In the middle ages, Neat House Fields was an open space, lying to the rear of and around modern Victoria Station. In medieval times the land had belonged to the nearby Abbey of Westminster; as the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, the land was confiscated, and then granted to one of Henry VIII’s courtiers.
Down to the time of Henry VIII, the local parish of St. Martin’s had over 500 acres of common land, said to be very fertile land.
These consisted of
“Eubury Farm, containing 430 Acres.
The Neat, containing 108 Acres.
St James’s Farm, containing 100 Acres.
Divers Parcels of the Possession of Burton St John Lazarus of Jerusalem, containing 50 Acres…”
Around 1572, Neat House Fields were enclosed, along with other areas of the local parishes.
“Within this Parish of St Martin’s, and that of St Margaret’s Westminster, formerly was large Commoning for the Benefit of those Parishes, of Lands laid open, according to ancient Custom, from Lammas Day; which were, in Q. Elizabeth’s Reign, enclosed with Gates and Hedges, so that the Inhabitants were deprived of that Benefit, which occasioned their Complaint, in the year 1592, to the Lord Burghley, High Steward of Westminster, and a petition to him in that Behalf…”
Many local labourers lost rights of grazing and arable use, which they claimed to have enjoyed for some centuries.
Enclosures had been causing friction in the parish of St Martins in the Fields for several decades. A 1549 Enclosure Survey complained of various individuals enclosing common land, which was identified not only as a threat to tradition and custom but to pubic order (unsurprisingly, given the widespread revolt against enclosures taking place from Norfolk to Devon that year…) A further survey in 1575 re-iterated the complaint.
St Martins as a parish was known to be particularly sensitive regarding enclosure. In the early 16th century, the parish boundaries had been re-drawn, as part of which the parish lost a substantial part of its land to ‘imparkment’, the creation of parkland. The parish worthies sorely resented this, and were keen to prevent the further loss of communally available land. Part of the motivation for this, as elsewhere, was pragmatic – poor parishioners who partly subsisted from access to common land for grazing etc could theoretically become more dependent on parish relief if they lost access to commons. Another complaint St Martins raised was that the hedges and ditches erected to enclose land were themselves exploited by unruly and immoral elements (by which they seem to have meant thieves and prostitutes) to conceal themselves…
Parishioners of St. Margaret’s Westminster and St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, claimed that Ebury Farm, the Neat, St. James’s Farm, etc., had, according to ancient custom, been laid open for their benefit, from Lammas Day (1 August), till Plough Monday, (the first Monday in January after Epiphany). The Elizabethan sub-tenants who had leased the lands had enclosed their fields with fences and gates, and deprived the parishioners of immemorial rights.
” And where there were hedges and ditches and ponds of water
Now we have nothing but bricks and mortar.”
The parishioners appealed to Lord Burleigh, High Steward of Westminster, who ordered an enquiry, “he gave an order to Mr Tenche, his Under-Steward, to impanel an Inquest for Enquiry into this Matter…”
Whatever Burghley’s intention, ordering the Inquiry may have encouraged the parishioners to think Burghley was on board with the action they took next.
Before any Inquiry could be held, on Lammas Day, 1st August 1592, a body of complainants arrived “with Pickaxes and such like Instruments, pulled down the Fences, and brake the Gates, having with them the Bailiffs and Constables, to keep the Peace” on which the tenants made “grievous complaint” to Lord Burleigh.
Enclosure fences were at first demolished not on Neat House Fields but further north, ‘half a mile to the west of St Giles Fields’, possibly around Piccadilly.
Peter Dod, citizen and grocer of London, later gave evidence, that he “being near unto the City’s Conduit-heads in Middlesex, about half a Mile Westward from St Giles in the Fields, attending upon certain of the City’s Works, touching conveying of Water from thence to London, saw, betwixt five and six o’Clock in the Afternoon the same Day, the Number of 40 Persons at least… in a Close there… And they divided themselves: And some of them , with Pickaxes and shovels, brake open the fence of that Close, and other some of them passed to the next Close Westward, and brake open the Fence of that Close: And he, with some of the Citizens Workmen, went unto them, seeing ome of them to be Men that carried a Shew of some Countenance, and talked with them, demanding of them whence they were and one of them answered, That they were of St. Martin’s Parish, and St. Margaret’s as Westminster. And he, the said Dod, said unto them, “Why do ye this?” It was answered,
” It is Lammas-tide; and we throw it down for Common. And if we take here any Cattle of any other Men’s than theirs of the Parishes of St. Martin’s or St. Margaret’s, after this day, we will carry them to the Pound.” “I never saw the like of this,” said Dod. ” If you may do this by Authority it is well, otherwise it is not well.” It was answered, ” We have here the Bailiff of Westminster, and the Officers of St. Martin’s; and we have our Authority from the Queen’s Majesty and the Council, granted by King Henry, confirmed by Her
Majesty, and named the Lord Treasurer to be one, from whom they had their Authority.” And it was also added, that the next Day there would be two hundred there,and they must break open up to Knights-bridge and Chelsea.
And Dod said farther, that that Evening they threw down one gate in one Close, which the City holds, and abated the Banks, and in another Close threw open another Gate and pulled down a Rail, and broke open the Fences in three other Places beside, and in the morning, the Herdsmen brought in about 30 beasts into one of the Closes, and kept them there feeding in one of the Closes which the City holds.”
The destruction was revived the following day, the crowd moving onto Neat House Fields:
“Another testified, viz. one Rd Wood of St St Giles in the Fields, Yeoman and Constable, That the 2nd of August, he going to look to his Fields, and save his Gates from breaking, found a Number of them near to a Place called Aubery-Farm, towards Chlesea (ie: Ebury), to the Number of 105, as he told them, where they were breaking open Fences; and so they crossed from thence to a Field called Crow-Field, at the upper End of Hide-park, where they found the Gate opened before they came; and yet they would not be satisfied, but broke upon the Fence beside the Gate, and from thence they passed to the Highway, where they broke open the Fences into four Fields (of divers Persons, that had held Land there) many of them said, That they had no Authority to do so, but their Purpose was to lay all Common; but they generally said, We have my Lord Treasurer’s Warrant, and we have my Lord Treasurer’s Bailiff that keeps Tibbalds, and one Jones, his Lordship’s Man, being then present, said, he would drive the Commons within this seven-night, as soon as they had charged a Jury; and many of them said, They had the Council’s Letter. There were present Mr. Cole, Westminster High Constable the last Year… Cole lad them the Way from Field to Field, with a written Roll in his Hand.”
The Farmers whose fences had been demolished petitioned the Lord High Treasurer, “shewing how they had enjoyed [these Lands and closes] time out of mind, and at all Times of the Year till the 1st of August; at what Time certain Persons of the City of Westminster, and the Liberties of the same, to the Number of 60 Persons, or more, in forcible Manner arrayed, brake down all the Hedges of the said grounds, &c, giving out that they had his Honour’s Content and Warrant. That if it were so, all her Majesty’s poor Tenants and Farmers were utterly undone. That it might stand with his Honour’s good liking to commit the riot to the Star Chamber…”
The parishioners involved in the destruction, however, stuck to their Plea, “That Aubery-farm, containing 430 Acres, Meadow and Pasture, which was holden of her Majesty by Lease, was granted to one Whashe, who paid 21 pounds per Annum. And the same was let to divers persons who, for their private Commodity, did enclose had made Pastures of Arrable Land ; thereby not only annoying Her Majesty in her walks and Passages, but to the Hindrance of her Game, and great injury to the Common, which at Lammas was wot to be laid open, for the most part; as by antient Precedents thereof made, do more particularly appear, both in the Time of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Queen Mary: And by the Grant made from her Majesty to the new Tenants, it appeareth, that they are to enjoy the new Lands in such Sort as their Predecessors did, which was than always Lammas Ground, and now enclosed about 20 years past.
St. James’s Farm, containing about an 100 Acres, is holden of her Majesty, renting per Annum 7 pounds 16 shillings. The Ground is held by Pulteney, enclosed after Lammas; whereas, in the Time of his Predecessor, that, and divers other Parts were laid open, as Sandpit-close, and Pennyless-bench. And now he threateneth Death to any that that shall presume to open the same; altho’ it pleaseth Her Majesty to grant the same to him none otherwise than they have been granted before, that is Lammas-ground.”
There is belonging to the Neat the Quantity of 108 Acres, or thereabouts, which is her Majesty’s, and is now in Lease to one Linde and Turner, who keep the same enclosed, converting the same to Pasture, with Divisions and new Hedges; whereas the most Part thereof ought to be Common and hath been always Common at Lammas until within these 19 years.
There be also divers others Parcels of Land, some the Inheritance of Wilson, a Brewer, &c. And others, whereof some are laid open at Lammas, according to Custom, and some ought to be, which are now kept enclosed.
And of these Enclosures, it may please your good Lordship (the plea proceeded), to be informed, that at her Majesty’s last being at St. James’s, she greatly misliked, and said she had for them but 8d. an Acre, and that the Inhabitants abused her greatly therein; whereupon she commanded some of the Tenants to be by the Lord Chamberlain committed to the Marshalsea; which was done: And yet, notwithstanding, they have proceeded to a farther Enclosure.”
The inhabitants claimed “they did this only, presuming upon an antient Custom…” adding “That some of them thus assembled, ere of the best and most antient of the parishes; that they carried with them no Weapons, and had only four or five Shovels and Pickaxes; and had divers Constables with them to keep her Majesty’s Peace. And having thus laid open such Grounds, as they challenged to be their Commons, they quietly returned, to their Houses, without any farther Hurt doing.”
The Inquest that Burghley had ordered before the August action eventually took place in December that year (beginning, I think, on the 12th, and ending in a ruling on the 21st). The anti-enclosure parishioners prepared a lengthy presentation, detailing all the lands they claimed should be accessible as commons from St Martins and St Margaret’s parishes,and pointing out that St Martins parish had asserted common rights in enclosure surveys in 1549 and 1575, as well as at “divers times since by laying open the said enclosures at the accustomed times”. They cunningly portrayed the Crown (owner of many of the disputed lands) as also being wronged by the enclosers. They claimed that the conversion of ground from arable land and common to pasture and meadow had ‘spoyled and defaced’ the Queens’ walks, and impacted on game for her to hunt…
These arguments played a part in the Inquest ruling in favour of the opponents of enclosure; the enclosers were ordered to lay open the lands in question, on pain of a fine of 12 pence for every acre not opened up. The following year a law was passed prohibiting enclosures within three miles of London. More research is needed on how this law was applied and how broadly. In 1630, some prosecutions against enclosers of land in Chelsea were apparently made under this act.
What is interesting, however, is that this was not simply a conflict between locals, parishioners opposed to enclosure, and enclosers from outside the parish leasing land and fencing it off. Many of those enclosing the lands in question were also established residents of St Martins parish.
Also interesting is the presence among the demolishers of the fences of parish officials, the bailiff etc… Enclosure was an issue that did not simply pit rich against poor (although overwhelmingly it benefitted the wealthy and the aspirational) – local authorities often objected, citing defence of ancient custom, and enforcement of traditional boundaries; if also concerned with social peace. Ratepayers in the parish were worried about the poor deprived of livelihoods by enclosure: some out of genuine feeling, others concerned about the poor rate or disorder arising.
If the enclosure of Neat House Fields and other lands in Westminster was for a while defeated, this was an early victory in what would be largely a history of defeat. Enclosure across the country would, over the next 300 years, utterly alter the economic and social use of land in Britain. But the 1592 resistance in two small parishes would be echoed in the struggles of thousands down the centuries…