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

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

The public open space now known as Hounslow Heath, which covers 200 acres (80 ha), is all that remains of the historic Heath, which covered more than 4,000 acres (1,600 ha).

In 1545 Hounslow Heath extended into the ‘fields, parishes, and hamlets’ of Isleworth, Brentford, Heston, Hounslow, Twickenham, Teddington, Hampton, Hanworth, Feltham, Bedfont, Cranford, Harlington, Harmondsworth, and Stanwell. All of which parishes intercommoned on the heath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The land comprising the Heath was divided administratively at this time, being split between the 14 parishes named above.

Some inclosures on the edge of the common south of Whitton seem to have been made at this time, though they may not have been maintained later. Three warrens, two on the edge of the heath and one by the river, had also been planted, possibly quite recently. Much of the land around the open fields and to the east of Whitton may have been inclosed during the later Middle Ages, and in the next century and a half most of the remainder was inclosed piecemeal and converted to market-gardens and orchards or to pleasure-grounds for the big houses which were being built around the village.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artistic imagining of highwaymen on the Heath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Army encampment on Hounslow Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illegal poaching continued on the Heath into the 1970s.

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

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

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

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

Modern day enclosures continue… But do does resistance… 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources: The Times, 15th March 1878.

English Labourer’s Chronicle, March 23rd, 1878

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Icerink Cometh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

East London Waterworks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

We Stand at a Fork in the Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

Much more info here

and more on the history of the waterworks

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

Today in London’s parklife, 1999: Crystal Palace eco-camp stormed by police

After the 1851 ‘Great Exhibition’, showcase for the British Empire, glamfest for capitalism, the entire glass “Crystal Palace”, which housed the Exhibition in Hyde Park, was dismantled and moved to a new permanent site on parkland at Sydenham in the south London suburbs. The area subsequently took its name from the building, and park and area became known as Crystal Palace. The destruction of the building by fire in 1936 left the top of the park still landscaped, with terraces and amazing views, but gradually this area fell into decline as it was left largely ignored.

The Park was built on the northern edge of what had previously, for centuries, been known as Penge Common, which had been enclosed in the 1820s after a protracted struggle over who owned it. Suffice to say, open space here has always been subject to struggle over its use – between landowners and peasants, between local communities and councils and corporate interests… [check out Martin Spence’s excellent ‘The Making of a Suburb: Capital Comes to Penge’, for more on the enclosure of Penge Common… and see pengepast]

Sixty years after the Crystal Palace burned down, the site was threatened by the local council of Bromley within whose borders the park lay, and who had taken over managing the park when the Greater London Council was abolished. Bromley proposed a wholly inappropriate development for the site – a 20-screen cinema multiplex with restaurants, bars and rooftop parking for a thousand cars, housed in a building, which was described by a local newspaper as having the appearance of an aircraft terminal.

This was no the first threat to the park – when the Crystal Palace Company went bankrupt in 1911, the whole park was due to be sold at public auction by Knight, Frank and Rutley. If that had taken place we would have had ranks of terraced houses instead of “a great, life-enhancing breathing space for south London”. There followed weeks of the protest; the subsequent sale led to the park being saved as open space.

A map of the park from the 1911 auctioneers’ brochure

In 1989 Bromley proposed the development of the site for hotel and leisure purposes, it culminated in the passing by the House of Commons of the Bromley London Borough Council (Crystal Palace) Act 1990, which limits development on the site.

In the late 1990s, Bromley Council’s plans to sell off the top end of South London’s Crystal Palace Park, to allow the development of a huge multiplex cinema complex, were widely opposed by locals.

The plans would have involved:

  • An 18 screen multiplex cinema 950′ long by 70′ high.
  • 9 eateries including fast food and takeaways.
  • 3 ‘leisure boxes’, contents to be decided by profit alone. Bowling alley? Video arcades?
  • Rooftop car parking for 950 cars.
  • Giant vehicle ramps on 3 sides of building.
  • Opening hours 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. 365 days a year.
  • Concrete tunnel entrance and roads in park.
  • Illuminated traffic signage.
  • Roads expanded to increase capacity.

A broadly based local Crystal Palace Campaign was formed by local residents and businesses, angered by the “monstrous edifice” which Bromley wished to impose on the landscape and the complete disregard for the site’s history.

Their objections included:

  • Loss of 12 acres of green open space, protected as Metropolitan Open Land.
  • Destruction of 200 trees.
  • Vast unsightly building, the size of 2 football stadiums, vehicle ramps, tunnel entrance and illuminated signage do not belong in a park.
  • Degradation of the historic site of the Crystal Palace, protected as Grade 2* listed historic park.
  • Noise, especially at night, with hundreds leaving at 2 a.m.
  • 17,000 vehicle movements each Saturday on narrow, Victorian residential streets, causing congestion and pollution. Traffic is the major cause of asthma in our children
  • Crime. Major leisure venues attract it.
  • Parking overflow. On-site provision is only 50% of what is needed.
  • Threat to local trade, leading to spiral of decline on the village high street.
  • Loss of village atmosphere. The surrounding area is a Conservation Area

There was virtually no local support for the development. The campaign held many meetings, demos, lobbies, etc., and led to strong legal challenges to the plans, including a High Court case, in London where the Crystal Palace Campaign sought judicial review of Bromley’s outline planning permission. The legal objection turned on the question of style. The Crystal Palace Act of 1990 stated that any building on the Park site should be “in the style and spirit of the former Crystal Palace”.

In parallel with this more orthodox campaign, an eco-protest camp was squatted in the threatened part of the park, in April 1998, by activists mainly drawn from the anti-roads movement, which had been growing throughout the 1990s and had been involved in high profile campaigns at Twyford Down, against the M11 in East London, and at Newbury… and many more…

The ‘Crystal Pallets’ camp remained occupied 24/7 for over a year, with treehouses and barricades built.

On 3rd March 1999, most of the camp was violently evicted by the police who arrived hidden in double decker buses lying down between the seats. We was there, in a tree.
Two protestors stayed in tunnels underground for three more weeks…

Here’s an account of the camp, from Earth First mag, Do or Die Issue 8.

Storming the Palace

Park Life in South London

Rising from flat suburban S. London and crowned with a huge 160ft television transmission tower, Crystal Palace Park boasts the tallest hill in the capital’s south. In one of London’s more surreal green spaces ornamental gardens, a football stadium, and geese covered lakes mix with grand stone staircases that go nowhere and 30ft hollow 19th Century metal dinosaurs.

This was the second site of the great exhibition in the last century, a celebratory extravaganza glorifying the power of the British Empire and its global reach. The vast glass palace which had held displays and artifacts from every corner of the world burnt down in the 1930s, ironically just as the Empire was beginning to face a re-emerging opposition in the Third World. All that remains now are piles of rubble, the odd column and the dinosaurs. Nineteenth century scientists misunderstood the bones they discovered so the monsters are hopelessly mis-shapen. Used in the Second World War as bomb shelters their main function now seems to be to create a bizarre backdrop for local kids to take drugs by moonlight. Already well established as a place of drama and weirdness, Crystal Palace seemed ideally suited for the direct action to come.

For three years locals had fought the local Councils plan to build a multiplex cinema but their legal campaign had got them nowhere. The multiplex will destroy the highest part of the park including the now wooded and wilded Palace foundation site. Following hot on the heels of the defence and eviction of a tree site in Kingston Park, it was almost by natural selection that the action site at Crystal Palace was established. So just after midnight on April Fools Day ’98 a crew of eighteen people (and two dogs) quietly reclaimed the site of the Palace.

The Rise of ‘Crystal Pallets’

By dawn we had tents, nets and squatting notices up, quickly followed by the first visit from the enemy who were politely told they were trespassing and could they fuck off and knock next time. It wasn’t long before the media circus arrived, fresh, alert and looking for Swampy. From day one the press and TV crews were invasive, seeking to dominate and exploit us while remaining aloof about their aims. With a degree of wisdom gained from our experiences maybe we can learn to control the media feeding frenzy by simply issuing statements whilst hand picking selective interviews.

Support from the local residents came quickly. For about three years their protest had failed, suddenly there was a new focus for their energies. People from all around this ancient hill top site arrived with food, clothes, shelter, tools, and mountains of pallets. If you haven’t been to a direct action site you won’t understand the sheer possibilities that lie in pallets. Nearly every structure, every treehouse, barricade and bender is made from them. The site was thus nicknamed ‘Crystal Pallets’.

Being a Sports Council site, no lottery cash could be thrown at the Palace, so the Tory council cooked up the old recipe of ‘regeneration’. Alarm bells woke up a dedicated band of local residents, who having exhausted their ‘democratic’ rights, accepted what they knew in their hearts was the only course of action left-the direct one.

Within six weeks a comfortable, if toxic, home for dozens was built. Toxic because after the Palace had burned down, the site was used to dump blitz rubble, resulting in an unusual concentration of lead in the soil. To add to this, the council had allowed flytipping including lots of asbestos! Anyway, back to the story. The support, both moral and material, continued to flood in. Surveys showing 85% local opposition to the development were the norm, and thousands were adding their names to petitions. Therefore it was no surprise to learn that Bromley Council were obstinately digging their heels in. They wanted these ‘filthy illegal squatters’ orf their land or…erm, they’d evict (surprise). Full moons came and went and with them, new direction, new impetus. According to the multiplex’s architect Ian Ritchie, ‘Building is an act of economic and cultural virility’

Mid-Summer Madness

Over the summer swathes of the Palace posse travelled, marched and danced to various parties/protests. The tour started from home on Beltane (May 1st), where spaced out goats played with the animals resident and visiting. Come the G8 Global street party on May 16th we put on our gladrags, tarted it up to the hilt and ‘ad it with them in Birmingham. The atmosphere in and around the sound system was fucking wild, fucking wicked, yet anyone near the upturned car won’t need reminding of the eerie intense few seconds as some lunatic attempted to set it on fire. A word of advice: Get the car near the pigs, not your family before you light the blue touch paper and retire. All day and night Birmingham had a electric air, resonant with the vibration of creative unified resistance.

With summer came the usual problems on site. Consumption of drugs increased and a mainly lunched out recycling program led to communal areas being spaces to avoid. In amongst the rats, flies, filth and beer cans, alcoholics flourish. Fighting authority takes sobriety.

Other things flowering and fruiting that summer were our fruit, veg, herbs and flowers. Attempting to work with a permaculture ethic, we harvested beans, tomatoes, courgettes, potatoes, nasturtiums, onions, blackberries and more I forgot. Establishing productive gardens can be as important as climbing up trees. Not everyone can live in trees but we can all look after plants. Rediscovering old skills for a brighter future.

Whilst the festivities all around were going on security was breached at the Palace three times or more. Firstly by the Police Forward Intelligence Team (FIT) who took the piss by storming onto site and filming this and demanding that. More vigilance was needed if the community was to keep the state off and be a true temporary autonomous zone.

Coupled with an influx of Babylon’s waifs and strays who took advantage of the welcoming atmosphere, site life took on a more strenuous and stressful atmosphere. During July thefts from site were happening, and regularly. Tools, money, even Tasmanian passports were going missing from under our noses. We have but ourselves to blame for not being a tight-knit crew.

These lapses, with ensuing witch hunts fuelled by paranoia, combined with the constant bombardment of microwaves from the TV mast meant focus and momentum was lost, and the days were noticeably getting shorter… and all the while Bromley Council were shuffling and squirming, issuing writs and threats. The camp decided to take the fight to them (you gotta raise the stakes). Having ignored three years of protest and the voices of all who lived there we decided a big fuck off party might change the perspective slightly.

The full moon on August 8th 1998 saw sound systems, over 500 people and as much stimulation as a person can shove up their nose hit the top ridge adjacent to the site.

The sun rose to a fantastic vibe, new friends, and a spotlessly clean aftermath heralded what was to be a noise-filled early Autumn. There was a ‘village fair’ which it must be said we lunched out, punk nights, more sound systems interwoven with regular candlelit vigils.

We knew as we entered into September the game had taken a new twist. The legal challenge by the liberal Crystal Palace Campaign was faltering- and badly. No surprise there (see Never Trust the Middle Classes box). The pagan festival of Samhain approached and the merry big band from Palace started to look inwards with thoughts of evictions.

Defenses that looked all Summer like they would remain fantasies took shape as we poured tonne after tonne of concrete on to madly unstable land.

The earth we walked for nearly a year was as it turned out perfect ground for our engineers of sketchy construction. As holes appeared and got deeper (digging spurred on by rumours of existing tunnel networks), from the surface rose Faulty Towers of scaffolding.

With more spikes than a punx picnic, more wired than any amphetamin assassin, the original damaged leaning tower of piss ‘eds increasingly dominated the landscape. Come eviction it was over forty foot high and well over 400 cans of Strongbow Super old. Memories of it still fresh bring smiles to faces.

With winter fast approaching, the debris on site both animate and inanimate was piling up. For some it was time to move off site and recuperate, for those living on site the need to party was never far away.

What do you do when the local redneck pub just up the road gets boarded up? Get sound systems and your mates and rock it that’s what. A posse quickly reclaimed it (obviously feeling very at home there), and caused the Council yet more headaches.

During those dark, dark nights around Winter Solstice actions were planned and carried out against the partnerships who wanted to develop the top ridge. Hitting multinationals is easy – they are everywhere, but faceless property developers like London and Regional Properties are more tricky. Owned by a Dutch company and based in an off-shore Guernsey bank account, these bastard wide boys were almost unreachable, suffice to say we knew where the directors lived.

Eviction Paranoia & Eviction Reality

With Yule came the first major eviction paranoia.The fear was based around unfinished defenses, oh, and the small matter of Bromley being granted an order to evict, at their leisure, with pleasure. We got our minds on the job in hand. Amazing dedication to the cause saw towers appear in all directions and as we entered the final year of the millennium rumours and counter-rumours did the rounds. Again!!

It seemed, paranoia aside, that it was possible and plausible that the Forces of Darkness would strike quickly after the New Year. With this in mind local residents dug deep for the umpteenth time to supply the crew with brew, and vegans with… whatever those funny people eat and drink.

It came to pass that definitely, for certain, 100% they were coming in on the 4th of January. Warnings were issued countrywide and a posse of around 70 people climbed up trees, went down tunnels or locked on and a vigil of around 40 locals anxiously waited from 6am to welcome the state.

Meanwhile at the Epsom site (see article’s end) around 300 police with double that number of security laid siege to the Silver Birches. They met fierce resistance from the sole occupier who moaned about being woken up. Game Over Epsom. Sigh of relief for Palace.

Gypsies paid us 20 per load so that they could dump tires on our site – which we used for defenses. Business flourished as did the barricades – shame about the wildlife. More Swampification by the corporate media, intent on highlighting tedious trivialities. When will we learn?

Storm clouds gathered over the hilltop as the daylight hours grew longer. Many nights and days were spent in various states of mind watching the natural light shows. We had it all there, from temperatures above 100f to downpours, lightning and double rainbows. Ain’t nature wonderful?

After Imbok (yet another pagan date for your diary), the eviction wind up got into gear with the barricading and trial runs happening at the 121 Squat centre just down the road in Brixton (see p. 132). Judging by appearances in February, many on site were starting to wish the eviction on themselves and who can blame them?

At the full moon on the third of March the state moved in to restore their order and repossess this most toxic of squats. People and defenses were readyish for the battle to commence. All through the night before people rushed about sorting out where the last minute drinks were being had. With dawn, there was the arrival of various substances and again lots of media. Whose fuckin’ eviction is this anyway!?

Up in the Faulty Tower our vantage point wasn’t great. Bloody trees were obscuring all the action but it was good enough to see over 350 cops storm in quickly, most in riot gear. Within ten minutes or so a lot of ground support was gone, people failing to get into lock-on positions in the chaos.

The massive operation brought all traffic to a grinding halt. Pensioners and school kids were unwittingly caught up in a military manoeuvre. A half hour into the eviction and the scale of it all was vividly apparent. Fearing a take over of the TV mast masses of pigs had gathered around it getting microwaved to fuck. I mean as if we would…

Fencing contractors ordered by Bromley to break the law duly obliged, fencing off a right of way, flouting the instructions of two High Court judges. Come nightfall that first day, one could only imagine what everyone else was feeling. Underground, up trees, locked on in holes or on your own up a 25 foot tower that had no shelter, no bedding and no food. Dedication to duty does not sum up feelings of admiration for the women and men, girls and boys, who time and time again put their arses on the line. Altruistic beautiful people every single one of ’em.

Evictions are to be enjoyed (if possible) and frankly we were having a giggle constantly baiting baby-faced coppers who couldn’t resist stroking saplings. By day two of the eviction twice as many security had either been arrested for shoplifting, stealing videos or for fighting as had been arrested on our side.

Most of the trees were cut down before nightfall and as we curled up that night, our thoughts were on our brothers and sitters in much more perilous positions than us. Up on the Faulty Tower we went to sleep knowing they were coming to get us – and soon. One of our lot, freezing cold and starving and without brew for two days was still refusing to get off what was a hugely significant strategic tower on top of a bunker. Babylon was duly unimpressed.

Things were getting very surreal. Police were giving us Mexican waves at sunrise. On day three they asked us to sing Happy Birthday to one of their mates.”Is that before you smash our skulls in and spray CS gas in our eyes – or after?” We didn’t bother.

After deliberating for some time they took out the tower quite swiftly. About five hours elapsed before it was finally cleared. This turned into a blessing for it enabled us up there to be re-united with the posse on the terraces just in time for us to witness a pissed chief druid/biker who thinks he’s King Arthur wobble then fall backwards tumbling down the bank. Monarchy – HA!

Typical post-eviction celebrations ensued, fully in the knowledge that three of our mates were still underground. Drinks were drunk for them, repeatedly! Unless having worked and lived underground it is difficult to comprehend the changes in your awareness. Days turned to weeks. On the eighth our Lancashire comrade emerged from his bunker after a butane bottle leaked underground.

Words aplenty have been spoken about the two naughty kids staying underground in their ten by six ft bunker for 19 days. By staying down they massively increased the cost of the eviction. They refused to speak either to the media, police or tunnel teams (see box to the right). This admirable show of no compromise, either with the state or spectacle should be found at evictions more often. Many of us could do a lot worse than following their good example.

The last bunker dwellers were taken off site nearly three weeks after the eviction had started, making Crystal Palace the longest eviction in British history. However, the fight wasn’t over, for a few faced prison on unrelated charges, one of whom after spending 19 days underground was banged up for a month using a 25 year old anti-union law. It just shows the extent of Babylon’s annoyance. I’m sure the 2 million eviction bill must have upset them a bit. Still, they bleeding started it.

So the complex Bromley have about the complex they want has not vanished. As we go to press Babylon is tied up in red tape of its own making. Many of us went back to our homes outside South London while other Palaceites have remained, living as a community squatting in Streatham. Whether still in the area or not we all valued the time and experiences our great Mother produced there. As did loads of residents who changed and adapted to the new climate (of resistance).

The zeitgeist seems to force more and more into taking action, and with each week new people join the hoards.

A Surreal Day In Epsom

It was the first working day of 1999. The headquarters of Shell had been occupied and the London Underground offices had been invaded in solidarity with tube strikers. At the same time around 70 of us had responded to an eviction scare at the Crystal Palace action camp.

Although the eviction alert turned out to be false alarm, we soon found out that whilst we had been waiting for the bailiffs to arrive the eviction at the Epsom anti-road/car park camp elsewhere in South London had begun. Energy and enthusiasm at the Crystal Palace camp was low and many people were reluctant to leave the site. However one vehicle left immediately hoping that security at Epsom would still be minimal and that they’d be able to get on site. Later, I jumped into a car with a few others. During the journey we received a call from the first van who warned us of the scale of the police presence and that the only person to have been at the camp when the eviction began had already been arrested and taken to court. We decided to continue but to go straight to the court to support the person who had been arrested. Arriving at one of the police road blocks stopping all ‘suspicious’ looking vehicles going into the town, we quickly became aware of the size of the police operation. After a brief delay we drove to the court building. It was from this point on that the day became increasingly bizzare.

The camp at Epsom was small with very few people living there and serious resistance to the eviction was unlikely. Despite this being obvious to the local police, whose headquarters were located directly opposite the camp, the scale of the security measures taken was phenomenal. Several hundred police and security surrounded the site whilst bailiffs and climbers cleared the trees and structures that had been built by those resisting the development. Their operation, however, stretched much further than the boundaries of the camp.

Shortly after being refused entry to the court building by five cops, an unmarked white van drew up, the side door opened and several members of the Metropolitan Police FIT team jumped out. They approached us immediately, addressing the person I was with by her first name. Slightly shocked our natural response was to get up and leg it. As we turned the first corner I noticed a person not in police uniform speak into their coat. He also began to chase us along with the two cops from FIT. They were all fairly unfit, so we managed to lose them quite easily. After hiding for a while behind a public toilet we ventured back out onto the High Street. There were cops on almost every street corner. We began walking back to the Court where, along with the person who’d been arrested, we bumped in to a few other’s who had been involved in the campaign.

Keen to find somewhere to get tea and chill out we left the court together. A van full of police in black boiler suits followed us slowly as a group of police photographers took pictures whilst some members of FIT attempted to strike up conversations. Keen not to lead a police convoy to the house of the friendly person who had offered us a room to relax we split up. A couple of people went back to the car we had arrived in, only to be followed by a police van, whilst others of us went into tourist shops to avoid the photographers. Undeterred FIT continued their harassment. Each of us was being tailed by two or three cops, one of whom had either a stills or video camera. Trying to minimise the number of pictures they could get of us we tried to use paper bags from a gift shop as make-shift masks.

It was clear that the cops following us were under instructions not to let us go anywhere without keeping us under observation. Perhaps the local police were expecting either a much larger response to the eviction alert, or for the few people who turned up at the site to attempt to re-occupy the camp or damage the machinery being used to clear the trees. Unfortunately there was no possibility of our being able to achieve either of these things. We called the person driving the car we had arrived in, arranged a meeting point and travelled back to Crystal Palace – followed, of course, by a van full of cops and several members of the FIT team. A truly bizzare day!

Power to the People’s Towers!

Right: During the eviction the Faulty Tower stood firm for two days. Building towers can be a very effective defence tactic in fighting developments. Left: In 1975 as part of the vast resistance to the building of the Toyko Airport at Narita, Japanese peasants built two 62 metre high towers. Standing at the end of the first runway the towers prevented the take off or landing of any planes. Tens of thousands defended the towers, masked up, wearing helmets and wielding pikes. ‘Surrounded by fields, gleaming emerald that day in the rain, the tower exuded strength. It’s steel girders, meshing and intermeshing like the joined arms of it’s defenders. As if the secret forces of the earth had come together to replenish the struggle of those pledged to defend it, against those who would spread the pall of death’-from Libero No.3 (Japanese Anarchist mag) 1976

Two Statements From The Bunker

1) For years politicians have been selling our future to multinational companies. Ordinary people are constantly excluded from decisions about their own environment. The only way for us to resist this is by direct action. Every day we remain, we cost them money, which makes the scheme less viable.

As anarchists we hope that by resisting this development, we will not only protect this historic site, but will move one step closer to a future in which neither politicians, nor business, but people themselves control every aspect of their own lives.

2) Contrary to some opinions, our action was not a media stunt but direct action. Our aim was to protect the site and hinder those who seek to profit from it’s destruction.

As anarchists we understand direct action to be the only way people are empowered, and real change achieved.There is no spectacle that the capitalist media could create that would do justice to the reality of the campaign, or the community that has grown from it. The collective action of this community is more important than any personality or individual efforts.As capitalist media cannot be expected to fairly represent any action that undermines the capitalist system, we will not be saying any more.

Never Trust the Middle Classes

“The treehouses are built, the tunnels dug and the small community is already on eviction alert. A world away, in the rarefied atmosphere of QC Anthony Scrivener’s Gray’s Inn chambers, barrister and Bromley resident Philip Kolvin [far right!] is leading his campaign of ‘professional resistance’ against the council.” (from the Trade magazine Estates Gazette, 20th February 1999.)

Kolvin’s Campaign (nicknamed Babylon’s Protest) purposefully set itself apart from the site, groups and locals involved in direct action, while simultaneously reaping the financial reward of the televised resistance. Mistakenly thinking they were giving money to the site many donated to the ‘campaign’ which instead went on countless fruitless legal manouevres. Money flooded in to the campaign coffers (30,000+) while those on site often went without food or basic action supplies – relying often on what they could skip and steal.

The last two eco-warriors left the tunnels on March 25th.

However, the time and cost of evicting the camp, fighting legal challenges etc, held development off for several years, to the point where in 2001, Bromley Council announced the collapse of the plan.

There’s lots of archived campaign material and history relating to the multiplex plans here

The future of the top of the Park remained a subject of local debate… Here’s a series of updated articles briefly detailing some of the negotiations and plans that have emerged since…

Various plans have come and gone since 2001. In 2003, plan for a modern building in glass was submitted to the Bromley council; ironically proposed by Philip Kolvin, campaigner against the multiplex, who was accused of being an opportunist and self-promoter…

In 2007, a £67 million master plan was drawn up by the London Development Agency which included the building of a new sports centre, the creation of a tree canopy to mimic the outline of the palace, the restoration of the Paxton Axis walkway through the park, but it also included a controversial proposal for housing on two parts of the park. It won government backing in 2010, and the plans were upheld by the High Court in 2012 after a challenge by the Crystal Palace Community Association.

The owners of Crystal Palace F.C. announced plans to relocate the club back to their original home (now the site of the National Sports Centre) from their current Selhurst Park home; this also never happened.

In 2013, a plan to build a replica of the destroyed Crystal Palace was proposed by a Chinese developer. Bromley Council however cancelled the exclusivity agreement with the developer in 2015.

More recently, the running of the park is to be taken over this year from Bromley by the Crystal Palace Park Trust, an independent community trust. As the history of the community’s relations has shown, ‘public’ ownership of space, as with other ‘assets’ has a long and chequered history. ‘Public’ bodies nominally under ‘our’ control do not always manage space, housing, health, (etc) in anything like the interests of ‘the public’. And what is the public? A catch-all term that obscures the vast variety of competing and struggling interests that we are enmeshed in…

We will have to see how ‘community’ control of the Park pans out… as ‘community’, like ‘public’, is a term that can cover a multitude of sins. ‘Community’ management can reflect a narrow caste imposing their vision of a space, or can genuinely encompass how splintering ideas and alternative needs intersect.

Open space is often a zone of contestation. Open spaces all over England have been the focus of dispute and struggle for a thousand years. Apart from everyday uses – in medieval times collecting firewood, grazing animals; later drying clothes, recreation, sports, just walking or hanging out – apart from providing space for everyone, often they were gathering places for the outcast and for rebellious or radical mobs, or places for illicit sex. The poor, the outcast, the sexually promiscuous or unlawful, the homeless, have faced numberless attempts to exclude them by better off residents or City authorities, including campaigns to end rowdy and troublesome fairs, build on ‘wastelands’, enclose ‘unproductive’ commons and marginalise the already precarious, to fence off squares, arrest and drive out beggars, prostitutes (or women simply labelled as such), gays (in centuries when gay sex was illegal and punishable by death), the homeless, etc. The authorities saw open spaces as centres of disorder, immorality; by the 19th century po-faced social reformers had come to see open and unorganised space as immoral in itself, leading to the landscaping of ‘wasteland’, the creation of properly laid out parks – a process which was thought to have a civilising effect on the people who used it.

These conflicts have not gone away – from the restrictive bylaws of the parks to modern control orders, parts of the ‘community’ and the ‘public’ clash constantly over how space is used, respectability and unruly… Echoing also the largely middle class legal campaign against the Crystal Place multiplex and the uneasy alliance with the activist hippy riot of the eco-camp; anti-enclosure struggles historically also often had their legalistic and riotous sides (as at nearby One Tree Hill…) Which in reality both generally contributed to spaces being saved, but was not always the end of the dispute over what the space should BE.

Also – we kind of LIKE the top of Crystal Palace Park wilder and unmanaged; landscaping that had gone to seed, weeds growing over the terraces… Wilderness, re-wilding of Victorian strait-lacedness… The camp too was like another new world being half-built and struggling to emerge (though it had its problemos)… No to multiplexes in parks, yes, but also no to every park being planned and mowed…

Martin Spence, in talking about the enclosure of Penge Common, has thrown up a question about ‘commons’ – if we posit a new commons, shared collective inheritance for us all (echoing the vision of shared traditional use of the land on the old ‘commons’) – what should that consist of? Can our shared use of open space be expanded into a ‘commons’? Commons traditionally were also venues for struggle BETWEEN users, between parishes as well as between classes.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many battles were won – many more lost.

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

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

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

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

This open land was a strong temptation to potential enclosers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Another hearing in 1607 into the intended enclosure was inconclusive:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The extent of Sydenham Common shown on a modern map

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Read other past tense posts about enclosures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shovels and Spades, Shovels and Spades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For want of roome to shoote abroad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Walk for thieves and lovers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today in London riotous history, 1871: 1000s demolish enclosure fences on Wanstead Flats

Wanstead Flats is the southernmost portion of Epping Forest in Wanstead, East London. Epping Forest itself is a  a remnant of the once extensive Forest of Essex, also encompassing Waltham Forest and Hainault Forest.

On July 8th 1871, thousands of locals and people from the wider East End gathered to protest at the enclosure of the Flats, and destroyed the fences that had been put up around the land.

Historically the Flats were part of the royal forest – however, the proximity of this space to villages led people to turn out cattle and other animals to graze upon the unenclosed land. Over the centuries, this custom became tradition and was eventually recognised and granted as a right of common pasture. (Certain landowners and occupiers still have this right, granted them as part of the Epping Forest Act 1878, and cattle grazed freely until 1996 when the BSE crisis forced their removal).

Parts of Epping Forest were enclosed as parkland with large houses, which evolved from medieval manor houses. The most significant of these are Wanstead Park, dating from the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth century, and the eighteenth-century Copped Hall.
As part of the Royal Forest of Essex, Epping Forest was one of sixty forests across England where Forest Law gave the Crown the right to hunt game across largely privately owned land.  Hunting across forest landscapes was an important demonstration of Royal and aristocratic power and a necessary practice for war.  Forest Laws recognised the earlier tradition of shared ‘common’ rights for forest dwellers to graze livestock and to cut firewood and turf.

Changing Royal interests and the rise of a professional army during the Georgian period saw Royal participation in hunting and the power of Forest Law dramatically decline. Parliamentary scrutiny of Royal finances following the Restoration saw the Royal Forest hunting rights across private land, known as Forestal Rights, begin to be sold.

From 1817, a series of Parliamentary Bills unsuccessfully pressed for the disafforestation of Epping Forest.  In 1851, following the sale of Forestal Rights, 3,000 acres of nearby Hainault Forest, another fragment of the Forest of Essex, was felled within six weeks. Six years later, the Commissioners sold half of the Royal Forestal Rights at Epping Forest, encouraging the illegal enclosure of some 4,000 acres of Epping Forest by 1865.

Local people’s long use of Wanstead Flats, and its general reputation common land, led to a strong attachment to the land there. This led to resistance when attempts were made to enclose or build on parts of the land.

There was deep resentment when Lord Mornington enclosed 34 acres in 1851-2.
In the 1850s Isaac Lake was a tenant farmer of Lord Wellesley on Aldersbrook part of the Flats. Wellseley, (Lord Mornington, nephew of the famous Duke of Wellington), the Lord of the Manor of Aldersbrook, ordered Lake to enclose 34 acres of land on the Flats.

Wellesley’s plan was to build a permanent cattle market on the Flats (to replace the huge open air cattle market which was held on this area of the Flats every spring until the mid 19th century… Cattle would be driven from East Anglia and other parts of England to supply the growing London market for meat. The cattle were bought and sold in “The Rabbits” pub on Romford Road (at the corner of Rabbits Road – the building is now a pharmacy).
The enclosure provoked a local outcry: one local farmer apparently drove his cattle onto the enclosed land, breaking down the fences, and was prosecuted.

The plan to build the market failed, and the market was built in Caledonian Road, Islington, instead. Lord Mornington died in ‘humble lodgings’ in 1857, so perhaps the scheme was a desperate attempt to restore dwindling family finances…

However, the 34 acres seem to have been fenced off and built on, despite an attempt by residents of Cann Hall and other commoners attempting to block him in the courts. This seems to have involved support from Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, of the quaker brewing family, who was later to take an active part in fighting other enclosures in Epping Forest…

The most famous episode in local defence of the Flats took place in July 1871, after Earl Cowley, cousin and heir of Lord Mornington, enclosed 20 acres of wasteland, (the last piece of unenclosed land in the Manor of Aldersbrook).

Fences were erected from Bushwood to Ridley Road by Earl Cowley’s agents.
But there was an angry response. An advertisement with the headlines “Save The Forest” encouraged working people to “Attend by Thousands” an open air meeting on Wanstead Flats on Saturday, July 8th 1871 to “Protest against the Enclosures”. The meeting took place, not initially on Wanstead Flats, where the Essex Volunteers were undertaking a review, but in the grounds of a building then called West Ham Hall.

So many people attended, estimated at 30,000 – so many that the meeting was by popular acclaim adjourned to Wanstead Flats after all, with some thousands of people making their way there. The meeting would end with crowds pulling down the enclosure fences.

Here follow some contemporary accounts of the demonstration and direct action:

“THE recent destruction of the fences surrounding one of the obnoxious enclosures on Wanstead Flats may have been an act of great imprudence, but it serves to illustrate the angry spirit with which the East Londoners are beginning to regard the continual encroachments which are rapidly depriving them of the broad open spaces to the free use of which they have been accustomed for so many generations. Perhaps there is no portion of the Metropolitan suburbs so largely frequented during holiday-time as are the yet unenclosed portions of Epping Forest lying nearest to the overcrowded districts of Whitechapel and Bethnal Green. On a fine Sunday evening thousands of working men, attended by their sweethearts or wives and families, may be seen proceeding along the Mile End Road in the direction of Wanstead Flats, a large open space, perfectly level and covered with verdure, close to the Forest Gate Station of the Great Eastern Railway. The distance from London is not great, the Flats being within five miles of the Royal Exchange, a circumstance adding considerably to the value of this portion of Epping Forest as a popular open-air resort. But it is on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons during the fine days of summer, that the Flats present their most interesting appearance, for on these occasions they form the playground of immense numbers of children from the myriad courts and lanes of Spitalfields, Shoreditch, and other densely populated districts in East London. No sight can be mare touching than that of the crowds of poorly attired little ones, some of them mere toddlers, who have dragged their limbs hither, regardless of hat stony pavements and dusty roads that they might have a few hours’ romping on the soft grass or load themselves with bundles of buttercups and daisies. It is no exaggeration to say that but for Wanstead Flats, and other open spaces near East London, the late terrible visitation of cholera, which decimated so many artisan families, would have been far more destructive in its results. But the pure, fresh air of Wanstead Flats did much to counteract the unwholesome influences of the fever-reeking atmosphere which still, despite every effort on the part of the sanitary authorities, too often pervades the humble homes of the East London labouring poor. But the Flats are apparently doomed. Earl Cowley’s enclosure is by no means the first of its kind; there, have been several others such as that, the fences of which have just been destroyed. Before Mr. Gladstone promised to take up the question of Epping Forest, the Crown rights over Wanstead Flats had been sold for 12,000l. by the Commissioners of Woods and Forests. Nothing but the rights of the commoners remain, and these have been disregarded because there were none sufficiently wealthy to defend them. But the Corporation of the City of London having recently, through their purchases of land for their cemetery at Ilford, become possessed of the rights of common an Wanstead Flats, have announced their determination to defend the same at whatever coat. This is the first time that the system of enclosure has experienced any real check. Should the Corporation gain the day, the free use of Wanstead Flats will have become secured to the East Londoners; but the conflict will be a long and costly one, for the encroachers instinctively scent the danger which awaits them, that they may not only be prevented from making further enclosures, but, also be compelled to give up some of the land of which they have been too easily allowed to acquire possession. (The Weekly Graphic, 15 July 1871)

“A meeting to protest against this filching of the forest was held, on Wanstead Flats last Saturday. The people v. lords of manors; the people v. Chancellors of the Exchequer who decline to protect them: the people’s rights against all would confiscate them – formed the key-note of every speech. Let it be understood at once that as far as the proceedings at the meeting proper were concerned there was no violence. The powerful force of policemen, both horse and foot, which had been sent down to guard Lord Cowley’s obnoxious fence had nothing to do; and a large majority of the gallant fellows whiled away the calm summer evening by foot-races, jumpings, and athletic sports upon land which is still common. Others were placed on duty within the various doubtful inclosures, and others, again, hovered round the public meetings, of which there were several held upon the Flats.

WANSTEAD FLATS, it may be explained is the title of the portion of Epping Forest which is nearest to London, and is but a stones throw from the Forest-gate station of the Eastern Counties Railway, and some quarter of an hour’s walk from as crowded and busy thoroughfares as there are in the metropolis. The meeting of Saturday had been announced beforehand, and the possibility of lord Cowley’s new fence being removed “by resolution” had been not obscurely hinted at. A review of volunteers had been announced to take place on Wanstead Flats at the hour at which the chair was to be taken, so placards were issued that “in consequence of this, Lord Cowley’s last inclosure would be discussed in a field adjoining West Ham Hall, the residence of Mr. Tanner. This was not far from the Flats, but it was too far for the meeting. An amendment was moved the moment Sir Antonio Brady took the chair. Mr. Wingfield Baker M.P., advised and pleaded in vain.

“To the flats!”

“They’re oar own.”

“Wy should we be pravented meeting there?”

“Wot is there to be afraid of?

“Whose fault is it we have to meet at all?”

“Wot about Berkhampstead?” [This refers to the then recent and highly publicised case of Lord Brownlow’s attempt to enclose Berkhamstead Common, which had ended with his fences being removed by night, after the enclosure was contested legally].

“Where’s Lord Brownlow’s palings now?” – came from scores of lusty voices and when the amendment was put “that this meeting do adjourn,” a perfect forest of hands was held up in its favour.” 

“The committee under whose auspices the meeting had been convened were seated in a large waggon which had been fitted up with tables and chairs, and two or three other vehicles of a like character stood around, all crowded, and all without horses. What so fitting as that they should be dragged on to the Flats by the enthusiastic crowd? There was plenty of superfluous energy about, and a dozen willing fellows had harnessed themselves, and waggons, committee, chairs, tables, and paraphernalia were out of the field and jogging along the road at a steady trot in far less time than it has taken to read these lines. At the meeting there was plenty of good vigorous oratory; but it is not necessary to follow the speakers very closely. Resolutions were passed that an address shall be presented to her Majesty; that the Government shall be urged to pass a short bill this session to effectually prevent further inclosures; that thanks shall be rendered to the Corporation of the City of London ; and that copies of these resolutions shall be sent to the Prime Minister, to the chancellor of the Exchequer (loud and prolonged groaning followed every mention of Mr. Lowe’s name), and to every member of Parliament whose constituents are immediately interested in the preservation of the forest What was specially significant was the tact and temper displayed by the speakers and the plain influence of those qualities over the crowd. Strong as the police force was, it would have availed but little against the stalwart fellows who had just drawn in heavy waggons laden with heavy gentlemen over roads and turf, and had enjoyed the gentle exercise that proceeding gave then. A little swaying to and fro, a slight pressure in one direction – nay, a passive yielding to circumstances such as governs innocent spirit-rappers and table-turners who have a predisposition to believe – and the nearest paling would have fallen like a house of cards. But from first to last those present were adjured to give their enemies to handle against them. So the great demonstration began, continued, and ended peacefully. Earl Cowley’s fence remained intact when the meeting separated, and the extra police force were dispersed after nothing more stirring than a few hours pleasant pastime in country air.” (the Penny Illustrated Paper, 15th July 1871)

The Committee who had called the meeting were alarmed by the strength of the feeling. Fearful of the increasingly vocal calls for destruction of the fences on the Flats, they had tried to persuade the crowd not to march on the Flats… But the demonstrators were having none of it. As soon as the first speaker began, there was a storm of hissing, and shouts of ‘to the Flats’, followed by the manhandling of the carts, from which the gentleman leaders were speaking, up Chestnut Avenue and onto the Flats.

The official meeting on the Flats agreed to petition the Queen over the forest enclosures, then the leaders left, as did the large police detachment sent to guard the fences. Everything seemed to have passed off peacefully, but later that evening the mood changed. Very quickly, hundreds of yards of fence were reduced to matchwood:

“THE DESTRUCTION OF FENCES happened later in the evening. Close to nine o’clock an incident occurred which changed the whole aspect of affairs, and the fence around the inclosure at the side of the Flats near the Foresters’ Arms, and quite close to whore the meeting had been held, was destroyed in the twinkling of an eye. A man, while seated on a rail of the fence, was asked by a comrade to go home; he demurred, and his friend pulled at him to make him get down; the rail shook and in a moment half a dozen hands brought it to the ground. A dozen hands laid hold of the next; it gave way; in a minute there were fifty persons pulling energetically, then a hundred, then hundreds. The sound of the breaking up of the railing – for they were smashed into fragments as they were got from the posts – sounded like a continuation of the file-firing of the volunteers, and hundreds of people rushed up from all parts of the Flats and from the side roads and public-houses. In five minutes the fence around the inclosure was almost wholly destroyed.

A solitary constable galloped along the Ilford road after the police, and brought back at full speed fifteen or twenty mounted men, who rode on to the Flats. As no one was to be seen engaged in any overt act they could do nothing. In a few minutes the foot-police rushed back at the double, and were unmercifully “chaffed” by the crowd, who recommended them to take care of the fragments of the railings. In a moment a small body of working men, at a remote part of the inclosure, essayed to destroy a few rails still standing. The mounted officers leaped their horses over the remains of the fence and rode straight it the destroyers, who fled precipitately. One young man was apparently ridden down by an inspector, and while on the ground a body of the foot police laid hold of him. The crowd turned back, and, saying “they mustn’t have him!” attempted to rescue him. This movement was soon put a stop to by the very energetic efforts of the small body of horseman, who charged about on all sides. The prisoner was handcuffed and marched off, the crowd following him with the intention of rescuing him in this narrow road; the police frustrated this by suddenly drawing a line across the road and charging the mob coming along. In the melee that ensued some minutes were occupied, which gave time to a party of police to hurry the prisoner along the Ilford road and effectually secure him. In addition to the man then made prisoner, the police captured a boy, whom they also carried off in custody…” (the Penny Illustrated Paper, 15th July 1871)

The man arrested was a Whitechapel cabinetmaker named Henry Rennie. A pitched battle then took place, as the crowd tried unsuccessfully to rescue him. He was later prosecuted, and he was fined 5/- (25p – a fair sum for a working man then), which was paid for him by one of the Forest Gate organisers of the meeting.

“The police were utterly taken by surprise by what occurred. They were expecting something of the kind with regard to Lord Cowley’s fence at the other end of the fence adjacent to the Ilford Cemetery, and had a pretty strong force in reserve there. On Sunday they remained on guard. On Monday, also, they held their ground, it having been rumoured that some persons had determined to try the right of way by passing through Lord Cowley’s inclosure. the leaders, however, were not on the spot, and the rain, descending, dispersed the people who had gathered in expectation of another demonstration.” (the Penny Illustrated paper, 15th July 1871)

Police on Wanstead Flats, July 8th 1871

The demonstration attracted nationwide news coverage, much of it highly critical of the government. A few days later the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, came to view the Flats, after which his administration rushed through the first of a series of acts on Epping Forest, prohibiting further enclosures while a Commission investigated.

In the following month the Corporation of London, concerned at the pace of enclosures in Epping Forest, started proceedings against all the Lords of local manors who had enclosed land.

However, the campaign was just getting going. A pressure group called the Forest Fund, was established in Forest Gate, with local residents such as Charles Tanner, owner of West Ham Hall, forming a key part of the committee. The secretary was William George Smith, a County Court Clerk who lived in Odessa Road, Cann Hall. Smith played a major role in the popular campaign for Epping Forest, working tirelessly over the next few years, organising petitions to parliament from east London vestries (the main units of local government before Councils) and lobbying MPs and voters during elections.

In 1872 the Forest Fund organised a second demonstration on Wanstead Flats, timed to coincide with a further parliamentary debate on the future of Epping Forest. By this time the City of London Corporation had entered the fray, using their rights as Epping Forest commoners to bring legal action against the Lords of the Manor in the forest to stop enclosures. In doing so the City was seizing an opportunity to win popular support among Londoners. London’s government was increasingly seen as outdated for a modern city, and the City of London represented for many an undemocratic and unaccountable elite.

Election poster from 1874, with enclosures as the leading issue

From 1875, the Corporation of London negotiated purchase of land from all the manors of Epping Forest; and enclosed land was reopened for all, including Wanstead Flats. The events at Wanstead and the previous action of Tom Willingale at Baldwins Hill had prompted this – we will return to Tom Willingale in November…

A combination of the Corporation’s legal action and parliamentary action by radical London MPs finally led to the Epping Forest Act passed 140 years ago. But it was direct action by East Londoners that was the crucial spur…

One reason why the Flats attracted so much support was their popularity with Eastenders for recreation. The East End having a huge working class population with few gardens and a shortage of open space, Wanstead Flats and Epping Forest were often crowded with people looking to escape the crowded dirty city for a few hours. Festivals and fairs were often held there, as Arthur Morrison recalled:

“WHIT MONDAY ON WANSTEAD FLATS

There is no other fair like Whit Monday’s on Wanstead Flats. Here is a square mile or more of open land where you may howl at large; here is no danger of losing yourself as in Epping Forest; the public-houses are always with you; shows, shies, swings, merry-go-rounds, fried fish stalls, donkeys are packed closer than on Hampstead Heath; the ladies’ tormentors are larger, and their contents smell worse than at any other fair. Also, you may be drunk and disorderly without being locked up – for the stations won’t hold everybody – and when all else has palled, you may set fire to the turf.” (Arthur Morrison, Tales of Mean Streets, 1895.)

Twenty years after the direct action which saved the Flats were also the venue for a ‘free speech fight’, as anarchists holding open air public meetings there were targeted by police and local press.

In 1946-7, the Flats were also threatened, as plans to build on them to house thousands of eastenders displaced by WW2 bombing were drawn up. Protests against the plans forced them to be shelved (we will come back to this later this year…

… and Take Back Wanstead Flats campaigned against the temporary building of police operations bases for the run-up to and duration of the 2012 Olympics… photos here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were further troubles at Osterley Park over enclosure in 1614, when several women cut down trees belonging to Sir William Reade, who had inherited he house.

Two other attempts to enclose common land in the Heston area about 1600 seem to have been defeated by a group of tenants led by Sir Gideon Awnsham. Complaints were also made in 1634 about recent enclosures of the common lands.

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

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

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

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

Today in radical history, 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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