove people off more profitable land, communities grew up on wastes, marginal land, in the woods; often squatted – houses built in a day and a night were thought to carry some right to remain. Places like Epping Forest were home to ‘Maroon Villages’ – outcast camps of the dispossessed. Almost all the commons in the London area had squatter communities in the 17th and 18th centuries. The growth of pressures on poor rates from the dispossessed living in marginal conditions ironically served as a driver to further eviction and enclosure.

Travellers, gypsies, casual migrant labour, Irish refugees from the dire poverty created by the absentee landlord system in their country, also relied on access to open land for temporary refuge.

Gathering Places of Revolt

Open space also hosted rebellious armies, radical crowds and movements for social change. During the 1381 Peasants Revolt, the rebel army camped on Blackheath, (it was here that rebel priest John Ball preached the seminal sermon on the subject of equality for all –When Adam Delved and eve Span, Who was then the Gentleman?)… they parleyed with the king at Mile End Fields and Smithfield.
Jack Cade’s 1450 Kentish rebels, the 1497 Cornish tax rebels, also occupied Blackheath; the radical crowds of the English civil war also rallied on open spaces – Mile End Fields, St George’s Fields in Lambeth, Moorfields. The 1768 Wilkes Riots and 1780 Gordon Riots began on St George’s Fields.
In the 1790s the London Corresponding Society held mass rallies demanding political reform in the open spaces on the fringes of the metropolis – Marylebone Fields (now Regents Park), Camden’s Chalk Farm, Copenhagen Fields in Islington. Later radicals met on Spa Fields and Coldbath Fields in Clerkenwell; on White Conduit Fields in Islington, Chartists on Bonners Fields in Bethnal Green, and most famously, on Kennington Common, in their last big rally in 1848.
Hyde Park became a noted battleground in the 1850s and 1860s, with radical crowds fighting for the right to gather there.  Trade unions, suffragettes, socialists, people arguing against (or in favour of) religion: parks and commons became the venue for open air politics, mass meetings, debates and argument. The kind of speechifying now only really seen at Speakers Corner used to be a common sight in all of London’s open spaces.
And when bylaws were used to drive socialists, anarchists and radicals out of parks, street corners became meeting places. Until the police came to beat up speakers, nick them and jail them… an attack that they defeated, in the end, by force of numbers.

Fairs, Immorality and Pleasure

From time immemorial London’s open space was also always a venue for pleasure. It’s obvious, and hasn’t changed much over the years, that in crowded cities, you desperately need access to freer places where you can relax, escape the jostling of your neighbours, evade (of only for a while) control by family, church and authority, play games, walk, chill, maybe have sex… And also meet, discuss banned ideas, gather and organise…

Right outside the old City wall, just to the north of the Moor Gate, one of London’s oldest and most famous open spaces, Moorfields; well-known for rowdy games of football (a banned, and frowned upon pastime), for turbulent get-togethers of London’s apprentices (always to the fore in riots, political troubles and protests), and for night-time rendezvous; most notably for gay men to meet each other, at a time when ‘sodomy’ was a hanging matter. (In more recent centuries, Russell Square, Hampstead Heath, and Clapham Common, have taken on the mantle of venues for outdoor gay meeting places, while Hyde Park, was well-known for prostitution for centuries… as Tooting Common was more recently…)

But London’s other ancient ‘wastes’ became similarly notorious. Lincolns Inn fields was a favourite place for walks and sports by the 14th century. But the Fields were also infamous as the haunt of ‘brotherhoods of beggars’ & thieves, as well as the venue for unlawful games, and the illegal exercising of horses. The homeless slept here for centuries: local lawyer Roger Leggett was killed during the peasants revolt, having made enemies by setting mantraps here to catch rough sleepers…

There were constant attempts by authority, often prompted by the wealthy who lived nearby open space, to ‘clean up’ the poor’s playgrounds. Open space should be for nice and proper people, taking part in useful, orderly and polite leisure pursuits, not“vile rabble of idle and disorderly persons, who assemble there to play cricket, and such like pastimes, to the no small danger, and hurt, of harmless people, who either walk for air or business”.

Clerkenwell’s Spa Fields was a mecca for prize-fighting, duck-hunting, and other bruising encounters. Victoria’s Tothill fields, and Bloomsbury’s Long Fields, also become infamous, for kite-flying, dog-fighting, and naked swimming and nearly naked running races. A major complaint was that ‘roughs’ would gather to play games on Sunday, the Lord’s Day; when they should’ve been in church, obviously! That Sunday was most people’s only day off was neither here nor there… However, attempts at repression could backfire: as in 1766, when the High Constable of Holborn and his officers entered the Fields, to find “upwards of two hundred and fifty dog-fighters, bullies, chimney sweepers, and sharps…” When they tried to put a stop to a dog-fight, the hooligans set their dogs on them.

Open spaces were also cherished because they hosted the annual fairs that livened up London’s life. Once mainly economic, where yearly work contracts were negotiated, and farmers sold produce, in the growing urban sprawl, Fairs were losing their old rural economic functions, becoming more and more festivals of debauchery, and a public order headache for local authorities. Increasingly hated by the better off, for their immorality, disorder and policing expense, London’s many Fairs became notorious and rowdy.
May Fair, the traditional May 1st shindig, held for centuries, off Piccadilly (that gave the area its name), ended up as a rowdy gathering of the poor & a threat to public order. As the area was gradually taken over by the rich in the 18th century, pressure grew to ban it. The authorities first tried to suppress it in 1708; it was finally banned in 1769.  When the constables came to suppress the fair, a mob of about thirty soldiers and other persons, stood in defiance of the peace officers, at whom they threw brick bats: a constable died of stab wounds after the fight.

Camberwell Fair

The most famous was Bartholomew Fair, held at Smithfield, for centuries; a teeming, riotous, outpouring of popular culture, feared like no other by those in power… “a dangerous sink for all the vices of London”… a venue for subversive plays, puppetry, satire and attacks on the Lord Mayor & all established authorities. In 1697 William Philips was whipped for his anti-government satires at the fair. Rumours that radicals were planning to start an uprising there were enough to terrify the government in 1817.

London’s fairs were mostly closed down, banned or toned down, between the 1760s and the 1850s, an important plank in the moral reformation of London’s poor, and the attempt to impose hard work and religion on the working classes in place of drink, riot and pleasure. Annual events like Camberwell and Southwark Fairs were repressed at the behest of local authorities keen to cut policing costs, middle class killjoys, and moral reformers Some long-running fairs survive, like Pinner Fair.

Often part of the impetus to enclosing space came from pressure to eliminate the waste and common spaces where Fairs, rowdy games, outdoor sex took place. Notorious spaces like Moorfields and Smithfield were landscaped in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, laid out into formal walks, open waste’ made ‘proper’, in an attempt to transform the behaviour that took place there. Later, sites associated with radical crowds had to also be transformed; almost as if the memory, the possibility of uprising, had to be exorcised. Kennington Common, where the last great Chartist rally took place in 1848 (scaring the crap out of the rich), was shortly afterwards surrounded by railings, turned into formal gardens; folk considered ‘unrespectable’ were kept out.

But landscaping or fencing, creating ordered space, didn’t always succeed.  Formal parks and gardens, the fashionable spas or pleasure gardens, had the habit of starting out posh, but succumbing to a process of de-classing. The spas of Clerkenwell and Islington Hill (Sadlers Wells, London Spa, Bagnigge Wells) and Lewisham’s Sydenham Wells began with respectable airs and a healing ethos, but within a few years the large numbers coming to drink the waters were mixing them with other liquids. Moral reformers fumed that ‘the wrong sort’ were being attracted… that they were encouraging class mixing (a very bad thing!), and thence to rowdiness, drunkenness, sex and debauchery.

Even landscaped pleasure gardens became contested. Emerging in the eighteenth century, as open spaces had been transformed into fashionable landscaped gardens, catering for the growing leisured classes, often they excluded the poor, servants, soldiers…
In 1764, a crowd tore down railings at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in protest at entry prices and its private ownership. In the 1790s Kensington Gardens were opened to the public, but soldiers, sailors & servants were banned, and a strict dress code was enforced. Complaints started to flood in about crowds of servants gathering outside the gates & insulting ladies & gentlemen entering…

No Through Road

Battles over right off way, footpaths, and control of road and path are centuries old in London, and x have been fought in parallel, and x sometimes part of, anti-enclosure struggles. Here are a few examples (more to come soon …)

For instance, in 1475, the rector of Stoke Newington Church blocked a footpath from Church St to Ermine St that ran across Church land: it was reopened by the Manor (possibly after  local protests?)

In Bushy Park, in 1734, a right of way across Bushy Park in West London was closed by order of the king, but 20 years later a local shoemaker (Timothy Bennett of Hampton Wick, d.1756), threatened to bring a prosecution, and won the reopening of the path.

These issues could be lost as well as Ron though: an old right of way running down the length of North London’s New River, “from Highbury” towards Hornsey, somewhere off Riversdale rd, where the Boarded River used to run,;”was blocked by James Colebrooke, Esq. when in possession of the manor, who erected gates for the purpose. This circumstance gave rise direct action against the gates, then to a law-suit, upon the issue of which the privilege of the public to this road as a thoroughfare was lost.

Footpaths blocked by the fencing off of North Kensington racecourse were re-opened by mass trespass in 1837.

Sydenham Hill. south London: wealthy silk warehouse owner Richard Beall tried to block off the upper end of Taylor’s Lane to increase the privacy of his posh home of Longton Hall. His attempt to do a van Hoogstraten enraged locals, who in 1867 smashed the walls & fences down; 100s came with axes & hammers! After several attempts & continued demolitions, Beall gave up & went insane.

The ‘Hanging Field’, between where Kings Cross rd, Pentonville rd, Gt Percy St and Amwell St now stand, saw disputes here over use of footpaths across the fields. The New River Company which owned the land had plans to develop the land for new streets and housing; when existing residents made back entrances to gain access to the field; the Company ordered them to block them up or they would cut off their water supply. This led to public protest from locals, which won re-opening of the paths.

But it wasn’t just green space and footpath where the rich tried to close off and keep out the riffraff. And if you thought gated communities were a new invention… In 1798 the Duke of Bedford had gates erected at entrances to his posh Bedford Estate in Bloomsbury, and only those with an official silver token could enter if on horseback, driving a cart etc. The Estate also refused permission for pubs to be built on its bounds…

More recent times

Just some struggles in the last few decades:

1973-4, Sparrow Wood, Roundabout Wood & Crofton Heath –  local opposition scuppered a plan to develop 139 acres of this woodland near Bromley

1970, Heston Farm: Green space saved from huge housing development by campaign.

1980s : A local campaign saved Stoke Newington East reservoirs from being developed.

1979-85, Walthamstow Marshes: Save the Marshes Campaign prevents marshes being destroyed for development into a marina.

Parkland Walk, Haringey – An old railway line closed in the 1960s and turned into a green walk. Saved from proposed development in 1990 for a 6 lane highway by a local campaign.

1985-93, Oxleas Wood, Eltham – Proposals to build an East London River Crossing, with a new motorway driven through this very beautiful 8000-year old wood, (as well as 100s of homes being demolished) were defeated by fierce campaigning from locals & environmentalists.

1999, Crystal Palace Park – During a campaign to oppose the building of a huge complex on part of the park, the site was squatted as a protest camp.
Although the camp was evicted, the plan collapsed.

Taking Back Wanstead Flats

Leyton Marsh – A camp was set up to resist a landgrab from the Olympic Park in 2012

Take Back Wanstead Flats similarly campaigned against police compounds taking over part of the Flats for the 2012 Olympics

Nunhead Reservoir: An unofficial local open space on top of a reservoir used by locals was fenced off, and a campaign sprang up for access

These days inflated land values, soaring property prices, property use as commodity and driver of the economy, and housing shortages are creating a pressure cooker, which is impacting on open space not protected by legislation. Especially if its in areas where residents are less wealthy – what are they doing occupying this space? when it could be used for something more profitable?!

Tidemill Community Garden, a space created on empty land by Deptford residents was evicted by Lewisham Council despite a strong local campaign

Such campaigns are ongoing: campaigner in Southwark are fighting to prevent the council from building over green spaces on their estates, nicking the small places used by residents… Local unofficial park Peckham Green has been fenced off for development despite fierce opposition.

But they’re not winning everywhere: Residents of Hanwell in Ealing, west London, have recently returned part of Brent River Park to public access by direct action against fences. 

And when some posh residents of Primrose Hill demanded fences be re-instated there to prevent people gathering there during the covid lockdown, and fences were erected , some folk campaigned against it, and fences were sabotaged…

Meanwhile councils rent parks to expensive music festivals for weeks of the year, fencing off part of open space for weeks of the summer from access unless you can pay, and leaving it trashed after… 

Reclaiming the Land

Gargoyle Wharf

The example of the 1906 land occupation in Plaistow already mentioned, and the older tradition of land squats going back to the diggers, has been echoed in recent decades by land occupations in the capital, often on derelict industrial land, or in slivers of green space grown up wild or abandoned.

Inspirational in this was The Land is Ours occupation at Gargoyle Wharf, Wandsworth, in 1996.

More recently, squatted eco villages have been launched in Hounslow, at Kew Bridge, on Ravens Ait, in Woolwich

Going Beyond Preservation

The struggles mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg. Many acts of resistance didn’t get recorded, or were forgotten. Destruction of fences, fights with bailiffs and ‘stealing’ of resources people had been banned from using; trespass on lands barred to all – much of this went under the radar. Acts like poaching by their nature were mostly carried out in secret, for instance. The defence of open space is a history without heroes – it was carried out from below, by millions, and is still being written…

We need a new commons… based not in the past but in the future. The main thing to take from the numberless struggles to preserve open space is that people won because they considered the places they were defending to be theirs, to belong to them, even when that stood in opposition to the legal ‘reality’… Although sometimes relying on those traditions and common rights as the basis for legal argument didn’t work, often when it formed the backbone for direct action and a collective campaigning approach, this sense of the commons being ‘ours’ could overcome all the power of law, profit and parliament. This is a lesson worth taking when we think about how we view open space: although we can take many inspirations from our history, reliance on the past can not be a defence, we need to be re-forging a sense that the resources of the world are for all of us, for people’s enjoyment, not for the profit of a few.

We need to be redefining what is ours, collectively, in opposition and defiance of the laws and fences built to exclude us; and not just when it comes to green or urban space, but for the whole world. In the midst of 21st century London, a whirlwind of global profit, backed by a government with a determined ruling class agenda, is uprooting communities, altering the landscape, destroying or severely hamstringing any right to social housing, welfare, health, education, for increasing numbers of us.
What are we going to do in response?

Read More

This post is just a brief introduction to the history, politics, and significance of open space in the London area. More information on everything herein, available from us… We’re currently working to put out a book covering the struggles and themes touched on here in greater detail. We don’t yet know when this book will be published… Keep in touch with us for further info.

In the meantime, longer accounts of some of the events mentioned here can be found in some of our other writings:

• Down With the Fences: Battles for the Commons in South London.

• Rights of Common: The Fight against the Theft of Sydenham Common and One Tree Hill

• Kennington Park: Birthplace of People’s Democracy

• Symond Newell & Kett’s Rebellion: Norfolk’s Great Revolt against Enclosures, 1549.

• Burning Women: The European Witch Hunts, Enclosure & the Rise of Capitalism

Some useful contacts

Open Spaces Society – Founded as the Commons Preservation Society in 1865; the CPS played a huge part in legal actions and campaigning to preserve green space nationally, and was instrumental in the passing of legislation to protect commons. The Society today remains committed to defending open space, footpaths and rights of way.

National Federation of Parks of Green Spaces – a UK network of area-wide Forums. We exist to promote, protect and improve the UK’s parks and green spaces by linking together all the friends and users Forums/networks throughout the country.

The Land Is Ours – campaigns peacefully for access to the land, its resources, and the decision-making processes affecting them, for everyone.

The Ramblers – ‘Britain’s walking charity, working to protect and expand the places people love to walk and promote walking for health and pleasure’.

Wombling Free: #OnThisDay in London green history, 1864: Earl Spencer proposes to enclose Wimbledon Common

The earliest history of Wimbledon Common and Putney Lower Common dates back to the paleolithic age and barrows such as the one known as Caesar’s Camp (although not associated with the Roman period) have been discovered.
In the 18th century locals had rights of access at certain times of the year, to cut wood & graze animals, & to cut peat & loam to sell. Until the 19th century the many oak pollards on the Common provided winter fuel for many local folk. These rights had, however, been the source of struggles between locals & landowners for years.

An attempt at enclosure in the late 17th century by the then Lord of the Manor, had been prevented by local resistance.

Around 1723 there was further unrest in the area, when the powerful Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, bought the manor of Wimbledon, and attempted to curtail some common rights.
Her descendants, the aristocratic Spencer family (ancestors of Princess Di) became Lords of the Manor in Wimbledon, Wandsworth, Putney.

In 1812, the Lord of the Manor, Lord Spencer, broke longstanding agreements over common rights, by cutting down huge numbers of trees, and selling the timber, causing protests.  Effectively stripping the common of trees deprived commoners of their right to this wood.  The poor of the parish were still allowed to cut furze in the winter, and freehold and copyhold tenants had the right to graze cattle. Many disputes arose over gravel-digging and cutting peat and loam: Commoners objected to the Lord’s wholesale pillaging of the Common.

In the mid-19th century, industrialisation and urbanisation had extended London over great swathes of the surrounding countryside, and the capital was swallowing up villages, which often involved the development of greens, commons and woods. Resistance to enclosure for economic survival – the need to gather fuel for keeping warm, for grazing animals, collecting foodstuffs – had been a feature of life for centuries. Gradually, the struggle over preventing building over green spaces became more concentrated on providing space for leisure for the millions now living in the city. Campaigns evolved for areas to be set aside as parks, and this became a major concern of a growing philanthropic class among the wealthy. Campaigning at Wimbledon followed a long drawn out controversy about threats to build on Hampstead Heath and a growing movement to preserve Epping Forest for open access.

Wimbledon Common was to become a central battleground for this movement, and provided the impetus for the creation of an important campaigning organisation – the Commons Preservation Society.

Compared to many districts in London, Wimbledon was a relatively wealthy area, and its inhabitants generally better off. Those ‘commoners’ – residents with acknowledged rights to use the Common in one way or other – tended to be well to do, more so even than in other areas. Unlike the struggles over many metropolitan commons, the battle at Wimbledon essentially became a two-and-fro mainly manifested between two sides, the lord of the manor and various commoners. Large-scale working class campaigning and direct action, which were seen in many battles over open space in the 19th century, did not develop. Again, the debate did also not involve local government bodies, eg parish vestries, which in some areas were the arena for debate and negotiation of rights, and sometimes centres of campaigns.

In fact, a lot of the debate around Wimbledon Common’s fate, and the future of commons more widely, took place in Parliament, where prominent campaigning MPs attempted to ensure more legislative protection for open space was passed into law.

The lord of the manor, Earl Spencer, started the wheels in motion when he announced plans to make a park out of Wimbledon Common at a meeting of local inhabitants on 11 November 1864.

Interestingly, November 11th, traditionally known as ‘Martinmas’, was an important date in the annual rural calendar regarding commons, a customary date when people were allowed to begin cutting wood for fuel for winter. Did Spencer choose this date on purpose? Hard to know.

Spencer proposed to convert 700 of the common’s 1000 acres into a park. The costs of creating this park and compensating the commoners’ interests would be met by selling off portions of the remaining common: with pressures at the time, this would likely mean this part would end up built on. Spencer planned to administer and maintain the park, allowing public access but by his permission, and paying for the upkeep by Ietting areas for pasture & grazing. The Lord would retain control and everything would only be by his leave.

On the face of it, Earl Spencer seemed to be offering up most of the Common for people to access; he asserted that this plan had been drawn up in response to the immense pressures on land in the metropolis, and the threat that if no scheme was set in place, much of the open land there would eventually end up being sold and developed. Neighbouring areas were facing green spaces being lost, as railways were laid across them, portions were sold and built on, and offers and pressures on Spencer to sell off parts of Wimbledon were growing (he had already sold parts of nearby Wandsworth Common which had been cut into three by rail lines).

Spencer was canny enough to bate his ‘offer’ with threat – if you don’t let me carry out my plan, you might lose the whole Common. Plus, he suggested that in its present condition the common was a less than desirable open space. The Common was a favourite camping place for Gypsies, who were accused of leaving rubbish behind, and in 1860 their alleged refusal to be vaccinated against smallpox was viewed as a threat to public health.

On top of this, maintenance was expensive, especially to drain the Common to keep it navigable in wet weather. Spencer also claimed that preventing the exploitation of the Common for gravel-digging was also a headache (somewhat cheeky, as this was a process his family has benefitted from, and he himself quarried for gravel on the Common), and the constant agro that use of the common by the National Rifle Association (N.R.A.) for its annual meetings of marksmen and Volunteers caused among locals. [some residents had objected to the presence of rifle butts on the common and to the behaviour of the crowds who attended. Spencer was a keen supporter of the Volunteers and the N.R.A. and his scheme meant to ensure their continued access…]

Spencer intended to retain the power of making regulations as to permitted refreshments to be sold in the new park, for regulating quarries and pits to be used by the parishes for gravel digging, and for excluding gipsies and tramps. The plan marked out the areas to be sold for building. No land would be sold in excess of the amount required for purposes of implementing the scheme. Any gatherings of a religious or political nature would be prohibited.

There was a little opposition at the meeting itself – in fact hardly anyone had attended as the meeting hadn’t exactly been heavily publicised. Of those who did turn up (the churchwardens and clergy from Wimbledon and Putney plus “several copyholders and resident gentry”), most generally seem to have vaguely approved on the Lord’s plans. The foremen of the homage juries (a representative group of tenants known as the manorial homage, whose job was to make presentations to the manorial court and act as a jury) of Wimbledon and Battersea manors moved a resolution giving some qualified support to Spencer’s scheme. However, a four-member committee was appointed to investigate the plan in detail.

At a time when commons were under threat, Spencer’s proposal seemed positive: a lord offering to secure a large portion of a common for public use. The press generally lauded the plan. Around Wimbledon, Spencer’s scheme led to some heated discussion, much of which saw the lord’s motives more cynically. The plan would leave Spencer as “Protector” of the land, with the authority to make the park available for “any purpose of practical public utility or interest” (with the consent of the Home Secretary, a way of perpetuating use by the N.R.A) – but with no restrictions in the form of commoners with rights. Critics suggested that this provision gave Spencer absolute title to the land not sold off.

One major objection was his insistence on that the Common would have to be fenced off. Spencer’s steward William Forster insisted on the necessity of enclosing the new “park” as the only means of bringing the area “properly under control”. Residents were generally opposed to fencing the new park off.

Spencer and Forster also maintained the existing commoners would have to give up their rights, although compensation would be paid to them.

The four-man committee appointed to go through the Lord’s plan in more detail could not completely agree whether to support it. After deliberating, three of the four concluded that in their view, there was no need for a fence, or for selling up to 300 acres of the common to pay expenses. lf fencing were needed to turn the pasturage into a profitable venture, the committee believed a more extensive network would be needed than Spencer admitted, and this, along with the clearing of natural vegetation, would detract from the public’s use of the common. Other means could be employed to control nuisances such a gypsies. Nor was a fence required for the purpose of the N.R.A. meeting. The majority of the committee wanted no fencing, and commoners’ rights left in place. They suggested local residents would pay for the upkeep of the common rather than lose these acres to building.

The committee expressed the fear that portions of the Common would be sold, and the proposals put Spencer under no compulsion to manage the common; it merely gave him permission. His Lordship, or subsequent lords of the manor, would be free to use their powers to exact as much profit from the common as possible, or prevent access at their whim. As drafted, it gave the lord too much power to work gravel pits and quarries, which a future Protector might exploit. The committee recommended adapting a system already operating in Bristol which gave the public guaranteed access to commons without abridging the common rights of the freeholders of the affected manors. Spencer could chair such a management structure. As to paying for it all, that  donations could be sought from the public, or if, as Spencer proposed, the inhabitants were charged on the rates to raise money for the scheme, then residents would deserve a voice in its management, (a role Spencer opposed).

The committee’s report was read in January 1865to a gathering of sixty-five residents at the Wimbledon home of Henry Peek, a wealthy Tory M.P., who was determined to preserve the common. This meeting voted that the committee should meet with Spencer to explain their objections, and also resolved to persuade the locality to pay the management expenses of the common.

An influential section of Wimbledon society had rejected the scheme. They deemed a 700-acre park a poor cousin to the full common, regardless of the good intentions of Spencer. They clearly wanted no encroaching buildings nor any fences.

As noted above, the majority view was not unanimous: the fourth member of the committee submitted a minority report to Spencer in which he declared:

“That all the people want is, what the Bill brought in by your Lordship gives them, namely, Seven hundred acres for a Park… That all minor matters, such as draining, fencing, and levelling the land, building lodges, and making ornamental water, roads, and paths, should be left to your Lordship’s judgment and discretion…. that the donor of such a noble gift is the proper person to consider what is best calculated to be done to enable the people thoroughly to enjoy it, and to carry out unmolested all minor details.”

Seriously, grovel on, mate.

Few inhabitants of Wimbledon shared this dissenter’s opinion, it would seem – the voices that dominate the debate after this are those belonging to Spencer’s opponents. Few supporters could be found for his plan.

One of the Commissioners of Woods and Forests, Charles A. Gore, also responded to Spencer’s plan. His professional interest concerned the rights of common allegedly held by the Crown with respect to forty acres in the region. When the land had been enfranchised the rights had been regranted, and Gore wanted to ensure that these Crown rights would be dealt with properly. Gore was far from opposed to enclosures, which he had long had dealings with. Although he supported the right of the Lord to sell gravel from three pits already in operation; and accepted some land would have to be sold to cover the costs of the bill and payment of compensation to the lord, he also found numerous faults with Spencer’s proposed bill, along similar lines that the committee had expressed – that commoners’ rights were ignored, and that the bill lacked sufficient safeguards to prevent an unscrupulous successor to Spencer using the park for profit. The Protector should share his powers with at least two others, one representing the commoners, the other appointed by the Enclosure Commissioners. Gore also disputed the value of a fence, believing that the common would be a greater resource to all if left unenclosed.

Earl Spencer, however, was determined to press ahead with putting a bill before Parliament enshrining his plan. He acknowledged two concessions to the committee’s and Gore’s objections. Acknowledging that a single administrator might not safeguard the park as a public facility, Spencer proposed two additional trustees, one to be appointed by the Crown and the other by the Enclosure Commissioners. There was no mention of a representative of the commoners or local residents. Secondly, Spencer agreed to relinquish his right to cut turves and restrict his right to take gravel if he was compensated for the consequent loss of revenue. Any money left after the management expenses had been met from the proceeds of the right of pasture would go to the lord.

Spencer knew these minor concessions failed to meet the objections of the committee, but he preferred to battle it out in Parliament where all points of view could be heard. He based his feeling that the homage juries of Wimbledon and Wandsworth had expressed wholehearted support, representing the copyholders of the manors, the only parties apart from himself who he felt had any legal interest in the common. His Lordship continued to insist that a fence was necessary to guard against the increasing “evils” that threatened it, and was the only way to safeguard animals when the pasture was let. His steward stressed that the fence “should be in good taste” – well that’s ok then! — not the iron railing at first suggested – “a plain inexpensive open wooden fence [with] frequent openings..”
Disagreements over the style of fencing around a common would appear elsewhere in London.

Attempts to negotiate an agreement ended with no resolution of the two important issues, the fence, and the sale of portions of the common. Spencer’s sweetener of first offering these portions to adjoining property owners was not judged to alter the situation materially. Public meetings in Wimbledon and Putney during the opening months of 1865 expressed support for the views of the committee.

Meanwhile in Parliament in early February, MP Frederick Doulton gave notice of his intention to move for the appointment of a Select Committee on metropolitan open spaces. Pressure was mounting in London, and not just over Wimbledon. Increasing enclosures were reducing the size of Epping Forest; Tooting Common had been threatened by an enclosure Act in 1863; Streatham and Clapham Commons were felt to be in danger of disappearing; Stockwell and Dulwich commons had already vanished.  Parts of Wandsworth Common were lost to the railway in the same year as Spencer made his proposals.

In the press, Forster and Spencer argued that Spencer was absolutely owner of the common, subject only to the existing rights of the commoners, but that these rights are confined to pasturage; they were practically of little value, and those who possess them were few in number.

In reply the letter from the Wimbledon and Putney Comm¡ttee objected that there were 200 commoners, not merely a few, with the right of digging gravel, turf, and Ioam on the common, and that “the existence of this latter right is fatal to the lord’s right to enclose or (as it is technically called) approve any part of the common.”

The sponsor of Spencer’s enclosure bill, Lord Bury, agreed that it should be postponed for a month while Doulton’s Select Committee looked into the broader question of metropolitan open spaces, but Spencer would not necessarily feel bound by its recommendations. The Parliamentary Select Committee was appointed in early March 1965.

The decision to appoint a Select Committee on Metropolitan Open Spaces was the beginning of efforts to find a single consistent policy to deal with the commons around London and beyond. Before this, politicians directed their attention towards whichever one was the scene of the most public dispute. The first session of the twenty-one-member Committee lasted for two weeks at the end of March 1865, focused on Wimbledon Common. Between early April and late June more hearings were held dealing with the remaining metropolitan commons. A separate report issued from each set of hearings.

The majority of the Committee was sympathetic to the cause. Of saving London commons. Many members were London M.P.s; the committee included  two who were both to become active in the Commons Preservation Society, Shaw Lefevre and William Cowper, as well as George Peacocke and Frederick Doulton, both active on the issue previously.

After some initial groundings in the law underpinning enclosures, notably their basis in the 1235 Statute of Merton, the Committee turned its attention to Wimbledon. The questioned Earl Spencer who frankly admitted that his arrangement excluded local representatives from management of the common, because he thought they would be hostile to the Volunteers and the N.R.A.. Spencer explained why his scheme offered more to the locals than it took away, despite the obvious feeling in the neighbourhood against the fence. He blamed gypsies and tramps for many nuisances, including bringing “infectious diseases” into the area and allowing their “donkeys to stray into gardens”: the fence would assist control over these people.

Spencer claimed that the homage juries’ early support  showed that commoners were willing to let their largely useless rights go if offered compensation. He was quite insistent that he was giving up many of his own rights as a public service. He could, he understood, enclose either by common law if sufficient land were left for the commoners or by custom of the manor, that is, with the consent of the homage jury, in which case the question of sufficiency did not arise. Up to this point Spencer was not denying that there were commoners with rights. lndeed, an important part of his scheme (the fence) dealt with the means to compensate them when their rights were lost.

Under questioning by Shaw Lefevre, Spencer claimed he was willing to abandon the fence if another way to pay for management of the park could be found. But he continued to insist that the management must be “in the hands of independent people”, with no representative of local residents; his relations with locals had deteriorated during his negotiations with them, and his distrust is obvious: he may have been expecting that any representative of the inhabitants and commoners would challenge his inflated assessment of his rights as lord.

His steward, William Forster, also appeared before committee, and actually went further than his employer – he denied there were any commoner at all, and maintained that nothing really prevented Spencer from doing as he pleased on his land. There were copyholders – but they had no common rights. There were rights of way across the common, but that was it. With the support of the manor homage juries the lord of the manor could enclose at will.

Evidence was also taken from a number of witnesses from Wimbledon. Joseph Burrell, a barrister with expertise in property law, accused Forster of ignoring the important common rights held by the freehold tenants of the manor. These could not be lost in the same way as copyholders’ rights. He also disputed Forster’s view of the Statute of Merton: the Stature allowed the lord to approve against rights of pasture, but it had no power to limit other rights such as turbary, estovers or gravel digging. These, Burrell claimed, were linked to ancient cottages, and a modern cottage on an ancient site could claim the original rights.

Burrell also theorised that a court might rule that the inhabitants of London had acquired a right of recreation over Wimbledon Common – this was a radical departure from precedent in law, and strayed towards an interpretation of commons that transcended legal ownership at all. However, Burrell claimed that a court might rule in this way.

There were other witnesses who asserted that “from time immemorial the public had gone over that land when and where they liked, without interruption from anybody”…

William Williams, a solicitor, one of three members of the original committee appointed to consider Spencer’s proposal, also gave evidence. He raised an eyebrow at Forster’s suggestion that there were no commoners – if this was so, why had Spencer included a provision to sell land in order to compensate them? Why had notices been sent to 287 copyholders seeking their consent to compensation?

Williams suggested a compromise plan, in which money could be raised from the community to compensate Spencer for any lost revenue, and if the required £5000 were collected, no land would be released; some land would be sold if this figure was not met. The rights of commoners were to remain which might limit the public’s use for recreation, but Williams felt this would not cause much conflict, since many rights were no longer exercised.

The majority of witnesses expected that a fence would alter the character of the common, and Williams feared it would become the instrument which permitted it to be exploited for profit.

The only witness to endorse the need for a fence was Lord Elcho, the chairman of the National Rifle Association, and even he objected to anything more than a simple post and rail structure.

The Select Committee had no power do more than deliver an opinion on the widely varying views of what common rights and the lord or the manor’s prerogatives. The Select Committee’s members tended to veer towards the views of the Wimbledon commoners. It made three recommendations:

  • That is is not expedient that the Wimbledon Common should be fenced round or inclosed, or that the existing Common Rights should be extinguished.
  • That it is not necessary, and would be undesirable, that any part of the common should be sold.
  • That the 20 Hen. 3, c. 4, commonly called the Statute of Merton, by which a lord of the manor can inclose, without either the assent of the commoners or the sanction of Parliament, ought immediately to be repealed.

Spencer felt no obligation to accept these recommendations or abandon his bill, but when brought before the House of Commons for a second reading on 6 April 1865, he had made some alterations. He adopted Williams’ suggestion and was willing to permit the residents time to raise the necessary funds (by subscription or a local rate) to pay for the proposed improvements before any land would be sold, and agreed to abandon fencing the common if Parliament decided against it. This was a significant reversal; however, though the revised bill incorporated the proposal to vest management in a three-person board, local representatives were still excluded.
This left only the question of the alleged rights of commoners as the only substantial issue of disagreement between Spencer and the residents’ committee.

Spencer and his supporters characterised his opponents in the neighbourhood as being primarily the “villa owners around the Common”. This was generally true; as in many areas,  ‘commoners’ could effectively be well to do;  undoubtedly, their motives mixed self-interest and in some cases, altruism… While some MPs were in favour of supporting the revised bill, others felt it should be voted down as it did not recognise full rights for all to “wander at will”. But those campaigning to preserve commons realised that any movement would not succeed if based on villa owners.

William Cox, Liberal M.P. from Finsbury, who wished to kill the bill, believed the testimony from the witnesses who asserted that the land had been wandered at will “since time immemorial” meant that the “land was thereby brought within the description of a village green”… A public right of recreation could be sustained over a green much more easily than over a common. Cox opposed the Spencer scheme “not in the interests of any villa owners, but in [sic] behalf of the three-and-a-half millions of persons living in the metropolis”.

Other MPs felt the Select Committee had been packed with ‘preservationists’ and that the call to abolish the Statute of Merton was taking things too far.

At this point Spencer decided to drop his parliamentary enclosure bill. The resistance from locals and MPs forced him to pause and offer concessions. But the argument was far from over. Spencer stepped up his gravel digging and began building a brickworks, and his opponents bristled. An attempt at talks collapsed without an agreement, and Sir Henry Peek, one of the wealthiest local landowners, brought a case in Chancery against Spencer, in December 1866, to confirm the rights of commoners.

An application was also made to the Enclosure Commissioners for a scheme under the new Metropolitan Commons Act but they wouldn’t consider any intervention unless both sides could begin to agree on the way forward.

In 1868 Lord Spencer was still insisting on a scheme not so far from his early plan; his opponents were trying to prove that copyholders had not lost rights through non use or that freeholders had the rights they claimed. Luckily, Conveyances were found for certain lands, once part of the demesne, which explicitly included rights of common, and the commoners were able to persuade Spencer that he would be better making an agreement than months or years in court. Terms for a settlement were worked out, and an agreement was confirmed by the Wimbledon and Putney Commons Act of 1871 .

The Common came under the control of a body of eight conservators, five elected by the ratepayers, plus one each to be appointed by the Home Secretary, the Secretary of State for War (reflecting the use of the commons by the Volunteers), and the First Commissioner of Works. Spencer pulled out of any further involvement in the Common’s management, but since he received an annuity of Ê1200 compensation for the lost revenue from the common, he didn’t do badly out of it… (this was in fact not outrageous compared to the comparable cash payments that some lords of the manor would receive in the following years). The annuity was finally redeemed in 1968 by a lump sum payment from a redemption fund set up by the Conservators in 1957.

As proposed by the residents’ committee years earlier, a special local rate, was adopted to pay for the upkeep, with those living closest to the common paying a higher amount (the rate was assessed as follows: those within one quarter mile of the common paid 6d. in the pound; those within one half a mile, 4d., and those beyond, 2d. No houses assessed below £35 per annum contributed..) The National Rifle Association was allowed to continue its annual rifle meet, despite some continued local opposition. (in a few years, the NRA event grew too big and annoying, and the shooters moved away.) The Conservators could draft bylaws with the approval of the First Commissioner of Works.

The two sides in the Wimbledon dispute had been divided by radically different views on the nature of common rights, but the two camps both wanted the common preserved as a public open space. Spencer proposed a park but was willing to modify aspects of his scheme. At heart, he was not really determined to exploit the common for his own profit; if he had been, the fate of the common might have gone to court.
Instead, Wimbledon became the first metropolitan common to be managed by local conservators, a pattern that was later also adopted at Barnes, Mitcham, Epsom, and Banstead.

The battle at Wimbledon had some outcomes that had broader implications for open spaces. MPs in Parliament began to get involved in the question of preservation on space for all to enjoy (rather than simply passing acts to allow it to be enclosed by the wealthy, as they had largely done for centuries), although there remained an insistence on the rights of the landowners.

Their debates resulted in the passing of the Metropolitan Commons Act in 1866, an important milestone in the defence of commons, though not an all-perfect solution, as many spaces threw up issues that the Act could not cover.

Secondly, the Wimbledon case led directly to the formation of the Commons Preservation Society in 1865, formalising legal opposition to enclosure on an organisational front. Leading members of the Wimbledon committee and the MPs who formed the 1864 Select Committee were instrumental in this.
More on the early history of the CPS
The CPS was to be at the forefront in the hard graft of protecting commons and greens, and became the Open Spaces Society, which continues today

Although the vast majority of Wimbledon Common was saved for open access of all, a few decades later, a detached area of the Common, Wimbledon Green, became the centre of another dispute over its enclosure…
Meanwhile, other commons nearby soon became the focus of struggles over their future. Wandsworth Common, just a couple of miles away, in a manor also owned by the Spencers, saw a couple of years of bitter battle. If at Wimbledon, the relative poshness of the neighbourhood resulted in a comparatively genteel campaign, the dispute over Wandsworth Common was was hardly confined to ‘villa owners’. A mass campaign among the working class populations of Wandsworth and Battersea sprang up, and the fight involved direct action, sabotage, and arrest.

Today in London’s festive history: traditional day of Charlton Horn Fair, rowdy popular procession & shindig

Charlton Horn Fair was a rowdy bawdy South East London popular procession and fair, said to have originated in a celebration of cuckoldry. 100s of working class men wearing horns, and blowing on the musical horns, would march every 18th of October from Cuckold Point in Bermondsey, through Deptford to Charlton House, then back to Cuckolds Point, Deptford, where the Horn Fair was held for 3 days, outside St Luke’s Church. Like many fairs, the event often became riotous and disorderly, according to contemporary accounts, and descended into heavy drinking, occasional fighting and general debauchery. Respectable folk increasingly saw such occasions – which punctuated the annual calendar, especially between Spring and Autumn – as a threat to public order and morality.

The fair was described by Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, in A tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-1727) as:

“Charleton, a village famous, or rather infamous for the yearly collected rabble of mad-people, at Horn-Fair; the rudeness of which I cannot but think, is such as ought to be suppressed, and indeed in a civiliz’d well govern’d nation, it may well be said to be unsufferable. The mob indeed at that time take all kinds of liberties, and the women are especially impudent for that day; as if it was a day that justify’d the giving themselves a loose to all manner of indecency and immodesty, without any reproach, or without suffering the censure which such behaviour would deserve at another time.”

Woodley, W.; Charlton Horn Fair

What were the origins of the fair? We know that in 1268 King Henry III granted a three-day fair to the Abbey of Bermondsey to be held around Trinity Sunday, which is the eighth Sunday after Easter, that is, around May or June. Bermondsey Abbey owned the manor of Charlton at the time.

Around the seventeenth century the date of the fair was moved to the 18th of October, which is the feast day of St Luke (patron saint of Charlton’s parish church). In medieval pictures Luke is often seen writing or painting, with a horned ox or cow also somewhere in the picture. It is thought that this inspired the displaying of a large pair of horns on a pole to announce the opening of St Luke’s Fair, which may be the origin of the horn motif of the fair.

An old myth used to be trotted out explain slightly older origins of the Fair:

A broadside summonsing people to the Horn Fair

“King John, wearied with hunting on Shooter’s Hill and Blackheath, entered the house of a miller at Charlton to refresh and rest himself. He found no one at home but the miller’s wife, young, it is said, and beautiful. The miller, it so happened, was earlier in coming home than was usual when he went to Greenwich with his meal; and red and raging at what he saw on his return, he drew his knife. The king being unarmed, thought it prudent to make himself known, and the miller, only too happy to think it was no baser individual, asked a boon of the king. The king consented, and the miller was told to clear his eyes, and claim the long strip of land he could see before him on the Charlton side of the river Thames. The miller cleared his eyes, and saw as far as the point near Rotherhithe. The king then admitted the distance, and the miller was put into possession of the property on one condition – that he should walk annually on that day, the 18th of October, to the farthest bounds of the estate with a pair of buck’s horns upon his head.”

This tale is almost certainly pretty much entirely made up – for a start, there is no record of any landowner having possessed all the land mentioned. Also, it was only in the 17th century that the fair was associated with October rather than being held around mid-summer.

But there could be a kernel of historical truth at the heart of this legend…

When the famous Magna Carta was issued to King John, as part of the subsequent editing process, a lesser known Magna Charta de Foresta, or Forest Charter, also emerged a few years later. This secondary document relaxed a large number of laws which made it almost a capital offence to hunt in the forests, which were solely the preserve of the Monarch. The forests and lands belonging to the Monarch had been greatly expanded, causing considerable anger among the populace, so the law also reduced the size of the land controlled by the Monarch, making it more available for common folk to use.

Could the tale about King John granting land to a commoner derive from folk memory of the actual law that his son signed just a few years later? Could the Charlton Horn Fair owe its origins to popular celebrations of the relaxation of forest laws signed by King Henry III? there was considerable rejoicing There were various other Horn Fairs dotted around the country, and a good many of them all seem to date from charters granted during King Henry III’s reign, and certainly the Charlton Horn Fair can be traced back that far as well, although its exact origins are uncertain.

The Horn aspect has been linked by some commentators to earlier pagan traditions, but another aspect of the Magna Charta de Foresta was to reduce the fines on hunting and encourage the reduction of earlier New Forests. The link between the law and hunting could explain the popularity of wearing horns, to show that the commoner has been allowed to hunt freely.

In 1819 the Fair was moved to Fairfields: “The fair was formerly held upon a green opposite the church, and facing Charlton House; but this piece of ground having some years ago been enclosed so as to form part of the gardens belonging to the mansion, the fair was subsequently held in a private field at the other end of the village, under the auspices of a few speculative publicans.” (Old and New London: Volume 6. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.)

The Charlton fair seemed to reach its zenith in popularity during the Restoration period, and flotillas of boats would fill the Thames as they brought revellers down from London to Charlton.

“During the reign of Charles II. it was a carnival of the most unrestrained kind, and those frequenting it from London used to proceed thither in boats, “disguised as kings, queens, millers, &c., with horns on their heads; and men dressed as females, who formed in procession and marched round the church and fair.”” (Old and New London: Volume 6.)

Nicholas Breton, in a poem published in 1612, “Pasquil’s Nightcap, or Antidote for the Headache,” gave an account of the annual gathering, which shows that they were held in great pomp, and with an immense concourse of people, all of whom

“In comely sort their foreheads did adorne
With goodly coronets of hardy horne;”

Breton ends his poem by hinting that the Fair was already seen as a nuisance by some:

“Long time this solemne custome was observ’d,
And Kentish-men with others met to feast;
But latter times are from old fashions swerv’d,
And grown repugnant to this good behest.
For now ungratefull men these meetings scorn,
And thanklesse prove to Fortune and the horn;
For onely now is kept a poor goose fair,
Where none but meaner people doe repaire.”

Many people attended the Fair in fancy dress, cross-dressing being especially popular. William Fuller wrote in 1703: “I remember being there upon Horn Fair day, I was dressed in my landlady’s best gown and other women’s attire, and to Horn Fair we went, and as we were coming back by water, all the clothes were spoilt by dirty water etc. that was flung on us in an inundation, for which I was obliged to present her with two guineas to make atonement for the damage sustained.”

In 1872 Charlton Horn Fair was officially banned, either because of general drunken behaviour, or specifically due to a fight between dockers & army cadets.

A ferris wheel at the Horn Fair, 18th century

“Legal measures are being taken to extinguish the fairs held at Charlton-next-Woolwich and on Blackheath. Charlton Fair, or “Horn Fair,” as it is called, has been held for centuries past on the 18th of October and two following days, under the authority of a charter said to have been granted by King John. It was formerly opened with great ceremony, including the blowing of horns, and hence, probably, its name. For many years past the character of the gathering has greatly degenerated, and it is the last pleasure fair left existing in the metropolitan district. The bulk of the inhabitants have long urged its extinction, and since the passing of the Fair Act, 1871, have memorialised the lord of the manor, Sir John Maryon Wilson, to that end. Sir John has now given his consent to the abolition of the fair, and on Saturday last the justices of the Blackheath division, sitting in petty sessions, resolved that the fair was a nuisance which ought to be abolished, and directed that the Secretary of State should be requested to take the necessary steps for that purpose. At the same time a representation was made with respect to Blackheath Fair, a sort of market held twice a year for the sale of horses, and pigs, and the consent of the “owner,” who is [Lord Darnley,] lord of the manor, having been given, a similar resolution was unanimously passed. It may be taken for granted that the fairs of Charlton and Blackheath have been held for the last time.”Daily News, Jan. 15, 1872. They have since (March, 1872) been officially abolished.

Despite the ban, the Fair was apparently unofficially celebrated in the 1920s.

While the fair itself was restored in the 1970s, the parade from Cuckold’s Point in Rotherhithe was not brought back, until the tradition of the parade was revived in 2009 – the IanVisits blog describes the start.

 

Today in London industrial history, 1969: Punfield & Barstow strike ends

Punfield and Barstow Mouldings was a small firm on the Queensbury Industrial Estate in Northwest London, manufacturing safety helmets, spools for 35mm film, plastic egg trays, tampax containers, and other plastic moulded items.

In June 1969 all 42 Pakistani and Indian workers (from a total work force of about 100) walked out on strike for a wage rise and better working conditions.

Attempts to unionise the factory had previously resulted in sackings, but by the end of February 1969 a majority had become members of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering and Foundry Workers (AEF). The struggle to unionise the workers had been led by its Pakistani and Indian shop-stewards.

The account of the 1969 strike below is reprinted from two issues of Solidarity’s west-London newspaper from 1969.

Punfield-Barstow’s factory was at Basil Works, Westmoreland Road, Queensberry, NW9

—————

The Punfield & Barstow strike

On the small Queensbury (Middlesex) Industrial Estate history is repeating itself.

What is happening in this industrial backwater and others like it happened elsewhere decades ago. This struggle is a classical example of the fight that is still being waged in hundreds of small factories today to achieve better conditions and shop organisation. A feudalistic management is waging a vicious rearguard action against the right of ‘its’ workers to organise in trade unions. This kind of battle is contagious, and for that reason is being watched with particular interest by the non-organised work forces elsewhere on the estate. Several of the companies have made it their practice to employ high percentage of immigrant labour, the estate being readily accessible to the immigrant communities of N.W. London.

It is quite obvious that the example of Injection Moulders’ workers has inspired their next door neighbours, many of whose demands are those of parity. Links between the workers in the two firms are strong. In June of last year Punfield and Barstow sacked one of their workers for collecting money in the machine shop for the Injection Moulders’ Fund Appeal. On June 27 an Injection Moulders’ worker was arrested by the police for ‘breach of the peace’ when a P. and B. scab tried to pick a fight with him.

Together these two struggles have driven a horse and cart through the old tale that immigrant workers will put up with wages and conditions that white workers wouldn’t touch. At P. and B. production continues – the scabs being predominantly white and non-union.

The firm

The firm produces precision plastic mouldings for a variety of customers, the best known being the General Motors subsidiaries Frigidaire (Hendon), A.C. Delco (Dunstable) and Vauxhall (Luton). It also supplies Smiths (Cricklewood Broadway) with plastics dials and clock facings.

Towards the end of ’67, P. and B. was swallowed into the Capseal Group centred on the Greenock Trading Estate in Slough. Mrs. C.E. Punfield and Mrs. R.Barstow resigned from the Board of Directors, their places rapidly being taken by Capseals’ whizz-kids G.A. Lillywhite and F.R. Heath, both of whom collect company directorships like other guys collect beer mats.

Divide and rule

Punfield and Barstow also donates to the National Scheme for disabled men, yet its philanthropic gestures stop short of its own workers. Language difficulties are exploited to the full while cultural differences on the shop floor are also used by the foremen. Preferential treatment of the mainly non-English speaking Italian group has successfully ensured their non-fraternisation with the industrially-experienced Pakistani workers. Press operators of five and six years’ standing are made to wait while setters repair their machines. Promotion to setter, while virtual.ly impossible for a Pakistani trade unionist, is only too easy for other non-union workers. It’s rumoured that one of the Italian group was promoted so quickly from operator that he can’t even start some of the machines he’s meant to repair. With the recent trouble staff status has been conferred on the ‘setters’ to separate them even more rigidly from the rest of the machine shop. The foremen have done a ‘good’ job. The Italian group are under the mistaken impression that they have more in common with the management than with the pickets outside.

This outlook was encouraged by the management’s crude policy of penalising and victimising shop floor activists. Two previous attempts to organise the labour force at Punfield and Barstow ended in a spate of selective sackings. By February of this year, however, the management were forced to change their tactics as a majority of the shop floor had become AEF members. They resorted to petty spite instead. Everything has been tried, from intimidation of shop stewards (the night shift steward has been threatened ‘jokingly’ with the sack three times since February) to restriction of overtime (by as much as ten hours each week) for labourers in the grinding shop who admitted to being union members. On a labourer’s basic rate (6/5d – 6/7d) it’s impossible to exist without overtime. Also since the influx of men into the AEF a fifteen minute allowance for clearing up, washing and changing at the end of the eleven hour shift has been cut. The men now have five minutes to get out of the place.

Machine operators here are also ‘free’ to work a 55 hr. week of five eleven hour shifts. On a basic rate of 6/9d an hour it’s not surprising that they ‘choose’ to do just that.

The pill is sugared by an incentive bonus of 8d per hour. Unfortunately the minimum job rates necessary to earn a bonus are pushed up by the foremen whenever an operator sweats his way up too frequently to the set target. The blatant swindling that is practiced by the weighing clerk in the weighing and recording processes ensures that the bonus payouts are kept to a minimum.

Two recent examples are fairly typical of this creep’s method of operating:
a) a steward, himself weighing the product of his eleven hours’ work, entered a total of 1,772 moulded pieces in the record book, in the presence of the foreman. The following morning his output slip indicated only 1,570 pieces. Not only had his total shrunk by 200 pieces, but his bonus payout for eleven hours’ work was cancelled as the second figure was now below the incentive target.
b) another operator on a fully automated machine produced 35,000 pieces in an eleven hour shift. The weighing clerk entered only 23,000. When approached by the steward he apologised profusely and begged him not to tell anyone about the ‘mistake’. The clerk had only weighed the contents of two instead of three boxes.

Occasionally, the clerk goes to the whole hog and erroneously records an operator’s total eleven hour output as ‘scrap’. Yet these same pieces still go out on the next delivery.

Nineteenth century conditions

In their enthusiasm to increase production the foremen naturally dislike stopping the machines for anything at all. Some time ago this enthusiasm cost a machine operator three finger tips. They were sliced off in a machine with a mechanical fault. Previously the foreman’s attention had been drawn to the fault by the operator in question. He ignored it. Needless to say that the company has still offered no compensation.

In their enthusiasm for economy the management haven’t thought it necessary to supply the men with lockers or workclothes. Roll towels are left up for as long as two days and used by as many as sixty people. When one side is filthy they are turned inside out.

There are no hot meal facilities whatsoever and the night shift can’t even get cold snacks as the works canteen shuts down in the evening. Working eleven hours through the night the lads are expected to get by on cups of tea. In the machine shop itself there are broken windows that have been that way since ’63. The men have blocked them with cardboard, but it’s still freezing cold in the winter.

The machines are never cleaned from one week to another, and the floor is washed once in a blue moon. Oil and muck are left to accumulate. Given time the operators would willingly clean their machines; the management, however, are more interested in production, so the machines gradually get filthier and break down.

First round: the February demands

By February the men had enough. A series of demands were presented to the management, the crucial one being ‘guaranteed bonus for guaranteed production and standing hours’ (in the event of machine breakdown etc.). Other demands covered a wide range of grievances from machine rates, arbitrary sackings, lack of tea breaks and an end to discrimination in basic pay rate – an immigrant ‘powder man’ oiling machines on the day shift gets 6?10d per hour. A man on the night shift doing the same job receives 12/- per hour.

The management ignored the lot, and in a press statement to the Harrow Observer (June 20, 1969) they claimed to have received no official notification of the men’s grievances. This was a blatant lie. The men spent twelve weeks waiting for an answer from management.

Pickets versus scabs: New Queensbury rules

In the four weeks since the walk-out reduced production has continued, the scabs working 15 and 15 hours shifts to please management. Office women have been seen enthusiastically pushing trolleys piled up with sacks of raw powder.

On the picket line the men are in surprisingly high spirits. The London (North) District Committee of the AEF endorsed the action of the men almost immediately. Lorries from I.C.I. Anchor Chemicals and British Rail have respected the picket line and refused to deliver or collect. A running battle with a scab lorry from A.C. Delco division of General Motors (Dunstable) was won last Friday (July 4) after a windscreen wiper was pulled off in a scuffle when the police encouraged the driver to go through the picket line.

Since then P. and B.’s only large lorry has been knocked out – the windscreen mysteriously smashed altogether. teams of strikers together with workers and students from ‘Solidarity’ have leafleted the estate and support has been given by Poster Workshop, who produced a poster especially for the strike. ‘International Socialism’ and ‘Tricontinental’. Workers from both Injection Moulders and Rotoprint have been very sympathetic.

Bosses begin to wobble

Last Monday July 7) the Engineering Employers Federation met with the AEF divisional officials Elliot and McLoughlin and threw out some concessions to see if the lads would bite. They offered to raise the operators’ basic rate by 3d per hour to a magnificent 7/- together with a guaranteed bonus of 3/6d on the condition that three eight hour shifts be implemented in place of the two eleven hour ones previously operating.

However the men have been out too long now to go back on anything less than their terms. They have been demanding a basic rate of 8/- for operators and 10/6 for labourers (the latter being outside of the bonus system). They also wanted the reassessment of all machine rates as soon as possible in the presence of the shop steward and a management representative. Until such time as this is implemented they are demanding a temporary standard bonus for all operators. Finally they are demanding that all machine shop workers (and this includes setters and foremen) be limited to eight hour shifts.

It is quite obvious that no mater how long it takes these men are going to win, and when they do things will never be the same again inside Punfield and Barstow. Lambert, the managing director, expected them to crawl back after a few days to eat dirt again. He was so sure of himself that he sent each of them a letter inviting them to come back to work.

It’s no thanks to the National Executive of the AEF that this didn’t happen; and the men know it too. They now realise that their strength lies ultimately in their own determination and solidarity one with another. It has taken the National Executive of the AEF almost four weeks to recognise this strike, during which time the men have received no money from the union other than raised by the London (North) District Committee which has supported them all the way.

The strike at Punfields, one of the longest in local history, finished after fifteen weeks on September 12th 1969. Throughout the summer and autumn forty-two Indian and Pakistani workers fought police, scabs management, and some of their full-time union officials for the right to control their own destinies at work. This article, based on interviews with men involved, examines the part played by both the police and the union bureaucracy (AEF); dealing in particular with the attitude of the second to the initiatives taken by the strike committee during the strike. It then goes on to look at the power struggle now being waged on the shop floor, and finally weighs the gains made to date since June when the men were provoked out on strike.

Background to the strike

It was sparked off on the evening of June 11th when the management used police to evict the night shift for beginning a sitdown protest. They were merely following the example of the day shift who had sat in on the shop floor in retaliation for the arbitrary sacking of a press operator. Many other grievances had piled up concerning low wages, bad working conditions, extremely long shifts and the victimization of shop stewards and those known to be trade union members. Demands presented to the management in February had been subsequently ignored. The men saw the sacking as the last straw. The day following the police eviction brought the organized section (mainly press operators) out to a man.

The picket-line struggle

At 6.30 a.m. pickets would begin arriving for duty. At 6.55 a.m. the police would arrive for duty. This was repeated each day for fifteen weeks. For seven weeks the men stuck it out without strike pay, on their own resources – incidents with the management, and the predominantly white workers still inside, occurred daily. One morning in a clash before the police arrived a setter pulled a knife on the night shift shop steward. On a separate occasion a picket narrowly missed being nutted by an electrician waving a piece of lead piping. On the credit side the pickets came off decidedly better in the fist fights that occurred with the junior management.

Beyond the call of duty

Fro, the start the police played a blatantly political role, in spite of their assurances that they had no intentions of taking sides. To them the management were somehow more respectable because of their easy identification with the company’s property. Consequently the pickets were looked on as criminals and treated as such whenever the police thought they could get away with it. It was not long before the pickets came to realise that police and company were on the same side, against them.

Lorry drivers were encouraged to go straight through the picket line and the police set time limits for stewards attempting to persuade drivers to turn round to prevent them getting to a driver’s cab. Two strikers talking together on a little-used pavement would be threatened with arrest for obstruction, while scab lorries unloaded on the road without the police batting an eyelid. Offences committed by pickets were jumped on with commendable zeal. Those committed by scabs were usually ignored.

In the fifteen weeks, fifteen arrests were made, only one involving a non-striker. On September 8th Inspectors from Wembley police station, impatient to wrap up the strike, dropped in to chat with management. Two days later, police under the direction of an inspector arrested ten pickets for blocking the firm’s lorry by sitting down. In collaboration with the management, the police were continuously operating to weaken the strike.

The role of the union

Throughout the strike AEF officialdom’s attitude to initiatives taken by the strike committee remained ambiguous. The divisional level was more interested in getting the men back inside to negotiate “on their behalf” than in supporting the pickets by blacking incoming raw powder and outgoing components. In the early days officials at district level were obviously counting on a quick kill. So in late June there was an official demonstration. Officialdom marched at the head of the workers column once round Queensbury circle and duly got its face on the local press. The ‘demo’ ended with a chest-thumping rally, numerous pledges of solidarity and threats to close the factory down. Men from several factories came out to hear speech after speech from the full-time officials. The pickets came a poor last, the Punfield’s convenor only getting the megaphone when the big men had exhausted themselves.

By September it was a different story. The management, feeling the growing pain of disappearing business, gave significant concessions for the majority of the men but still refused on final points. The men resolved to struggle two weeks longer for the additional demands in the face of increased difficulties. The pickets were being pressed more harshly by police and free enterprise lorry drivers who specialised in picket-crashing. The union after fourteen weeks still hadn’t blacked the goods. On Friday, September 5th, the strike committee held their own demonstration. The megaphone passed from picket to picket and the union bureaucracy was attacked for its continued inaction. Not surprisingly no full-time officials were able to make it to the demonstration. Up to this time deputations of strikers had careered around the Home Counties by car distributing a list of components made at Punfield’s and requesting informal blacking at the relevant factories. Luton district AEF offices were telephoned early on in the strike in an attempt to get the workers at AC Delco’s of Dunstable to refuse to handle components from Punfield’s. Late in August the General and Municipal Workers Union convenor at Delco’s was still assuring the strikers that he’d black incoming components as soon as he got the word from above. It never came. A picket deputation to the offices of the AEU General Secretary Brother Conway was blocked by his secretary. The local branch telegrammed Conway requesting blacking from the National Executive in support of the strikers.

While this was going on the General Purpose Committee met the strike committee on two separate occasions. Both times it attempted to persuade the men back inside and let the negotiation be done by the full-time officials and the Engineering Employers Federation.

Towards the middle of September the men were talking in terms of breaking off relations with the union. They were attempting to make their last two weeks the most militant. All but four labourers had won the major part of their demands on pay and hours; these four were being told by both the company and all of the union officials to accept far less pay and longer hours than the others. Deciding to stay solid and continue the struggle for another two weeks, the men experienced repeated obstructions from the officials, the most blatant they had seen yet.

Divisional organiser talks tough

On Thursday 11th September, the day of the mass arrest, a deputation of shop stewards from the neighbouring factories of Rotoprint and Injection Moulders joined the strike committee and turned up at divisional organiser McLoughlin’s city office demanding to know what the hell was going on. They were more or less told they had no right to stick their noses in, and then in complete contradiction were accused of taking a long time to act for parties supposedly interested in the outcome of the strike. Understandably the stewards left Mac’s office angry and pissed off. The strike committee themselves were told that the Executive had been asked to declare total blacking and had not responded. McLoughlin either could not or would not explain his behaviour. He pointed out that the pickets were also prolonging the strike by their inability to cut supplies and close the factory down. This was said even though the strike committee had received a letter, in response to a request for union help with picket expenses, suggesting that the picket line be cut down to economise. “Heads I win, tails you lose”?
The following day a pub meeting was held in Kingsbury called by the divisional organiser. At the beginning he refused entry to shop stewards from Rotoprint and Injection Moulders. In his speech he insisted the strikers return to work to struggle from inside. Had there been any intention to stay out longer, it was clear which side he would have been on.

Bureaucratic in-fighting?

Why the National Executive of the AEF didn’t declare blacking remains a mystery. The most likely answer is that it would have immediately brought them under pressure from the TUC General Council to get the men back inside. Quite obviously the men would have rejected such a suggestion. The easiest solution might have been to ignore the request for blacking and so slowly throttle the strikers while evading their questions. One informed steward of the local branch mentioned that some infighting bureaucrats foresaw delays discrediting an ideologically-antagonistic incumbent in up-coming union elections. However this is only a surmise. Whatever the motives, the rank-and-file trade unionists at Punfield’s will never know them. The whole episode is a supreme example of bureaucratic attitudes of the officials sabotaging needs of the workers. Not only were the strikers not helped bu the full-time officials, they weren’t even considered worthy of an adequate explanation.

For the future

From this mess some obvious conclusions can be drawn. With regard to blacking there is a crying need for the extension of rank-and-file contacts between related factories. This was proven by Frigidaire’s at Hendon where informal blacking was total after a deputation of shop stewards came down to the picket line and talked with strike committee following information received from the local branch.
The Queensbury estate already has been the nucleus of a joint shop stewards committee in the three-factory deputation that visited Brother McLoughlin. Such link-ups ought to be encouraged if rank-and-file workers are ever to begin managing their own lives in future. The relationships with the full-time officials during the fifteen weeks out on strike makes the point crystal clear: to wait cap in hand on the deliberations of union bureaucracy is to invite defeat, demoralisation and the risk of being used as a political football. If there are to be workers’ victories only rank-and-file initiatives and rank-and-file militancy can ensure them.

Can Punfield’s afford its junior management?

The men returned to work on the 22nd of September. Since that time the shop floor has been the scene of a power struggle between organised workers and the junior management. Basically the petty hierarchy are finding it hard to adjust to the idea of any opposition on the shop floor. The strength of the rank-and-file is being continually provoked, the stakes in the game being the non-organised workers.
Already several women from the finishing shop have joined the union while others in the machine and grinding shops, fed up with being pushed about are waiting to see who comes out top dog. Fearing that coloured workers would automatically join the organised section, the management have virtually stopped taking them on. Newcomers to the factory now are usually ‘safe’ whites, friends of friends of the junior management. Since the return to work one foreman in particular has been intent on provoking the shop convenor into staging a walkout. He deserves special mention.

Derek “The grin”

Some time back Derek ordered the shop convenor to leave his machine and do some grinding. Previously shop committee and management had agreed that union press operators would be called from their machines for grinding only when non-union people were unavailable. Arguing that at the time several non-union men were available, the convenor refused and accused the foreman of making trouble. With this he was clocked out and ordered home. The watching workers wanted an immediate walkout. Derek, grinning at the shop convenor, repeated several times, “You haven’t got the courage.” Not rising to the bait the convenor went home.
Arriving the following morning he demanded to see the works manager, related the incident and underlined the point that he had intentionally prevented a walkout. In return he demanded an end to all arbitrary suspension in the future. The works manager conceded the point and Derek spent an uncomfortable couple of hours standing up for a dressing down in the office with the shop steward present, and sitting down.
The question the works manager and director are beginning to ask themselves is whether they can afford the luxury of such a disruptive underling. Although it took a strike to do it, both now realise that the company remains in business by grace of the press operators and not the foremen.

Then and now

Before the strike, press operators earned a basic 6/9 per hour and the chance of pitting themselves against management-imposed job rates for an incentive bonus of 8d. per hour which was frequently denied on numerous technicalities and fiddles. At the end of a 55 hour week of five eleven hour shifts they took home £23 on average. In September as part of the return to work agreement the management offered to up the basic rate to 7s3d per hour and link it with a potential bonus of 3/6d per hour to come into practice after the mutual re-assessment of all job rates.
While re-assessment was taking place management offered he men a flat rate of 12/- if they combined grinding with their normal work. They agreed. By the end of October the job rates had still not been re-assessed. The shop committee delivered an ultimatum and the following day the management agreed to drop the re-assessment entirely and offered the operators the flat 12/- per hour as the permanent wage wile leaving grinding to non-union workers.
The eleven hour double shift system has now been replaced by three eight hour shifts. In June the men worked 55 hours for £23. Today they work a 37.5 hour week for £24-15-0d. Before the strike operators allowed themselves to be used as makeshift labourers. Today they are no longer prepared to be taken off their machines. Victimisation, arbitrary suspension, and on-the-spot sacking, while prevalent before June 1969, are now almost things of the past.
At present the management are resisting attempts by AEF officialdom to draw the setters into the three shift system. However it will only be a matter of time before the setters realise that working 55 hours a week for the management is a mugs game when the organised workers work 37.5 hours.
While the struggle for the shop floor power is by no means over, it is quite obvious that valuable gains have been made. Less obvious is the fact that these gains are the direct result of the Pakistani and Indian workers’ determination to begin acting for themselves. management never give anything away, it has to be taken. It is a lesson that workers in this country, black and white, are beginning to realise.

(West-London Solidarity no2, December 1969)

Note: the AEF merged with other unions and renamed itself the AUEW in 1971.

Nicked from the excellent Angry Workers

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There was also a later strike here, in May-June 1974

120 AUEW members, mainly Pakistani, occupied the factory over loss of wages due to the three-day week. After 3 days they left the factory for the weekend. They were locked out on Monday morning. There was no money from the union for 6 weeks, nor did the union try to help them get social security payments (which they didn’t receive).

The union District Committee did not organise pickets of financial support. Workers re-occupied the factory once, but promised support from District Committee did not arrive. This attempt collapsed after half a day due to police harassment.

After 8 weeks union officials accepted the management position that the factory was closed down and all the strikers lost their jobs. Union officials told them to apply to the Industrial Tribunal for compensation for unfair dismissal. Very few got compensation.