Today in London radical history, 1870: a Land & labour League unemployed demonstration.

On 15th April 1870, a Land and Labour League unemployed demonstration took place in London. The winter of 1869-70 had seen a large rise in unemployment, and on Good Friday the League organised a demonstration of the jobless, which aroused considerable comment. League members wore “broad scarlet sashes…around the waist, in the exact pattern current among the sans culottes of the first French Revolution, and, in a further imitation of that class, poles were born aloft with the emblematical caps of liberty”. (The Times, 16 April 1870)

The Land and Labour League had been formed in October 1869, by a group of radical trade unionists affiliated to the International Working Men’s Association. The meetings had been proposed by the O’Brienite National Reform League and were attended by a variety of working class radicals, as evidenced by the somewhat eclectic programme. Its formation had been sparked by a discussion of the land question at the Basle Congress of the International Workingmen’s Association (the ‘First International’) earlier in the year.

The League advocated the full nationalisation of land, in the interests of the people that worked it; its membership was associated with many of the working class activists and trade unionists who formed the backbone of the political reform movements of the 1860s-70s, (it has been described as the successor to the Reform League) the secularists and the shortlived working class republican network in London.

Although originally concerned mainly with land nationalisation the League became the leading left republican organisation in Britain.

Patrick Hennessey, an Irish trade unionist, was the Land League’s President. The secretaries were Martin J. Boon (who had been strongly influenced by the group that grew up around the former Chartist socialist James Bronterre O’Brien, based at the Eclectic Hall in Soho) and John Weston, and the treasurer was Johann Eccarius, well known figure in the English section of the First International.

Boon’s involvement in the formation of the League is illustrated in the presence in the original principles of the L&LL many of the demands of the ‘O’Brienite’ wing of Chartism – nationalisation of the land; home colonization; equal electoral rights and payment of MPs, along with more more generally radical aims – free compulsory state education; abolition of standing army; state limitation of working hours. To this was added a plethora of concessions to the rising tide of currency reformism (single tax; nationalisation of the banks; abolition of national debt).

Members of the IMWA’s General Council were noticeably active in the League. These included JG Eccarius, then a disciple of Marx, George Odger, John Weston, Martin J Boon and Tom Mottershead. Marx was a member of the League, joining on 30 November 1869, but did not play a prominent part. Charles Bradlaugh, the secularist, was also a leading figure.

‘The Republican’ (1 September 1870 to 1 February 1872) was the de facto publication of the League. Daniel Chatterton, former Chartist, secularist speaker, fiery communist orator, later of ‘Chatterton’s Commune’ fame, was the proprietor.

The Land & League reached its organisational height due to wide spread public sympathy with the new French republic declared in 1870 at the end of the Franco-Prussian War. At a League rally on the issue of the war and the French Republic in January 1871, “a dense sea of human faces…men- workers primarily and a few women ‘daughters of Labour’ – understanding the speeches and keen about them; and on the platform a small knot of men, the Irreconcilables of English policy”. The latter included Beesly, his friend Harrison, Bradlaugh, Odger and Applegarth. (Eastern Post, 14 January 1871).

Originally neutral, the League later helped organise an Anglo-French Intervention Committee to press for military action against the Prussians – at this meeting a motion for war if Alsace Lorraine was annexed was passed. This latter action and the outbreak of the Paris Commune brought dissensions. More moderate (Odger, Bradlaugh) and more radical (Weston, Boon) elements broke off. Competition from the middle class Land Tenure Association stole many of the surviving adherents. A rump of currency cranks lingered on until the end of the 1870s.

Despite effectively petering out by 1873 the League had some radicalising impact on the Land Tenure Reform Association established by John Stuart Mill, which adopted a policy of taxing the unearned increment on land value under pressure from the League.

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Address of the Land and Labour League to the Working Men and Women of Great Britain and Ireland

Drawn up: by JG Eccarius on about November 14, 1869;
Published: as a pamphlet Address of the Land and Labour League to the Working Men and Women of Great Britain and Ireland, London, 1869.

This address is in fact the programme of the Land and Labour League; drawn up by Eccarius who was on the commission preparing it, and edited by Marx, and this found expression in the League’s programme.

Fellow-Workers,

The fond hopes held out to the toiling and suffering millions of this country thirty years ago have not been realised. They were told that the removal of fiscal restrictions would make the lot of the labouring poor easy; if it could not render them happy and contented it would at least banish starvation for ever from their midst.

They rose a terrible commotion for the big loaf, the landlords became rampant, the money lords confounded, the factory lords rejoiced — their will was done — Protection received the coup de grâce. A period of the most marvellous prosperity followed. At first the Tories threatened to reverse the policy, but on mounting the ministerial benches, in 1852, instead of carrying out their threat, they joined the chorus in praise of unlimited competition. Prepared for a pecuniary loss they discovered to their utter astonishment that the rent-roll was swelling at the rate of more than £2,000,000 a year. Never in the history of the human race was there so much wealth — means to satisfy the wants of man — produced by so few hands, and in so short a time as since the abolition of the Corn Laws. During the lapse of twenty years the declared value of the animal exports of British and Irish produce and manufactures — the fruits of your own labour — rose from £60,000,000 to £188,900,000. In twenty years the taxable income of the lords and ladies of the British soil increased, upon their own confession, from £98,000,000 to £140,000,000 a year; that of the chiefs of trades and professions from £60,000,000 to 10,000,000 a year. Could human efforts accomplish more?

Alas! there are stepchildren in Britania’s family. No Chancellor of the Exchequer has yet divulged the secret how the £140,000,000 are distributed amongst the territorial magnates, but we know all about the trades-folk. The special favourites increased from sixteen, in 1846, to one hundred and thirty-three, in 1866. Their average annual income rose from £74,300 to £100,600 each. They appropriated one-fourth of the twenty years’ increase. The next of kin increased from three hundred and nineteen to nine hundred and fifty-nine Individuals: their average annual income rose from £17,700 to £19,300 each: they appropriated another fourth. The remaining half was distributed amongst three hundred and forty-six thousand and forty-eight respectables, whose annual income ranged between £100 and £10,000 sterling. The toiling millions, the producers of that wealth — Britania’s cinderellas — got cuffs and kicks instead of halfpence.

In the year 1864 the taxable income under schedule D increased by £9,200,000. Of that increase the metropolis, with less than an eighth of the population, absorbed £4,266,000, nearly a half, £3,123,000 of that, more than a third of the increase of Great Britain, was absorbed by the City of London, by the favourites of the one hundred and seventy-ninth part of the British population: Mile End and the Tower, with a working population four times as numerous, got £175,000. The citizens of London are smothered with gold; the householders of the Tower Hamlets are overwhelmed by poor-rates. The citizens, of course, object to centralisation of poor-rates purely on the principle of local self-government.

During the ten years ending 1861 the operatives employed in the cotton trade increased 12 per cent; their produce 103 per cent. The iron miners increased 6 per cent; the produce of the mines 37 per-cent. Twenty thousand iron miners worked for ten mine owners. During the same ten years the agricultural labourers of England and Wales diminished by eighty-eight thousand one hundred and forty-seven, and yet, during that period, several hundred thousand acres of common land were enclosed and transformed into private property to enlarge the estates of the nobility and the same process is still going on.

In twelve years the rental liable to be rated to the poor in England and Wales rose from £86,700,000 to £118,300,000: the number of adult able-bodied paupers increased from one hundred and forty-four thousand five hundred to one hundred and eighty-five thousand six hundred.

These are no fancy pictures, originating in the wild speculations of hot brained incorrigibles; they are the confessions of landlords and money lords, Recorded in their own blue books. One of their experts told the House of Lords the other day that the propertied classes, after faring sumptuously laid by £150,000,000 a year out of the produce of your labour. A few weeks later the president of the Royal College of Surgeons related to a jury assembled to inquire into the causes of eight untimely deaths, what lie saw in the foul ward of St. Pancras.

Hibernia’s favourites too have multiplied, and their income has risen, while a sixth of her toiling sons and daughters perished by famine, and its consequent diseases, and a third of the remainder were evicted, ejected and expatriated by tormenting felonious usurpers.

This period of unparalleled Industrial prosperity has landed thousands of our fellow-toilers — honest, unsophisticated, hardworking men and women — in the stone yard and the oakum room; the roast beef of their dreams has turned into skilly. Hundreds of thousands, men, women and children, are wandering about — homeless, degraded outcasts — in the land that gave them birth, crowding the cities and towns, and swarming the highroads in the, country in search of work to obtain food and shelter, without being able to find any. Other thousands, more spirited than honest, are walking the treadmill to expiate little thefts, preferring prison discipline to workhouse fare, while the wholesale swindlers are at large, and felonious landlords preside at quarter sessions to administer the laws. Thousands of the young and strong cross the seas, flying from their native firesides, like from an exterminating plague; the old and feeble perish on the roadside of hunger and cold. The hospitals and infirmaries are overcrowded with fever and famine-stricken: death from starvation has become an ordinary every-day occurrence.

All parties are agreed that the sufferings of the labouring poor were never more intense, and misery so widespread, nor the means of satisfying the wants of man ever so abundant as at present. This proves above all that the moral foundation of all civil government, “that the welfare of the entire community is the highest law, and ought to be the aim and end of all civil legislation”, has been utterly disregarded. Those who preside over the destinies of the nation have either wantonly neglected their primary duty while attending to the special interests of the rich to make them richer, or their social position, their education, their class prejudices have incapacitated them from doing their duty to the community at large or applying the proper remedies; in either case they have betrayed their trust.

Class government is only possible on the condition that those who are held in subjection are secured against positive want. The ruling classes have failed to secure the industrious wages-labourer in the prime of his life against hunger and death from starvation. Their remedies have signally failed, their promises have not been fulfilled. They promised retrenchment, they have enormously increased the public expenditure instead. They promised to lift the burden of taxation from your shoulders, the rich pay but a fractional part of the increased expenses; the rest is levied upon your necessaries — even your pawn tickets are taxed — to keep up a standing army drawn from your own ranks, to shoot you down if you show signs of disaffection. They promised to minimise pauperism: they have made indigence and destitution your average condition — the big loaf has dwindled into no loaf. Every remedy they have applied has but aggravated the evil, and they have no other to suggest, — their rule is doomed. To continue is to involve all in a common ruin. There is but one, — and only one, — remedy. Help Yourselves! Determine that you will not endure this abominable state of things any longer; act up to your determination, and it will vanish.

A few weeks ago a score of London working men talked the matter over. They came to the conclusion that the present economical basis of society was the foundation of all the existing evils, — that nothing short of a transformation of the existing social and political arrangements could avail, and that such a transformation could only be effected by the tolling millions themselves. They embodied their conclusions in a series of resolutions, and called a conference of representative working men, to whom they were submitted for consideration. In three consecutive meetings those resolutions were discussed and unanimously adopted. To carry them out a new working men’s organisation, under the title of the “Land and Labour League”, was established. An executive council of upwards of forty well-known representative working men was appointed to draw up a platform of principles arising out of the preliminary resolutions adopted by the conference, to serve as the programme of agitation by means of which a radical change call be effected.

After mature consideration the Council agreed to the following:

  1. Nationalisation of the Land.
  2. Home Colonisation.
  3. National, Secular, Gratuitous and Compulsory Education.
  4. Suppression of Private Banks of Issue. The State Only to Issue Paper Money
  5. A Direct and Progressive Property Tax, in Lieu of All Other Taxes.
  6. Liquidation of the National Debt.
  7. Liquidation of the Standing Army.
  8. Reduction of the Number of the Hours of Labour.
  9. Equal Electoral Rights, with Payment of Members.

The success of our efforts will depend upon the pressure that can be brought to bear upon the powers that be, and this requires numbers, union organisation and combination. We therefore call upon you to unite, organise and combine and raise the cry throughout Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, “The Land for the People” — the rightful inheritors of nature’s gifts. No rational state of society can leave the land, which is the source of life, under the control of, and subject to the whims and caprices of, a few private individuals. A government elected by, and as trustee for, the whole people is the only power that can manage it for the benefit of the entire community.

Insist upon the State reclaiming the unoccupied lands as a beginning of its nationalisation, and placing the unemployed upon it. Let not another acre of common land be enclosed for the private purposes of non-producers. Compel the Government to employ the army until its final dissolution, as a pioneer force to weed, drain and level the wastes for cultivation, instead of forming encampments to prepare for the destruction of life. If green fields and kitchen gardens are incompatible with the noble sport of hunting let the hunters emigrate.

Make the Nine points of the League the Labour programme the touchstone by which you test the quality of candidates for parliamentary honours, and if you find them spurious reject them like a counterfeit coin, for he who is not for them is against you.

You are swindled out of the fruits of your toil by land laws, money laws, and all sorts of laws. Out of the paltry pittance that is left you, you have to pay the interest of a debt that was incurred to keep you in subjection. You have to maintain a standing army that serves no other purpose in your generation, and you are systematically overworked when employed, and underfed at all times. Nothing but a series of such reforms as indicated on our programme will ever lift soil out of the slough of despond in which you are at present sunk. The difficulty can be overcome by unity of purpose and action. We are our opponents are few. Then, working men and women of all creeds and occupations, claim your rights as with one voice, and rally round, and unite your forces under, the banner of the “Land and Labour League” to conquer your own emancipation!

John Weston, Treasurer
Martin J. Boon, J. George Eccarius Secretaries

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Thanks to Keith Scholey for some of this post… Readers interest in the secularist, republican scene in London between the 1850s and 1880s, especially the followers of Bronterre O’Brien, could do worse than read Club Life and Socialism in Mid-Victorian London, by Stan Shipley. EP Thompson’s biog of William Morris, Romantic to Revolutionary, and The Slow Burning Fuse, by John Quail, pick up the threads of this, describing how many of these elements went on to form the early English socialist and anarchist movements.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London’s parklife: 1000s destroy enclosure fences, Hackney Downs, 1875

On December 11th 1875, a crowd of several thousand people assembled on Hackney Downs, East London, to take part in the destruction of fences newly built around enclosures on what was traditionally regarded as common land.

By the early nineteenth century Hackney Downs had long been established is custom as lammas land, which gave locals rights to pasture their animals from Lammas Day, August 1st (though this may have dated from August 12th locally), for a number of months – usually until April 6th the next year. The ability to graze livestock on common land was long a vital part of subsistence for hundreds of thousands of the labouring classes in rural society, and its gradual (and later, on a large scale) restriction by enclosure of agricultural land had a huge impact, increasing poverty and hardship, and contributing to mass migration into cities over centuries.

Even in the vicinity of the growing industrial cities of England, well into the 19th century, grazing of the one or two animals a family might have could supplement wages to make a substantial difference to meagre incomes.

Hackney, on London’s northeastern edge as late as the mid-19th century, contained large amounts of common land, stretching from Hackney marshes to Well Street and Stoke Newington. But such suburbs were under threat of development, with London spreading out in all directions. In the 1850s and 1860s, campaigns to preserve what remained of open space in the London area, and to form new parks for leisure and entertainment, led to much agitation and protest over building. Although commons grazing and lammas rights were becoming less vital economically, the customs and traditions that had been established over centuries also had a powerful emotional call, where landowners had not been successful in enclosing land and depriving the lower orders of access. In the late 19th century this feeling that access to common lands was a right was also being seasoned with both radical ideas – that the land should belong to all who worked it, not the rich – and (among more respectable elements) that open spaces should be maintained, controlled and brought into some form of public ownership to ensure it could be used for leisure. The latter was not entirely from public-spirited feelings: while many of the well-to-do were genuinely disinterested and wholeheartedly believed in green space for all, there were elements who felt that working class people needed morally improving, and that properly landscaped parks and genteel pastimes would help to uplift them. Also many workers were unhealthy and you can’t carry on with a sick and pasty workforce/potential army cannon fodder.

Attempts to enclose or restrict access to parts of Hackney’s lammas land had led to disputes, direct action and rioting in the past. In 1837, a Mr Adamson was renting 20 acres of the downs and was growing a corn crop. and issued a notice calling on parishioners not to send cattle onto the downs until the corn was cleared. Angry Hackney locals resented this notice and on Lammas Day, cattle were turned onto the downs prior to the crop being harvested and some of the corn itself was seized. Adamson turned the cattle back out of the fields and two parishioners, Mr Neale and Mr Ambrose, were arrested, but the case was left undecided. The enclosure struggle led to a general attack on Adamson and his property.

The word spread that the downs were indeed now open and that the crop still growing there had passed into the common ownership of the parish at large. Adamson attempted in vain to stop a crowd invading his land:

‘He was knocked down…Crowds of persons collected from all parts of the town, consisting of parishioners, and some of the lowest characters, who committed a simultaneous robbery of the property.

However, subsequently, a judge ruled that Adamson’s notice for parishioners not to use the lammas lands after August 12 was legally unenforceable, and the established custom for the downs to be turned over for pasture at that date. Rioters got off with relatively light punishment as a result.

This battle, and the unruly memory of it, shows a strong and stroppy sense of ownership of the common lands at Hackney Downs, which resurfaced four decades later.

During the 1870s Hackney was once again a focus for direct action and fence breaking. The District Board had organised a petition for the enclosure of 180 acres of common at HackneyDowns under the Metropolitan Common Acts (1866) and it was vested in the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1872. The lands were Clapton common Stoke Newington common and South Mill fields, Hackney Downs, Hackney or Well Street common, London Fields and strips of waste in Dalston Lane and Grove Street (later Lauriston Road).

Some of these areas were still operating as traditional lammas lands, but others, notably London Fields and Hackney Downs, were increasingly used for recreation, which was blamed for damage to ‘herbage’ there. London Fields in particular was no longer suitable for pasture, and had became infamous as a haunt of “roughs… the scene of the most dissolute practices imaginable… itinerant preachers, not the ordinary itinerant preachers, but people who get up discussions.” (well I never…?!) As well as “vagrants, gypsies and prostitutes.” As elsewhere, the disorderly nature of open space was often used as a public focus point for calls to enclose, landscape and sell off common spaces. Through the 1860s, respectable Hackney citizens had been demanding a clean-up of the areas open spaces.

But there was a division of powers over the common land: the Metropolitan Board Of Works only in fact had jurisdiction over the footpaths and rights of way over Hackney’s open space. The Hackney and Shoreditch parish councils hoped to turn London Fields into a park, so it could be landscaped, made respectable, in order to attract “a more respectable class of society”. (As had been done, for instance, in the 1850s at Kennington, where the old common had been landscaped and fenced to prevent repeats of the vast 1848 Chartist demonstration… or at Camberwell Green, to aid in repression of the annual fair, a notorious gathering of the rowdy lower classes… to name but two examples.) But the Vestries could not get their inhabitants to agree about how the building of the prospective park should be paid for, and what body should run it… Proposals to rent parts of the land to raise money for the costs were vocally resisted by many locals. The vestry boards hoped the Metropolitan Board of works would add the commons to their growing London responsibilities, and also expected the Lord of the Manor, William Amhurst Tyssen Amherst, to cheerfully hand over the land without charge… A view supported by local anti-enclosure campaigners, who denounced the idea of paying any compensation to landlords and relied on the defence of traditional common rights as a bulwark against any development of the land.

Arguments about how Hackney’s common land should be regulated continued for several years, with Vestry councilors undecided as to whether to take on the land, sell some for development… the situation was complicated by the individuals and institutions who held part of the land as freeholders or copyholders for the remainder of the year outside the lammas grazing months… who also demanded compensation for loss of the revenue from their holdings. The web of lammas rights and of these other rights made this a much more complex prospect for takeover than other opens spaces the Metropolitan Board of Works had yet taken on. And William Amherst also refused to consent to any scheme, standing on his claim to all the rights to exploit the soil, gravel, clay sand and other minerals, or to grant licenses for it – a hugely lucrative holding.

In 1872, the Metropolitan Board took over the management of much of Hackney’s common land. Many residents and those with interests in the common held their fire to see how this would affect them, But the lord of the manor saw the Board’s plans as threatening his interests, and demanded that they buy him out. Specific bylaws the Board planned to pass did restrict the right of the lord to carry out what he regarded as his rights on his own property (though the Commons Preservation Society and other campaigners felt, after much study, that much of this was merely customary and would not necessarily stand up as legal rights).

Amherst determined to provoke the Board, probably to force their hand into paying him large amount of dosh to relinquish his ‘rights’. But the Board’s scheme for the commons in the area specifically barred them from buying him out. So works, such as digging for gravel and other exploitable minerals, were ordered, in defiance of the Board’s bylaws, and the Board wasn’t sure how to respond. This enraged locals set on keeping the parks of residents to use, and sparked protest meetings in 1874, with speakers denouncing both Amherst (‘The Downs are in the Hands of the Spoiler!’), and the Board for not keeping the lord of the manor in line (Although the Board had in fact acted to issue a writ against the digging in April ’74). Amherst’s solicitor admitted that the digging had been intended to prod the Board into buying the rights out

In the Autumn, parts of the Downs were fenced off and angry protest again followed.

In summer 1875, digging of gravel and sand on the Downs near Downs Park Road sparked protests, coagulating by November into public meetings on the Downs, called by the Commons Protection League, a working class based group, dedicated to defending open space, led by John De Morgan, an Irish socialist and secularist agitator, heavily involved in the ‘land question’ by the mid-1870s.. While more moderate elements in the local branch of the Commons Preservation Society launched a lawsuit in Chancery against the lord of the manor, de Morgan’s public meetings were attracting 3000 people by 21 November, and resolutions were passed to use every means necessary to preserve the Downs as open land.

On December 11th 1875 a large crowd assembled on the Downs, at the latest of five weekly demos. de Morgan addressed the crowd, ‘described enclosures which had recently been made, and which he asserted were wholly illegal, at the same time adding that their removal would be a perfectly legal act… The fences which they saw before them had been erected in defiance of popular feeling, and rights of way were being stopped which had existed from time immemorial. In these circumstances the only remedy that remained for the people – the only means of getting back their rights was to remove the fences without delay’.

Some 3000 had gathered; led by four or five ‘working men’, the crowd demolished fences hat had been erected around diggings.

“The people advanced to the iron railings where they were first obstructed by about thirty constables [. . .] and seemed as if they were about to protect the enclosure. The superintendent, however, said a few words to them. The staves were put up and the crowd allowed to proceed with the work of demolition.”

All traces of the fences were destroyed, and set on fire. The next day another large crowd assembled to celebrate.

Reports of the breaking down of the fences at Hackney Down were widely reported but vary little in their accounts.

‘A Lord of the Manor had stolen some portion of a metropolitan common known as Hackney Downs. On December 11th, 1875 upwards of 50,000 people assembled on Hackney Downs to witness the destruction of the fences. The police numbered in force and seemed prepared to resist the Commoners. Mr De Morgan warned them that their lives were in danger if they opposed and wisely did the police withdraw. The fences were then destroyed and burnt. the fire lasting until four o’clock in the morning’.

The event was also satirised in Punch magazine, for some reason written in early modern spelling:

‘A FYTTE OF ITACKNEY DOWNS.

It was open walking where Hackney Downs
Lies green beneath the skies.
From a time whereto man’s memory
Runneth not contrariwise.

The Lord of the Manor hath made essaye.
To enclose and build thereon.
And a blessing upon the Board of Works.
That to law with him have gone!

He planted postes and set up rayles.
And hedged hym yn the grounde.
The churl mote have waited at least until
Ile law on hys side had founde.

For the Lord, the Hackney Commoners said.
To collar our common land.
Never sticking so much as to ask our leave.
Ytt Ys more than we will stand!

What right hath he that land to cribb?
And a curse upon his crown!
No more to set fences and palings up.
Than we have to pull them down. ‘

‘So fourth to those iron rayles they went.
To tear them from the land;
When they were’ ware of thirty stout knaves,
of Bobbies blue a band!

The Bobbies. they drew their good ash staves,
for to guard the railings fain,
But a word their Superintendent spake,
And they putt them up agayne.

Then went the commoners to their work.
With many an hundred mo.
They seized the fences on Hackney Downs,
And laid the enclosures low’.

In the aftermath of the ‘riot’, William Amherst’s lawyers threatened to pursue identifiable ‘leaders’ of the events, and De Morgan was charged with inciting the action; moderate preservationists dissociated from his tactics.

But the demos, torchlight processions (with bands!) and public meetings continued, and by February 1876 the digging on the common had halted.

The fallout from the ‘riot’ also included more of the interminable wrangling that had characterised discussions over the Down and other Hackney common lands. De Morgan and his supporters, meanwhile, attempted to widen the struggle out, calling attention to other enclosures (eg at Lea Bridge on Hackney Marshes), and supported legal cases. For instance: in 1877 a group of local inhabitants charged with grazing cattle on Stoke Newington Common were defended by a solicitor associated with de Morgan, and a number of elderly residents gave evidence that the practice was traditional and longstanding. The magistrate declared this didn’t come under his jurisdiction, and the claim was abandoned.

Notices put up by the Grocers’ Company restricting entry to lands they owned on the Downs were also torn down in 1877.

But despite the stout resistance, the court of Chancery upheld the lord of the manor against the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1879. As a result his rights in the Hackney lands were purchased by the Metropolitan Board of Works, under an Act of 1881 and those of other freeholders under a further Act of 1884. It is debatable in the end whether the riot of 1875 did in fact ‘save’ Hackney Downs, although the agitation did raise the faltering profile of the issue.

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The 1870s were a high point of anti-enclosure struggles in the London area, following on from a decade of (mostly, though not exclusively) peaceful campaigns to prevent large open spaces being developed in the 1860s. Wanstead Flats in 1871, Chiselhurst Common in 1876, Eelbrook Common (Fulham) in 1878, all saw direct action against fences, as part of long-running resistance against the theft of common land.

John de Morgan himself would be jailed after leading probably the decade’s most spectacular enclosure battle, which emerged into mass rioting and the destruction of large scale fencing around land at Plumstead Common, in July 1876.

Many of these struggles were characterised by the large-scale involvement of radical movements, as London radicals, secularists and elements who would later help to form socialist groups made open space and working class access to it a major part of their political focus. Radical land agitation, notably through the Land and Labour League, was beginning to revive the question of access to land as a social question, and within cities this manifested as both battles to defend green space, and propaganda around the theft of the land from the labouring classes.

In contrast to the mainly legalistic approach of bodies like the Commons Preservation Society, the working-class protests organised by figures like De Morgan retained a strongly radical character and employed “direct action” tactics that brought them into open confrontation with the police and civil authorities. “They were also characterised by a vigorous use of language, knowledge of the lore relating to the appropriation of land during the Norman Conquest, and hostility to the police, that served to set them apart from the activities of their middle-class counterparts. Most of these features are displayed in accounts of opposition to the enclosure of Hackney Downs.”

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There is an interesting element to Hackney Downs and hackney common lands as a whole: one which we might want to think about, in our own times , as funding for the public open spaces we love and often take for granted is pinched and pressures to find ways to pay for their upkeep is leading to a drift towards commercial exploitation.

In the 1870s at Hackney, a large official body (the Metropolitan Board of Works) was taking over management of the lands, and to what extent it could live up to the expectations of the local residents. The pressure from many Hackney inhabitants was for an opening up of the land to more use for leisure, and this was clearly in conflict with the intention of the lord of the manor to exploit or grant rights to extract minerals, and of many of the freeholders or copyholders to fully profit from the rights they had purchased. But the Metropolitan Board was also up to a point at odds with both interests. They were suspicious of the campaigners, not only the ‘radicals’ like de Morgan, but also the more moderate and legalistic Commons Preservation Society. Their bylaws not only infuriated Amherst by restricting his profits; they also severally curtailed the more autonomous and unruly uses of the commons, and were in some ways closer to accommodation with the smaller holders’ interests than a broader sentiment that the land should be open for all. This disconnect remained even after the rights in the lands were bought from the lord of the manor; conflict over use and management of open space are still legion.

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.

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 realize. 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. 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.

The main thing to take from the numberless historical 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 sometimes stood in opposition to what might have been judged legal ‘reality’… Although sometimes relying on traditions and common rights as the basis for legal argument didn’t work, often when it acted as a grounding, a shared belief forming a 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.  The difficulty with entrusting our green space to public bodies is that they do not necessarily share our view of how they should used, and with councillors and leading officers in many councils hand in glove with developers all over London, co-operating over the selloff of social housing, the risk is that open space may also be up for grabs. And up for sale, or increasingly at least, for fencing off for profit.

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?

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

Follow past tense on twitter

For more of past tense writings on enclosures, open space and resistance, check out:

  • Down With the Fences: Battles for the Commons in South London.
  • The Battle for Hyde Park: Radicals, Ruffians and Ravers 1855-1994.
  • Rights of Common: The Fight against the Theft of Sydenham Common and One Tree Hill
  • William Covell and the Troubles at Enfield in 1659.
  • Kennington Park: Birthplace of People’s Democracy

 • Symond Newell & Kett’s Rebellion: Norfolk’s Great Revolt against Enclosures, 1549.

Most of the above are available to buy in pamphlet form from our website

Today in London radical history: enclosure fences torn down, Wandsworth Common, 1870

“The Commons have symbolic roots going back to before the Norman conquest. They stand for the right of every human to have access to the fruits of our earth: in stark contrast to the predatory individualism promoted by the ‘enlightened’ imperialist… This lack of feeling was a necessary precondition for a class of men who were destined to lead the conquest and exploitation of peoples and ecosystems across the globe…The spirit of the commons was the antithesis of this dominating cult of individualism and private ownership.” (Stefan Szczelkun).

“For though you and your Ancestors got your Propriety by murther and theft, and you keep it by the same power from us, that have an equal right to the Land with you, by the righteous Law of Creation, yet we shall have no occasion of quarrelling (as you do) about that disturbing devil, called Particular Propriety: For the Earth, with all her Fruits of Corn, Cattle, and such like, was made to be a common Store-house of Livelihood to all Mankinds, friend, and foe, without exception.” Gerrard Winstanley, ‘Declaration from the Poor oppressed People of England… to Lords of Manors’, 1649.

Open space in London has always been contested space. Many of the green spaces around London (and elsewhere) which remain today were preserved from being built on over previous centuries, by collective action – rioting, sabotage, occupation, as well as legal contests, campaigns, demonstrations… In the years before the 19th century, this was often about subsistence – access to the Commons and the resources available there, like wood for fires, food like fruit, nuts and small game, and grazing land, were crucial to many people’s daily survival.

By the late 19th century, with the massive expansion of London, crowded with millions living in often poor housing and working long hours, open space for pleasure and relaxation was at a premium, and fast disappearing.

As part of our occasional series on enclosure battles around London, today we remember an incident in the resistance to the theft of Wandsworth Common.

Wandsworth Common is the remains of more extensive commonland which through earlier centuries had been known by a number of names, including Battersea West Heath and Wandsworth East Heath. It was originally part of the wastes of the Manor of Battersea and Wandsworth.

Between 1794 & 1866, 53 enclosures reduced its size; most of the enclosures were carried out by local bigwigs the Spencer family (later of Princess Di fame). Earl Spencer’s actions sparked protests in December 1827, when “a very numerous meeting of the most affluent and respectable gentry” of Battersea, Wandsworth and Clapham (held at the Swan in Stockwell) opposed an impending Inclosure Bill for the three respective Commons. They were partly concerned at threats to their own livelihoods, but also greatly worried that many poor folk would be deprived of a subsistence living – and thus become a burden on the rates! (Much was made of the results of the recent enclosure of Bexley and Bromley Commons, where ratepayers had ended up paying the price…) The Bill was defeated, but small scale enclosure continued.

The situation in Wandsworth was made worse by the Common being split into three parts by railway lines in the 1840s, & the enclosure of a further 60 acres for an asylum. At some point in the late 1840s, a Mr Parsons and others broke down fences aroun some enclosures, and were charged, but the case was dismissed, possibly on the grounds that they were asserting a traditional right of access.

Attempts by local people to preserve the Common against further encroachment began in earnest in 1868 when appeals were made to the Metropolitan Board of Works to take over responsibility, following the Metropolitan Commons Act of 1866, but this was initially unsuccessful.

The East Common was the centre of a fierce struggle in the 1860s. Mr Kellar, who owned land on the Common south of Bellevue road, claimed he had to enclose it to disperse ‘gypsies’ who had been camping there, who he accused of trashing the Common; but it later emerged that he had supplied the travellers with booze & then kicked up a fuss when they got pissed & had a rowdy party.

In 1869, 2000 people gathered to pull down enclosure fences on part of the Common, roughly where Chivalry Road is now, and the following year Henry Peek (who had played a part in the preservation of Wimbledon Common from development) called together a Common Defence Committee (later the Wandsworth Common Preservation Society) to save the land threatened with development by the Spencers. Large public meetings were held in Wandsworth, Putney and Battersea. The Committee fought an unsuccessful legal battle that April to preserve Plough Green (around modern Strathblaine Road and Vardens Road, off St Johns Hill).
The agitation to save Wandsworth Common, although led by wealthier residents, involved working class mass involvement, including mass meetings in local factories.

In parallel with the legal campaigning, some locals went in for a bit of direct action… On May 14th 1869, John Buckmamster, a leading light of the Common Defence Committee, was had up at Wandsworth Police Court, accused of “wilfully and maliciously destroying a fence enclosing the property of Mr Christopher Todd at Wandsworth Common.” Todd had bought the land from the railway Company, but campaigners claimed they had no right to sell, as the Lord of the Manor had no right to sell it to THEM. Breaking down the fence, Buckmaster stated that he was asserting common right. Public meetings on the Common (including one allegedly 5000-strong in January 1868) had passed resolutions to tear down Todd’s fences.

In the months following fund-raising efforts and lobbying of support accelerated. And so did the wanton destruction of property. On April 13th 1870, “a large number of persons assembled and asserted their right of way by breaking down the fences”. Some 300-400 people armed with hatchets and pickaxes re-established a footpath enclosed by a Mr Costeker at Plough Green, possibly opposite the Freemasons Tavern. A report later noted:“At each crashing of the fence there was a great hooting and hurrahing.” In June of the same year there were protests at Spencer’s plans to enclose part of Putney Common.
Eventually Earl Spencer agreed to transfer most of the common to the Defence Committee, excluding the area which later became Spencer Park. The rest was later saved for public access, and remains open to all today.

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Centuries of hard fought battles saved many beloved places from disappearing, and campaigning led to the laws currently protecting 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.

An example of public space being created, that will operate under private control, is the proposed Garden Bridge across the river Thames. Despite the promise of £60m of public money, if built under
current proposals, it will be plagued by corporate restrictions: cyclists would have to dismount to cross, while social gatherings, playing musical instruments, making a speech, releasing balloons and many other pursuits would be banned. It could 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. Private space is space where they can tell us what we can and can’t do; space they can ban us from, keep us out of. Not that public bodies aren’t doing their bit: the last government introduced Public Space Protection Order (PSPO), allowing 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). 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.

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!

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More on enclosure battles in South London can be read in Down With the Fences (from which the section above on Wandsworth Common is an excerpt).

And some more of our ramblings on open space can be found in Stealing the Commons

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London’s media history: exiled German socialist/anarchist paper Freiheit begins publishing, 1879.

The German-language socialist (later anarchist) paper Freiheit (meaning Freedom) was first published from London, though mainly aimed at distribution in Germany, on 4th January 1879.

Here’s a good account of the paper’s early years and the context that gave birth to it, from ‘The Slow Burning Fuse, The Lost History of the British Anarchists’, by John Quail.

“There had been German political refugees in London since the events of 1848, one of the better known of them being Karl Marx. For the most part these refugees were men mostly ‘past middle age and already long-standing members of some English trade union or another, and their meetings were mainly social affairs where politics were discussed as part of a pleasant chat over a drink. There was, however, a steady influx of younger men with more activist tendencies. This influx was to turn into a flood as a result of the German Anti-Socialist Laws; yet the quickening of the German political atmosphere to which these Laws were something of a response had already affected the German exiles by 1877. One consequence was that at an informal gathering after the Cleveland Hall meeting Kitz describes how he was ‘urged by my comrade Johann Neve’ (of whom more later) ‘to form an English section of the Socialist party. I succeeded in getting together a number of comrades including those of the British Federation whom I have already referred to and thus was started an English Revolutionary Society, which, working with the foreign element was to take its part in the International Socialist movement ( … )’ This English Revolutionary Society was a part of the Social Democratic Club which met in pubs in Soho from its foundation in August 1877 until it found permanent premises in Rose Street ( now Manette Street ) in 1878. There were some five sections according to nationality with Frank Kitz as secretary of the English section. The move to club premises was important because now discussion and organisation could go ahead without the interference of landlords; and without the expense of hired rooms, says Kitz,’we were enabled to hold public meetings with greater frequency’.

When a wave of refugees arrived in London from Germany after the passage of the Anti-Socialist Laws in 1878, the Rose Street club became a central point for defence and aid. The general publicity given to the Laws also attracted attention to the thing they were designed to repress. ‘Shortly after this influx of refugees,’ writes Kitz, ‘the sections jointly issued a pamphlet by J. Sketchley, entitled The Principles of Social Democracy thus taking advantage of the interest awakened ( … ) Many thousands of this pamphlet were sold, the German section bearing the major portion of the cost, in order to aid propaganda among our own working class. The English section undertook the reissue of two pamphlets on Communism by H. Glasse; they also published an address to the amnestied Communists of Paris and 50,000 copies of this leaflet were distributed’. (Sketchley, incidentally, was an old Chartist. ) In order to understand the reasons for and the consequences of the Anti-Socialist Laws it is necessary to explain in more detail what was happening in Germany in this period.

A German Anarchist movement had existed since the mid-1870s. Their propaganda was spread by wandering agitators and smuggled newspapers. It was a small movement, in isolation, yet it began to have some influence on the left wing of the Social Democratic Party. This influence grew because of the anomalous position of the party. It was rapidly increasing the number of seats it held in the Reichstag ( and displaying all the tendencies towards respectability which such positions seem to entail ). On the other hand, however, even a majority of seats held by the SDP in the Reichstag would have given it no real power. The Reichstag was able, under the constitution, only to advise the Kaiser and his Chancellor; and the latter were able to ignore this advice, constrained only by a wish to preserve the forms of government by consent. The extent to which the Anarchists began to have influence among the party’s left wing was the extent to which it began to see that even quite modest reforms might only be achievable by revolutionary means.

Yet there was no revolutionary turbulence among the German workers, as the general lack of response to revolutionary propaganda seemed to prove. At this time the Anarchists were developing ideas as to how such working-class passivity could be overcome. It was suggested that a new kind of propaganda was needed, a propaganda of deeds rather than words. Kropotkin, for example, writing at about this time, asked what separated ‘the argument from the deed, the thought from the will to act’. He answered his own question by saying : ‘It is the action of minorities, action continued, renewed without ceasing, which brings about this transformation. Courage, devotion, the spirit of self sacrifice are as contagious as cowardice, submission and panic.’

And he goes on to say that this action will be ‘sometimes collective, sometimes purely individual’ but that it would neglect no ‘means at hand …to awaken audacity and the spirit of revolt by preaching by example’. This preaching by example was later to be better known as ‘propaganda by deed’. The theory of propaganda by deed seemed to invite the most spectacular actions and in Germany it led to two attempts on the life of the Kaiser. In May 1878 Emil Hödel, and in June of the same year Carl Nobiling, shot at the Kaiser as he was driven through the streets in an open carriage. Both attempts failed. The failed assassins both had links with known German Anarchists and Hödel declared himself an Anarchist at his trial. He was beheaded. Nobiling died of self-inflicted wounds. No revolutionary upsurge accompanied these attempts, any such thing being pre-empted in any case by the frantic reaction of the German authorities. Bismarck, the German Chancellor, irritated by the growing electoral strength of the SDP, constitutionally circumscribed and severely legalistic though it was, seized upon the assassination attempts as an opportunity to smear the party. The result of his efforts was the Anti-Socialist Laws of October 1878.

After the second assassination attempt Berlin became an armed camp. All known socialists had their homes raided. Even before the passage of the Laws over 500 people had been arrested and sent to jail for ‘insulting the Kaiser’ or ‘approving’ of the attempts on his life. Some of the cases would have been laughable had it not been for the suffering involved : “A drunken man received two and a half years in prison for murmuring ‘William is dead, he lives no more.” A woman talking about the Emperor’s wounds was sentenced to a year and a half for saying “The Kaiser at least is not poor, he can afford to care for himself.” A worker, while sitting on a bench along Unter den Linden was heard to say that “Hödel is a dumb-bell but Nobiling planned his attempt well.” This slip of his tongue cost him four years of his freedom. The results of the repression were twofold. Firstly, as far as the left-wing socialists were concerned the mask of the democratic process was ripped away to reveal black reaction. Secondly, socialist agitation of any sort was made both doubly difficult and very much more dangerous. A wave of socialist refugees left Germany and many came to London. Frank Kitz described the situation : ‘Thousands were expatriated, hundreds of families broken up, hundreds imprisoned; seizures and confiscations were the order of the day. Of those torn from their families a number went insane and others were irretrievably ruined; a great number sought refuge in London and our club in Rose Street presented at times the appearance of an arrival or departure platform at a station with luggage and cases of prohibited literature and the bewildered emigrants going to and fro.’ The bitterness caused by the repression and the AntiSocialist Laws probably made more Anarchists than the German authorities had been able to silence by their measures. For some years London was to be the major centre for the production of German revolutionary and Anarchist propaganda and the organisation of its secret distribution.

Into the embittered society of the German exiles in London came Johann Most, later to be the central figure in a case which was to prove a rallying point for the new socialist movement. When he arrived in London, Most was a dissident left-wing Social Democrat who had been forced out of Germany. No theoretician, as a bitterly sarcastic and humorous speaker and journalist who was popular with working-class audiences, he had earned himself some notoriety and a string of jail sentences. He had been elected to the Reichstag, which he found frustrating, until another jail sentence for a speech on the Paris Commune put an end to his political career. On his release he edited a Berlin Social Democrat newspaper whose circulation he boosted from 2,000 to 18,000 in a year. Further activities in this direction were abruptly halted after Hödel’s attempt. Most spoke about it at a meeting and though his comments were not approving he was arrested and sentenced to six weeks’ imprisonment. When this term was up he was sentenced to a further five months, which he spent in solitary confinement. In December 1878 he was released and given twenty-four hours to leave Berlin. He went to Hamburg, where the local party leaders, their nerve completely shot, advised him to emigrate to America. Most did leave Germany but went instead to London, arriving just before Christmas 1878.

Most’s energy was unaffected by his prison sentences and expulsion. With the financial and practical help of members of the Rose Street club, the first issue of Freiheit, a paper designed for illegal distribution in Germany, was published on 4 January 1879. At first it described itself as a Social Democrat paper but from February 1879 onwards it steadily downgraded the importance of electoral activity; and in 1880 it began printing specifically Anarchist articles. At this time, too, fairly formal links were alleged to exist between Most and ‘the younger generation of Bakuninists in Paris, the group that publishes the Révolution Sociale’. Once the paper was established a number of successful networks were set up for smuggling the paper into Germany. Large numbers were sewn into mattresses in a factory in Hull and exported. Sailors carried quantities of it from England to Germany via Hamburg. Each issue of the paper was given a different title so that the authorities had to first find out its name before banning it. Naturally German police spies were sent to try and infiltrate the smuggling networks and the group round the paper. Kitz relates that on several occasions ‘we were puzzled by the fact that the German Government was aware of the new titles before the paper reached Germany, and thus forestalled us. Johann Neve and I set out to find the cause. Suspecting a member who had recently joined we supplied him with a specially printed copy of the paper bearing a title different from the one we actually intended to use. The bogus title was prohibited but the other escaped. I regret to say that this member met with a serious accident when attending a fête held in support of the Freiheit.’ The spy was shot and seriously wounded on Hampstead Heath.

The mixture of political ideas in Freiheit at this time represented fairly accurately Most’s own ideas, which took parts of left Social Democracy, Blanquism (i.e. putschist republicanism ) and Anarchism but which were marked by strident calls for revolutionary violence that grew out of a wild and bitter response to the repression in Germany. His itch for vengeance found an exemplary object in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by Russian nihilists in 1881. Freiheit published an article by Most entitled ‘Endlich’ ( ‘At Last’ ) which enthusiastically supported their action. The Russian government applied pressure – pressure from the German government can be assumed to be constant – and Most was prosecuted by the British authorities. He was found guilty of incitement to murder heads of state and sentenced to eighteen months’ imprisonment.

His arrest and sentence caused something of a stir in London Radical and socialist circles. A short-lived English-language paper also entitled Freiheit was issued by the English section of the Rose Street club as the organ of a Defence Committee. Frank Kitz was the editor. The paper printed an English translation of Most’s article but avoided being enmeshed in the prosecution by presenting it as part of the speech of the prosecuting counsel at the trial ! Jack Williams stood on the steps of the Old Bailey during the trial and sold many copies of this edition. Protest meetings were held, some successful as at Mile End Waste in April, some less so as at Peckham where ‘the Radicals combined with Tories; opposed the speakers and were only prevented by force from seizing the platform…’ The prosecution of Most was opposed publicly on the grounds of the right of asylum and the right of free speech ( although the first issue of the Freiheit did reprint some approving remarks of Disraeli’s on tyrannicide ). Such an approach did find quite wide sympathy – the jury at Most’s trial asked that he be treated with some mercy since he might be suffering from violent wrong done to him in Germany.

The German Freiheit continued under caretaker editors until further publication in London was stopped as a consequence of an article applauding the assassination of Lord Frederick Cavendish by Fenians in Phoenix Park, Dublin, in May 1882. The office was raided and its plant seized. Johann Neve narrowly escaped arrest and two compositors were jailed for six and nine months. Freiheit was forced to move, first to Switzerland and then to the United States. In its short but eventful London career it had ‘produced a number of important incidental effects. Through dissensions within the German exiles a split had taken place, the orthodox Social Democrats removing to new premises in Tottenham Street. The progressively Anarchist supporters of Most remained at Rose Street until they formed a distinctively Anarchist club in St Stephen’s Mews, Rathbone Place, some time around 1883…”

Freiheit continued to be distributed clandestinely in Germany, but suffered a serious blow when police spy Theodore Reuss was able to trace Johann Neve in Belgium and have him handed over to the German police. “Neve was one of the most wanted men in Germany. A truly heroic figure, modest and careful, he had chosen a life of exile on the Belgian/German border organising the secret distribution of Anarchist literature, arms and explosives in Germany. His arrest was a major triumph for the German political police. Johann Neve died – or was murdered – in prison.”

Freiheit, however, carried on production in the US. With Most, at the helm, the paper was not shy about criticising fellow anarchists, and work published in Freiheit often fomented controversies in anarchist circles. Splits and rows with other groups were common. For instance, Most’s arguemnts with Joseph Peukert led to the founding of a rival journal, Der Rebell; and Most and Benjamin Tucker carried out a long-running spat through the pages of their respective journals.

A few years later, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman became involved with the Freiheit group, but left, after arguing with Most. When Berkman, inspired by Most’s theory of the attentat, was imprisoned for the attempted assassination of Henry Clay Frick, Most criticised Berkman’s action. Incensed, Goldman publicly attacked Most with a horsewhip at one of his lectures.

The journal’s publication occasionally faltered when Most was imprisoned—at least once, for writings he published in Freiheit —but fellow anarchists kept the journal afloat during those times.

When its charismatic founder and editor died in 1905, Freiheit went into a decline, and ceased publication in 1910 after 28 years.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

 

Today in London rebel history: John de Morgan goes to court over Plumstead Common enclosure riots, 1876.

For centuries Plumstead Common belonged to the Provost and Scholars of Queens College, Oxford. Freehold tenants had enjoyed rights of cattle-grazing, and collection of gravel, turf, loam etc for centuries. It was a wild and picturesque place, loved by locals, especially kids. Troops had been allowed to exercise here in the 19th Century, leading to “the present ruinous condition of the remoter half” (WT Vincent).

In 1816 two plots of land were enclosed where Blendon Road and Bramblebury Road are now, and in the 1850s an area between The Slade and Chestnut Rise was sold. There were “distant rumblings” of protest in parish meetings, but no more. Some small plots enclosed on the fringes of the Common were given to poor widows to keep them out of the workhouse (more to cut expenses to the ratepayers than from generosity possibly). From 1859 however, the College aggressively pursued a policy of excluding freeholders, asserting they were practically the owners of the waste land. Various encroachments were made, reducing the Common by a third: in 1866 the whole of Bostall Heath and Shoulder of Mutton Green were enclosed.

This led to local outrage, meetings of residents of East Wickham, and the forming of a protest committee, led in March 1866 to the forcible removal of the fences around the Green, and also destruction of fences near the Central Schools around Heathfield and Bleakhill. In a legal challenge by Manor tenants to the College, the Master of the Rolls ruled the enclosures on the Common and Bostall Heath out of order.

‘Illegal’ encroachments continued though – often facing unofficial demolition by locals. The Plumstead Vestry even passed motions in favour of the demolitions! The main targets were the property of William Tongue, a rich local builder who had bought the land here and put fences up, & his crony, magistrate Edwin Hughes, Chairman of the Vestry (later Tory MP for Woolwich). Hughes was said to have “had the key to the Borough in his pocket” – a very powerful man locally. He had bought land off Tongue to add to his garden. Tongue had already been the focus for trouble in 1866 over his enclosing ways. On a Saturday in May 1870, “a number of the lower class, who were resolved to test their rights” demolished fences and carried off the wood. “A party of women, armed with saws and hatchets, first commenced operations by sawing down a fence enclosing a meadow adjoining the residence of Mr Hughes…”
Fences belonging to William Tongue were pulled down. There was talk of pulling down Hughes’ house as well. Hughes called the coppers, and some nickings followed. The next day 100s of people gathered and attacked fences put up by a Mr Jeans. When the bobbies arrived many vandals took refuge in the local pubs.

From 1871, the military from nearby barracks took over large sections for exercises and drilling, as Woolwich Common was too small and swampy: the squaddies soon trashed the place, stripping all the grass and bushes and brambles. Protests followed, but nothing changed.

In 1876, Queens College decided to lease the greater part of the common permanently to the army for extensions to the Woolwich Barracks/parade grounds. Local people, including many workers from Woolwich Dockyard, objected to the plans; notices appeared around the town in late June calling for a demonstration. The main organiser of the demo was John de Morgan, an Irish republican & agitator, who had been involved in struggles against enclosures in Wimbledon and over the resistance to enclosure of Hackney Downs in 1875. De Morgan was a charismatic, self-publicising and provocative figure, a freelance editor, orator & teacher, who had been driven out of Ireland for trying to start a Cork branch of the International Workingmens Association (the First International). He had long been a Secularist and Republican, but had fallen out with some radicals and other Secularists.

On July 1st over 1000 people held meetings in the Arsenal Square and the Old Mill pub, marched up to the north side of the Common (around St Margaret’s Grove) and peacefully tore down fences. Again fences belonging to Edwin Hughes and William Tongue were destroyed – the crowds now had added grudges against them. Both had recently been involved in crushing an 1876 strike by local carpenters and bricklayers over pay and piecework, making then doubly hated. Tongue had brought in scabs to break the strike and Hughes prosecuted strikers for leaving work (under the notorious Employers and Workman’s Act.) A widely disliked Mr Jacobs, who leased a sandpit off the College, also had fences broken.
The following day (Sunday) a crowd returned to demolish the already rebuilt fences: a police attack led to a battle with stones thrown and fires started. Monday saw more rioting: according to a hostile witness there were 10,000 there on Monday and Tuesday, and “I never saw a scene so disorderly and lawless.” The furze on Tongue’s land was set on fire. While the cops brought it under control, enthusiastic meetings continued.

Although many rioters were costermongers, local coalheavers, labourers from the Woolwich Arsenal (700 men took the day off from one department here to hear a de Morgan speech), many more ‘respectable’ workmen were up there trashing the fences.

Hughes used his influence to press for charges against the organisers of the demonstrations: John de Morgan and several other organisers were charged with incitement to riot (although de Morgan had not even been present after the July 1st events).

There was clear disagreement locally over methods of saving the Common: obviously the more respectable campaigners plumping for legal means and disapproving of the rioting. Local secularist Robert Forder (another defendant in the Riot trial) also bitterly criticised De Morgan, accusing him of pocketing defence funds. He did however have previous issues with De Morgan; in the bitter splits in the Secularist movement, the Irishman had opposed Charles Bradlaugh, while Forder had supported him.
At the trial, in October 1876 at Maidstone, 3 men including Forder were acquitted, but de Morgan was found guilty. Sentenced to a month in jail, he was unexpectedly released early: a planned 20,000-strong march to demand his release turned into a mass celebration with bands. Effigies of Hughes and Kentish Independent journalist (and later historian of the area) WT Vincent, who had given evidence against de Morgan, were burned on the Common at the Slade. Hughes also sued the liberal Woolwich Gazette and the Man of Kent newspapers for printing de Morgan’s ‘libellous’ speeches.

In the aftermath of the riots, the constitutional campaigners stepped up their negotiations with the Queens College, in an attempt to prevent further rioting. The upshot was that the Metropolitan Board of Works bought Plumstead Common for £16,000, and remains a public open space.

John de Morgan’s fantastic rollercoaster career continued after his release from prison; attempting unsuccessfully to stand for Parliament, to set up a national ‘people’s party’ under the banner of the People’s Political Union. He then emigrated to the United States in 1880, abandoning his wife and children; where, apart from continuing a vaguely radical political trajectory, he became a writer of dime novels, mostly for the adolescent market, varying from pseudo science fiction, to colonial and American revolutionary war stories, and may have influenced Edgar Rice Burroughs… and later was appointed as a Deputy Tax Receiver on Staten Island.

Rob Allen, who wrote a classic account of the struggle to preserve Plumstead Common, is currently working on a biography of John de Morgan… should be a tumultuous read… His blog is worth a look…

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London radical history: second day of riots against the enclosure of Plumstead Common, 1876.

Plumstead Common, a stretch of open space in what is now South-east London, was threatened by development in the late nineteenth century. Like hundreds of other commons, greens and woods across the country, it was saved for all by collective action by local people, and today remains a public space as a result.

By the nineteenth century, Plumstead Common was owned by the Provost and Scholars of Queens College, Oxford. Freehold tenants had enjoyed rights of cattle-grazing, and collection of gravel, turf, loam etc for centuries. It was a wild and picturesque place, loved by locals, especially kids.
But troops from nearby Woolwich Barracks had been allowed to exercise here in the 19th Century, leading to the present ruinous condition of the remoter half(W.T. Vincent). It had become partly waste, which left it vulnerable to pressures for parts to be sold off and built on. The was massive demand for land in the area, as there was all over London; many other open spaces were lost at this time.

In 1816 two plots of land were enclosed, where Blendon Road and Bramblebury Road now stand. In the 1850s another area, between The Slade and Chestnut Rise, was sold. These encroachments on the Common caused “distant rumblings” in meetings of the Parish Vestry (effectively the local council). No action was taken, apart from to grant some small plots enclosed on the fringes of the Common to poor widows to keep them out of the workhouse (more to cut expenses to the ratepayers than from generosity possibly).

From 1859 however, the College, the Lords of the Manor, aggressively pursued a policy of excluding freeholders, asserting they were practically the owners of the waste land. The people of Plumstead strongly opposed the ambitions of Queens College stating that they had the right to graze cattle, geese and other livestock, the right to cut turf and to dig for sand and gravel on the Common. Also they claimed the right to use the open space for sports and other pastimes.

Various encroachments were made, reducing the Common by a third: in 1866 the whole of Bostall Heath and Shoulder of Mutton Green were enclosed.

This led to local outrage, meetings of residents of East Wickham, and the forming of a protest committee, led in March 1866 to the forcible removal of the fences around the Green, and also destruction of fences near the Central Schools around Heathfield and Bleakhill. In a legal challenge by Manor tenants to the College, the Master of the Rolls ruled the enclosures on the Common and Bostall Heath out of order.

‘Illegal’ encroachments continued though – often facing unofficial demolition by locals. The Plumstead Vestry even passed motions in favour of the demolitions! The main targets were the property of William Tongue, a rich local builder who had bought some land on the Common and put fences up, and his crony, magistrate Edwin Hughes, Chairman of the Vestry and later Tory MP for Woolwich. Hughes was a very powerful man locally, said to have “had the key to the Borough in his pocket”.

He had bought land off Tongue to add to his garden. Tongue had already been the focus for trouble in 1866 over his enclosing ways.

On a Saturday in May 1870, “a number of the lower class, who were resolved to test their rights” demolished some enclosure fences and carried off the wood. “A party of women, armed with saws and hatchets, first commenced operations by sawing down a fence enclosing a meadow adjoining the residence of Mr Hughes…” Fences belonging to William Tongue were pulled down. There was talk of pulling down Hughes’ house as well. Hughes called the cops, and some nickings followed. The next day 100s of people gathered and attacked fences put up by a Mr Jeans. When the bobbies arrived many vandals took refuge in the local pubs.

From 1871, the military from nearby barracks took over large sections for exercises and drilling, as Woolwich Common was too small and swampy: the squaddies soon trashed the place, stripping all the grass and bushes and brambles. Protests followed, but nothing changed.

In 1876, Queens College decided to lease the greater part of the Common permanently to the army for extensions to the Woolwich Barracks/parade grounds. Local people, including many workers from Woolwich Dockyard, objected to the plans; notices appeared around the town in late June calling for a demonstration. The main organiser of the demo was John de Morgan, an Irish republican & agitator, who had been involved in struggles against enclosures in Wimbledon (in 1875) & in Leyton and Hackney. He had founded a Commons Protection League in Plumstead. De Morgan seems to have been a charismatic (or self-publicising) and provocative figure, a freelance editor, orator & teacher, who had been driven out of Ireland for trying to start a Cork branch of the International Workingmens Association (popularly known as the First International). He had long been a Secularist and Republican, but he fell out with some radicals and other Secularists.

On July 1st 1876 over 1000 people held meetings in the Arsenal Square and the Old Mill pub, marched up to the north side of the Common (around St Margaret’s Grove) and peacefully tore down fences. Again fences belonging to Edwin Hughes and William Tongue were destroyed. A widely disliked Mr Jacobs, who leased a sandpit off the College, also had fences broken.

The following day (Sunday 2nd) a crowd returned to demolish the already rebuilt fences: a police attack led to a battle with stones thrown and fires started. Monday saw more rioting: according to a hostile witness there were 10,000 there on Monday and Tuesday: “I never saw a scene so disorderly and lawless”, said local journalist WT Vincent.

The furze on Tongue’s land was set on fire. While the cops brought it under control, enthusiastic meetings continued.

Although many rioters were identified as costermongers (street-traders), local coalheavers, labourers from the Woolwich Arsenal (700 men took the day off from one department here to hear a de Morgan speech), many more ‘respectable’ workmen were also seen trashing the fences.

Hughes had a lot of local clout, and John de Morgan and several other organisers of the demonstrations were charged with incitement to riot (although de Morgan had not even been present after the July 1st events).

There was clear disagreement locally over methods of saving the Common: the more respectable campaigners plumping for legal means and vocally disapproving of the rioting. Local secularist Robert Forder (another defendant in the Riot trial) also bitterly criticised De Morgan, accusing him of pocketing defence funds. (He had, though, had previous disputes with De Morgan over the Irishman’s split with Secularist leader Charles Bradlaugh, who Forder supported.)

At the trial, in October 1876 at Maidstone, three men including Forder were acquitted, but de Morgan was found guilty. Sentenced to a month in jail, he was unexpectedly released early: a planned 20,000-strong march to demand his release turned into a mass celebration with bands. Effigies of Hughes, and of Kentish Independent journalist W.T. Vincent, who had given evidence against de Morgan, (and later wrote a history of the area) were burned on the Common at the Slade. Hughes also sued the liberal Woolwich Gazette and the Man of Kent newspapers for printing de Morgan’s ‘libellous’ speeches.

In the aftermath of the riots, the constitutional campaigners stepped up their negotiations with the Queens College, in an attempt to prevent further rioting. The upshot was that the Metropolitan Board of Works bought Plumstead Common for £16,000.  In 1878, the Plumstead Common Act ensured that about one hundred acres of land remained as public open space forever. The Act was passed just in time as some roads had been built across the Common effectively dividing it into the two portions that can be seen today.

Local historian Rob Allen, who wrote an account of the Battle for Plumstead Common, identified underlying tensions in Plumstead that the enclosure struggle was channelling. Local structures of power were undergoing change, and that the struggle over the Common was also a focus for class resentment and other disputes. Both Edwin Hughes and William Tongue had recently been involved in crushing a local strike by local carpenters and bricklayers over pay and piecework, making then doubly hated. Tongue had brought in scabs to break the strike and Hughes prosecuted strikers for leaving work (under the notorious Employers and Workman’s Act.)

However, some local gentry also opposed the enclosures (while not supporting the rioting) for their own reasons, it was not simply a division along class lines. This can usually be found in many of the anti-enclosure movements mentioned here: they were rarely unified in tactics, or even in their motives for opposition.

This is an edited version an extract from past tense’s pamphlet ‘Down With the Fences’, which is available from our publications page.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s rebel history: disabled suffragette Rosa May Billinghurst born, Lewisham, 1875.

Rosa May Billinghurst (1875-1953) was born and raised in Lewisham, London. As a child, she contracted an illness which left her paralyzed from the waist down. Her condition did not, however, deter her from joining the suffragist Women’s Social & Political Union in 1907 or becoming one of its best known militants.

In her youth, Billinghurst and her sister Alice volunteered to work with poor children in the Deptford slums, local workhouse inmates, and prostitutes. Exposure to these injustices may have contributed to her interest in women’s suffrage and inspired her to join the Women’s Liberal Association. When a branch of the WSPU opened in Lewisham, she quickly switched allegiances to this new group, whose political agenda was a better match to her own ideas than the the Liberal platform was.

Lewisham WSPU Banner, www.sheilahanlon.comBillinghurst was a dedicated WSPU member. She organised events and meetings, took part in demonstrations, was a regular in processions, and served as secretary of the Greenwich branch. Without the use of her legs, she relied on an invalid tricycle for the mobility she needed to be a full participant in the suffrage action. Her invalid tricycle was, for the time, a high tech wheelchair modeled on a tricycle and propelled by hand controls.

Billinghurst was a regular participant in the WSPU’s public processions. She attracted public attention by appearing dressed in white and wheeling along with her machine decked out in coloured WSPU ribbons and “Votes for Women” banners. Billinghurst rose to prominence as a recognizable public figure and became known as “the cripple suffragette.”

In addition to being a regular fixture at peaceful protests, Billinghurst was drawn to militant action and demonstrations. In 1910, she participated in Black Friday, leading the police to try to subdue her by knocking her out of her tricycle, pushing it down a side street, removing the valves from the tyres, and restraining her arms. Never easily deterred, she was back a few days later for the next protest, only this time she came prepared to use her tricycle as a battering ram to get through police lines.

The image above, taken by an unknown photographer in 1908, shows Billinghurst in a crowd surrounded by police. She may be under arrest or at a demonstration supporting fellow suffragettes who were incarcerated. She was arrested herself several times, including an incident in November 1911 when she was charged with obstructing police in Parliament Square. These charges were likely justified. Recalling her impressions of Billinghurst, one veteran of the suffrage movement wrote, “I remember hearing startling stories of her running battles with the police. Her crutches were lodged on each side of her self propelling invalid chair, and when a meeting was broken up or an arrest being made, she would charge the aggressors at a rate of knots that carried all before her.”

Billinghurst at a protestBillinghurst’ efforts earned her several prison terms. In March 1912, she took part in the WSPU window smashing campaign, for which she received one month’s hard labour. Doctor Alice Ker who was in jail at the time wrote to her daughters in April that year that “Miss Billinghurst, the tricycle lady, is going out on the 11th and will take this (letter). She is quite lame, wears irons on her legs and walks with crutches when she is out of her tricycle.”

Billinghurst received another eight month sentence for her role in the December 1912 attacks on pillar boxes. This time she took part in the hunger strikes. She was released early following brutal force feeding sessions that left her in poor health and with broken teeth. She wrote and protested force feeding once she was released, publishing graphic accounts of her experience in suffrage journals and inspired Keir Hardie and George Lansbury to raise the atrocities of force feeding in parliament.

In the years after the suffrage era, Billinghurst remained committed to the cause, joining the Suffragette Fellowship and supporting Christabel Pankhurst’s election campaign for The Women’s Party in 1918.

Rosa May Billinghurst is an inspiring example of a suffragette who overcame disability to become an active participant in the battle for women’s emancipation. Her story reminds us that suffrage was a cause that mattered to women of all types, across class, race, ability, nationality and other divides.

(nicked, wholesale, from Sheila Hanlon’s excellent blog: sometimes someone else just said it better orl reddy)

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London radical history: GH Baskomb encloses Chiselhurst Common, 1876

G H Baskomb was the owner of a windmill built in 1796 on common land on Chiselhurst Common, now Southeast London (though on the northern edge of Kent then).

There are three main areas of Chiselhurst common: by the parish church, the area around the cricket ground and Mill Place; and the largest section which begins in the east by Camden Place and continues between Prince Imperial Road and Bromley Road, across Centre Common Road as far as, and just beyond, Kemnal Road. This last part of the Commons extends down to the High Street: St Pauls Cray Commons lies to the south east of Chislehurst straddling the road to Orpington.

This land was owned originally by the Crown, and later by the Scadbury, Walsingham and Townsend families, who lived at Scadbury and Frognal and held the position of Lord of the Manor. Before the years of development following the arrival of the railways the Commons were regarded as open to the villagers and available for them to use for grazing of their livestock.  Once building started here in earnest, the land became valuable.  Huge swathes of common land in other parts of England were sold off as part of the enclosures, and here in Chislehurst, the Commons were in danger of being ruined by excavations of valuable road building material, and the cutting of turf. But due to the valiant efforts of local residents, the Chislehurst and St Paul’s Cray Commons were saved for public use with the passing of the Metropolitan Commons Supplemental Act in 1888.

On 20 May 1876, Baskomb, proprietor of a brick and tile works and par-owners of the famous Chiselhurst caves. ordered the pulling down of the windmill, and fenced off the land to sell off for building on. But locals, accustomed to wandering on the common at will, kept pulling the fence down at night, repeating the sabotage every time he put it up. A public meeting threatened legal action against him… Baskomb eventually backed down, and a process began to protect the common for future generations.

Many commons were saved from enclosure, encroachment and development by a variety of efforts – some legal, some illegal. The Metropolitan Commons Act of 1866 was passed in order to assign management responsibilities to boards of conservators and facilitate the control of digging for gravel, and other forms of damage. This Act did not apply directly to Chiselhurst and St Pauls Cray Commons, and so a group of prominent residents formed the Chislehurst and St Paul’s Cray Commons Preservation Society and finally achieved the passage of the Metropolitan Commons (Chislehurst and St Paul’s Cray) Supplemental Act in 1888. It is this Act, together with its attached scheme of management, which continues to regulate the management of the Commons. Although the Commons are in private ownership, under the terms of the 1888 Act, responsibility for their management, in perpetuity, resides with a Board of Conservators, now known as the Trustees of the Commons. Under the 1888 Act the Trustees are empowered to make Bye-Laws to protect the Commons. The authority of the Trustees has been further strengthened by the Commons Act, 2006.

Interestingly, in the 1890s, neighbouring landowner, William Willett, (famed as the originator of putting the clocks forward for British Summer Time!) tried to enclose nearby Camden Park. Again locals defeated the idea, finding evidence to prove that custom had established common rights there, enough to persuade a court that it should remain open. Willett’s plan was to build over the whole of the Camden Park Estate. In the end only Camden Park Road and The Wilderness were developed and the Park was maintained as a golf course. Ironically in 1920 an attempt by the owners of nearby Petts Wood to sell the wood was prevented by a campaign organised by locals, who wanted it preserved as a monument to Willett! Not remembering, perhaps, that he was an encloser…

Some local history of the area

More on South London struggles to defend open space against enclosure and development

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online