A Light Shining in Hanwell: battles for open green space in West London

Residents of Hanwell, West London, have recently shown that if enclosure of open space is not just a historical process but an ongoing threat to public access to land, so too resistance is alive and kicking, and can win victories.

In the last decade two open spaces lying next to each other, Brent River Park and Warren Farm, have seen campaigners fight off attempts to fence off or sell off land people have been accessing for decades. These struggles have involved a whole range of tactics from investigation, petitioning, legal casework and sabotage. An inspiration to all those struggling in London (and beyond) to keep green space public, accessible and free.

But we shouldn’t be surprised Hanwellians show such determination- this area has seen resistance to enclosure before…

Brent River Park – ‘Fencegate’

In April 2019, residents of Hanwell in Ealing, west London, were dismayed that part of their park had been fenced off. St Margaret’s open space sits by the Grand Union Canal and is part of Brent River Park. The neighbouring landowner, the Hobbayne Trust, finding that part of the park is unregistered land, tried to nick it.

Section of Ealing Parks Map showing the fenced off land

What some campaigners have called ‘Fencegate’ began when the Hobbayne Trust fenced off part of St Margaret’s Open Space between Billets Hart Close and the Grand Union Canal on 25 April 2019. This annotated section of the Ealing Parks map shows the piece of the park which was fenced off.

In enclosing this land, the Hobbayne Trust effectively extended the boundary of the neigbouring William Hobbayne Community Gardens, which it has owned since 2014, to incorporate part of St Margaret’s Open Space.

Although Ealing Council owns most of St Margaret’s Open Space, the ownership of this small piece of land is unknown. It is unregistered land, which means that no-one has ever provided evidence of ownership to the Land Registry. However, it has been designated as Public Open Space by Ealing Council and been freely accessible to the public since the mid 1990s. Ealing council has treated it as part of the neighbouring park and has maintained it since the early 2000s. It is clearly marked as part of Ealing Parks on the council’s parks map, and also designated as a Grade 1 Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC).

The adjoining land on which the William Hobbayne Community Gardens now stand was previously owned by British Waterways, who registered the land on 13 October 2006. The lease on part of this land which became the William Hobbayne Community Gardens was gifted to the Hobbayne Trust by British Waterways in 2008.

The Hobbayne Trust bought the land from the Canal and River Trust, the successor body to British Waterways, for £80,000. In the sale documents the boundary of the land is clearly marked. It does not include the land fenced off in April 2019.

The Hobbayne Trust signed an agreement with Laing Homes, the company which which built neighbouring Billets Hart Close, and which still owns the freehold of the land under the road. This agreement gave the Hobbayne Trust vehicle access across Billets Hart Close. The Hobbayne Trust paid Laing Homes £3,500 for this access. None of the residents on Billets Hart Close were informed of this transaction.

As mentioned above, in April 2019 the Hobbayne Trust fenced off the piece of St Margarets Open Space. To see the extent of the new enclosure, compare this Google street view photo from summer 2018 with the one taken a year later. The orange bag caught in the tree makes it easy to do a before and after comparison.

August 2019 – Down With the Fence

The Hobbayne Trust’s fence was thus extended upstream, beyond the boundary of its land, to enclose part of St Margaret’s Open Space.

According to Ealing Council’s Local Plan, this land is designated as Public Open Space. It is listed as such on council documents available online dating from 2010. These, in turn, refer to plans dating from 2004. Residents have copies of conveyancing documents which list it as Public Open Space in 1996. It has therefore been Public Open Space and freely accessible to the public for almost a quarter of a century.

Section of Ealing Local Plan

In May 2019 number of residents contacted the Hobbayne Trust and Ealing Council challenging the enclosure of the land and asking the Trust and the Council to remove the fence.

On 27 June 2019 the Hobbayne Trust issued a statement which it distributed to nearby households and posted by the Grand Union towpath. It said:

“You may be aware that the Hobbayne Charity has recently fenced a small section of land to the north of the Community Gardens bordering the canal.“This action was taken so as to rectify a drafting error dating from 2006.”

2006 was the year in which British Waterways registered the land on which the Community Gardens now stand (see above).

The Hobbayne Trust claimed that British Waterways made a mistake in drawing the boundary when it registered the land – this, however, was not borne out by the available evidence. The north-western boundary of the land which now forms the community gardens has been there since 1996 according to the conveyancing documents (and memories) of those who have lived on Billets Hart Close since it was built. An Ordnance Survey map from 1960 also shows the boundary in exactly the same place as it was before the Hobbayne Trust moved its fence.

Section of Ordnance Survey map 1960

There is no evidence of any mistake being made here. When British Waterways registered the land that now forms the Community Gardens, its plan of the area reflected the boundaries that had existed for decades.

In the same statement, the Hobbayne Trust also said that it intended to put a gateway onto Billets Hart Close to provide a second access to the Community Gardens, in addition to the main one on St Margaret’s Road. This access would go from Billets Hart Close to the Community Gardens via the newly enclosed land. This would necessitate the removal of the railings and hawthorn hedge on St Margaret’s Open Space at the end of Billets Hart Close.

On 29 July 2019 the Hobbayne Trust applied to register its ownership of the fenced off land, claiming that it had been in possession of the land since 2008.

Local residents didn’t buy the trust’s explanation of the land’s history…

… Nor did the Land Registry, which rejected the trust’s claim of ownership on 1 August 2019.

Meanwhile, fed up with waiting for the trust or for Ealing Council to move the fence, some residents took the law into their own hands. Over the August 2019 bank holiday, they broke the new fence down.

Down with the fences!

In resorting to Direct Action to remove fences around enclosed land, the residents echoed long and proud traditions of defending open space not just by lobbying and campaigning, but practical measures.

In this case as so many others, their action proved a turning point in the dispute.

On 29 August 2019, sixteen households on Billets Hart Close again wrote a joint letter to the Hobbayne Trust’s chairman, challenging the enclosure of the land and asking that the fence be removed. The letter was copied to Ealing Council.

The letter made the following points:

Before the Trust fenced it off, the land had been freely accessible to the public since 1996.

It is designated as Public Open Space in Ealing Council’s Local Plan and has been described as such in numerous council documents. There are also documents from Laing Homes dated 1996 showing it as Public Open Space.

The land had been been maintained by Ealing Council, at public expense, since at least 2004.

The Hobbayne Trust had not provided residents with any evidence of its ownership of the fenced off land. It had not registered as the proprietor of the land at the Land Registry.

The north-western boundary of the Hobbayne Trust’s land is clearly marked on the transfer documents from when it bought the land from the Canal and River Trust in 2014. The same boundary is also marked on residents’ conveyancing documents from when Billets Hart Close was built in 1996-97.

The residents of Billets Hart Close were not informed about the erecting of the fence. The Hobbayne Trust made no attempt to consult or engage with local residents before erecting the fence.

The letter concluded:

“We call on the trustees to remove the fence around the piece of the park they have enclosed without further delay. This land is public space and the public would like it back.”

In response to the residents’ letter, the Hobbayne Trust called a meeting. Its representatives met with 20 local residents on 14 October 2019, saying that they wanted to rebuild trust with the local community.

At the meeting the Hobbayne Trust’s representatives confirmed that they did not own the land and had fenced it off without having any legal title to it. They said that they were in ‘a legal process’ to acquire the land and that the Canal and River Trust was in the process of establishing its ownership in order to transfer the land to the Trust. They failed to mention that their application to claim ownership of the land had been rejected by the Land Registry two months earlier…

Also, the Canal and River Trust had not made any attempt to register the land, nor did they ever claim the disputed area.

At the same meeting, the Hobbayne Trust’s representatives also re-stated their intention to put a gateway onto the disputed land to give access to the Community Gardens from Billets Hart Close. They were unclear about whether this was to be for pedestrians only or for vehicles. They denied all knowledge of the agreement signed on 20 July 2017 by the Hobbayne Trust, together with the payment of £3,500, for vehicle access to Billets Hart Close.

In a written statement presented at the meeting, the Hobbayne Trust said that it had informed the residents at the end of Billets Hart Close of its proposed action to enclose the land. However, no residents on Billets Hart Close received any such communication from the Trust.

After a number of residents wrote to Ealing Council over the summer, the Council responded in November 2019, via separate letters and emails to local residents. It stated that:

The council did not believe the Hobbayne Trust had a legal entitlement to the land it had fenced off;

The fence had been constructed by the Hobbayne Trust without the council’s consent;

The Council believes that it has a greater claim to ownership of the land than any other party and is preparing to register its ownership of the land through adverse possession, on the grounds that it has occupied and maintained the land for the required period;

The council expects the Hobbayne Trust to remove its fence.

The removal of some of the panels enabled the public to reclaim its right of way across the land: the faint reappearance of the footpath (a desire line), quickly showed this right was being regularly exercised.

The council did not issued any enforcement notice (or, if it has, it hasn’t said so publicly) and the Hobbayne Trust did not remove the remains of the fence. Residents continued to fight for the complete removal of the fence and the return of the land to the public…

The job of removing the fence was eventually completed in March by the Canal and River Trust (CRT) when residents reported that the fence encroached on the Grand Union Canal towpath land.

Residents hope that in future Ealing Council will be more active in protecting such public open space. Early signs are encouraging: the council has said again that it will register the land.The ultimate aim of the local campaigners is to see the land become part of the statutory local nature reserve being proposed by the Brent River and Canal Society for neighbouring Warren Farm and its surrounding meadows.

The Warren Farm Campaign

Warren Farm, which lies just across the Brent River from the piece of disputed land on St Margaret’s open space above, has seen an even longer campaign to fight off the land being given into private hands by Ealing Council.

In the Elizabethan Period, Warren Farm was a tenancy of the Osterley Park Estate. The estate was owned by Sir Thomas Gresham, who opened one of Britain’s first paper mills, by the River Brent in the 1570s. Appropriately enough for this story, Gresham was also a pioneer of enclosure in this area: in 1576 his fencing off of common land caused riots.

In the Victorian period, Warren Farm was a working farm. Ordnance Survey maps from the early 1890s show a public footpath across the site. This right of way was diverted and a newer route runs along the railway.

In 1925, the Countess of Jersey sold Warren Farm to the London County Council (LCC) for sports usage, but the Depression and World War II disrupted these plans, but after the war Warren Farm was run as a farm by the local St Bernard’s Psychiatric Hospital until 1961, and the LCC and then ILEA (the Inner London Education Authority) used the land as a variety of sports pitches for schoolchildren and clubs. In the 1960s the changing rooms were erected and football, cricket, netball, tennis, shot-put and long jump pitches were on the site. When ILEA was dissolved in 1990, Warren Farm passed to the London Borough of Ealing (LBE). Later, a children’s day centre the Pride and Joy Child Care Nursery were based there.

By the 2000s Ealing Council claimed they did not have the funds to maintain the land. The site maintenance stopped. Changing rooms were vandalised and became derelict.In 2009 the London Borough of Ealing launched plans to rent Warren Farm to Queen’s Park Rangers (QPR) football club on a 200 year lease at a peppercorn rent. Effectively gifting Metropolitan Open Land (MOL) to a private company for 200 years. Under the plan there would have been no more public community access.

In opposition to this plan, the Save Warren Farm (SWF) group was founded in 2014. The group raised money and fought the QPR deal, seeking a Judicial Review against Ealing, on the grounds that the council had acted unlawfully in disposing of Warren Farm. The Judicial Review was turned down, however, and QPR were imminently expected to start works on Warren Farm.
No works began, however, and questions arose as to whether QPR could in fact afford to proceed with their plans.

Desire Lines on Warren Farm

In 2016, Save Warren Farm applied to register a footpath across Warren Farm as a Public Right of Way. Ealing Council refused the application. An appeal to the Planning Inspectorate was rejected the following year. In 2016, QPR had their Planning Permission extended by 4 years, with their original plans for Warren Farm scaled back and with the introduction of landfill planned across the site.
In 2017, Ealing Council introduced a new waste collection scheme which meant all households required new wheelie bins. The bins were stored on Warren Farm, but were set on fire twice that same year…By 2019, nature had reclaimed much of the abandoned Warren Farm site. QPR’s ecological surveys concluded that Warren Farm was ‘species poor’ and of ‘little to no ecological value’. A new campaign group, Hanwell Nature, gathered evidence which challenged this assertion. Fundraising began and a Judicial Review was now granted on the basis that Ealing Council failed to undertake an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). In 2020, Ealing Council pulled out of the Judicial Review hearing brought by the Hanwell Nature campaign, apparently not wanting to waste taxpayers money defending the Judicial Review. QPR’s extended planning permission had run out prior to the hearing and QPR had by now found an alternative site.

In the autumn of 2020, the Brent River & Canal Society (BRCS), a charity founded in 1973 whose aim is to protect and enhance Brent River Park (of which Warren Farm is part), released a new vision for Warren Farm Nature Reserve. Initially inspired by young conservationist Kabir Kaul, the BRCS forward-thinking vision asked Ealing Council to work with them in creating Warren Farm Nature Reserve, obtaining Local Nature Reserve (LNR) status for Warren Farm, Jubilee Meadow, Blackberry Corner, Trumper’s Field and Fox Meadow, with the future potential of adding the Imperial College London owned land and the Earl of Jersey’s Field. This would create one large Local Nature Reserve comprised of meadow habitats, with Warren Farm at its centre – preserving meadows for wildlife, humans and for future generations.

 sign the Warren Farm Nature Reserve petition here

Enclosures and Hanwell’s History

Hopefully locals’ plans to unite all the open space above into a Nature reserve will bear fruit… their stalwart defence of their green space should inspire us all.

But it is not surprising that these attempts by the Hobbayne Trust and Ealing Council/QPR to deprive people of open space have been so stoutly fought off. This area has form, as they say, for resistance to enclosures of land.

Common land was vital to the existence of many people before the industrial revolution, when most lived on the land, and worked on the land. Working people might own one or two animals, which they woud graze on commons; wood in common land was gathered for burning for fuel, as was turf; food stuffs were also there to be gathered. Access to commons could make the difference between survival and starvation, and the right to use them had grown up through centuries of struggle against landowners often keen to restrict what people could use. Through the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, local landowners increasingly tried to enclose land – fence it off for more intensive agriculture, denying poorer folk the resources previously available to them. Much of England’s land was enclosed by 1830. But this process was widely resisted, by legal campaigning, direct action like sabotage, by riots and revolts. Read more on this in the London area.

As noted above, parts of the Hanwell area were owned by the aristocratic residents of Osterley House, and Thomas Gresham had faced rioting and sabotage in response to his enclosing of common land to build Osterley Park. There were further troubles at Osterley Park over enclosure in 1614, when several women cut down trees belonging to Sir William Reade, who had inherited the house.

Hanwell itself saw a struggle by the wealthy to enclose Heathland, at the end of the 18th century. This sparked resistance, of which some mention has survived.

Moves to enclose the parish had been discussed by the parish vestry in 1792, but a meeting of tenants called by the vestry apparently voted against wholesale enclosure. This may have been due not so much to idealogical opposition as from fear of local reaction, as there are reports of local discontent and some threats to farmers, over regulation and restrictions in the local commons fields. Attempts by the vestry to cut back numbers of animals that could be grazed in the common had been met with objections, as customary use that had evolved over centuries allowed for more grazing than the new rules allotted. Through the 1790s, repeated orders issued by the parish officers regarding the restrictions were ignored; in 1796 the vestry appealed to the Lord of the Manor to punish the transgressors as they were powerless to enforce their rules. This constant stubborn resistance climaxed in August 1798 with the removal of a lock and  chain barring access to the ‘Common South Field’, which was partly owned by a farmer, Mr George, and the driving in to graze of a large crowd of livestock by local rebels.

Surveying land for enclosure

Attempts to survey the parish a few years later, a usual precursor to enclosure, may have met with a bit of theft… In 1803, the vestry voted to have the parish surveyed and mapped, and hired a professional land surveyor for the job. The parish surveyor Mr Grimault refused to co-operate with him however… despite this, the survey was carried out, and handed in to the vestry in November 1803. In June 1805, however, the document mysteriously went missing, “taken away, or misplaced.” Someone trying to slow the process down?

Despite all this, the Vestry managed to push through the enclosure in March 1813. Not without another act of defiance, however: in May, local youth arranged a cricket match on newly enclosed Hanwell Heath, and the constable was urged by the vestry to “use their utmost exertions to prevent the lads from this Village from assembling on the heath on Sundays.” Both the enjoying themselves on the Sabbath  and invading newly enclosed land being offensive to the authorities… Feelings of attachment to their common died hard.

In the wider area around Hanwell, access to Common land in this part of the old county of Middlesex was fought over for centuries.

The huge expanse of nearby Hounslow Heath was the arena for resistance to enclosure for several hundred years… Attempts to enclose common land in the Heston area about 1600 seem to have been defeated by a group of tenants led by Sir Gideon Awnsham. Complaints were also made in Heston in 1634 about recent enclosures of the common lands.

1834, Ickenham labourers dug up and allotted themselves several parcels of land, in defiance of manor courts who spent twenty years unsuccessfully trying to evict these latter-day diggers

An Inspiration

The area of land fenced off in St Margaret’s open space may be small – but small pieces of land can be dear to people. Councils, developers, landowners often think they can take spaces away without fightback – not this time. 

What has so far helped the Hanwell residents in their campaign has been a cunning use of direct action hand in hand with meticulous research. We love it! 

The Hanwell campaigns shine a light of inspiration to the many other local campaigners fighting off attempts to build on open space and close off access to land… 

Campaigners all over are fighting off attempts to enclose and develop small green spaces, especially land on council estates. Peckham Green was recently fenced off and built over by Southwark Council, despite local objections; on several Southwark estates, tenants are facing proposals to build over small green areas used by them but considered waste by council penpushers. The same story is beginning to crop up all over the capital. But the Hanwell story shows the faceless planners don’t always win…
If the council or another body wants your green space – get together! Research the real ownership, find out what your neighbours want – fight back! (The Open Spaces Society can often help)

Campaigners may feel lairy about what seem like extreme actions like pulling down fences; legally risky, chance of arrest… In this case, having the legal proofs of the land not belonging to the Hobbayne Trust gave the fence destroyers some security in their actions… With other spaces, legal ownership issues may be more clear cut the other way. However, direct action is a powerful weapon. And ownership of open space is often twofold – there’s legal title, yes, but counterposed to that is also how people who use the place feel about somewhere, are invested in it, feel like it is theirs. Access to places can go back centuries, but attachment to open space can build up over much shorter time; it is not easily dismissed. And how did the ‘legal’ owners of land get to own most of it anyway? Violent expropriation of everyone else, by force, lawyers, authority… 

How strongly people feel about a place has implications in how people are willing to fight for it…

The relationship of the St Margaret’s and Warren Farm campaigns with Ealing Council also show the contradictory and uncertain nature of the ownership of public land. Local authorities have been in charge of managing public space for a century and a half, by and large. But is been and up and down ride, especially in recent decades, with budget cuts and other pressures bearing on ownership of open spaces. Money is tight. The temptation to offload it (as Ealing tried to do with Warren Farm to QPR), to cross one headache off the budget list, is strong… (Or to close if off to many users by letting it be used for paying festivals much of the summer, as happens elsewhere).

But open spaces, vital as they are to people’s lives, belong to us all. The legal title of landowners and trusts is generally dubious, historically; the stewardship of local authorities need constant monitoring by us all from below…

 

 

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

Open Space – or Closed Space?

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

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

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

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

Centuries of hard fought battles saved many beloved places from disappearing, and laws currently protect parks, greens and commons. But times change… Pressures change. Space in London is profitable like never before. For housing mainly, but also there are sharks ever-present looking to exploit space for ‘leisure’. And with the current onslaught on public spending in the name of balancing the books (ie cutting as much as possible in the interests of the wealthy), public money spent on public space is severely threatened.
Many are the pressures on open green spaces – the costs of upkeep, cleaning, maintenance, improvement, looking after facilities… Local councils, who mainly look after open space, are struggling. Some local authorities are proposing to make cuts of 50 or 60 % to budgets for parks. As a result, there are the beginnings of changes, developments that look few and far between now, but could be the thin end of the wedge.

So you have councils looking to renting green space to businesses, charities, selling off bits, shutting off parks or parts of them for festivals and corporate events six times a year… Large parts of Hyde Park and Finsbury Park are regularly fenced off for paying festivals already; this could increase. Small developments now, but maybe signs of things to come. Now is the time to be on guard, if we want to preserve our free access to the green places that matter to us.

Already space in the city is being handed to business – London’s Canary Wharf, the Olympic Park and the Broadgate development in the City are public places governed by the rules of the corporations that own them.

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

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

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

It may seem like parks, and other green spaces are givens; things that can’t be taken away. But what seem like certainties can be lost before we realise. Look at way social housing have been dismantled over the past 30 years. In the 1960s council housing was taken for granted as a right by millions: it has been reduced to a last resort, which current government proposals could sweep away. Or the way the NHS is being parcelled up into private providers… there are many who see green space as a luxury and something that can be got rid of or at least shunted off into the hands of some quango… Whatever gains we have, whatever we win, whatever rights we enjoy, came from long generations of battling  – the moment we stop, rest on our laurels, powerful forces start pushing back against everything we have won.

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

Enclosure and Resistance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was fought every step of the way…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enclosure Surveyors at work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tearing down enclosure fences on Plumstead Common, 1876

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parliament Hill, 1899: Saved from development by campaigning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Wild Wood to Pleasure Garden

Open Space as the haunts of rebels, outlaws and outcasts

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

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

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

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

Gathering Places of Revolt

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

Fairs, Immorality and Pleasure

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

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

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

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

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

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

Camberwell Fair

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

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

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

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

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

No Through Road

Battles over right off way, footpaths, and control of road and path are centuries old in London, and x have been fought in parallel, and x sometimes part of, anti-enclosure struggles. Here are a few examples (more to come soon …)

For instance, in 1475, the rector of Stoke Newington Church blocked a footpath from Church St to Ermine St that ran across Church land: it was reopened by the Manor (possibly after  local protests?)

In Bushy Park, in 1734, a right of way across Bushy Park in West London was closed by order of the king, but 20 years later a local shoemaker (Timothy Bennett of Hampton Wick, d.1756), threatened to bring a prosecution, and won the reopening of the path.

These issues could be lost as well as Ron though: an old right of way running down the length of North London’s New River, “from Highbury” towards Hornsey, somewhere off Riversdale rd, where the Boarded River used to run,;”was blocked by James Colebrooke, Esq. when in possession of the manor, who erected gates for the purpose. This circumstance gave rise direct action against the gates, then to a law-suit, upon the issue of which the privilege of the public to this road as a thoroughfare was lost.

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

Sydenham Hill. south London: wealthy silk warehouse owner Richard Beall tried to block off the upper end of Taylor’s Lane to increase the privacy of his posh home of Longton Hall. His attempt to do a van Hoogstraten enraged locals, who in 1867 smashed the walls & fences down; 100s came with axes & hammers! After several attempts & continued demolitions, Beall gave up & went insane.

The ‘Hanging Field’, between where Kings Cross rd, Pentonville rd, Gt Percy St and Amwell St now stand, saw disputes here over use of footpaths across the fields. The New River Company which owned the land had plans to develop the land for new streets and housing; when existing residents made back entrances to gain access to the field; the Company ordered them to block them up or they would cut off their water supply. This led to public protest from locals, which won re-opening of the paths.

But it wasn’t just green space and footpath where the rich tried to close off and keep out the riffraff. And if you thought gated communities were a new invention… In 1798 the Duke of Bedford had gates erected at entrances to his posh Bedford Estate in Bloomsbury, and only those with an official silver token could enter if on horseback, driving a cart etc. The Estate also refused permission for pubs to be built on its bounds…

More recent times

Just some struggles in the last few decades:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking Back Wanstead Flats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reclaiming the Land

Gargoyle Wharf

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

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

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

Going Beyond Preservation

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

We need a new commons… based not in the past but in the future. The main thing to take from the numberless struggles to preserve open space is that people won because they considered the places they were defending to be theirs, to belong to them, even when that stood in opposition to the legal ‘reality’… Although sometimes relying on those traditions and common rights as the basis for legal argument didn’t work, often when it formed the backbone for direct action and a collective campaigning approach, this sense of the commons being ‘ours’ could overcome all the power of law, profit and parliament. This is a lesson worth taking when we think about how we view open space: although we can take many inspirations from our history, reliance on the past can not be a defence, we need to be re-forging a sense that the resources of the world are for all of us, for people’s enjoyment, not for the profit of a few.

We need to be redefining what is ours, collectively, in opposition and defiance of the laws and fences built to exclude us; and not just when it comes to green or urban space, but for the whole world. In the midst of 21st century London, a whirlwind of global profit, backed by a government with a determined ruling class agenda, is uprooting communities, altering the landscape, destroying or severely hamstringing any right to social housing, welfare, health, education, for increasing numbers of us.
What are we going to do in response?

Read More

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

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

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

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

• Kennington Park: Birthplace of People’s Democracy

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

• Burning Women: The European Witch Hunts, Enclosure & the Rise of Capitalism

Some useful contacts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seriously, grovel on, mate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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’. (He was also involved in enclosing land in Epping Forest around the same time).

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)