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.

Today and tomorrow, in London’s shopping history: bread riots in Whitechapel, 1861

The winter of 1860-61 was grim: freezing weather and lack of work, leading to mass poverty among working people in London. ‘The district of Old Street, Goswell Street, Barbican, and Whitecross Street’, wrote a correspondent of the Morning Post on January 20, 1861, ‘are the boundaries, in a maze of courts swarming with people in a state of starvation.’

The low temperatures led to a lack of work: “Owing to the continuance of the frost, and all out door labour being stopped, the distress and suffering that prevail in the metropolis, particularly among the dock labourers, bricklayers, masons, and labouring classes at the East End, are truly horrible. Throughout the day thousands congregate round the approaches of the different workhouses and unions, seeking relief, but it has been impossible for the officers to supply one-third that applied. This led to consider able dissatisfaction, and hundreds have perambulated the different streets seeking alms of the inhabitants and of the passers-by.” (Morning Star, January 18, 1861)

“THE one domestic question at present uppermost in the public mind is the social condition of the humbler classes. It has been forced upon us by a winter of unexampled severity; by an amount of national distress, not at all exceptional in the cold season, which has gone to the very verge of bread riots; and by agitations in the press and on the platform for an immediate improvement in labourers’ cottages. The chief streets of the metropolis have been haunted for weeks by gaunt labourers, who have moaned out a song of want that has penetrated the thickest walls. The workhouses have been daily besieged by noisy and half-famished crowds; the clumsy poor-law system, with its twenty-three thousand officers, its boards, and its twelve thousand annual reports, has notoriously broken down; the working clergy, and the London magistrates, worn out and exhausted, have been the willing almoners of stray benevolence; Dorcas societies, soup-kitchens, ragged-schools, asylums, refuges, and all the varied machinery of British charity, have been strained to the utmost; and now we may sit down and congratulate ourselves that only a few of our fellow-creatures have been starved to death. The storm to all appearance has passed, but the really poor will feel the effects of those two bitter months -December, 1860, and January, 1861 – for years.” (Ragged London in 1861, John Hollingshead, 1861.)

The extreme poverty provoked collective action – proletarian shopping – taking the necessities of life by force without the politeness of paying. Over the nights of 15/16 January 1861, there were bread riots in Whitechapel.
Several bakers’ shops in the East End of London were emptied by a mob of 30 to 40 people on the evening of the 15th. The next day, things escalated: on the 16th, between seven and nine o’clock at night, thousands gathered, many of them dockers and their families, and cleared bakers’ shops and eating-houses. Outnumbered, the mounted police were powerless to stop the desperate spectacle.

“On Tuesday night much alarm was produced by an attack made on a large number of bakers’ shops in the vicinity of the Whitechapel Road and Commercial Road East. They were surrounded by a mob of about thirty or forty in number, who cleared the shops of the bread they contained, and then decamped. On Wednesday night, however, affairs assumed a more threatening character, and acts of violence were committed. By sonic means it became known, in the course of the afternoon, that the dock labourers intended to visit Whitechapel in a mass, as soon as dusk set in, and that an attack would be made on all the provision shops in that locality. This led to a general shutting up of the shops almost through out the East End – a precaution highly necessary, for between seven and nine o’clock thousands congregated in the principal streets and proceeded in a body from street to street. An attack was made upon many of the bakers’ shops and eating-houses, and every morsel of food was carried away. A great many thieves and dissipated characters mingled with the mob, and many serious acts of violence were committed. The mounted police of the district were present, but it was impossible for them to act against so large a number of people. Yesterday, the streets were thronged with groups of the unemployed, seeking relief of the passers-by. In the outskirts similar scenes were observed, and in some instances acts approaching intimidation were resorted to to obtain alms.” (Morning Star, January 18, 1861)

The bread riot was a not irregular feature of life both before and after industrialisation in England, with bread prices at the mercy of many factors including bad harvests, greedy price-raising by hoarders and artificial price-hiking in the interests of landowners by use of legislation like the Corn Laws. Although these laws had been repealed in 1846, economic slump or seasonal conditions could reduce whole areas to near-destitution. There had been bread riots across London in 1855, including in Whitechapel…

In the January 1861 riots, East End dockers were prominent: dock work was precarious and unstable at the best of times, with men engaged day to day at the whim of the gangmasters; frozen weather caused ships not to be able to be unloaded and work to slacken.

The grim conditions continued into February and March: “It is doubtful if there was not more real privation in February than in January of the present year; and the registrar-general’s return of deaths from starvation – the most awful of all deaths – for the mild week ending February 16, had certainly increased. There has been no lack of generosity on the part of those who have been able to give. The full purse has been everywhere found open, and thousands have asked to be shown real suffering, and the best mode of relieving it. A local taxation, cheerfully and regularly paid, of 18,000,000l. per annum, beyond the Government burden, is either inadequate for the purposes to which it is applied, or applied in the most wasteful and unskilful manner. The sum, or its administration, is unable to do its work. The metropolis, not to speak of other towns, is not “managed,” not cleansed, not relieved from the spectre of starvation which dances before us at our doors.”

(Ragged London in 1861, John Hollingshead, 1861)

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Today in London radical history, 1865: Thomas Willingale asserts common rights in Epping Forest

November 11th – long before Armistice Day, this was a date associated with the asserting of common rights…

Known as Martinmas, this date was for many centuries see as the start of winter proper. As with many old feast days, customs and traditions became associated with this day.

One custom that evolved for November 11th was linked with the right in some places to ‘lop’ wood for use as fuel over the winter. ‘Commoners’ were entitled to cur branches seven feet from the ground every winter, a right that lasted from November 11th till April 23rd.

In 1865, one man’s actions on November 11th in defence of common rights was to begin a series of events which preserved Epping Forest as an open space for all…

Epping Forest is London’s largest open space; though now split into several separate areas, and criss-crossed by many roads, it was once a huge wood running from Essex down close to London’s eastern edge. Enjoyed today by 1000s of walkers, mountain bikers, mushroom pickers, picnickers, occasional wild campers… presumably the odd dogger or two…

… However, but for two hundred years of resistance to attempts by landowners to fence off and develop parts of the wood, Epping Forest would be a lot smaller – or would not exist at all.

The name Epping Forest is first recorded in the 17th century; prior to this the area was considered part of the larger Waltham Forest (which gives its name to the present-day London Borough of Waltham Forest, which covers part of the modern forest).

The forest is thought to have been given legal status as a royal forest by king Henry II in the 12th century. This status allowed commoners to use the forest to gather wood and foodstuffs, and to graze livestock and turn out pigs for ‘mast’… However, only the king was allowed to hunt there. “Forest” in the historical sense of a royal forest meant ‘an area of land reserved for royal hunting’, where the forest laws applied, and did not imply that it was all necessarily wooded. The royal forests were set aside by successive kings for their exclusive use; or at least for them to exercise the right to grant any access and use. Separate laws applied in the royal forests to protect game for hunting and trees and undergrowth which facilitated the chase. At one time most of the county of Essex was effectively a royal forest.

Half of Epping Forest was enclosed by the local landowners between 1851 and I871, for development; mainly as housing. This took place illegally but not without the knowledge – or tacit approval – of the Government. What remained was eventually opened to the public in 1878, when the old Royal Forest became the People’s Forest. This came about through successive waves of resistance to the enclosures. The opening up of the woods to all was sparked specifically by the actions of Thomas Willingale in November 1865.

Struggles in Epping Forest were old as the forest…

There were battles here over grazing rights, between locals of Waltham and the powerful Abbots of Waltham Abbey, went on for years. In 1229, men of Waltham killed some of the Abbot’s mares grazing on marshes and drive some off the land. In 1230 they demanded his grazing animals be removed, from land supposed to be reserved for the townsfolk’s cattle. When he ordered them off they again drove off his livestock and beat some of his servants.

Demand for wood made mass treefelling lucrative; but the Forest Laws in fact set maintenance of a forest’s environment to ensure good hunting at odds with the exploitation of the forest for wood, which led to conflicts between local landowners or users, and sometimes involving the crown or others with an interest in preservation of a suitable space for game.

Around 1572 one Bernard Whetstone, who had inherited the Manor of Woodford, was granted a license to fence off a quarter of the woodland in his manor, which led to rioting. The Whetstone family re-appear regularly as antagonists in enclosure disputes. 50 years later, now Sir Bernard and an MP, he provoked rioting again, after he ordered the felling of fifty trees in ‘Rowden’s Grove’, Woodford. Sir Bernard was the sitting Verderer, a court official charged with judging cases to do with Forest Law, and seems to have sued this position to pursue his own agendas (how unusual!). Whether his motivation for felling much of the Grove was financial, (it’s possible he sold the timber, the bark alone amounting to 12 cartloads fetching £20, a princely sum), but the curt over which he presided had ruled that the Grove should be felled in the interests of deer management. However, Robert Hillary claimed Rowden’s Grove as part of his copyhold, and launched litigation; he and his relatives and friends were also accused of starting an ‘affray’ with Sir Bernard’s son (also confusingly called Bernard!) at midnight on 13 May 1622.

Exploitation of the forest by landowners was sometimes so blatantly destructive, higher authorities were occasionally forced to take an interest. In the 1580s a Royal ‘Commission to survey’ was appointed to look into possible offences against the Forest Laws by Robert Wroth. Wroth had bought ‘Moncke Wood’, felling a great part of it, and sold the wood, but it seems he cut down more trees than he had said he would, leaving a ‘greate spoyle and waste’.

Grants to enclose land in the Forest had been made by licence from early times. These enclosures are shown on old maps; but before 1850 only about six hundred acres had been enclosed in more than two hundred years. When the right to enclose was granted, only low fences were permitted, so that the deer should not be denied pasture. In the first year of the eighteenth century another Sir Bernard Whetstone, lord of the manor of Woodford, was sued for making illegal fences, and in defending himself complained that the deer did so much damage that the landowners were forced ‘to give over ploughing and sowing their arable land, of which the greater part of the demesne of his manor consisted’. He was still obliged to pay compensation, in wheat and oats, to the King’s household for the land enclosed; ‘though not a foot of the demesne had been ploughed for the last ten years, by reason of the number of deer, which would utterly destroy the corn; and the cessation of ploughing caused the increase of deer, by reason that the barren and dry fallows were converted into sweet and fresh green pastures to layer and feed the cattle.’

Epping Forest sheltered poachers, highwaymen, smugglers, rebels, gypsies, squatters, marauders, for centuries. Rumours of these ne’er-do-wells combined partly genuine reality and partly a continuation of ancient the distrust of forests and those who hid in them… In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, the Forest housed a number of ‘Maroon Villages’  (a name was taken from the Carribean, from the underground/rebel West Indian villages of fugitive slaves, & sometimes native americans and white renegades) – unlawful communities in the commons & woodlands, refuges for runaways, ex-slaves, ex-servants, and also, by repute, political radicals from the defeated movements of the English revolution,eg the Fifth Monarchy men, ranters, leveller and digger groups. In 1666 rumours spread of an alleged Fifth monarchist conspiracy in the Chase and Epping Forest.Writing to his friend Francis Manley, in 1666, Henry Eyton could not resist mentioning his fears regarding

“… restless enemy amongst us … I mean the whole fanatic party, the head of which serpent lies in and near London especially upon the confines of Essex and Hertfordshire … taking either side of the Ware river from Edmonton down to Ware and particularly those retired places of Epping Forest and Enfield Chase … About the road near Theobalds there is a crew of them lie concealed … that should there be the least commotion in London we should find to our cost that they would be too ready to second it.”

The fugitive communities were said to behind to many of the ‘Blacks’ – poachers and deerstealers, who waged war on keepers and helped themselves to the game in theory reserved for their ‘betters’. In the early 18th century, the Lord Chief Justice signed a warrant to clear the Forest of these squatter villages.

Pubs and taverns on the edge of the forest were also viewed with suspicion by authority, seen as the hangouts of the various ne’er-do-wells listed above, and venues for plotting of nefarious actions as well as for the disposal of loot (‘half an ‘aunch of vension, mate? Fell off the back of a cart…’)

Romany travellers were also well known in the Forest, and the centuries-old fear, hatred and discrimination against them operated here as elsewhere – continuing today…

The Map of Waltham Forest c.1641 shows Woodford Wood, Knighton Wood and ‘Munkom Wood’ to the north of the parish of Woodford; but during the 18th century much of Monkham Grove was felled, as this was a legally enclosed, coppiced wood. Woodford Wood remained intact until the 1830s. The Epping and Ongar Highway Trust cut their new road to Epping through the forest in 1830-4, and in 1832 the parish vestry authorised a new road through the forest to Chingford (now Whitehall Road). This was built as a means of providing work for local men who might otherwise have been sent to the workhouse. This was conveniently arranged through the fact that local Overseer of the Poor at that time, Richard Hallett, was also Surveyor of Highways. Once the road had been constructed houses were soon built beside it on land taken from the forest.

Up until the 19th century the Forest Laws had ensured that land was not enclosed without proper payment to the Crown. Unfortunately, the chief officer or Lord Warden of Epping Forest was a position held by Earl Tylney of Wanstead House. When William Long Wellesley took over this role, he openly flouted the system and allowed small enclosures. Indeed he was in favour of the complete abolition of the Forest system, which would have enabled him to build freely on much of his own manorial lands in Wanstead and Woodford. The Crown needed to enforce the Forest Laws to obtain the revenue from enclosures, but with its chief officer only concerned about his own best interests, the system rapidly declined.

Attempts had been made to enclose Knighton Wood as early as 1572, but although the lord of the manor had been licensed to fence part of the woodland, his action led to riots and the fences were thrown down. In 1826 Thomas Russell sold ‘the freehold estate known as Knighton Wood’ and the documentation traces previous owners back to 1712. In the early 1830s Richard Hallett (the overseer of the plots & surveyor of highways mentioned previously) bought Knighton wood and contested the limitations put on him as owner by the Forest Laws. This legal wrangle lasted 12 years and was eventually settled by a compromise. In the early 1850s Hallett built Knighton Villa and, eventually, quite a number of other houses here.

In 1863 Knighton Villa was bought by Edward North Buxton who extended the house for his large family. He, however, along with his brother, Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton of Warlies at Upshire, and their cousin, Andrew Johnston of The Firs at Woodford, were leading members of the Commons Preservation Society. This was formed in 1865 to help in the fight to preserve open spaces like Berkhamsted Common and Hampstead Heath. It was the determination of the members of that society, combined with the might of the City of London Corporation, which eventually led to the saving of Epping Forest. Another influential figure from Woodford Wells, Henry Ford Barclay of Monkhams, was also involved as one of the Commissions appointed by the Crown to consider the whole problem and put forward a practical solution.

The vast mass of documentation collected by the Commission provides a wealth of information about the forest in the 1870s. At Woodford Wells most of the wood had been cleared and what had not been covered by houses and gardens was grassland or rough grazing. There was considerable controversy when Diedrich Schwinge of Hanover House (at the junction of the High Road and Whitehall Road) tried to enclose the land in front of his house, much as many of his neighbours were doing. In his case the land was known as “Roundings Green” and was regarded as part of the village green in front of the Horse and Well.

With the passing of the legislation which preserved Epping Forest, all land not actually enclosed as house or garden was purchased by the City of London Corporation and put back into Epping Forest. The ancient Woodford Wood had been destroyed and the forest land here today is largely grassland, scrub or secondary woodland.

Thomas Willingale

The events that eventually sparked the defeat of enclosures in the Forest began in Baldwin’s Hill, now part of Loughton. Squatter communities displaced from Woodford by the expansion of middle class homes there began to settle Baldwin’s Hill in the mid-18th century. A number of the inhabitants were romany. These marginalised folk and their descendants were involved in the anti-enclosure struggles in the Forest over several decades.

In the 1820s, a man named Whetstone (presumably relative of the enclosing lord of Woodford, see above) & his servant John Rigby had a contract to fell trees around Loughton, but reckoned without local opposition. There were several riots sparked by protests against treefelling; 300 people were involved in one. Especially troublesome were 13 local women who “beat Rigby’s workmen and took from them their axes… and detained them.”

By the 1860s, as in many parts of London and it’s suburbs, pressure for land for building was immense, and the profits to be had from clearing and developing land were very tempting to the local landowners.

Local people had long had the customary right of lopping timber for winter fuel, and the poor inhabitants of Baldwin’s Hill were keen beneficiaries of this custom. November 11th, known as Martinmas, was the traditional day for start of winter proper; since the calendar was altered in 1752, lopping rights kicked in this day every year, having previously been set for November 1st on All Saints Day.

Locals celebrating the opening of lopping rights at Staples Hill

By local tradition, someone had to actually observe the custom on the 11th, for the right to click in. Martinmas was marked at Staples Hill in Loughton with an annual bonfire and pissup; by the mid-19th century, the night started with getting wazzed in the Kings Head in Loughton and launching lopping rights at midnight. Branches could not be cut below 7 feet off the ground (allowing the deer to munch on the lower limbs), so stepladders were de rigeur. Any wood cut was strictly for your own use, not to be flogged.

Thomas Willingale lived at Baldwin’s Hill, so may have been a squatter, ex-squatter or descendant of squatters… His family had apparently been foremost proponents of the ancient customary right of cutting wood for years over several years: it’s worth noting that in many areas one or more families were sometimes seen as archivists of particular rights or customs, having evolved the responsibility for remembering the rules and parameters of what was due and taken on the role of prime defender of old rights. In any case Tom Willingale took on this role. By local accounts, he had been active in asserting lopping rights for several years. As early as 1828 he was fined for lopping in the Forest Court for cutting down an entire tree on land directly owned by the lord of the manor (usually exempted from lopping rights). There’s no doubt he stretched the rules of what was traditionally allowed by common right, since he blatantly sold wood from his year in Whitaker’s Way that was obviously lopped under customary right (ie not meant to be sold). In 1859, the story goes, the Lord of manor of Loughton, William Maitland, (who had enclosed much land at Woodford) attempted to get local men pissed on November 11th in a local pub, in the hope they’d forget to go lopping at midnight (thus debarring them from lopping all winter), but canny Tom Willingale had a few drinks on Maitland, then went out anyway and cut off a branch, returning to the pub to present it to Maitland’s agent, “Bulldog’ Richardson. Burn.

In 1865, William Maitland’s son and heir, the Reverend John Whitaker Maitland, Rector of St John’s Church Loughton, enclosed 1300 acres of Epping Forest, with the intention of selling this on for building or agriculture. Maitland felt all previous common rights had been extinguished; he bought out some of the locals with traditional common rights, and sold off bits of land to others, who began to build fences themselves. Maitland announced he would prosecute anyone ‘trespassing’ on the enclosed land.

Stout fences were put up, and Maitland started felling trees in Forest, planning to sell off the land for development or horticulture.

Determined to uphold the tradition, on November 11th 1865, with his two sons, Willingale broke down Maitland’s new fence & started cutting wood. He and his sons were arrested and hauled up in Waltham Abbey court, in front of the local magistrate – one John Whitaker Maitland! Yes, as was usual then, local lords of the manor and landowners were often the chief instrument of law and order in the district. Handy when your tenants are rebelling… While the initial case was dismissed, Willingale and his relatives continued to assert lopping rights. Convicted of malicious trespass, Willingale’s son Samuel and two of Tom’s nephews, Alfred Willingale and William Higgins, were jailed in Ilford jail after refusing to pay 2s.6d. fines for ‘damage’ to trees. Tom himself was fined.

Alfred Willingale

The case led to much discontent in East London. Local opponents of enclosure, backed by the Commons Preservation Society, launched a legal case in 1866 with Willingale, claiming that Loughton was within the royal forest, for which Elizabeth I had granted lopping rights, and seeking an injunction to prevent Maitland chopping down more trees. The local Epping Forest anti-enclosure society held its meetings in the Crown Inn at Loughton. Attempts were made by Maitland to buy Willingale off, but when they failed, Maitland bought Willingale’s cottage and evicted him. Willingale was also deprived of work & housing by the local establishment, who backed the landowner.

Willingdale also took out a case against Maitland, over the loss, during the enclosures, of his house at Baldwin’s Hill, together with the land he had acquired by the traditional forest squatter’s rolling fence method (gradually and almost imperceptibly extending the fence outward over time!) over his 27 years there. Maitland had offered him rehousing, but Willingale stuck it out for his rebuilt cottage. But he died about 1870 with the case unresolved.

Samuel Willingale

The legal case was however was taken up by the Corporation of London, at the behest of the Commons Preservation Society. The Society’s investigations had led to the discovery of a web of old rights of common; on the basis of which the Corporation opted to sue 19 lords of various Essex manors who had enclosed parts of the Forest. In 1874, the Master of the Rolls ruled for the Corporation and the Society, ordering the enclosers to take down existing fences and not erect any more. 1000s of acres of land were opened for public access. The Corporation of London went on to buy the land & manage it for public recreation, as it still does today.

The Willingales still managed to cock one final snook at Maitland. When the Corporation took over the Forest in 1878, it ruled that the enclosure fences Maitland had put up were to be removed at his expense. However, Thomas’s son William Willingale happily volunteered to carry this task out, spending four days riding round tearing the fences round, in alliance with another opponent of the enclosures, George Burney.

The outrage over the enclosures partly gained massive publicity throughout East London, partly because the wider Forest was well known to many Londoners having long been a traditional destination for East Enders to journey out for jollities picnics and pissups.

Thomas Willingale is commemorated in Loughton by the street name Willingale Road, the Thomas Willingale School, and formerly had a pub named after him in Chingford (renamed “The Station House” in 2006). The Lopping Hall in Loughton was paid for out of compensation money for extinguishment of the lopping rights. It contains a carved hornbeam memorial tablet to Willingale and its north entrance includes a terracotta pediment illustrating loppers at work in the forest. There is a blue plaque on the wall of St John’s Churchyard, where Willingale is buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. There is no known likeness of Willingale. Those extant in the town are of his son, also Thomas.

 

Today in London’s radical past: A bread riot in Deptford, 1867.

You can’t live by bread alone… but we can have more than the crumbs from their tables…

In January 1867, at a time of high unemployment, with people going hungry, some folk in Deptford, in south-east London, revived the old tactic of the bread riot.

On the 23rd, parish officers from St Paul’s parish had been distributing bread to the needy, and a large number of people were clustered around their depot at Mary Ann’s buildings… When the bread ran out, and the announcement was made that there would be no more that day, the crowd got angry, and marched down Deptford High Street. They looted one baker’s shop of all its loaves; a second baker gave away everything in fear of his windows getting smashed. A third bakery was attacked near Deptford Broadway.

Police Commissioner Richard Mayne sent detachments of ‘A’ Reserve – mounted police – with one Chief Superintendent Walker in charge, who cleared the street, but the next day, crowds gathered again, and the bakers closed up shop.

This time the butchers were also attacked, one of whom saved himself by waving a cleaver at the crowd. Another was pushed aside by one ringleader who proclaimed to the assembled crowd, ‘There you are; walk in and help yourself.’ The crowd duly did so without the police interfering. A tobacconist was then burgled…

The crowds then marched off to the Greenwich Union Workhouse, to petition the Poor Law Guardians meeting taking place there. Police maintained a strong presence in the streets that evening, and the day after that, the crowds were not much in evidence. However five tons of bread were given away free that day, so ends achieved, you might say…

The bread riot has a long history. At times of high wheat prices and (since bread was the main diet of the poor) widespread hunger, bakers and millers would be the target of rioters, often accused along with farmers and landowners of hoarding grain to jack up prices. Bread riots could involve the whole community, though, they were often led by women. In previous centuries, it was common for rioters to seize stocks of bread and force bakers to sell it at a price they thought fair, or a long-established price; this was the strongest example of the so-called ‘moral economy’ (discussed by EP Thompson and other radical historians) a set of economic and social practices based in a popular view of how certain basic needs ought to be fairly and cheaply available.

The idea of a moral economy was one that crossed class boundaries, a reflection of the paternalist society, where all knew their place, but all classes had responsibilities and there were certain given rights to survival. Although the kind of moral economy that selling bread at a price considered fair, was bound up with pre-capitalist society – which were being superseded by the growth of capitalism, of social relations based solely on profit and wage labour, clearly as late as the 1860s, hungry people considered that such a staple should be freely available, and were prepared to enforce that if charity wasn’t gong to meet their needs. In Deptford, they didn’t bother with negotiating a fair price – they just took what they could…

Once the disturbances calmed down, local businesspeople and magistrates were quick to vindicate local people. ‘The hardworking individual classes took no part in this disgraceful movement’, and J. J. Barker of the Council made it clear that non-locals caused all the trouble (those pesky outside agitators again!).
A convenient whitewash would thus save High Street business. That notwithstanding, sentences for those caught were harsh and clearly motivated by personal animosity towards ‘bolshie’ indentured apprentice boys. On 25 March the magistrate Mr Traill handed down a sentence of three weeks on ‘bread and water’ to fifteen-year-old William Yarnell, an apprentice of a Mr Russell of New Cross who had accused him of being ‘obstreperous’ and being ‘a perfect terror’. The actual offence was the careless leaving open of a door!

Worth a read: Jess Steele, Turning the Tide: A history of Everyday Deptford.

E.P. Thompson , The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century (Past & Present No. 50 (Feb., 1971), pp. 76-136). It’s online at: http://libcom.org/history/moral-economy-english-crowd-eighteenth-century-epthompson

In a strange echo of these events, between 2002 and 2004, an empty bakery in Deptford High Street was squatted and used as a social centre, named, with terrible humour, Use Your Loaf. Among many other social, political events and more, it was at Use Your Loaf that the South London Radical History Group, a project closely tied to us here at past tense, began its life in 2003:

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online:
http://alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/calendar.html