Today in London open space history, 1801, an attempt to enclose Bedfont Common fails

1801, Bedfont – a failed attempt to enclose the Common.

While there are many accounts that we have posted up this blog of collective resistance to enclosures and the loss of access to open space in the London area over many centuries, everything we have covered remains only a part of the story. Many acts of resistance to enclosure of woods, fields, wastes and commons went unrecorded, as far from being the whole picture, large-scale protest, sabotage and riot in defence of common rights was only the tip of the iceberg. A far greater background of small scale and individual action lies behind the well-known acts of cutting down fences, court cases and agitation. Like poaching, resistance to enclosure was often expressed by anonymous acts of trespass, breaking down fences, grazing cattle on enclosed land, and much more.

Other resistance has been gradually forgotten or obscured as history moved on. Sometimes all we have are glimpses, through a memory, artefact or anecdote. A long tradition, for instance, held that the legendary Mayor of Garratt mock election festivals held near Wandsworth originated in a victorious enclosure resistance, though memory of the battle itself, if it existed, has faded.

One example of a memory of a successful resistance to land-theft preserved in a single object is recorded by Paul Carter in his excellent PHD thesis – ‘Enclosure Resistance in Middlesex 1656 – 1889: A Study of Common Right Assertion’, is a tea tray kept at the parish church in Bedfont, near Feltham, now in the west of London, though then a rural village. The tea tray is illustrated with a picture showing the commons at Bedfont and triumphantly describes a failed attempt to enclose the parish in 1801.

The inscription on the tray reads:

‘A Witness for Richard Hatchett of his abhorrence to robbing the Poor by enclosures. Bedfont. March 10th 1801. on which day the Duke of Northumberland. the Bishop of London and Governors of Christ’s Hospital & etc., withdrew their signatures from a Petition which they had signed for the enclosure to the honour on informed of the great injury the Poor would receive by it’.

Bedfont’s common land must at one time have been part of or bordered on the great open stretch of land that was known as Hounslow Heath, of which the current open space by this name is but a tiny remnant. Folk from the ‘Hounslow heath’ parishes were famed for their sturdiness in land struggles going back as far as 1381, when Heston locals were noted for their involvement in a dispute during the Peasants’ Revolt. There was a long tradition of resistance to enclosure in these various parishes, especially Stanwell, Staines, Hanworth and Harmondsworth; but neighbouring areas such as Osterley Park also saw determined struggles over fencing off of land, in which Heston residents were indited.

It is unknown how many of the tea trays were produced as a memorial to the failed Bedfont enclosure attempt, although a second one presented to William Sherborn by Bedfont parishioners was recorded as being ‘long since lost’ in a typescript history of the Sherborn family written in the 1960s. Both Hatchett and Sherborn were local farmers who, along with other parishioners, were unhappy at the attempts of the piecemeal enclosure of Hounslow Heath.”

An enclosure bill was, however, later brought in Parliament to enclose land at East Bedfont in 1813, arousing at least one petition in opposition. Some 1800 acres were enclosed around this time.

In the three decades after the legendary failed enclosure commemorated by the tea tray, land in the Bedfont area became concentrated in fewer hands, and enclosure did take place.

One of the families who did increase their holdings was the Sherbornes, noted above.

Opposition to enclosures could arise from multiple motives, and small landowners who resisted enclosures and loss of access in one parish might benefit from it in another. The Sherbornes were accumulating land, and in an era where agricultural ‘improvement’ often resulted in mechanisation, wage reductions and layoffs, this could easily mean accumulating resentment locally.

During the Swing wave of rural protest in 1830-1, one of the farms owned by the Sherbornes at Bedfont suffered an arson attack; other farmers and a churchwarden received threatening letters (a favourite Swing tactic to express anger, assert demands and force concessions).

‘Swing’ troubles mainly hit Kent, Surrey, Hampshire and other southern counties; Middlesex, the county that arc-ed around West and North London from Clerkenwell and Tottenham to Brentford and Hounslow, was mostly affected in its western parts. Swing activities were reported from Edgware, Enfield, Hampstead, Hampton, Hanwell, Hanworth, Harrow, Bedfont, Hayes, Hendon, Heston, Hounslow, Kingsbury, Staines and Uxbridge.

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A note on the image: the tea tray is still displayed in St Mary’s Church, Bedfont, a building well worth seeing itself. Taking a picture of it is hard as the church interior is very dark! It’s hard to get an image without flash or reflection in the glass that the tray is cased in… Best to go and see it for yourselves…

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