Today in London’s media history, 1814: Times proprietor John Walter bypasses printers to instroduce new steam-press

The first edition of the Daily Universal Register was published on 1st January, 1785. It was in competition with eight other daily newspapers in London. Like the other newspapers, it included parliamentary reports, foreign news and advertisements. Proprietor John Walter made it clear in the first edition that he was primarily concerned with advertising revenue: “The Register, in its politics, will be of no party. Due attention should be paid to the interests of trade, which are so greatly promoted by advertisements.”

However, he was happy to negotiate a secret deal where he was paid £300 a year to publish stories favourable to the government.

In 1788 John Walter decided to change the name and the style of his newspaper. Walter now started to produce a newspaper that appealed to a larger audience. This included stories of the latest scandals and gossip about famous people in London. Walter called his new paper The Times.

John Walter handed over the running of The Times to his son John Walter II in January, 1803. He died in 1812.

In 1810 John Walter II’s harsh response to a printers’ strike gave The Times another advantage – a tradition of ‘flexible’, ie non-union labour. Walter prosecuted 21 printers for conspiracy for organising a strike, and they were jailed (one man died in prison).

As a result, the paper was boycotted by the printers’ societies. The highly skilled printers and compositors were gaining a stranglehold on printing, because without their skills, the presses wouldn’t run.  Although still in its infancy, the power of the Fleet Street printers, expressed through their strong sense of solidarity, and insistence on their control over the working practices, often came up against the newspaper employers’ interests. Walter wasn’t the first – or last – media mogul to attempt to circumvent the workers with new technology…

In 1814 Walter installed a steam-powered Koenig printing machine in his printworks, which increased the speed that newspapers could be printed. By the end of that year, the Times was selling over 7,000 copies a day.

At the end of the 18th century printing was still performed on wooden presses. These ran very slowly, producing inconsistent impressions of varying quality, and could only be operated with a great deal of physical human effort and strength. In addition, the small size of the platen, the plate in the press which forced the paper against the type, slowed down the process of printing on a large scale – a handicap for a newspaper. (Some printers got round this by composing pages in duplicate and working them on separate presses.)

The development, in 1800, of the Stanhope press went some way to increase pressroom capacity. Made of iron, the Stanhope took advantage of new techniques in casting metal, had a platen double the size of the wooden press and allowed a full-size forme to be printed at one pull, allowing a vastly quicker print run.

The Stanhope was a significant advance in the pressroom; it was, however, still based on human pulling power and not on mechanical energy, which inevitably limited its speed.

The solution emerged with Friedrich Koenig and Andreas Bauer’s development of the Koenig and Bauer steam powered cylinder printing machine, in 1810-12.

This was first applied to book printing, but had obvious implications for much larger scale printing of newspapers than was then possible. Several newspaper proprietors were invited to see Koenig’s new cylinder machine, among them James Perry of the Morning Chronicle and John Walter II of The Times. Walter saw the potential in Koenig’s idea, and ordered two steam-driven machines for The Times; but so as to ensure a monopoly he demanded that no other such machines were to be for newspaper production during the life of the patent within 10 miles of the City of London.

Walter still had to launch the new press in the face of the established practices of the Times printers. Don’t forget that working class attitudes towards new technology were, at the time, justifiably suspicious: new machinery almost always benefitted the masters, resulting in loss of skilled jobs, cut wages, cheaper labour. The period when Walter was planning his revolution in newspaper printing was the era of the Luddites, smashing the mechanised looms that were impoverishing them. In London, too, there was a recent tradition of machine-wrecking, among the Spitalfields silkweavers and before that, the sawyers of Limehouse

To avoid this provoking a strike, disorder, or getting his new press smashed up, Walter arranged for the parts of the machine to be shipped secretly to a workshop adjoining The Times offices on Printing House Square; where they were put together, hidden away from the composing and pressrooms.

The printing of the first issue was a clandestine affair. Bauer [Koenig’s business partner] bound his men over with a £100 bond to divulge nothing of the new press. Still, rumours were rife on Printing House Square and some of the compositors and pressmen threatened to withdraw their labour. Walter tricked his staff on the evening of 29 November 1814, telling them that the presses had to be held for important news expected from the Continent. At six o’clock in the morning, Walter entered the press room and astonished the men by announcing the issue of 29 November 1814 had already been printed by steam, that if they attempted violence there was a force ready to repress it, but if they were peaceable their wages would be paid until similar employment could be procured. In the event, the edition passed into circulation with little agitation from the workforce.

170 years later, of course, Rupert Murdoch reprised this trick, planning to beat the Fleet Street printers (whose power over the presses had grown mighty) by introducing new professes and shifting to a fortified HQ in Wapping – thus sparking the 1986-7 News International lockout

Stealing the Commons: A Short introduction to Battles for Open Space in London

Open Space – or Closed Space?

It’s easy to take open space for granted in the city…

Parks, commons, woods, from the heaths to the slivers of green at the edge of the canals… Green places in the heart of London, places of refuge, pleasure, places for picnics, games… They can be a lifesaver, when work and stress and all rises up and threatens to overwhelm you… you can lie on your back while the wind dances in the trees. When you’ve got no garden, when your family drives you nuts, when you just love the grass. For the mad endless football matches, falling out of trees, hide and seek as the sun dapples the moss; for dancing round your phone in the summer evenings… trying not to giggle at the t’ai chi cult, wiping the tear away as you daughter’s bike wobbles round the lake for the first time, even for when you’re masochistic enough to go running on rainy mornings…

The benefits of having access to open green space are obvious, for exercise, mental health and wellbeing, teaching children about wildlife and nature, having somewhere green to just relax; quite apart from the playgrounds, sports facilities, water features, running tracks, that go with them.

But we shouldn’t assume that the open green spaces that we know and love are just there, an entitlement. In most cases they exist because people fought hard in the past, for access, to save them from being built on or sold off, or walled off for the exclusive use of the rich. And because we have free access to them now doesn’t mean it will always be like that… We have grown used to access to green space.

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.

Private public space – where they can tell us what we can and can’t do; space they can ban us from, keep us out of. Public spaces that operate under private control are plagued by corporate restrictions: social gatherings, playing musical instruments, making a speech, releasing balloons and many other pursuits can be banned. It can be closed to public access for private events. And increasing privatisation of space in cities is often tied up with CCTV, surveillance, control of our behaviour.

Not that public bodies aren’t doing their bit: Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) allow councils to make illegal ‘social problems’ like sleeping rough in an attempt to drive homeless people from town or city. Councils are also dealing with developers that give them control over paths. Planning laws are being ‘relaxed’ nationally to allow developers a freer and quicker ride when they want to build . Everywhere slivers of green not protected by law are vanishing; or social housing with access and views over green space is being replaced with new developments for the rich (as at Woodberry Down, or West Hendon). Councils are building on small areas of green space on council estates, bulldozing parks to build more flats (usually private) or demolishing blocks to hand the land to developers.

The threat to open space is part and parcel of the massive changes underway in the city, attempts to permanently alter the capital in favour of the wealthy, driving those who can’t afford it to the margins or out of the city entirely.

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 realise. 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, which current government proposals could sweep away. 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.

However, it is worth remembering, that open space has always been contested space – in London as much as elsewhere. From resistance to its enclosure, to its role in hosting radical crowds and disorderly gatherings, as a venue for immoral and illicit pleasures, which the respectable wanted to put a stop to. If landowners, the rich, authority, have usually seen open space as a resource for their profit, or as a problem to be controlled, there has always been opposing views, and those willing to struggle to keep places open, and to use them for purposes at odds with the rich and powerful. From an invaluable source of fuel and food, to the playground for our pleasures; from refuge from the laws made by the rich, to the starting point of our social movements…
THE COMMONS ARE OURS!

Enclosure and Resistance

Many if not most of the open spaces – commons, woods, greens – of any size that remain today in London (and nationally), exist because they were preserved from development by collective action. Many of the commons and parks that enrich life in the capital wouldn’t be there if they hadn’t been actively defended by legal actions and campaigns, or by rioting, tearing down fences & re-opening up enclosed land. Even much of the space eventually lost and built over, was defended for centuries.

For uncounted centuries, common lands, forests and wastes provided people with myriad ways of making a living; from collecting wood for fuel, gathering fruit, herbs, and other foodstuffs, to hunting for animals for food, and grazing of livestock. In Saxon times, most land was open to use by all. After the Norman Conquest all land was redistributed to a new ruling class, who introduced many laws to force peasants into serfdom to work for the wealthy, restricted the poor’s access to land, and prevented them from hunting. Many serfs however managed to rent a small plot of land to feed themselves. Overwhelmingly villages consisted of a patchwork of open fields ploughed by different people, paying money or in kind to the landowner.
Over the years resistance opened up many ways for the poor to make a living. Although what we called common land was not ‘held in common’, was always owned by the Lord of the Manor, over the centuries customs and traditions grew up about what people were allowed to take, use and where from…

But none of this took place without resistance from those being excluded from the land.
While the Statute of Merton in 1235 established the legal power for landowners to enclose land, and hundreds of laws were passed against ‘trespass’ (and other crimes such as travelling around, being homeless or Roma), resistance was constant.

Just a few of the countless struggles against enclosure of open space in the London area:

with links to longer posts on some spaces… more will be added as we write ’em

1263 – City crowds threw open lanes blocked up by justiciars… and followed it up in 1264 by destroying fences round the king’s brother’s park in Isleworth.

1292 – Eastenders defeated the Bishop of Stepney’s attempt to enclose two woods in Bethnal Green, used by locals for chasing hares, rabbits etc…

1314, Pinner Park – residents illegally felled trees belonging to the Archbishop of Canterbury; in 1323 – fences round the park were broken down.

What started at the discretion of the Lords was fought over, often violently, and concessions won by hardfought struggles came to be viewed as ‘common rights’.

From the sixteenth century, pressure for profit from land rents began to see land being enclosed – fenced off, with smaller open fields being ploughed together into much larger farms. Already in the 1510s this was forcing people off the land and into destitution; over the next 300 years, enclosure would increase hugely, creating a mass exodus from the best farming land, pushing hundreds of thousands first into marginal lands, wastes and woods, and then into the growing cities. The impetus for enclosure came entirely from the search for greater profits for the landlord classes. Propagandists for the process made much of how it improved agricultural efficiency – historians still argue about whether this was even true. But enclosure ultimately made fortunes for the landowning aristocracy; and as much of this money was also later funnelled into industry, it was a huge driver for Britain’s industrial revolution.

This was fought every step of the way…

1515 or 1516 – Moorfields, archers destroyed fences put up by rich residents to prevent them using fields.

Across the south of the country a series of rebellions, riots and disturbances erupted in 1548-49, protesting the hardships caused by enclosure; this is sometimes known as the ‘Commotion Time’.
The largest revolt in Norfolk – Kett’s Rebellion – needed an army to put it down.

In the London area in 1548-9, there was resistance at Ruislip and at Enfield

and trouble also manifested in struggles in London, as attacks were made on enclosures on the suburban common fields. Martial law had to be declared in the capital.

Riots, direct action, trespass and sabotage against denial of common rights and fencing off of common land became commonplace (to coin a phrase!)

1576 – locals massed to tear up fences and pull up palings round Osterley Park, while queen Elizabeth was visiting the enclosing lord of the manor

1592 – the bailiff of Westminster and a crowd tore down fences on Neat House Fields, (round modern Victoria) and Charing Cross.

In 1607 enclosures sparked a widespread series of insurrections across the midlands.

A map showing how Sydenham Common has been built over in four centuries

At the same time, there were mass movements near London. On Sydenham Common in Lewisham, an enclosure attempt 1605-15 was resisted by locals who marched to petition the king, as well as fighting pitched battles to defend common.

At Greenford, West London, fences surrounding enclosures were destroyed nu crowds in 1613.

In 1618, it was reported that locals had encroached on Harrow Weald Common and built cottages in defiance of the lord of the manor (Lord Northwick), nicking bits if his land for gardens, in response to him enclosing the common in 1607.

Riots, rebellion, direct action against their being denied common rights became commonplace.

The huge changes in land use taking place in the early sixteenth century, the mass dislocation of peoples, formed a major motivation for the support for the parliamentarian side in the English Civil War, and for the communal ideas of groups like the True Levellers (Diggers), who took over land to work it on common in 1649. Ironically, however, many of the leaders of the puritan side supported enclosure, and king James I and Charles I (though an enthusiastic land-grabber himself) had backed those fighting off enclosures.

1641: Royal grounds enclosed on Hounslow Heath were attacked and entered by irate peasants.

1648, Hanworth, Lord Cottington’s enclosures attacked and fences thrown down.

1649: The local poor of Eltham & Lee tore down fences in Horn Park.

On Enfield Chase: enclosures here by ‘incomers’ (many New Model Army officers) were resisted by rioters in 1659.

The 1659 events at Enfield also prompted local writer William Covell to set down his ideas about collective use of land in opposition to enclosure.

It wasn’t only land that was being enclosed – early capitalists were beginning to privatise other natural resources of the earth, like water. The building of the New River from Hertford to feed water use in the city of London 1609-13 was based on private capital and exploited for profit.

Locals break into Richmond Park to ‘Beat the Bounds’, 1751

The main big wave of enclosures took place in England, from 1750 to 1830. 5000 enclosure acts saw 21% of the country fenced off, totally changing the nature of agriculture, to the profit of the landowners and the dire loss for the poor; reducing farmworkers to waged labourers with little or no access to their own land or common rights.

Richmond Park – enclosed by king Charles I in 1637; in 1751, locals broke in to ‘beat the bounds’. A legal case eventually opened up access to the park, 1750s.

At Hampton, in 1686, women were accused of having pulled down enclosure fences.

Bushy Park – blocked rights of way were opened up 1754 after radical shoemaker Tim Bennett challenged the landowner.

In 1766/7 Stanwell locals defeated landowners attempting enclosing of Hounslow Heath.

Hampstead Heath, 1776: Actress Mrs Lessingham caused a riot by building herself a house on common land. (In 1906: Soap magnate William Lever, bought the same house, and tried but failed to block right of way on land here, due to local opposition.) Hampstead Heath was finally secured against enclosure and development in 1868 after forty years of campaigning.

Enclosure Surveyors at work

Sydenham Common: In 1754 fences were thrown down and reclaimed rights to gather fuel in Cooper’s Wood. But in 1792 Michael Bradley was murdered by landowner Samuel Atkinson, for exercising common rights in enclosed Colson’s Coppice.1794,

1794: Streatham Common – locals burnt the furze (gorse bushes common right allowed them to collect for fuel) before landowner could collect it, and demolished his fences.

1797- 1802, Harrow – an Association for Opposing Harrow Inclosure Bill fought enclosures. Although in 1810 commoners were breaking fences in 1810 in a desperate attempt to stop the physical process of enclosures, the battle was lost.

1798, Hanwell – locks were removed from gates and former common fields had cattle driven on to them in defiance of farmer. In 1813 newly enclosed land here was invaded for unruly sports.

1801, Bedfont – locals defeated an attempt to enclose Bedfont Common.

There was opposition to enclosures in Harlington in 1801, which delayed enclsoure here till 1819.

There was also trouble around Ruislip and Harmondsworth in 1801 over enclosures ((Harmondsworth had a centuries long tradition of stroppy tenants fighting with the lords of the manor).

1803 – Roxeth Common was finally enclosed, after years of stout resistance.

1803, Wormwood Scrubs – a court case in the King’s Bench defeated fencing off of the Scrubs.

Between 1812 and 1885, Staines residents fought a long battle to prevent enclosure of Staines Common, first through petition and legal challenge, but as late as 1885 direct action was still being used to obstruct landowners.

1812, on Wimbledon Common – there had been failed attempts to enclose the Common in the late 17th century, and in 1723; both failed. In 1812 the lord of the manor obstructed locals common rights, cutting down all trees and selling timber. Protest followed.

Protesting Ex-commoners turned their cattle onto the ex-commons and bye-roads of Hillingdon in 1817, (enclosed by act in 1812) and Finchley between 1816 and 1823, (enclosed by act in 1811).

In 1817, new fences erected on the common at Kingston on Thames (under a Parliamentary Enclosure Act) were destroyed by locals.

1820s, Loughton – 300 people rioted several times to prevent tree felling in Epping Forest; especially troublesome were 13 local women who “beat Rigby’s workmen and took from them their axes… and detained them.”

1834, Ickenham labourers dug up and allotted themselves several parcels of land, in defiance of manor courts who spent twenty years unsuccessfully trying to evict these latter-day diggers… This was an area where the 1830 Swing Riots had spread.

In the nineteenth century as London expanded, new pressures on open spaces emerged… The city was rapidly increasing its size as housing was needed for thousands of new residents; from the 1840s hundreds railway lines were built, cutting through open space. Much if the farmland around London was built on; but the millions now crowded into tightly packed streets needed open space more than ever. Struggles over open space became more and more about a fight for leisure space, somewhere to hang out, a relief from the pressure of work and overcrowding. If anything, Londoners fought harder in the late 1800s to protect green space, as it became more of a precious commodity…

1837, Hackney Downs – locals swarmed onto the lammas land and seize all crops from a tenant who’d overstayed short term lease beyond lammas day (common rights extended slightly here to, er, looting!)

Footpaths blocked by the fencing off of North Kensington racecourse were re-opened by mass trespass in 1837.

Primrose Hill: 1842: popular pressure kept the Hill open in defiance of developers.

1850s, Stockwell Green – the Green was enclosed by a fence, but locals accustomed to partying there broke it down. A 20 year struggle followed but the green was eventually built over.

1851, Highbury Fields – threatened with development for posh housing, which a popular agitation prevented.

1855: The ‘Sunday Trading Bill’ Riots saw working class crowds attack the fencing off of Hyde Park for enjoyment by the rich.

1862, Old Oak Common, Acton – a dispute regarding common rights at Acton saw fences destroyed on the Common.

1864-76, Banstead Commons – local protest eventually blocked plans to enclose them.

In 1864, Lord Spencer, biggest landowner in South London, tried to sell much of Wimbledon Common, and enclose more as a park. Protest led to a committee saving the Common through legal action.

The Wimbledon campaign also helped give birth to the Commons Preservation Society, who led high profile legal defences of common land and open spaces, and to the passing of the Metropolitan Commons Act of 1866, which protected many open spaces in London from being built over.

1865: William Willingale trespassed on Epping Forest to cut wood on the traditional day, was arrested, and sparked a long campaign that ended in the re-opening of the Forest for public access. Half the forest had previously been enclosed 1851-71.

Epsom Downs & Commons: There was opposition to enclosure of a part of the Downs by locals in 1865.

In 1867 there were mass invasions on Hounslow Heath in defiance of landowner by locals to poach; in 1872 the caretaker was beaten up when he challenged 3 local men protesting the illegal ‘encroachment’ by the landowner.

In 1868 a local committee formed to oppose recent enclosures on Mitcham Common. In 1890 protests against enclosures & gravel digging led to an Act to protect the Common.

1868 – 100 years of protests against encroachments on common land in Peckham Rye Park lead to its purchase in 1868 for a public park.

1868, Tooting Common – repeated destruction of fences (voted on in open meetings in the local Infant School), defeated WS Thompson’s attempt to fence off the Common. The enclosures were ruled illegal; the Common was bought for the public in 1875.

1868 – 70, Wandsworth Common. Already decimated by three railways lines being run across it, and other encroachments, an 1860s attempt to develop the rest led to a mass local working class campaign, and ended in  direct action.  2000 people pulled down fences in 1869, and 100s more did so at Plough Green in 1870. As a result landowner Lord Spencer (him again) gave the land to the Wandsworth Common Defence Committee, and it remained open to all.

1870 mass meetings on Blackheath in May, convened by the Advanced Liberal Association of Greenwich, against plans to enclose part of the heath.

1870, 2000 people met at Mill Pond Bridge, Rotherhithe, to oppose efforts by the Metropolitan Board of Works to build on part of Southwark Park.

In 1870, working class ideological opposition to enclosure – the systematic robbery of the land from the labouring classes by the rich – crystalised in the creation of the Land and Labour League, which dedicated itself to regaining the land for the workers.
This organisation reflected a long radical tradition among popular movements, harking back to the Chartist Land Plan, the ideas of Thomas Spence and the Diggers…

1871, Wanstead Flats – 1000s of local working people pull down enclosure fences; protests save Flats. In 1946, the Flats were saved again from development by a local campaign. Locals also fought the building of a temporary police compound here during the 2012 Olympics.

In December 1875, large crowds (up to 50,000 people at one point) destroyed fences erected as lord of the manor tries to sell part of Hackney Downs to railways company.

Hilly Fields: Between 1875 and 1896, a long public agitation saved the Fields from development.

1876, Plumstead Common: “a series of wild and violent riots” in July defeated enclosures here (there had already been direct action in 1866, and 1870 over landowners encroaching on common land.)

Tearing down enclosure fences on Plumstead Common, 1876

1876, Chiselhurst Common, repeated destruction of fences around common land, and public meetings, defeated GH Baskomb’s attempt to sell it off. In neighbouring Camden Park, the landowner, William Willett, tried to enclose the land here: locals defeated the idea and proved it was common land.

1878, Eelbrook Common, Fulham – a protest meeting at plans by Ecclesiastical Commissioners to enclose it turned rowdy, and enclosure fences were destroyed.

1882, West End Green, West Hampstead: a crowd tore down hoardings round the green, scheduled for development, and burned them. Just down the road, Fortune Green was saved from being built on by local opposition in 1896.

1880s, Alexandra Palace Park – protests over plans to sell it for development end with proposals shelved.

1883, Coulsdon Commons – legal action ended fencing off and quarrying.

1886, Highgate Wood – local campaign stops the wood being sold off to speculators for development

Clissold Park, Stoke Newington: 1886-89: Grounds of the local big house saved from development by local campaign and opened as public park.

1880s, Petersham Park – locals in alliance with the Commons Preservation Society defeated a plan to appropriate part of the Park for a vicarage. In 1896, owner Lord Dysart, wanting to build on the land, closed footpaths & fenced off land. Local pressure led to the Bill’s failure.

1888, Town Mead, Fulham – locals destroyed fences during a long, ultimately unsuccessful resistance.

1890, West Wickham Common – Lord of the Manor Colonel John Lennard enclosed and sold 20 hectares for building, then put up a “strong unclimbable spiked iron fence”. Local opinion forced him to sell the land to the Corporation of London, who opened it up.

1891, Ham Common – Protests against landowners (the Dysart family) ban on removal of game, or gravel, and claim that common fields and footpaths were private property. Early one morning 4 notice boards were chopped down. Culprits were acquitted.

In the 1890s, the Local Vestry’s attempt to encroach on Barnes Common to extend the cemetery was defeated.

1892, Leyton – 3000 people pulled down railings protecting a railway that had been unpopularly run across common lammas land to the East London Waterworks, & wrecked the railway. The land remained open, and remains open.

1897, One Tree Hill, Honor Oak – 1000s rioted over several weeks in protest against the enclosure of the open land here for a golf course. After long legal wrangling the Hill was bought for the public in 1905.

1898, Croham Hirst, Croydon: Owners Whitgift’s Hospital tried to flog half of it off for development in 1898. Croydon residents successfully campaigned to get the local council to buy it for the public.

Parliament Hill, 1899: Saved from development by campaigning.

1900, Eltham Common – protests forced the War Office to back down on a plan to steal the Common to build army officers quarters.

In 1902, Wimbledon Green (on edge of Wimbledon Common) was enclosed despite a number of riots and destruction of fences.

Empty land in Plaistow was also squatted by the unemployed during the recession of 1905-6

In 1908 part of Woolwich Common was lost to the War Office for the officers quarters and a polo ground.

1912, The Rookery, Streatham, was preserved for public use by a local committee. In 1923, the same committee revived to save neighbouring Norwood Grove from development.

1920, Petts Wood – a campaign prevented sell off of the wood. In 1973, Petts Wood residents opposed plans to build 60 flats in Covet Wood. The Wood was bought by the Council instead and preserved as an open space.

West Wickham & Hayes Commons saw a Ministry of Transport plan in 1924 to build an arterial road through the woods defeated after local protests.

Wanstead Flats was saved from development for housing by a campaign in the 1940s.

From Wild Wood to Pleasure Garden

Open Space as the haunts of rebels, outlaws and outcasts

For centuries the ring of forests and heaths around London provided refuge for outcasts, rebels, robbers, squatters, fugitives and later political radicals; making new communities as well as fighting for survival, and often resisting the landowners and authorities by force… The legends of Robin Hood arose from real people… This caused a sense of fear and encirclement among the rich – the respectable feared the conspiracies, plots and revolts they saw as brewing in the wild lands. Forests had of course always been to some extent threatening to settled man, being full of wild beasts, wild folk, the unknown… The pressure to clear forests came not just from economics, the need for wood, farmland, etc, but also to tame the uncontrolled, threatening wilderness…

Places like St Johns Wood, Epping Forest, Hounslow Heath, Enfield Chase, Putney Heath were all well known haunts of rebels and robbers, poachers, highwaymen, smugglers, political rebels, gypsies, squatters, ex-soldiers turned maurauders, for centuries.

As enclosure drove people off more profitable land, communities grew up on wastes, marginal land, in the woods; often squatted – houses built in a day and a night were thought to carry some right to remain. Places like Epping Forest were home to ‘Maroon Villages’ – outcast camps of the dispossessed. Almost all the commons in the London area had squatter communities in the 17th and 18th centuries. The growth of pressures on poor rates from the dispossessed living in marginal conditions ironically served as a driver to further eviction and enclosure.

Travellers, gypsies, casual migrant labour, Irish refugees from the dire poverty created by the absentee landlord system in their country, also relied on access to open land for temporary refuge.

Gathering Places of Revolt

Open space also hosted rebellious armies, radical crowds and movements for social change. During the 1381 Peasants Revolt, the rebel army camped on Blackheath, (it was here that rebel priest John Ball preached the seminal sermon on the subject of equality for all –When Adam Delved and eve Span, Who was then the Gentleman?)… they parleyed with the king at Mile End Fields and Smithfield.
Jack Cade’s 1450 Kentish rebels, the 1497 Cornish tax rebels, also occupied Blackheath; the radical crowds of the English civil war also rallied on open spaces – Mile End Fields, St George’s Fields in Lambeth, Moorfields. The 1768 Wilkes Riots and 1780 Gordon Riots began on St George’s Fields.
In the 1790s the London Corresponding Society held mass rallies demanding political reform in the open spaces on the fringes of the metropolis – Marylebone Fields (now Regents Park), Camden’s Chalk Farm, Copenhagen Fields in Islington. Later radicals met on Spa Fields and Coldbath Fields in Clerkenwell; on White Conduit Fields in Islington, Chartists on Bonners Fields in Bethnal Green, and most famously, on Kennington Common, in their last big rally in 1848.
Hyde Park became a noted battleground in the 1850s and 1860s, with radical crowds fighting for the right to gather there.  Trade unions, suffragettes, socialists, people arguing against (or in favour of) religion: parks and commons became the venue for open air politics, mass meetings, debates and argument. The kind of speechifying now only really seen at Speakers Corner used to be a common sight in all of London’s open spaces.
And when bylaws were used to drive socialists, anarchists and radicals out of parks, street corners became meeting places. Until the police came to beat up speakers, nick them and jail them… an attack that they defeated, in the end, by force of numbers.

Fairs, Immorality and Pleasure

From time immemorial London’s open space was also always a venue for pleasure. It’s obvious, and hasn’t changed much over the years, that in crowded cities, you desperately need access to freer places where you can relax, escape the jostling of your neighbours, evade (of only for a while) control by family, church and authority, play games, walk, chill, maybe have sex… And also meet, discuss banned ideas, gather and organise…

Right outside the old City wall, just to the north of the Moor Gate, one of London’s oldest and most famous open spaces, Moorfields; well-known for rowdy games of football (a banned, and frowned upon pastime), for turbulent get-togethers of London’s apprentices (always to the fore in riots, political troubles and protests), and for night-time rendezvous; most notably for gay men to meet each other, at a time when ‘sodomy’ was a hanging matter. (In more recent centuries, Russell Square, Hampstead Heath, and Clapham Common, have taken on the mantle of venues for outdoor gay meeting places, while Hyde Park, was well-known for prostitution for centuries… as Tooting Common was more recently…)

But London’s other ancient ‘wastes’ became similarly notorious. Lincolns Inn fields was a favourite place for walks and sports by the 14th century. But the Fields were also infamous as the haunt of ‘brotherhoods of beggars’ & thieves, as well as the venue for unlawful games, and the illegal exercising of horses. The homeless slept here for centuries: local lawyer Roger Leggett was killed during the peasants revolt, having made enemies by setting mantraps here to catch rough sleepers…

There were constant attempts by authority, often prompted by the wealthy who lived nearby open space, to ‘clean up’ the poor’s playgrounds. Open space should be for nice and proper people, taking part in useful, orderly and polite leisure pursuits, not“vile rabble of idle and disorderly persons, who assemble there to play cricket, and such like pastimes, to the no small danger, and hurt, of harmless people, who either walk for air or business”.

Clerkenwell’s Spa Fields was a mecca for prize-fighting, duck-hunting, and other bruising encounters. Victoria’s Tothill fields, and Bloomsbury’s Long Fields, also become infamous, for kite-flying, dog-fighting, and naked swimming and nearly naked running races. A major complaint was that ‘roughs’ would gather to play games on Sunday, the Lord’s Day; when they should’ve been in church, obviously! That Sunday was most people’s only day off was neither here nor there… However, attempts at repression could backfire: as in 1766, when the High Constable of Holborn and his officers entered the Fields, to find “upwards of two hundred and fifty dog-fighters, bullies, chimney sweepers, and sharps…” When they tried to put a stop to a dog-fight, the hooligans set their dogs on them.

Open spaces were also cherished because they hosted the annual fairs that livened up London’s life. Once mainly economic, where yearly work contracts were negotiated, and farmers sold produce, in the growing urban sprawl, Fairs were losing their old rural economic functions, becoming more and more festivals of debauchery, and a public order headache for local authorities. Increasingly hated by the better off, for their immorality, disorder and policing expense, London’s many Fairs became notorious and rowdy.
May Fair, the traditional May 1st shindig, held for centuries, off Piccadilly (that gave the area its name), ended up as a rowdy gathering of the poor & a threat to public order. As the area was gradually taken over by the rich in the 18th century, pressure grew to ban it. The authorities first tried to suppress it in 1708; it was finally banned in 1769.  When the constables came to suppress the fair, a mob of about thirty soldiers and other persons, stood in defiance of the peace officers, at whom they threw brick bats: a constable died of stab wounds after the fight.

Camberwell Fair

The most famous was Bartholomew Fair, held at Smithfield, for centuries; a teeming, riotous, outpouring of popular culture, feared like no other by those in power… “a dangerous sink for all the vices of London”… a venue for subversive plays, puppetry, satire and attacks on the Lord Mayor & all established authorities. In 1697 William Philips was whipped for his anti-government satires at the fair. Rumours that radicals were planning to start an uprising there were enough to terrify the government in 1817.

London’s fairs were mostly closed down, banned or toned down, between the 1760s and the 1850s, an important plank in the moral reformation of London’s poor, and the attempt to impose hard work and religion on the working classes in place of drink, riot and pleasure. Annual events like Camberwell and Southwark Fairs were repressed at the behest of local authorities keen to cut policing costs, middle class killjoys, and moral reformers Some long-running fairs survive, like Pinner Fair.

Often part of the impetus to enclosing space came from pressure to eliminate the waste and common spaces where Fairs, rowdy games, outdoor sex took place. Notorious spaces like Moorfields and Smithfield were landscaped in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, laid out into formal walks, open waste’ made ‘proper’, in an attempt to transform the behaviour that took place there. Later, sites associated with radical crowds had to also be transformed; almost as if the memory, the possibility of uprising, had to be exorcised. Kennington Common, where the last great Chartist rally took place in 1848 (scaring the crap out of the rich), was shortly afterwards surrounded by railings, turned into formal gardens; folk considered ‘unrespectable’ were kept out.

But landscaping or fencing, creating ordered space, didn’t always succeed.  Formal parks and gardens, the fashionable spas or pleasure gardens, had the habit of starting out posh, but succumbing to a process of de-classing. The spas of Clerkenwell and Islington Hill (Sadlers Wells, London Spa, Bagnigge Wells) and Lewisham’s Sydenham Wells began with respectable airs and a healing ethos, but within a few years the large numbers coming to drink the waters were mixing them with other liquids. Moral reformers fumed that ‘the wrong sort’ were being attracted… that they were encouraging class mixing (a very bad thing!), and thence to rowdiness, drunkenness, sex and debauchery.

Even landscaped pleasure gardens became contested. Emerging in the eighteenth century, as open spaces had been transformed into fashionable landscaped gardens, catering for the growing leisured classes, often they excluded the poor, servants, soldiers…
In 1764, a crowd tore down railings at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in protest at entry prices and its private ownership. In the 1790s Kensington Gardens were opened to the public, but soldiers, sailors & servants were banned, and a strict dress code was enforced. Complaints started to flood in about crowds of servants gathering outside the gates & insulting ladies & gentlemen entering…

More recent times

Just some struggles in the last few decades:

1973-4, Sparrow Wood, Roundabout Wood & Crofton Heath –  local opposition scuppered a plan to develop 139 acres of this woodland near Bromley

1970, Heston Farm: Green space saved from huge housing development by campaign.

1980s : A local campaign saved Stoke Newington East reservoirs from being developed.

1979-85, Walthamstow Marshes: Save the Marshes Campaign prevents marshes being destroyed for development into a marina.

Parkland Walk, Haringey – AN old railway line closed in the 1960s and turned into a green walk. Saved from proposed development in 1990 for a 6 lane highway by a local campaign.

1985-93, Oxleas Wood, Eltham – Proposals to build an East London River Crossing, with a new motorway driven through this very beautiful 8000-year old wood, (as well as 100s of homes being demolished) were defeated by fierce campaigning from locals & environmentalists.

1999, Crystal Palace Park – During a campaign to oppose the building of a huge complex on part of the park, the site was squatted as a protest camp.
Although the camp was evicted, the plan collapsed.

Taking Back Wanstead Flats

Leyton Marsh – A camp was set up to resist a landgrab from the Olympic Park in 2012

Take Back Wanstead Flats similarly campaigned against police compounds taking over part of the Flats for the 2012 Olympics

Nunhead Reservoir: An unofficial local open space on top of a reservoir used by locals was fenced off, and a campaign sprang up for access

These days inflated land values, soaring property prices, property use as commodity and driver of the economy, and housing shortages are creating a pressure cooker, which is impacting on open space not protected by legislation. Especially if its in areas where residents are less wealthy – what are they doing occupying this space? when it could be used for something more profitable?!

Tidemill Community Garden, a space created on empty land by Deptford residents was evicted by Lewisham Council despite a strong local campaign

Such campaigns are ongoing: campaigner in Southwark are fighting to prevent the council from building over green spaces on their estates, nicking the small places used by residents… Local unofficial park Peckham Green has been fenced off for development despite fierce opposition.

But they’re not winning everywhere: Residents of Hanwell in Ealing, west London, have recently returned part of Brent River Park to public access by direct action against fences. 

And when some posh residents of Primrose Hill demanded fences be re-instated there to prevent people gathering there during the covid lockdown, and fences were erected , some folk campaigned against it, and fences were sabotaged…

Meanwhile councils rent parks to expensive music festivals for weeks of the year, fencing off part of open space for weeks of the summer from access unless you can pay, and leaving it trashed after… 

Reclaiming the Land

Gargoyle Wharf

The example of the 1906 land occupation in Plaistow already mentioned, and the older tradition of land squats going back to the diggers, has been echoed in recent decades by land occupations in the capital, often on derelict industrial land, or in slivers of green space grown up wild or abandoned.

Inspirational in this was The Land is Ours occupation at Gargoyle Wharf, Wandsworth, in 1996.

More recently, squatted eco villages have been launched in Hounslow, at Kew Bridge, on Ravens Ait, in Woolwich

Going Beyond Preservation

The struggles mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg. Many acts of resistance didn’t get recorded, or were forgotten. Destruction of fences, fights with bailiffs and ‘stealing’ of resources people had been banned from using; trespass on lands barred to all – much of this went under the radar. Acts like poaching by their nature were mostly carried out in secret, for instance. The defence of open space is a history without heroes – it was carried out from below, by millions, and is still being written…

We need a new commons… based not in the past but in the future. The main thing to take from the numberless 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 stood in opposition to the legal ‘reality’… Although sometimes relying on those traditions and common rights as the basis for legal argument didn’t work, often when it formed the 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. 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?

Read More

This post is just a brief introduction to the history, politics, and significance of open space in the London area. More information on everything herein, available from us… We’re currently working to put out a book covering the struggles and themes touched on here in greater detail. We don’t yet know when this book will be published… Keep in touch with us for further info.

In the meantime, longer accounts of some of the events mentioned here can be found in some of our other writings:

• Down With the Fences: Battles for the Commons in South London.

• Rights of Common: The Fight against the Theft of Sydenham Common and One Tree Hill

• 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

Some useful contacts

Open Spaces Society – Founded as the Commons Preservation Society in 1865; the CPS played a huge part in legal actions and campaigning to preserve green space nationally, and was instrumental in the passing of legislation to protect commons. The Society today remains committed to defending open space, footpaths and rights of way.

National Federation of Parks of Green Spaces – a UK network of area-wide Forums. We exist to promote, protect and improve the UK’s parks and green spaces by linking together all the friends and users Forums/networks throughout the country.

The Land Is Ours – campaigns peacefully for access to the land, its resources, and the decision-making processes affecting them, for everyone.

The Ramblers – ‘Britain’s walking charity, working to protect and expand the places people love to walk and promote walking for health and pleasure’.

Wombling Free: #OnThisDay in London green history, 1864: Earl Spencer proposes to enclose Wimbledon Common

The earliest history of Wimbledon Common and Putney Lower Common dates back to the paleolithic age and barrows such as the one known as Caesar’s Camp (although not associated with the Roman period) have been discovered.
In the 18th century locals had rights of access at certain times of the year, to cut wood & graze animals, & to cut peat & loam to sell. Until the 19th century the many oak pollards on the Common provided winter fuel for many local folk. These rights had, however, been the source of struggles between locals & landowners for years.

An attempt at enclosure in the late 17th century by the then Lord of the Manor, had been prevented by local resistance.

Around 1723 there was further unrest in the area, when the powerful Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, bought the manor of Wimbledon, and attempted to curtail some common rights.
Her descendants, the aristocratic Spencer family (ancestors of Princess Di) became Lords of the Manor in Wimbledon, Wandsworth, Putney.

In 1812, the Lord of the Manor, Lord Spencer, broke longstanding agreements over common rights, by cutting down huge numbers of trees, and selling the timber, causing protests.  Effectively stripping the common of trees deprived commoners of their right to this wood.  The poor of the parish were still allowed to cut furze in the winter, and freehold and copyhold tenants had the right to graze cattle. Many disputes arose over gravel-digging and cutting peat and loam: Commoners objected to the Lord’s wholesale pillaging of the Common.

In the mid-19th century, industrialisation and urbanisation had extended London over great swathes of the surrounding countryside, and the capital was swallowing up villages, which often involved the development of greens, commons and woods. Resistance to enclosure for economic survival – the need to gather fuel for keeping warm, for grazing animals, collecting foodstuffs – had been a feature of life for centuries. Gradually, the struggle over preventing building over green spaces became more concentrated on providing space for leisure for the millions now living in the city. Campaigns evolved for areas to be set aside as parks, and this became a major concern of a growing philanthropic class among the wealthy. Campaigning at Wimbledon followed a long drawn out controversy about threats to build on Hampstead Heath and a growing movement to preserve Epping Forest for open access.

Wimbledon Common was to become a central battleground for this movement, and provided the impetus for the creation of an important campaigning organisation – the Commons Preservation Society.

Compared to many districts in London, Wimbledon was a relatively wealthy area, and its inhabitants generally better off. Those ‘commoners’ – residents with acknowledged rights to use the Common in one way or other – tended to be well to do, more so even than in other areas. Unlike the struggles over many metropolitan commons, the battle at Wimbledon essentially became a two-and-fro mainly manifested between two sides, the lord of the manor and various commoners. Large-scale working class campaigning and direct action, which were seen in many battles over open space in the 19th century, did not develop. Again, the debate did also not involve local government bodies, eg parish vestries, which in some areas were the arena for debate and negotiation of rights, and sometimes centres of campaigns.

In fact, a lot of the debate around Wimbledon Common’s fate, and the future of commons more widely, took place in Parliament, where prominent campaigning MPs attempted to ensure more legislative protection for open space was passed into law.

The lord of the manor, Earl Spencer, started the wheels in motion when he announced plans to make a park out of Wimbledon Common at a meeting of local inhabitants on 11 November 1864.

Interestingly, November 11th, traditionally known as ‘Martinmas’, was an important date in the annual rural calendar regarding commons, a customary date when people were allowed to begin cutting wood for fuel for winter. Did Spencer choose this date on purpose? Hard to know.

Spencer proposed to convert 700 of the common’s 1000 acres into a park. The costs of creating this park and compensating the commoners’ interests would be met by selling off portions of the remaining common: with pressures at the time, this would likely mean this part would end up built on. Spencer planned to administer and maintain the park, allowing public access but by his permission, and paying for the upkeep by Ietting areas for pasture & grazing. The Lord would retain control and everything would only be by his leave.

On the face of it, Earl Spencer seemed to be offering up most of the Common for people to access; he asserted that this plan had been drawn up in response to the immense pressures on land in the metropolis, and the threat that if no scheme was set in place, much of the open land there would eventually end up being sold and developed. Neighbouring areas were facing green spaces being lost, as railways were laid across them, portions were sold and built on, and offers and pressures on Spencer to sell off parts of Wimbledon were growing (he had already sold parts of nearby Wandsworth Common which had been cut into three by rail lines).

Spencer was canny enough to bate his ‘offer’ with threat – if you don’t let me carry out my plan, you might lose the whole Common. Plus, he suggested that in its present condition the common was a less than desirable open space. The Common was a favourite camping place for Gypsies, who were accused of leaving rubbish behind, and in 1860 their alleged refusal to be vaccinated against smallpox was viewed as a threat to public health.

On top of this, maintenance was expensive, especially to drain the Common to keep it navigable in wet weather. Spencer also claimed that preventing the exploitation of the Common for gravel-digging was also a headache (somewhat cheeky, as this was a process his family has benefitted from, and he himself quarried for gravel on the Common), and the constant agro that use of the common by the National Rifle Association (N.R.A.) for its annual meetings of marksmen and Volunteers caused among locals. [some residents had objected to the presence of rifle butts on the common and to the behaviour of the crowds who attended. Spencer was a keen supporter of the Volunteers and the N.R.A. and his scheme meant to ensure their continued access…]

Spencer intended to retain the power of making regulations as to permitted refreshments to be sold in the new park, for regulating quarries and pits to be used by the parishes for gravel digging, and for excluding gipsies and tramps. The plan marked out the areas to be sold for building. No land would be sold in excess of the amount required for purposes of implementing the scheme. Any gatherings of a religious or political nature would be prohibited.

There was a little opposition at the meeting itself – in fact hardly anyone had attended as the meeting hadn’t exactly been heavily publicised. Of those who did turn up (the churchwardens and clergy from Wimbledon and Putney plus “several copyholders and resident gentry”), most generally seem to have vaguely approved on the Lord’s plans. The foremen of the homage juries (a representative group of tenants known as the manorial homage, whose job was to make presentations to the manorial court and act as a jury) of Wimbledon and Battersea manors moved a resolution giving some qualified support to Spencer’s scheme. However, a four-member committee was appointed to investigate the plan in detail.

At a time when commons were under threat, Spencer’s proposal seemed positive: a lord offering to secure a large portion of a common for public use. The press generally lauded the plan. Around Wimbledon, Spencer’s scheme led to some heated discussion, much of which saw the lord’s motives more cynically. The plan would leave Spencer as “Protector” of the land, with the authority to make the park available for “any purpose of practical public utility or interest” (with the consent of the Home Secretary, a way of perpetuating use by the N.R.A) – but with no restrictions in the form of commoners with rights. Critics suggested that this provision gave Spencer absolute title to the land not sold off.

One major objection was his insistence on that the Common would have to be fenced off. Spencer’s steward William Forster insisted on the necessity of enclosing the new “park” as the only means of bringing the area “properly under control”. Residents were generally opposed to fencing the new park off.

Spencer and Forster also maintained the existing commoners would have to give up their rights, although compensation would be paid to them.

The four-man committee appointed to go through the Lord’s plan in more detail could not completely agree whether to support it. After deliberating, three of the four concluded that in their view, there was no need for a fence, or for selling up to 300 acres of the common to pay expenses. lf fencing were needed to turn the pasturage into a profitable venture, the committee believed a more extensive network would be needed than Spencer admitted, and this, along with the clearing of natural vegetation, would detract from the public’s use of the common. Other means could be employed to control nuisances such a gypsies. Nor was a fence required for the purpose of the N.R.A. meeting. The majority of the committee wanted no fencing, and commoners’ rights left in place. They suggested local residents would pay for the upkeep of the common rather than lose these acres to building.

The committee expressed the fear that portions of the Common would be sold, and the proposals put Spencer under no compulsion to manage the common; it merely gave him permission. His Lordship, or subsequent lords of the manor, would be free to use their powers to exact as much profit from the common as possible, or prevent access at their whim. As drafted, it gave the lord too much power to work gravel pits and quarries, which a future Protector might exploit. The committee recommended adapting a system already operating in Bristol which gave the public guaranteed access to commons without abridging the common rights of the freeholders of the affected manors. Spencer could chair such a management structure. As to paying for it all, that  donations could be sought from the public, or if, as Spencer proposed, the inhabitants were charged on the rates to raise money for the scheme, then residents would deserve a voice in its management, (a role Spencer opposed).

The committee’s report was read in January 1865to a gathering of sixty-five residents at the Wimbledon home of Henry Peek, a wealthy Tory M.P., who was determined to preserve the common. This meeting voted that the committee should meet with Spencer to explain their objections, and also resolved to persuade the locality to pay the management expenses of the common.

An influential section of Wimbledon society had rejected the scheme. They deemed a 700-acre park a poor cousin to the full common, regardless of the good intentions of Spencer. They clearly wanted no encroaching buildings nor any fences.

As noted above, the majority view was not unanimous: the fourth member of the committee submitted a minority report to Spencer in which he declared:

“That all the people want is, what the Bill brought in by your Lordship gives them, namely, Seven hundred acres for a Park… That all minor matters, such as draining, fencing, and levelling the land, building lodges, and making ornamental water, roads, and paths, should be left to your Lordship’s judgment and discretion…. that the donor of such a noble gift is the proper person to consider what is best calculated to be done to enable the people thoroughly to enjoy it, and to carry out unmolested all minor details.”

Seriously, grovel on, mate.

Few inhabitants of Wimbledon shared this dissenter’s opinion, it would seem – the voices that dominate the debate after this are those belonging to Spencer’s opponents. Few supporters could be found for his plan.

One of the Commissioners of Woods and Forests, Charles A. Gore, also responded to Spencer’s plan. His professional interest concerned the rights of common allegedly held by the Crown with respect to forty acres in the region. When the land had been enfranchised the rights had been regranted, and Gore wanted to ensure that these Crown rights would be dealt with properly. Gore was far from opposed to enclosures, which he had long had dealings with. Although he supported the right of the Lord to sell gravel from three pits already in operation; and accepted some land would have to be sold to cover the costs of the bill and payment of compensation to the lord, he also found numerous faults with Spencer’s proposed bill, along similar lines that the committee had expressed – that commoners’ rights were ignored, and that the bill lacked sufficient safeguards to prevent an unscrupulous successor to Spencer using the park for profit. The Protector should share his powers with at least two others, one representing the commoners, the other appointed by the Enclosure Commissioners. Gore also disputed the value of a fence, believing that the common would be a greater resource to all if left unenclosed.

Earl Spencer, however, was determined to press ahead with putting a bill before Parliament enshrining his plan. He acknowledged two concessions to the committee’s and Gore’s objections. Acknowledging that a single administrator might not safeguard the park as a public facility, Spencer proposed two additional trustees, one to be appointed by the Crown and the other by the Enclosure Commissioners. There was no mention of a representative of the commoners or local residents. Secondly, Spencer agreed to relinquish his right to cut turves and restrict his right to take gravel if he was compensated for the consequent loss of revenue. Any money left after the management expenses had been met from the proceeds of the right of pasture would go to the lord.

Spencer knew these minor concessions failed to meet the objections of the committee, but he preferred to battle it out in Parliament where all points of view could be heard. He based his feeling that the homage juries of Wimbledon and Wandsworth had expressed wholehearted support, representing the copyholders of the manors, the only parties apart from himself who he felt had any legal interest in the common. His Lordship continued to insist that a fence was necessary to guard against the increasing “evils” that threatened it, and was the only way to safeguard animals when the pasture was let. His steward stressed that the fence “should be in good taste” – well that’s ok then! — not the iron railing at first suggested – “a plain inexpensive open wooden fence [with] frequent openings..”
Disagreements over the style of fencing around a common would appear elsewhere in London.

Attempts to negotiate an agreement ended with no resolution of the two important issues, the fence, and the sale of portions of the common. Spencer’s sweetener of first offering these portions to adjoining property owners was not judged to alter the situation materially. Public meetings in Wimbledon and Putney during the opening months of 1865 expressed support for the views of the committee.

Meanwhile in Parliament in early February, MP Frederick Doulton gave notice of his intention to move for the appointment of a Select Committee on metropolitan open spaces. Pressure was mounting in London, and not just over Wimbledon. Increasing enclosures were reducing the size of Epping Forest; Tooting Common had been threatened by an enclosure Act in 1863; Streatham and Clapham Commons were felt to be in danger of disappearing; Stockwell and Dulwich commons had already vanished.  Parts of Wandsworth Common were lost to the railway in the same year as Spencer made his proposals.

In the press, Forster and Spencer argued that Spencer was absolutely owner of the common, subject only to the existing rights of the commoners, but that these rights are confined to pasturage; they were practically of little value, and those who possess them were few in number.

In reply the letter from the Wimbledon and Putney Comm¡ttee objected that there were 200 commoners, not merely a few, with the right of digging gravel, turf, and Ioam on the common, and that “the existence of this latter right is fatal to the lord’s right to enclose or (as it is technically called) approve any part of the common.”

The sponsor of Spencer’s enclosure bill, Lord Bury, agreed that it should be postponed for a month while Doulton’s Select Committee looked into the broader question of metropolitan open spaces, but Spencer would not necessarily feel bound by its recommendations. The Parliamentary Select Committee was appointed in early March 1965.

The decision to appoint a Select Committee on Metropolitan Open Spaces was the beginning of efforts to find a single consistent policy to deal with the commons around London and beyond. Before this, politicians directed their attention towards whichever one was the scene of the most public dispute. The first session of the twenty-one-member Committee lasted for two weeks at the end of March 1865, focused on Wimbledon Common. Between early April and late June more hearings were held dealing with the remaining metropolitan commons. A separate report issued from each set of hearings.

The majority of the Committee was sympathetic to the cause. Of saving London commons. Many members were London M.P.s; the committee included  two who were both to become active in the Commons Preservation Society, Shaw Lefevre and William Cowper, as well as George Peacocke and Frederick Doulton, both active on the issue previously.

After some initial groundings in the law underpinning enclosures, notably their basis in the 1235 Statute of Merton, the Committee turned its attention to Wimbledon. The questioned Earl Spencer who frankly admitted that his arrangement excluded local representatives from management of the common, because he thought they would be hostile to the Volunteers and the N.R.A.. Spencer explained why his scheme offered more to the locals than it took away, despite the obvious feeling in the neighbourhood against the fence. He blamed gypsies and tramps for many nuisances, including bringing “infectious diseases” into the area and allowing their “donkeys to stray into gardens”: the fence would assist control over these people.

Spencer claimed that the homage juries’ early support  showed that commoners were willing to let their largely useless rights go if offered compensation. He was quite insistent that he was giving up many of his own rights as a public service. He could, he understood, enclose either by common law if sufficient land were left for the commoners or by custom of the manor, that is, with the consent of the homage jury, in which case the question of sufficiency did not arise. Up to this point Spencer was not denying that there were commoners with rights. lndeed, an important part of his scheme (the fence) dealt with the means to compensate them when their rights were lost.

Under questioning by Shaw Lefevre, Spencer claimed he was willing to abandon the fence if another way to pay for management of the park could be found. But he continued to insist that the management must be “in the hands of independent people”, with no representative of local residents; his relations with locals had deteriorated during his negotiations with them, and his distrust is obvious: he may have been expecting that any representative of the inhabitants and commoners would challenge his inflated assessment of his rights as lord.

His steward, William Forster, also appeared before committee, and actually went further than his employer – he denied there were any commoner at all, and maintained that nothing really prevented Spencer from doing as he pleased on his land. There were copyholders – but they had no common rights. There were rights of way across the common, but that was it. With the support of the manor homage juries the lord of the manor could enclose at will.

Evidence was also taken from a number of witnesses from Wimbledon. Joseph Burrell, a barrister with expertise in property law, accused Forster of ignoring the important common rights held by the freehold tenants of the manor. These could not be lost in the same way as copyholders’ rights. He also disputed Forster’s view of the Statute of Merton: the Stature allowed the lord to approve against rights of pasture, but it had no power to limit other rights such as turbary, estovers or gravel digging. These, Burrell claimed, were linked to ancient cottages, and a modern cottage on an ancient site could claim the original rights.

Burrell also theorised that a court might rule that the inhabitants of London had acquired a right of recreation over Wimbledon Common – this was a radical departure from precedent in law, and strayed towards an interpretation of commons that transcended legal ownership at all. However, Burrell claimed that a court might rule in this way.

There were other witnesses who asserted that “from time immemorial the public had gone over that land when and where they liked, without interruption from anybody”…

William Williams, a solicitor, one of three members of the original committee appointed to consider Spencer’s proposal, also gave evidence. He raised an eyebrow at Forster’s suggestion that there were no commoners – if this was so, why had Spencer included a provision to sell land in order to compensate them? Why had notices been sent to 287 copyholders seeking their consent to compensation?

Williams suggested a compromise plan, in which money could be raised from the community to compensate Spencer for any lost revenue, and if the required £5000 were collected, no land would be released; some land would be sold if this figure was not met. The rights of commoners were to remain which might limit the public’s use for recreation, but Williams felt this would not cause much conflict, since many rights were no longer exercised.

The majority of witnesses expected that a fence would alter the character of the common, and Williams feared it would become the instrument which permitted it to be exploited for profit.

The only witness to endorse the need for a fence was Lord Elcho, the chairman of the National Rifle Association, and even he objected to anything more than a simple post and rail structure.

The Select Committee had no power do more than deliver an opinion on the widely varying views of what common rights and the lord or the manor’s prerogatives. The Select Committee’s members tended to veer towards the views of the Wimbledon commoners. It made three recommendations:

  • That is is not expedient that the Wimbledon Common should be fenced round or inclosed, or that the existing Common Rights should be extinguished.
  • That it is not necessary, and would be undesirable, that any part of the common should be sold.
  • That the 20 Hen. 3, c. 4, commonly called the Statute of Merton, by which a lord of the manor can inclose, without either the assent of the commoners or the sanction of Parliament, ought immediately to be repealed.

Spencer felt no obligation to accept these recommendations or abandon his bill, but when brought before the House of Commons for a second reading on 6 April 1865, he had made some alterations. He adopted Williams’ suggestion and was willing to permit the residents time to raise the necessary funds (by subscription or a local rate) to pay for the proposed improvements before any land would be sold, and agreed to abandon fencing the common if Parliament decided against it. This was a significant reversal; however, though the revised bill incorporated the proposal to vest management in a three-person board, local representatives were still excluded.
This left only the question of the alleged rights of commoners as the only substantial issue of disagreement between Spencer and the residents’ committee.

Spencer and his supporters characterised his opponents in the neighbourhood as being primarily the “villa owners around the Common”. This was generally true; as in many areas,  ‘commoners’ could effectively be well to do;  undoubtedly, their motives mixed self-interest and in some cases, altruism… While some MPs were in favour of supporting the revised bill, others felt it should be voted down as it did not recognise full rights for all to “wander at will”. But those campaigning to preserve commons realised that any movement would not succeed if based on villa owners.

William Cox, Liberal M.P. from Finsbury, who wished to kill the bill, believed the testimony from the witnesses who asserted that the land had been wandered at will “since time immemorial” meant that the “land was thereby brought within the description of a village green”… A public right of recreation could be sustained over a green much more easily than over a common. Cox opposed the Spencer scheme “not in the interests of any villa owners, but in [sic] behalf of the three-and-a-half millions of persons living in the metropolis”.

Other MPs felt the Select Committee had been packed with ‘preservationists’ and that the call to abolish the Statute of Merton was taking things too far.

At this point Spencer decided to drop his parliamentary enclosure bill. The resistance from locals and MPs forced him to pause and offer concessions. But the argument was far from over. Spencer stepped up his gravel digging and began building a brickworks, and his opponents bristled. An attempt at talks collapsed without an agreement, and Sir Henry Peek, one of the wealthiest local landowners, brought a case in Chancery against Spencer, in December 1866, to confirm the rights of commoners.

An application was also made to the Enclosure Commissioners for a scheme under the new Metropolitan Commons Act but they wouldn’t consider any intervention unless both sides could begin to agree on the way forward.

In 1868 Lord Spencer was still insisting on a scheme not so far from his early plan; his opponents were trying to prove that copyholders had not lost rights through non use or that freeholders had the rights they claimed. Luckily, Conveyances were found for certain lands, once part of the demesne, which explicitly included rights of common, and the commoners were able to persuade Spencer that he would be better making an agreement than months or years in court. Terms for a settlement were worked out, and an agreement was confirmed by the Wimbledon and Putney Commons Act of 1871 .

The Common came under the control of a body of eight conservators, five elected by the ratepayers, plus one each to be appointed by the Home Secretary, the Secretary of State for War (reflecting the use of the commons by the Volunteers), and the First Commissioner of Works. Spencer pulled out of any further involvement in the Common’s management, but since he received an annuity of Ê1200 compensation for the lost revenue from the common, he didn’t do badly out of it… (this was in fact not outrageous compared to the comparable cash payments that some lords of the manor would receive in the following years). The annuity was finally redeemed in 1968 by a lump sum payment from a redemption fund set up by the Conservators in 1957.

As proposed by the residents’ committee years earlier, a special local rate, was adopted to pay for the upkeep, with those living closest to the common paying a higher amount (the rate was assessed as follows: those within one quarter mile of the common paid 6d. in the pound; those within one half a mile, 4d., and those beyond, 2d. No houses assessed below £35 per annum contributed..) The National Rifle Association was allowed to continue its annual rifle meet, despite some continued local opposition. (in a few years, the NRA event grew too big and annoying, and the shooters moved away.) The Conservators could draft bylaws with the approval of the First Commissioner of Works.

The two sides in the Wimbledon dispute had been divided by radically different views on the nature of common rights, but the two camps both wanted the common preserved as a public open space. Spencer proposed a park but was willing to modify aspects of his scheme. At heart, he was not really determined to exploit the common for his own profit; if he had been, the fate of the common might have gone to court.
Instead, Wimbledon became the first metropolitan common to be managed by local conservators, a pattern that was later also adopted at Barnes, Mitcham, Epsom, and Banstead.

The battle at Wimbledon had some outcomes that had broader implications for open spaces. MPs in Parliament began to get involved in the question of preservation on space for all to enjoy (rather than simply passing acts to allow it to be enclosed by the wealthy, as they had largely done for centuries), although there remained an insistence on the rights of the landowners.

Their debates resulted in the passing of the Metropolitan Commons Act in 1866, an important milestone in the defence of commons, though not an all-perfect solution, as many spaces threw up issues that the Act could not cover.

Secondly, the Wimbledon case led directly to the formation of the Commons Preservation Society in 1865, formalising legal opposition to enclosure on an organisational front. Leading members of the Wimbledon committee and the MPs who formed the 1864 Select Committee were instrumental in this.
More on the early history of the CPS
The CPS was to be at the forefront in the hard graft of protecting commons and greens, and became the Open Spaces Society, which continues today

Although the vast majority of Wimbledon Common was saved for open access of all, a few decades later, a detached area of the Common, Wimbledon Green, became the centre of another dispute over its enclosure…
Meanwhile, other commons nearby soon became the focus of struggles over their future. Wandsworth Common, just a couple of miles away, in a manor also owned by the Spencers, saw a couple of years of bitter battle. If at Wimbledon, the relative poshness of the neighbourhood resulted in a comparatively genteel campaign, the dispute over Wandsworth Common was was hardly confined to ‘villa owners’. A mass campaign among the working class populations of Wandsworth and Battersea sprang up, and the fight involved direct action, sabotage, and arrest.