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:
‘A FYTTE OF ITACKNEY DOWNS.
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.
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.
- Burning Women: The European Witch Hunts, Enclosure & the Rise of Capitalism
Most of the above are available to buy in pamphlet form from our website