Today in London riotous history, 1878: crowd tear down enclosure fences, Eelbrook Common, Fulham

Eelbrook (variously also spelt as Hillebrook, Hellbrook, etc) Common in Fulham was open marshy land for centuries, Fulham people grazed animals there. The Common had seen the usual disputes over use associated with common land: in 1615 there were strictures issued against people grazing animals here outside of the permitted times of year. Attempts to ‘improve’ the Common had usually failed; in 1656, Parliamentary General Edmund Harvey, having bought the manor when the Bishops were driven out during the Commonwealth, made an ‘abortive attempt’ to enclose it (agreeing to pay 50 shillings a year for it), which collapsed when he was jailed after the restoration of the monarchy. Some slices were sold off and enclosed in the 18th century: John Powell bought a chunk for £100 in 1773.

By the 19th century it had been reduced to 13 acres, and was a playground for poor kids by day and said to be a haunt for prostitutes and their clients by night. Respectable folk allegedly kept away.

In 1878 the Lords of the manor, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, planned to enclose it. Already that year a section on the north side Common had been detached by the Metropolitan Railway Company, for the laying of a new line; so folk were angry.

At a meeting of the Fulham District Board of Works, one Dr. Pickersgill proposed a notion calling upon the Vestry surveyor to pull down the fence; but after a long debate the matter was adjourned to the next meeting of the Board on the 20th March.

As it turned out, in the meantime, local inhabitants took the matter into their own hands…

A public held meeting at nearby Beaufort House (presided over by, amongst others, Lord Ranelagh, Lieutenant-General MacMurdo and the Liberal-Radical politician Sir Charles Dilke) got rowdy and a section of the crowd, including women and children, marched to the Common and burned the fences: This committee had been content to pass a motion against the recent enclosure, asserting that there was ‘was ample evidence that it had been used as common land for centuries’. “‘ However many of the inhabitants were unwilling to leave the matter at passing resolutions.

On leaving the meeting ‘a large number of parishioners’ made their way to the common where they broke down the fence, which ran for some 1,200 feet.

‘When the meeting broke up, almost everybody seemed to be going the same way. One or two cries of “Down with the fence” were raised, but there was no response, yet it seemed strange that so many should be going in the direction of Eel Brook Common… Suddenly there was a sharp crack, which announced the work of demolition had begun. Then there was a responsive cheer, and a rush forward.

Men, Women and children were engaged in the work of breaking down the fences and piling the wood up into large bonfires. Soon half a dozen fires were blazing and drawing comments from the crowd. ‘Some told how for years they had daily walked along the footpath, [on the common] others speculated with quiet satisfaction on the cost of the fence, variously estimated at from £50 to £100’. The police on arriving tried to capture one of the demonstrators but stepped back when it appeared the crowd “were prepared to riot”.

After the destruction of the fences, the alleged leaders were feted by the crowd, under the eyes of the police. A contemporary newspaper account in the English Labourer’s Chronicle of March 23rd, 1878 reported:

” A gentlemanly dressed young man took round his hat for beer money for the active destroyers of the fence, even asking the policemen themselves for a contribution.”

The Commissioners gave up on their plan to enclose the Common. Which remains open space today, free for all to access.

The action at Eel Brook Common has to be seen in the context: the 1860s and 1870s saw a series of protests and riots against enclosures of open space across the London area, including at Epping Forest, Peckham Rye, Wandsworth Common, Plumstead Common, Wanstead Flats, Chiselhurst Common… Most of these would end in victorious preservation of rights of access to the space in question.

Eel Brook Common was for a number of years a popular socialist speaking spot: for example, the Hammersmith branch of the Socialist League held open-air public meetings here in the 1880s. In September 1917, an anti-war meeting was held here; Tom Cox (later a local councillor) urged the opening of peace negotiations with Germany; he was shouted down by a hostile crowd.

Sources: The Times, 15th March 1878.

English Labourer’s Chronicle, March 23rd, 1878

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Not every battle against enclosure was won – far from it. The victorious struggle over Eelbrook Common was echoed a few years later, when disputes arose over buildings on Town Meadows, Fulham, between the river and modern Town Mead Road. Also known as Fulham Marsh, Fulham Meadows, the 77 acres of land here, lying between from the Creek and Broomhouse Dock was traditionally lammas land. Locals had grazing rights for livestock starting every year on Lammas Day (Aug 1st) for 6 months.

In 1888, some meadows fronting Carnwath Road were enclosed by residents to be sold off for building. Other local residents protested they had grazing rights and broke down the fences. Fulham Vestry investigated the issue, confirmed the lammas rights had existed since 1448 at least, and asked the London County Council to sponsor a bill to either convert the meadows into an open space or buy land elsewhere for one. This fell through, however. The issue grew fractious and divided the area; a Fulham Vestry Reform Association arose, for whom the common land issue was one of a number of beefs with the Vestry, along with other issues like the (presumably corrupt) system of issuing works contracts, and local charities… Eventually this group stood for election and merged with others into local Progressives on the Metropolitan Borough Council).

In December 1890, the Chair of Fulham Vestry’s Lammas Rights Committee went to the Town Meadows, accompanied by several workmen, cops and horses. They entered the enclosures and grazed a horse on all the disputed land – staking a claim over the lammas rights. The Vestry was then sued by one owner for criminal damage to fences. This claim ended up in the High Court, and on 22 Feb 1893, the Court ruled for the owner; Fulham folk lost their common rights. The land was built over.

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