Jan 2nd, advance warning: An unlucky day to work (or do anything), according to the anglo-saxons.

Medieval anglo-saxons thought January 2nd an unlucky day to do any work.

However, it is likely because they thought Jan 2nd was the unluckiest day of the year, full stop. If you were born on Jan 2nd you were thought to be destined for an early and unpleasant death.

So the idea of it being bad luck to go to work on January 2nd was more of an ‘anything you try to do today will not work out’ thing…

Fair enough – we agree. After any kind of a seasonal break, the whole idea of going back to work only the day after New Year’s Day is basically obscene.

Presumably this was even more the case in medieval times, when getting up for work meant something earlier and more of a grind. January 2nd is even more unpleasant if work means rising at four am to carry out a finger-numbing agricultural task in deep snow.

Work is generally a pain at the best of times, but today your brain is almost guaranteed to be somewhere else. The separation of brain and body in this way can only lead to disaster.

Best off to just stay in a warm bed.

Preferably with company.

And a bottle of gin.


Chambers Book of Days set out some of the history of unlucky or evil days, which is worth a read:


That peculiar phase of superstition which has regard to lucky or unlucky, good or evil days, is to be found in all ages and climes, wherever the mystery-man of a tribe, or the sacerdotal caste of a nation, has acquired rule or authority over the minds of the people.

All over the East, among the populations of antiquity, are to be found traces of this almost universal worship of luck. It is one form of that culture of the beneficent and the maleficent principles, which marks the belief in good and evil, as an antagonistic duality of gods. From ancient Egypt the evil or unlucky days have received the name of “Egyptian days.’ Nor is it only in pagan, but in Christian times, that this superstition has held its potent sway. No season of year, no month, no week, is free from those untoward days on which it is dangerous, if not fatal, to begin any enterprise, work, or travel.

They begin with New-Year’s Day, and they only end with the last day of December. Passing over the heathen augurs, who predicted fortunate days for sacrifice or trade, wedding or war, let us see what our Anglo-Saxon forefathers believed in this matter of days. A Saxon MS. (Cott. MS. Vitell, C. viii. fo. 20) gives the following account of these Dies Mali – “Three days there are in the year, which we call Egyptian days; that is, in our language, dangerous days, on any occasion whatever, to the blood of man or beast. In the month which we call April, the last Monday; and then is the second, at the coming in of the month we call August; then is the third, which is the first Monday of the going out of the month of December. He who on these three days reduces blood, be it of man, be it of beast, this we have heard say, that speedily on the first or seventh day, his life he will end. Or if his life be longer, so that he come not to the seventh day, or if he drink some time in these three days, he will end his life; and he that tastes of goose-flesh, within forty days’ space his life he will end.’

In the ancient Exeter Kalendar, a MS. said to be of the age of Henry II, the first or Kalends of January is set down as ‘Dies Mala.’

These Saxon Kalendars give us a total of about 24 evil days in the 365; or about one such in every fifteen. But the superstition ‘lengthened its cords and strengthened its stakes; ‘it seems to have been felt or feared that the black days had but too small a hold on their regarders; so they were multiplied.

‘Astronomers say that six days of the year are perilous of death; and therefore they forbid men to let blood on them, or take any drink; that is to say, January 3rd, July 1st, October 2nd, the last of April, August 1st, the last day going out of December. These six days with great diligence ought to be kept, but namely [mainly?] the latter three, for all the veins are then full. For then, whether man or beast be knit in them within 7 days, or certainly within 14 days, he shall die. And if they take any drinks within 15 days, they shall die; and if they eat any goose in these 3 days, within 40 days they shall die; and if any child be born in these 3 latter days, they shall die a wicked death. Astronomers and astrologers say that in the beginning of March, the seventh night, or the fourteenth day, let the blood of the right arm; and iii the beginning of April, the 11th day, of the left arm; and in the end of May, 3rd or 5th (lay, on whether arm thou wilt; and thus, of all the year, thou shalt orderly be kept from the fever, the falling gout, the sister gout, and loss of thy sight.’ Book of Knowledge, b. 1. p. 19.

Those who may be inclined to pursue this subject more fully, will find an essay on ‘Day-Fatality,’ in John. Aubrey’s Miscellanies, in which he notes the days lucky and unlucky, of the Jews, Greeks, Romans, and of various distinguished individuals of later times.

In a comparatively modern MS. Kalendar, of the time of Henry VI, in the writer’s possession, one page of vellum is filled with the following, of which we modernise the spelling:

These underwritten be the perilous day’s, for to take any sickness in, or to be hurt in, or to be wedded in, or to take any journey upon, or to begin any work on, that he would well speed. The number of these days be in the year 32; they be these:

  • In January there be 7: 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 7th, 10th, and 15th.
  • In February be 3: 6th, 7th, and 18th.
  • In March be 3: 1st, 6th, and 8th.
  • In April be 2: 6th and 11th.
  • In May be 3: 5th, 6th, and 7th.
  • In June be 2: 7th and 15th.
  • In July be 2: 5th and 19th.
  • In August be 2: 15th and 19th.
  • In September be 2: 6th and 7th.
  • In October is 1: 6th.
  • In November be 2: 15th and 16th.
  • in December be 3: 15th, 16th, and 17th

The copyist of this dread list of evil days, while apparently giving the superstition a qualified credence, manifests a higher and nobler faith, lifting his aspiration above days and seasons; for he has appended to the catalogue, in a bold firm hand of the time ‘Sed tamen in Domino confide.’ (But, notwithstanding, I will trust in the Lord.) Neither in this Kalendar, nor in another of the same owner, prefixed to a small MS. volume containing a copy of Magna Charta, &c., is there inserted in the body of the Kalendar anything to denote a ‘Dies Mala.’

After the Reformation, the old evil days appear to have abated much of the ancient malevolent influences, and to have left behind them only a general superstition against fishermen setting out to fish, or seamen to take a voyage, or landsmen a journey, or domestic servants to enter on a new place–on a Friday. In many country districts, especially in the north of England, no weddings take place on Friday, from this cause. According to a rhyming proverb, ‘Friday’s moon, come when it will, comes too soon.’ Sir Thomas Overbury, in his charming sketch of a milkmaid, says. ‘Her dreams are so chaste, that she dare tell them; only a Friday’s dream is all her superstition; and she consents for fear of anger.’ Erasmus dwells on the ‘extraordinary inconsistency’ of the English of his day, in eating flesh in Lent, yet holding it a heinous offence to eat any on a Friday out of Lent.

The Friday superstitions cannot be wholly explained by the fact that it was ordained to be hold as a fast by the Christians of Rome. Some portion of its maleficent character is probably clue to the character of the Scandinavian Venus Freya, the wife of Odin, and goddess of fecundity But we are met on the other hand by the fact that amongst the Brahmins of India a like superstitious aversion to Friday prevails. They say that ‘on this day no business must be commenced.’ And herein is the fate foreshadowed of any antiquary who seeks to trace one of our still lingering superstitions to its source. Like the bewildered traveller at the cross roads, he knows not which to take. One leads him into the ancient Teuton forests; a second amongst the wilds of Scandinavia; a third to papal, and thence to pagan Rome; and a fourth carries him to the far east, and there he is left with the conviction that much of what is old and quaint and strange among its, of the superstitious relics of our fore-elders, has its root deep in the soil of one of the ancient homes of the race.”


An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Follow past tense on twitter


Today in London’s dole history: Belmont workhouse inmates riot, Sutton, 1910.

The origins of the workhouse in Britain come from attempts to restrict the rights, wages and mobility of the labouring classes and the poor, and this remained the ultimate aim of the workhouse system.

The original Poor Law Act of 1388 was one in a succession of Acts of parliament attempting to address the labour shortages following the Black Death in England by restricting the movement of labourers. A by-product of this was that local parishes and eventually the local state became responsible for the support of those too poor to survive independently.

Successive Poor Laws until the early 19th century tended to emphasise ‘outdoor relief’ – financial support or work granted from the parish to the poor still living in their homes. However, a parallel system of workhouses began to emerge, often based on the Bridewell, the London institution which gradually came to act as a weapon of social control against the capital’s shifting lower orders, especially those considered feckless, immoral, workshy, or rebellious. The disciplining of these ‘groups’ slowly came to be seen as of paramount importance to prevent their ‘contagion’ influencing other more orderly and obedient plebs.

Before 1834 the workhouse system was sporadic and inconsistent. But mass unemployment following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the introduction of new technology to replace many trades, leading to rebellion among textile and agricultural workers in particular, and a series of bad harvests, meant that by the early 1830s the established system of poor relief was proving to be unsustainable. It was also hideously expensive, and the now dominant and confident bourgeoisie didn’t see why it should pay to support the unwashed.

The New Poor Law of 1834 was a radical attempt to reshape social policy. Outdoor relief was to be refused wherever possible, and any applicants for help from the local state were to be confined in the workhouses, and made to undergo hard labour, in conditions so unpleasant and vicious that anyone would think twice about even applying.

Families were to be split up. Food was mass produced and of poor quality, to keep costs down. Staff were generally incompetent, bullying, and encouraged to impose harsh and degrading treatment to drive inmates back out. The Entering the Workhouse became feared and hated and a matter of last resort for the working class.

Some Poor Law authorities hoped to run workhouses at a profit by utilising the free labour of their inmates, who generally lacked the skills or motivation to compete in the open market. Most were employed on tasks such as breaking stones, crushing bones to produce fertiliser, or picking oakum using a large metal nail known as a spike, perhaps the origin of the workhouse’s nickname of the “spike”.

Resistance, collective resistance, to the workhouse system, was hard to organise, partly because of the extreme atomisation and humiliation the way of life imposed on the inmates, who were already in many cases desperate, physically weak and demoralised. The crap food and hard labour also left many too exhausted to even think about fighting back.

But resistance did take place. There were strikes.

And there was the Belmont Workhouse Riot.

The buildings of Belmont Hospital were originally an orphanage, established in 1853 on Brighton Road, Sutton. Then known as the South Metropolitan District Schools, they provided industrial training for 1500 poor children from Greenwich, Camberwell and Woolwich.

In 1882 the Schools acquired a site on Banstead Road (later renamed Cotswold Road) from the Sutton Lodge estate and a separate girls’ school was established there.  It comprised six blocks, each with accommodation for 100 girls (these later became the Downs Hospital and some still survive today as part of the Sutton Hospital).

In 1902 the Schools closed and, in 1908, the buildings became the Belmont Workhouse.

Belmont was a spill over workhouse serving a number of Poor law Unions and held more than 1300 people. Conditions were so harsh in the workhouse that, in 1910, 300 inmates rioted. Inmates found eating the watery porridge that formed their only food so disgusting that they rebelled, demanding the porridge be removed from the menu…

In November 1910 officials visiting the workhouse were told by some inmates that there would be bloodshed by Christmas if they did not get what they wanted. Early evening on December 14th 1910, in the dining hall, the inmates collectively refused to eat the porridge. On being told their demands would be considered by the Workhouse committee, which would meet the following week, they became ‘boisterous’, and began “shouting and rattling their cutlery on their plates.”

“At 8pm, the regulation time for going to bed, the inmates remained seated and consistently refused to leave the dining hall.

The police were called and arrived to a scene of great disorder: men were found standing on benches, shouting and swearing.” An attempt to arrest a dozen ‘ringleaders’ was met with a shout of “Come on boys, up with your plates!”, and the cops were pelted with a shower of crockery. Inspector Sommerville was hit on the chest with an iron plate.

Some were armed with knives… “the mob’s attitude was very threatening. The 30 policemen drew their truncheons and a scuffle ensued, and order was eventually restored”.

350 men were involved in the riot. 86 inmates were arrested. Most were shipped to Carshalton, Sutton and Banstead police stations in cabs, and appeared in Sutton magistrates court the next day. Two – Jeffreys and O’Brien – were committed for trial for assaulting the ‘labour-masters’ Swan and Rylance. Five prisoners were discharged and several others sentenced to 3 months hard labour.

Belmont continued to function effectively as a prison in several future incarnations; and the 1910 riot was not the last protest staged here.

During WW1 the workhouse was used as a hospital for German prisoners of war, with 92 beds for officers, and 1,175 for other ranks. It was also an internment camp with 90 beds for civilian enemy aliens awaiting repatriation.

After the war, in 1922, the buildings reverted to being a workhouse for unemployed men and was renamed the London Industrial Colony.  Conditions remained very poor – the buildings were said to be filthy and rat-infested.

In 1930 the Industrial Colony was taken over by the London County Council (LCC) and became a ‘training centre’ for the unemployed.

London’s unemployed were pressurised into ‘voluntarily’ signing up to be sent there to work, usually as an alternative to having ‘relief’ cut completely. In November 1931, 41 unemployed inmates of Belmont held a sit in protest against bad food and conditions. The LCC had generously allowed the unemployed inmates to take five days holiday for Christmas – which provoked some of their to elect a deputation to demand an extra day’s rest.

Some of the men sent to the camp seem to have been members or sympathisers of the National Unemployed Workers Movement. The NUWM organised and supported boycotts of other camps nationally (most notably at the Hollesley Bay camp), Strikes, walkouts, meetings, protests characterised life at several unemployed training camps through the 1930s.

A year after the sitdown strike, tensions still existed in the Belmont camp, as a deputation left to join the November 1932 Hunger march rally in Hyde Park, being greeted by a huge roar from the crowd.

During WW2 Belmont became the Sutton Emergency Hospital.  It had been feared that there would be mass hysteria at the beginning of the war, so Belmont was designated a neurosis unit – the Sutton Neurosis Centre – in preparation for a flood of expected cases. However, as these fears proved unfounded, the Hospital was used to treat trauma patients and war casualties. Over the war years the distinctive buildings, being quite noticeable from the air, sustained bomb damage.

In 1946 it was renamed the Belmont Hospital, specialising in psychiatric medicine.


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

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London’s parklife: 1000s destroy enclosure fences, Hackney Downs, 1875

On December 11th 1875, a crowd of several thousand people assembled on Hackney Downs, East London, to take part in the destruction of fences newly built around enclosures on what was traditionally regarded as common land.

By the early nineteenth century Hackney Downs had long been established is custom as lammas land, which gave locals rights to pasture their animals from Lammas Day, August 1st (though this may have dated from August 12th locally), for a number of months – usually until April 6th the next year. The ability to graze livestock on common land was long a vital part of subsistence for hundreds of thousands of the labouring classes in rural society, and its gradual (and later, on a large scale) restriction by enclosure of agricultural land had a huge impact, increasing poverty and hardship, and contributing to mass migration into cities over centuries.

Even in the vicinity of the growing industrial cities of England, well into the 19th century, grazing of the one or two animals a family might have could supplement wages to make a substantial difference to meagre incomes.

Hackney, on London’s northeastern edge as late as the mid-19th century, contained large amounts of common land, stretching from Hackney marshes to Well Street and Stoke Newington. But such suburbs were under threat of development, with London spreading out in all directions. In the 1850s and 1860s, campaigns to preserve what remained of open space in the London area, and to form new parks for leisure and entertainment, led to much agitation and protest over building. Although commons grazing and lammas rights were becoming less vital economically, the customs and traditions that had been established over centuries also had a powerful emotional call, where landowners had not been successful in enclosing land and depriving the lower orders of access. In the late 19th century this feeling that access to common lands was a right was also being seasoned with both radical ideas – that the land should belong to all who worked it, not the rich – and (among more respectable elements) that open spaces should be maintained, controlled and brought into some form of public ownership to ensure it could be used for leisure. The latter was not entirely from public-spirited feelings: while many of the well-to-do were genuinely disinterested and wholeheartedly believed in green space for all, there were elements who felt that working class people needed morally improving, and that properly landscaped parks and genteel pastimes would help to uplift them. Also many workers were unhealthy and you can’t carry on with a sick and pasty workforce/potential army cannon fodder.

Attempts to enclose or restrict access to parts of Hackney’s lammas land had led to disputes, direct action and rioting in the past. In 1837, a Mr Adamson was renting 20 acres of the downs and was growing a corn crop. and issued a notice calling on parishioners not to send cattle onto the downs until the corn was cleared. Angry Hackney locals resented this notice and on Lammas Day, cattle were turned onto the downs prior to the crop being harvested and some of the corn itself was seized. Adamson turned the cattle back out of the fields and two parishioners, Mr Neale and Mr Ambrose, were arrested, but the case was left undecided. The enclosure struggle led to a general attack on Adamson and his property.

The word spread that the downs were indeed now open and that the crop still growing there had passed into the common ownership of the parish at large. Adamson attempted in vain to stop a crowd invading his land:

‘He was knocked down…Crowds of persons collected from all parts of the town, consisting of parishioners, and some of the lowest characters, who committed a simultaneous robbery of the property.

However, subsequently, a judge ruled that Adamson’s notice for parishioners not to use the lammas lands after August 12 was legally unenforceable, and the established custom for the downs to be turned over for pasture at that date. Rioters got off with relatively light punishment as a result.

This battle, and the unruly memory of it, shows a strong and stroppy sense of ownership of the common lands at Hackney Downs, which resurfaced four decades later.

During the 1870s Hackney was once again a focus for direct action and fence breaking. The District Board had organised a petition for the enclosure of 180 acres of common at HackneyDowns under the Metropolitan Common Acts (1866) and it was vested in the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1872. The lands were Clapton common Stoke Newington common and South Mill fields, Hackney Downs, Hackney or Well Street common, London Fields and strips of waste in Dalston Lane and Grove Street (later Lauriston Road).

Some of these areas were still operating as traditional lammas lands, but others, notably London Fields and Hackney Downs, were increasingly used for recreation, which was blamed for damage to ‘herbage’ there. London Fields in particular was no longer suitable for pasture, and had became infamous as a haunt of “roughs… the scene of the most dissolute practices imaginable… itinerant preachers, not the ordinary itinerant preachers, but people who get up discussions.” (well I never…?!) As well as “vagrants, gypsies and prostitutes.” As elsewhere, the disorderly nature of open space was often used as a public focus point for calls to enclose, landscape and sell off common spaces. Through the 1860s, respectable Hackney citizens had been demanding a clean-up of the areas open spaces.

But there was a division of powers over the common land: the Metropolitan Board Of Works only in fact had jurisdiction over the footpaths and rights of way over Hackney’s open space. The Hackney and Shoreditch parish councils hoped to turn London Fields into a park, so it could be landscaped, made respectable, in order to attract “a more respectable class of society”. (As had been done, for instance, in the 1850s at Kennington, where the old common had been landscaped and fenced to prevent repeats of the vast 1848 Chartist demonstration… or at Camberwell Green, to aid in repression of the annual fair, a notorious gathering of the rowdy lower classes… to name but two examples.) But the Vestries could not get their inhabitants to agree about how the building of the prospective park should be paid for, and what body should run it… Proposals to rent parts of the land to raise money for the costs were vocally resisted by many locals. The vestry boards hoped the Metropolitan Board of works would add the commons to their growing London responsibilities, and also expected the Lord of the Manor, William Amhurst Tyssen Amherst, to cheerfully hand over the land without charge… A view supported by local anti-enclosure campaigners, who denounced the idea of paying any compensation to landlords and relied on the defence of traditional common rights as a bulwark against any development of the land.

Arguments about how Hackney’s common land should be regulated continued for several years, with Vestry councilors undecided as to whether to take on the land, sell some for development… the situation was complicated by the individuals and institutions who held part of the land as freeholders or copyholders for the remainder of the year outside the lammas grazing months… who also demanded compensation for loss of the revenue from their holdings. The web of lammas rights and of these other rights made this a much more complex prospect for takeover than other opens spaces the Metropolitan Board of Works had yet taken on. And William Amherst also refused to consent to any scheme, standing on his claim to all the rights to exploit the soil, gravel, clay sand and other minerals, or to grant licenses for it – a hugely lucrative holding.

In 1872, the Metropolitan Board took over the management of much of Hackney’s common land. Many residents and those with interests in the common held their fire to see how this would affect them, But the lord of the manor saw the Board’s plans as threatening his interests, and demanded that they buy him out. Specific bylaws the Board planned to pass did restrict the right of the lord to carry out what he regarded as his rights on his own property (though the Commons Preservation Society and other campaigners felt, after much study, that much of this was merely customary and would not necessarily stand up as legal rights).

Amherst determined to provoke the Board, probably to force their hand into paying him large amount of dosh to relinquish his ‘rights’. But the Board’s scheme for the commons in the area specifically barred them from buying him out. So works, such as digging for gravel and other exploitable minerals, were ordered, in defiance of the Board’s bylaws, and the Board wasn’t sure how to respond. This enraged locals set on keeping the parks of residents to use, and sparked protest meetings in 1874, with speakers denouncing both Amherst (‘The Downs are in the Hands of the Spoiler!’), and the Board for not keeping the lord of the manor in line (Although the Board had in fact acted to issue a writ against the digging in April ’74). Amherst’s solicitor admitted that the digging had been intended to prod the Board into buying the rights out

In the Autumn, parts of the Downs were fenced off and angry protest again followed.

In summer 1875, digging of gravel and sand on the Downs near Downs Park Road sparked protests, coagulating by November into public meetings on the Downs, called by the Commons Protection League, a working class based group, dedicated to defending open space, led by John De Morgan, an Irish socialist and secularist agitator, heavily involved in the ‘land question’ by the mid-1870s.. While more moderate elements in the local branch of the Commons Preservation Society launched a lawsuit in Chancery against the lord of the manor, de Morgan’s public meetings were attracting 3000 people by 21 November, and resolutions were passed to use every means necessary to preserve the Downs as open land.

On December 11th 1875 a large crowd assembled on the Downs, at the latest of five weekly demos. de Morgan addressed the crowd, ‘described enclosures which had recently been made, and which he asserted were wholly illegal, at the same time adding that their removal would be a perfectly legal act… The fences which they saw before them had been erected in defiance of popular feeling, and rights of way were being stopped which had existed from time immemorial. In these circumstances the only remedy that remained for the people – the only means of getting back their rights was to remove the fences without delay’.

Some 3000 had gathered; led by four or five ‘working men’, the crowd demolished fences hat had been erected around diggings.

“The people advanced to the iron railings where they were first obstructed by about thirty constables [. . .] and seemed as if they were about to protect the enclosure. The superintendent, however, said a few words to them. The staves were put up and the crowd allowed to proceed with the work of demolition.”

All traces of the fences were destroyed, and set on fire. The next day another large crowd assembled to celebrate.

Reports of the breaking down of the fences at Hackney Down were widely reported but vary little in their accounts.

‘A Lord of the Manor had stolen some portion of a metropolitan common known as Hackney Downs. On December 11th, 1875 upwards of 50,000 people assembled on Hackney Downs to witness the destruction of the fences. The police numbered in force and seemed prepared to resist the Commoners. Mr De Morgan warned them that their lives were in danger if they opposed and wisely did the police withdraw. The fences were then destroyed and burnt. the fire lasting until four o’clock in the morning’.

The event was also satirised in Punch magazine, for some reason written in early modern spelling:


It was open walking where Hackney Downs
Lies green beneath the skies.
From a time whereto man’s memory
Runneth not contrariwise.

The Lord of the Manor hath made essaye.
To enclose and build thereon.
And a blessing upon the Board of Works.
That to law with him have gone!

He planted postes and set up rayles.
And hedged hym yn the grounde.
The churl mote have waited at least until
Ile law on hys side had founde.

For the Lord, the Hackney Commoners said.
To collar our common land.
Never sticking so much as to ask our leave.
Ytt Ys more than we will stand!

What right hath he that land to cribb?
And a curse upon his crown!
No more to set fences and palings up.
Than we have to pull them down. ‘

‘So fourth to those iron rayles they went.
To tear them from the land;
When they were’ ware of thirty stout knaves,
of Bobbies blue a band!

The Bobbies. they drew their good ash staves,
for to guard the railings fain,
But a word their Superintendent spake,
And they putt them up agayne.

Then went the commoners to their work.
With many an hundred mo.
They seized the fences on Hackney Downs,
And laid the enclosures low’.

In the aftermath of the ‘riot’, William Amherst’s lawyers threatened to pursue identifiable ‘leaders’ of the events, and De Morgan was charged with inciting the action; moderate preservationists dissociated from his tactics.

But the demos, torchlight processions (with bands!) and public meetings continued, and by February 1876 the digging on the common had halted.

The fallout from the ‘riot’ also included more of the interminable wrangling that had characterised discussions over the Down and other Hackney common lands. De Morgan and his supporters, meanwhile, attempted to widen the struggle out, calling attention to other enclosures (eg at Lea Bridge on Hackney Marshes), and supported legal cases. For instance: in 1877 a group of local inhabitants charged with grazing cattle on Stoke Newington Common were defended by a solicitor associated with de Morgan, and a number of elderly residents gave evidence that the practice was traditional and longstanding. The magistrate declared this didn’t come under his jurisdiction, and the claim was abandoned.

Notices put up by the Grocers’ Company restricting entry to lands they owned on the Downs were also torn down in 1877.

But despite the stout resistance, the court of Chancery upheld the lord of the manor against the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1879. As a result his rights in the Hackney lands were purchased by the Metropolitan Board of Works, under an Act of 1881 and those of other freeholders under a further Act of 1884. It is debatable in the end whether the riot of 1875 did in fact ‘save’ Hackney Downs, although the agitation did raise the faltering profile of the issue.


The 1870s were a high point of anti-enclosure struggles in the London area, following on from a decade of (mostly, though not exclusively) peaceful campaigns to prevent large open spaces being developed in the 1860s. Wanstead Flats in 1871, Chiselhurst Common in 1876, Eelbrook Common (Fulham) in 1878, all saw direct action against fences, as part of long-running resistance against the theft of common land.

John de Morgan himself would be jailed after leading probably the decade’s most spectacular enclosure battle, which emerged into mass rioting and the destruction of large scale fencing around land at Plumstead Common, in July 1876.

Many of these struggles were characterised by the large-scale involvement of radical movements, as London radicals, secularists and elements who would later help to form socialist groups made open space and working class access to it a major part of their political focus. Radical land agitation, notably through the Land and Labour League, was beginning to revive the question of access to land as a social question, and within cities this manifested as both battles to defend green space, and propaganda around the theft of the land from the labouring classes.

In contrast to the mainly legalistic approach of bodies like the Commons Preservation Society, the working-class protests organised by figures like De Morgan retained a strongly radical character and employed “direct action” tactics that brought them into open confrontation with the police and civil authorities. “They were also characterised by a vigorous use of language, knowledge of the lore relating to the appropriation of land during the Norman Conquest, and hostility to the police, that served to set them apart from the activities of their middle-class counterparts. Most of these features are displayed in accounts of opposition to the enclosure of Hackney Downs.”


There is an interesting element to Hackney Downs and hackney common lands as a whole: one which we might want to think about, in our own times , as funding for the public open spaces we love and often take for granted is pinched and pressures to find ways to pay for their upkeep is leading to a drift towards commercial exploitation.

In the 1870s at Hackney, a large official body (the Metropolitan Board of Works) was taking over management of the lands, and to what extent it could live up to the expectations of the local residents. The pressure from many Hackney inhabitants was for an opening up of the land to more use for leisure, and this was clearly in conflict with the intention of the lord of the manor to exploit or grant rights to extract minerals, and of many of the freeholders or copyholders to fully profit from the rights they had purchased. But the Metropolitan Board was also up to a point at odds with both interests. They were suspicious of the campaigners, not only the ‘radicals’ like de Morgan, but also the more moderate and legalistic Commons Preservation Society. Their bylaws not only infuriated Amherst by restricting his profits; they also severally curtailed the more autonomous and unruly uses of the commons, and were in some ways closer to accommodation with the smaller holders’ interests than a broader sentiment that the land should be open for all. This disconnect remained even after the rights in the lands were bought from the lord of the manor; conflict over use and management of open space are still legion.

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.

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 realize. 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. 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.

The main thing to take from the numberless historical 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 sometimes stood in opposition to what might have been judged legal ‘reality’… Although sometimes relying on traditions and common rights as the basis for legal argument didn’t work, often when it acted as a grounding, a shared belief forming a 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.  The difficulty with entrusting our green space to public bodies is that they do not necessarily share our view of how they should used, and with councillors and leading officers in many councils hand in glove with developers all over London, co-operating over the selloff of social housing, the risk is that open space may also be up for grabs. And up for sale, or increasingly at least, for fencing off for profit.

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?


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

Follow past tense on twitter

For more of past tense writings on enclosures, open space and resistance, check out:

  • Down With the Fences: Battles for the Commons in South London.
  • The Battle for Hyde Park: Radicals, Ruffians and Ravers 1855-1994.
  • Rights of Common: The Fight against the Theft of Sydenham Common and One Tree Hill
  • William Covell and the Troubles at Enfield in 1659.
  • Kennington Park: Birthplace of People’s Democracy

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

Most of the above are available to buy in pamphlet form from our website

Get your copy of the 2018 London Rebel History Calendar… the disorderly antidote to Xmas jumpers…

Well, the nights are fair drawing in… The winter sun hangs low in the sky, weak 11 watt energysaving bulb-like… The weary party-circuit jades… 

Oh yes, the season of Gin and Wondering What to Buy for Difficult Family Members is upon us again…

No better time that to purchase your copy of the 2018 London Rebel History Calendar!!!

It does makes a crackin’ stocking filler, a gift for a grumpy old great-aunt,

oh yes, it is now available! hot, rude and riotous.

Rebellious, subversive and campaigning anniversaries from London’s radical history…for every day of next year… handprinted by

It can be bought online on our website, where it can be yours for only £6 plus £3 postage and packing.

It is also on sale in around 30 radical and independent bookshops and other spaces around London. Email us if you would like a list at pasttense@riseup.net

and will be buyable from AK Distribution

and Active Distribution

Why not help distribute the Calendar? If you would like a bundle to sell to friends, stroppy grandparents, fellow churchgoers and workmates, we would happy to supply some at a discount, to make if worth your while… just get in touch with us…


Today in London’s trading history: excise officers fight with smugglers, Lee, 1734

During the 18th century, smuggling in England’s Southeastern counties, especially Kent and East Sussex, grew to epic proportions. High taxes and excise duty on overseas goods created an opportunity for entrepreneurial types to bypass the authorities and supply the cheaper goods to meet the demand.

Heavy import duties had been imposed on many goods, to supplement government income, often to raise the revenues a government ‘needed’ to fight a long succession of expansionist wars (England being at war with European powers, or in imperial expansion, for pretty much all of the century, and most of the nineteenth too). All that slaughter costs hard cash.

England’s “close proximity to continental Europe, good roads to London, and a poor domestic economy at the end of 17th century” created ideal conditions for organised smuggling to flourish. As London was a huge metropolis by the standards of the time, where large numbers of people with varying degrees of disposable income lived, it was inevitably a huge market for smuggled goods.

Smuggling didn’t always involve the mythical “huge volumes of contraband channelled to local beaches”. Diverting parts of legitimate shipments, or bribing officials to turn a blind eye to cargoes, played a large part in the trade.

However, it also true that hundreds of illegal trades were engaged in transporting underhand goods between the coast and London. Brandy, tea, coffee, tobacco, textiles like wool, lace and silk, jewellery, and other high excise items provided an enticing opportunity

Smuggling was at its peak in the years 1700 to 1840; it was estimated that in 1773 15,000 men were engaged in smuggling in Kent alone, with an average of 1,500 gallons of Geneva (gin), 450 gallons of brandy and 4 ½ tons of tea being smuggled through Kent and Sussex per day, by 1783.2

It wan’t just gangs of crims, either.

People of all classes cocked a snook at the excise laws, and partook of contraband if they could afford it. Much as would later happen with prohibition in the US, defiance of customs duties became something of a badge of honour in an edgy thrill seeking way, besides the purely economic desire to pay less for goods that otherwise were hugely expensive, often to enrich monopolies granted to the already wealthy by a hugely corrupt government. And as with prohibition, gangs emerged to carry out the actual work of shipping in goods clandestinely and carting it to London. Other methods were also found though – bribing the numerous customs officials to turn a blind eye, ‘underweighing’ of goods on ships arriving at the dock which would then be siphoned off. And some groups decided that short-cutting the process was the most efficient, and began raiding customs/dockside warehouses to steal imports already in the country…

This was organised crime on a massive scale. Government figures from 1782 estimated that a quarter of all the vessels engaged in smuggling nationwide were based in Kent and Sussex. Half the gin smuggled into England was landed here.

“Kentish smuggling first grew from the illegal exportation of wool. The government imposed restrictions on the trade, and by 1700 up to 150,000 ‘packs’ of wool a year were being shipped from the area days after shearing. From these beginnings the Huguenot families who controlled the trade grew into the first smuggling gangs. As import taxes on luxury items were imposed, gangs, large and small, adapted and by 1720 the emphasis was on bringing in tea, spirits, tobacco and other goods. The black economy pervaded all social levels and it has been claimed that Sir Robert Walpole (Whig Prime Minister) amassed much of his fortune from the trade. Smugglers soon became involved in other enterprises, including the Jacobite rebellion, international espionage, military campaigns (Nelson employed smugglers from the town of Deal as pilots due to their experience) and highway robbery. Conflicts with the French throughout the late 1700s made smuggling harder, but despite the efforts of William Pitt and the Napoleon, ‘classic’ smuggling continued in the southeast until the 1830s.”

“… Many of the gangs operated in towns and villages miles from the sea. Kent’s coastline encompasses muddy tidal creeks in the north, sandy coves and chalk cliffs to the east, and long shingle beaches and brooding marshes to the south. These differences in terrain led to the development of different techniques for landing and hiding good. Even so, the gangs could not have operated without significant financial backing; some shipments required an initial outlay of more than £10,000.”

Smuggling routes evolved, trails and established routes running through Kent, Sussex and other coastal counties, along which contraband could be reasonably safely shifted to London. Safehouses and friendly inns acted as stopover points; even whole villages became complicit – Stockwell in South London was sometimes described as a “smugglers village” in the early 1700s. The village at this time was the main depot south of the river for smuggled goods coming into London… It was handy for the horse ferry at Lambeth. Goods would be brought up the old routes from the south coast, through Croydon or Peckham Rye. So many of its inhabitants were said to be involved in the moving of goods from shore to the capital, it was described around 1700 as “a community outside the rule of law.” (This may have meant that smuggling gangs were living there, or paying people off, or intimidating people into silence, or a combination of all three.) Teams of horses were stabled here by various smuggling gangs.

Various smuggling outfits operated in Kent in the early 18th century, with a wide range of approaches, from quiet transportation of contraband to blatant and open defiance of the authorities. Some, like a gang based in Mayfield, led by Gabriel Tomkins, a Tunbridge Wells bricklayer, would tie up customs men who attempted to thwart pickups and throw them in a ditch. They earned the trust of locals and officials and when two of his men were captured, Gabriel Tomkins stormed the prison where they were being held, firing pistols and injuring himself in the process of freeing his colleagues. Tomkins also cheekily took a job as a mounted customs man – a Riding Officer – combining this with smuggling on the side. (Presumably he could ensure the seizure of rivals gangs’s goods while his own got through).

Lee Green, near Lewisham, stood on one of the smuggling routes into London; close enough to the capital to act as a final staging post from where goods could be filtered in to the capital. Customs officers were ordered to try to seize smuggled cargoes at all points of the trade, from on the sea, in the country lanes and the small villages where such ‘safehouses’ operated, and in London’s streets. One episode briefly mentioned in the Gentleman’s Magazine as taking place on December 1st 1734, was probably typical, and illustrates the preparedness of the gangs to resist both the seizure of their wares and arrest: “Mr Riggs, and another Custom-house officer, seized a parcel of run Goods at Lee in Kent, but two Smugglers attempting to take it from them, the Officers fired, and shot one of them dead, and the other rode off.”

Such firefights were commonplace; armed smugglers would also often attempt to seize back impounded cargoes.

Later in the same month, for instance, custom officers seized “Above 5000 Weight of Smuggled Tea, with a quantity of Silks and Velvets… in a barn near Ashford in Kent, by the Help of a Party of Soldiers… The Smugglers being above 50, and armed, exchanged 3 Fires with the Soldiers, but having two killed of their Number, thought fit to retire, having first attempted to fire the Barn.”

Smuggling continued to be associated with Lee: in 1744 a man at Lee was charged with smuggling goods to the value of £15,000, showing that it was a significant trade. And situated at the eastern end of Lee High Road, the old Tiger’s Head pub, in the original centre of Lee, was built in 1766; it later became notorious as a haunt of smugglers.

Here’s an interesting site on Kent’s smuggling trails.

Another traditional smuggling route from the south coast ran along suburban green lanes, along modern Park Lane, in Croydon, up through Croydon Common, to Norwood, and down to the ‘smuggler’s village’ at Stockwell.


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

Follow past tense on twitter