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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Struggles in Epping Forest were old as the forest…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Willingale

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

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

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

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

Locals celebrating the opening of lopping rights at Staples Hill

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

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

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

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

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

Alfred Willingale

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

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

Samuel Willingale

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many battles were won – many more lost.

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

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

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

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

This open land was a strong temptation to potential enclosers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Another hearing in 1607 into the intended enclosure was inconclusive:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The extent of Sydenham Common shown on a modern map

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Read other past tense posts about enclosures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shovels and Spades, Shovels and Spades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For want of roome to shoote abroad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Walk for thieves and lovers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today in London radical history, 1592: enclosure fences destroyed, Westminster

In the middle ages, Neat House Fields was an open space, lying to the rear of and around modern Victoria Station. In medieval times the land had belonged to the nearby Abbey of Westminster; as the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, the land was confiscated, and then granted to one of Henry VIII’s courtiers.

Down to the time of Henry VIII, the local parish of St. Martin’s had over 500 acres of common land, said to be very fertile land.

These consisted of
“Eubury Farm, containing 430 Acres.
The Neat, containing 108 Acres.
St James’s Farm, containing 100 Acres.
Divers Parcels of the Possession of Burton St John Lazarus of Jerusalem, containing 50 Acres…”

Around 1572, Neat House Fields were enclosed, along with other areas of the local parishes.

“Within this Parish of St Martin’s, and that of St Margaret’s Westminster, formerly was large Commoning for the Benefit of those Parishes, of Lands laid open, according to ancient Custom, from Lammas Day; which were, in Q. Elizabeth’s Reign, enclosed with Gates and Hedges, so that the Inhabitants were deprived of that Benefit, which occasioned their Complaint, in the year 1592, to the Lord Burghley, High Steward of Westminster, and a petition to him in that Behalf…”

Many local labourers lost rights of grazing and arable use, which they claimed to have enjoyed for some centuries.

Enclosures had been causing friction in the parish of St Martins in the Fields for several decades. A 1549 Enclosure Survey complained of various individuals enclosing common land, which was identified not only as a threat to tradition and custom but to pubic order (unsurprisingly, given the widespread revolt against enclosures taking place from Norfolk to Devon that year…) A further survey in 1575 re-iterated the complaint.

St Martins as a parish was known to be particularly sensitive regarding enclosure. In the early 16th century, the parish boundaries had been re-drawn, as part of which the parish lost a substantial part of its land to ‘imparkment’, the creation of parkland. The parish worthies sorely resented this, and were keen to prevent the further loss of communally available land. Part of the motivation for this, as elsewhere, was pragmatic – poor parishioners who partly subsisted from access to common land for grazing etc could theoretically become more dependent on parish relief if they lost access to commons. Another complaint St Martins raised was that the hedges and ditches erected to enclose land were themselves exploited by unruly and immoral elements (by which they seem to have meant thieves and prostitutes) to conceal themselves…

Parishioners of St. Margaret’s Westminster and St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, claimed that Ebury Farm, the Neat, St. James’s Farm, etc., had, according to ancient custom, been laid open for their benefit, from Lammas Day (1 August), till Plough Monday, (the first Monday in January after Epiphany). The Elizabethan sub-tenants who had leased the lands had enclosed their fields with fences and gates, and deprived the parishioners of immemorial rights.

” And where there were hedges and ditches and ponds of water
Now we have nothing but bricks and mortar.”

The parishioners appealed to Lord Burleigh, High Steward of Westminster, who ordered an enquiry, “he gave an order to Mr Tenche, his Under-Steward, to impanel an Inquest for Enquiry into this Matter…”

Whatever Burghley’s intention, ordering the Inquiry may have encouraged the parishioners to think Burghley was on board with the action they took next.

Before any Inquiry could be held, on Lammas Day, 1st August 1592, a body of complainants arrived “with Pickaxes and such like Instruments, pulled down the Fences, and brake the Gates, having with them the Bailiffs and Constables, to keep the Peace” on which the tenants made “grievous complaint” to Lord Burleigh.

Enclosure fences were at first demolished not on Neat House Fields but further north, ‘half a mile to the west of St Giles Fields’, possibly around Piccadilly.

Peter Dod, citizen and grocer of London, later gave evidence, that he “being near unto the City’s Conduit-heads in Middlesex, about half a Mile Westward from St Giles in the Fields, attending upon certain of the City’s Works, touching conveying of Water from thence to London, saw, betwixt five and six o’Clock in the Afternoon the same Day, the Number of 40 Persons at least… in a Close there… And they divided themselves: And some of them , with Pickaxes and shovels, brake open the fence of that Close, and other some of them passed to the next Close Westward, and brake open the Fence of that Close: And he, with some of the Citizens Workmen,  went unto them, seeing ome of them to be Men that carried a Shew of some Countenance, and talked with them, demanding of them whence they were and one of them answered, That they were of St. Martin’s Parish, and St. Margaret’s as Westminster. And he, the said Dod, said unto them, “Why do ye this?” It was answered,

” It is Lammas-tide; and we throw it down for Common. And if we take here any Cattle of any other Men’s than theirs of the Parishes of St. Martin’s or St. Margaret’s, after this day, we will carry them to the Pound.” “I never saw the like of this,” said Dod. ” If you may do this by Authority it is well, otherwise it is not well.” It was answered, ” We have here the Bailiff of Westminster, and the Officers of St. Martin’s; and we have our Authority from the Queen’s Majesty and the Council, granted by King Henry, confirmed by Her

Majesty, and named the Lord Treasurer to be one, from whom they had their Authority.” And it was also added, that the next Day there would be two hundred there,and they must break open up to Knights-bridge and Chelsea.

And Dod said farther, that that Evening they threw down one gate in one Close, which the City holds, and abated the Banks, and in another Close threw open another Gate and pulled down a Rail, and broke open the Fences in three other Places beside, and in the morning, the Herdsmen brought in about 30 beasts into one of the Closes, and kept them there feeding in one of the Closes which the City holds.”

The destruction was revived the following day, the crowd moving onto Neat House Fields:

“Another testified, viz. one Rd Wood of St St Giles in the Fields, Yeoman and Constable, That the 2nd of August, he going to look to his Fields, and save his Gates from breaking, found a Number of them near to a Place called Aubery-Farm, towards Chlesea (ie: Ebury), to the Number of 105, as he told them, where they were breaking open Fences; and so they crossed from thence to a Field called Crow-Field, at the upper End of Hide-park, where they found the Gate opened before they came; and yet they would not be satisfied, but broke upon the Fence beside the Gate, and from thence they passed to the Highway, where they broke open the Fences into four Fields (of divers Persons, that had held Land there) many of them said, That they had no Authority to do so, but their Purpose was to lay all Common; but they generally said, We have my Lord Treasurer’s Warrant, and we have my Lord Treasurer’s Bailiff that keeps Tibbalds, and one Jones, his Lordship’s Man, being then present, said, he would drive the Commons within this seven-night, as soon as they had charged a Jury; and many of them said, They had the Council’s Letter. There were present Mr. Cole, Westminster High Constable the last Year… Cole lad them the Way from Field to Field, with a written Roll in his Hand.”

The Farmers whose fences had been demolished petitioned the Lord High Treasurer, “shewing how they had enjoyed [these Lands and closes] time out of mind, and at all Times of the Year till the 1st of August; at what Time certain Persons of the City of Westminster, and the Liberties of the same, to the Number of 60 Persons, or more, in forcible Manner arrayed, brake down all the Hedges of the said grounds, &c, giving out that they had his Honour’s Content and Warrant. That if it were so, all her Majesty’s poor Tenants and Farmers were utterly undone. That it might stand with his Honour’s good liking to commit the riot to the Star Chamber…”

The parishioners involved in the destruction, however, stuck to their Plea, “That Aubery-farm, containing 430 Acres, Meadow and Pasture, which was holden of her Majesty by Lease, was granted to one Whashe, who paid 21 pounds per Annum. And the same was let to divers persons who, for their private Commodity, did enclose had made Pastures of Arrable Land ; thereby not only annoying Her Majesty in her walks and Passages, but to the Hindrance of her Game, and great injury to the Common, which at Lammas was wot to be laid open, for the most part; as by antient Precedents thereof made, do more particularly appear, both in the Time of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Queen Mary: And by the Grant made from her Majesty to the new Tenants, it appeareth, that they are to enjoy the new Lands in such Sort as their Predecessors did, which was than always Lammas Ground, and now enclosed about 20 years past.

St. James’s Farm, containing about an 100 Acres, is holden of her Majesty, renting per Annum 7 pounds 16 shillings. The Ground is held by Pulteney, enclosed after Lammas; whereas, in the Time of his Predecessor, that, and divers other Parts were laid open, as Sandpit-close, and Pennyless-bench. And now he threateneth Death to any that that shall presume to open the same; altho’ it pleaseth Her Majesty to grant the same to him none otherwise than they have been granted before, that is Lammas-ground.”

There is belonging to the Neat the Quantity of 108 Acres, or thereabouts, which is her Majesty’s, and is now in Lease to one Linde and Turner, who keep the same enclosed, converting the same to Pasture, with Divisions and new Hedges; whereas the most Part thereof ought to be Common and hath been always Common at Lammas until within these 19 years.

There be also divers others Parcels of Land, some the Inheritance of Wilson, a Brewer, &c. And others, whereof some are laid open at Lammas, according to Custom, and some ought to be, which are now kept enclosed.

And of these Enclosures, it may please your good Lordship (the plea proceeded), to be informed, that at her Majesty’s last being at St. James’s, she greatly misliked, and said she had for them but 8d. an Acre, and that the Inhabitants abused her greatly therein; whereupon she commanded some of the Tenants to be by the Lord Chamberlain committed to the Marshalsea; which was done: And yet, notwithstanding, they have proceeded to a farther Enclosure.”

The inhabitants claimed “they did this only, presuming upon an antient Custom…” adding “That some of them thus assembled, ere of the best and most antient of the parishes; that they carried with them no Weapons, and had only four or five Shovels and Pickaxes; and had divers Constables with them to keep her Majesty’s Peace. And having thus laid open such Grounds, as they challenged to be their Commons, they quietly returned, to their Houses, without any farther Hurt doing.”

The Inquest that Burghley had ordered before the August action eventually took place in December that year (beginning, I think, on the 12th, and ending in a ruling on the 21st). The anti-enclosure parishioners prepared a lengthy presentation, detailing all the lands they claimed should be accessible as commons from St Martins and St Margaret’s parishes,and pointing out that St Martins parish had asserted common rights in enclosure surveys in 1549 and 1575, as well as at “divers times since by laying open the said enclosures at the accustomed times”. They cunningly portrayed the Crown (owner of many of the disputed lands) as also being wronged by the enclosers. They claimed that the conversion of ground from arable land and common to pasture and meadow had ‘spoyled and defaced’ the Queens’ walks, and impacted on game for her to hunt…

These arguments played a part in the Inquest ruling in favour of the opponents of enclosure; the enclosers were ordered to lay open the lands in question, on pain of a fine of 12 pence for every acre not opened up. The following year a law was passed prohibiting enclosures within three miles of London. More research is needed on how this law was applied and how broadly. In 1630, some prosecutions against enclosers of land in Chelsea were apparently made under this act.

What is interesting, however, is that this was not simply a conflict between locals, parishioners opposed to enclosure, and enclosers from outside the parish leasing land and fencing it off. Many of those enclosing the lands in question were also established residents of St Martins parish.

Also interesting is the presence among the demolishers of the fences of parish officials, the bailiff etc… Enclosure was an issue that did not simply pit rich against poor (although overwhelmingly it benefitted the wealthy and the aspirational) – local authorities often objected, citing defence of ancient custom, and enforcement of traditional boundaries; if also concerned with social peace. Ratepayers in the parish were worried about the poor deprived of livelihoods by enclosure: some out of genuine feeling, others concerned about the poor rate or disorder arising.

If the enclosure of Neat House Fields and other lands in Westminster was for a while defeated, this was an early victory in what would be largely a history of defeat. Enclosure across the country would, over the next 300 years, utterly alter the economic and social use of land in Britain. But the 1592 resistance in two small parishes would be echoed in the struggles of thousands down the centuries…

Today and tomorrow in London’s radical history, 1659: locals fight with soldiers in anti-enclosure struggle, Enfield Chase

Enfield Chase was an ancient royal hunting ground some nine miles outside London to the north. Its many acres comprised arable and grazing land as well as a deer park and over the years legal agreements with tenants of the royal estate had granted rights of common such as grazing and wood collecting, which were of great importance to the local economy in an area with a very high rate of poverty, not that such rights benefited the very poor, who were unlikely to be commoners paying rents and taxes.

The chase was surrounded by villages and hamlets; Edmonton and Tottenham were close by and the largest was Enfield. There were also estates, manors and farms as well as large mansions and lodges. Small rural communities existed at South Mimms, Hadley, Potters Bar and along the road from Southgate to Cockfosters. Barnet provided the nearest significant town although London was only a day away.

By 1154 what had been known as the Park of Enfield or Enfield Wood had been converted into a hunting ground, or chase. It appears it was not known as Enfield Chase until the early 14th century. The royal land comprised the majority of the forest, though aristocratic families owned some areas and maintained hunting lodges on the Chase.

Royal forests were the creation of successive Norman kings, whose obsession with hunting trumped virtually all other imperatives where land use was concerned. Vast areas were declared royal forest, meaning wholly different laws applied and usual rights and uses were banned. Land owned by others, not just the king, could be designated thus.

As with many rural areas, from the 16th century, landowners began to enclose land, fencing off woods and fields, and excluding local residents from using its resources.

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, much of the open land, commons or woods in England and Wales was enclosed for development, usually by rich landowners or sold off for house building. In many of the commons, local people had traditionally benefitted from customary rights of use, mostly grazing of animals & wood for fuel, but also often sowing of small plots on the fringes of commons for market gardens or feeding themselves.

But despite its name, common land was rarely if ever, land held ‘in common’: it was almost always land owned by the Lord of the Manor, on which over time other local people had come to exercise some rights. But these rights often had no legal weight, they were part of an unwritten social contract, of custom and tradition, allowances granted by landowners, often in the face of earlier individual or collective struggles.

As time went on the ‘commoners’, those with acknowledged customary rights, could become wealthy individuals themselves. Thus later struggles sometimes developed into struggles between different local rich or well-to-do persons. Gradually, as capitalism developed, slowly replacing a society of complex vertical social obligations & custom with one based entirely on profit, the impetus was on for landowners to replace traditional land use with intensive agriculture. This demanded the clearing of woodland & the exclusion of the poor from the commons.

Those deprived not only lost traditional ways of making a living, or in many cases ways of topping up incomes as labourers or craftspeople; they were experiencing the change in class relations at first hand, losing everything bar the ability to sell their labour… “In an increasingly legalistic age, an unwritten agreement counted for little in the face of the new law …”

But on Enfield Chase, as elsewhere, this process was not simply imposed on a docile population. Poor labouring people fought for centuries to resist enclosure, both legally through petitioning and court cases, and by direct action. Enclosure quarrels in Enfield provoked a petition in 1575 and riots in 1549, 1589, 1603, 1649 and 1659.

In 1589 forty women, wives of local farm workers, were named on a charge of riotously throwing to the ground the fence round the close of a certain Alice Hayes at ‘Joan Potters’ in the south of the parish. The Enfield women were particularly lively in defending their rights, possibly because the district was much affected by enclosures for the royal Chase.

A mob of women assembled again in 1603, at White Webbs, near the Chase, to maintain their right to gather fire-wood there. According to Vincent Skinner, a Middlesex justice, the women thought that wood should either be burnt in the King’s House or given to the poor, but not carried out of Enfield Town. As in other areas in the Stuart and Tudor period, authorities were not always unsympathetic to anti-enclosure protests, and local magistrates made an agreement to hear the women’s cause and to some extent supported their cause in subsequent petitions.

Such expressions of local feeling were not infrequent. In 1611 when enclosing a further one hundred and twenty acres the King gave an assurance to the Commoners that he would not enclose any more land.

Enclosures of manorial waste, either to extend property or for building, were common.

The upheaval that accompanied the English Revolution had a huge impact on land ownership and pressures for changes in land use. Increased demand for productivity for food production at a time of disruption and hardship due to the civil war led to more enclosures. And the seizure or land owned by defeated and exiled supporters of the royalist side opened up opportunities for those victorious opponents – as had happened during the 16th century reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries, political and religious change helped make some smart operators rich. While radicals like the levellers and diggers may have objected to enclosure from the point of view of the poor who it dispossessed, others of the parliamentary party were enthusiastic ‘modernisers’. To some extent the pre-civil war Stuart regime had in some ways been more conservative regarding land exploitation and common rights and often, when pushed by protest, tried to keep a lid on large-scale enclosure, in the interests of social peace. This meant the regime did sometimes reverse or rule against enclosures by large landowners (but didn’t prevent the Stuart kings from also enclosing land in their OWN interests, as Charles I did with Richmond Park in 1637, or maintaining the strict controls on royal parks and hunting grounds, eg the Game Laws – this was an issue on Enfield Chase).

The Civil War had in part been launched by what could (loosely) be described as the rising bourgeoisie, chafing against restrictions on their ambitious expansion and restraints on their ability to exploit resources. The parliamentary victory gave some vent to these interests; increased enclosure was part of the immediate result. But as the struggles on Enfield Chase illustrate, the upheaval of war also opened up land as the property of defeated royalists was confiscated, and also produced large numbers of soldiers and parliamentary supporters, some of whom with the financial means to buy up land that thus came on to the market, and to begin transforming it to make it more ‘productive’.

If the alliances on the parliamentary side in the War had produced a temporary unity of different class interests and widely divergent political outlooks, this had never been an easy marriage, and tensions had erupted throughout whole conflict, accelerating in the mid-late 1640s with the political struggles of the Levellers and New Model Army agitators, the religious ferment which produced hundreds of independent sects, the social upheaval that gave birth to radical critiques like the ranters, as well as to puritan new testament activists (like the Fifth Monarchists). By 1649-50 class interests and political viewpoints were widely diverging among former allies… and so you find very different attitudes to enclosure developing among people who had been comrades fighting side by side 5-6 years earlier.

As well as the former Army radicals and parliamentary republicans dabbling with buying land and fencing it off, famously the political and social upheaval also produced a radically opposed vision of how land, especially common land, should be used. The True Levellers or ‘Diggers’ perceived the increasing phenomenon of enclosure as an acceleration of a process that began with the expropriation of what had once been a shared resource, a violent theft by the ancestors of the landowning classes of their time, reinforced by all the power of feudal hierarchies, law, religion…

The original ‘Diggers’, broadly communist in outlook, formed around the political activist and theorist Gerrard Winstanley, and in April 1650 occupied common land at St George’s Hill, Weybridge, Surrey, to grow food collectively, with a ideology of sharing the earth’s resources, rejecting ownership of common land and social hierarchies in general. Inspired by this, other ‘digger’ colonies also appeared elsewhere, mainly in across South-east England. This scared and enraged local hierarchies in the neighbourhoods where they appeared, as such communities, although very small, were often formed from the very poor, the people being dispossessed by enclosures, and represented a threat to social order and local tradition, especially as the civil war had opened up large-scale social upheaval and questioning of long-held views; even a small group refusing to continue to observe the social order could spread, inspire, and threaten the status quo. The gentry in Surrey and elsewhere employed soldiers or ex-soldiers, hired thugs, or whipped up hatred of local labourers, to destroy their projects and evict them. Presenting such communities as an enemy and a threat even to others of the lower orders may have been easier to achieve, because the diggers’ vision, as expressed by Winstanley at least, did not simply envision a widening of common rights and access to the resources of common land, but a collective tilling of it, a breaking with tradition and custom to embrace a new relationship to land altogether. ‘Common rights’ would be swept away along with land ownership; the commoners in areas where diggers began to assert this could feel this as a threat to their own slender customary access to the commons, as dangerous as the threat from the lord of the manor’s greedy eye on possible profits from fencing off the land.

The ‘Digger’ movement was reflected in events in Enfield: in 1650, shortly after more anti-enclosure riots on the Chase in 1649, the Diggers were said to have a Colony in the area.

Digger groups apparently were active in both Barnet and Enfield. Some Diggers at Enfield were reputedly from squatting families who had come to the Chase during the war and just after. Squatting had been increasing in forests and on marginal and common land in many areas, for decades, where people could occupy it, as enclosures had increased and access to some areas was restricted. This process had accelerated with the disruption and famine linked to the Civil War; the demobilisation of thousands of former soldiers as the conflict came to an end left large groups of poor men and their families looking for ways to subsist. (It might be interesting to compare this to squatting post-World War 2).

Squatters may even have been tacitly supported by Parliament, both as a safety valve, allowing some cultivation and subsistence as an alternative to the possibility of mass protest – but also in the hope of disrupting traditionalist opponents of the new regime. Some of those with common rights, looking to tradition and custom, ‘how things had always been’, were also inclined to support for the defeated royalist cause, whose proponents still plotted and agitated against the new republic, both in exile, and clandestinely in rural areas. Discontent provided them with potential foot-soldiers; opposition to enclosure was a useful movement to exploit. Squatters’ occupation of common land could disrupt traditional local custom and social relations, so perhaps were seen as useful in generally undermining the existing accepted rights of access, etc.

Anti-enclosure rioting certainly occurred while Diggers were active in the Enfield area, although whether Diggers were involved with the disturbances is unclear. Fifteen men, including a furrier, cordwainer, weaver, butcher and group of labourers, were indicted for the 1649 disturbances. These men were possibly recently discharged soldiers, as they all had access to firearms; they were said to come from among the poorest of the local residents.

In May 1659, a major anti enclosure riot took place on Enfield Chase. Commoners tore down barns, burned fences on land that had been sold to speculators, and led their cattle into corn. This led to a pitched battle with militia.

The immediate cause of this enclosure struggle in 1659 was a scheme drawn up by Parliamentary commissioners, based surveys of the Chase conducted in the 1650. The surveys had been ordered by Parliament to lay down who legally held rights of proprietorship and rights of common. The commissioners’ results were used to allot ownership and codify customary rights, but deprived local inhabitants of many of their “privileges and advantages.” An outcry of protests from the Inhabitants erupted, who claimed that large areas of the Chase were being quietly taken over by ‘Intruders’, outsiders, who had blocked and turned long-used rights of way, had laid out impassable new paths, and were digging and despoiling even the small part of the waste which was allotted to the Inhabitants, who had recently suffered much destruction from a huge fire on the Chase.

Many of the ‘intruders’ were great officers in the Army: they included Adjutant General John Nelthorpe, Colonel Joyce (who had played a prominent part in capturing king Charles during the Civil War), and Colonel Webbe, who was in fact the Surveyor General – a handy post to hold if you were on the make in land speculation yourself… They had bought up ‘debentures’ – a kind of IOU issued to soldiers to show how much pay they were owed. Often (not just during the Civil War) army pay was months or even years in arrears. The Civil War parliament, stretched for cash, and facing army mutinies in the late 1640s, allowed debentures to be used as a down-payment on purchases of land (often land confiscated from royalists). This killed several birds with one stone – defusing rank ‘n’ file discontent, cutting its debts, rewarding its supporters at the expense of political opponents, as well as buying off ambitious officers. Poor soldiers were selling debentures at prices between one shilling and sixpence to two shillings and sixpence in the pound – money in the hand to hungry folk offering greater immediate value than the land on offer.

According to JM Patrick’s account of the events of 1659: “The troubles began about May, 1659, “several of the Inhabitants destroyed some of the new enclosures erected by these intruders, and drove in cattle upon the standing grain, “to the great loss and damage of the purchasers.” In their view the trespass was lawful, “the pretended purchasers having no title.” The Intruders complained to the Council of State, who ordered local justices to protect the Intruders and to make use of two troops of horse which were sent to aid them if needed.

According to the Inhabitants, when the troops arrived in Enfield, they were given strong beer and money by the Intruders. The soldiers then fell upon some of the Inhabitants, slashed several of them and their servants, and even attacked poor labouring men who passed that way. Naturally the victims fought back. The Intruders then made legal complaints about the injuries suffered by their side. At first the Inhabitants refused to give evidence against their neighbours; threats forced them to give some evidence, but they refused to maintain it on oath. As a result of the declarations of the Intruders, several of the Inhabitants were bound over. When the jury could not find a bill because of insufficient evidence, justice Hobert, one of the Trustees of the Chase, forced them back. They found an indictment against some men who had nothing to do with the riot but who had previously said that they would put their sheep and cattle into the new enclosures to test their title. The other accused persons were acquitted.

The Inhabitants’ triumph was short; for “there was a design by some of the said justices, who were purchasers and trustees and men concerned therein and judges in the cause upon the Bench, to find a bill against those persons to take off the courage of the proprietors and commoners from their claims to the common, that they might the better force the proprietors’ common from them in the said Chase!” To aid this design, the Intruders protested to Whitehall that the slow proceedings against the first offenders were encouraging others to imitate their misdeeds. Accordingly the Council of State urged the Justices to take speedier action.

Meanwhile the Inhabitants laid countercharges against the Intruders and their agents, and an indictment was found against several of them. A warrant was issued to apprehend three of the enclosers, but justice Hobert, who was “a great agent and stickler against the said proprietors and a great offender in the destruction of wood in the said Chase, called to see the warrant and had and did then tear the same in pieces.” The Inhabitants were thus left without legal remedies; they could not even look for their cattle in the Chase because of threatened violence.

The threat became actual. Soldiers hired by the Intruders shot several sheep and ate them, killed valuable cattle and challenged the commoners to fight. On July 10, some drunken soldiers shot at Inhabitants who were walking on the common. On the next day, a number of the Inhabitants, according to their own account of the fray, armed themselves with cudgels, mattocks and forks, and challenged the authority of the soldiers. Seventeen soldiers and their commander marched against them, fired, killed one man and wounded others. The Inhabitants then turned upon the soldiers, captured nine or ten, and took them before justice Rich. After examining their confessions and the testimony of witnesses, he sent them to Newgate prison. They admitted that they were hired for sixpence a day more than their ordinary pay and that they had no authority from their chief cornmanders. Such was the Inhabitants’ story.

In the Intruders’ accounts of the fray, the behaviour of the “country people” at Enfield was cited as a horrid example of.the depravity of human nature. Thirty soldiers, under proper orders and leadership, had been sent to oust the trespassing cattle in a peaceful manner. They were attacked by about a hundred and sixty country fellows; ten of their number fought for almost an hour and finally yielded, “being so mightily overpowered… So that, this bloody conflict being ended, a guard was put upon the prisoners till they had cleared the field of the dead bodies, which is said to be two men and one woman of the countrymen’s side, besides many wounded; and one soldier, the Sergeant, was carried off… in a dying condition.” “Out of his favour to these inhuman fellows,” Justice Rich sent the other nine prisoners to Newgate, “with their wounds bleeding.” 16 The Inhabitants then fell upon the enclosures, set fire to the hedges, burnt up the stackwood, destroyed a barn and demolished houses. Their example, it was said, might well “inflame the whole nation.”

A brief account, written from the Intruders’ point of view, appeared in the government organ, Mercurius Politicus. Clearly the Intruders were too well entrenched and too influential in the Law Courts, Parliament, Council of State, and Army, for humble yeomen, tenant farmers and other commoners to be able to resist them by “legal” means. The resistance of the Inhabitants was suppressed. On July 16, the House of Commons issued orders concerning the riot. These were read in the churches on the following day.  Now assured of their predominance, the Intruders trampled upon the rights of the small proprietors and commoners. They or their hirelings wounded some of the inhabitants of Edmonton and killed a mare in the Chase, “at the insolency of which soldiers and purchasers of Enfield Chase without title, the country stands amazed.” But amazement was all; some troops of horse, sent by Parliament, restored order.

There were no further disturbances. In August, 1659, the much enduring Inhabitants suffered twenty-three deaths in a severe outbreak of the plague. With the Restoration, the Chase was given to the Duke of Albemarle, but the enclosures remained. Subsequently, almost the entire Chase was converted to tillage.

The small yeomen, tenant farmers and others who had traditional rights over the Chase probably had the better legal and moral case. The unscrupulous behaviour of the Intruders seems to prove this. Nevertheless, the Inhabitants were undoubtedly ‘unprogressive’: their small property rights stood in the way of the efficient development of the productive resources of the Chase.

The encroaching moneyed interests had the resources and the drive to exploit and develop the Chase; the locals with rights of woodcutting and pasturage on the Chase, had neither the power, resources or inspiration to take full advantage of its productivity.”

This was a fundamentally different vision of how land should be used; as a whole the enclosure process formed a fork in the road. Capitalist development in agriculture would undeniably lead to greater food production, wool production, increases in imports, to massive profits; this produced vast increases in wealth for the owners of the land and onward to vast funds which financed both the industrial revolution and to the British Imperial project. This process also inevitably meant the exclusion of millions from access to rural resources, to the reduction of independent or semi-independent commoners to the status of day labourers, to a massive influx of the rural dispossessed into the cities to look for alternative ways to support themselves.

“A peculiar feature of the enclosure troubles at Enfield was that while the Inhabitants protested loudly against the Intruders, they seem to have made no effort to eject some poor families who settled upon the Chase. Possibly the squatters’ encroachment was abetted by the Intruders in their desire to weaken the claims of their opponents. Certainly the toleration extended to this group differs from the eagerness with which persons with rights of common joined local lords of manors to eject the Diggers from common land which they had occupied in 1649. Perhaps the Inhabitants of Enfield were too much exhausted by the agrarian conflict, the fire and the plague to take any effective action.

Shortly after the Restoration, the residents of Enfield, including tenant farmers, prepared a petition complaining that two or three hundred families had settled on the Chase during the late unhappy times; they were destroying the timber and, if not restrained, would become chargeable to the parish. Therefore the petitioners asked leave to bring in a bill to Parliament to enclose their common fields and to establish a fund for employing the poor. The economic transition from the common fields to private ownership was thus to be greatly furthered; but details about what, if anything, was done at this time are lacking.

The scheme for employing the poor was possibly inspired by William Covell, a preacher and landowner at Enfield. He was the author of a compromise solution for the agrarian troubles there: workers’ co-operatives were to be established and financed by wealthy benefactors in order to use the resources of the Chase not primarily for profits, but to satisfy the needs of the community and to raise its general standard of living. Though his plans were never carried out, they are significant in the history of radical social thought; they have interesting parallels in some of the ideas of the Diggers; and they exemplify an aspect of Puritan utopianism.” (Patrick)

The events of 1659 were far from the last battles over enclosure on Enfield Chase. With the restoration of Charles II in 1660 common rights were restored, although violence was still present on the Chase during the 1660s. In November 1660 the farms which had been set up during the English republic were subjected to a campaign of hedge breaking; several of those ‘Intruders’ targeted by the 1659 rioters complained their new properties were attacked.

The commoners themselves were looking to re-establish a flexible ‘customary’ use of the chase as can be seen in several examples. In the early 1660s Robert White beat a gamekeeper who was attempting to impound his sheep. No doubt White felt aggrieved at such actions now that the chase had supposedly been spared systematic enclosure. Presumably White felt that the chase was now there for the benefit of himself and other locals. Also during the 1660s commoners continued to use the Chase as a fuel reserve. William Fairweather and his son were caught chipping trees and had their tools confiscated. It was of course to no avail and it was reported that they were soon back at work. John Clerke, an Edmonton smith, was caught cutting trees. When told to stop by the woodward he disregarded the order and simply continued. In 1669 Richard Garret, Nicholas Thompson and Robert James were all warned by the underkeeper to stop lopping trees on the Chase. They struck the underkeeper and continued with their work.

No sooner had the common rights at Enfield Chase been restored by Charles II than the fate of the common fields were immediately put in doubt. Lord Rainton and other large local landowners in the parish petitioned for enclosure of the Enfield common fields in 1660. Although unsuccessful in this attempt Rainton was influential as a local large landowner as well as being the MP for Middlesex between 1681-85. His local authority allowed him to make several enclosures on the Chase sometime alter the restoration to the annoyance of the commoners. In 1672 commoners drove their sheep in Rainton’s enclosures destroying ten acres of wheat and oats, and a further ten acres of grass. One of the commoners, a Mr Joseph Collet, threatened to open all Rainton’s enclosures notwithstanding ‘all Mr Raintons injunctions and all his perjured witnesses’ The following year Rainton found himself involved in legal action against some of his more powerful neighbours, including the Duke of Albemarle who had taken offence at Rainton’s enclosing activities.

Over the following decades, between 1660 and 1700, about 100 squatter cottages were reported on Enfield Chase: the increasing dispossessed and disenfranchised poor, being driven out by enclosure, who had nowhere else to go, making a living from marginal land.

In 1676 John Hale, the clerk of Enfield manor court, complained to Charles II that people from South Mimms, Enfield, Edmonton and Hadley were “an abundance of loose, idle and disorderly persons … and make great havock and wast of your majesty’s best timber and underwood on Enfield Chase.”

Enclosure continued to occupy the minds of local people here. In 1689 the Enfield vestry resolved that ‘We, whose names are hereby subscribed inhabitants of the parish of Enfield, do hereby promise and agree to stand by each other, in the behalf of ourselves and the rest of the parishioners, in endeavouring to restore our rights and privileges on Enfield Chase. And that the charge that we, or any of us, shall be at about the recovery and setting of the same, shall be defrayed out of the parish stocks’.

There were 21 signatures attached to the resolution. This was perhaps the way in which many instances of enclosure resistance were initiated.

In 1691 the Enfield vestry agreed to Sir John Battle enclosing his common field land upon payment of £60 to the parish funds. Local people strongly disagreed with the acquiescence of the vestry who had not represented the wider community in agreeing to such a deal. The commoners would now lose winter grazing rights due to the deal struck by the vestry. This was unacceptable and the commoners had destroyed the enclosures by 1703, thus re-opening the land to common usage and prompting Battle to appeal to the vestry to enforce their earlier agreement.

In November 1703 the commoners of Monken Hadley opened a voluntary subscription to the threat of losing their common rights on Enfield Chase with each attaching their name. Petitions of course consciously brought commoners together to fight as a group. This involved setting out demands and targeting their audience.

Once organised commoners could exert pressure on their more powerful neighbours which could include influential landlords; thus in 1718 landlords petitioned against Major General Pepper, who had leased the Chase, and had enclosed 30 acres of waste to the detriment of their tenants who had right of common there. Pepper became a hated figure of landlords, farmers and commoners alike in north-east Middlesex, due to his enclosing and oppressive tendencies. When Popper asked for a commission of local gentlemen to help him to stop wood being stolen from the Chase not one person would come forward.

Like previous owners, the lords Cottington, Rainton and Palmer, Pepper found himself struggling to enclose, and keep enclosed, land previously used by generations of Middlesex commoners.

In the 1720s General Pepper was shot at, in what seems to have been an assassination attempt, or at least a heavy warning; he had been engaged in a long often fruitless war with poachers and ‘woodstealers’ who were generally supported by a large section of the local population, and had had a number arrested and jailed – some were eventually hanged.

In 1783, only a small common, a rough lot and a small wood remained unenclosed; even these disappeared when an enclosure act was passed in 1801. At first, efforts to improve the gravelly clay soil of the Chase had little success, for much capital had to be expended to clear, drain and marl it. Obviously the Inhabitants could not have afforded to develop it properly for themselves.

Despite the centuries of resistance, between 1777 and 1801, what remained of Enfield Chase was finally enclosed.

Enclosure didn’t mark the end of struggles here however…

Charles Lamb witnessed the firing of several barns and haystacks at Enfield in December 1830, in the wake of the Captain Swing riots and commented that ‘it was never good times in England since the poor began to speculate upon their condition. Formerly they jogged on with as little reflection as horses. The whistling ploughman went check by jowl with his brother that neighed. Now the biped carries a box of phosphorus in his leather breeches, and in the dead of night the half-illuminated beast steals his magic potion into a cleft in the barn, and half the country is grinning with new fires’.

After Swing there were further threatening letters at Enfield, into 1831. It’s worth noting that when the crop failed in 1830, Irish migrant labourers rioted at nearby Barnet,

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Today in London’s anti-enclosure history, 1751: a crowd force entry into Richmond Park

On May 16th 1751, a group of local residents climbed over the wall into Richmond Park, to carry out the traditional ‘Beating the bounds’ ceremony – an annual walk around the borders of a parish. This act was an act of defiance of the enclosure of the park and the restriction of rights of access; one incident in a hundred-year long history of the public’s exclusion from this huge open space. Within seven years rights of access had been restored…

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King Charles I was fond of creating vast new hunting parks (his father James I had passed stringent game Laws preventing poor folk from hunting game animals on royal hunting land, (Charles II was to renew them in 1671). In the 1630s, Charles I oversaw the creation of Richmond Park.

Previous kings had already established a royal hunting ground in this area, by the 16th century this was known as Shene Chase; this was conveniently close to Shene Palace, re-built by king Henry VII at Richmond, and a favourite residence of the Tudor and Stuart rulers. Charles enclosed land which the crown already owned, but also appropriated some waste land, as well as common land from several local parishes – Richmond, Petersham, Kingston, Mortlake, Ham, Putney and Roehampton – together with two local farms, Hill Farm and Hartleton Farm. He also ‘persuaded’ local landowners to sell him more land – almost half the new park had previously belonged to someone else… many of whose families had lived there for generations, and provided a livelihood for many more, whose rights or interests in the land were not reflected by any ‘legal’ ownership rights. Others living and making a living in the area Charles wanted to enclose were crown tenants, who could and apparently were leant on, to give up their tenancies…

The king’s actions created a great deal of local resentment. Access to some traditional common rights for many of the local poor were almost certainly lost when the park was enclosed.

Even for those landowners forced to sell, the king’s price may have been high and fairly attractive, but several were apparently not happy to relinquish the land. In the end, though, who was going to say no to the king? Most acquiesced in the sale, but a stubborn minority held out. Charles responded by building a brick wall to separate out the park; many dissenters reluctantly gave in after this, as the wall would have in most cases cut them off from their lands inside.

Even the king’s most ardent supporters thought this kind of land grab was tactically a bad move. Laud, Bishop of London (later an Archbishop), and Lord Cottington, Chancellor of the Exchequer, both advised against such high-handed actions; not just because, as one advised him, that such behaviour was creating anger likely to bring about rebellion (Which of course it did), but because the expense of building a brick wall around the entire new park was huge. Cottington and Laud actively opposed the enclosure, trying to persuade Charles to drop the whole idea; without success.

Resistance having eventually been worn down, by 1635 there is evidence of Charles signing an agreement with several freeholders, copyholders and other inhabitants of Richmond, Kingston, Petersham, Ham, Mortlake and Wimbledon, to buy their lands for £4000. This amounted to 483 acres belonging to the manor of Ham and 265 acres belonging to the manor of Petersham.

It’s possible the king didn’t actually pay for all the lands he acquired. In Mortlake some locals who refused to sell had their land compulsorily purchased anyway; in retaliation they cut down all young trees and bushes on the land in question – over half of the land in Mortlake. The only recompense they seem to have received was an abolition of Ship Money [the tax Charles imposed nationally to raise money for the navy, a major grievance in the build up to the ‘great rebellion’ of the 1640s] for a year in the late 1630s.
The grievances created by the king’s high-handed actions burned locally for over 100 years.

There is some possibility too of canny politicking: the local poor’s right to access to the land for woodcutting & other fuels, was maintained. Unlike elsewhere, disgruntled well-to-do commoners or even landowners would be less likely to call on violent support from the poor if the latter’s own traditional usages were unaffected. Two rights of way were also apparently left open.

When Charlie lost his head, Richmond Park, like other royal property, was confiscated by the Commonwealth. Much royal property thus seized was sold off in the 1650s; however, Parliament granted the recently enclosed Richmond Park to the City of London, to keep the rich merchants on their side and providing cash too possibly (other lands were sold off, eg Hyde Park was flogged off to a private owner who proceeded to charge entrance fees). But with the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the park was enclosed again.

In the 18th century, Richmond Park was farmed out to rich politicians & royals, successively appointed ‘Park Ranger’, a nominal post (implying no actual work done) which however guaranteed a large income for them (around £6,500 a year, a huge sum then) and for the crown.

Robert Lord Walpole, son of the Prime Minister Robert Walpole, was appointed Ranger in 1740. His father, the Prime Minister, though, was widely regarded as effectively holding the position, making all the decisions, with his son as a mere figurehead. The elder Walpole spent a fair amount of money doing the park up, but to improve his enjoyment of the space, he restricted the rights of access that king Charles had left in place, removing a number of the ladders and closing some gates. He also had lodges set up at the remaining gates, with keepers, who had orders to admit, during the day, only “respectable persons” on foot, and carriages with the correct ticket. It is said that some ladders were replaced by mantraps, vicious devices usually aimed at injuring and trapping poachers; (I have not yet found evidence of this, though.)

The Park had, from a royal hunting ground, gradually become a resort of the nobility and royalty, for cavorting, riding, taking the air; the absence of plebs making the place look untidy was an obvious selling point for these nobs. But since the woods and fields there were full of deer, rabbits and hares, poaching in the park was a way of life, locally, especially as such good meat was expensive for the lower orders. Neighbouring Wimbledon Common being a notorious haunt of poachers, deer-stealers & other robbers. Between 1723 and 1725 there was a mini-war between deer-stealers & gamekeepers in Richmond Park, involving arson of keepers’ houses, and ‘diverse outrages and disorders’. At least two poachers were executed. John Huntridge, landlord of the Halfway House Inn on the wall of the Park, near Robin Hood Gate, was charged with harbouring deerstealers, but he was acquitted, to popular acclaim. Walpole had backed the case against Huntridge, and the landlord’s acquittal was widely seen not only as a local matter but as one in the eye for the rotten system of patronage and legal extortion Walpole and his class exercised though their control of public offices (like the Park Rangership).

The next Ranger of Richmond Park was Princess Amelia, favourite daughter of king George II, and a particularly hedonistic and self-centred royal with a strong sense of her entitlement to pretty much whatever she wanted. This included the desire to enjoy Richmond Park without the chance of ever coming across anyone of a lower social class than herself (ie almost everyone). Under her Rangership, the simmering local hostility broke into the open.

Shortly after taking up her appointment, in 1751, Amelia reduced access to the park even further, closing it completely to all except personal friends, and a few others; prospective visitors were required to obtain special permits, which weren’t easy to get hold of. She also blocked an old road from Kingston to Shene that had served as a footpath, and ignored legal warrants requiring the erection of stiles and ladders near Richmond Gate.

Local people reacted first of all by petitioning the Lord Chancellor (who, ironically, had supposedly himself been refused entrance!); but their petition was knocked back.

On Ascension Day 1751, the traditional annual “Beating of the Parish Bounds” ceremony, led by a Richmond clergyman, took place [I wonder if this local cleric was Thomas Wakefield, later a supporter of John Lewis’ campaigns to open up the Park?]. Ascension Day fell that year on 16 May – just over six weeks after Amelia had taken office as Ranger. Whereas in previous years, the Beating the Bounds’ party had been granted permission to enter the Park, this year they were refused. However, access was eventually obtained, albeit “with difficulty”. In fact, they entered by climbing over the wall, having either knocked down part of the wall, or taken advantage of an already damaged section. A publication later that year included an illustration of the incident, (see above) in which three of the Princess’ men can be seen sitting astride the wall, watching as a crowd clamber through a breach in the wall near Sheen Common. It is not known whether that the participants broke down the wall, but the walls were not always kept in a good state of repair, as a report in 1754 by the Deputy Ranger noted. It is possible, therefore, that the ‘trespassers’ simply exploited an existing defect. There is no legal record of anyone being prosecuted over this invasion of the park.

It is also uncertain quite how this Ascension Day incident – which clearly acquired a certain notoriety – related to Amelia’s closure of the Park. It may have been the trigger which led her to step up restrictions on access, or it may have been the first protest against actions which she had already taken at the very start of her Rangership.

The ‘Breaking the bounds’ incident was in effect an assertion of old rights of access to the old commons. It seems this ceremony had been allowed in previous years, but had been uncontroversial while some limited access was granted.

Further break-ins apparently followed the Ascension Day ‘trespass’. however. This incident was the effective beginning of a campaign of agitation and legal challenge through the 1750s.

The princess’ restrictions on access to the Park caused much inconvenience and resentment in the neighbouring parishes. Some political and legal opposition was launched in response: this included a  number of petitions, “memorials” (ie formal memoranda or addresses), press notices and pamphlets. The 28 July, 1752 edition of the Post Boy contained a memorial to the Princess from the owners of estates in the parishes adjoining the Park, asking for rights of roads and highways, stiles or ladders at the gates, supplies of gravel (sometimes dug in the park) to maintain high roads in the neighbourhood, access to water and watercourses, and to furze and underwood for burning as fuel. They also suggested doors in the wall for parish officers to perambulate the bounds. This and other petitions were ignored, however.

Failure to win concessions by publicity and campaigning led to legal action.  A trial took place in 1754, arising out of an incident where a group of gentlemen had apparently asked for admission to the Park from Deborah Burgess, then Deputy Ranger. As ordered by Princess Amelia, Shaw had refused admission, which sparked the case of Symonds v Shaw, which was heard on 12 & 13 November 1754 by Sir Dudley Ryder, Lord Chief Justice, Mr Justice Denison and Mr Justice Foster, sitting with a jury.  The attempt to enter the park had clearly been intended to provoke refusal as part of carefully planned strategy, as £1,095 had been collected by the inhabitants of East Sheen for the costs of the legal action.

The trial appears to have been a shambles. The prosecution called 27 witnesses, who gave evidence of rights of way for vehicles and pedestrians. No fewer than 37 witnesses were then called by the defence; these included many noblemen, Lord Palmerston among them. The inhabitants’ case was however dismissed.

John Lewis (1713-1792), who lived in Richmond, and owned a brewery near the Thames close to where Terrace Gardens now are, now took up the struggle. A stroppy character. It’s not known if he attended the 1754 trial, but he was clearly aware of it, and decided that a more focussed line of attack was needed.

In 1755 Lewis went with a friend to Sheen Gate and waited until a carriage approached. The carriage’s driver produced a ticket to the gatekeeper, Martha Gray, and was allowed by her to enter the Park. Lewis then tried to walk in through the gate before it could be closed. Gilbert Wakefield, (brother of Thomas Wakefield, the minister at Richmond Parish Church), recorded the brief exchange that followed:

MG: Where is your ticket?
JL: What occasion for a ticket? Anyone may pass through here.
MG: No – not without a ticket.
JL: Yes, they may; and I will.
MG: You shan’t.
JL: I will.

Martha Gray then pushed Lewis, who allowed the gate to be shut against him.

Lewis then brought an action against the keeper (in reality aimed at princess Amelia). The case of Rex v Gray was born. Lewis cleverly based his case on a narrow legal issue: Charles I’s concession of rights of way for pedestrians only, in contrast to the 1754 case, which had sought unrestricted access for walkers and carriages, and his case was not clouded by the mass of evidence which seems to have led to the dismissal of the earlier claim.

Another local controversy may have inspired Lewis’ when he made his legal challenge in 1755. The year before, Timothy Bennett, a shoemaker of Hampton Wick, had successfully challenged a similar situation in nearby Bushy Park (which lies just over the river from Richmond). The Earl of Halifax had erected a wall round Bushy Park in about 1734, resulting in local people having to undertake a much longer walk between Kingston and Hampton, where they had previously been able to cut through the park. In 1754, Bennett, then in his late 70s, made representations to Lord Halifax, who restored the rights of way without any court action being necessary. [In Sandy Lane, Bushy Park, a memorial was erected in 1900 to Timothy Bennett. A footpath is also named “Cobbler’s Way” in his memory.]

Lewis’s case over Richmond Park initially came on for hearing at the Summer Assizes in August 1757. However it was nearly scuppered by the appearance of a pamphlet which attacked Amelia and asserted the public rights of access to the Park – a “Tract in the National Interest”, published anonymously. This reminded reminded readers that “The right of the people to a free passage through Richmond Park was a privilege they always enjoyed until the late Sir Robert Walpole audaciously divested them of it” and that the signs of the existence of ancient highways were there for all to see who were not deliberately blind.

The judge, the new Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield, considered the pamphlet a libel, and its distribution sub judice and thus in contempt of court. He halted the trial and ordered those concerned with writing, publishing and distributing the pamphlet to be found. Lewis and his co-prosecutor, Shepheard, who were in court, were strongly suspected of being involved in the publication of the tract… However, in August, 1757, Lewis swore an Affidavit, denying being concerned in “printing or publishing the Pamphlett”. He also denied “dispersing any Copys” of it, and stated that he disapproved “of the printing or publishing any Matters which may have any undue influence on the minds of witnesses or the Jury”. However, he did not make any reference to the actual authorship of the pamphlet, leading Mansfield and many others to suspect he may have written it, if not more... Lewis was however not included in charges brought against some of those alleged to have been concerned with the publication of the offending pamphlet.

Lord Mansfield decided that the outcome of that trial would not have a bearing on the hearing of R v Gray, so he ordered that the substantive case involving the rights of access to the Park should be resumed at the next Assizes.

The case against Martha Gray eventually resumed at the Surrey Assizes, sitting at Kingston, on 3 April 1758. The court consisted of Sir Thomas Denison, Sir Michael Foster – who had been on the bench for the 1754 trial – and a jury.

After all the evidence was heard, the judges came down clearly in Lewis’s favour. He was asked by the court whether he wished to have gates made in the wall or step-ladders to go over it. Lewis decided that a door, which would have to be kept closed when not in use, so as to prevent the escape of deer, would give the impression that access was not freely available; and he also feared that, in time, a door might have a bolt fixed to it. So he opted for the erection of ladder stiles.

On 12 May 1758 ladder stiles and gates were affixed to Sheen Gate and Ham Gate; these were opened to the public on 16 May, when a “vast concourse of people from all the neighbouring villages climbed over the ladder stiles into the Park”. This re-opening occurred (by coincidence?) exactly seven years to the day after the Ascension Day trespass in 1751.

However, outraged at her defeat in court, princess Amelia ordered the rungs on the ladders to be widely spaced apart, so as to prevent people from using them. Lewis, however, went back to court over this, and Amelia was ordered to amend them so old people and children could use them.

Although people were supposed to keep strictly to the paths, it was reported that many simply started to wander the whole park, some reputedly declaring it to now be theirs ‘in common’. Initially carriages were still only let in with tickets. Another court case in 1760, attempting to open up the park for carriages was again lost; allegedly however, large-scale forgery of these tickets resulted.

Princess Amelia, clearly unable to stomach the invasion of a private playground by the hoi polloi, and unwilling to share the space, lost interest in the Park, and resigned the Rangership in 1761 (in return, according to Horace Walpole, for an annuity of £1,200).

John Lewis became a local celebrity. His portrait was painted by T. Stewart, a pupil of Sir Joshua Reynolds. The picture currently hangs in the Reference Library at the Old Town Hall, Richmond. An engraving was later made by Robert Field, a copy of which was said in the 18th century to hang in many homes in the area. On the engraving were the words of Rev. Thomas Wakefield: “Be it remembered that by the steady perseverance of John Lewis, brewer, at Richmond, Surry” [sic] “the right of a free passage through Richmond Park was recovered and established by the laws of his country (notwithstanding very strongly opposed) after being upwards of twenty years withheld from the people”.

But Lewis’ legal campaigns had left him pretty skint, and since his means of livelihood was lost when his brewing business was wrecked when the Thames flooded, he faced great poverty later in life. Local vicar Thomas Wakefield, another supporter of the campaign to open up the park, organised locals in the setting up of a small annual grant to help Lewis out, on which Lewis survived for some years, in recognition of the huge part he’d played in regaining popular access to the Park. A further effort to secure money for him was being made at the time of his death in 1792. Lewis was buried at St Mary Magdalene, the parish church of Richmond. The horizontal gravestone can be seen outside the church’s South side. The inscription, now in a poor state, reads:

“Here lie the remains of Mr John Lewis Late of this parish who died The 22 of October 1792 Aged 79 years”

It’s worth noting that despite Lewis’ achievement in legally confirming the right to cross the Park, this really only reclaimed pre-existing rights of way. The “right to roam” freely did not come about for another century at least. Public access continued to be restricted during the first half of the 19th century: although pedestrians could enter freely, they were largely confined to the roads and the defined footpaths. However, he had established the principle of public access, following failed attempts by others.

The enactment in 1872 of the Royal Parks and Gardens Regulations Act marked a new official approach to public access, (though in Richmond Park, a more relaxed attitude had prevailed from around 1850).

Ironically, it’s not impossible that king Charles I’s enclosure of the park, the outright bullying used to acquire the land and wall it off, is what has in fact preserved a massive tract of open space for what is in effect public use for us today. If Charles had not been so determined to over-ride the ‘rights’ of smaller landowners, their descendants would in all likelihood have developed their own parts of it, piecemeal, although it’s not impossible that parts could have survived here and there (as did Petersham Common and Ham Common, later). For instance – William Murray, Earl Dysart, was one of the major landowners ‘persuaded’ to sell lands to the king in the 1630s; much of his manor of Petersham was included in the New Park (in fact after petitioning the king in 1639, he was granted a perpetual title to Petersham, as partial recompense). His nineteenth century descendants were therefore still in possession of common land here – which they attempted to enclose, in the face of stiff local resistance (to which we will return another time).

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An entry in the
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Today in London parklife, 1576: locals attack fences enclosing common land, Osterley park

Osterley Park, West London, used to be the grounds of a large country house, built here for Sir Thomas Gresham in the late 16th century.Gresham was a merchant and financier who acted on behalf of King Edward VI, queens Mary I and Elizabeth I, the founder of the Royal Exchange in the City of London.

There were attempts to enclose land in the Heston and Isleworth area from as early as the 12th century, when Richard Duke of Cornwall enclosed land in Isleworth (only for Londoners to throw down the fences in 1264). Until the fifteenth century, and for some time afterwards, the arable lands in Heston and Isleworth lay mainly in open fields, though there were always some enclosed lands. In the 16th century some lands were thrown open for common grazing between Michaelmas and February. The earliest large enclosures may have been of the meadow and pasture lands round Syon Abbey in the 15th century: the abbey’s park north of the London Road may have also lain partly on former arable. In the later 16th century several people tried to enclose different bits of land. This, as elsewhere, represented a threat to the livelihoods of many of the local poor, who used common land for grazing animals, collecting fuel to burn during the winter, and also gathering some food stuffs.

Osterley Park was enclosed by Thomas Gresham under a licence granted to him in 1565 to ‘impark’ 600 acres. The trespasses that followed (see below) demonstrate that this was not very popular with the locals. Gresham included up to 140 acres of tilled lands in the park, though all of this was probably already enclosed, if not also used as pasture. Some at least had probably been enclosed assart (land converted from forest to arable use) from the beginning. Most of the land which Gresham ‘imparked’ was previously known as Osterley farm, which he already owned – some 200 acres stretching westwards from the house in Osterley Lane nearly to Heston village.

Queen Elizabeth I stayed with Sir Thomas Gresham at Osterley House, in early May 1576 (though elsewhere said to be the 10th-12th, this isn’t totally consistent with the accounts given in the letters written afterwards, see below, which suggest the enclosure riot took place overnight May 6th-7th). Queen Elizabeth was said to be impressed with Sir Thomas’s new posh gaff – however, her stay there was not uneventful.

During her visit, there was a protest by local people against his enclosure of common land. A crowd of villagers from Heston and Norwood gathered, and some women tore up the palings round his park and ‘diabolically and maliciously burnt’ them. It’s unclear whether the protest was deliberately timed to disrupt the queen’s visit, or was merely a coincidence. In any case, she was ‘greatly disquieted’ by the protest.

Good Queen Bess ordered that some of the rioters must be punished.

On May 22, the Privy Council wrote to Justice Southcote and the Recorder of London (William Fleetwood): ‘advertising them that where certain persons are committed to the Marshalsea, whose names are Joan Ayre, Mary Harris, George Lenton and George Bennet, for burning Sir Thomas Gresham’s park pale at that time when the Queen’s Majesty was there, wherewith her Highness was very much offended, and commanded that the offenders should be searched out and punished according to their offence. They are therefore required to take some pains therein and to appoint some time and place to have the prisoners brought before them, and severally to examine them and to induce them by all means they can to open the truth, and for their better instructions therein Sir Thomas Gresham will instruct them for that purpose, and Mr Attorney is appointed also to join with them if he conveniently may, or at least to send them such examinations as he hath heretofore taken in that matter’.

The Council also wrote to the Attorney-General [Gilbert Gerard] on June 18, ‘on May 6 [sic] at about 10 p.m. Joan Eyer wife of Nicholas Eyer of Heston husbandman and Mary Harris of Heston spinster broke into a park enclosed with pales and posts for the preservation of deer and other animals of Sir Thomas Gresham (the Queen with her Privy Council and many others in attendance on her being in ‘Osterley Park House’ within the park) and tore up and threw down posts and pales of the park. These posts and pales the said Joan and Mary on May 7 at 2-3 a.m. maliciously, diabolically and wickedly burnt, to the very great disquiet and disturbance of the Queen and her attendants. Also a True Bill that Joan, Mary, and about 20 other men and women, at the command and instigation of George Lenton tailor and Nicholas Hewes husbandman, all of Heston, on May 7 with staves, two-pronged forks, spades and axes at Osterley Park (the Queen being at Osterley House), broke down the enclosure. Adjourned to June 19.’

There are no extant records from July 19th however, and no indication of what happened to George Lenton, Nicholas Hewes, Joan Eyre and Mary Harris after they were sent to the Marshalsea Prison.

In the meantime, it seems the locals had got together a petition against Gresham regarding the enclosures, according to another letter from the Privy Council:

July 19, St James’s, Privy Council to five gentlemen, ‘with a petition exhibited to the Queen’s Majesty in the behalf of certain poor men complaining to receive wrong by an enclosure made by Sir Thomas Gresham of certain common ground, parcel of his Park’. The Queen has referred the matter to the Council, who now refer it to them to confer with both parties and to enquire into what rights were and are held over the common by the lord, the tenant and the cottager, and to examine ‘what detriment the poor men do receive by the means of this enclosure, what cattle they might keep afore, and what they may keep now’, and to give their opinions how ‘this controversy may be most reasonably compounded to the satisfaction of all parties’.

The queen’s outrage is consistent with her attitude (in common with all the Tudor monarchs) that poor folk should keep their place and be punished for questioning their betters; however, it would have doubtless been given extra spice both by her close proximity to the violent events, and by her own memory of the enclosure rebellions of 1548-9, which threatened the social order considerably when she was a young woman.

Enclosures were beginning to form a major issue in the mid-late 16th century. The destruction of much of the effective welfare system with the dissolution of the monasteries, was being compounded by the increasing rural upheaval, the acquisition of land by new and greedy classes, who saw profits from enclosure of open land into larger farms, often to enable larger flocks of sheep. As more people were driven to the social margins, more of the land available for subsistence was being fenced off; a vicious spiral that would only speed up over the next 200 years.

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 he house.

Two other 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 1634 about recent enclosures of the common lands.

Whether because of local resistance, or other factors, agriculture in Heston was relatively little affected by enclosures for centuries; and the open fields, in spite of enclosures on their edges, remained largely untouched until 1818.

There was a long rebel tradition locally; quite apart from the resistance to enclosure. Heston folk were involved in riots during the 1381 peasants Revolt.

And in 1830 several farmers in Heston received threatening letters during the Swing Rebellion.

And the locals are still not taking the theft of space lying down: only last year, residents of nearby Isleworth defeated 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!

Today in radical history, 1549: several days of resistance to enclosure begin in Ruislip

1549 saw rioting, sabotage and protest against the increasing pace of enclosure of common land across England by landowners, culminating in Kett’s Rebellion in Norfolk.

In April, this movement spread to Ruislip, then in the county of Middlesex.

At Ruislip, in April, one Thomas Strete had made himself unpopular, soon after he came into possession of the lease of former priory lands, by enclosing several pastures. According to the depositions, approximately 16-18 acres of ‘Wyndmyllfelde’ and ‘Churchefelde’ had been sown with oats, beans and tares.

This had taken place in March 1549. The ‘honest & substunciall inhabitantes’ of Ruislip petitioned Strete a number of times, asking him to allow the fields to be used according to custom. Strete replied ‘that if they coulde not lyve with oute their Comen there then they might avoide the towne & dwell ells where so they sholde not lyve upon that that he payed his rent for’.

From 14-23 April, the tenants of Ruislip asserted the common rights they had in the enclosed lands, based on custom and tradition. A group of more than sixteen people assembled to pull down the new hedge enclosing ‘Wyndmyllfelde’ on Palm Sunday (14 April).

John Parker, the labourer who opened the gate, was as a result badly assaulted by one of Strete’s servants, so that ‘he was not able to earn his lyving a good space after’. On the following Tuesday (16 April), Parker was beaten up again, so that the same servant ‘tooke suche acorage in mysusing his force upon suche pore wretches that he made his bost openly in the Churcheyarde there before a grete parte of the parishe … that if he had meft with any of the Churles or knaves of the said parish of Ruyslipe he wolde have served them lykewise’.

Fuelled by these assaults and by the goading by Thomas Strete’s servants, the situation escalated on Good Friday (April 19th), when a crowd returned to destroy the gate to this field, and remove its lock and chain.

When John Ferne, a labourer, complained to John Wheler ‘that his cowe lacked meate & his stover was spent’, the two men resolved to put their kine to pasture in ‘Wyndmyllfelde’ the following day, and, on 20 April, thirteen of the tenants took their cattle to the field. [‘Stover’ refers generally to winter fodder for cattle.] Ferne alleged that the field was now common land.

When Strete’s servants’ attempts to impound the tenants’ cattle, the crowd fought them off (actions similar to those which occurred elsewhere during the 1549 revolts, notably at Landbeach, Cambridgeshire).

After a short period of quiet over Easter Saturday and Sunday, the rioters again gathered on 22 April (Easter Monday), taking a great iron hammer to the locked gate. Protesters repeated this ‘whole ritual’ on two other ‘closes’, at ‘Churchefelde’ and ‘Cogmores’ the same day.

This action was again based on collective community assumptions and agreements on land use. Since ‘Churchefelde’ had been parcel of Wyndmyllfelde ‘tyme oute of mynde of than’, it was held that it should also have lain fallow in 1549, and not been elcnsoed and sown with crops. The defendants claimed that it was customary for certain fields to lie fallow every year, in accordance with the season of tillage adopted there (Wyndmyllfelde, Churchefelde and Cogmores should have lain fallow from Michaelmas 1548 until Michaelmas 1549). During fallow years, the tenants of the manor, the freeholders and copyholders of the parish and all other inhabitants in the parish who dwelt in any freehold or copyhold held of the manor had the right to pasture their livestock in the fallow fields by means of their tenancies. This ‘prescripsion usage & custome’ had been lawfully found before the escheator of the Shire of Middlesex and set down in writing by ‘a certen order’ taken before the king’s commissioners, allegedly in John Smith’s possession in 1549. Strete denied that an order had been made and, even if it had, he and his lessees would not have been ‘therby bounden’. The defendants refer to ‘the comen ffilde at Ryseslyp’ called Wyndmyllfelde’, whilst Strete alleged that Wyndmyllfelde formed part of the demesne lands.

Although one of Strete’s servants was allegedly assaulted at Wyndmyllfelde on 23 April, the protests were largely peaceful, and the tenants were careful to ensure that their action remained within circumscribed bounds. Rather than descending on the pasture in a disorderly crowd, they took turns to lead their cattle into ‘Wyndmyllfelde’ in an orderly fashion. According to reports, they showed a strange reverence for Strete’s corn, keeping their cattle to the unsown part of the ground, to avoid reprisals.

However, Strete alleged that the inhabitants’ cattle had destroyed the corn (elsewhere, anti-enclosure rioters had not been so careful: Sir Thomas Wroth’s grass was deliberate trampled during disorders at Enfield the same year).

Ironically, Strete’s livestock appear to have caused as much damage to the crop as the tenants’ cattle. Several of his hogs, sheep, mares, colts and horses had been seen in the corn at various thues. James Osmond saw Strete’s shepherd drive 300 sheep out of the corn and into the fold ‘at folding tyme’; according to William Gayler, the inhabitants had opened the foldcourse. The protestors are also accused of having shorn the sheep for their wool, perhaps as a symbol of Strete’s covetousness and commodity. Similar grievances arose from large-scale sheep-farming in Norfolk.

The protest had a strong sense of morality and justice about it, which may have been linked to church teachings – much of the action, and the exchange of news behind it, centred on the parish church – the focal point of the community during Easter. For example, John Parker opened the gate to Wyndmyllfelde on his way home from church on Palm Sunday; John Feme and John Wheler resolved to act on their way home from church on Good Friday; and William Gayler (Strete’s servant) delivered his threatening proclamation in the churchyard, so that it reached a wide audience.

John Parker thought nothing of opening the gate to ‘Wyndmyllfelde’ because it barred a common way through the fields which ‘oughte to be open to all the Kinges liege people’; the same gate was destroyed a second time after Strete had it locked up. Similarly, only three of the five great arable fields belonging to the manor of Ruislip (‘Wyndmyllfelde’ and the two fields known as Cogmores) were targeted in April 1549, on the grounds that Strete had wrongfully enclosed these fields and kept them in severalty in a year when they should have lain fallow, as common. Poverty and desperation gave further weight to the protestors’ cause and provided the main justification for direct action. The protestors lamented in exaggerated rhetoric that, having just come through ‘suche an harde wynter’, their ‘stover was spent and wasted’, and they had no pasture in which to put so much as a cow each in order to sustain their families. It was this sheer desperation which drove the protestors to resist Strete’s servants in ‘Wyndmyllfelde’ on 20 April. Fearing that Strete’s men had come to impound their cattle, and that the cattle would be starved to death (as Strete had threatened), the protestors withstood them ‘forasmuche as they thoughte themselves undone’ if their cattle were destroyed. As a lessee, Strete may have been targeted due to a tenuous commitment to the local community, which allowed him to put speculative interest and private profit ahead of the communal good. Strete is certainly portrayed as the villain of the piece. He was insensitive to the inhabitants’ plight… he encapsulates the spiritual and material means by which ‘the rich intended the destruction of ‘the poor commons’ in 1549. In enclosing and sowing part of ‘Wyndmyllfelde’ in March 1549, ‘for his owne onely lucre & proffit’, Strete intended both the ‘breaking & intempcion’ of its customary usage and the ‘undoing’ of the poor inhabitants of the manor, who were excluded from the field where they had formerly had common. This direct challenge to manorial custom, held ‘tyme oute of mynde of man’, threatened to erode the very foundations upon which this local community had been constructed. Furthermore, the defendants skilfully employed the rhetoric of depopulation to show that Strete’s behaviour endangered the community in a far more literal sense, causing the poor inhabitants of the parish to fear that they would be forced ‘to forsake their lyvinges & dwellinges’.

Ruislip had a radical tradition, dating back at least to 1381, when rebelling peasants attacked a local manor houses to destroy hated records of the feudal dues owed to the landowners.

And disorder carried on here, though not always with an economic grievance. In 1576, a group of artisans, “with unknown malefactors to the number of 100, assembled themselves unlawfully and played a certain unlawful game, called football, by reason of which unlawful; game there arose amongst them great affrays.”

But trouble over enclosures was to be a sore point here for centuries. In May 1834, nine trustees of the Ruislip ‘poors field’, 60 acres of pasture set aside for poor cottagers under the Ruislip enclosure award in 1804, were prevented from enforcing the strict regulation of the common pasture ‘in consequence of a riotous assemblage of persons’… Almost all those subsequently convicted at the Uxbridge Petty Sessions were Ruislip inhabitants and several had legal rights to the field.

 

Sources: ‘Commotion Time: The English Risings of 1549’, Amanda Claire Jones.

Paul Carter: ‘Enclosure Resistance in Middlesex 1656 – 1889: A Study of Common Right Assertion’ (PHD thesis)

 

Today in radical history, 1649: the ‘Diggers’ take over common land, St George’s Hill

“In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason, made the Earth to be a Common Treasury, to preserve Beasts, Birds, Fishes, and Man, the lord that was to govern this Creation; for Man had Domination given to him, over the Beasts, Birds, and Fishes; but not one word was spoken in the beginning, That one branch of mankind should rule over another..

…we begin to Digge upon George-Hill, to eate our Bread together by righteous labour, and sweat of our browes, It was shewed us by Vision in Dreams, and out of Dreams, That that should be the Place we should begin upon; And though that Earth in view of Flesh, be very barren, yet we should trust the Spirit for a blessing. And that not only this Common, or Heath should be taken in and Manured by the People, but all the Commons and waste Ground in England, and in the whole World, shall be taken in by the People in righteousness, not owning any Propriety; but taking the Earth to be a Common Treasury, as it was first made for all.”
(The True Levellers Standard Advanced, 1649)

On April 1st 1649, a small group of men and women moved onto wasteland at St George’s Hill, near Weybridge, in the parish of Walton-on-Thames in north Surrey, and began to dig over the land and plant vegetables.

This followed a brief prelude when on a Sunday, (either a few days before, or on April 1st itself) several soldiers had invaded the parish church at Walton, startling the congregation by announcing that the Sabbath, tithes, ministers, magistrates and the bible were all abolished. To disrupt the pious sermons of the parish was shocking; just as outrageous to religion was to disrupt the Sabbath by digging the land. The group carrying out such actions knew they were flaunting their questioning of conventional religious practice, as well as challenging the ‘common’ assumptions about use of land. Pun intended.

On April 2nd, several other people arrived to join them, and they continued to dig and pant for several weeks. Although in number they amounted to 30-40 people, they confidently predicted that they would soon be joined by 5000 more…

Based on their proclamations and Gerard Winstanley’s writings, the ethos of the group can be said to be a roughly egalitarian agrarian communism: they advocated the taking over of waste lands of the manors, by the poor, to be worked collectively, to grow food and raise animals, to feed all, for need, not profit.

The enclosure of common land – fencing off open fields, waste and woodland, for more intensive pasturing of sheep or more intensive agriculture, by landowners or their tenants – had become a major grievance in English rural society. Lords of the Manors, newer aspiring farmers seeking profits and speculators were enriching themselves by shutting out people who had traditionally used common land to graze animals, collect wood and other fuel, and gather foodstuffs. The loss of this access was catastrophic for many in rural communities, especially the poorest, for whom these customary rights formed a part of their precarious subsistence.

Revolt and protest against enclosure had been increasing for a hundred years, but social and economic change had strengthened the pressure to enclose and ‘improve’. The economic upheavals that contributed to and were then reinforced by the English Civil War laid even more pressure in the rural poor.

Hand in hand with desperation, the civil war was a product of, and also unleashed a further flood of, a spread of new rebellious ideas about religion, social order, and the rights or liberties of wider and wider sections of society. Everything came into question, as a broad alliance of religious non-conformists, rising classes seeking more power, and opponents of arbitrary royal rule rebelled against the monarchy. The floodgates opened, censorship collapsed, crowds began bringing radical politics into the streets as well as the print shops.

Opposition to the aristocratic and mercantile control of the land, fundamental to daily existence, was bound to come into question too. Royal lands previously enclosed but under parliamentary control were thrown open or raided by crowds for food. And as the civil war came to an end, the radical ideas that had emerged, often among the soldier-citizens of the New Model Army, found themselves expressed as ground-breaking thought and action on how land should be controlled, worked- and for whose benefit.

The group who took over St George’s Hill called themselves ‘True Levellers’, but we’re derogatively nick-named ‘Diggers’ – both names referencing both the current Leveller movement for political change, and previous social movements which had challenged enclosure of common land, in the ‘Midlands Revolt’ of 1607. Their adoption of the Leveller moniker upset the leadership of the Leveller group in London, who made it clear in several publications that they were not for the expropriation of anyone’s property, and not fully for the full emancipation of the social classes the ‘diggers’ were addressing and to some extent representing. In effect, that they weren’t up for ‘levelling’ at all… However, the Levellers we’re not united on the question of land; some of the agitator petitions had called for reversal of enclosures, and in other Leveller tracts more sympathetic mentions are made of opening up the commons. The pro-Leveller newspaper, the Moderate, printed the ‘True Levellers’ manifesto in full and uncritically. Later, after their political defeat by Cromwell, the Levellers were to stress resistance to enclosures more fully in their programs.

They may have chosen their local common and waste to dig on, but the site was perfectly placed to make the news and arouse both support and hostility. Close to London; close also to Windsor Great Forest, where hundreds of people had raided the king’s deer since the beginning of the civil war. Close to the routes from the capital to Portsmouth, where news travelled fast. Near to Kingston, a radical centre in religion and politics for several years before and after, with a long puritan tradition and a recent stronghold of the New Model Army in their fight against parliamentary moderates in 1647…

From the beginning of their project, however, thy encountered the violent opposition of some local residents. Over the first few weeks of the colony’s life, they were raided and attacked by mobs, sometimes numbering over 100, who burned houses they had built, stole and destroyed their tools, forcibly dragged some of the ‘diggers’ to Walton Church where they were assaulted and abused.

The local landowners, led by Francis Drake, lord of the Manor of Walton, John Platt, lord of the Manor of Cobham, and Sit Anthony Vincent, lord of the Manor of Stoke d’Abernon, co-ordinated attacks on the ‘diggers’.

News of the commune spread quickly: by April 14th, only two weeks after they had launched their experiment, the leaders of the Levellers in London issued a manifesto, in which, despite not mentioning the St George’s Hill events, saw them refuting any links to those who would ‘level all men’s estates’. Opponents of the Levellers were clearly seizing the chance of associating them with the communists in Surrey to attempt to scare people into backing off from supporting them. It shows the limit of the Leveller programme, and their organisational weakness at the time, that they feared the association and took steps to distance themselves from the ‘True Levellers’.

Later in April, one or more of the ‘diggers’ again invaded the church at Walton, filling the pulpit with briars and thorns to prevent the parson from preaching…

Despite the attacks, the St George’s Hill commune continued. Their activities had brought them to national prominence – on April 16th the group were discussed in the Council of State, after Henry Sanders of Walton informed the Council of their actions.

“On Sunday night last there was one Everard, once of the army but was cashiered, who termeth himself a prophet, one Stewer (Star) and Coulton and two more, all living in Cobham, came to St George’s Hill in Surrey and began to dig on that side of the hill next to Campe Close, and sowed the ground with parsnips, carrots and beans. On Monday following they were there again, being increased in their number and on the next day, being Tuesday, they fired the heath and burned at least 40 rood of heath, which is a very great prejudice to the Towne. On Friday last they came again, between twenty and thirty, and wrought all day at digging. They did then intend to have two or three ploughs at work, but they had not furnished themselves with seed-corn, which they did on Saturday at Kingston. They invite all to come and help them, and promise them meat, drink and clothes. They do threaten to pull down and level al park pales, and lay open, and intend to plant there very shortly. They give out they will be four or five thousand within ten days, and threaten the neighbouring people there, that they will make them all come to the hills and work; and forewarn them suffering their cattle to come near the plantation; if they do, they will cut their legs off. It is feared they have some design in hand.”

The Council (whose president, John Bradshaw, might have been thought biased – he owned the old manor house of Walton) wrote to General Fairfax, commander of the New Model Army, suggesting he took action against the group, on the grounds that

“although the pretence of their being there by them avowed may seeme very ridiculous yet that conflux of people may bee a beginning whence things of a greater and more dangerous consequence may grow to a disturbance of the peace and quiet of the commonwealth.”

Ie – this example might spread…

The Council also ordered the Justices of the Peace in Surrey

“… to send for the contrivers or promoters of those riotous meetings and to proceed against them…”

Two troops of mounted soldiers were ordered to Kingston, to investigate and put down any trouble. Their captain, Gladman, reported three days later to Fairfax that Gerard Winstanley and William Everard had agreed to come to London to explain their actions to the General. Gladman himself seems to have visited the commune at this time, and thought the Council was over-reacting.

On Friday 20th April, Everard and Winstanley appeared before Fairfax, refusing to remove their hats as assign they had no respect for social rank. Everard declared that since the Norman Conquest, England had lived under a tyranny more ruthless than the Israelites endured in captivity in Egypt; but that God had revealed to the poor that their deliverance was at hand, and that they would soon be free to enjoy the fruits of the Earth. Everard reported that he had had a vision, in which he had been commanded to “arise and dig and plant the earth and receive the fruits thereof.” The two men denied that they had any intention of seizing anyone else’s property and destroying enclosures, but were only claiming the commons, the rightful possessions of the poor. These they would work collectively, seeking to relieve the distressed. They did, however, give voice to their hope that the poor throughout the land would follow their example and take over common land, and named Hounslow, Hampstead Heath and Newmarket as places where they felt groups would shortly follow their lead. And though they refuted allegations that they were out to seize the lands of the wealthy, they did confidently assert that they believed soon that people would give up their property voluntarily, joining with them in community. Everard declared that they would not use force even in self-defence.

On the same day as this interview with Fairfax, April 20th, the group issued a manifesto, The True Levellers Standard Advanced, or the State of Community opened and presented to the Sons of Men.

The True Levellers’ ideas

The True Levellers Standard presents the True Levellers’ political and social program very much through what seem like a religious and mystical prism; as did many of the tracts and pamphlets of the civil war years. The Christian heritage of all the radicals was a common launching point; in the preaching and writings of the 1640s and 50s the texts of the bible are opened up to a flowering of a thousand interpretations, many of with them carrying subversive and ground-breaking thoughts…

The pamphlet takes the biblical idea of the Earth as God’s gift to all, equally, and turns it into social commentary, echoing John Ball in the Peasants Revolt, who had preached ‘When Adam delved and Eve Span, Who was then the gentleman?’ – God had intended no man to be lord over others. Greedy men had, by force and violence, set themselves up as lords over their fellows and over the earth.

“And hereupon, The Earth (which was made to be a Common Treasury of relief for all, both Beasts and Men) was hedged in to In-closures by the teachers and rulers, and the others were made Servants and Slaves: And that Earth that is within this Creation made a Common Store-house for all, is bought and sold, and kept in the hands of a few, whereby the great Creator is mightily dishonoured, as if he were a respector of persons, delighting int he comfortable Livelihoods of some, and rejoycing in the miserable povertie and straits of others. From the beginning it was not so.” (The True Levellers Standard Advanced)

Private property is described as the original sin: “For it is shewed us, That so long as we, That so long as we, or any other, doth own the Earth to be the peculier Interest of Lords and Landlords, and not common to others as well as them, we own the Curse, and holds the Creation under bondage; and so long as we or any other doth own Landlords and Tennants, for one to call the Land his, or another to hire it of him, or for one to give hire, and for another to work for hire; this is to dishonour the work of Creation; as if the righteous Creator should have respect to persons, and therefore made the Earth for some, and not for all: And so long as we, or any other maintain this Civil Propriety, we consent still to hold the Creation down under that bondage it groans under, and so we should hinder the work of Restoration, and sin against Light that is given into us, and so through fear of the flesh man, lose our peace.

And that this Civil Propriety is the Curse, is manifest thus, Those that Buy and Sell Land, and are landlords, have got it either by Oppression, or Murther, or Theft; and all landlords lives in the breach of the Seventh and Eighth Commandements, Thous shalt not steal, nor kill”

… while Christ and the early Christians had shared their goods and labour: ”It is shewed us, That all the Prophecies, Visions, and Revelations of Scriptures, of Prophets, and Apostles, concerning the calling of the Jews, the Restauration of Israel; and making of that People, the Inheritors of the whole Earth; doth all seat themselves in this Work of making the Earth a Common Treasury; as you may read… And when the Son of man, was gone from the Apostles, his Spirit descended upon the Apostles and Brethren, as they were waiting at Jerusalem; and Rich men sold their Possessions, and gave part to the Poor; and no man said, That ought that he possessed was his own, for they had all things Common, Act. 4.32”

But the time was coming when equal and free enjoyment of the earth would be restored, when the mastery of the landlords would be set down.

In seeing their actions on the commons as the beginning of that restoration of the earth as a Common Treasury, the ‘diggers’ also hail the Millennium – the impending return of Jesus, prophesied in the Book of Revelations, when earthly authority would be set down and a thousand-year rule of the saints begin. Almost all the civil war radicals thought the Millennium almost upon them; things began to get dangerous for the powers that be when, like the millenarians of the middle ages, the sects started to see themselves as the instruments who would bring the change about…

“But when once the Earth becomes a Common Treasury again, as it must, for all the Prophesies of Scriptures and Reason are Circled here in this Community, and mankind must have the Law of Righteousness once more writ in his heart, and all must be made of one heart, and one mind. Then this Enmity in all Lands will cease, for none shall dare to seek a Dominion over others, neither shall any dare to kill another, nor desire more of the Earth then another; for he that will rule over, imprison, oppresse, and kill his fellow Creatures, under what pretence soever, is a destroyer of the Creation, and an actor of the Curse, and walks contrary to the rule of righteousnesse: (Do, as you would have others do to you; and love your Enemies, not in words, but in actions).”

War and force developed, and continued to exist, only to defend private property:

“… wherefore is it that there is such Wars and rumours of Wars in the Nations of the Earth? and wherefore are men so mad to destroy one another? But only to uphold Civil propriety of Honor, Dominion and Riches one over another, which is the curse the Creation groans under, waiting for deliverance.”

In response to force, the True Levellers Standard Advanced firmly states the group’s position as one of passive resistance, of Pacifism and healing the divide with collective labour:

“And we shall not do this by force of Arms, we abhorre it, For that is the work of the Midianites, to kill one another; But by obeying the Lord of Hosts, who hath Revealed himself in us, and to us, by labouring the Earth in righteousness together, to eate our bread with the sweat of our brows, neither giving hire, nor taking hire, but working together, and eating together, as one man, or as one house of Israel restored from Bondage; and so by the power of Reason, the Law of righteousness in us, we endeavour to lift up the Creation from that bondage of Civil Propriety, which it groans under.”

Oppression is analysed as being not only down to some men raising themselves up to command others, but the rest accepting this, seeing themselves as unworthy and lesser… The rulers and the ruled both collude to allow the inequality to continue; in revolt against this, he asserts a social duty NOT to work for the rich: “This Declares likewise to all Laborers, or such as are called Poor people, that they shall not dare to work for Hire, for any Landlord, or for any that is lifted up above others; for by their labours, they have lifted up Tyrants and Tyranny; and by denying to labor for Hire, they shall pull them down again. He that works for another, either for Wages, or to pay him Rent, works unrighteously, and still lifts up the Curse; but they that are resolved to work and eat together, making the Earth a Common Treasury, doth joyn hands with Christ, to lift up the Creation from Bondage, and restores all things from the Curse.”

The ‘Standard’ strikingly references the sufferings of the civil war, the promises of liberty made by parliamentary leaders to enlist support from the common folk – promises broken:

“O thou Powers of England, though thou hast promised to make this People a Free People, yet thou hast so handled the matter, through thy self-seeking humour, That thou has wrapped us up more in bondage, and oppression lies heavier upon us; not only bringing thy fellow Creatures, the Commoners, to a morsel of Bread, but by confounding all sorts of people by thy Government, of doing and undoing.

First, Thou hast made the people to take a Covenant and Oaths to endeavour a Reformation, and to bring in Liberty every man in his place; and yet while a man is in pursuing of that Covenant, he is imprisoned and oppressed by thy Officers, Courts, and Justices, so called.

Thou hast made Ordinances to cast down Oppressing, Popish, Episcopal, Self-willed and Prerogative Laws; yet we see, That Self-wil and Prerogative power, is the great standing Law, that rules all in action, and others in words.

Thou hast made many promises and protestations to make the Land a Free Nation: And yet at this very day, the same people, to whom thou hast made such Protestatins of Liberty, are oppressed by thy Courts, Sizes, Sessions, by thy Justices and Clarks of the Peace, so called, Bayliffs, Committees, are imprisoned, and forced to spend that bread, that should save their lives from Famine.

And all this, Because they stand to maintain an universal Liberty and Freedom, which not only is our Birthright, which our Maker gave us, but which thou hast promised to restore unto us, from under the former oppressing Powers that are gone before, and which likewise we have bought with our Money, in Taxes, Free-quarter, and Bloud-shed; all which Sums thou hast received at our hands, and yet thou hast not given us our bargain…”

(It’s worth comparing this to the pressure for social change post World War 1 and WW2 – the narrative of collective suffering, the hardships gone through deserving a new social contract: ‘we haven’t gone through all of this for nothing’…)

The belief that the time of righteousness was almost upon them must have seemed justified. Momentous change was already afoot… only two months before, the king had been tried, executed and monarchy abolished. The struggle between the army leaders and rank and file soldiers & their political allies was coming to a head; mutinies we’re breaking out in the New Model Army. The sense of possibility, of boundaries being broken, of the social order of the world being turned upside down was electric.

General Fairfax thought the ‘True Levellers’ largely harmless, considering Everard slightly mad. Many others in power and influence were no so sure, as many of the newsbooks and papers of that month illustrate.

While some dismissed them as “a distracted crack-brained people” (A Perfect Summary of an Exact Diary of some passages of Parliament, April 16-23 1649), others feared their example would indeed lead others into following them. Mercurius Pragmaticus warned “What this fanaticall insurrection may grow into cannot be conceived for Mahomet had as small and despicable a beginning whose damnable infections have spread themselves many hundreds years since over the face of half the Universe.”

In the following week, a crowd drove the ‘diggers’ from St George’s Hill, but they soon returned and resumed their planting.

Around this time, William Everard left the group… Although Winstanley is much better known as leader of the’ Diggers’, because his writings expressed their ideas clearly and have survived. Everard was early on reckoned as the spokesman. Like the overwhelming majority of the radicals of the time, it seems likely that he had fought in the New Model Army – a man of that name appears as a scout in 1643 and another William Everard as an Agitator in 1647. Arrested after the mutiny at Corkbush Field, near Ware, in November 1647 (together with William Thompson, later shot attempting to travel to the Wellingborough digger commune, and other mutineers), he had been cashiered out of the Army. Thereafter he may have considered himself a prophet or preacher – if this is the same person as a man called Everard, staying with the radical John Pordage in Berkshire, in 1649, who later was ‘seen in London in a frantic posture’ and ‘committed by authority to Bridewell’. It may be the same man as the digger, who Fairfax in 1649 thought ‘a madman’.

Everard was later said to have left the St George’s Hill commune in April 1649 to join the mutiny against Cromwell at Burford, but this may be a confusion with a Robert Everard, who was present (and who also published radical pamphlets between 1649 and 1652); although William Thompson, arrested with Everard after Ware, was involved in the Burford events, leading some of the mutineers.

The thousands the True Levellers hoped would shortly follow their example, however, did not materialise. There were some expressions of solidarity. In May, A Declaration of the Wel-Afected in the County of Buckinghamshire (echoing some of their argument and language) asserted that the ‘middle sort’ of the County had been labouring under oppression, championed the ‘diggers’ and denounced anyone interfering with the “community in God’s way”. (An earlier tract from this county, A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, had possibly influenced, and certainly chimed with, the ideas of Winstanley and his group.

Fairfax passed by St George’s Hill on May 29th, and met with the diggers again, and although he told them off, seems to have been satisfied they were pacifists posing no threat to order.

However, the local worthies of Walton and Cobham were surer about the threat to their private property, and again and again they led attacks on the little commune, repeatedly smashing houses, destroying plants and tools, and harassing and arresting diggers. In response, the diggers issued a second manifesto, written in late May, A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England, in which they announced they would cut and fell trees on the common to sustain themselves while they were waiting for crops to grow. The wood on the common belongs to the poor, they said, and they warned the lords to stop carrying off this wood.

In early June, the ‘Digger’ community was attacked by soldiers hired by the local landowners, commanded by a Captain Stravie, who wounded a man and a boy working on the land and burned a house. Two days later, four diggers were attacked on the common by several men, who beat them brutally, mortally injuring one. The thugs also smashed the diggers’ cart.

In July, an action was brought against the ‘diggers’ for trespass on the land owned by Francis Drake, and they were called to appear at Kingston Court. Indicted were Gerard Winstanley, Henry Barton, Thomas Star, William Everard, John Palmer, Jacob Hall, William Combes, Adam Knight, Thomas Edcer, Richard Goodgreene, Henry Bickerstaffe, Richard Mudley, William Boggeral and Edward Longhurst, all described as ‘labourers of Walton-on-Thames, and accused of ‘by force of arms at Cobham riotously and illicitly assembled themselves… to the disturbance of the public peace and that the aforesaid did dig up land to the loss of the Parish of Walton and its inhabitants.”

Their plea to be allowed to speak in their own defence (as they couldn’t afford, and on principle were opposed to, hiring a lawyer) was refused, and a hostile jury found them guilty. They were fined ten pounds per person for trespassing and a penny each for costs, but couldn’t pay this, and so two days later bailiffs raided the settlement and carried off some of their goods and four cows (though these were subsequently rescued by ‘strangers’. Henry Bickerstaffe was also imprisoned for three days.

At some point, John Platt of Cobham, one of their main opponents, pledged to join the group and bring in his property in common, if Winstanley could show to his satisfaction that justify their actions in scripture; however, this was either a trick or Platt was unconvinced, as his backing for attacks on the commune continued.

In August, Winstanley was arrested again for trespass, and fined four pounds. Bailiffs again unsuccessfully tried to drive off the diggers’ cattle, though they were pastured on a neighbour’s land. More attacks sponsored by the landowners took place – five diggers were assaulted, arrested and spent five weeks in prison. On November 27-28, a group of local men and soldiers were ordered by the lords of the manor to again destroy the houses the group had built and carry off their belongings. Not all the men carrying this out were happy to be the tools of the landlords – one soldier gave some money to the diggers.

Still the communists continued to return to St George’s Hill and replant crops of wheat and rye, and build little houses, declaring that only starvation could deter them from their mission of making “a common treasury” of the earth.

The church also entered the struggle against the True Levellers. Surrey ministers preached to their congregations that they should not give any food or lodgings to the communists; they were denounced as atheist, libertines, polygamists and ranters.

At some point, the St George’s Hill commune sent out a delegation to travel around and urge the poor in other areas to follow the group’s example and to collect financial aid for the beleaguered experiment. This delegation, consisting of at least two of the original group, travelled through Buckinghamshire, Surrey, Hertfordshire, Middlesex, Berkshire, Huntingdonshire and Northamptonshire, visiting more than thirty towns and villages, carrying a letter signed by Winstanley and twenty-five others, declaring that they would continue their struggle but appealing for funds, as their crops had been destroyed.

These ambassadors were arrested in Wellingborough in Northamptonshire; perhaps because here their message inspired a second digger revolt. In March 1650, poor inhabitants of the town began to dig collectively on a “common and waste-ground called Bareshank”. [a piece of land on the left-hand side of the road coming from Wellingborough (from the Park Farm Industrial Estate past the “Mad Mile”) at the junction where it meets the Sywell to Little Harrowden Road.] They managed to secure the support of several freeholders and local farmers, but faced similar repression as the Surrey commune.
On April 15, 1650, the Council of State ordered Mr Pentlow, a justice of the peace for Northamptonshire to proceed against ‘the Levellers in those parts’ and to have them tried at the next Quarter Session. Nine of the Wellingborough Diggers – Richard Smith, John Avery, Thomas Fardin, Richard Pendred, James Pitman, Roger Tuis, Joseph Hichcock, John Pye and Edward Turner – were arrested and imprisoned in Northampton jail and although no charges could be proved against them the justice refused to release them.

Captain William Thompson, a leader of the failed 1649 “Banbury mutiny” of Levellers (most of whom were killed in the churchyard whilst trying to escape) was apparently killed – in a skirmish on his way to join the Digger community in Wellingborough – by soldiers loyal to Oliver Cromwell in May 1649.

Another digger collective also started up at ‘Coxhall’ in Kent; the location of which is uncertain (it as been suggested it was northwest of Dover; or was Cox Heath near Linton, Cock Hill near Maidstone or even Coggeshall in Essex, the latter being a radical hotspot). Its worth noting that in 1653, a pamphlet was published in Kent, anonymously, called No Age like unto this Age, which according to Christopher Hill showed digger influence.

It’s though that the travelling delegation visited areas where the diggers had contacts or thought they would meet a sympathetic audience. There may well have been digger groups or attempted communes at Iver (the origin of the Light Shining in Buckinghamshire pamphlet), Barnet in Hertfordshire, Enfield in Middlesex, Dunstable (Bedfordshire), Bosworth (Leicestershire), and other unknown locations in Gloucestershire and Nottinghamshire. Many of these are listed as being visited by the digger ambassadors, as was Hounslow, where another colony was definitely planned. Hounslow Heath and Enfield Chase were regular venues for anti-enclosure struggles; it’s likely some of those resisting landlord encroachment onto common land were also involved in digger-like actions.

Enclosure battles at Enfield also inspired local resident William Covell to write a pamphlet, known under two alternative titles, A Declaration unto the Parliament, Council of State and Army, and The Method of a Commonwealth, suggesting a radical new approach to land use, which bore some resemblance to the diggers’ program.

It’s worth noting that both Covell and the Diggers did not take their starting point as the re-opening of enclosed common land with a resumption or preservation of common rights as then understood. Common rights as evolved under several centuries of tradition were a complex web of custom, class relations and toleration. Although they had been created by struggle between landowners and local residents, they were rarely simple. Rights could be bought and sold, and ‘commoners’ with defined interests in manorial waste or fields could be wealthy themselves, sharing some but not all interests of the poor whose access was a matter of tradition. Commoners in one manor could be enclosers or encroachers on the common there or elsewhere; some supported enclosure with promise of compensation; some opposed from their own point of view or from feelings of social conscience or desires to maintain social peace.

In contrast to this, Winstanley proposed common land be collectivised for need, by those in most need, and worked and controlled from below. In this can possibly be seen their class awareness that commoners and poor did not share the same interests. Rights of well-to-do commoners would go out of the window with the ‘rights’ of the lords of the manors. The common good would determine land use. This in itself was a threat not only to the landowners but the wealthier tenants and the church, and to many ‘commoners’ as well. It also may have unsettled some poorer residents who feared their own slender rights were under question: these last may have been easy to whip up against the diggers by the richer locals, ‘Look these people will take away the little you have!’ (say the ones already taking it away with the other hand…)

The communists moved from St. George’s Hill to nearby Cobham Heath early in 1650.

In February 1650, the Council of State again ordered army intervention, bidding Fairfax to address complaints of woods being ‘despoiled’ by arresting the offenders, to prevent the diggers encouraging “the looser and disordered sort of people to the greater boldness in other designs…”

By April 1650, the St George’s Hill commune was in effect defeated and the second experiment at Cobham also followed shortly. A week before Easter Parson Platt attacked a man and a woman working on the heath; a week later he returned with several men and set fire to houses and dug up the corn. Eleven acres of corn and a dozen houses were destroyed; a twenty four hour a day watch was put on Cobham heath to prevent any resumption of digging.  The diggers were threatened with death if they returned. A ‘Humble Request to the ministers of both universities and to all lawyers in every Inns-a-Court’ complaining of Platt’s actions, but without result.

This marked the end of the active communist phase of the True Levellers, though Gerard Winstanley continued to write and set out radical egalitarian ideas.

Subsequent centuries

Land and access to it remained a central issue for English radicals. Enclosure gained pace, and agricultural improvement brought in new farming methods, displacing thousands from rural existence. The profits of enclosure partly funded the Industrial Revolution… all these factors led to a massive influx into cities and a transformation from a mostly rural to a mostly urban industrial society. But the grievance of dispossession remained a bitter memory, and a yearning to regain or take control of land remained part of radical traditions: giving birth to the ideas of Thomas Spence, among others, whose agrarian communism echoed Winstanley. Whether through emigration to more open societies where land was plentiful (eg the US), resettlement projects like the Chartist Land Plan, nationalisation movements such the Land and Labour League… the feeling that land ownership, land use and control was crucial to creating a more equitable society was at the heart of social programs.

But Winstanley’s and the True Levellers’ program remained revolutionary – most of the plans and proposals for use of land developed by radials in the hundreds of years following 1649 had nowhere like as ground-breaking implications. Their ideas for the sharing of land, both in use and in its produce, for need not for profit, are still revolutionary today.

In the last century, food production has become more and more divorced from urban life, as capitalism and mass production have altered how people farm, distribute and consume agricultural produce. Land ownership remains largely the province of the wealthy, much of UK open land and farmland is still in the hands of the aristocracy, though huge transnational corporations or utility companies and quangos also now won large stretches…

The True Levellers’ words remain as true as ever: “The common People are filled with good words from Pulpits and Councel Tables, but no good Deeds; For they wait and wait for good, and for deliverances, but none comes; While they wait for liberty, behold greater bondage comes insteed of it, and burdens, oppressions…”

We’re still hounded and bounded by “taskmasters, from Sessions, Lawyers, Bayliffs of Hundreds, Committees, Impropriators, Clerks of Peace, and Courts of Justice, so called, does whip the People by old Popish weather-beaten Laws, that were excommunicate long age by Covenants, Oaths, and Ordinances; but as yet are not cast out, but rather taken in again, to be standing pricks in our eys, and thorns in our side… Professors do rest upon the bare observation of Forms and Customs, and pretend to the Spirit, and yet persecutes, grudges, and hates the power of the Spirit; and as it was then, so it is now: All places stink with the abomination of Self-seeking Teachers and Rulers. For do not I see that everyone Preacheth for money, Counsels for money, and fights for money to maintain particular Interests? And none of these three, that pretend to give liberty to the Creation, do give liberty to the Creation; neither can they, for they are enemies to universal liberty; So that the earth stinks with their Hypocrisie, Covetousness, Envie, sottish Ignorance, and Pride.”

But as they wrote, our time is coming…

“Take notice, That England is not a Free People, till the Poor that have no Land, have a free allowance to dig and labour the Commons, and so live as Comfortably as the Landlords that live in their Inclosures. For the People have not laid out their Monies, and shed their Bloud, that their Landlords, the Norman power, should still have its liberty and freedom to rule in Tyranny in his Lords, landlords, Judges, Justices, Bayliffs, and State Servants; but that the Oppressed might be set Free, Prison doors opened, and the Poor peoples hearts comforted by an universal Consent of making the Earth a Common Treasury, that they may live together as one House of Israel, united in brotherly love into one Spirit; and having a comfortable livelihood in the Community of one Earth their Mother.”

Here’s a version of ‘The Diggers’ Song’ or ‘You Noble Diggers All’, words composed by Winstanley, sung by Chumbawamba.

1999 Commemoration

In 1999, 300 people, under the banner of campaign group The Land is Ours, re-occupied part of St George’s Hill as a commemoration of the 350th anniversary of the launch of the Diggers’ Commune…

More on this action here

And some film of the march/occupation

The Land Is Ours were attempting to kickstart a new movement to discuss land use and ownership and encourage action for social change on control of land… As well as the diggers re-occupation they carried out some other brilliant actions… check out The Land is Ours

Also worth getting in touch with:

The Land Justice Network, a non-hierarchical network of groups and individuals including academics, farmers, housing activists, architects, ramblers, coders, musicians, planners, artists, land workers and bird watchers.

We recognise that present land use and ownership are the result of policies and decisions that have little basis in social justice or in considerations of the common good.

We work together to raise awareness of land as a common issue underpinning many struggles and injustices, and to turn this awareness into action that will challenge and change the status quo.

We are committed to working together using all tools available – including policy writing, direct action, land occupation, running workshops and events, sharing our skills and creating beautiful and compelling videos, pamphlets, films, infographics, flyers, songs, art and zines.

Join us to build a diverse and inclusive modern day land reform movement!

https://www.landjustice.uk/

Read more past tense writings on resistance to enclosures in the London area here

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On 31st March 2019 (yesterday), a few of us visited the Diggers memorial stone in Weybridge, erected in 1999, and St Mary’s parish church in Walton on Thames, where the diggers proclaimed the abolition of ministers, magistrates, tithes and the Sabbath in April 1649… We were remembering 1649, but also in memory of Brendan Boal, a major mover in the 1999 Commemoration, who died in October 2018.

Theres some pix here from yesterday…

RIP Brendan. Cigars got smoked.

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An entry in the
2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

Follow past tense on twitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘A FYTTE OF ITACKNEY DOWNS.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Centuries of hard fought battles saved many beloved places from disappearing, and laws currently protect parks, greens and commons. But times change… Pressures change. Space in London is profitable like never before. For housing mainly, but also there are sharks ever-present looking to exploit space for ‘leisure’. And with the current onslaught on public spending in the name of balancing the books (ie cutting as much as possible in the interests of the wealthy), public money spent on public space is severely threatened.

Many are the pressures on open green spaces – the costs of upkeep, cleaning, maintenance,
improvement, looking after facilities… Local  councils, who mainly look after open space, are struggling. Some local authorities are proposing to make cuts of 50 or 60 % to budgets for parks. As a result, there are the beginnings of changes, developments that look few and far between now, but could be the thin end of the wedge.

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

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

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

The main thing to take from the numberless historical struggles to preserve open space is that people won because they considered the places they were defending to be theirs, to belong to them, even when that sometimes stood in opposition to what might have been judged legal ‘reality’… Although sometimes relying on traditions and common rights as the basis for legal argument didn’t work, often when it acted as a grounding, a shared belief forming a backbone for direct action and a collective campaigning approach, this sense of the commons being ‘ours’ could overcome all the power of law, profit and parliament.  The difficulty with entrusting our green space to public bodies is that they do not necessarily share our view of how they should used, and with councillors and leading officers in many councils hand in glove with developers all over London, co-operating over the selloff of social housing, the risk is that open space may also be up for grabs. And up for sale, or increasingly at least, for fencing off for profit.

This is a lesson worth taking when we think about how we view open space: although we can take many inspirations from our history, reliance on the past can not be a defence, we need to be re-forging a sense that the resources of the world are for all of us, for people’s enjoyment, not for the profit of a few.

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

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

Follow past tense on twitter

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

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

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

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