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)

 

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘A FYTTE OF ITACKNEY DOWNS.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

……………………………..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow past tense on twitter

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

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

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

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

Today in London history: riot against enclosure of One Tree Hill, 1897… and open space under threat in Croydon…

Today we remember how, 120 years ago, South Londoners saved one open green space and re-opened it to the public… while in another South London borough, Croydon, green spaces are at risk of being sacrificed to development.

One Tree Hill, in South London’s Honor Oak, had always been an open space, a traditional gathering spot for locals, more recently for recreation. ‘Rolling down One Tree Hill’ is referred to in Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘The Sorcerer’ as a disreputable Victorian pastime!

The Hill marked the on the border of the two parishes of Lewisham and Camberwell (previously it also marked the boundaries of the counties of Kent and Surrey). Many visitors also came to enjoy the view of London from the Hill, easier in those times as the hilltop was less wooded.

Such a spot, a distinctive hill, especially marking a boundary, tends to gather myths; some historians used to assert that One Tree Hill was the spot where Boudicca’s rebellion was crushed in battle by the Romans (somewhat dubiously; the battle probably took place in the midlands). Queen Elizabeth I was also supposed to have drunkenly knighted the ‘one tree’, or Oak of Honour that gives the hill (and Honor Oak) its name.

A number of old footpaths ran across the hill, from Forest Hill to the Brockley Road and Peckham Rye.

“A Spirit of Unrest”

In Autumn 1896 One Tree Hill was suddenly enclosed by a golf club, who had bought if from the previous owners, and erected a sixfoot fence around it! Locals were understandably annoyed. A local “Enclosure of Honor Oak Hill Protest Committee” was formed, which met from August 1897 in the Samuel Bowley Coffee Tavern,

Peckham Rye. twenty-three original members rose to about one hundred and fifty, including members of the Camberwell and Lewisham local Vestries (precursors to today’s Borough Councillors). They got support from the Commons Preservation Society, and began a laborious process of collecting evidence about traditional access to the Hill, whether there were any traditional common rights etc.

Unfortunately this process did unearth the fact that despite what was widely claimed, One Tree Hill had never been part of Sydenham Common, kyboshing any claim for common rights there.

Meanwhile regular public protest meetings, in Spring-Summer 1897, many held in the open air on Peckham Rye. But according to committee member Councillor John Nisbet, “a spirit of unrest, at what was termed the slow methods of the Executive, began to show itself amongst a small section of the members…”

At a meeting of the Committee, a resolution to defend the hill by pulling down the fences was defeated. But in late August, the Golf Club prosecuted two lads who had broken down part of the fence and ‘trespassed’ on the hill, and children who wandered through a broken section to pick flowers were also attacked by a fierce guard dog belonging to a security guard watching the grounds.

Further failed attempts to get the Committee to authorise direct action against the fence led to a resolution at a mass meeting on October 3rd on the Rye, which condemned the Club’s prosecution of the two ’trespassers’, who had just been convicted & fined and voted for the removal of the fence the following Sunday.

On this day, October 10th, supposedly as many as 15,000 people assembled at One Tree Hill; after apparently waiting a while for an appointed demolisher to arrive, a section of the crowd in Honor Oak Park pulled down parts of the fence. The crowd then rushed onto the hill from Honor Oak Park and Honor Oak Rise. “The hill was soon covered with a disorderly multitude, and it was quickly found necessary to reinforce the police who had been posted to keep order.” Some of the crowd attacked the house of the grounds keeper, (he of the vicious dog), and only the arrival of more cops kept the rioters at bay. The more constitutional element attempted to take control, starting a meeting and denouncing the “unseemly and riotous conduct taking place…an appeal was made for quiet and more orderly conduct…the crowds, after singing ‘Rule Britannia’, dispersed …”

Although the Protest Committee disassociated itself from the violence, two former members, Ellis and Polkinghorn, who had left the Committee, frustrated with its slow progress, and three friends, publicly went to pull down a section of fence at Honor Oak Rise, on

October 16th, stating they’d been instructed to do so on behalf of the public (which seems a reasonable defence!) Their names and addresses were taken – the Golf Club promptly sued them in the High Court for trespass.

“A Lurid Glare upon the Upturned Faces”

The following day, Sunday October 17th, a very large crowd gathered, obviously expecting trouble. Estimates vary from 50,000 to 100,000 people present., which may be slightly exaggerated. They were faced by 500-odd police, some mounted, patrolling the hill, who fought off several attempts to demolish the fence and rush the hill, mostly at the south side, overlooking Honor Oak Park. At least 12,000 people were said to be hemmed in here, many of who stoned the cops, charging them several times and being charged in return. “Late in the day a furze bush was fired, and this cast a lurid glare upon the upturned faces of the packed mass of onlookers.” Ten people were nicked, two of whom got sent down for a month, three for fourteen days and the rest fined.

The following Sunday, the 24th, thousands again gathered at the Hill, though there was no trouble.

The Protest Committee condemned the rioting, issuing appeals for order. They maintained the way forward lay in its inquiries into rights of way over the hill, and in its attempts to persuade the Camberwell & Lewisham Vestries that the enclosure should be reversed. The Committee’s investigations had revealed several rights of way across the hill: at an inquiry in January 1898, the Joint Committee of the two vestries voted to go to court to challenge the enclosure.

They sought advice from the Commons Preservation Society. This process dragged on, into 1899; meanwhile the Golf Club had obtained a court judgment for trespass against the five members of the “One Tree Hill Commons Rights Defence League”. The South London Press called these men “the extremists – the irregulars – of the one Tree hill Movement…” and claimed that the more respectable committee had refused to let them see any of the evidence they had collected, to help in their defence.

Over the next few years, though the riots never revived, the process of negotiating for a sale of the hill ground on, with Camberwell Borough Council putting pressure on the owner of the Hill, J. E. Ward, to sell the land. Ward dug his heels in, asking for a huge amount for the land. Eventually the London County Council stuck a clause in their 1902 General Powers Bill, for a compulsory purchase – leading to the Hill being bought for £6,100 in 1904, and re-opened to the public.

In 1997, a hand-crafted centenary bench was put up to remember the anti-enclosure protests, though it has since vanished.

It is still a very lovely open space now, definitely worth a visit/picnic, with its occasional great view of London through the trees that have grown up since the enclosure riots. In the spirit of the miscreants who rolled down the hill and the anti-enclosure irregulars who ripped up the fences, it was from here that the Association of Autonomous Astronauts tried to launch their independent ventures into space in 1999.

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This text is an excerpt from Rights of Common: The Fight Against the Theft of Sydenham Common and One Tree Hill, published by past tense.
Available from our publications page 

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The story of how One Tree Hill was kept open is not just of historical interest… because the struggle against enclosure and the destruction of open space in South London is hardly a dead issue.

Public services today are stretched to breaking point by financial austerity, (imposed ideologically to take back as many resources as possible from all to aid the push for them to be sold to private interest). Local authorities everywhere are debating what to cut. One area under increasing threat is open green space; allegedly expensive to maintain. 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.

At the same time, pressure for building of housing in London is also ramped up to eleven, driven by a housing shortage created by the destruction of social housing, a financial bubble based on property prices, and the lop-sided UK economy’s obsession with London. Although thousands of private flats and houses have been built, most people can’t afford them. But the money awash in construction, twinned with a focus on regenerating some areas (code for moving working class people out and middle class people in) had led many London councils into alliances with property developers, and to making deals to build everywhere they can, usually with a net reduction in social housing. These pressures have led the capital to a powderkeg situation, and upheavals and rebellions among both social and private tenants are increasing.

Everywhere slivers of green not protected by law are vanishing; or social housing with access and views over green space is being replaced with new developments for the rich (as at Woodberry Down, or West Hendon). The threat to open space is part and parcel of the massive changes underway in the city, attempts to permanently alter the capital in favour of the wealthy, driving those who can’t afford it to the margins or out of the city entirely.

Close to where locals defended One Tree Hill in 1897, South London’s Croydon Council are facing pressure from a government-appointed inspector to deregister many open spaces in the borough, which many see as a step towards reducing longstanding protections which prevent them being built on.

Long years of struggle produced some statutory legal protection for commons, greens and woods, and many other bylaws and designations of scientific interest etc have helped keep green places from destruction. But this can be swept away…

The Local Plan, which has gone through numerous drafts and changes since work began on it in 2012, was reviewed by the government-appointed inspector at an inquiry earlier this year. His findings have been put out for consultation.

Among the amendments the inspector has recommended to the Local Plan is to take away protection from more than 70 of Croydon’s parks and open spaces, including many areas that like One Tree Hill, were once part of the Great North Wood. According to the inspector, they are just not “special” enough.

The council had proposed designating a raft of parks and open spaces with a new planning status, “Local Green Space”. But the inspector was unimpressed with the case made by the council for many of the parks and spaces, including Rotary Field, Purley, Biggin Wood, Addiscombe Railway Park, Millers Pond, Coulsdon Coppice and even All Saints churchyard in Sanderstead.

The inspector has thus drawn a red line through all these open spaces, and many more, to the consternation of residents’ and friends’ groups. They fear that without some form of planning protection, it will be all too easy to bulldoze their park for the next batch of flats.

It may be that Croydon’s own somewhat inconsistent attitude had confused the inspector, Paul Clark. The council has encouraged one developer to build on a section of Queen’s Gardens, in front to the Town Hall, in the redevelopment of the Taberner House site. Queen’s Gardens is the only green, open space in the town centre.

A neglected scrap of playing fields at the bottom of Duppas Hill Park also looks like it will be built on for a school and housing, while the green acres of playing fields at Coombe Woods have been recommended for bulldozing to make way for a selective free school.

A consultation over the inspector’s proposals and the Local Plan has just ended, so it remains to be seen what happens next. But this pressure is likely to be seen elsewhere, as open space is seen as less of a priority than housing, and the vast profits to be made therefrom. Now is the time to be on guard, if we want to preserve our free access to the green places that matter to us.

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

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

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

Read more on the Croydon Plan here and here

Get involved to defend open space:

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

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

The Land Is Ours – campaigns peacefully for access to the land, its resources, and the decision-making processes affecting them, for everyone. http://tlio.org.uk/about-tlio/

The Land Justice Network (formerly Land for What?) is a network of groups, individuals and networks who recognise the need to change the way land is owned, used, distributed and controlled in the UK. https://www.landjustice.uk/

The Ramblers – ‘Britain’s walking charity, working to protect and expand the places people love to walk and promote walking for health and pleasure’. http://www.ramblers.org.uk

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

Follow past tense on twitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An example of public space being created, that will operate under private control, is the proposed Garden Bridge across the river Thames. Despite the promise of £60m of public money, if built under
current proposals, it will be plagued by corporate restrictions: cyclists would have to dismount to cross, while social gatherings, playing musical instruments, making a speech, releasing balloons and many other pursuits would be banned. It could be closed to public access for private events.

And increasing privatisation of space in cities is often tied up with CCTV, surveillance, control of our behaviour. Private space is space where they can tell us what we can and can’t do; space they can ban us from, keep us out of. Not that public bodies aren’t doing their bit: the last government introduced Public Space Protection Order (PSPO), allowing councils to make illegal ‘social problems’ like sleeping rough in an attempt to drive homeless people from town or city. Councils are also dealing with developers that give them control over paths. Planning laws are being ‘relaxed’ nationally to allow developers a freer and quicker ride when they want to build . Everywhere slivers of green not protected by law are vanishing; or social housing with access and views over green space is being replaced with new developments for the rich (as at Woodberry Down, or West Hendon). The threat to open space is part and parcel of the massive changes underway in the city, attempts to permanently alter the capital in favour of the wealthy, driving those who can’t afford it to the margins or out of the city entirely.

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

If landowners, the rich, authority, have usually seen open space as a resource for their profit, or as a problem to be controlled, there has always been opposing views, and those willing to struggle to keep places open, and to use them for purposes at odds with the rich and powerful. From an invaluable source of fuel and food, to the playground for our pleasures; from refuge from the laws made by the rich, to the starting point of our social movements…

THE COMMONS ARE OURS!

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

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

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

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in history: public launch of the Commons Preservation Society, 1866.

Yesterday we recounted here how the 1235 Statute of Merton established a legal basis for the enclosure of common land and ‘waste’ by lords of the manor.

Over the succeeding centuries, enclosure would enrich the landowning classes, but exclude the vast majority of local residents from access to the commons and use of its resources – which were often vital to subsistence and survival for many. This process gathered pace in the 16th century and especially accelerated in the 18th. Huge social change accompanied this expropriation, with many people forced into poverty and destitution, others reduced to no means of survival but selling their labour for a wage. Growing cities were swelled by people looking for work who the increasingly enclosed countryside could no longer accommodate.

At no point in this process was this vast upheaval enacted on a passive population. Resistance was constant, since enclosure threatened livelihoods, as well as breaking long-established customs and traditional elements of people’s way of life, some of which had become elevated almost to a ritual significance. Even before enclosure became noticeable, conflict over uses of land and access to its resources was almost a daily occurrence, as landowners and labourers, villages and others struggled to gain larger share of the pie. Conflicts between neighbouring parishes over shared commons was also not unusual (this squabbling increased over the years as enclosure hit parishes hard).

Opposition to enclosure took many forms – petitioning, legal challenges in court, collective or individual destruction of fences, ditches and gates which had been erected to keep people out; driving animals back onto land where grazing rights had been reduced; marches and demonstrations, riots, and outright armed rebellions.

Until the 19th century, the conflict was largely centred around subsistence – enclosure threatened people’s livings. As the industrial revolution began to transform Britain, factory work, based mainly around cities, was coming to replace agricultural work for what was soon to become a majority of the population. Large sprawling cities grew ever in size, swallowing up countryside, and economic growth and revolutions in transport saw suburbs extending for miles… While people were no longer reliant on open land for survival, access to open space for recreation began to be a vital issue. And in massive overcrowded cities, any parks and commons came to be seen as important ‘lungs’, a breathing space, almost a safety valve to relieve the density.

Many of the great and good of liberal British society started to worry about the loss of green space, especially in London and the big cities. Matters came to a head after the struggle to preserve Wimbledon Common from being sold for development by Lord Spencer (probably the largest landowner in South London, ancestor of Princess Di, from a family of noted enclosers). Spencer’s proposal to sell off part of the Common and make some of the remainder into a park was opposed a by a local committee, who eventually forced his Lordship to sell the common, so it could be re-opened as public land.

Threats to Wimbledon Common, Epping Forest and other commons were to push Parliament into action, and lead to the creation of the Commons Preservation Society.

The immediate catalyst for the founding of the Society was the establishment of a parliamentary committee in 1865 to investigate the possibility of preserving commons in and around London from enclosure. The committee examined the condition of Hampstead Heath, Blackheath, and commons at barnes, Wandsworth, Tooting, Epsom, Banstead and Hackney, and proposed to amend the law to restrict the headlong rush to enclose open land. Having attempted to persuade the committee that all common rights had lapsed on their lands, and fearing legal changes would prevent them from continuing to fence off and sell off their lands, lords of the manor began to rush to get it enclosed before the committee could change the law.

In response George Shaw-Lefevre (later Lord Eversley), a Liberal MP and later minister, called a meeting, which founded the Commons Preservation Society in 1865. The aim of the society was to save London commons for the enjoyment and recreation of the public. Its committee members included such important figures as Octavia Hill, the social reformer, Sir Robert Hunter, solicitor and later co-founder of the National Trust, Professor Huxley, and the MPs, Sir Charles Dilke and James Bryce. Most of the society’s members initially came from the south east, so their interests focused first of all on London.

The CPS’s tactics were very much generally focussed on a respectable and legal approach; they recruited notable liberal reforming figures, identifying local ‘commoners’ where a common was under threat, who could go to court to defend a case. However, strategy and decision making were in the main taken centrally under direction of the Society’s lawyers.

Overwhelmingly the CPS worked in the arena of legal challenges and propaganda, targeted at ‘the right people’. However, they recognised that this was not the only tactic; not only working in tandem with local groups fighting enclosures in other ways, but also, when they felt the law was on their side, even sponsoring direct action themselves. This can be seen in the defence of Berkhamstead Common, Hertfordshire, in 1866, when the Society in alliance with two Berkhamstead Commoners, hired 120 navvies to demolish railings erected to enclose 434 acres by Lord Brownlow.

The combination of the CPS and the Parliamentary committee led to the passing of the 1866 Metropolitan Commons Act, which protected and regulated land in London that could be shown to have been the focus of common rights in the past, whether or not the lord of the manor agreed. This restricted the impetus for enclosure, and was effective in spurring many large landowners to decide to sell land to public bodies instead of enclosing and developing it.

While the CPS’s role in the preservation of vast tracts of open space in undoubted, there was other movements at work, creating pressures which added to the Society’s success. Revivals in radical movements in the later part of the 19th century, saw an increased interest in land – who owned it, how did they get to own it; discussing land reform, redistribution and the effects of enclosure. Radicals, Chartists, secularists, socialists – many from these movements felt that the question of land ownership was a crucial one, and their involvement in struggles over particular open spaces was visible. For instance, radicals were able to gather thousands to take part in riots which destroyed railings around Hyde Park in 1855 and 1866, and local working class meetings formed a part in a number of the fights to preserve spaces like Wandsworth Common and Plumstead Common in the 1870s, both of which involved large-scale direct action and rioting. To some extent individuals in the Commons Preservation Society felt that considered legal activity to preserve commons was necessary partly because more unruly grassroots movements might become more riotous if legal avenues were denied them. Figures like Octavia Hill, a CPS stalwart, also involved in housing reform which helped kickstart social housing, saw such measures as not only good works in themselves, but also necessary to prevent more fundamental – and possibly violent – action from below.

The CPS was never likely to challenge the nature of land ownership, much as it has always worked for legislation to protect open space and people’s access to it. More radical positions have always existed, and been put into practice in land squats, occupations, trespasses… But the CPS always did the boring work that more fiery minds sometimes didn’t have the patience for…

This isn’t to devalue the work of the CPS, but to place it in context and realistically assess the limitations of reform. Landowners who sold land to public bodies were fantastically compensated, and almost all remained large-scale landowners and landlords, and stayed rich. The control of the class who owned the land over the political life of the nation may be less than in 1865, but they still hold a massive influence; though now much of it is through seats on quangos and farming and forestry boards…

The Commons Preservation Society continued to do good works, amalgamating with the National Footpaths Society in 1899, adopting the title Commons Open Spaces and Footpath Preservation Society. The society promoted important pieces of legislation, including the Commons Acts of 1876 and 1899, and was crucial in getting many commons registered in the last 50 years. Today, its principal task is advising local authorities, Commons committees, voluntary bodies, and the general public on the appropriation of commons and other open spaces. It also scrutinises applications that affect public rights of way. Their name was changed to the Open Spaces Society in the 1980s.

Check out the Open Spaces Society website.

One campaign the OSS have launched recently is Find Our Way. On 1 January 2026—not ten years away—the official (definitive) maps will be closed against the addition of paths claimed on the basis of historic evidence.

The process which path workers all over England and Wales have used since the first definitive maps appeared in the 1950s, and which has steadily extended our freedoms everywhere, will become a dead letter. The ancient legal maxim on which so many claimants have relied, ‘once a highway always a highway’, will be shattered. Unrecorded paths, even if they are still in use, could and often will be lost for ever. It’d down to all of us to help keep them open…

For more on open space, enclosure, and resistance, in the London area… see some of past tense’s previous work:

Stealing the Commons

Down With the Fences

Kennington Park

Rights of Common

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

Today in legal history: Statute of Merton passed, 1235, giving landowners power to enclose common land

“IT was provided in the Court of our Lord the King, holden at Merton on Wednesday the morrow after the Feast of St. Vincent, the 20th Year of the Reign of King HENRY… because many great men of England (which have infeoffed Knights and their Freeholders of small Tenements in their great Manors) have complained that they cannot make their Profit of the residue of their Manors, as of Wastes, Woods, and Pastures, whereas the same Feoffees have sufficient Pasture, as much as belongeth to their Tenements… it is provided and granted, That whenever such Feoffees do bring an Assise of Novel disseisin for their Common of Pasture, and it is knowledged before the Justicers that they have as much Pasture as sufficeth to their Tenements, and that they have free Egress and Regress from their Tenement unto the Pasture, then let them be contented therewith; and they on whom it was complained shall go quit of as much as they have made their Profit of their Lands, Wastes, Woods, and Pastures…” (Statute of Merton)

For uncounted centuries, common lands, forests and wastes provided people with myriad ways of making a living; from collecting wood for fuel, gathering fruit, herbs, and other foodstuffs, to hunting for animals for food, and grazing of livestock. In Saxon times, most land was open to use by all. After the Norman Conquest all land was redistributed to a new ruling class, who introduced many laws to force peasants into serfdom to work for the wealthy, restricted the poor’s access to land, and prevented them from hunting. Many serfs however managed to rent a small plot of land to feed themselves. Overwhelmingly villages consisted of a patchwork of open fields ploughed by different people, paying money or in kind to the landowner.

Over the years resistance opened up many ways for the poor to make a living. Although what we called common land was not ‘held in common’, was always owned by the Lord of the Manor, over the centuries customs and traditions grew up about what people were allowed to take, use and where from… What started at the discretion of the Lords came to be viewed as ‘common rights’.
But despite its name, common land was still 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 which had grown up over centuries, been fought over, both in courts and on physical battles between landowners and villagers…

The availability of common land was an important factor in supporting the local economy. All who possessed arable land enjoyed rights of common on the manor waste. But these common rights made it difficult for the acreage of plough land to be increased, since any individual commoner could bring an action against any man who did this. Early in the 13th century there was land hunger and the landlords found it profitable to lease land for a money rent, often to men already occupying customary holdings. These were small assarts carved from the waste and additional to the peasant’s main holding.

The 1235 Statute of Merton is sometimes called the first English Statute. One of its most far-reaching clauses gave authority for lords of the manor to enclose commons and ‘waste grounds’ in their lands, on condition that there was a permanent excess of land beyond the grazing needs of the commoners’ livestock, and other commoners’ entitlements, and that any of their tenants who complained were left with sufficient pastureland left to plough.

This enactment was of benefit to all lords of the manor and this included monasteries and other ecclesiastical bodies. By the terms, simple proof that sufficient pasture for tenants was available would be defence to actions of unlawful dispossession of common land. But this referred to pasture for his own tenants and failed to protect others with pasture rights. The anomaly was corrected in the Statute of Westminster in 1285.

The Statute of Merton was operative throughout the medieval period and hotly debated.

This change to English law had minor effects for 300 years, and the clauses relating to enclosure fell into disuse… But when revived in the sixteenth century, the Statute enabled the wholesale theft of access to the land from the poor.

The terms of the statute were agreed at a meeting at Merton, Surrey (deep sarf London these days), between Henry III and the barons of England in the 20th year of Henry’s reign (1235). As with meeting that produced the Magna Carta twenty years before, the Statute is an episode in the struggle between the barons and the king, with the barons fighting to limit the king’s rights and powers over them. This to and fro was to define much of England’s history in the 13th century.

Amongst its provisions, the statute allowed a Lord of the Manor to enclose common land (provided that sufficient pasture remained for his tenants), and set out when and how manorial lords could assert rights over waste land, woods, and pastures against their tenants. It quickly became a basis for English common law, developing and clarifying legal concepts of ownership.

In the early 1500s, pressure for profit from land rents began to see land being enclosed – fenced off, with smaller open fields being ploughed together into much larger farms. Already in the 1510s this was forcing people off the land and into destitution (as referred to in Thomas More’s Utopia, written in 1516). The first half of the sixteenth century saw an increasing struggle around enclosure, with some of the aristocracy and rising merchant classes forcing through dispossession and agricultural ‘improvement’, but resistance coming not only from the rural poor, but also from many on the ruling classes, who feared the effect on social cohesion. Well duh.

In January 1550, in Edward VI’s reign, long after the Statute had fallen out of use, it was revived by the regent, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, to enable lords to enclose their land at their own discretion. A Tillage Act made reference to the Statute of Merton. Any land that had been tilled for four or more years since 1509 could not be converted to pasture.

(This was in contrast to Northumberland’s predecessor as regent, Edward Seymour, Earl of Somerset, who had taken a strongly anti-enclosure stance.)

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.

Over the next 300 years, enclosure would increase hugely, creating a mass exodus from the best farming land, pushing hundreds of thousands first into marginal lands, wastes and woods, and then into the growing cities. The impetus for enclosure came entirely from the search for greater profits for the landlord classes. Between the 16th & the 19th centuries,the vast majority of the open land, commons or woods in Britain was enclosed for development, usually by rich landowners. Those deprived of their access to and use of common land 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 for a wage… “In an increasingly legalistic age, an unwritten agreement counted for little in the face of the new law …”

Propagandists for the process made much of how it improved agricultural efficiency – historians still argue about whether this was even true. But enclosure ultimately made fortunes for the landowning aristocracy; and as much of this money was also later funnelled into industry, it was a huge driver for Britain’s industrial revolution.

But none of this took place without resistance from those being excluded from the land… 100s of battles were fought to keep common lands open in the interest of those who felt they had traditional rights to use them; and if many fights were lost, many were won…

But in truth, the descendants and heirs of those who were granted the land by the kings who took it by force, and of hose who evicted millions to increase their profits, still own most of he land in this country. Until we decide their title to it means nothing…

For more on open space, enclosure, and resistance, in the London area…

http://www.alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/stealing-the-commons.html

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today in London radical history: locals burn fences in opposition to proposed enclosure, West End Green, 1882.

“Great discontent has not unnaturally been aroused at Hampstead in consequence of the enclosure of so many of its historic village-greens, which, one by one, have disappeared of late years, and are now either built upon by enterprising speculators, or converted into private gardens. West-end green, which is almost the last of these popular spots that had up to the present escaped the progress of annexation, was taken possession of by somebody or other a few days ago and enclosed with a fence.” (The Tablet, 29 July 1882)

“West End Green presents yet a sylvan or at least a somewhat rural aspect, and the wooded slopes of the old town of Hampstead, form a pleasant prospect as viewed from the spacious streets and well-planned dwellings of the more modern portions of Kilburn.”

This late nineteenth century description of West End Green in West Hampstead was out of date almost as soon as it was written (in 1889) – development was paving over the wooded slopes, demand for housing in the capital was high, and there was a lot of money to be made. Hampstead Heath had been saved from development by a long campaign to preserve it as an open space. The 1889 writer fails also to mention that West End Green very nearly lost its sylvan aspect: in 1882, the Green came close to vanishing under yet more suburban housing.

By 1870, conditions for speculative developers were generally favourable. The death of the Lord of the manor Thomas Maryon Wilson the year before had removed a legal restraint on issuing of long leases, and legal changes had made it easier for ‘copyhold’ tenants to enfranchise themselves (turn their basically feudal tenancy, rights and obligations into a modern ownership of land).

In West Hampstead (then known as West End), West End Green and Fortune Green (much larger then than the strip of land that now remains), were the remnant of the wastes’ of the manor. Subject to enough being available for copyholders to dig turf, pasture animals etc, the Lord had the right to grant waste to particular copyholders.

In 1870, Henry Dunnett, a copyholder (and bailiff of the Lord of the Manor) who had been granted to pieces of waste in Fortune Green, sold one piece to John Culverhouse, a general contractor and speculator. Culverhouse had also acquired the copyhold over West End Green, and had been granted the right by the Manor Court to enclose it in 1871; land which he ‘enfranchised’ in 1873. Two years later, intending to sell the land for building, Culverhouse had wooden hoardings set up around it but the local people pulled them down and burnt them.

A debate followed in the local vestry about whether to buy the land for the public, but a price couldn’t be agreed on. In February 1882, unwilling to sell for the price offered by the vestry, Culverhouse sold the land to a Mr Francis T. Fowle, a builder from Shepherds Bush. Fowle set up a much stronger hoarding in 26th June 1882, and began to strip the turf. The builder had reckoned without the popularity of the Green and the strength of local opposition; many residents were against it.

Very early In July, a hut on the green occupied by a watchman standing security over the land was set on fire. The next night a public meeting in a nearby church resolved to oppose the loss of the green, though there were some debates about what form action should take, with one resolute opponent of the enclosure, Captain Notman, urging non-violence: “They were not in Ireland, and it was not worthy of Englishmen to set fire to a man’s hoarding”. There were howls of laughter in response, but some applause was mixed with shouts of “Down With it!” When the meeting broke up, a crowd marched to the Green, and it looked like direct action was on the cards, but Nathaniel Sherry, who lived opposite the Green and had been elected Secretary of the association opposing he enclosure, persuaded those present to ‘abstain from violence’… the crowd dispersed.

However, this respite was only for a few days.

On 17th July 1882, “the habitually law-abiding inhabitants of Hampstead”, assembled on a wet Monday night “to the number of 2,000, armed with axes, crowbars [and a two-gallon oil drum, ed.], demolished the hoarding, and triumphantly consumed the debris in a gigantic bonfire.”

That the crowd had formed from several groups who had converged on the Green from different directions points to a pre-arranged plan, with clever tactics designed to fool both the police and the liberal opponents of enclosure who couldn’t countenance direct action. A solitary policeman on duty, PC Splaine, was caught by surprise; he did arrest several men, who gave him their names and addresses, but he then had to release them, being on his own. That they allowed themselves to be nicked and gave their names suggests the men felt their actions to e in the right, and confident of their legal position. As it turned out, they were justified in this confidence.

The blaze of the burning boards soared high, despite the heavy rain, and was cheered by a crowd of 2000. The voluntary fire brigade couldn’t put out the flames, even when assisted by a large body of police from S Division who turned up, eventually dispersing the crowd by midnight.

When the eight arrestees were hauled up in Hampstead Police Court, they were rapidly acquitted of any charges. The whole episode was a complete victory for the locals.

The hoardings were never re-erected. Eventually the local Vestry (the equivalent of the Council), bought the land in 1885 and re-opened it as a public space. Ten years later they also acquired nearby Fortune Green as an open space, following more local protests when it too was threatened with development (again by John Culverhouse).

Battles against enclosure often had this dual character: a respectable law-abiding opposition and more direct wing, willing to take illegal action. In reality, the complementary activities of these two sides, though sometimes antagonistic, both combined to effect the victory all desired – keeping or winning land for public use. On more than one occasion, these seemingly disparate elements in fact worked together. A useful lesson.

Much of the information herein was obtained from ‘The Fight for Fortune Green’, in Camden History Review, no 10, by Dick Weindling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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