Today in history: public launch of the Commons Preservation Society, 1866.

Yesterday we recounted here how the 1235 Statute of Merton established a legal basis for the enclosure of common land and ‘waste’ by lords of the manor.

Over the succeeding centuries, enclosure would enrich the landowning classes, but exclude the vast majority of local residents from access to the commons and use of its resources – which were often vital to subsistence and survival for many. This process gathered pace in the 16th century and especially accelerated in the 18th. Huge social change accompanied this expropriation, with many people forced into poverty and destitution, others reduced to no means of survival but selling their labour for a wage. Growing cities were swelled by people looking for work who the increasingly enclosed countryside could no longer accommodate.

At no point in this process was this vast upheaval enacted on a passive population. Resistance was constant, since enclosure threatened livelihoods, as well as breaking long-established customs and traditional elements of people’s way of life, some of which had become elevated almost to a ritual significance. Even before enclosure became noticeable, conflict over uses of land and access to its resources was almost a daily occurrence, as landowners and labourers, villages and others struggled to gain larger share of the pie. Conflicts between neighbouring parishes over shared commons was also not unusual (this squabbling increased over the years as enclosure hit parishes hard).

Opposition to enclosure took many forms – petitioning, legal challenges in court, collective or individual destruction of fences, ditches and gates which had been erected to keep people out; driving animals back onto land where grazing rights had been reduced; marches and demonstrations, riots, and outright armed rebellions.

Until the 19th century, the conflict was largely centred around subsistence – enclosure threatened people’s livings. As the industrial revolution began to transform Britain, factory work, based mainly around cities, was coming to replace agricultural work for what was soon to become a majority of the population. Large sprawling cities grew ever in size, swallowing up countryside, and economic growth and revolutions in transport saw suburbs extending for miles… While people were no longer reliant on open land for survival, access to open space for recreation began to be a vital issue. And in massive overcrowded cities, any parks and commons came to be seen as important ‘lungs’, a breathing space, almost a safety valve to relieve the density.

Many of the great and good of liberal British society started to worry about the loss of green space, especially in London and the big cities. Matters came to a head after the struggle to preserve Wimbledon Common from being sold for development by Lord Spencer (probably the largest landowner in South London, ancestor of Princess Di, from a family of noted enclosers). Spencer’s proposal to sell off part of the Common and make some of the remainder into a park was opposed a by a local committee, who eventually forced his Lordship to sell the common, so it could be re-opened as public land.

Threats to Wimbledon Common, Epping Forest and other commons were to push Parliament into action, and lead to the creation of the Commons Preservation Society.

The immediate catalyst for the founding of the Society was the establishment of a parliamentary committee in 1865 to investigate the possibility of preserving commons in and around London from enclosure. The committee examined the condition of Hampstead Heath, Blackheath, and commons at barnes, Wandsworth, Tooting, Epsom, Banstead and Hackney, and proposed to amend the law to restrict the headlong rush to enclose open land. Having attempted to persuade the committee that all common rights had lapsed on their lands, and fearing legal changes would prevent them from continuing to fence off and sell off their lands, lords of the manor began to rush to get it enclosed before the committee could change the law.

In response George Shaw-Lefevre (later Lord Eversley), a Liberal MP and later minister, called a meeting, which founded the Commons Preservation Society in 1865. The aim of the society was to save London commons for the enjoyment and recreation of the public. Its committee members included such important figures as Octavia Hill, the social reformer, Sir Robert Hunter, solicitor and later co-founder of the National Trust, Professor Huxley, and the MPs, Sir Charles Dilke and James Bryce. Most of the society’s members initially came from the south east, so their interests focused first of all on London.

The CPS’s tactics were very much generally focussed on a respectable and legal approach; they recruited notable liberal reforming figures, identifying local ‘commoners’ where a common was under threat, who could go to court to defend a case. However, strategy and decision making were in the main taken centrally under direction of the Society’s lawyers.

Overwhelmingly the CPS worked in the arena of legal challenges and propaganda, targeted at ‘the right people’. However, they recognised that this was not the only tactic; not only working in tandem with local groups fighting enclosures in other ways, but also, when they felt the law was on their side, even sponsoring direct action themselves. This can be seen in the defence of Berkhamstead Common, Hertfordshire, in 1866, when the Society in alliance with two Berkhamstead Commoners, hired 120 navvies to demolish railings erected to enclose 434 acres by Lord Brownlow.

The combination of the CPS and the Parliamentary committee led to the passing of the 1866 Metropolitan Commons Act, which protected and regulated land in London that could be shown to have been the focus of common rights in the past, whether or not the lord of the manor agreed. This restricted the impetus for enclosure, and was effective in spurring many large landowners to decide to sell land to public bodies instead of enclosing and developing it.

While the CPS’s role in the preservation of vast tracts of open space in undoubted, there was other movements at work, creating pressures which added to the Society’s success. Revivals in radical movements in the later part of the 19th century, saw an increased interest in land – who owned it, how did they get to own it; discussing land reform, redistribution and the effects of enclosure. Radicals, Chartists, secularists, socialists – many from these movements felt that the question of land ownership was a crucial one, and their involvement in struggles over particular open spaces was visible. For instance, radicals were able to gather thousands to take part in riots which destroyed railings around Hyde Park in 1855 and 1866, and local working class meetings formed a part in a number of the fights to preserve spaces like Wandsworth Common and Plumstead Common in the 1870s, both of which involved large-scale direct action and rioting. To some extent individuals in the Commons Preservation Society felt that considered legal activity to preserve commons was necessary partly because more unruly grassroots movements might become more riotous if legal avenues were denied them. Figures like Octavia Hill, a CPS stalwart, also involved in housing reform which helped kickstart social housing, saw such measures as not only good works in themselves, but also necessary to prevent more fundamental – and possibly violent – action from below.

The CPS was never likely to challenge the nature of land ownership, much as it has always worked for legislation to protect open space and people’s access to it. More radical positions have always existed, and been put into practice in land squats, occupations, trespasses… But the CPS always did the boring work that more fiery minds sometimes didn’t have the patience for…

This isn’t to devalue the work of the CPS, but to place it in context and realistically assess the limitations of reform. Landowners who sold land to public bodies were fantastically compensated, and almost all remained large-scale landowners and landlords, and stayed rich. The control of the class who owned the land over the political life of the nation may be less than in 1865, but they still hold a massive influence; though now much of it is through seats on quangos and farming and forestry boards…

The Commons Preservation Society continued to do good works, amalgamating with the National Footpaths Society in 1899, adopting the title Commons Open Spaces and Footpath Preservation Society. The society promoted important pieces of legislation, including the Commons Acts of 1876 and 1899, and was crucial in getting many commons registered in the last 50 years. Today, its principal task is advising local authorities, Commons committees, voluntary bodies, and the general public on the appropriation of commons and other open spaces. It also scrutinises applications that affect public rights of way. Their name was changed to the Open Spaces Society in the 1980s.

Check out the Open Spaces Society website.

One campaign the OSS have launched recently is Find Our Way. On 1 January 2026—not ten years away—the official (definitive) maps will be closed against the addition of paths claimed on the basis of historic evidence.

The process which path workers all over England and Wales have used since the first definitive maps appeared in the 1950s, and which has steadily extended our freedoms everywhere, will become a dead letter. The ancient legal maxim on which so many claimants have relied, ‘once a highway always a highway’, will be shattered. Unrecorded paths, even if they are still in use, could and often will be lost for ever. It’d down to all of us to help keep them open…

For more on open space, enclosure, and resistance, in the London area… see some of past tense’s previous work:

Stealing the Commons

Down With the Fences

Kennington Park

Rights of Common

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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