Today in London’s radical history, 1549: An Enclosure Riot at Enfield

As previously recounted, residents of Enfield had a long tradition of defending common fields against enclosure by landowners, their agents or developers on the make… resistance to enclosure on Enfield Chase occurred and re-occurred for several hundred years.

During what some have called the ‘commotion time’ in the summer of 1549, when anger at enclosure and the increasing despoiling of and denial of access to the commons led to rioting and armed revolt from the southwest to Norfolk, Enfield was not spared from trouble. Being close to London, the beady eyes of agricultural improvers and land-grabbers was often cast on the large open spaces of Enfield Chase and its environs, and the general climate of rage sweeping the country against the greedy spread here.

On 13 July 1549, more than twenty armed men rioted in Enfield, destroying the fences, ditches and grass of lands belonging to Sir Thomas Wroth. These inhabitants of Enfield threw down hedges and filled in ditches surrounding a twelve acre piece of land called the ‘Rabbettes mores’ and a seven acre pasture known as ‘welgate lease’, leaving the lands ‘to lye open as a waste & comen grounde’.

This matter was considered serious enough to warrant the attention of the Privy Council (already up to their ears in aggro, what with Kett’s Rebellion against enclosures in Norfolk, and everything else that was kicking off) in late August 1549, and for four of the ringleaders of the Enfield riot were committed to prison. An entry in the Acts of the Privy Council for 27 August reveals that the Council heard a complaint of riot made by Sir Thomas Wroth against the Enfield tenants, and it upheld that an earlier decree made by Sir William Paget (Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, 1547-52) ordering the four ringleaders to be imprisoned and six lesser rioters to be bound over to keep the peace. Two of the 1549 rioters’ are named: Edward Boynyerde and Robert Whyte.

It seems that this direct action was a last resort on the part of the participants, after an initial legal settlement of the dispute around the enclosure, apparently favourable to them, had failed to work or had been broken.

Robert Wood, gentleman, and other tenants of Durants manor, Enfield, had lodged a complaint against Sir Thomas Wroth in the Court of the Duchy of Lancaster in autumn 1547, concerning a long-standing controversy over rights of common pasture on certain of the manor’s lands. On 6 May 1546, the manor court had agreed that Wroth could enclose the twenty-four acres of the demesne of Durants manor between ‘horshowe garden’ and ‘welgate lease’, on the north side of his house, but was ordered to leave to the tenants, on the south side, a right of way and a pasture called ‘welgate lease’. He was further permitted to enclose two crofts called ‘hoggescroftes’, three crofts called ‘Rabbettes mores’ and a field called ‘Crouchefelde’. In return for their surrender of common right on these enclosed lands, Wroth was ordered to pay 6d. per acre to the inhabitants of the town. Additionally, he was to allow them to enjoy common with all beasts on other lands he owned, where they had traditionally done so. The Enfield tenants took the agreement to the Duchy of Lancaster to be ratified (in order to force Sir Thomas Wroth to accept it as legally binding), since the manorial court proceedings were ‘bare matters in wrytting and not of Recorde’. In this way they hoped possibly to ensure that Wroth neither carried out further enclosures nor denied them their due payment, according to the settlement.

This was an apparently generous settlement for the residents – yet it was the hedges around ‘welgate lease’ and ‘Rabbettes mores’ that were cast down during the July 1549 riot. Had the 1547 settlement broken down? Did Wroth renege on the agreement in some way?

Enfield boasted a strong tradition of resistance to enclosure stretching back to 1475, much of which was associated with the enclosing activity of the powerful Wroth family, whose connection with Durants Manor dated back to at least 1401. Successive Wroth men occupied the positions of power in the parish of Enfield – they were MPs and JPs for generations, and dominated politics and social and economic life locally from the 15th to the 17th century. They also played varied parts in London and national politics: in fact the 1540s-1550s represented the height of their power: Sir Thomas Wroth himself being a friend of king Edward VI, a gentleman of his Bedchamber, and a member of his Council.

Anger at enclosures in Durants manor fills local accounts through the sixteenth century in particular. Politician and ‘ardent Protestant’, John Wroth of Durants had been accused in 1514 of enclosing forty acres and barring cattle from his fields in open seasons; in 1589, Sir Robert Wroth (son of the villain of 1549) was reported to have been ‘the greatest encloser of common fields in the parish’.

The July 1549 ‘riot’ may indicate an interesting connection with the anti-enclosure riots at nearby Northaw (just the other side of the Hertfordshire-Middlesex border) and Cheshunt in Hertfordshire the previous year, and with the 1549 commotions at Tyttenhanger. Many of the Northaw rioters were identified as coming from Enfield. Several families, including the Cordells, Wilsons, Smiths, Forsters and Woodhams, feature amongst rioters active both at Northaw in 1544 and 1548 as well as at Enfield in 1549.

The open common in the south of the parish of Northaw formed part of Enfield Chase, a large expanse of land stretching across the Middlesex border, whilst the parish of Ridge, where disorder broke out at Tyttenhanger in 1549, lay on the border between the counties of Hertfordshire Middlesex. The warren belonging to the manor of Tyttenhanger adjoined Enfield’s ‘Crouchfield’ to the west.

Earlier anti-enclosure protests around nearby Northaw in May 1548 may well have encouraged anti-enclosure action at nearby Enfield, and that both episodes formed part of a wider protest aimed at redefining local communities through common rights. In 1548-9, as at other times of widespread rural revolt, news of resistance and collective action in one area rapidly spread to neighbouring parishes, often through these kind of family and community connections; since local grievances were often similar in nature across many communities, hearing about actions elsewhere could easily help fire up people to get active on their own issues. Large-scale times of crisis from the Peasants Revolt to the Swing Riots spread like wildfire in this way…

Enfield commoners attached a huge importance to their common rights, both in their own parish and in neighbouring ones where they held some rights of pasture, etc. In 1548-9, they were involved in fighting for their common rights in Northaw Common, to retain their rights in Saysmarsh, Edmonton, and other areas of Enfield Chase.

‘Intercommoning’ – neighbouring communities or parishes both sharing right to pasture animals on the same common lands – undoubtedly also helped forge strong links between communities such as Northaw, Cheshunt, North Mimms and Enfield, which contributed to what has been described as ‘cultural communal defensiveness’ – the willingness of locals to go to the aid of other communities facing enclosure and restrictions on common rights. At other times, intercommoning could often lead to disputes between residents of different manors. For instance, in May 1548, some Northaw tenants were trying to exclude ‘strangers’ from their common – this seems to have included some Enfield residents. Disputes like this could rumble on for years, resulting in court cases, petitions and sometimes confiscation of cattle… in 1572 a petition suggests agro had revived: “there ys a place callyd the acre bredthe in whiche place by the auncyent custom the tenantes of Enfield dyd putte their hogges eveiy yere in fawnyng tyme by reason of whiche place beinge a comon we had intreest of comon within Northall or Chesthonte wood so that yf the hogges or cattail of eny tenante of Enfleld had strayed into any of those woodes or commons they had them agayne quyetly.”

Enfield tenants were said to have had ‘so large a skope of common’ within Northaw and Cheshunt woods’; after the enclosure of Acre Breadth any of their cattle which happened to stray into these woods or commons were ‘imedyatly impownded, harryed vexed and grevowsly hurte’.

The widespread nature of protest against enclosures in this area of North Middlesex and neighbouring parts of Hertfordshire over the ‘commotion time’ led the government to suspect not only co-ordinated protest but a shared leadership – the secret hand of an organisation or leadership – maybe the old ‘outside agitator’ again. One figure they saw as being a possible part of this was one ‘Captain Red Cap’. In an entry dated 20 April 1550, the Acts of the Privy Council recorded that “Captaine Redde Cappe, one of the rebelles of the last yere, having been in prison at Westminster, was nowe sell at libertie, and of late had been in sundrie places of Middlesex wheare the commons had feasted him.” Interestingly, while ‘Captain Red Cap’ is obviously a pseudonym, he isn’t named under a real name – did the authorities not find out his identity? Not consider it important? In any case, he might not simply have been let go – it appears that someone or a group of rebels may have sprung him from prison, to the irritation of the Privy Council.

It’s unknown what role Captain Red Cap played role in the Middlesex ‘rebellion’ of 1549, though he was clearly popular with the local commons, who feasting him at various places in Middlesex. Perhaps he had acted as a ‘charismatic leader’? Also significantly, the authorities seem not to have re-arrested him later, unless records are lost…

Possibly the authorities considered him either no longer a threat, or were even themselves sympathetic to anti-enclosure agitators – not unusual at the time (bearing in mind the Lord Protector in 1549 – effective ruler of England – the Duke of Somerset, was himself thought to be sympathetic to anti-enclosure rebels: his slowness to put down the 1549 revolts in fact caused the Privy Council to depose and imprison him late in that year)

However, the government had, only a few months before Redcap’s release, had the leaders of the East Anglian and South-Western anti-enclosure rebellions executed, and disorder was in fact still continuing in Kent. It’s worth noting that there was personal interest in the events at Enfield from the Privy Council, as the powerful Sir William Paget, member of the Council, and  Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, was also Master Forester of Enfield Chase in 1549.

Early this morning in London radical history, 1891: enclosure notices around Ham Common torn down

What later became known as Ham Common may have originated as a grant of land to the manor of Ham, in compensation for parish lands enclosed by king Charles I to create Richmond Park in 1637. Ham Common formed part of an arc of common land belonging to several manors – Petersham Common, Richmond Common and Mortlake common, all of which bordered one on another. Parts of all of these lands were shaved off to be included in the king’s new playground, acquired partly by persuasion, bribery and bullying of landowners and local villages.

The enclosure of Richmond Park was one of Charles’ numerous unpopular acts that contributed to the unrest leading to the English Civil War.

This act of basic royal landgrabbery itself caused centuries of resistance, and the privatisation of Richmond Park was eventually overturned in the 1750s.

Of the several manors plundered, Ham lost the most land to the new park. Prior to the enclosure, the common land of Ham extended much further eastwards than the current Ham Common – as far as the course of the Beverley Brook and the boundary with Roehampton. Of the total 1,000 acres enclosed by the park, 895 acres previously fell within Ham’s boundaries and, of that, nearly half – 400 acres – was common land, the rest being agricultural land in private ownership or already owned by the crown.

Opposition in Ham to the loss of their lands was so vocal, the king had to appoint a commission to treat with “the proprietors and other inhabitants.”

As a result, Charles I was pushed into paying compensation to the commoners of Ham for their loss, and granted them a deed of gift of the remaining unenclosed common land for all time. so far as the manors of Ham and Petersham were concerned. By an indenture dated 22nd December, 1635, the residents gave up to the king 483 acres in the former parish and 265 acres in the latter, in return for £4000 and the reservation to themselves and their heirs of “all theire right and interest of Comon in all and every other the wast-grounds of or belonginge to the said severall manners of Ham and Petersham that are not to bee inclosed within his majesties said newe Parke his mtie. being well pleased that neither his majestie. his heires or successors nor any of his or theire Farmours of the said manors or either of them shall from henceforth have make or take any benefitt or profitt in or out of the residue of the said Wastgrounds of the said mannors or either of them soe left out of the said intended newe Parke but that the said Tenants respectively have the sole benefit and profitt of the same.”

This ‘Deed’ was held from the very start to give some residents rights of access and protection against enclosure and exploitation of resources for profit by landowners. Though legal opinion was for centuries divided over the actual legality of any such guarantee, both the local villagers and the lords of the Manor recognised that it restricted the rights of the lord.

Apart from area of the present day Common, other common land existed around the enclosed farm land of Ham. Commoners also enjoyed lammas rights on large areas of enclosed farmland along the river Thames, on what later became known as Ham Fields.

Ownership of the common land generally lay with the lord of the Manor and, from the mid 17th to the early 20th centuries, in Ham, this was held by the Earls of Dysart – the aristocratic Tollemache family. However, the indenture’ of Charles I seemed to guarantee the Ham commoners control over the Common. The Dysarts smarted under the perceived restriction on their powers compared to many other manorial lords, and as William Harland put it, were “ever on the look out to find ways in which to encroach on the rights of the villagers and filch back some of the power and land the estate lost even before they owned it.”

Nearly a century and a half after king Charles acquired part of the manor’s land, Ham Common was itself to become the subject of a battle over enclosure, when the landowners, the Dysart estate tried to fence off the wood and declare it private.

The Dysarts’ ancestors had lived in Ham House, Richmond, since the 1630s; the family’s staunch support of the royalist cause during the civil war gaining them the lordships of the Manors of Ham and Petersham.

By the late 1870s, the father of the 9th Earl of Dysart had amassed huge debts. His heir inherited an estate in disrepair and financial precarity. The trustees running the estate on his behalf (several of his posh relatives) needed to exploit the lands to raise some ready cash.

Through inheritance and canny purchases the Dysarts owned about 70% of the land in the Ham and Petersham area. With building land in demand as London expanded, and agriculture becoming relatively less commercially attractive, the estate looked to two main avenues for money-making: developing land for housing, or digging gravel to sell to building companies. The Dysart holdings in the adjacent former manor of Canbury were extensively developed for housing as Kingston expanded northwards. However, in Ham, the potential for gravel extraction from the common lands (and also the lammas lands) was high.


The management of Ham Common, as with most commons, moved from the manorial courts to a locally appointed vestry (effectively a parish council). Disputes, offences and problems came to the attention of the Vestry and were recorded in their minute-books. As with many commons, typical recurring issues included regulating the removal of gravel, loam, turf and furze (the Common was a major source for these resources), ‘encroachment’ (which could include adjacent land-owners trying to enclose bits of land or use land they weren’t entitled to: grazing of animals by non-local owners included one incursion of a flock of 200 sheep from Kingston), squatters, usually on marginal land (who might subsequently gain right of residence or even ownership, through ‘adverse possession’) – generally seen as a burden on the parish), camping travellers, gipsies and tinkers… As well as over-grazing by those entitled to feed their livestock on the common, nuisance caused by geese, pigs rooting and blocking drains, or damage to turf from exercising horses…

Alternately tussling with and making accommodations with the Dysarts’ attempts to take or withhold resources and control parcels of land took a notable part of some Vestry meetings. But the meeting minutes always show the Vestry taking to itself control over the Common lands, on behalf of the inhabitants. In contrast to some commons, simple proven residence within the manor seems to have been the deciding factor for recognition of the right to ask to access resources, where copyhold, freehold or leasehold title of some kind was often required… On occasions, when disputes and complaints about over-grazing, who had rights to herbage etc became difficult, general meetings of inhabitants of Ham were called to discuss and come to some decisions on use, which tried to reflect a fair use of resources for all inhabitants who needed them. This didn’t mean some people didn’t try to sneak some advantage to themselves, but a system was in place to at least try to manage the Common fairly.

This reflected the general feeling, expressed wit relation to may commons and woods, that open space belonged to the community. Often this belief flew in the face of so-called legal ownership, by the lords of the manor etc; at Ham it was clearly in evidence that the locals felt they had been granted the Common by King Charles’ deed, and thus had an even stronger claim.

This was to be important when the Dysart family decided to try to press for enclosure and greater exploitation of the common lands.

Ham Common was protected by gates to prevent animals straying off: there were Gate houses near each corner of the western section of common, one on Ham Street by what is now St Thomas Aquinas Church, Ham, and two on the Upper Ham Road, to the north by the New Inn and one to the south of the common.

In the 1830s and 40s, Ham Common was home to a vegetarian socialist commune.

Surrey Comet Journalist William Harland, active in the campaign against the attempt to enclose Ham Common, later suggested that the powers of the Vestry had been stripped by “the establishment of a ‘Local Board’ [with powers over sanitation and other amenities] in 1862… a real death-blow to the control  exercised by the villagers over the Common under the old regime.”
The new urban sanitary authority established in 1864 “never rose to its duties in relation to the fine open space which was its fairest heritage”.

The Vestry had been relieved of its former powers of spending money out of the poor rate for the administration of the Common and the Local Board did not, “as it undoubtedly should have done as soon as the Metropolitan Commons Act of 1866 was passed, take the proper steps in conjunction with the Kingston Rural Sanitary Authority to render itself the controlling power.”

If the Local Board had taken their eye off the ball somewhat by not registering the Common under the 1866 Act, at first the Dysart estate was also indifferent. However, the need for cash as the estate fell into debt caused greedy eyes to be cast on the Common…

Lord Dysart and the Dysart Trustees sought to exploit the agricultural land of Ham and in particular the lammas land. “The Trustees began by helping themselves copiously to the gravel for Ham House, which be it noted is outside the parish, thus exercising an alleged right the use of which by other people, they say, injures so much the beauty of the Common. And yet for nearly eighteen months the Trustees removed gravel at the rate of from eighteen to twenty cartloads weekly.” (Harland)

In April 1891 the Steward of the Dysart Estate erected six notice boards on the Common warning that those removing “gravel, turf, etc without having obtained the license of the Lords of the Manor” would be liable for prosecution.

“NOTICE.

By Order of the Lords of the Manor

Of Ham.

HAM COMMON

Notice is hereby given that any person or persons found digging or removing gravel or sand or cutting or removing turf, gorse, furze, mould or other substance from this Common or killing or taking therefrom any game or rabbits without having obtained the license of the Lords of the Manor or their

Steward for the purpose will be liable to be prosecuted.

A. Bertram,

Steward of the Manors

34, Norfolk Street, London.

January, 1891.”

They also erected notices on the lammas lands, claiming the common fields and footpaths were private property:

“NOTICE

By Order of the Trustees of the

DYSART ESTATE.

This Land is private and all Persons found trespassing or committing damage thereon are hereby warned that they are liable to be ejected and will be prosecuted with the utmost rigour of the Law.

A. Bertram,

Steward.

34, Norfolk Street,

January, 1891. Strand, London.”

However, these high-handed actions were not to go un-opposed. From the start of the Dysarts’ removal of gravel from the common for use at Ham House, locals claimed that this was ‘outside the manorial right’, as Ham House itself lay within the neighbouring manor of Petersham.

Opinion within the village of Ham took the general view that access and use of the Common had been managed by the villagers in their own interests for two centuries, based on the ‘Deed’ of Charles I, and this should at least continue, albeit in the hands of a ‘proper authority’.

Edward Radford

The erection of the noticeboards sparked outrage, resulting in a mass meeting being held on Ham Common. The initiator of agitation against the attempted enclosure was one Edward Nicholas Radford, (veteran of the Crimean war, a butler at Bute House & a lay preacher), who
“summoned a meeting on the Common for Sunday, June 21st, to consider the matter. The gathering was enormously successful, from 1,500 to 2,000 people attending, including a large number of sympathisers from the adjacent towns of Kingston, Richmond and Twickenham. A resolution was unanimously passed protesting against the action of the Trustees and intimating that unless the objectionable notice boards were removed within a fortnight they would be cut down. A Vestry meeting was also held on June 26th, at which a committee was appointed to ascertain if the erection of the boards was legal or illegal and if the latter to wait on the Trustees and demand their removal.

An investigation committee was likewise appointed by the meeting on the 21st.”

With a sly dig at the tendency of ponderous local worthies to found organisations and committees, Harland later commented that:

“In order to dispose of both these bodies at once it may be as well to say that neither contributed much towards the ultimate settlement of the dispute. The latter, called the Ham and Petersham Common Rights and Footpaths Committee, chiefly concerned itself with the re-opening of the footpaths around Ham House, closed by order of the Trustees, though it also drew up a short and useful report on the whole question which was made public at the end of July. The other body, known as the Vestry Committee, really shifted all its duties on to its fellow and did nothing.”

While busybodies dithered, others were prepared to take some direct action:

“The Trustees ignored the decision of the meeting on June 21st and accordingly on July 5th another big demonstration took place. The issue at this gathering unluckily got somewhat confused and though the mass of local opinion was clearly in favour of the mandate of the first meeting being enforced the voting on the resolutions submitted got mixed and the people dispersed irresolutely without pulling down the boards. Radford, though feeling sure of his ground and of the support of the inhabitants, did not wish to run the risk of promoting a disturbance, especially as a large force of police was present, and accordingly it was decided to wait till early the following day and then do the vital work.” (Harland)

The offending notice boards which sought to restrict the rights of the commoners came under attack early the next morning; four notices were chopped down.

Shadrach Hopkins

“At four o’clock in the morning Radford accompanied by George Hall, Shadrach Hopkins, William Piggott, all labourers, and myself, proceeded to the Common and sawed down four posts out of the six. The delight and excitement amongst the villagers were tremendous when the fact was known a few hours later and ample proof was forthcoming that the decision to take prompt and bold action had been the best possible under the circumstances and was ratified by every resident having the welfare of the Common at heart. The remaining three notices were cut down at another public meeting on Wednesday, July 15th. The next day summonses were taken out against Radford, Hopkins, Hall and Piggott only for that they did “wilfully and maliciously damage certain notice boards on Ham Common there situate the property of the Trustees of the late Earl of Dysart, doing injury thereto to the amount of £ 8 .” (Harland)

Radford, Shadrach Hopkins (Groundsman at Sudbrook Golf Course!), and labourers William Piggott and George Hall were arrested, and prosecuted for felony.

Their defence was led by Harland, a journalist with the Surrey Comet, aided by the aged Cornelius Greenwood (who must’ve been knocking on in age, as he had been  ‘ploughman to Farmer Hatch’ in the 1830s…!) and George Rooke.

Apparently one of these two blokes in Cornelius Greenwood, stalwart of the defence committee… Not sure which one!

“The Prosecutions Defence Committee, as a matter of course, was constituted at a public meeting held on the Common on Monday, July 20th, the members who served all the way through the long contest being Albert Voysey, Jacob Claridge, James Masked, James Coombes, Edwin Leatham, Albert Edward Hall, William Venn, Walter Tulett, George Darnell, James Berridge, Alfred Parker and myself. Voysey acted as Chairman and Claridge as Treasurer, whilst I filled the post of Secretary. No time was lost in getting to work. A public appeal for assistance was issued, most of the metropolitan journals backing up the villagers and Mr. George Eaton Hart, then proprietor of The Kingston and Richmond Express, rendering invaluable aid locally by allowing his paper to be used as the organ of the agitation.

The services of Mr. Henry Prince, of Lewes and Brighton, were secured to defend Radford and his companions before the Kingston County Bench on Thursday, July 23rd, and the result of the hearing — a protracted one lasting over three hours— was the committal of the defendants to the Surrey Quarter Sessions the following October, the magistrates deciding that the question was one only a jury could properly settle. In the interval the Defence Committee worked very hard. They held meetings, organised concerts and entertainments, left no likely sources of revenue untouched and lost no opportunity of acquainting the public mind with all the facts.”

The Prosecutions Committee raised most of its funds to fight the case locally, and according to Harland was based among the local working class:

“the members were practically working men and any notice of their labours would be incomplete without the fullest recognition of their enthusiasm, self-sacrifice and loyalty. They were in truth the salt of the hamlet.”

A by-product of the defence campaign was the uncovering of other encroachments on the manor’s common lands:

“One of the most notable and interesting occurrences they arranged was the beating of the bounds of the Common Fields, or the Lammas Lands as they are sometimes called, on Michaelmas Day. As far as possible the old frontiers were traversed and encroachments and enclosures carefully noted by a large band of villagers. In this connection it may be as well to quote from the report of the Ham and Petersham Common Rights and Footpaths Committee the result of their investigations respecting grabbing in these semi-open lands: “The Fields consist of nearly all the land bordering on the River Thames from Cold Harbour near Ham House to the One [Mile] Tree near the Albany Club [Kingston] , and are bounded on the land side by a number of small enclosures adjacent to Ham Common and Ham Street. The Lammas rights, though somewhat curtailed, are still exercised over the greater part of this area, but during the last thirty years a number of these Common Fields have been enclosed so as to prevent the people exercising their right of turn-out. A list of these is appended and they are described by their number on the 25in. map of the Ordnance Survey — {a) Back of All Souls’ Lane, Nos. 27, 28, 29, 30, supposed to have been enclosed by the late Mr. Hatch, now underlet in two instances, (b) Two fields near the New Road, Nos. 84 and 85, enclosed about eight or ten years [ago] by the late Mr. Scott when he came into possession of them, (c) Part of a field. No. 78, hedged off the Lammas Lands about twenty-eight years ago by Mr. Willing and sold to Mr. Scott, with the other enclosed land to which it was added, (d) The Meadlands near Teddington Lock, enclosed thirty years ago by the late Mr. Hatch, (e) Two fields near the parish yard, known as Stoney Lands, Nos. 107 and 109, always hedged, but used to be thrown open at Lammas-time. Nos. 107 was stopped by the late Mr. Warner, and No. 109 by a Mr. Nye, about twenty years ago. (/) The Headland Acre, part of No. 119, near the Upper Ham Road, enclosed by the Dysart family about twenty-five years ago, and thrown into Church Farm, together with a large piece adjoining it on the Kingston side, now occupied by Mr. Walker, (g) A field. No. 87, thrown into another by gradual breaking down of the parting hedge between Nos. 87 and 88, in the time of the late Mr. Hatch. The Common Fields not yet enclosed are Nos. 5 (open meadow), 78 (part), 72, 112 and 119 (part).” The present holders of land in the Lammas Fields are Messrs. Horace and Arthur Saunders who have 100 acres ; Mr. James Walker, of Ham or Church Farm, who has 25 acres; and Messrs. John and Harry Hatch, of Manor Farm, who have about 200 acres.”

Beating the Bounds was an old tradition used to keep the knowledge of a parish boundaries alive, but it also had a customary use for establishing where illegal enclosures had been made, and was sometimes employed to legitimise direct action against enclosure fences etc. (A 1751 engraving exists showing Richmond parishioners, led by the vicar, breaking down a section of the wall around Richmond Park, during the agitation against the denial of access to locals by its royal owners.)

The Quarter Sessions in 1891 were held at Newington (near the modern day Elephant & Castle). The trial of Radford, Hall, Hopkins and Piggott took place on Thursday October 22nd , 1891, before the Deputy Chairman, Mr. Henry Yool.

The four men were acquitted, despite the prosecution being led by no less than the Solicitor General, Sir Edward Clarke QC.

“Hall broke his leg a fortnight before and lay in Richmond Hospital whilst the issue was being decided – Mr. C. F. Gill defended and Sir Edward Clarke, then Solicitor-General, prosecuted. It is needless to go into all the details of that memorable action for many of them must be yet fresh in the minds of those who took any active interest in the matter. Mr. Gill called no witnesses but relied solely on the plea that the Trustees by taking criminal proceedings, whilst the civil courts were open to them, were attempting to turn honest men into felons merely for asserting what they believed to be their inalienable rights.

The jury promptly returned a verdict of not guilty and so gave the commoners their first victory in the modern struggle with the Dysarts.”

The journey home from court seems to have turned into a celebratory travelling party:

“No one who participated in the return home of the party — besides the three defendants able to attend, numbers of the villagers went to London to personally hear the case – will ever forget the wild enthusiasm with which they were welcomed. The journey by break from Richmond to Ham through Petersham, was practically a continued ovation.

The villagers — men, women and children — apprised by telegram of the result, greeted the defendants with cheers and shouts and the waving of aprons, evergreens and anything else that happened to be handy when the carriage passed along. Windows, doors and garden gates contributed their quota of spectators to the witness of the triumphal return that finally terminated in a brief meeting at which the excitement of the day found a fitting culmination.”

The Defence Committee dissolved itself at a public meeting on December 1st, 1891 “though it was recognised that the recent trial had by no means settled matters and that the people would have to be on the watch to resist further agressions on the part of the Trustees.”

As with many struggles against enclosure, the dual approach – legal campaigning on the one hand, and some direct action on the side – seem to have effectively scuppered the Dysarts’ immediate plans.

But Harland’s comment that “it was recognised that the recent trial had by no means settled matters and that the people would have to be on the watch to resist further aggressions on the part of the Trustees” was prophetic: the 1891 acquittal was not the end of the struggle over common land in Ham.

The Dysart trustees had not given up. In July 1892 they tried to invited a selected group of “freeholders and copyholders of the manor, residents upon the Common and others”, to a meeting, where they tried to persuade them to agree to a set of rules “submitted practically abolishing all the rights of the villagers and asserting in full the claims of the Trustees which had proved before to be so objectionable and so unwarranted. As a result of the proceedings a committee was appointed to go further into the matter but its labours came to nought through the insistance of the Trustees on their assumed rights as Lords of the Manor. There were one or two staunch commoners on the committee and sooner than admit the demands of the Dysarts they very properly retired…”

Gravel was again quarried from Ham Common by Baron Sudely, one of the Dysart trustees; meanwhile a local labourer, Walter Miles, was prosecuted for also taking some gravel. This sparked the revival of a Ham Common Defence Committee, which took a hand in the legal defence of Miles and the case was again dismissed.

The question of the management and control of the Common and the lammas lands would be largely transferred to attempts to  enclose the latter by Parliamentary bill.

In 1896 the Dysarts promoted The Petersham and Ham Lands Footpaths Bill, seeking to enclose the 176 acres (71 hectares) of lammas lands in the manor, also known as Ham Fields. The bill slyly included sops to local opinion, in its proposal to grant Petersham Meadows and Common to the public ‘in perpetuity’: in exchange, as it were, for being allowed to get on with developing the Fields. The Bill was opposed by the commoners of Ham, by the London County Council, and by the Society for the Preservation of Commons and Open Spaces; a number of petitions were launched against it, and a vigorous debate ensued in the House of Commons. The bill was defeated by 262 votes to 118 in Parliament, as it was deemed to contravene the Metropolitan Commons Acts.

In December 1896, a local enquiry was established with the Board of Agriculture to consider a scheme for the lammas lands under the Metropolitan Commons Acts. However, the Board determined that the provisions of the acts did not apply in this case, effectively giving a green light to the Dysarts to begin plotting how to dispose of the lammas lands again.

The Metropolitan Commons (Ham) Supplemental Act 1901 established a Board of Conservators to manage Ham Common.

In 1902, another Private Bill, the Richmond Hill (Preservation of View) Bill, was brought. Although it was substantially the same as the 1896 Bill (still aiming at the enclosure of the lammas Fields), it was cleverly reworked to appeal to campaigners around access and preservation. Clauses were inserted for improving public access by providing wider and more extensive riverside footpaths. The new title played on the then very public concern among Richmond residents that the view from Richmond Hill over the river was threatened by developments.

This bill passed in Parliament (179 in favour to 79 against).

Its passage did transfer the Dysarts’ residual manorial interests in Ham Common and vested them in Ham Urban District Council (which had now replaced the Local Board). The Board of Conservators was now dissolved, and Ham Urban District took over management of Ham Common. The Dysart Trustees also gave £3000 to be invested for the upkeep of the common and any residual money to go to almhouses or other local charitable purposes.

The 1902 Act was, however, double-edged: part of the inclusive settlement with the Dysart Trustees extinguished the remaining lammas rights in Ham, thereby freeing up the agricultural land for development, to the profit of the Tollemaches. The arrangement was not without critics. MP Henry Labouchère observed that Lord Dysart “… would get possession of 176 acres of lammas land and secure valuable building rights, notwithstanding that Parliament had decided that no common lands within a radius of fifteen miles of London should be built upon.”

The Dysart estate were thus eventually successful in extinguishing lammas rights on the 176 acres of open farmland in Ham. Instead of building though, much of the former lammas land was leased from 1904 to the Ham River Grit Company, and the area exploited for gravel extraction to feed the demand from construction. Millions of tons of river gravel were extracted from the pits up until 1939.

Postscript: Later history of Ham’s Lammas Lands

These days, the lammas lands, or Ham Fields, are themselves designated Metropolitan Open Space.

From Teddington Lock downstream to Petersham, a quarter of a mile of open lands stretch from the Thames bank, covering about 200 acres in all. About 72 acres form Ham Lands Nature reserve.

A grit lorry removing gravel from Ham Lands, 1930s.

Again it was local campaigning that prevented much of this space from being developed and pushed it toward its present status as a place for wildlife to flourish and people to wander.

Most of Ham Lands had been excavated for gravel in the early 20th century then filled in from 1939 to the early 1950’s. After the war, most of the pits were filled with bomb-damage rubble from London. The pits operated until 1952, after which some of the land was used for subsequent housing development. Local resistance to further development led to the area being designated Metropolitan Open Land, preserving Ham Riverside Lands as a nature reserve.

Struggles to prevent further building on the edges of Ham Lands continued through the 1960s to the 1980s.

It’s well worth reading William Harland’s account of Ham Common and the Dysart family’s relations with the locals

There’s a great Ham local history site with oral history recordings including lots about Ham Lands

Also worth checking out, the Friends of Ham Lands

All This Week: Beating the Bounds

Beating the Bounds – also sometimes called ‘Gang-Days’ – was an old folk custom, generally used to keep alive knowledge of the boundaries of a parish, and pass this knowledge on from older to younger generations. In centuries before mass literacy and availability of consistent maps and charts, this was achieved by parading round a parish boundary once a year, and ensuring the markers and landmarks associated with this border were drummed into the heads of the youth – often by literally beating them at each marker.

Beating the Bounds may have evolved from a collection of diverse origins in pre-christian ceremonies, adopted into Christianity like so much pagan worship was. Early-mid May is often a glorious time of lovely weather, longer days, blossom; a great time for festivals and outdoor activities. From celtic Beltane, through Roman to medieval Mayday and into modern times, May is month for celebrating growth, life, renewal and for partying. In pagan and Christian cultures where the goodwill of a god or gods was held to be vital for crops to grow, for fertility and abundance, May also saw rituals to honour the deity/ies inquestion and earn their favour. Mingling fun and frolics with the serious business of blessing the seeds that would grow into the food that sustained the community.

Beating the bounds often took place in May, at Rogation Week in 2021, 9th-13th May). Rogation began as a Christian service in the mid-fifth century, and was possibly influenced by a pagan Roman procession known as Robigalia, (at which a dog was sacrificed to propitiate Robigus, the deity of agricultural disease). The Rogation days gradually evolved into days of fasting and prayer between the fifth Sunday after Easter Sunday (‘Rogation Sunday’) and Ascension Day the following Thursday. The ‘Gang Days’ were the Days of Rogation, leading up to Ascension Day. Priests would bless crops and ask God to intercede (latin rogation). The alternative name for rogation days, still used in some places, of Gang or Gange Days, comes from the Anglo-Saxon gangen meaning to ‘go’ or ‘walk’, indicating the procession itself was an early adopted part of the ritual.

By the middle ages, the ritual had generally become fixed as a yearly march, celebrated with bread, cheese, cakes and ale, around the border of the community. In earlier times particular stones or boulders, trees, hedges, streams probably formed the majority of markers; later, buildings, fences, walls would have been added. Adolescent boys would be beaten at the landmarks, with thongs made of willow or birch, or even thrown into ponds and bushes, or sometimes held upside down and bumped against rocks or the ground (possibly the origin of ‘getting the bumps on your birthday?) The violence or benevolence of drumming knowledge into boys heads varied wildly – in some places they were given coins, in others their fingers were pricked. The girls and women would wear and carry garlands of flowers and foliage.

The priest would say prayers for good weather, asking for God’s blessing for the crops etc, at the boundary markers (often these then acquired names linked to the ritual, like Gospel Oak or Amen Corner?) Over time the bounds march evolved into dances in some places (contributing to the murky evolution of morris dancing and ‘Obby ‘Oss- type figures being carried. In other communities Rogation ceremonies seem to have been transcended into general festive merriment, as with the ‘youling’ or ‘apple howling’ custom.

As society became more complex, administrative boundaries and authorities evolved, and lordships and internal borders became more prevalent, ways to resolve local border disputes became more important. In Anglo-Saxon times it’s thought ceremonies such as Beating the Bounds acted like a kind of local charter. Over the centuries and into Norman times, as feudalism was imposed on the population, these rituals could also have been vital for imposing the sense of whose land you belonged to, as well as marking the obligations and vertical ties from serf, to landlord. These were times when the poor folk working the land were barred from leaving and moving elsewhere without permission; was Beating the Bounds also an annual march around the manor you were supposed to stick to? Literally beating your horizons into you?

Postcode War-like Disputes with neighbouring parishes may have been not uncommon – especially if two crowds met on a boundary and there were unresolved border issues…

In theory, the ritual demanded absolute adherence to the exact boundary.

4th December 1913: Girls’ Beating the Bounds’ at a fence near St Albans in Hertfordshire.

Exact treading of the boundary in a legal sense was very likely replaced gradually by a strict insistence on following every twist, carried out either in that nerdy-stickler for propriety ethos familiar to anyone familiar with some local government practices, or else with a sense of festive fun, like a rural version of parkour or hedgehopping.

“This necessity or determination to perambulate along the old track often occasioned curious incidents.  If a canal had been cut through the boundary of a parish, it was deemed necessary that some of the parishioners should pass through the water.  Where a river formed part of the boundary line, the procession either passed along it in boats, or some of the party stripped and swam along it, or boys were thrown into it at customary places.  If a house had been erected on the boundary line, the procession claimed the right to pass through it.”

This could lead to slightly ridiculous scenes, if this account is to be believed:

“A more ludicrous scene occurred in London about the beginning of the present [19th] century.  As the procession of churchwardens, parish officers, &c, followed by a concourse of cads, were perambulating the parish of St George’s, Hanover-Square, they came to the part of a street where a nobleman’s coach was standing just across the boundary line.  The carriage was empty, waiting for the owner, who was in the opposite house.  The principal churchwarden, therefore, himself a nobleman, desired the coachman to drive out of their way.  “I won’t!” said the sturdy coachman; “my lord told me to wait here, and here I’ll wait, till his lordship tells me to move!”  The churchwarden coolly opened the carriage door, entered it, passed out through the opposite door, and was followed by the whole procession, cads, sweeps, and scavengers.”

Here’s an example of a procession: an in-depth description of the Beating the Bounds on the parish of Mitcham in 1879

Later, Beating the Bounds not only reinforced a community’s sense of its own extent and made sure this sense was transmitted to younger members – it was also used to police offences against the border by neighbouring parishes, and sometimes encroachment against common land by its own residents or landowners whose land lay in the parish. Fences, obstructions and buildings agreed to be offending against collective use or access could be noted and the offender dealt with, and were sometimes thrown down or demolished as part of the ceremony. Beating the Bounds could act as a community asserting their common rights, or generally letting people (lords of the manor? Other enclosers?) that their memories were long and they would defend their rights. For instance, a parade in Rogation Week around the old borders of one parish ended in 1751 with an incursion into Richmond Park, which had been built a century before by king Charles I by buying, acquiring and enclosing land from several parishes – an act that had caused decades of anger and friction, as people not only lost access to common land for subsistence, collecting firewood, grazing livestock etc, but were also denied access along traditional footpaths. Although this discontent had simmered, the 1751 incident may have brought things back into focus, as the following years saw a legal struggle against the loss of access to the parkland that would end with rights of way being restored across it.

Regulation of common rights, encroachments and enclosures was often negotiated at parish level, and parish officials were sometimes the authority chosen to head up anti-enclosure protests. Knowledge of who owned what in the parish and where boundaries lay was also sometimes crucial in legal disputes about commons and their usage.

The ritual inspired other ceremonies which came to represent slightly different interests, but kept something of the spirit of community memory and assertion of rights. For instance, the archery companies of London evolved a custom of marching around the traditional archery practice grounds north of the City (Moorfields and Finsbury Fields) and demolishing constructions or buildings that they claimed encroached on their traditional right to use the Fields. Because archers were crucial to English military might in medieval times, the companies generally had a lot of power and influence. Interestingly the march and occasional disorder associated with it are not really recorded until the 16th century, when archery would beginning to lose its importance  – maybe the need for the march and conflict only arose as the bow was starting to lose its prestige? This march lasted a lot longer than the military presence of archers in the army – into the late 18th century.

‘Bumping’ – in late stage Bounds ceremonies, older blokes obviously took the place of young boys?!

Enclosure of land across the country obviously had a huge impact on the Bounds. Old borders and boundaries were lost, landmarks removed, ploughed under; and the social structure that the old ritual formed a crucial part of was broken down.

Although Beating the Bounds has fallen into disuse, like many folk customs, it has been revived in some places. Sometimes for its own sake; sometimes to continue the struggle against the ongoing theft of open land.

The New Lammas Lands Defence Committee revived ‘Beating the bounds’ around Leyton Lammas Lands in the 1990s to commemorate the 1892 riotous defence of the lands against enclosure, and to protest newer enclosures…

In 2018 Brighton residents Beat the Bounds of Whitehawk Hill Nature Reserve to defend against development.

The Open Spaces Society encourages communities to ‘beat the bounds’ of your local common or village green.

A good idea, as this can help maintain a sense of community ownership and access, when so many open spaces are faced with enclosure, development, being built over…

All over London, while big parks and woods are generally protected from being built on, smaller pieces of open space, for instance on council estates, is being considered for development – often by local authorities desperate to address the massive housing crisis we are facing in the capital.

We need more social housing, there’s no doubt – in a city where private rents have gone through the roof and buying a home is beyond the reach of millions. But cramming more homes into already densely populated areas, taking away small areas of open space on estates where many people have no gardens, is not the answer.
The destruction in 2018 of the Tidemill Community Garden in Deptford showed how councils are willing to bulldoze self-built community projects in their quest for more housing.

But there’s been recent success: Southwark Council have been forced to retreat on their proposal to build on a small open space at Brenchley Gardens estate after the community campaigned against the idea.

Many more such proposals are constantly being imposed and resisted across London. We need to be ‘Beating the Bounds’ more – asserting our common ownership of open space, refusal to let it be enclosed and built over. Part of this may also be coming up with solutions to the housing crisis…

It’s not just about space…

Read an article linking modern struggles to evolve a ‘commons’ of open source seeds in defiance of the capitalist enclosure of seed copyrights and genetically modified seed by agriculture and biotech corporations.

A Very Large Ground: enclosure, resistance and disorder on Hounslow Heath

Hounslow Heath was originally part of the Forest of Middlesex, extending as far west as Heathrow, and south to Bushy Park and Hampton.

The heath was created in the 13th century, when a stretch of royal forest between Hounslow and Staines, sometime known as the Warren of Staines, or the Forest of Staines, was cut down.

The public open space now known as Hounslow Heath, which covers 200 acres (80 ha), is all that remains of the historic Heath, which once covered 4,293 acres (1,600 ha).

Before 1545 Hounslow Heath extended into the ‘fields, parishes, and hamlets’ of Isleworth, Brentford, Heston, Hounslow, Twickenham, Teddington, Hampton, Hanworth, Feltham, Bedfont, Cranford, Harlington, Harmondsworth, and Stanwell. All of which parishes ‘intercommoned’ (shared rights of access and use of resources, grazing land etc) on the heath.

The old extent of Hounslow Heath, show in purple. The small area in red is what is left of the Heath as open land today

In Saxon times it was free to hunt there, but after the Norman Conquest, severe restrictions were introduced. King William I brought in Forest Laws to save the game and the trees for the rich (as with other crown forests) and ban the plebs from hunting. Special courts were convened to try poachers, leading to bitter struggles. Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest curtailed some of these laws in 1217, and in 1227, much forest was declared freeland. Many poor folk built houses on the land at this time. But later in the century the Forest Laws were renewed.

Open wastes and heaths and common land were vital resources: places to graze animals, gather foodstuffs and wood, and hunt small game. Depriving people of access was a matter of life and death. John Norden described Hounslow Heath as ‘a very lardge grounde which yeldeth comfort to one small companye of people who without theayde ther ys could hardly relieve themselves
And surely great woe is pronounced agaynst such as dyminishe the Comons of the Poore.’

The Heath supported an abundance of wildlife: deer, wild cattle, wild boar, wolves, foxes, hares, partridge and other wildfowl.

Although Henry VIII still hunted here in the 16th century, over 1700 hectares was common land.

Resistance began here in the early days of the long bitter process of enclosure that gradually shut working people out from free access to much of the land. There was some form of unspecified trouble when gates were set on Hounslow Heath when an act was passed to enclose Hounslow Heath, 1545-6, though the enclosure was said to be largely ineffective.

The land comprising the Heath was divided administratively in 1545-6, being split between the 14 parishes named above.

Some inclosures on the edge of the common south of Whitton seem to have been made at this time, though they may not have been maintained later. Three warrens, two on the edge of the heath and one by the river, had also been planted, possibly quite recently. Much of the land around the open fields and to the east of Whitton may have been inclosed during the later Middle Ages, and in the next century and a half most of the remainder was inclosed piecemeal and converted to market-gardens and orchards or to pleasure-grounds for the big houses which were being built around the village. Enclosure proceeded at a relatively slow rate on the Heath, tough, compared to other areas – partly as the soil was of poor quality and couldn’t support intensive agriculture as other landscapes

In 1583 one John Newdigate was accused of acquiring a parcel of land ‘lately enclosed from the Common called Hounsloe Heath’.

Hounslow Heath’s proximity to other areas of Middlesex with traditions of rural rebellion/anti-enclosure action is notable. The lands of the king’s brother saw enclosure fences torn down in Isleworth as early as 1264. Heston experienced rioting in the Peasants Revolt, and there would be incidents in 1830 during the ‘Swing’ wave of rural revolt there, as well as in Hounslow and Lampton. Harmondsworth Moor (the arena for a two-century long war between the landowner – in this case the church – and tenants through the middle ages), and Osterley Park – where there was an anti-enclosure riot in 1576 – are within a few miles of the Heath. Ideas, inspiration, the flame of action, often spark from one neighbourhood to another, and individuals or groups often nip over to support and join in with rebellious activities the next valley over.

The English Civil War brought new pressures to Hounslow Heath. An increase in poverty, trade disruption, caused food shortages and need for land use changes… Many large landlords ended up on the wrong side in the war, and fled the country after 1646, so their land was confiscated and going spare… But there were contradictory urges on the parliamentary side. If the parliamentary leaders and generals represented a victorious puritan class, often proto-capitalist interests in many cases, who encouraged enclosure and agricultural improvement (as well as being keen to acquire the estates of dispossessed royalists – see the 1659 troubles at Enfield), many of the poorer classes who has enlisted against the king were enraged by enclosures and the dislocation that rural upheaval had crated in the country. Many soldiers became radicalised, started to demand more access/land of their own. The political struggle led to an upsurge in radical ideas which led to questioning of traditional assumptions about social relations and land use…

In many areas enclosure had been a major bone of discontent before the Civil War, and the outbreak of hostilities provide opportunity to reverse some of the changes that had taken place. In 1641, royal grounds enclosed on Hounslow Heath were attacked and entered by irate peasants. The House of Lords ordered a special enquiry and ordered a search ‘in and about the several Towns and Hamlets adjoining near. Hounslow Heath) for all such tumultuous Persons as have, in a very riotous Manner, endeavoured the disquieting of the said Possession, by pulling down the pales of the said inclosures… ‘

Around 1650, the ‘Diggers’ were said to have tried to establish a colony on the Heath – radical communists who believed in occupying land to work in common for need, rejecting the idea than lords owned the land at all. Again – proximity to other areas where such radical ideas were flourishing is possibly key. it’s only a few miles to Hounslow from Iver, Buckinghamshire, where a group had published the Digger-like ‘A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire’ in 1648, and the True Levellers’ original commune at St George’s Hill was not so far away either. The Heath was classic ‘Digger’ country: open Heath land, lots of poor, squatters, a precarious population.

Like many open spaces and woodlands on London’s edge, or within a few hours travel, Hounslow Heath became home to the marginal, the rebellious and the dodgy.

Around 1697-8, during a brief peace between the many European wars of the time, bands of demobbed soldiers turned marauders – since many squaddies would still be owed army wages after war ended, often years in arrears, or had spent it in credit while still in uniform. One such large band roamed Hounslow Heath, masked up, collectively robbing rich folk ambushed on their way to Windsor Castle to see the King. Among those who lost their horses, money, jewellery or simply their credibility to defend themselves, were Lord Ossulston, the Duke of St. Albans, and his brother the Duke of Northumberland. Military patrols were established on all local main roads…

Artistic imagining of highwaymen on the Heath.

But the heath remained a popular spot to ambush travellers and relieve them of their possessions through the eighteenth century (generally considered the classic era of the highwayman).

William Snowd and Joseph Wells were indicted for stealing seven shillings from Robert Hull as he was travelling over Hounslow Heath in December 1739. Bull had been travelling on the Hillingdon Coach as the two highwaymen struck. One of the prosecution witnesses claimed that Snowd and Wells had carried out at least two earlier robberies on the heath before the Hillingdon Coach arrived.

In 1751 the Bishop of Hereford was passing over Hounslow Heath when his coach was attacked by two mounted highwaymen. They robbed the bishop and the party which was accompanying him and made their getaway across the heath towards the Staines Road, presumably to lose themselves on Staines Moor. In 1774 Horace Walpole wrote that: “Our roads are so infested with highwaymen, that it is dangerous stirring out almost by day. Lady Hertford was attacked on Hounslow Heath at three in the afternoon. Dr Elliot was shot at three days ago without having resisted”.

In the 18th Century, the heath was a major stopping-off/storage/rendesvous point for smugglers bringing stuff into London from the west, much like Croydon and Stockwell in South London, and Epping Forest in the east.

The eighteenth century also saw a revival of struggles over enclosure on and around the Heath.
Some insight into the importance of the various parts of the heath in the subsistence and livelihoods of local people can be gained from mid-century accounts.

In 1744 it was reported that the commoners of the village of Stanwell made a lot of use of the common fields, lammas meadows and pasture rights on Hounslow Heath. They kept ‘…mares and foals, cows and calves, hogs and geese without stint, some of them doing without any work at all’.  At neighbouring Staines the inhabitants relied heavily on the customary pasture rights of Staines Moor. John Newman, a Stanwell Farmer and ex-Staines parishioner recorded the rights of Staines inhabitants in 1756, possibly when those rights of common pasture were being disputed.

In 1766/7 Stanwell locals defeated landowners – who included the local vicar, the Lord of the Manor – in an attempt to enclose Hounslow Heath. Opposition came mainly from the owners/occupiers of local cottages, defending traditional common rights, supported by other parishes with some interests on the heath. The enclosure bill was defeated in Parliament, on 3rd March 1767, leading to a joyous parade of the opponents, who had marched to Westminster. The victorious villagers paraded along Pall Mall, before they went home… “On Tuesday evening a great number of farmers were observed going along Pall Mall with cockades in their hats; on enquiring the reason, it appeared they all lived in or near the parish of Stanwell in the county of Middlesex, and they were returning to their wives and families, to carry them the agreeable news of a bill being rejected for inclosing the said common, which, if carried into execution, might have been the ruin of a great number of families.” (Annual Register, 1767).

Local resistance to enclosure may have been beginning to link into a wider radical or at least reformist politics, namely the pressure for political reform, expressed often in support for populist agitators like John Wilkes.Two prominent signatories of the petition against the Stanwell Enclosure Bill of 1767 were to be notable Wilkite supporters in the Middlesex elections of 1768-69, a campaign that was centred on the hustings in Brentford, only a short distance from Hounslow. These were John Bullock Esq. and George Richard Carter Esq., both substantial property owners in the parish’. Longtime resident of Brentford, John Horne Took, sometime Vicar of St Laurence’s church, Brentford High Street,  had persuaded John Wilkes, who he met in Paris during the latter’s exile, to stand for election for Middlesex. Tooke also opposed local enclosure acts, possibly the same 1767 Stanwell Bill. [Tooke later supported American colonists in run up to War of Independence (for which he was jailed), and was a founder member of London Corresponding Society, acquitted in the LCS treason trial of 1794.]

Although the Stanwell struggle was successful for a couple of decades, this was not to last. In 1788/9, much of Hounslow Heath was enclosed. 500 acres of the Heath were enclosed by the Stanwell Enclosure act in 1789. Maybe the opposition was less organised, or the enclosers more determined, or planned their strategy better.

In 1793 the first Middlesex reporter to the Board of Agriculture described commoners on Hounslow Heath and Enfield Chase as people ‘who seem to live on air, without either labour or any obvious advantage from the common’. A curious assertion, given the accounts of how much use the commoners did use the open space quoted above. It can be read as both a claim that the Heath was under-used and would be more productive if enclosed and ‘improved’, but also a moral judgment in the residents, suggesting they are idle and living too easy, off the fat of the land. The 1790s Board of Agriculture surveys covered the country nationally, being carried out by various ‘reporters’. Who they were is a good question – enclosers, their allies, employees, friends? There was a widespread assumption from the ruling elites and from the agricultural establishment that enclosure, ‘improvement’, more intensive agriculture and exploitation of land was not just a matter of profit for landowners, but a moral question. Leaving land idle, under-used, or wild, was an offence, almost a waste of the riches God had given humanity.

Enclosure often caused bitterness and resentment between parishes, and led to great care being taken over borders and boundaries. As resources shrank and became scarcer, some people got more narky as to ‘outsiders’ grazing cattle, for instance. While this may seem mean, it’s worth looking at the Ham Vestry attempts to control and regulate use of common land, which show a long term approach to making sure locals got a fair share and no-one over-exploited the collective resources. They took the view that limiting access to known locals helped ensure that all got at least some use out of the shared space.

Enclosure caused a tightening up of boundaries on Hounslow Heath, which had long given shared common pasture to several west Middlesex parishes. In November 1793 the Harmondsworth vestry ordered the cattle drivers who were appointed at the manor court ‘… to pay due care and attention… ‘ to the problem of Stanwell cattle coming into the parish via Hounslow Heath and grazing on the Harmondsworth waste and commons. This follows earlier orders to impound stray Stanwell cattle in July 1789. This resolution comes only six weeks after the Stanwell enclosure act in May 1789; prior to this time intercommoning on Hounslow Heath had caused no complaint between the two parishes.

Other struggles were continuing on open space that had previously been accounted part of the Heath before it was divided between parishes. An attempt to enclose land at East Bedfont in 1801 was defeated. Opposition to enclosures at Hanworth and Harlington continued into the 19th century.

Enclosures in the area were causing hardship, however. At Cranford in 1815 Samuel Hampstead, a farm servant, complained that due to the recent enclosure of land at Isleworth, Twickenham and Heston, he had been reduced to buying fuel for the first time in forty years, as the best part of Hounslow Heath for digging fuel was now enclosed. Although wholesale enclosure at Cranford and Harlington seems to have fallen through in 1802, it was enclosed by act in 1818.

1818 was the year much of the remainder of open heath at Hounslow was enclosed, under an 1813 Act of Parliament, sponsored by the major landowners meeting in Isleworth.

Army encampment on Hounslow Heath

A portion of the heath was to be sold to the government as a military review ground, for use by the Army,
who had long carried out manoeuvres, training (including the development of pioneering mapping and surveying techniques) on the Heath, bought a chunk of the land to keep it for their purposes. Ironically, that land that remains open today in Hounslow, where most of the surrounding land was enclosed.

“Hounslow Heath,” wrote William Cobbett in 1830, “… is a sample of all that is bad in soil and villainous in look. Yet this is now enclosed, and what they call ‘cultivated’. Here is a fresh robbery of villages, hamlets and farm and labourers’ buildings and abodes!” Sand and gravel mining began in the mid-19th century, wreaking further damage on the natural habitat.

By 1867 this area was leased to a Mr Brewer who was preserving a rabbit population for game shooting.

But the enclosure did not end the bitterness of local people, or the resistance to the land theft. People had long traditions of hunting for small game, as we have seen they went back to the thirteenth century. Enclosing the land turned this into poaching. Mr Brewer had employed a gamekeeper to combat these ‘poachers’; the keeper was accused of using abusive language against people using a right of way across the heath. For this the keeper was legally censured and fined. lt was also found that the lease was bad in law as the tenant of the holding was in fact charged with the task of destroying rabbits and not employed to preserve them.

The court’s decision, not to fully back up the party claiming private property rights, saw the word spread that the land in question was open to all. The findings of the court led to “… a portion of the public – the majority not of the most respectable class – determined to cross the heath, fearless of opposition, because of the findings of Saturday last. At twelve o’clock they entered and past over the heath in large numbers, and on Monday (the next day) hundreds of people of all sorts again took possession, and made a complete battue, hunting down the rabbits and killing them by the aid of various weapons some of them of the wildest description”.

This access to the heath, and a supply of fresh meat in the form of rabbits, was short lived as keepers came under strict orders to prevent further trespass. Those who continued were indicted although poaching probably continued after this incident in much the sane way as before.

In 1872 the caretaker of Hounslow Heath was badly beaten by three local inhabitants when he challenged their right to walk on the heath. The three claimed they had simply ‘raised the question’, that is to say to protest against any perceived illegal encroachment through a supposed trespass which could then be tried in law. Two of the men were sentenced to 18 months and the third 6 months hard labour.

Illegal poaching continued on the Heath into the 1970s.

Gravel extraction continued until about 1976, and the resulting craters were filled with domestic refuse. A regeneration programme has subsequently restored around 200 acres of heathland, with gorse, broom and rushes. In 1991 the majority of the site was designated a statutory local nature reserve. A municipal golf course was laid out on the heath’s western edge – this closed in 2016.

The space that remains called Hounslow Heath today is a tiny remnant of what was was an immense stretch of open land (see the map earlier). What is left is very lovely, a wild space with a small but beautiful nature reserve, well worth visiting – but you can imagine what a wander of the old Heath would have been like…

Since the 1940s, Heathrow Airport has gradually been swallowing up more and more of the old, larger pre-16th century Hounslow Heath. Continued expansion for a new runway threatens to eat up the villages of Sipson, Harmondsworth, Longford; despite fierce opposition from local residents, and from environmental campaigners at Grow Heathrow. Covid might have temporarily put a spoke in that, but for how long?

And at nearby Isleworth, locals are still not taking the theft of space lying down: allotment tenants are still fighting the attempt by the aristocratic Duke of Northumberland to destroy their allotments to build flats… Keeping up the old traditions of fighting to keep some land out of the hands of the wealthy! Support their campaign 

Modern day enclosures continue… But do does resistance… 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources: The Times, 15th March 1878.

English Labourer’s Chronicle, March 23rd, 1878

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

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

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

Today in London’s sporting history, 1837: protestors invade the Kensington Hippodrome to re-open a blocked footpath

“From the most distant part of the metropolis they can ride in the omnibus, for sixpence, to the Hippodrome…’

“As long as the off-scourings of Kensington and its neighbourhood, backed by the redoubtable vestry of that parish, are allowed to intrude themselves into the grounds, it would seem that a much larger attendance of the police were absolutely indispensable.” (The Times)

The Kensington Hippodrome was a racecourse built in Notting Hill, London, in 1837, by entrepreneur John Whyte, who leased 140 acres (0.57 km2) of land from James Weller Ladbroke, owner of the Ladbroke Estate, who was in the process of developing much of his lands for housing. Whyte then enclosed “the slopes of Notting Hill and the meadows west of Westbourne Grove” with a 7-foot (2.1 m) high wooden fence.

The area bounded by the Portobello and Pottery lanes was laid out with 3 circular tracks; a steeplechase, a flat racecourse, and a pony and trap course; and was also to be used for training, ‘shooting with bow and arrow at the popinjay, cricketing, revels and public amusements.’ The stables and paddocks were situated alongside Pottery Lane.
The Notting Hill grassy knoll (where St John’s church now stands) was railed in as a “natural grandstand”, from which spectators could watch the races. The main public entrance was situated in Portobello Lane, at the point where Kensington Park Road now joins Pembridge Road, and through a gate at the end of Ladbroke Terrace, corresponding with the present gate into Ladbroke Square Garden.

[Interestingly, the southernmost section of the racecourse must have been built on or very close to what had been Kensington Gravel pits (which lay just to the north of modern Holland Park Tube to the west of Ladbroke Grove), where gravel was previously dug for road-laying, and also a sometime meeting place – in 1786/7: London bookbinders met there to plan a strike to try to get their 84-hour working week reduced…]

Whyte’s race course was an ambitious venture, his intention being to build a rival to the well established race courses of Epsom and Ascot. When the Hippodrome opened, Sporting magazine’s correspondent described it as “the most perfect race-course I have ever seen”, ” a racing emporium more extensive and attractive than Ascot or Epsom. . . . An enterprise which must prosper. . . . It is without competitor, and it is open to the fertilization of many sources of profit. . . . A necessary of London life, of the absolute need of which we were not aware until the possession of it taught us its permanent value.” It is stated to be eminently suitable for horse exercise especially ” for females,” for whom ” it is without the danger or exposure of the parks,” whilst the view from the centre is ” as spacious and enchanting as that from Richmond Hill, and where almost the only thing that you cannot see is London.”

The Hippodrome opened ‘under promising auspices’ on June 3 1837. ‘Splendid equipages’ and ‘gay marquees, with all their flaunting accompaniments, covered the hill, filled with all the good things of this life.’ The Sporting Magazine reporter prophetically summed up the first meeting and the area’s future with: “Another year, I cannot doubt, is destined to see it rank among the most favourite and favoured of all the metropolitan rendezvous, both for public and private recreation.” There were no drinking or gambling booths, and the prices charged were ‘strictly moderate’. Among the stewards were such ” dandies ” and leaders of society as Lord Chesterfield and Count D’Orsay.

But other reviews were less favourable; in one the horses were described as ‘animated dogs’ meat.’ The Times described the racetrack as a “disgusting … petty botheration” and cried “shame upon the people of Kensington” for permitting it.

For a (very) short while, the Hippodrome seemed on course to become a popular destination, a cross between Aintree and Glastonbury…

But, just as with Glastonbury back in its heyday, lots of people objected to paying to get in, and found other ways in – over, or through, the fence.

There had been some vocal opposition to the erecting of the racetrack ,some of which at least seems to have been based on the loss of open fields and public rights of way. A public footpath went straight through the land enclosed by Whyte’s fences. The path led from the present junction of St. Mark’s Road and Cambridge Gardens, running south-easterly, crossing the hill by the curve of Stanley Crescent and descended to Uxbridge Road by Ladbroke Place, as the north end of Ladbroke Grove was called then. Described as a ” public road ” in 1820, it led through the farmyard of Notting Hill Farm and communicated with Kensington by Lord Holland’s Lane. This right of way gave people a good legal argument for ignoring the fence, and would lead to the parish officials from Kensington Vestry getting involved…

There was also opposition to the Hippodrome on moral grounds  – racing directly encouraged gambling, and indirectly encouraged drinking, smoking, indecent behaviour and probably also riotousness… The temperance and moral reforming opinion of the day was that opening a racecourse was a green light to sin.

The racetrack bordered on the “Potteries and Piggeries” of Pottery Lane, at that Point then a notorious slum known as “cut-throat lane”, where a spot of mugging wasn’t unknown. Many of its inhabitants were skint and had a loose respect for entry fees. The footpath also allowed people to avoid walking down ‘Cut-Throat Lane’, so blocking it off also annoyed a more respectable demographic…

The opening day, June 3rd, saw a mass crowd invasion through a hole in the fence. Locals cut the hole through the paling, with hatchets and saws, where it blocked the public footpath to Notting Barns farm. Of the 12 to 14,000 in attendance, it was estimated that most hadn’t paid: “some thousands thus obtained gratuitous admission.” These “unappealing visitors”, accustomed to “villainous activities” were at least in part not the class of customers that John Whyte had in mind. The Times correspondent complained of “the dirty and dissolute vagabonds of London, a more filthy and disgusting crew … we have seldom had the misfortune to encounter.”

Whyte had the hole blocked up the hole with clay and turf: but if he thought that would end the matter, he would soon think again. By this point, either the invaders had never quite been as disreputable as the Times made out, or the blocking of the footpath and unwillingness to pay to get into the Hippodrome had spread to higher castes in the parish, as parish officials now got involved.

On June 17th 1837, “local inhabitants and labourers, led by the parish surveyor and accompanied by the police”, asserted their rights to walk the footpath, taking the form of Beating the Bounds – the traditional ceremony of walking parish boundaries and marking them every year, a practical task that had over time assumed a ritual role, and was often used to note down or demolish unsanctioned enclosures, buildings or attempts to move borders and fences.

The officials may have been co-opted by a crowd, or acted out of strict respect for parish rights. In any case, they re-opened the traditional footpath, by reinstating the original entrance hole, and knocking another hole in the fence on the other side of the racetrack to make a northern exit. Once this was achieved, these community activists gathered on Notting Hill to give three loud cheers for the parish of Kensington. It was noted that the crowd was a mix of the ‘righteous’ and the ‘unrighteous’: the footpath protestors “seem as a rule to have been orderly enough, but gipsies, prigs (thieves) and hawkers did not neglect the opportunity of mingling with the nobility and gentry.” As with many gardens and parks, the exclusion of the undeserving poor was a must. For lots of the local poor, the beating of the parish bounds offered a chance to cock a snook at the respectable and enjoy the sport for free…

The involvement of parish officials in maintaining the rights of way and preventing or removing what they could prove were illegal enclosures or encroachments on parish land and parochial rights may seem surprising when harnessed to invasion of the racecourse. However, this is far from a unique event – from the early days of enclosure parish busybodies were in fact heavily involved in ruling some enclosures illegal, even in actively tearing them down. The local disputes over private individuals fencing off land or blocking traditional paths and routes in their own interest led to continual splits in local bodies – not all the worthies were in favour of such landgrabs, either due to actual principled stands, local rivalries, or in some cases pedantic insistence on statute and local bylaw. Check out this enclosure battle from nearby Westminster in 1592.
And similarly, a local vicar was involved in the Richmond Park trespass in 1751.

The Times, already heavily prejudiced against the opening of the racecourse, was further enraged by the involvement of the parish officers in this action:

“The great annoyance experienced by the respectable company at the Hippodrome, from the ingress of blackguards who enter by the ‘right of way’, ought, at once, to convince the Kensington people of the impolicy, as well as the injustice of the steps they have taken in reference to this ground… The very urchins who were made the instruments of this piece of contemptible parochial tyranny, will, in after life, blush for the action. We allude to the little boys who accompanied the beadles and ‘old women’, in beating the boundaries of the parish. The reckless injury occasioned to the property, perhaps, is a minor consideration, when compared with the inconvenience attendant now upon the impossibility of keeping out any ruffian or thief who may claim his ‘right of way’ on the footpath… shame upon the people of Kensington!’”  (The Times, 1837)

The Times also reported somewhat inconsistently on the 4th Hippodrome meeting: “It is true that a large portion of the assemblage consisted of the dirty and dissolute, to whom the disputed path affords a means of ingress; but there was still a sufficient muster of the gay and fashionable to assure the proprietor that a purveyor of manly national sports will find no lack of powerful and flattering support from the largest and richest metropolis in the world… As long as the off-scourings of Kensington and its neighbourhood, backed by the redoubtable vestry of that parish, are allowed to intrude themselves into the grounds, it would seem that a much larger attendance of the police were absolutely indispensable.”

Local feeling was still very much against the racecourse. Petitions to close it were circulated, the Kensington Vestry asked Parliament for the closure of the racecourse, and the question was discussed by the Court of King’s Bench and before Parliament.

In order to pacify both the moral opposition and the local roughs, Mr. Whyte and his business partners promised to reform certain evils on the premises, and to admit the public free on Sundays, and for a charge of twopence on certain holidays. However, the moral reformers saw the latter proposal as a desecration of the Sabbath, when they thought no sport should take place at all. Although there restrictions on gambling and drinking within the Hippodrome, it merely took place instead in nearby “gambling houses, gin-shops, beerhouses, etc.,” which had increased in number, attracting all sorts of undesirables, “the scum and offal of London assembled in the peaceful hamlet of Notting Hill.”
Reminding us of the local middle class petitions against Camberwell Fair and other annual shindigs.

A year later the pathway was fenced off by an iron railing. But before the beginning of the 1839 racing season, Mr. Whyte gave up the contest and abandoned occupation of the eastern half of ‘Hippodrome Park’, which included the disputed pathway. However, the race-course was extended to the north-west, just avoiding the footpath from Wormwood Scrubs, (now St. Quintin Avenue). The Park became a bulb-shaped piece of land which reached as far as Latimer Road, and the race-course formed a loop on the western side of the training ground.

Portobello Lane was now connected by road with a new entrance on the top of the hill. (Part of this road was unearthed when a potato patch was made in Ladbroke Square Garden in 1916.) As part of this new extension, the old public way from Notting Barns to Uxbridge Road seems to have been cut through and done away with without any protest.

Apart from losing income to ‘trespassers’ and now having pissed off the parish sticklers for probity, Whyte had other serious problems, however. The next scheduled race-meeting had to be suddenly relinquished on account of the death of William IV on 20th June 1837. The sale of the royal stud after the king’s death was also a serious blow to horse-racing in general.

The ground was also shifting beneath Whyte’s feet… Heavy clay soil was characteristic of the neighbourhood, which was how the neighbouring Potteries had evolved – high quality clay was dug for brick making at Pottery Lane. This made for poor drainage, which meant the training ground became regularly waterlogged and was unusable for long periods. From 1837 to 1842 just 13 race meetings were held, with many jockeys refusing to take part, saying that the heavy clay ground made riding too dangerous.

A drawing by Kathleen McIlvenna showing the racecourse superimposed upon a modern street plan.

Two stewards of the Hippodrome, Lord Chesterfield and Count D’Orsay, attempted to improve the deteriorating image of the racecourse by changing its name to “Victoria Park, Bayswater”, after the new Queen Victoria. But in order to pay for the extensive alterations the charges for admission had to be doubled. Pedestrians paid two and sixpence instead of one shilling, and a four-wheeled carriage cost ten shillings instead of five.

However, the Hippodrome continued to haemorrhage money, and in 1842 Whyte gave up the struggle, and relinquished his lease back to James Weller Ladbroke. The summit of the hill quickly reverted to open country. Shortly thereafter Ladbroke resumed the development of the Ladbroke Estate, building crescents of houses on Whyte’s circular race track.

 

 

Resisting enclosure past & present: East London Waterworks, Leyton Marsh, and the Leyton Lammas lands

NB: Update to this post (July 2020): since this was published the application for the controversial Waterworks Festival was refused by Waltham Forest Council… One victory! The planning application for the massive expansion of the ice rink is still up in the air…

Regular readers of our blog will know that one of our obsessions is open green space in London – its history, how much of what was defended and preserved by collective action, and its present and future use…

In the capital, as in many big cities, land has often gone through many incarnations over the centuries. If some spaces have remained largely open and accessible (although that had to be fought for), some pieces of land have been split up, parts built on, some saved and other sections lost; then in some cases, returned to open space. Industry has taken over then declined or fallen derelict and been re-wilded (or re-wilded itself).

Some of this process is still going on. The long years of battling against enclosures, campaigning for parks to be built or commons and woods to be left undeveloped, are not over. Corporate interests, local authorities, admin quangos, often owning or managing space, have certain visions as to how they can be exploited; some of which clash with other viewpoints. Land is a cash cow to some; a resource to milk, or jto be sold off, built on, concreted over.

For many others of us open space remains a vital part of what makes a city liveable. Many times we have to come together to fight off attempts to enclose places we love; other times, there’s a chance to return open land lost to a useable and shareable environment. Because of the nature of land ownership, even public land ownership, campaigns to save or reclaim open space can often face an uphill battle, because the authorities who supposedly manage such resources on our behalf may see the space differently to us. (To be honest there’s often conflict about use of open space among users…)

The Lea Bridge Waterworks, where Leyton and Hackney Marshes meet, in North East London, are one space where the next developments are under up for debate at the moment shines an interesting light on past, present and possible futures. Collective resistance helped preserve part of this space in the past; community campaigns have helped fight off some recent developments, and could help re-shape the area for all our benefit…

Part of what was once open land here is threatened by the expansion of ‘leisure’ facilities… part is fenced off after failed development plans… part is open as a nature reserve but a corporate festival is planned for the next three summers (experience with other open spaces suggests this may mean increased exploitation for such large destructive moneyspinning events…)
There’s a lot of local anger and opposition, taking inspiration from the history of resistance to the loss of open land here. Parts of what was once lammas land, on the old Leyton Marsh, have been a contested zone for many decades… The high point being direct action in 1892 which helped preserve access to some of these lands…

The Icerink Cometh?

The Lea Valley Icerink, which stands off Lea Bridge Road, has applied for planning permission to expand, which would mean the building doubling in size, snaffling more of the open land around it. We ourselves love ice skating at Lea Valley, but stealing more open space to expand it is just unnecessary…

Meanwhile, on the old East London Waterworks Site opposite, there are plans for a large corporate music festival is planned for this August (and the next two summers). The site is next door to the Waterworks Nature Reserve, a lovely place, well worth a visit. Built on the former Essex filter beds, the derelict treatment plant has been allowed to fall back to nature and has been developed as a nature reserve, a cracking place for watching wild birds, but also just for wandering and hanging out. The Reserve is designated as part of a Site of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation. It’s really not the place for a festival to have plonked next door.

As campaigners Save Lea Marshes point out: “If the noise and light pollution will be significant nuisance for human neighbours, it will be catastrophic for neighbouring wildlife, particularly birds. This is simply an inappropriate place to hold a one-off one-day music festival, let alone an annual three-day event.”

The Walthamstow Marshes Site of Special Scientific Interest is very close to the proposed ‘premises’ and birds particularly will be seriously impacted by the noise coming from the event.

The immediate chance to object to both the proposals for the festival and the expansion of the Rink closed on March 10th, but that won’t mean the end of campaigning, should the plans be approved… (The festival might fall victim to the corona pandemic, maybe…!)

There’s also been conflict for a while over the neighbouring Thames Water site…

Until the 1960s the Thames Water Site was part of the Lea Bridge Waterworks, providing water to the people of London. A complex of 25 filter beds were served by an aqueduct bringing water from the Walthamstow reservoirs further north.

The site was closed after the new Coppermill Water Treatment Works were opened. The Lee Valley Park Authority eventually agreed to take over the Middlesex Filter Beds (after first suggesting they should be filled in to make football pitches) and later took on the Essex and Leyton Filter Beds.

Today, the Middlesex and Essex Filter Beds are beautiful, important and secluded nature reserves. They show what can be achieved when industrial sites are sensitively managed to return to nature.

The whole of the site was designated as Metropolitan Open Land in the 1970s.

However, in the 1980s, the so-called Essex Number One Beds were retained by Thames Water as an operational site, first of all a ‘temporary’ pipe store; later a base for the Thames Water/Clancy Docwra mega-plan to replace the East London water mains. In the process they have completely trashed the site without any regard for its status as Metropolitan Open Land.

The Thames Water Site, to the west, and the Nature Reserve, to the east, and the lammas lands, to the southeast…

When Thames Water decided they wanted to offload the land, it was originally earmarked for two brand new academy ‘free’ schools, but after much local opposition this was kyboshed in the planning process, as it was a completely inappropriate site miles from any prospective catchment area, and would have increased traffic overload on the already gridlocked Lea Bridge Road.

Defence of open space on Leyton Marsh… only part of the story

(and a long and complicated story it is… bear with us!)

Campaigners fighting to preserve the open space and reclaim the Thames Water site stand in a long local tradition: this area has a long history of resistance to the enclosure if open land; as well as complex conflicts over its use. The most famous incident took place in August 1892, when 3000 people gathered to pull down railings protecting a railway that had been unpopularly run across Leyton’s ‘Lammas’ land, and wrecked the railway lines.

The land around Lea Bridge was one all Lammas lands: of old 1 August, was Lammas Day, (from old saxon “loaf-mass”)…

Lammas Day signalled the annual shift from agricultural focus from planting crops to grazing animals. It was the last day on which grass was cut for hay, and the day grazing could commence and the hunting season began. ‘The Glorious Twelfth’ – the first day for shooting grouse – is in fact Lammas Day, pushed eleven days back by the UK’s transition from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian in 1752.

The right to cut hay and graze animals on certain fields extended to all parishioners, rich or poor. Such fields were known as Lammas land. Their use belonged to everyone, ‘without regard to tenement’  – meaning you didn’t have to be relatively well-off house-owner to have Lammas Rights. If this existed by long-established tradition, it was often a tradition that had to be enforced collectively, when the rich and powerful attempted to take possession of land, fence it off, exploit it commercially, etc. Lammas Day was thus also a day when battles around enclosure often took place, as the ritual significance of the day was a central part of the rural year, and the ritual opening up of land for grazing was a useful arena for protest around loss of access. Martinmas, November 11th, the day when woods were traditionally open to all for cutting wood for fuel, was another day of ritual protest (– see Thomas Willingale’s actions in nearby Epping Forest…) The ritual importance of these dates outlasted the actual economic significance in many areas.

East London Waterworks

Waterworks were long established on the river Lea all along its length; its proximity to London and the increasing pollution of the Thames and its tributaries further west made a relatively clean water supply on the capital’s eastern doorstep invaluable. Even today reservoirs and treatment plant dominate a good part of the Lea Valley.

The waterworks lay on both banks of the Lea, bridging the boundary of Essex and Middlesex from at least 1760, whilst expansion after 1850 was concentrated on the Essex bank within the Districts of Leyton and Walthamstow.

Waterworks were established on Leyton Marsh from the early nineteenth century, as London expanded and demand for water and its treatment increased. But each successive expansion of the Lea Bridge works, from at least 1824, encroached upon ancient Lammas lands, and required the loss, buyout or extinguishment of any existing commonable Lammas rights local communities had, whether by agreement, paying compensation, or just by jumping in and ignoring protest.

Leyton, Walthamstow and Hackney parishes all bordered on each other on the marshes, and residents of all three parishes held lammas rights there. Until around 1752, Walthamstow and Leyton had ‘intercommoned’ – shared access by agreement – on what was known as the Great Mead (or Walthamstow Common Mead). This system broke down in 1752 due to a dispute over the change in the Calendar in 1751/2. After the alteration of the calendar in 1752, apparently Leyton continued to turn the cattle onto the lammas lands on 1 August (New Lammas Day), while Walthamstow went with beginning grazing on Old Lammas Day (from 1752, 13 August). You couldn’t make it up.

The land, and the return on the property rates, was a valuable public asset.

The Great Eastern Railway bought stretches of land on Leyton Marsh for the London to Cambridge line in the 1840’s, in many cases without compensation to local people, as the Railway Acts of the time did not recognise Lammas Rights. Later sections of land were bought to build Temple Mills Marshalling Yards.

A considerable portion of the Lammas lands on Walthamstow and Leyton Marsh were ‘dis-lammased’ in 1854 and handed over to the East Waterworks London Company for extensions to the treatment plants. On top of earlier land lost, this grant reduced the Walthamstow Lammas land to only 100 acres.

The loss of land to the waterworks contributed to disputes between neighbouring parishes over the remaining lammas land, already aggravated by the complex interaction of commoning, and the slightly fragmented parish borders. In 1858, Leyton challenged Walthamstow’s attempt to establish the extent of the ‘Walthamstow Slip’ (a detached part of Walthamstow actually inside Leyton’s borders) through the most valuable part of the waterworks company’s Essex Filter Beds (an attempt to prove the valuable land was Leyton’s not Walthamstow’s? With an eye to extracting profit from the Company?). By 1873 a fence was put up on the boundary between the two parishes here. By 1876, 176 acres of Leyton Lammas Land remained for the use of local people.

In 1890, the waterworks company laid railway tracks and erected fences across Leyton Marsh, blocking a traditional bridle path, in order to create an access to the new filter beds, for the transport of coal to the pumping engines. This enraged locals, already seething at the gradual erosion of access to the land.

By 1892, commoners were agitating for the marsh to be preserved as an open space, and were lobbying the parish vestry to refuse to sell their common rights to the Company.

The Leyton Vestry (Council)’s Lammas Lands Committee, a long-standing body, with responsibility for managing access and negotiate compensation for its loss, (made up of local Liberal or Tory gentlemen), ordered the water company to take up the rails and remove the fence. The Company refused, and the vestry took matters into their own hands. Four gentlemen agreed to take responsibility for a little bit of direct action, hoping to encourage the masses to join in.

On Lammas Day 1892, a crowd from Leyton, joined by a force some 2500 strong from Hackney, and led by Councillor Christopher George, a member of the Local Board and the Essex County Council, and Leytonstone resident Henry Humphries, marched on the Marsh, demolished the fence, and instigated the removal of the rails themselves. The rails seem to have run roughly north-east-southwest, from the nearby line into the waterworks.

Barbados-born Humphries, a Justice of the Peace and County Councillor in Essex, was prominent in this direct action. He was charged, along with eight others, four of whom were prosecuted under the Malicious Damages (Railways) Act of 1861.

Many working class radicals joined in the action. Like many other mainly working class areas across London and beyond, Leyton, Walthamstow and Homerton was home to a network of Working Men’s Clubs, many highly politicised, with politics that ranged through Liberal, Radical, socialist, to anarchist. These cubs were self-organised, venues for political debate, self-education and discussion – and centres for organising. Among the trade unionists and agitators that frequented the clubs, land, and access to it, had increasingly become a subject for fierce discussion and campaigning. The urban working class had remembered that their immediate ancestors had been dispossessed by enclosure. The clubs, though inherited ideas from groups like the Spenceans and the Chartists, who had identified the theft of the land by the wealthy as one of the crucial sources of poverty, and made regaining access to land a central plank of their platforms, forming organisations like the Land and Labour League. This took the form of agitation for access to urban open space for recreation and holding meetings, as well as demanding that land be nationalised of collectivised for common use…

Among the contingent from the Hackney clubs who flocked to the defence of the lammas lands were land agitators of the “Commons Defence League,” a radical association that had been founded by the well-known leftwing agitator, John de Morgan, an Irish-born radical who had for some time lived in Hackney, and had twice served time in prison for his part in riots against theft of Common Land in Plumstead, South London.

However, the East London Water Company wasn’t going to just roll over. The Company immediately took out legal proceedings against George and Humphries. And on the Tuesday after the tracks were removed, they sent out workers to re-lay them.

A commemorative plaque to the 1892 direct action, erected in 1929

The following Saturday another mass meeting was called at the Antelope pub, still standing today at the top of Marsh Lane in Leyton.

The atmosphere was different this time. The Lammas Lands Committee – already embroiled in a court case with the water company – thought further direct action would endanger the case. They refused to endorse further destruction, leaving the crowd to be led by Ambrose Barker, founder of the Walthamstow Working Men’s Club. This kind of tactical split was quite common in battles against enclosure and in defence of common land, with moderate elements concentrating on legal tactics, (though sometimes tentatively endorsing direct action, when the legal case for doing so seemed solid), then pulling back, and a more fiery element often refusing to stick to legal methods…

Once again, after this meeting, thousands marched down to the Marsh and took up the rails. The water company, again, re-laid them on the Monday.

But on Tuesday, 1,500 people descended on the tracks, including a large party from Leyton and four Working Men’s Clubs in Homerton. They ripped up the rails and again knocked down the fences the water company had erected around them.

The water company had the rails re-laid yet again on the Wednesday.

However, again on the following Saturday, led by a man known only as ‘the Village Blacksmith’, the Homerton clubs gathered their full strength to yet again march on the tracks, pulling them out of the ground and scattering them all over the fields.

Five days of sabotage won the day. The water company gave up.

Local people – at a packed meeting at Leyton Town Hall on Wednesday 30th November 1892 – formed a ‘Lammas Lands Defence Committee’ to defend the George and Humphries in their legal battle with the Waterworks Company, and to oppose the Parliamentary Bill then being promoted by the East London Waterworks Company to extinguish further Lammas rights on Leyton Marshes.

In August 1893, locals held a meeting was called to celebrate the previous year’s ‘Great Riot’. A speaker proposed that the land saved should be handed over to the local people, for purposes other than grazing. By this time the lands were mainly used for recreation, often for playing cricket.

A compromise was reached in 1893, confirmed by the East London Waterworks Act of 1894. The company withdrew all claims to enclose any part of the marsh, ended the legal proceedings against Humphries and George, and paid all their costs, as well as donating £100 to improve the bridleway. In return, the rails were allowed to stay. What looks like the remains can still be seen, in the half-exposed cobbles in the Waterworks Nature Reserve.

In 1904, local Lammas rights were commuted, to be replaced by Access Right: the land is vested with the local authorities, but is to be kept open for the whole community to use.

Under the 1904 Leyton Urban District Council Act, 111 acres of Lammas Land to the north and south of Lea Bridge Road were acquired by the Leyton Urban District Council: “vested absolutely in the Council subject to all existing Lammas Rights…and the Council shall from the passing of such resolution and subject to the provisions of this Act hold the same… as and for an open space for the perpetual use thereof for exercise and recreation and shall maintain preserve manage and regulate the same as such accordingly.”

Lammas Rights were not extinguished by the Act, which allowed for local people to receive other rights or money in exchange for their Lammas Rights. The Lammas Lands Defence Committee wanted ‘‘rights of recreation’’ in exchange for the Lammas Rights. The decision of the LLLDC to accept recreation rights in exchange is recorded in the Council minutes of 31st January 1905:

“That the Lammas Rights over the Lammas Lands acquired by the Council under and by virtue of the Leyton Urban District Council Act, 1904, be extinguished in consideration of the said Lands being devoted to the purposes of a Public Open Space or Recreation Ground, as provided for by said Act.”

In giving up their Lammas rights, local people were expecting the council would honour their side of what was, in effect, a contract: the Council and its successors are under a duty to maintain the land as “… a Public Open Space or Recreation Ground..” perpetually. This duty applied to almost the entire area of 111 acres, excepting only parcels of land of no more than 20 acres in total which could be exchanged or sold if the Council felt they were unsuitable for use as “open space or recreation ground.”

The fields at Marsh Lane did not come under this agreement and remained as Lammas land.

The 1892 victory was celebrated in an annual festival, held here for many years by the New Lammas Lands Defence Committee; formed in recent decades to commemorate the preservation of the Lammas Lands, and to help keep them free.

Common land on the marshes further south, remaining at the turn of the twentieth Century, including White Hart Field and East Marsh, was also incorporated by the local District Councils in 1904. These lands were in turn incorporated into the Lea Valley Regional Park in 1971, as part of a network of ‘metropolitan open lands’. Although no longer truly common land, public right of access remains within the metropolitan open land definition.

Although the old lammas rights of grazing animals had been replaced by more leisurely pursuits, this was not a break, but a continuity: it was the ability to access the land that mattered to people and that people felt was their right, even if the reasons had evolved. As Juliet Davis noted of Marsh Fields, “A Leyton Lammas Lands Defence Committee (LLLDC) member recalls old Leyton ‘commoners’ returning from the marsh with pockets stuffed with rabbits and blackberries. Such practices represent threads of continuity – all-be-they ambiguous – in the context of wide ranging transformations of the site over three centuries. It is arguably less the specific or historic practices of beating bounds or grazing cattle that are important for a contemporary reappraisal of common land, but the openness and possibility offered by genuinely public space for the development and layering of multiple informal and social uses and their spatial artefacts over time. Such possibility – in terms of practice and of culture – is commonly recognised as being absent in contemporary, controlled and/or privatised public spaces.”

Campaigning to prevent the enclosure and destruction of marshes in the Lea Valley didn’t end with the Leyton Lammas riots.

Between 1979 and 1985, the Save the Marshes Campaign fought to prevent the Walthamstow Marshes, further north, being destroyed for development into a marina, and a later plan to dump 8000 tons of ballast there.

Locally, the old lammas lands have seen a succession of bits of land nibbled away and attempts by the Council to flog bits off.

In 1949 Leyton Council attempted to redevelop the Marsh Lane area as a Sports Ground and to provide Leyton Football Club with a Stadium on the Lammas Land: local people opposed them and after campaigning, the Council then dropped the idea. Railway sidings were extended as far as Lea Bridge Road in the 1950s. The Gas Board also occupies some of the former lammas land.

In Lea Valley Regional Park bought all the Lammas Land to the west of the old Cambridge Railway Line from the Council under a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO). But since then, the Park authority has taken the view that it now has the absolute freehold of the land it holds and does not acknowledge the need to maintain it as Public Open Space or Recreation Ground as provided for in the 1904 Act or contract under which Lammas Rights were given up.

Over the years the Park’s denial of rights of way over our Lammas Land has been resisted. Shortly after the CPO in 1971, people refused to stop using the ancient Porters’ Way route from the Black Path to Lea Bridge Road by Essex Wharf. The Park found that they were unable to deny people’s right to use the path.

However, the Lea Valley Riding School have now taken over all the land between what was once Low Level Brook (now the Flood Relief Channel) and the former Waterworks Aqueduct, on the former Lammas Land, and the Park has from time to time denied local people right of way over the land the School occupies.

The Ice Rink now also occupies much of the land between the Waterworks aqueduct and the River Lea, on Porter’s Field – partly on land sold by the Council to a private fairground at a time when the 20 acre limit for disposal/ exchange under the 1904 Act had not yet been exceeded and partly on Lammas Land proper.

In 1993 the Council proposed fencing off over one third of Seymour Fields at Marsh Lane so that it could be used only by people prepared to pay for the use of the football pitches, and an income-generating fenced off Astroturf football pitch, with a 15 foot high fence and huge floodlights. An overwhelming negative response from local people pushed Councillors into voting against the scheme and overturning it.

And Leyton Marsh has come under further pressure more recently. Marsh Lane Fields, which continues to be referred to as Lammas Land, is outside the remit of the Lea Valley Regional Park. The western edge of this space began was built over in the late 1990s by the construction of the Leyton Freight road (Orient Way) and the Eurostar train depot. In 1989 local people had defeated plans to put Freight Road spurs across Marsh Lane Fields, but Orient Way, was eventually built, against massive local opposition and despite its rejection at the 1994 Public Inquiry.

From 2004, the loss of land here was exacerbated by development plans to relocate businesses and allotments from the Olympic site here…

The Olympics caused major upheaval in the Lea Valley, generating much hype and large profits, destruction of housing and long-standing industry. Huge areas of East London were redeveloped; in a number of areas open green space was appropriated, for training facilities, police compounds… with lots of it to be sold off for various dubious developments… Much of this nefarious dealing is documented at Games Monitor site. Large open spaces were laid out in recompense, its true, like Queen Elizabeth Park. But conflict over management of open space has if anything intensified.

One small site of resistance to the Olym-perial Project was Leyton Marsh, opposite the waterworks, where a basketball training facility was built for the duration of the games, despite many objections, and a protest camp, which attempted to block the development. Although the land was returned to open space afterwards it was heavily damaged. There was an attempt to use the land nicked for the basketball court to erect a new bigger ice-rink, to replace the existing one on Lea Bridge Road. This was defeated in court. But there’s now yet another proposal to enlarge the ice rink, doubling it in size…

The Thames Water site’s future is still up for grabs. Although the proposal for the free school was knocked back in Waltham Forest’s planning process, campaigners fear this may be overturned on appeal; especially since the government effectively own the land, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, acting on behalf of the Education Funding Agency (now the Education and Skills Funding Agency – “ESFA”) paid the vast sum of £33.3 million + VAT to acquire the site for the pair of free school academies. ESFA were very likely aware that the site was Metropolitan Open Land but were willing to ignore the fact, and may be confident that a pliable Planning Inspector will eventually approve the change of use.

Most of the organisations, authorities and quangos who have had some involvement or responsibility for the land have behaved less than admirably. Thames Water have knowingly destroyed the site. Thames Water used to be a publicly owned utility, in theory at least, owned and operated for the public benefit. Since privatisation, had a series of owners bent on loading the company with debt and extracting as much money as they can. When the last Walthamstow Planning Strategy – the so called Core Strategy – was being adopted, Thames Water lobbied for the site to be re-designated for a “commercially viable” development: but the Inspector at the Public Enquiry confirmed that the site’s status as protected Metropolitan Open Land should continue.

The Education and Skills Funding Agency knowingly overpaid for the land, expecting compliant authorities to give them what they want.

The Lea Valley Regional Park Authority – supposed to act as custodian of the parkland as a whole – has stood by, wholly disregarding its own Park Plan and made no effort to protect the site, in dereliction of its duties to protect the Park, only paying lip service and announcing grandiose plans that have come to nothing.

The Park Authority was even offered the Thames Water site as compensation for land that it was required to give up for the Chobham Manor housing development, next to the Olympic Park. It opted to take cash compensation instead; then splurge this money on large leisure facilities and not on improving the landscape. It then stood back and did nothing while the site was purchased for a purpose that is anything but Park-compatible use.

The approval for an annual, three day, 15,000 people capacity per day, electronic dance music festival appears to fit with a continuing strategy of fencing off and eventually developing the open space here – including the lovely Waterworks Reserve.

Waltham Forest Council’s licensing department has been deluged by objections from borough residents opposed to the Premises License application of Waterworks Events Ltd. The local community has protested vehemently en masse to the Council, the festival organisers and Lee Valley Regional Park Authority, on social media and by email. However, campaigners are suspicious that the assessment of the festival’s Premises License application may be a foregone conclusion – because Waltham Forest Council’s Licensing Department, have allied with the festival’s landlords, Lee Valley Regional Park Authority, in facilitating and advising the planning process of the festival prior to the Premises License application being submitted. There’s suspicion that the Festival was given the nod of approval from at least a Senior Officer and possibly by Waltham Forest Councillors (although the Lea Bridge Road area Councillors say they didn’t know about the planned festival and that they oppose it). Is this going to be the legacy of the much-touted 2019 Borough of Culture: Waltham Forest’s precious and much loved Lea Marshes green spaces being exploited by opportunistic rich Old Harrovian (Frederick Roscoe Valadas-Letts), party animal nightclub promoters from outside the borough, to the cost of Waltham Forest’s residents?

The Lee Valley Regional Park Authority wants to ‘dispose’ of the Waterworks Centre and the land behind it, to sell it off for housing (a plan which Waltham Forest Council also supports). Is disconnecting people from the land, by fencing it off for events like this, part of their long-term strategy to turn a green field site into a brown field site, paving the way for the eventual building of housing over what should remain accessible open land?

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

We Stand at a Fork in the Way

“Presently, the landscape is dislocated, with local people traversing well-worn routes into and out of each individual pocket of green space but unable to vary their walks much because of the fences they find in their way. Local people treasure these spaces, but few travel any distance to visit them and there is little to capture the wider public’s imagination. Historic buildings, such as the unusual octagonal sluice house, are hidden from view and the area’s industrial heritage and its significance as the boundary between the Danelaw and Anglo-Saxon England are ignored. Consequently, the vast potential of the area as a place to linger, a place to explore and a place to reconnect with nature is being overlooked. Re-integrating the ex-Thames Water Depot site into the landscape can change all this, bringing real health and well-being benefits to the people and wildlife that call this corner of north-east London home.” (‘The centrepiece of The East London Waterworks Park a future for the ex-Thames Water Depot site that benefits the whole community’, The East London Waterworks Campaign, January 2020)

The Thames Water site could form a connecting thread between Leyton Marshes and Hackney Marshes, linking the open spaces of the Lea valley in one continuous whole – Leyton and Walthamstow Marshes, Walthamstow Wetlands and Tottenham Marshes to the north, the Waterworks Centre and Nature Reserve to the east, Hackney Marshes and Middlesex Filter Beds to the south and the river and towpath to the west… a huge urban park where people and wildlife can roam.

Campaigners at Save Lea Marshes believe the following principles should form the basis of any decision about the land:

  • The Lea Bridge Waterworks is Metropolitan Open Land and its status as such should be protected.
  • The Lea Bridge Waterworks plays a critical role in connecting the marshes of the Lower Lea Valley.
  • The Lea Bridge Waterworks backs on to one of the most beautiful and unspoiled sections of the River Lea, the haunt of kingfishers, stretching from the mighty Lea Bridge Weir to Friends Bridge.
  • The Lea Bridge Waterworks contains significant remnants of its industrial heritage, adjacent to the weir, which can be interpreted to promote understanding of this important historical site.
  • The Lea Bridge Waterworks can be linked to the Essex and Middlesex Filter Beds and managed and re-wilded over time.

The East London Waterworks Park Campaign have put forward an alternative vision to the corporate exploiters, developers, scheming councils and quangos…
Which includes proposals for a wild swimming site, an extension of the nature reserve, and opening up the fenced off land to link it up with the other green spaces it borders onto. A brilliant and far-sighted vision, well worth getting behind.

Support Save Lea Marshes in calling for the Lea Bridge Waterworks to be protected from development and opened up to public access.

Much more info here

and more on the history of the waterworks

Worth a read: (Inside the Blue Fence, An Exploration, by Juliet Davis)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Struggles in Epping Forest were old as the forest…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Willingale

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

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

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

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

Locals celebrating the opening of lopping rights at Staples Hill

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

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

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

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

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

Alfred Willingale

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

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

Samuel Willingale

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

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

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

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

 

Today in London’s radical history, 1614: Lewisham residents demonstrate against the enclosure of Sydenham Common

“Memorandum that in ye yeares of our Lord 1614 and 1615 we had many troubles and suites concerning our common of Westwood being in quantity about 500 acres of ground whereunto the Lord of his mercy gave a good issue in ye end. The occasion was this: Henry Newport of Lewsham, gentleman, and yeoman of ye boiling-house to King James, having lived long in our parish, in ye yeare 1605 begged this common of the King and made meanes to his Majesty for a lease of it at a yearely rent.” (Abraham Colfe)

The area on the slopes of the ridge of hills that runs across South London, from Norwood to Brockley, was, until the 18th century, largely still woodland, the remnants of the old Great North Wood. This wood, a natural oak forest that had once stretched from unbroken from Croydon to Camberwell, had broken up by the seventeenth Century, into smaller woods and commons, including Penge Wood, Gipsy Wood, Dulwich Wood, Forest Wood (or Forest Hill), and Westwood (also called Sydenham Common).

By the late 1700s many of these woods and Commons were often inhabited by the very poor, squatters with nowhere else to go, some driven by earlier enclosures and social/economic change into scratching a living from marginal land; others were social outcasts like romany travellers, (hence the local area name of Gipsy Hill), though there was also often a smattering of outlaws, robbers and rebels. Smugglers and their contacts used green lanes through Norwood and Peckham to bring contraband up from the south coast.

From the late fifteenth century, common lands began to be enclosed – fenced off, initially mainly for more intensive sheep farming, as wool was very lucrative – the English wool trade was a major driver of the national economy (and a huge factor in the historical development of capitalism). Later, intensive agriculture, economies of scale and technological innovation also pushed large-scale enclosure projects.

Enclosure lined the pockets of the already dominant landowning classes, but also helped enrich merchants and other traders, hungry for social advancement and power.

On top of demand for land for development and more intensive agriculture there was also pressure to clear ‘undesirables’ out; for some local worthies in rural or suburban parishes, this was a useful by-product of enclosures.

While the Lord of the Manor, the landowner, was often the initiator of enclosure, this was not always the case. Increasingly from the 16th century the buying and selling of land was followed by enclosure,

The mass upheavals caused by enclosures were not pushed though without resistance. Those who depended on the rights to collect wood, furze or peat for fuel, gather foodstuffs, or graze animals, fought attempts to shut them out of the land – because they had little choice, it was a matter of survival. Others with some ‘rights of common’ might be small-scale landowners themselves, who would lose out too, but had some chance of compensation.

The latter had more legal clout to challenge enclosure. But tactics were as varied as the complex interwoven web of rights and customs that enclosure sought to do away with – ranging from petitions, court cases, demonstrations, to sabotage and riot, the destruction of fences and ditches, driving of animals onto enclosed land… At crucial periods enclosure led to armed rebellions, as in several counties across the southeast, southwest and East Anglia in 1549, and in several midlands counties in 1607.

Many battles were won – many more lost.

One battle that was fought hard, and enclosure prevented for two centuries (though ultimately lost), was that over Sydenham Common, also was known in early medieval times as Westwood or Westwood Common.  The name Westwood derives from the area being the western part of the parish of Lewisham, and heavily wooded; in fact Westwood was a remainder of the old Great North Wood.

Sydenham or Westwood Common (very occasionally also referred to as Shenewood) covered the area between modern Sydenham and Forest Hill. Bounded in the Southwest by today’s Westwood Hill & Crystal Palace Park, in the Southeast it reached to Mayow Park and Sydenham Road; to the north to where Honor Oak Park and Forest Hill Road now lie. It consisted of open fields and woodland belonging to the Manor of Lewisham, who were in turn, from the middle ages, the Abbots of Ghent, the Priors of Shene (near Richmond) and then the Archbishops of Canterbury. For centuries the common was split between coppices of farmed timber and open tracts where locals and parishioners of Lewisham had ‘Common Rights’ to graze cattle & gather fuel.

Henry VIII acquired Westwood in 1531, as part of the manor of Lewisham, an acquisition ratified by an act of Parliament in 1531.In the Act there was a proviso that the exchange was not to be hurtful to any person concerning the “Commons, ” or any rights of use which any person might or ought to have therein. The Crown, however, thereafter considered that Westwood Common was a portion of the demesne lands of the manor (thus the king’s to dispose of as he saw fit).

The coppice system was gradually abandoned, to allow more mature woods to grow for use by the navy – crucial to the wars waged by successive Tudor monarchs (and most successfully to the officially tolerated piracy in the West Indies that gave birth to both the beginnings of Britain’s naval imperialism and to the Atlantic slave trade). These trees were felled wholesale in the late sixteenth century, leaving a stripped common, apart from two main wooded areas, Coleson’s Coppice and Coopers Wood.

This open land was a strong temptation to potential enclosers.

The battle against enclosure began in 1605-6, when Henry Newport, a gentleman living in Lewisham and a Yeoman of the King’s Household (a royal courtier) persuaded king James I to lease him 500-600 acres of ‘Westwood’, and applied to fence a large part off for ‘improvement’.

Many inhabitants of Lewisham were small farmers or husbandmen who relied heavily on the free pasture available on the common. At this time there were also large numbers of squatters on the common, encouraged by the lack of restrictions on grazing of animals. They supported themselves almost entirely by raising pigs, cows and sheep.

There was an outcry locally in response to the proposal. Abraham Colfe, the vicar of Lewisham, played a central role in organised opposition to Newport. A number of local inhabitants claimed that they had always had common of pasture for all manner of cattle without number and at all times [i.e. that the land was not half year land], and also common of estovers and shreddings of all trees growing on the said common. Their first petition noted the value of the Common to local poor inhabitants:

“The Humble Petition of the inhabitants of the Parrishe of Lewsham :— “Wherefore the poore inhabitants of Lewsham aforesaide doe most humbly praye the Right Honorable the Earl of Salisburye in respect of his greate wisdom and justice and because he is the high Stewarde of Lewsham aforesaide that he wilbe pleased to be enformed of the sayd Newporte’s unjust proceedings and to relieve the poore inhabitants of Lewsham aforesaid that being above 500 poore housholders with wives and manye children greately relieved by the sayde Common and would be utterly undone yf yt should be unjustly taken from them. So shall theese poore inhabitants be alwayes ready to praye God as nevertheles for his honours long life and happie dayes with much increase of honor. “

They produced, in proof, the recollections of the “oldest inhabitants:
“Stephen Batt of Croydon of the age of 98 yeares testifieth for the same Comon by the name of Westwood or Sheenewood in his knowledge 80 yeares agoe and never heard the contrary which testimony was five yeares before the same Acte was made [ie., 1525]. “John Heathe of the age of 90 yeares testifiethe for the same Comon for 75 yeares which was at the time of the Acte made that it was then in his knowledge a Comon and alwaies so was used and that he never harde the contrary. “Thomas Frenche of Bromley of the age of 80 yeares testifiethe for the same common for 70 yeares. Arnolde Kinge of Beckenham of the age of 78 yeares testifiethe for the same comon in his knowledge for 65 yeares.”

Henry Newport asked for a commission of enquiry to look into the matter, and Sir Thomas Walsingham, Sir Ralphe Boswell, Henry Heyman, surveyor, and Michael Berisfforde were appointed “for the surveying and finding of a parcel of waste grounde in Lewsham in the County of Kent called Westwood to be the King’s and therein especially to enquire whether it be the King’s own waste in demeane or whether it be the King’s waste but yet a comon withall and of what yearly valewe it is.”

This commission seems to have found that the land belonged to the king but was a common, with the rights that this implied; however their verdict may not have been reached unanimously:
“On the 25th April 1606 the Commissioners did sitt at Greenwich to enquire and after evidence given to the jurye and the greater parte of the same jury meaninge to give up their verdict that Westwood was the King’s waste and yet a comon, they were dissolved and lefte for that time, wherby that Commission was expired”.(Abraham Colfe)

 

A painting of Sydenham Common, dating from the eighteenth century.

 

Another hearing in 1607 into the intended enclosure was inconclusive:

“The case came again before the Court of Exchequer in 1607, “after dinner, on a Starre chamber day… and againe ye 9th November, 1608,” but Newport either dropped the case at that time, “or other error fell out in ye proceedings, so that he obtained not as yet his purpose.”  The matter was left in abeyance…

But Newport was not, in fact, prepared to give up; he and his allies spent the following six years on ‘secret inquisitions’, plotting carefully to claim the land: “Since which time the aforesaide Henrie Newporte going about to defeate the inhabitants of Lewsham aforesaide of their saide Comon hathe secretly made an inquisition in a remote place and altogether without the knowledge of the saide inhabitants by that meanes seeking to get some sinister testimony uppon recorde againste the inhabitants, and also to prevent them of geving their evidence unto the jury as detendaunts of their righte of Comon.”

In 1614 Newport obviously felt his planning had built a good case, as he, together with two more gentlemen of the king’s household – Robert Raynes, the king’s sergeant of the buckhounds, and Innocent Lanyer, of Greenwich, one of the King’s musicians – approached the king again; this time obtaining a 60-year lease for 347 acres of Westwood – the vast majority of the common.

Locals with an interest in the common remaining open was again quick to organise opposition. They lodged a complaint against Newport and his co-patentees. After some preliminary proceedings it was agreed that Mr. John Burnett, one of the principal parishioners, who amongst others claimed to have common rights in Westwood, should be entered in the proceedings as representing the parish. The trial took place on 14th October, 1614, before the Barons of the Exchequer, touching the ‘Common of Westwood of 500 acres of ground lying in the parish of Lewisham’, with a jury of the County of Kent; John Sherman, of Greenwich, was foreman of the jury, and Henry Dobbins and Henry Abbot, of Greenwich, and John Leech, “of Detford,” were members.

However this hearing went against those opposed to the proposals: the jury ignored their complaints and found in favour of Newport and his allies. It is possible that the jury, drawn from members of local parishes, might have been weighted against the protestors, (perhaps because some of them had links to the enclosers, as a later jury was specifically noted as being drawn from parishes further away).

In response Abraham Colfe led a march of 100 parishioners to Tottenham High Cross, to petition to the king, a few days after the hearing, on October 20th: “Whereupon neer 100 people young and old went through ye City of London and a little on this side of Topnam high-crosse petitioned King James who very graciously heard ye petition and ordered the Lords of his Privy Counsell should take a course that he might be no more troubled about it.”

King James, uninterested, or unwilling to associate himself with a ruling that could alienate either side, passed it to the Privy Council for them to make a decision.

Newport and his fellow courtiers “then began very much to vexe ye inhabitants.” They immediately ordered fences erected around the common, recognising that if he could enclose the land, appeals to reverse the decision were less likely to succeed (a lesson possibly learnt from other previous enclosure battles  – actual possession counted for almost everything). “Presently the patentees began to make ditches about the common and inclosed it and drave out and killed sundry of the cattell of the inhabitants.”

The fences were put up over the winter, a crucial time for common rights, as residents were used to free access to collect firewood or gorse to burn, their only means of heating their homes. Abraham Colfe got busy fund-raising for an appeal. He and others collected money among local freeholders to take the case to the privy council. More than £100 is recorded as being collected. Further sums included £70 from ‘the Mayor and Commonality of London’… an interesting indication that the opposition had some friends in power in the City of London. Another march to petition the king was mounted on 19th December.

Local residents around the common, meanwhile, were not simply willing to accept the loss of rights of fuel gathering, and many continued to enter the common to collect wood. Lanier and Newport’s hired men then attacked some women gathering wood, which provoked a riot.

As with many enclosure struggles, there were different wings to the opposition. Vicar and the local worthies trying to establish an appeal against Newport were keen to see any action confined to court hearings, petitions, and dignified protest at the outside. Others, whose livelihoods or winter warmth depended on their continued ability to use the common, were prepared to use stronger methods – they had little choice.  Some began tearing down the fences and filling in drainage ditches Newport had ordered to be dug. Every time the enclosers men’ put fences up again, crowds gathered to break them down. In response Lanier and Newport’s men drove off more cattle and burned furze (gorsebushes) which were used as fuel by the inhabitants.

Several petitions were entered in 1615 regarding these troubles… including one on 31st March from the inhabitants of Lewisham, concerning a riot that had taken place on 2nd March.

Papers of Colfe from this time include a note on the activities of Henry Benden, a servant of Mr. Lanier, who continued to drive off the cattle of the inhabitants and obstructed the cutting of furze for fuel:  “Henry Benden and other of the patentees’ servants still drove of the cattell and spoiled some of them to death and would not let the poore have furzes. Hereupon the 22nd day being Ash Wednesday, Henry Benden being at church, after service I gave him advise, and wished him not to molest the poore in such sort by driving and hurting their cattell and hindering them of furzes: for if he should be sent for by a pursevant and committed for his contempt I thought his master (namely Mr. Lanier) would not beare him out in it.”

Colfe also noted descriptions of an attack by “one Southwell alias Thomas Foxe on Charles Parker of Lewisham on 20 April, an attack by Anthony Witherings on Thomas Coomes and Henry Hunt of Lewisham while they waited to present their suit to the Privy Council at the Royal Court at the Royal Court at Greenwich, a description of an attack by Henry Benden, Mr. Henry Newport’s son and a brother of Mr. Robert Raynes on Thomas Muscrop of Beknam (Beckenham) and Edward Caustin after they had broken through the new hedges into Westwood, in search of sheep”. Colfe noted the numbers of sheep lost on a small slip of paper.

Colfe drafted several petitions: to the Earl of Salisbury (as high Steward of Lewisham), the Earl of Somerset, (the Lord High Chamberlain), and this one, to the Archbishop of Canterbury:
“To ye right reverend father in God the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury his Grace Primate and Metropolitan of all England and one of his Majesties most Hon. Privy Councell. The humble petition of his Majesties poor tenants ye inhabitants of Lewsham in Kent neare Greenwich:

Most humbly shew to your grace many hundreds of ye poore distressed inhabitants of Lewsham that whereas we have time out of mind quietly enjoyed a wast peece of ground of 500 acres called ye Comon of Westwood (as we can shew by auncient deeds since ye 5th or 9th yeare of King Henry ye 5th being 196 years past, by an Act of Parliament reserving ye commons of ye manor of Lewsham to ye inhabitants, by ye King’s owne records calling it Westwood lying open and common, and by witnesses for 80 yeares as long as man can remember) yet Robert Raynes, Innocent Lanier and Henry Newport three of his majesties servants obtained a grant and a lease for 60 yeares from his Majesty of ye said common upon a rent of 40 markes by ye yeare and ye last terme impleaded your poor suppliants in ye Court of Exchequer and gott a verditt and judgment and are now closing ye said common to ye utter undoing of above 500 poore people. And whereas they had possessed diverse of ye nobles and by them hade meanes to informe his majesty that only 2 or 3 had ye chief benefitt of ye common and not ye poore, we were inforced to goe above an 100 of us ye 19 of December with petition to ye King’s Majestie for his mercifull favore, who most graciously promised we should have justice and in ye end referred ye consideracon of our petition to ye Lords of his Privy Councell. We most humbly desire your grace when our petition shall come to be heard before you that your grace will afford us your gracious favour for our quiet enjoying of ye said common, it being as we do solemnly protest a chief stay and maintenance for pasture of cattail, furses and bushes for fyering to above 500 poore people, and we shall pray to God for your grace’s health, long life and eternall happiness…”

The Privy Council referred the matter to the Lord Chief Baron and Sir Edward Bromley, one of the Barons of the Court of Exchequer, to try to mediate between the parishioners and Newport and his friends. But the patentees demanded £1000 in compensation in the event of not being allowed to proceed with their enclosures, which the parishioners would not agree to. Seeing that there was no chance of agreement, in April 1615 the Privy Council ordered that there should be a new trial, with John Eaton, gentleman, of Lewisham, listed as defendant to represent the inhabitants. At the same time the Privy Council ordered that the patentees (Newport & Co.) being in possession should continue to hold the ground meanwhile, that the gates and ditches destroyed by the inhabitants should be repaired by them; on the other hand the enclosers were banned from burning or selling any of the furze growing in or upon the common nor “disturbe or interrupt the said inhabitants of the manor of Lewsham nor any other his Majesties liege people to the use of all such wayes as have hearetofore byn used in, through or by or over the said parcell of ground called Westwood” until the trial and further order taken.’”

The Justices of the Peace for the area were instructed to punish any offenders, pending a ruling.

Though this may have been intended to prevent violence by either side, by June the Lewisham residents found that no action was being taken by the J.P.s against the enclosers, despite locals’ cattle being found slaughtered in Westwood and the skins of dead sheep being hung provocatively from bushes to deter resistance. The Justices, being local landowners, may have had interests in the enclosure themselves, or been unwilling to offend rich or powerful neighbours with connections to the court. Meanwhile vicar Abraham Colfe was subject to attacks on his personality, portrayed as an instigator of rebellion against the king: a petition from Newport’s group complained that
“Whereas on October 20th 1614 Mr. Abraham Colfe Vicar of Lewisham led through the City of London one hundred of his parishioners to Tottenham High Crosse and there petitioned his Majesty against the privileges granted to our clients in the common of Westwood and made many and slanderous accusations against them thereby filling the ear of his most sacred Majesty with injurious regard of our clients. And whereas our clients are desirous to maintain the good esteem of their most dread sovereign and the peaceable occupation of the lands that have been granted them and which they have at much cost fenced etc. they desire to be confirmed in their possession.”

Colfe’s petition to the Archbishop of Canterbury (quoted earlier) responded to this denunciation:
“Further in particular your humble suppliant Abraham Colf, minister of Lewsham, sheweth to your grace that whereas Robt Raynes, Innocent Laniere and Henry Newport in a late petition to his Majesty have abused your said suppliant Abraham Colf, saying that he out of his seditious spirit stirred up ye people tumultuously to clamour ye King’s Majestie, without any just ground or colour; and further Innocent Lanier hath used sundry other defamations and slanderous speaches ; also that he {i.e., Colfe) hath publickely spoken against ye proceedings of his Majestie’s Court here as though he had called publike meetings in the church to make ye people curse them. That it would please your grace to relieve your said suppliant against ye impudent slanders, and he shalbe bound ever to pray, as he doth every day upon his knees to Almighty God for your grace’s safety and favour with God and men.”

The parishioners of Lewisham also signed the following petition:
“We ye inhabitants of ye parish of Lewsham in Kent whose names are under written hearing of the sundry defamations and uncharitable speaches given out in a petition to ye King’s Majesty against Abraham Colfe vicar of our parish and being desired by him to testify our knowledg of his behaviour among us doe solemnly protest before God and witnes that for a truth unto all those whom it may concerne, that the said Abraham Colfe having lived as a curate and vicar these 10 yeares among us hath not to our knowledg demeaned himself otherwise then becometh the minister of God’s word; for he hath bene very painfull in his calling, duly preaching once (and for ye great part of the summer twice every Sabath among vs) liberall to ye poore, given to hospitality and other good workes, in his life peaceable, not having had any one suit or controversy in law all this time against any of us; no way savouring of a factious or sedicious spirit neither in publick or private speaches or actions; but continually dehorting us during ye time of our distressed suit about our common both from reviling them in speaches that have sought to get away ye meanes of our living and from perfourming any outward act that might be either offensive to his Majestie or prejudiciall to ye lawes of ye realme. In witnes wherof we have willing- and freely subscribed our names…”

The enclosers apparently labelled the protesters rich individuals who would not themselves suffer from the enclosure. Which may have been partly true, in that not all opponents of enclosure were necessarily immediately affected, but was certainly not completely accurate, as the poorer residents taking direct action most certainly were impacted. But they didn’t count as anyone to be worried about…

In July another court hearing was held, but could not resolve the matter. The group who had leased the common may have been willing to give up the enclosure (possibly the resistance had got to them somewhat by this time), but demanded excessive compensation for giving up their holding.

By October 1615, however, the Privy Council had had enough. Clearly the trouble the enclosure had caused was too big a price to pay – social peace had to be restored. They appointed an independent jury, chosen out of Kent, amongst whom it was noted that there was no one belonging to the immediately neighbouring parishes to Lewisham, and a hearing was held on 16th October, again before the Barons of the Exchequer. This time the jury agreed that Westwood was an ancient common with all the attendant customal rights. As Colfe wrote with relief “they passed [a verdict] in the behalfe of the poore inhabitants’ although common rights extended to many more. Mr. Colfe:  “The Lord’s holy name for ever for his great tender mercies be blessed a verdict passed in the behalf of the poore inhabitants and on the 18th November following judgment was also granted and a copy both of the order and of that judgment taken out under the seale of the Exchequier Chamber which is kept by us.”

Part of the reason why the local vicar and some other landowners in Lewisham opposed the enclosure may have been the prospect of the destitute squatters evicted from the Common becoming a burden on the ratepayers of the parish, if they were deprived of their tenuous livings (this is an issue that is quoted in other enclosure disputes). Though a genuine feeling that people across classes should be able to enjoy the economic benefit available to Westwood was also shared by both the very poor and many of their ‘betters’. Many well-off local residents had economic interests in common land themselves, that they resented larger landlords attempting to trample on. Many of those with written or customary ‘common rights’ might themselves be well-to-do landowners or tradesmen.

There were many social tensions at work in the Sydenham events, as with almost all struggles around enclosure. It wasn’t a simple case of class against class. Some existing landowners and rising men with money and power saw the wealth enclosure could bring them; others of the same background felt either social obligations to the less well off, genuinely buying ideologically into their role as protectors of the poor, as part of a paternalist, vertically interdependent society opposed to the ruthless destruction of complex social ties and responsibilities.

Others thought that the upheavals enclosure brought could threaten stability, and maybe lead to rebellion. And not only were authorities afraid of the violent response that enclosures could provoke, but the enclosure process was at this time often opposed by a section of the establishment. In the early seventeenth century, the king and certain sections of the nobility often sought allies among the rural population, for its economic power struggles against the rising merchant & improving classes. Pressure could sometimes be put on the authorities, to stop or reverse enclosures.

Not for the last time in anti-enclosure struggles, a tension existed between the more legalistic approach of Abraham Colfe and the parish worthies, and the violent resistance of the local poor, whose livelihoods were directly threatened. In fact though both strands contributed to the defeat of the enclosure, for this time at least. It’s doubtful that a dual strategy was in any way agreed, but in practice the violence and the petitions showed the Privy Council the potential for disorder but with a moderate party to make a deal with, rather than be shown giving in to the resistance of the poor. But probably the victory might not have been won without both.

Enclosures were a very politically sensitive question at this time. The early seventeenth century brought mass open warfare against enclosing landowners: most famously in the midlands in 1607, where thousands of the landless poor fought the militia, destroying fences, and breaking open enclosures. Interestingly this was where the names of Levellers & Diggers were seemingly first adopted or used to describe these poor rebels. Later these names would assume political significance in the aftermath of the English Civil War. The revolt would have been fresh on the minds of the Privy Council when hearing cases over Sydenham, and they would have borne in mind that King James had given special orders to the Commission appointed to enquire into the cause of the 1607 riots, that care was to be taken that the poor received no injury by the encroachment of their richer neighbours.

…………………………………………………………

 

The extent of Sydenham Common shown on a modern map

 

The victory of Colfe and the parishioners of Lewisham seems to have prevented large-scale enclosure in Sydenham for a century and a half, until the 1750s, when trouble broke out over Coopers Wood, once accounted the southern corner of the common, which lay just south of modern Westwood Hill, between the railway line and Lawrie Park Avenue.

Cooper’s Wood had first been detached from the common & begun to be “illegally” enclosed around 1540, though the loss of common rights here was apparently disputed locally for 200 years. Gradually houses built on the edge of the wood acquired large front gardens, and more houses were built, encroaching onto the wood. But many locals had never accepted the shutting off of the wood. In 1754 “persons claiming right of common” several times threw down fences surrounding the Wood and asserted rights of access and gathered wood for fuel. One target of these agitators was George Thornton, landlord of the Greyhound Inn in Sydenham, a tenant of the western part of Coopers Wood; his fences were “thrown down and prostrated”.  (The Greyhound Inn is still there, at the junction of  Kirkdale and Westwood Hill).

A year later, in 1755, there was a legal case in the Exchequer Court involving the denial of common rights to collect wood in Colson’s Wood or Colson’s Coppice, the area to the north of the old Common. This is now an area bounded by Ewelme Rd, Horniman Gardens, Devonshire Road, and Dunoon rd. One John Anderson sued the owner Thomas Hodsdon, who had prevented him from exercising his common rights in the Coppice. The Hodsdon family had bought up many acres of Sydenham land since 1713 – they were wealthy wine merchants, with an eye on possible future development. Hodsdon’s cousin had leased 17 acres of land adjoining Coleson’s Coppice to a brickmaker, clearly intending to begin a house building program in the area. John Anderson was no poor cottager, though; he was a well-to-do merchant living in Sydenham Road, seemingly acting as the representative of a group of residents in a test case. Nothing seems to have come of the claim, though, as Colson’s Coppice continued to be sold as freehold land:  it had been detached from the Common for too long to be considered common land.

Forty years later a last ditch stand against enclosures on Sydenham Common took place in Colson’s Wood. Samuel Atkinson, a Tooley Street cheese merchant, (who is called by some the ‘Father of Forest Hill’) bought the estate, & between 1787 and 1789 created the present Honor Oak Road, a new route from Sydenham to Peckham Rye, (where there had only been a track before) as a first step to opening up the wood for building. In 1789 he had constructed a house for himself, and was selling plots on the new road for development.

Those who still maintained that the wood was common land didn’t take this lying down; but resistance to the enclosure of the Wood was to end violently. In October 1792, the Times reported the death of Michael Bradley, who had a cottage at the Bell Green end of Sydenham Road. He and others had set out to assert a right of way:

“It appears that this Bradley and others belonging to Sydenham Parish, went a few days since on a piece of land called Colson’s Wood, to ascertain their rights of commonage, which have been held upwards of 200 years. Mr Atkinson met the deceased and his associates, and asked them their business; they replied, there was a footway across, which right their fore-fathers had enjoyed and so would they. Atkinson said they should go no further – and the first man who did, he would shoot.”

Michael Bradley stepped forward and Atkinson then shot him; Bradley died a few days later.

“The Wednesday following, Atkinson purchased the right of this wood and pasturage, consisting of 52 acres, out of Chancery for £350 – and has since enclosed it. The Coroner’s Inquest sat on the body of Bradley on Friday and Saturday, the 19th and 20th of October, at Sydenham, and brought in their verdict, Manslaughter, against one Atkinson… The man was shot in the leg by a pistol, which fractured the bone, and a mortification ensued. The deceased has left a family and four children…”

Despite this verdict in the coroner’s court, Atkinson doesn’t seem to have been charged or convicted in connection with Bradley’s death. He continued to own the estate and develop it, though he may have become unpopular locally, and decided it wasn’t a good idea to remain living in the parish, since he let his house to tenants in 1793.

Although the case caused uproar, it seems to have marked almost the end of the two century-long year struggle for common rights here: the whole of what remained of Sydenham Common was enclosed finally by an Act in 1810, during the most intense period for enclosure of open space in Britain. By this time the economic importance of the common for subsistence had declined considerably, as London expanded into the surrounding rural areas, and suburban villas were replacing agriculture. The descendants of the marginalised cottagers who once had made a bare living off the common had flocked into London to try to make a living there.

Landowners in the parish were allocated all the remaining common land, with the power to enclose it. Even after two hundred years of building and clearance, there were still five hundred acres to be developed. The main beneficiary was William Legge, the Earl of Dartmouth, the largest landowner in Lewisham. (The family had been Lords of the Manor of Lewisham since the seventeenth century: Dartmouth Road and the Dartmouth Arms in Forest Hill are named after their title.)

The only remaining part of the old common which still remains a green space is Sydenham Wells Park, which had become a popular spa of sorts in the 18th century. Interestingly, this spa subsequently became disreputable and infamous. Large numbers of people came to drink the spring’s waters (apparently foul tasting but good for you!). Later the emphasis on the healthy aspects of the Wells declined, giving way to binge drinking: it became popular to mix the ‘waters’ with other liquids (brandy, mostly); rowdy behaviour was rife. There were complaints about the “rabble of Londoners” flocking here. The Wells were eventually closed down in the late 19th century.

One reason Sydenham Common was apparently targeted for enclosure was its annual popular fair, which was resented by the gentry & posher residents for the ‘lowlife’ it attracted. This is a regular theme with proposals to enclose in the 18th-19th centuries, not only for profit but control of open spaces, which often could be used for unruly gatherings of the poor, not only fairs and makeshift dwellings, but later for political rallies and demonstrations. In 1766 the Sydenham fair was moved to Kent House Fields. It was later suppressed in 1836, as were most of the old popular local fairs in the early nineteenth century.

However this wasn’t entirely the end of resistance to privatisation of space in the area. In 1867, wealthy silk warehouse owner Richard Beall tried to block off the upper end of Taylor’s Lane, off Sydenham Hill, to increase the privacy of his posh home, Longton Hall. This enraged locals who used this path, however, and channeling the spirit of Michael Bradley and the rioters who helped see off Henry Newport, unruly elements smashed the walls & fences he had built. At one point 100s turned up with axes & hammers… After several attempts & continued demolitions, Beall gave up, eventually going insane. Taylor’s Lane was permanently re-opened.

Nearby One Tree Hill also became the arena for an anti-enclosure battle in 1897… (During this struggle investigations turned up the fact that One Tree Hill had never in fact been a part of Sydenham Common, which initially kyboshed any claim for common rights – though the fight was eventually won anyway…)

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Read other past tense posts about enclosures

Today in London radical history, 1549: Londoners demolish rich folk’s gardens in ‘suburban common fields’

“Before this time the inhabitants of the towns about London, ‘Iseldon’, Hoxton, Shoresditch, and others, had so inclosed the common fields with hedges and ditches, that neither the young men of the city might shoot, nor the antient persons walke for their pleasures in those fields…This saying so grieved the Londoners, that suddainly this yeere a great number of the City assembled themselves in a morning: and a turner, in a foole’s coate, came crying thorough the City, ‘shovels and spades shovels and spades’. So many of the people followed, that it was a wonder to behold; and within a short space all the hedges about the City were cast down, and the ditches filled up…”

On 4th August 1549, some boisterous Londoners went out en masse to gardens built by rich folk on the ‘suburban common fields’ outside the walls of the City, to the north. This was probably on Moorfields or Finsbury Fields, open spaces with a tradition of such demolitions, in the context of a longer history of disorder and immorality. Below we will recount some of the activity around ‘encroachments’ on the Fields, often linked to the mass practice of archery, (together with some of the fields’ wider unruly history).

Straddling what is now the southernmost tip of the Borough of Islington and the north edge of the City, Moorfields was an open stretch of ground, which held a legendary place in the lives of medieval Londoners. Just outside the City’s walls, and hard to control for its authorities, for centuries the fields were a traditional place of bawdy recreation, outdoor sex and banned games, as well as a meeting ground for rebel or radical crowds. The disorderly and rebellious spirit of the fields spread to the streets which were gradually built around it, which became known for political and religious dissent, muckraking journalism and DIY publishing.

“This Fen or Moor Field,” says Stow, “stretching from the wall of the City betwixt Bishopsgate and the postern called Cripplesgate, to Finsbury, and to Holywell, continued a waste and unprofitable ground a long time, so that the same was all letten for four marks the year in the reign of Edward II; but in the year 1415, the 3rd of Henry V., Thomas Falconer, Mayor, caused the wall of the City to be broken toward the said moor, and built the postern called Moorgate, for the ease of the citizens to walk that way upon causeys towards Iseldon and Hoxton.”  ‘Iseldon’ is Islington.

Fitzstephen the monk, who wrote an account of London in the reign of Henry II, describes Moorfields as the general place of amusement for London youth. Especially, he says, was the Fen frequented for sliding in winter-time, when it was frozen. According to his account, locals whizzed across the ponds on a kind of primitive cross between ice skates or skis: “Others there are, still more expert in these amusements; they place certain bones-the leg-bones of animals-under the soles of their feet, by tying them round their ankles, and then taking a pole shod with iron into their hands, they push themselves forward by striking it against the ice, and are carried on with a velocity equal to the flight of a bird, or a bolt discharged from a cross-bow.” The piece of water on which the citizens of London performed their pastimes is spoken of by Fitzstephen as “the great Fen or Moor which watereth the walls of the City on the north side.” (possibly a pool on the now long lost river Walbrook).

Moorfields became especially popular for gatherings during holidays, particularly among the London apprentices. Young, footloose, often unpaid and socially oppressed and badly treated at work, apprentices usually played a central role in disorder, riots, and street politics throughout the middle ages and up to the eighteenth century. Moorfields and open spaces were especially popular on holidays, May Day, Shrove Tuesday, saints’ days etc – all occasions well-known for rowdy entertainment and outbreaks of political violence – leading to such regular trouble every year that in 1578, for instance, assemblies were banned on the traditional apprentice holiday of Shrove Tuesday.

It has been suggested that the Moorfields could have been where the city’s youth played the earliest football games, first recorded around 1170-83. Football was a great passion of the young, again especially apprentices; correspondingly it grew to be a headache for the authorities, as it often led to trouble: obstruction, damage, fights and sometimes riots. In medieval times it was no enclosed spectator sport, but often played through the streets, or in open spaces; hundreds sometimes took part – not so much silky skills as violence and disorder.

In 1314, there was “great uproar in the city… through certain tumults arising from great footballs in the fields of the public”. This led to a law making the game illegal; a ban repeated in 1331, 1365, 1388, 1410, 1414, 1477 and so on (in fact it was only really legalised in the 19th century.) In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, crowds would use football matches as a cover to gather for riots against landlords enclosing common land. In 1615 there were ‘great disorders & tumults’ in the city over a mass football game…

Part of the reason for the banning of football, apart from the trouble it caused, was that it was blamed for taking young men away from what were seen as more important pursuits – primarily archery. In the middle ages archery training was compulsory for men of fighting age; since there was no standing army, in times of war, citizen archers were vital for England’s war effort. Moorfields was one of the spaces where archery was practiced, for several centuries.

Another was Finsbury Fields, the medieval name for the open lands between what are now Old Street and Angel, stretching as far north as the modern St Paul’s Road/Balls Pond Road. The 1578 ban on London apprentices gathering on Moorfields on Shrove Tuesday was implemented here as well.

Like most open spaces, Finsbury Fields was also a place of illicit sex, clandestine meetings, prostitution and general immorality.

As Finsbury Fields was gradually built over, one of its fringes, later known as Islington Common, remained open, around what’s now Arlington Square, (west of New North Road, north of the canal). The Common was preserved from enclosure for years due to its use for archery practice since medieval times. But Finsbury Fields’ reputation as a place of dubious sports and outdoor sex was also preserved here.

Shovels and Spades, Shovels and Spades

Moorfields had already seen conflict as early as 1141-3, when ‘walls and curtileges’ erected on Moorfields outside the City wall were destroyed by Londoners apparently annoyed at the obstruction to their enjoyment of the space.

Both Finsbury Fields and Moorfields lay between the City and the outlying villages to the north, and they became the scene of conflict between the two. Partly this arose from the City-dwellers’ need for space for recreation and archery, and the villagers need for farming land, but this was also complicated by the actions of richer inhabitants of both the villages, and the City itself, who would often attempt to privatise some of this land for their own exclusive use.

Around 1513-1514, the conflicting demands on Moorfields and Finsbury Fields led to riotous scenes.

“… concerning the inclosures of common grounds about this cittie, whereof I mind not much to argue, Edwarde Hall setteth downe a note of his time, to wit in the fift or sixte of Henry the eight: before this time sayth hee, the inhabitantes of the Townes aboute London, as Iseldone, Hoxton, Shorsditch and others, had so inclosed the common fieldes with hedges, and ditches, that neyther the yong men of the City might shoote, nor the auncient persons walke for theyr pleasures in those fieldes, but that either their bowes and arrowes were taken away or broken, or the honest persons arrested or indighted: saying, that no Londoner ought to goe out of the City, but in the high Waies.” (Chronicle of the Greyfriars)

This suggests that either wealthier village dwellers, or even the authorities in those parts, attempted to exclude Londoners from the Fields by force, (whether with some form of sanction of law or not). In any case, this did not go unchallenged:

“This saying so grieved the Londoners, that suddainlie this yeare a great number of the Citie assembled themselves in a morning, and a Turner in a fooles coate came crying through the Citty, ‘shovelles and spades, shovelles and spades’: so many of the people followed that it was a wonder to behold, and within a short space all the hedges about the City were cast down, and the diches filled vp, and every thing made plaine, such was the diligence of these workmen: the kinges councell hearing of this assembly came to the gray Fryers, & sent for the Mayor and councell of the city to know the cause, which declared to them the injurie and annoying done to the citizens, and to their liberties, which though they wold not seeke disorderly to redresse, yet the comminalty & yong persons could not be stayed thus to remedy the same. When the kings councell had heard their answere, they dissimuled the matter & commanded the Mayor to see that no other thing were attempted, but that they should forthwith call home the younger sort: who having speedily achieved their desire, returned home before the Kings Councell, and the Mayor departed without more harme: after which time (sayeth Hall) these fieldes were never hedged…”

It seems from this account that preserving space for archery was partly a cover – the approved, even enforced sport; but other motivations existed, to keep the land free for more pleasurable purposes for all.

The process of encroachment onto the Fields outside the City was obviously ongoing, however, as the chronicler continues:

“but now wee see the thing in worse case than ever, by meanes of inclosure for Gardens, wherein are builded many fayre summer houses, and as in other places of the Suburbes, some of them like Midsommer Pageantes, with Towers, Turrets, and Chimney tops, not so much for vse or profite, as for shewe and pleasure, bewraying the vanity of mens mindes, much unlike to the disposition of the ancient Citizens, who delighted in the building of Hospitals, and Almes houses for the poore, and therein both imployed their wits, and spent their wealthes in preferment of the common commoditie of this our Citie.”

Resistance against the mini-enclosures also continued though, as in 1549, as the Chronicle of the Grey Friars records, on “The fourth day of August, of wych was Sonday, much people met and set to work from Newgate all along by the City walls to pull down the gardens that was made along by the walls of the City with houses, and so all along unto [Bishopsgate].”

It may be significant that this took place when it did – 1548-9 saw mass revolt against enclosures across eastern and southern England, (most notably Kett’s Rebellion),  but also nearer to London, at Northaw Common, Ruislip, and Enfield – which may have inspired this action in August…

For want of roome to shoote abroad

The importance of archery, and the laws enforcing its practice, were a formative part of this anti-enclosure riot; ironically archery was even at this time beginning its decline, as more modern weaponry was replacing it. By 1570, the City trades that depended on archery (the Bowyers, Fletchers, Stringers and Arrowhead-makers) were suffering as a result, petitioning the Queen and the Lord Treasurer, complaining of the poverty many of their number were falling into. As with many groups facing obsolescence, they confused causes and symptoms, technological and economic change and morality; archery was declining, they maintained, because of the official toleration of unlawful games, the loss of traditional spaces where it was practised, as well as individual neglect. Stow in his Survey of London, concurs: archery had become “almost cleane left off and forsaken; for by means of the closing in of common grounds, our archers, for want of roome to shoote abroad, creepe into bowling alleys, and ordinary dicing houses, neerer home, where they have roome enough to hazzard their money at unlawful games.”

Enclosures historically are often seen in simple terms, with the rich as enclosers and the poor as victims and losers out. While this is broadly true, things were not always so clear-cut. Many landowners profited by fencing off land and preventing others from using it; often the local poor might be banned from collecting wood or other fuel for burning, or residents might be stopped from grazing their animals in woods or common fields. These and other practices had gathered tradition and ritual around them, as well as strong emotional and political overtones, and were widely seen as ‘rights’ or customs that people were entitled to. In reality, these rights were almost always at the discretion of the lord of the manor. But, especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there was also a current among the rich and land owning classes that opposed enclosure; sometimes because they genuinely charitably believed in allowing poorer folk to subsist, sometimes because they themselves put some store by tradition, the traditional order and long-established social relations. But also out of pure self-interest, as with Finsbury Fields and Moorfields, because of the military needs of the state, or because some feared that making life harder for the lower classes would provoke disorder, disruption of the status quo, for instance by forcing people into moving around, uprooting, pushing them into begging and crime… In the last years of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, the powers that be were much exercised by the increasing numbers of homeless, displaced persons, forced into travelling by enclosure, and by the destruction of the traditional welfare system (the confiscation and abolition of most of the abbeys and monasteries dating from the 1530s.)

This conflict within the upper classes, about the wisdom of enclosures, can in fact be observed for centuries, though it was the enclosing ‘faction’ that kept the upper hand for much of that time.

In the case of ‘the suburban common fields’, however, the well-to-do enclosers incurred the enmity of the highest authorities.

Both king James I and his son Charles I issued edicts preventing any enclosure of the Fields, which would “interrupt the necessary and profitable exercise of shooting.” James’ instruction to the Lord Mayor of London and the Lord Chancellor (among others) echo the petitions of the distressed archery trades; “divers persons about the City, possessing lands, &c, had taken away from the archers the exercise of shooting in such fields and closes, as time out of mind, had been allowed to be shot in, by making banks, hedges, and plucking up the old marks, and making ditches so broad, without bridges &c.;” he ordered that the land two miles around the City be surveyed and any land traditionally used for archery be restored to its former state. Ironically while the Stuart kings may have opposed enclosures here (and elsewhere), they were notable enclosers themselves elsewhere, for instance Charles seized a huge tract of land from several parishes and forced many smaller landowners to sell to him, for the enclosing of Richmond Park in Surrey.

Actions against enclosure, at least when carried out by archers, and targeted against particular obstructions on their old rights, seem then to have had some official sanction, and continued for two and a half centuries after the riot of 1513/14. The Artillers Company of London, representing the archers of the City, were accustomed to marching round the Fields, demolishing anything that they claimed prevented them from practicing their craft (similar to the old parish custom of Beating the Bounds). So as late as 1782 it was reported that “they found the gate of a large field, in which stood one of their stone marks, near Ball’s Pond” both locked and chained, and four men placed to prevent their entrance. The adjutant ordered it to be forced; after which they marched across and opened another gate.” Three years later “the Company marched to Finsbury Fields to view their stone marks [targets]… they removed several obstructions.” And in 1786, “considerable encroachments having been made upon the antient marks belonging to the Company, the Court ordered notice to be given to all occupiers of lands in Baumes and Finsbury Fields, between Peerless Pool South, Baumes-Pond North, Hoxton East, and Islington West, wherein any of their marks were placed, to remove any obstruction to the Company’s rights.”

[The Peerless Pool mentioned above was a pond lying immediately behind St Luke’s Hospital, off old Street, to the east of the parish church. Originally nicknamed the ‘Perilous Pond’, after several bathers were drowned there, it was later transformed into a swimming bath in 1743. Local jeweller William Kemp had it enlarged to a length of sixty yards by thirty. The pool became a popular resort, especially in summer evenings, until it was built over around 1860.]

In August 1786, Company archers pulled down several parts of a fence erected by one Samuel Pitt for gardens and summer-houses, and were only prevented from knocking down a wall built by Messrs Walker, Ward and Co (owners of the local lead mill) after one of the leadmill partners assuring them their needs would be accommodated. As with Beating the Bounds, the ritual nature of their march is seen in this latter dispute: “One of the archers’ division was then ordered to shoot an arrow over the said enclosure, as an assertion of the Company’s right…” The military importance of archery had long since become been outmoded, and it remained solely as a recreational pastime, but the traditions were fully maintained.

Of course, the Company’s actions may well have also benefited other ordinary users of the open fields, and no doubt the archers took a mischievous pride in imposing their will on richer residents of a nominally higher class in this way, which in most walks of life would not have been permitted. This kind of licensed disorder, allowed within certain limits and for certain ends only, contains some echoes of the social control functions of medieval carnivals and festivals, where a short, temporary, relaxation of tight disciplines and hierarchies helped to keep a lid on social tensions and class antagonisms for the rest of the year.

Again in 1791, when digging for gravel destroyed several archery butts on Islington Common, “A detachment marched to the spot pursuant to a previous notice to the occupiers and commissioners of the roads to remove any obstruction, and to replace the marks. These objects were obtained.”

It’s also possible that young men joined the Artillers Company either because it gave them some small power in life – or, speculating here – given that the Company may have been invested with a certain traditional role as guardians of the common fields by City dwellers, that some men joined it with an eye to keeping a watch on the ‘encroachments’ by the well-to-do. Elsewhere, certain families, social groups, workers in particular trades, residents of notable streets or villages, came to see themselves and be seen as traditional guardians of the ‘common rights’ on local commons or woods – perhaps the riot of 1514 played a part in the Artillers Company adopting that role for Moorfields and Finsbury Fields. Another factor might be the reputation that some of the City suburbs adjoining the Fields – Shoreditch, Bishopsgate and Spitalfields – had for disorder and disrepute themselves – many of their residents were generally up for a bit of agro…

It is however interesting that, although the open spaces around the village of Islington and between it and the City later became places of disorder, gathering spots for rowdy, often radical crowds, that Finsbury Fields and Moorfields are the only ones where any form of struggle seems to have taken place around enclosure – though possibly this simply means they were the only ones where a memory has survived.

Moorfields’ central role as a meeting point and recreation ground led to its’ being one of main the gathering places for crowds of rebellious apprentices. Public holidays were a popular time for crowds to gather, and when they got together, social or economic grievances often sparked demonstrations and riots. Mayday and Shrove Tuesday were two of the main traditional holidays, especially know for outbreaks of disorder. For instance, during the Shrove Tuesday riots of 1617, when crowds of apprentices met on Moorfields, as well as in Wapping, and marched off to attack prisoners and free their inmates, pull down brothels, and fight with the sheriffs and militia.

This kind of upsurge of rebelliousness stepped up a gear in the English Civil War years.

For instance, on Whit Sunday (4 May) 1639, Katherine Hadley distributed pamphlets to holidaying apprentices, appealing for them to support a campaign demanding the release of the imprisoned puritan activist, and future Leveller leader, John Lilburne (who was also then an apprentice)… the apprentices held a mass meeting, then headed off to riot at Lambeth Palace. Katharine was arrested & sent to the Bridewell (the workhouse-cum-prison by the river at Blackfriars).

Open fields were also used for clandestine meetings. During the almost schizophrenic religious turmoil of the mid-Tudor era, when protestant and catholic regimes succeeded each other in rapid succession, several hundred of each were executed for adhering to the wrong beliefs (depending on who was in power), as well as various smaller sects like Anabaptists being persecuted by both. Many were burned alive at Smithfield, as recounted below. In April 1558, forty men and women were seized at a nighttime protestant meeting in an Islington field. Half of them were sent to Newgate Prison; thirteen refused to attend catholic mass, and seven of these were burned at Smithfield in June. Despite a proclamation read by the Sheriff of London, threatening arrest and punishment for anyone showing support, a large and sympathetic crowd assembled, shouting and protesting at the executions.

It’s very likely that the earlier reforming dissenters, the Lollards, who flourished in the fifteenth century, would also have met in Islington’s open countryside. We know they had many sympathisers in the area, for example around Smithfield, and that Sir John Oldcastle, the Lollard insurrectionary leader, was a Clerkenwell landowner, who hid out in what’s now Farringdon Road are, while on the run around 1413-14. As Lollardy became increasingly persecuted, secret congregations gathering away from urban areas to avoid arrest became their preferred, even the only safe, method of meeting.

A Walk for thieves and lovers

The barren region of Moorfields and Finsbury was first drained (no doubt to the great indignation of the London apprentices) in 1527, laid out in pleasant walks in the reign of James I., and first built on after the Great Fire, when all the City was turned topsy-turvy. Moorfields before this was described as “a place for cudgel-players and train-band musters, for its madhouse (one of the lions of London), and for its wrestlers, pedestrians, bookstall-keepers, and ballad-sellers”, featuring “raised paths and refuse-heaps”, deep black smelly ditches and open sewers; “a walk for thieves and lovers, suicides and philosophers, and as Howes (1631) says, ‘held impossible to be reformed.’ ”

Moorfields was also a traditional location for pre-arranged or spontaneous rumbles between groups of London workers (rivalries often derived from the old medieval guild jealousies). For example, in 1664, mobs of the butchers and weavers fought there: “26th July, 1664. Great discourse yesterday of the fray in Moorfields; how the butchers at first did beat the weavers, between whom there hath been ever an old competition for mastery, but at last the weavers rallied, and beat them. At first the butchers knocked down all for weavers that had green or blue aprons, till they were fain to pull them off and put them in their breeches. At last the butchers were fain to pull off their sleeves, that they might not be known, and were soundly beaten out of the field, and some deeply wounded and bruised; till at last the weavers went out triumphing, calling, ‘£100 for a butcher!’”

The cheap bookstalls of Moorfields were famous; Gray refers in a letter to Warton to “a penny history that hangs upon the rails in Moorfields;” while Tom Brown (1709, Queen Anne), to illustrate the insolence and forgetfulness of prosperity, describes how “a well-grown Paul’s Churchyard bookseller, [despises] one of the trade that sells second-hand books under the trees in Moorfields.”

Parks and open fields were also popular for outdoor sex; more so for gay men than with female prostitutes (because they had to be more discreet, given that ‘sodomy’ could well be a hanging offence). Moorfields was well known by the eighteenth century as a gay cruising ground, or ‘molly market’. The path that ran across the middle of these fields was known as the Sodomites’ Walk. This was used so regularly by gay men, that it’s obvious that their main aim was to make contact with one another, rather than simply to pick up passing straight errand boys. The basic technique was to stand up against the wall alongside the path and pretend to be taking a piss, and to wait until someone struck up a conversation about the weather. For example, a man named William Brown was entrapped along the Sodomites’ Walk in 1726, by a hustler who worked for the police in order to get immunity from prosecution as a sodomite. The constable told the judge that when he asked Brown why he had taken such indecent liberties, Brown “was not ashamed to answer, I did it because I thought I knew him, and I think there is no crime in making what use I please of my own body.”

This very modern-sounding defence was apparently not uncommon… Rictor Norton identifies is as arising from the “Enlightenment philosophy that sexual pleasure was a personal area that the law had no business meddling with.” There was even a serious public debate in the newspapers in 1772, when a number of respectable people argued that sexual relations between men should be legalized as long as they take place between consenting partners over the age of 14, the age at which a boy became an adult.

In August 1726 a ‘gang of sodomites’ was chased by Constables across Moorfields but escaped. The streets that grew up around Moorfields also became well-known for this gay subculture – a molly house in Christopher Alley, off Moorfields, was kept by John Towleton, whose nickname was Mary Magdalen.

Moorfields was landscaped in the 1590s in an attempt to bring order to all of the above infamous ‘uncontrollable’ area. This may represent the earliest known use in London of altering public space as a means of social control. Its notorious immorality may have also contributed to Moorfields’ popularity for open air religious meetings – non-conforming groups spoke regularly there from the seventeenth centuries, no doubt partly in an attempt to save the souls of the field’s immoral frequenters… However, the Fields also accommodated a part of the huge tent city that sheltered Londoners displaced and made homeless by the Great Fire of 1666 (many others moved off to the north-east, some ending up roaming Epping Forest and Enfield in search of shelter and food.)