Today in London parklife, 1576: locals attack fences enclosing common land, Osterley park

Osterley Park, West London, used to be the grounds of a large country house, built here for Sir Thomas Gresham in the late 16th century.Gresham was a merchant and financier who acted on behalf of King Edward VI, queens Mary I and Elizabeth I, the founder of the Royal Exchange in the City of London.

There were attempts to enclose land in the Heston and Isleworth area from as early as the 12th century, when Richard Duke of Cornwall enclosed land in Isleworth (only for Londoners to throw down the fences in 1264). Until the fifteenth century, and for some time afterwards, the arable lands in Heston and Isleworth lay mainly in open fields, though there were always some enclosed lands. In the 16th century some lands were thrown open for common grazing between Michaelmas and February. The earliest large enclosures may have been of the meadow and pasture lands round Syon Abbey in the 15th century: the abbey’s park north of the London Road may have also lain partly on former arable. In the later 16th century several people tried to enclose different bits of land. This, as elsewhere, represented a threat to the livelihoods of many of the local poor, who used common land for grazing animals, collecting fuel to burn during the winter, and also gathering some food stuffs.

Osterley Park was enclosed by Thomas Gresham under a licence granted to him in 1565 to ‘impark’ 600 acres. The trespasses that followed (see below) demonstrate that this was not very popular with the locals. Gresham included up to 140 acres of tilled lands in the park, though all of this was probably already enclosed, if not also used as pasture. Some at least had probably been enclosed assart (land converted from forest to arable use) from the beginning. Most of the land which Gresham ‘imparked’ was previously known as Osterley farm, which he already owned – some 200 acres stretching westwards from the house in Osterley Lane nearly to Heston village.

Queen Elizabeth I stayed with Sir Thomas Gresham at Osterley House, in early May 1576 (though elsewhere said to be the 10th-12th, this isn’t totally consistent with the accounts given in the letters written afterwards, see below, which suggest the enclosure riot took place overnight May 6th-7th). Queen Elizabeth was said to be impressed with Sir Thomas’s new posh gaff – however, her stay there was not uneventful.

During her visit, there was a protest by local people against his enclosure of common land. A crowd of villagers from Heston and Norwood gathered, and some women tore up the palings round his park and ‘diabolically and maliciously burnt’ them. It’s unclear whether the protest was deliberately timed to disrupt the queen’s visit, or was merely a coincidence. In any case, she was ‘greatly disquieted’ by the protest.

Good Queen Bess ordered that some of the rioters must be punished.

On May 22, the Privy Council wrote to Justice Southcote and the Recorder of London (William Fleetwood): ‘advertising them that where certain persons are committed to the Marshalsea, whose names are Joan Ayre, Mary Harris, George Lenton and George Bennet, for burning Sir Thomas Gresham’s park pale at that time when the Queen’s Majesty was there, wherewith her Highness was very much offended, and commanded that the offenders should be searched out and punished according to their offence. They are therefore required to take some pains therein and to appoint some time and place to have the prisoners brought before them, and severally to examine them and to induce them by all means they can to open the truth, and for their better instructions therein Sir Thomas Gresham will instruct them for that purpose, and Mr Attorney is appointed also to join with them if he conveniently may, or at least to send them such examinations as he hath heretofore taken in that matter’.

The Council also wrote to the Attorney-General [Gilbert Gerard] on June 18, ‘on May 6 [sic] at about 10 p.m. Joan Eyer wife of Nicholas Eyer of Heston husbandman and Mary Harris of Heston spinster broke into a park enclosed with pales and posts for the preservation of deer and other animals of Sir Thomas Gresham (the Queen with her Privy Council and many others in attendance on her being in ‘Osterley Park House’ within the park) and tore up and threw down posts and pales of the park. These posts and pales the said Joan and Mary on May 7 at 2-3 a.m. maliciously, diabolically and wickedly burnt, to the very great disquiet and disturbance of the Queen and her attendants. Also a True Bill that Joan, Mary, and about 20 other men and women, at the command and instigation of George Lenton tailor and Nicholas Hewes husbandman, all of Heston, on May 7 with staves, two-pronged forks, spades and axes at Osterley Park (the Queen being at Osterley House), broke down the enclosure. Adjourned to June 19.’

There are no extant records from July 19th however, and no indication of what happened to George Lenton, Nicholas Hewes, Joan Eyre and Mary Harris after they were sent to the Marshalsea Prison.

In the meantime, it seems the locals had got together a petition against Gresham regarding the enclosures, according to another letter from the Privy Council:

July 19, St James’s, Privy Council to five gentlemen, ‘with a petition exhibited to the Queen’s Majesty in the behalf of certain poor men complaining to receive wrong by an enclosure made by Sir Thomas Gresham of certain common ground, parcel of his Park’. The Queen has referred the matter to the Council, who now refer it to them to confer with both parties and to enquire into what rights were and are held over the common by the lord, the tenant and the cottager, and to examine ‘what detriment the poor men do receive by the means of this enclosure, what cattle they might keep afore, and what they may keep now’, and to give their opinions how ‘this controversy may be most reasonably compounded to the satisfaction of all parties’.

The queen’s outrage is consistent with her attitude (in common with all the Tudor monarchs) that poor folk should keep their place and be punished for questioning their betters; however, it would have doubtless been given extra spice both by her close proximity to the violent events, and by her own memory of the enclosure rebellions of 1548-9, which threatened the social order considerably when she was a young woman.

Enclosures were beginning to form a major issue in the mid-late 16th century. The destruction of much of the effective welfare system with the dissolution of the monasteries, was being compounded by the increasing rural upheaval, the acquisition of land by new and greedy classes, who saw profits from enclosure of open land into larger farms, often to enable larger flocks of sheep. As more people were driven to the social margins, more of the land available for subsistence was being fenced off; a vicious spiral that would only speed up over the next 200 years.

There were further troubles at Osterley Park over enclosure in 1614, when several women cut down trees belonging to Sir William Reade, who had inherited he house.

Two other attempts to enclose common land in the Heston area about 1600 seem to have been defeated by a group of tenants led by Sir Gideon Awnsham. Complaints were also made in 1634 about recent enclosures of the common lands.

Whether because of local resistance, or other factors, agriculture in Heston was relatively little affected by enclosures for centuries; and the open fields, in spite of enclosures on their edges, remained largely untouched until 1818.

There was a long rebel tradition locally; quite apart from the resistance to enclosure. Heston folk were involved in riots during the 1381 peasants Revolt.

And in 1830 several farmers in Heston received threatening letters during the Swing Rebellion.

And the locals are still not taking the theft of space lying down: only last year, residents of nearby Isleworth defeated the attempt by the aristocratic Duke of Northumberland to destroy their allotments to build flats… Keeping up the old traditions of fighting to keep some land out of the hands of the wealthy!

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