Today in London’s radical history, 1614: Lewisham residents demonstrate against the enclosure of Sydenham Common

“Memorandum that in ye yeares of our Lord 1614 and 1615 we had many troubles and suites concerning our common of Westwood being in quantity about 500 acres of ground whereunto the Lord of his mercy gave a good issue in ye end. The occasion was this: Henry Newport of Lewsham, gentleman, and yeoman of ye boiling-house to King James, having lived long in our parish, in ye yeare 1605 begged this common of the King and made meanes to his Majesty for a lease of it at a yearely rent.” (Abraham Colfe)

The area on the slopes of the ridge of hills that runs across South London, from Norwood to Brockley, was, until the 18th century, largely still woodland, the remnants of the old Great North Wood. This wood, a natural oak forest that had once stretched from unbroken from Croydon to Camberwell, had broken up by the seventeenth Century, into smaller woods and commons, including Penge Wood, Gipsy Wood, Dulwich Wood, Forest Wood (or Forest Hill), and Westwood (also called Sydenham Common).

By the late 1700s many of these woods and Commons were often inhabited by the very poor, squatters with nowhere else to go, some driven by earlier enclosures and social/economic change into scratching a living from marginal land; others were social outcasts like romany travellers, (hence the local area name of Gipsy Hill), though there was also often a smattering of outlaws, robbers and rebels. Smugglers and their contacts used green lanes through Norwood and Peckham to bring contraband up from the south coast.

From the late fifteenth century, common lands began to be enclosed – fenced off, initially mainly for more intensive sheep farming, as wool was very lucrative – the English wool trade was a major driver of the national economy (and a huge factor in the historical development of capitalism). Later, intensive agriculture, economies of scale and technological innovation also pushed large-scale enclosure projects.

Enclosure lined the pockets of the already dominant landowning classes, but also helped enrich merchants and other traders, hungry for social advancement and power.

On top of demand for land for development and more intensive agriculture there was also pressure to clear ‘undesirables’ out; for some local worthies in rural or suburban parishes, this was a useful by-product of enclosures.

While the Lord of the Manor, the landowner, was often the initiator of enclosure, this was not always the case. Increasingly from the 16th century the buying and selling of land was followed by enclosure,

The mass upheavals caused by enclosures were not pushed though without resistance. Those who depended on the rights to collect wood, furze or peat for fuel, gather foodstuffs, or graze animals, fought attempts to shut them out of the land – because they had little choice, it was a matter of survival. Others with some ‘rights of common’ might be small-scale landowners themselves, who would lose out too, but had some chance of compensation.

The latter had more legal clout to challenge enclosure. But tactics were as varied as the complex interwoven web of rights and customs that enclosure sought to do away with – ranging from petitions, court cases, demonstrations, to sabotage and riot, the destruction of fences and ditches, driving of animals onto enclosed land… At crucial periods enclosure led to armed rebellions, as in several counties across the southeast, southwest and East Anglia in 1549, and in several midlands counties in 1607.

Many battles were won – many more lost.

One battle that was fought hard, and enclosure prevented for two centuries (though ultimately lost), was that over Sydenham Common, also was known in early medieval times as Westwood or Westwood Common.  The name Westwood derives from the area being the western part of the parish of Lewisham, and heavily wooded; in fact Westwood was a remainder of the old Great North Wood.

Sydenham or Westwood Common (very occasionally also referred to as Shenewood) covered the area between modern Sydenham and Forest Hill. Bounded in the Southwest by today’s Westwood Hill & Crystal Palace Park, in the Southeast it reached to Mayow Park and Sydenham Road; to the north to where Honor Oak Park and Forest Hill Road now lie. It consisted of open fields and woodland belonging to the Manor of Lewisham, who were in turn, from the middle ages, the Abbots of Ghent, the Priors of Shene (near Richmond) and then the Archbishops of Canterbury. For centuries the common was split between coppices of farmed timber and open tracts where locals and parishioners of Lewisham had ‘Common Rights’ to graze cattle & gather fuel.

Henry VIII acquired Westwood in 1531, as part of the manor of Lewisham, an acquisition ratified by an act of Parliament in 1531.In the Act there was a proviso that the exchange was not to be hurtful to any person concerning the “Commons, ” or any rights of use which any person might or ought to have therein. The Crown, however, thereafter considered that Westwood Common was a portion of the demesne lands of the manor (thus the king’s to dispose of as he saw fit).

The coppice system was gradually abandoned, to allow more mature woods to grow for use by the navy – crucial to the wars waged by successive Tudor monarchs (and most successfully to the officially tolerated piracy in the West Indies that gave birth to both the beginnings of Britain’s naval imperialism and to the Atlantic slave trade). These trees were felled wholesale in the late sixteenth century, leaving a stripped common, apart from two main wooded areas, Coleson’s Coppice and Coopers Wood.

This open land was a strong temptation to potential enclosers.

The battle against enclosure began in 1605-6, when Henry Newport, a gentleman living in Lewisham and a Yeoman of the King’s Household (a royal courtier) persuaded king James I to lease him 500-600 acres of ‘Westwood’, and applied to fence a large part off for ‘improvement’.

Many inhabitants of Lewisham were small farmers or husbandmen who relied heavily on the free pasture available on the common. At this time there were also large numbers of squatters on the common, encouraged by the lack of restrictions on grazing of animals. They supported themselves almost entirely by raising pigs, cows and sheep.

There was an outcry locally in response to the proposal. Abraham Colfe, the vicar of Lewisham, played a central role in organised opposition to Newport. A number of local inhabitants claimed that they had always had common of pasture for all manner of cattle without number and at all times [i.e. that the land was not half year land], and also common of estovers and shreddings of all trees growing on the said common. Their first petition noted the value of the Common to local poor inhabitants:

“The Humble Petition of the inhabitants of the Parrishe of Lewsham :— “Wherefore the poore inhabitants of Lewsham aforesaide doe most humbly praye the Right Honorable the Earl of Salisburye in respect of his greate wisdom and justice and because he is the high Stewarde of Lewsham aforesaide that he wilbe pleased to be enformed of the sayd Newporte’s unjust proceedings and to relieve the poore inhabitants of Lewsham aforesaid that being above 500 poore housholders with wives and manye children greately relieved by the sayde Common and would be utterly undone yf yt should be unjustly taken from them. So shall theese poore inhabitants be alwayes ready to praye God as nevertheles for his honours long life and happie dayes with much increase of honor. “

They produced, in proof, the recollections of the “oldest inhabitants:
“Stephen Batt of Croydon of the age of 98 yeares testifieth for the same Comon by the name of Westwood or Sheenewood in his knowledge 80 yeares agoe and never heard the contrary which testimony was five yeares before the same Acte was made [ie., 1525]. “John Heathe of the age of 90 yeares testifiethe for the same Comon for 75 yeares which was at the time of the Acte made that it was then in his knowledge a Comon and alwaies so was used and that he never harde the contrary. “Thomas Frenche of Bromley of the age of 80 yeares testifiethe for the same common for 70 yeares. Arnolde Kinge of Beckenham of the age of 78 yeares testifiethe for the same comon in his knowledge for 65 yeares.”

Henry Newport asked for a commission of enquiry to look into the matter, and Sir Thomas Walsingham, Sir Ralphe Boswell, Henry Heyman, surveyor, and Michael Berisfforde were appointed “for the surveying and finding of a parcel of waste grounde in Lewsham in the County of Kent called Westwood to be the King’s and therein especially to enquire whether it be the King’s own waste in demeane or whether it be the King’s waste but yet a comon withall and of what yearly valewe it is.”

This commission seems to have found that the land belonged to the king but was a common, with the rights that this implied; however their verdict may not have been reached unanimously:
“On the 25th April 1606 the Commissioners did sitt at Greenwich to enquire and after evidence given to the jurye and the greater parte of the same jury meaninge to give up their verdict that Westwood was the King’s waste and yet a comon, they were dissolved and lefte for that time, wherby that Commission was expired”.(Abraham Colfe)

 

A painting of Sydenham Common, dating from the eighteenth century.

 

Another hearing in 1607 into the intended enclosure was inconclusive:

“The case came again before the Court of Exchequer in 1607, “after dinner, on a Starre chamber day… and againe ye 9th November, 1608,” but Newport either dropped the case at that time, “or other error fell out in ye proceedings, so that he obtained not as yet his purpose.”  The matter was left in abeyance…

But Newport was not, in fact, prepared to give up; he and his allies spent the following six years on ‘secret inquisitions’, plotting carefully to claim the land: “Since which time the aforesaide Henrie Newporte going about to defeate the inhabitants of Lewsham aforesaide of their saide Comon hathe secretly made an inquisition in a remote place and altogether without the knowledge of the saide inhabitants by that meanes seeking to get some sinister testimony uppon recorde againste the inhabitants, and also to prevent them of geving their evidence unto the jury as detendaunts of their righte of Comon.”

In 1614 Newport obviously felt his planning had built a good case, as he, together with two more gentlemen of the king’s household – Robert Raynes, the king’s sergeant of the buckhounds, and Innocent Lanyer, of Greenwich, one of the King’s musicians – approached the king again; this time obtaining a 60-year lease for 347 acres of Westwood – the vast majority of the common.

Locals with an interest in the common remaining open was again quick to organise opposition. They lodged a complaint against Newport and his co-patentees. After some preliminary proceedings it was agreed that Mr. John Burnett, one of the principal parishioners, who amongst others claimed to have common rights in Westwood, should be entered in the proceedings as representing the parish. The trial took place on 14th October, 1614, before the Barons of the Exchequer, touching the ‘Common of Westwood of 500 acres of ground lying in the parish of Lewisham’, with a jury of the County of Kent; John Sherman, of Greenwich, was foreman of the jury, and Henry Dobbins and Henry Abbot, of Greenwich, and John Leech, “of Detford,” were members.

However this hearing went against those opposed to the proposals: the jury ignored their complaints and found in favour of Newport and his allies. It is possible that the jury, drawn from members of local parishes, might have been weighted against the protestors, (perhaps because some of them had links to the enclosers, as a later jury was specifically noted as being drawn from parishes further away).

In response Abraham Colfe led a march of 100 parishioners to Tottenham High Cross, to petition to the king, a few days after the hearing, on October 20th: “Whereupon neer 100 people young and old went through ye City of London and a little on this side of Topnam high-crosse petitioned King James who very graciously heard ye petition and ordered the Lords of his Privy Counsell should take a course that he might be no more troubled about it.”

King James, uninterested, or unwilling to associate himself with a ruling that could alienate either side, passed it to the Privy Council for them to make a decision.

Newport and his fellow courtiers “then began very much to vexe ye inhabitants.” They immediately ordered fences erected around the common, recognising that if he could enclose the land, appeals to reverse the decision were less likely to succeed (a lesson possibly learnt from other previous enclosure battles  – actual possession counted for almost everything). “Presently the patentees began to make ditches about the common and inclosed it and drave out and killed sundry of the cattell of the inhabitants.”

The fences were put up over the winter, a crucial time for common rights, as residents were used to free access to collect firewood or gorse to burn, their only means of heating their homes. Abraham Colfe got busy fund-raising for an appeal. He and others collected money among local freeholders to take the case to the privy council. More than £100 is recorded as being collected. Further sums included £70 from ‘the Mayor and Commonality of London’… an interesting indication that the opposition had some friends in power in the City of London. Another march to petition the king was mounted on 19th December.

Local residents around the common, meanwhile, were not simply willing to accept the loss of rights of fuel gathering, and many continued to enter the common to collect wood. Lanier and Newport’s hired men then attacked some women gathering wood, which provoked a riot.

As with many enclosure struggles, there were different wings to the opposition. Vicar and the local worthies trying to establish an appeal against Newport were keen to see any action confined to court hearings, petitions, and dignified protest at the outside. Others, whose livelihoods or winter warmth depended on their continued ability to use the common, were prepared to use stronger methods – they had little choice.  Some began tearing down the fences and filling in drainage ditches Newport had ordered to be dug. Every time the enclosers men’ put fences up again, crowds gathered to break them down. In response Lanier and Newport’s men drove off more cattle and burned furze (gorsebushes) which were used as fuel by the inhabitants.

Several petitions were entered in 1615 regarding these troubles… including one on 31st March from the inhabitants of Lewisham, concerning a riot that had taken place on 2nd March.

Papers of Colfe from this time include a note on the activities of Henry Benden, a servant of Mr. Lanier, who continued to drive off the cattle of the inhabitants and obstructed the cutting of furze for fuel:  “Henry Benden and other of the patentees’ servants still drove of the cattell and spoiled some of them to death and would not let the poore have furzes. Hereupon the 22nd day being Ash Wednesday, Henry Benden being at church, after service I gave him advise, and wished him not to molest the poore in such sort by driving and hurting their cattell and hindering them of furzes: for if he should be sent for by a pursevant and committed for his contempt I thought his master (namely Mr. Lanier) would not beare him out in it.”

Colfe also noted descriptions of an attack by “one Southwell alias Thomas Foxe on Charles Parker of Lewisham on 20 April, an attack by Anthony Witherings on Thomas Coomes and Henry Hunt of Lewisham while they waited to present their suit to the Privy Council at the Royal Court at the Royal Court at Greenwich, a description of an attack by Henry Benden, Mr. Henry Newport’s son and a brother of Mr. Robert Raynes on Thomas Muscrop of Beknam (Beckenham) and Edward Caustin after they had broken through the new hedges into Westwood, in search of sheep”. Colfe noted the numbers of sheep lost on a small slip of paper.

Colfe drafted several petitions: to the Earl of Salisbury (as high Steward of Lewisham), the Earl of Somerset, (the Lord High Chamberlain), and this one, to the Archbishop of Canterbury:
“To ye right reverend father in God the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury his Grace Primate and Metropolitan of all England and one of his Majesties most Hon. Privy Councell. The humble petition of his Majesties poor tenants ye inhabitants of Lewsham in Kent neare Greenwich:

Most humbly shew to your grace many hundreds of ye poore distressed inhabitants of Lewsham that whereas we have time out of mind quietly enjoyed a wast peece of ground of 500 acres called ye Comon of Westwood (as we can shew by auncient deeds since ye 5th or 9th yeare of King Henry ye 5th being 196 years past, by an Act of Parliament reserving ye commons of ye manor of Lewsham to ye inhabitants, by ye King’s owne records calling it Westwood lying open and common, and by witnesses for 80 yeares as long as man can remember) yet Robert Raynes, Innocent Lanier and Henry Newport three of his majesties servants obtained a grant and a lease for 60 yeares from his Majesty of ye said common upon a rent of 40 markes by ye yeare and ye last terme impleaded your poor suppliants in ye Court of Exchequer and gott a verditt and judgment and are now closing ye said common to ye utter undoing of above 500 poore people. And whereas they had possessed diverse of ye nobles and by them hade meanes to informe his majesty that only 2 or 3 had ye chief benefitt of ye common and not ye poore, we were inforced to goe above an 100 of us ye 19 of December with petition to ye King’s Majestie for his mercifull favore, who most graciously promised we should have justice and in ye end referred ye consideracon of our petition to ye Lords of his Privy Councell. We most humbly desire your grace when our petition shall come to be heard before you that your grace will afford us your gracious favour for our quiet enjoying of ye said common, it being as we do solemnly protest a chief stay and maintenance for pasture of cattail, furses and bushes for fyering to above 500 poore people, and we shall pray to God for your grace’s health, long life and eternall happiness…”

The Privy Council referred the matter to the Lord Chief Baron and Sir Edward Bromley, one of the Barons of the Court of Exchequer, to try to mediate between the parishioners and Newport and his friends. But the patentees demanded £1000 in compensation in the event of not being allowed to proceed with their enclosures, which the parishioners would not agree to. Seeing that there was no chance of agreement, in April 1615 the Privy Council ordered that there should be a new trial, with John Eaton, gentleman, of Lewisham, listed as defendant to represent the inhabitants. At the same time the Privy Council ordered that the patentees (Newport & Co.) being in possession should continue to hold the ground meanwhile, that the gates and ditches destroyed by the inhabitants should be repaired by them; on the other hand the enclosers were banned from burning or selling any of the furze growing in or upon the common nor “disturbe or interrupt the said inhabitants of the manor of Lewsham nor any other his Majesties liege people to the use of all such wayes as have hearetofore byn used in, through or by or over the said parcell of ground called Westwood” until the trial and further order taken.’”

The Justices of the Peace for the area were instructed to punish any offenders, pending a ruling.

Though this may have been intended to prevent violence by either side, by June the Lewisham residents found that no action was being taken by the J.P.s against the enclosers, despite locals’ cattle being found slaughtered in Westwood and the skins of dead sheep being hung provocatively from bushes to deter resistance. The Justices, being local landowners, may have had interests in the enclosure themselves, or been unwilling to offend rich or powerful neighbours with connections to the court. Meanwhile vicar Abraham Colfe was subject to attacks on his personality, portrayed as an instigator of rebellion against the king: a petition from Newport’s group complained that
“Whereas on October 20th 1614 Mr. Abraham Colfe Vicar of Lewisham led through the City of London one hundred of his parishioners to Tottenham High Crosse and there petitioned his Majesty against the privileges granted to our clients in the common of Westwood and made many and slanderous accusations against them thereby filling the ear of his most sacred Majesty with injurious regard of our clients. And whereas our clients are desirous to maintain the good esteem of their most dread sovereign and the peaceable occupation of the lands that have been granted them and which they have at much cost fenced etc. they desire to be confirmed in their possession.”

Colfe’s petition to the Archbishop of Canterbury (quoted earlier) responded to this denunciation:
“Further in particular your humble suppliant Abraham Colf, minister of Lewsham, sheweth to your grace that whereas Robt Raynes, Innocent Laniere and Henry Newport in a late petition to his Majesty have abused your said suppliant Abraham Colf, saying that he out of his seditious spirit stirred up ye people tumultuously to clamour ye King’s Majestie, without any just ground or colour; and further Innocent Lanier hath used sundry other defamations and slanderous speaches ; also that he {i.e., Colfe) hath publickely spoken against ye proceedings of his Majestie’s Court here as though he had called publike meetings in the church to make ye people curse them. That it would please your grace to relieve your said suppliant against ye impudent slanders, and he shalbe bound ever to pray, as he doth every day upon his knees to Almighty God for your grace’s safety and favour with God and men.”

The parishioners of Lewisham also signed the following petition:
“We ye inhabitants of ye parish of Lewsham in Kent whose names are under written hearing of the sundry defamations and uncharitable speaches given out in a petition to ye King’s Majesty against Abraham Colfe vicar of our parish and being desired by him to testify our knowledg of his behaviour among us doe solemnly protest before God and witnes that for a truth unto all those whom it may concerne, that the said Abraham Colfe having lived as a curate and vicar these 10 yeares among us hath not to our knowledg demeaned himself otherwise then becometh the minister of God’s word; for he hath bene very painfull in his calling, duly preaching once (and for ye great part of the summer twice every Sabath among vs) liberall to ye poore, given to hospitality and other good workes, in his life peaceable, not having had any one suit or controversy in law all this time against any of us; no way savouring of a factious or sedicious spirit neither in publick or private speaches or actions; but continually dehorting us during ye time of our distressed suit about our common both from reviling them in speaches that have sought to get away ye meanes of our living and from perfourming any outward act that might be either offensive to his Majestie or prejudiciall to ye lawes of ye realme. In witnes wherof we have willing- and freely subscribed our names…”

The enclosers apparently labelled the protesters rich individuals who would not themselves suffer from the enclosure. Which may have been partly true, in that not all opponents of enclosure were necessarily immediately affected, but was certainly not completely accurate, as the poorer residents taking direct action most certainly were impacted. But they didn’t count as anyone to be worried about…

In July another court hearing was held, but could not resolve the matter. The group who had leased the common may have been willing to give up the enclosure (possibly the resistance had got to them somewhat by this time), but demanded excessive compensation for giving up their holding.

By October 1615, however, the Privy Council had had enough. Clearly the trouble the enclosure had caused was too big a price to pay – social peace had to be restored. They appointed an independent jury, chosen out of Kent, amongst whom it was noted that there was no one belonging to the immediately neighbouring parishes to Lewisham, and a hearing was held on 16th October, again before the Barons of the Exchequer. This time the jury agreed that Westwood was an ancient common with all the attendant customal rights. As Colfe wrote with relief “they passed [a verdict] in the behalfe of the poore inhabitants’ although common rights extended to many more. Mr. Colfe:  “The Lord’s holy name for ever for his great tender mercies be blessed a verdict passed in the behalf of the poore inhabitants and on the 18th November following judgment was also granted and a copy both of the order and of that judgment taken out under the seale of the Exchequier Chamber which is kept by us.”

Part of the reason why the local vicar and some other landowners in Lewisham opposed the enclosure may have been the prospect of the destitute squatters evicted from the Common becoming a burden on the ratepayers of the parish, if they were deprived of their tenuous livings (this is an issue that is quoted in other enclosure disputes). Though a genuine feeling that people across classes should be able to enjoy the economic benefit available to Westwood was also shared by both the very poor and many of their ‘betters’. Many well-off local residents had economic interests in common land themselves, that they resented larger landlords attempting to trample on. Many of those with written or customary ‘common rights’ might themselves be well-to-do landowners or tradesmen.

There were many social tensions at work in the Sydenham events, as with almost all struggles around enclosure. It wasn’t a simple case of class against class. Some existing landowners and rising men with money and power saw the wealth enclosure could bring them; others of the same background felt either social obligations to the less well off, genuinely buying ideologically into their role as protectors of the poor, as part of a paternalist, vertically interdependent society opposed to the ruthless destruction of complex social ties and responsibilities.

Others thought that the upheavals enclosure brought could threaten stability, and maybe lead to rebellion. And not only were authorities afraid of the violent response that enclosures could provoke, but the enclosure process was at this time often opposed by a section of the establishment. In the early seventeenth century, the king and certain sections of the nobility often sought allies among the rural population, for its economic power struggles against the rising merchant & improving classes. Pressure could sometimes be put on the authorities, to stop or reverse enclosures.

Not for the last time in anti-enclosure struggles, a tension existed between the more legalistic approach of Abraham Colfe and the parish worthies, and the violent resistance of the local poor, whose livelihoods were directly threatened. In fact though both strands contributed to the defeat of the enclosure, for this time at least. It’s doubtful that a dual strategy was in any way agreed, but in practice the violence and the petitions showed the Privy Council the potential for disorder but with a moderate party to make a deal with, rather than be shown giving in to the resistance of the poor. But probably the victory might not have been won without both.

Enclosures were a very politically sensitive question at this time. The early seventeenth century brought mass open warfare against enclosing landowners: most famously in the midlands in 1607, where thousands of the landless poor fought the militia, destroying fences, and breaking open enclosures. Interestingly this was where the names of Levellers & Diggers were seemingly first adopted or used to describe these poor rebels. Later these names would assume political significance in the aftermath of the English Civil War. The revolt would have been fresh on the minds of the Privy Council when hearing cases over Sydenham, and they would have borne in mind that King James had given special orders to the Commission appointed to enquire into the cause of the 1607 riots, that care was to be taken that the poor received no injury by the encroachment of their richer neighbours.

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The extent of Sydenham Common shown on a modern map

 

The victory of Colfe and the parishioners of Lewisham seems to have prevented large-scale enclosure in Sydenham for a century and a half, until the 1750s, when trouble broke out over Coopers Wood, once accounted the southern corner of the common, which lay just south of modern Westwood Hill, between the railway line and Lawrie Park Avenue.

Cooper’s Wood had first been detached from the common & begun to be “illegally” enclosed around 1540, though the loss of common rights here was apparently disputed locally for 200 years. Gradually houses built on the edge of the wood acquired large front gardens, and more houses were built, encroaching onto the wood. But many locals had never accepted the shutting off of the wood. In 1754 “persons claiming right of common” several times threw down fences surrounding the Wood and asserted rights of access and gathered wood for fuel. One target of these agitators was George Thornton, landlord of the Greyhound Inn in Sydenham, a tenant of the western part of Coopers Wood; his fences were “thrown down and prostrated”.  (The Greyhound Inn is still there, at the junction of  Kirkdale and Westwood Hill).

A year later, in 1755, there was a legal case in the Exchequer Court involving the denial of common rights to collect wood in Colson’s Wood or Colson’s Coppice, the area to the north of the old Common. This is now an area bounded by Ewelme Rd, Horniman Gardens, Devonshire Road, and Dunoon rd. One John Anderson sued the owner Thomas Hodsdon, who had prevented him from exercising his common rights in the Coppice. The Hodsdon family had bought up many acres of Sydenham land since 1713 – they were wealthy wine merchants, with an eye on possible future development. Hodsdon’s cousin had leased 17 acres of land adjoining Coleson’s Coppice to a brickmaker, clearly intending to begin a house building program in the area. John Anderson was no poor cottager, though; he was a well-to-do merchant living in Sydenham Road, seemingly acting as the representative of a group of residents in a test case. Nothing seems to have come of the claim, though, as Colson’s Coppice continued to be sold as freehold land:  it had been detached from the Common for too long to be considered common land.

Forty years later a last ditch stand against enclosures on Sydenham Common took place in Colson’s Wood. Samuel Atkinson, a Tooley Street cheese merchant, (who is called by some the ‘Father of Forest Hill’) bought the estate, & between 1787 and 1789 created the present Honor Oak Road, a new route from Sydenham to Peckham Rye, (where there had only been a track before) as a first step to opening up the wood for building. In 1789 he had constructed a house for himself, and was selling plots on the new road for development.

Those who still maintained that the wood was common land didn’t take this lying down; but resistance to the enclosure of the Wood was to end violently. In October 1792, the Times reported the death of Michael Bradley, who had a cottage at the Bell Green end of Sydenham Road. He and others had set out to assert a right of way:

“It appears that this Bradley and others belonging to Sydenham Parish, went a few days since on a piece of land called Colson’s Wood, to ascertain their rights of commonage, which have been held upwards of 200 years. Mr Atkinson met the deceased and his associates, and asked them their business; they replied, there was a footway across, which right their fore-fathers had enjoyed and so would they. Atkinson said they should go no further – and the first man who did, he would shoot.”

Michael Bradley stepped forward and Atkinson then shot him; Bradley died a few days later.

“The Wednesday following, Atkinson purchased the right of this wood and pasturage, consisting of 52 acres, out of Chancery for £350 – and has since enclosed it. The Coroner’s Inquest sat on the body of Bradley on Friday and Saturday, the 19th and 20th of October, at Sydenham, and brought in their verdict, Manslaughter, against one Atkinson… The man was shot in the leg by a pistol, which fractured the bone, and a mortification ensued. The deceased has left a family and four children…”

Despite this verdict in the coroner’s court, Atkinson doesn’t seem to have been charged or convicted in connection with Bradley’s death. He continued to own the estate and develop it, though he may have become unpopular locally, and decided it wasn’t a good idea to remain living in the parish, since he let his house to tenants in 1793.

Although the case caused uproar, it seems to have marked almost the end of the two century-long year struggle for common rights here: the whole of what remained of Sydenham Common was enclosed finally by an Act in 1810, during the most intense period for enclosure of open space in Britain. By this time the economic importance of the common for subsistence had declined considerably, as London expanded into the surrounding rural areas, and suburban villas were replacing agriculture. The descendants of the marginalised cottagers who once had made a bare living off the common had flocked into London to try to make a living there.

Landowners in the parish were allocated all the remaining common land, with the power to enclose it. Even after two hundred years of building and clearance, there were still five hundred acres to be developed. The main beneficiary was William Legge, the Earl of Dartmouth, the largest landowner in Lewisham. (The family had been Lords of the Manor of Lewisham since the seventeenth century: Dartmouth Road and the Dartmouth Arms in Forest Hill are named after their title.)

The only remaining part of the old common which still remains a green space is Sydenham Wells Park, which had become a popular spa of sorts in the 18th century. Interestingly, this spa subsequently became disreputable and infamous. Large numbers of people came to drink the spring’s waters (apparently foul tasting but good for you!). Later the emphasis on the healthy aspects of the Wells declined, giving way to binge drinking: it became popular to mix the ‘waters’ with other liquids (brandy, mostly); rowdy behaviour was rife. There were complaints about the “rabble of Londoners” flocking here. The Wells were eventually closed down in the late 19th century.

One reason Sydenham Common was apparently targeted for enclosure was its annual popular fair, which was resented by the gentry & posher residents for the ‘lowlife’ it attracted. This is a regular theme with proposals to enclose in the 18th-19th centuries, not only for profit but control of open spaces, which often could be used for unruly gatherings of the poor, not only fairs and makeshift dwellings, but later for political rallies and demonstrations. In 1766 the Sydenham fair was moved to Kent House Fields. It was later suppressed in 1836, as were most of the old popular local fairs in the early nineteenth century.

However this wasn’t entirely the end of resistance to privatisation of space in the area. In 1867, wealthy silk warehouse owner Richard Beall tried to block off the upper end of Taylor’s Lane, off Sydenham Hill, to increase the privacy of his posh home, Longton Hall. This enraged locals who used this path, however, and channeling the spirit of Michael Bradley and the rioters who helped see off Henry Newport, unruly elements smashed the walls & fences he had built. At one point 100s turned up with axes & hammers… After several attempts & continued demolitions, Beall gave up, eventually going insane. Taylor’s Lane was permanently re-opened.

Nearby One Tree Hill also became the arena for an anti-enclosure battle in 1897… (During this struggle investigations turned up the fact that One Tree Hill had never in fact been a part of Sydenham Common, which initially kyboshed any claim for common rights – though the fight was eventually won anyway…)

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Read other past tense posts about enclosures

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