Today in London radical history: locals burn fences in opposition to proposed enclosure, West End Green, 1882.

“Great discontent has not unnaturally been aroused at Hampstead in consequence of the enclosure of so many of its historic village-greens, which, one by one, have disappeared of late years, and are now either built upon by enterprising speculators, or converted into private gardens. West-end green, which is almost the last of these popular spots that had up to the present escaped the progress of annexation, was taken possession of by somebody or other a few days ago and enclosed with a fence.” (The Tablet, 29 July 1882)

“West End Green presents yet a sylvan or at least a somewhat rural aspect, and the wooded slopes of the old town of Hampstead, form a pleasant prospect as viewed from the spacious streets and well-planned dwellings of the more modern portions of Kilburn.”

This late nineteenth century description of West End Green in West Hampstead was out of date almost as soon as it was written (in 1889) – development was paving over the wooded slopes, demand for housing in the capital was high, and there was a lot of money to be made. Hampstead Heath had been saved from development by a long campaign to preserve it as an open space. The 1889 writer fails also to mention that West End Green very nearly lost its sylvan aspect: in 1882, the Green came close to vanishing under yet more suburban housing.

By 1870, conditions for speculative developers were generally favourable. The death of the Lord of the manor Thomas Maryon Wilson the year before had removed a legal restraint on issuing of long leases, and legal changes had made it easier for ‘copyhold’ tenants to enfranchise themselves (turn their basically feudal tenancy, rights and obligations into a modern ownership of land).

In West Hampstead (then known as West End), West End Green and Fortune Green (much larger then than the strip of land that now remains), were the remnant of the wastes’ of the manor. Subject to enough being available for copyholders to dig turf, pasture animals etc, the Lord had the right to grant waste to particular copyholders.

In 1870, Henry Dunnett, a copyholder (and bailiff of the Lord of the Manor) who had been granted to pieces of waste in Fortune Green, sold one piece to John Culverhouse, a general contractor and speculator. Culverhouse had also acquired the copyhold over West End Green, and had been granted the right by the Manor Court to enclose it in 1871; land which he ‘enfranchised’ in 1873. Two years later, intending to sell the land for building, Culverhouse had wooden hoardings set up around it but the local people pulled them down and burnt them.

A debate followed in the local vestry about whether to buy the land for the public, but a price couldn’t be agreed on. In February 1882, unwilling to sell for the price offered by the vestry, Culverhouse sold the land to a Mr Francis T. Fowle, a builder from Shepherds Bush. Fowle set up a much stronger hoarding in 26th June 1882, and began to strip the turf. The builder had reckoned without the popularity of the Green and the strength of local opposition; many residents were against it.

Very early In July, a hut on the green occupied by a watchman standing security over the land was set on fire. The next night a public meeting in a nearby church resolved to oppose the loss of the green, though there were some debates about what form action should take, with one resolute opponent of the enclosure, Captain Notman, urging non-violence: “They were not in Ireland, and it was not worthy of Englishmen to set fire to a man’s hoarding”. There were howls of laughter in response, but some applause was mixed with shouts of “Down With it!” When the meeting broke up, a crowd marched to the Green, and it looked like direct action was on the cards, but Nathaniel Sherry, who lived opposite the Green and had been elected Secretary of the association opposing he enclosure, persuaded those present to ‘abstain from violence’… the crowd dispersed.

However, this respite was only for a few days.

On 17th July 1882, “the habitually law-abiding inhabitants of Hampstead”, assembled on a wet Monday night “to the number of 2,000, armed with axes, crowbars [and a two-gallon oil drum, ed.], demolished the hoarding, and triumphantly consumed the debris in a gigantic bonfire.”

That the crowd had formed from several groups who had converged on the Green from different directions points to a pre-arranged plan, with clever tactics designed to fool both the police and the liberal opponents of enclosure who couldn’t countenance direct action. A solitary policeman on duty, PC Splaine, was caught by surprise; he did arrest several men, who gave him their names and addresses, but he then had to release them, being on his own. That they allowed themselves to be nicked and gave their names suggests the men felt their actions to e in the right, and confident of their legal position. As it turned out, they were justified in this confidence.

The blaze of the burning boards soared high, despite the heavy rain, and was cheered by a crowd of 2000. The voluntary fire brigade couldn’t put out the flames, even when assisted by a large body of police from S Division who turned up, eventually dispersing the crowd by midnight.

When the eight arrestees were hauled up in Hampstead Police Court, they were rapidly acquitted of any charges. The whole episode was a complete victory for the locals.

The hoardings were never re-erected. Eventually the local Vestry (the equivalent of the Council), bought the land in 1885 and re-opened it as a public space. Ten years later they also acquired nearby Fortune Green as an open space, following more local protests when it too was threatened with development (again by John Culverhouse).

Battles against enclosure often had this dual character: a respectable law-abiding opposition and more direct wing, willing to take illegal action. In reality, the complementary activities of these two sides, though sometimes antagonistic, both combined to effect the victory all desired – keeping or winning land for public use. On more than one occasion, these seemingly disparate elements in fact worked together. A useful lesson.

Much of the information herein was obtained from ‘The Fight for Fortune Green’, in Camden History Review, no 10, by Dick Weindling

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

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