Today in London radical history: GH Baskomb encloses Chiselhurst Common, 1876

G H Baskomb was the owner of a windmill built in 1796 on common land on Chiselhurst Common, now Southeast London (though on the northern edge of Kent then).

There are three main areas of Chiselhurst common: by the parish church, the area around the cricket ground and Mill Place; and the largest section which begins in the east by Camden Place and continues between Prince Imperial Road and Bromley Road, across Centre Common Road as far as, and just beyond, Kemnal Road. This last part of the Commons extends down to the High Street: St Pauls Cray Commons lies to the south east of Chislehurst straddling the road to Orpington.

This land was owned originally by the Crown, and later by the Scadbury, Walsingham and Townsend families, who lived at Scadbury and Frognal and held the position of Lord of the Manor. Before the years of development following the arrival of the railways the Commons were regarded as open to the villagers and available for them to use for grazing of their livestock.  Once building started here in earnest, the land became valuable.  Huge swathes of common land in other parts of England were sold off as part of the enclosures, and here in Chislehurst, the Commons were in danger of being ruined by excavations of valuable road building material, and the cutting of turf. But due to the valiant efforts of local residents, the Chislehurst and St Paul’s Cray Commons were saved for public use with the passing of the Metropolitan Commons Supplemental Act in 1888.

On 20 May 1876, Baskomb, proprietor of a brick and tile works and par-owners of the famous Chiselhurst caves. ordered the pulling down of the windmill, and fenced off the land to sell off for building on. But locals, accustomed to wandering on the common at will, kept pulling the fence down at night, repeating the sabotage every time he put it up. A public meeting threatened legal action against him… Baskomb eventually backed down, and a process began to protect the common for future generations.

Many commons were saved from enclosure, encroachment and development by a variety of efforts – some legal, some illegal. The Metropolitan Commons Act of 1866 was passed in order to assign management responsibilities to boards of conservators and facilitate the control of digging for gravel, and other forms of damage. This Act did not apply directly to Chiselhurst and St Pauls Cray Commons, and so a group of prominent residents formed the Chislehurst and St Paul’s Cray Commons Preservation Society and finally achieved the passage of the Metropolitan Commons (Chislehurst and St Paul’s Cray) Supplemental Act in 1888. It is this Act, together with its attached scheme of management, which continues to regulate the management of the Commons. Although the Commons are in private ownership, under the terms of the 1888 Act, responsibility for their management, in perpetuity, resides with a Board of Conservators, now known as the Trustees of the Commons. Under the 1888 Act the Trustees are empowered to make Bye-Laws to protect the Commons. The authority of the Trustees has been further strengthened by the Commons Act, 2006.

Interestingly, in the 1890s, neighbouring landowner, William Willett, (famed as the originator of putting the clocks forward for British Summer Time!) tried to enclose nearby Camden Park. Again locals defeated the idea, finding evidence to prove that custom had established common rights there, enough to persuade a court that it should remain open. Willett’s plan was to build over the whole of the Camden Park Estate. In the end only Camden Park Road and The Wilderness were developed and the Park was maintained as a golf course. Ironically in 1920 an attempt by the owners of nearby Petts Wood to sell the wood was prevented by a campaign organised by locals, who wanted it preserved as a monument to Willett! Not remembering, perhaps, that he was an encloser…

Some local history of the area

More on South London struggles to defend open space against enclosure and development

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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