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

Follow past tense on twitter

Save Reginald, Save Tidemill: resisting new enclosures and the destruction of social housing in Deptford

Users of Tidemill Community Wildlife Garden in Deptford, South London, are currently occupying the garden round the clock, the latest stage of their long struggle to keep the garden from being destroyed by Lewisham Council as part of a regeneration plan which would also see the demolition of the neighbouring council block of flats. The battle to protect Tidemill Garden and Reginald House focuses several of the most crucial struggles being fought at the moment in London – resistance to the destruction of social housing, the privatisation, exploitation & destruction of open space, gentrification and the social re-ordering of many areas of the city. (NB: None of which is unique to London – being worldwide phenomena…)

Open space is vital in London, in the city. Literally a lifesaver, Parks, commons, woods, from the heaths to the slivers of green at the edge of the canals… Green places in the heart of London, places of refuge, pleasure, places for picnics, barbecues, learning, meeting, playgrounds for wildlife and people … When work and stress and all the other shite rises up and threatens to overwhelm you… you can lie on your back while the wind dances in the trees. When you’ve got no garden, when your family drives you nuts, sick of pointless work and all the abuse, exploitation and suffering in the world – or when you just love the grass. For the mad endless football matches, falling out of trees, hide and seek as the sun dapples the moss; for dancing round your phone in the summer evenings… wiping the tear away as your daughter’s bike wobbles round the lake for the first time, even for when you’re masochistic enough to go running on rainy mornings…

The benefits of having access to open green space are obvious, for exercise, physical and mental health and wellbeing, learning about and connecting to wildlife and nature (all too rare in the city), having somewhere green to just relax; quite apart from the playgrounds, sports facilities, water features, running tracks… even the bloody festivals sometimes when they don’t trash the grass and lock us out for half the summer…

Trees and plants also obviously contribute to air quality and help reduce pollution, as mature trees absorb carbon emissions from vehicles… not to mention just being beautiful, sometimes climbable, a relief from the brick and sandstone, concrete and glass…

The parks and greens maintained by councils and other official bodies are crucial enough, despite the bylaws that hem you in there, the financial pressures that lead to massive commercial festivals that lock the big parks off for weeks on end…

There’s the wilderness too, where it survives, or has fought back to wreath old factories or abandoned lots, half-demolished estates in green and growth… This wildness in London has been vanishing more and more, it made a comeback from post-world war two to the 80s, often on bombsites, or where industry was closed down… A strange hopeful beauty, we used to trespass, explore, and sometimes build in.

Even more precious than either of the above, maybe, is the space that people create themselves, communally, working together, learning and building and planning. Many such spaces were created from abandoned land, some were originally squatted or more or less occupied, often bit by bit, gradually taken over, where money and authority had forgotten or lost interest, or simply didn’t have the resources to exploit or use. Like the squatting of houses from the 70s onward, small scale community spaces were created, here and there, sometimes evicted or given institutional blessing and becoming ‘official’.

New enclosures

As with resistance to enclosures in previous centuries, the wholesale removal of access to vast areas of land for large numbers of people, in the interests of the wealthy, the nominal owners, the rich, urban free spaces can also become contested. If some were granted some kind of legal status, this has not protected them forever from the possibility of being cleared, built on, lost. Just as cash-strapped or money-hungry councils see big parks as piggy banks that can be milked, self-created spaces are often viewed as awkward, unproductive, not neat and tidy-looking, lowering the tone, run by amateurs who don’t understand. And taking up space that could be put to more profitable use. By people who know best and should just be allowed to get on with planning our lives for us.

The freely given and collective effort put into creating and maintaining small community-run spaces, and making sure they are kept free and open runs counter to this. It’s not always easy and can stall or lose momentum, but its spirit is often lovely and inspiring. Councils pay lip service to this spirit because they know it’s bad PR to say what is really often thought in the offices and boardrooms – that this spirit is annoyingly uncontrolled and gets in the way of properly ordered progress and fiscal good sense. In this sense, while in theory many larger or smaller open green spaces are ‘publicly owned’ – ie owned by public bodies like councils – there is a chasm, its not ours, in the legal sense, though people who use and enjoy space often feel that it is ours, collectively, emotionally. Enclosure was often resisted in two parallel strands – common land (always in fact owned by someone) had developed customary uses over time, which people took to be legal rights, and some went to court to oppose enclosure on that basis. Others felt that whatever the law said about who owned a piece of land and could do what they want with it, it was theirs, collectively, because they had always used it and so had generations before them, and would right to maintain that – often with direct action, sabotage, sometimes with violence. Both strands had their successes, in truth, in saving many places we still know and love today. But often people had to go beyond what the law said was ownership to assert the collective ownership they felt and had experienced, an often  contradictory jumble of realities which law, contract, statute and certificate don’t and can’t quantify. This remains a central question in many struggles, whether its about housing, space, work…

Tidemill and Reginald 

So – Lewisham council are planning to demolish Reginald House and Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden, and on the site of the old Tidemill Primary School, which closed in 2012, near to the centre of Deptford.

The Tidemill garden was created in 1997, designed with the involvement of parents, pupils and teachers at Tidemill school. For a long time it was considered worthy of support by official bodies, being funded by Groundwork, the London Development Agency, the Foundation for Sport & Arts, Mowlem plc, Lewisham College — and Lewisham Council, which invested £100,000 in it in 2000.

The garden has matured, and now contains 74 well-established trees. In August 2017, it was cited as a case study for the importance of “Children at Play” in the GLA Greener City Fund prospectus, and it also has the support of organisations including the Council for the Protection of Rural England and the London Wildlife Trust. Pupils from the new Tidemill School have used the garden for many educational projects.

Some great pix of the Garden and some recent events here

Go, Move, Shift!

If the development plans go ahead, the residents of Reginald House will lose their homes, and a unique community wildlife garden will be destroyed. The vast majority of the residents of Reginald House and the users of the garden want the plans to be re designed in partnership with the community – to build the same or more social homes, but keep Reginald House and Tidemill Garden. The new plans trumpet the inclusion of new green space – but much of this will be private gardens (guess which tenure they will be for?) or playspaces for residents only, and the open access space planned is much smaller, includes no mature trees, much of it will be paved, sterile and free of the pesky wildlife and unplanned growth Tidemill hosts. And privately owned…

As Caroline Jupp has written: “The proposed green space to replace this extra-ordinary garden is named a ‘pocket park’ in the developer’s plans…. The sterility of many contemporary architect designed parks and gardens is not conducive to outdoor play. I have seen how the planted public areas on my newly built estate become dead zones. But here, in Old Tidemill Gardens, there are ponds, gazebos, tree houses, composting bins, greenhouse, sheds, climbing trees, undergrowth and wilderness, all to nurture play and kinship with nature. Why demolish this green space, used so regularly by schools and the community, and replace it with a neat pocket park? Local residents and visitors all value this community space, want to be its gardeners, and have a real stake in how it evolves. In contrast, most designs of contemporary green spaces don’t encourage the involvement of users, with with their choice of low-maintenance planting. No doubt, the keepers and sweepers of the proposed new park will be an out-sourced company…”
(from Buddleia Bulletin, no 4, ‘Tree House’, 2018, Caroline Jupp. The 5 issues of Buddleia Bulletin are well worth a read, and all proeeds from sales go to the Tidemill campaign…)

They and many supporters have been campaigning to prevent the demolition since 2014, when Lewisham signed a deal with Family Mosaic Home Ownership (a private spin-off of Family Mosaic Housing Association), which would have seen the currently ‘publicly owned’ land sold off cheaply. Through murky secret Development Agreements, Family Mosaic lies, council refusal to listen to the community’s protests or allow the residents of Reginald House to be balloted on the plan, the campaign has gained strength, drawing up alternative plans which would transform the re-development, keeping the gardens and allowing for more social housing. Since 2015, the local community has had a lease on the garden for “meanwhile use”, but despite granting this as a stopgap, Lewisham council, has refused to seriously entertain any alternative plan.

The subsequent new homes built under the initial plan would have had only 11% social housing, and the community resistance has forced the developers and council to increase this several times, and alter other aspects to try to deflect the opposition. Family Mosaic has since merged with Peabody Housing (housing associations are joining up to create ever large mega-monsters, raising rents and becoming more and more openly property companies). But the plan has remained, and the processes of planning and law have ground on.

Peabody now intends to build 209 units of new housing on the site, of which 51 will be for private sale, with 41 for shared ownership, and 117 at what is described as “equivalent to social rent”. This last is not in fact true –  rents on the last category will fall under London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s London Affordable Rent, around 63% higher than existing council rents in Lewisham.

Here’s an account by a resident facing losing her home: https://deptfordischanging.wordpress.com/2018/08/14/the-planned-demolition-of-your-home-has-so-many-repercussions/

The Middle Class Are Eating Your Street Again

It’s true there’s a housing crisis in London (and in the UK generally) – but currently councils, including Lewisham, are responding by planning homes that those who need them will never afford. The Tidemill proposals fall in with the trend to demolish social housing, with secure tenancies, and replace it mainly with private flats, sprinkled with some housing association tenancies or ‘shared ownership’, ‘affordable’ housing’ that isn’t affordable. A handy outcome of this is the slow replacement of working class people and those on lower incomes with more middle class or wealthy types, who help make the place more economically attractive to money, business and ‘exciting’ and ‘vibrant’. Ie everywhere starts to look as empty and soulless as everywhere else.

Many of the displaced end up crammed in to smaller spaces but paying more, moving to forsaken spots far out on London’s edge, or forced out of town entirely.

Deptford, for centuries a working class area, has stubbornly remained a mixed and interesting place, despite several decades of creeping gentrification. It’s a frontline of contestation, between profit and residents, planners and people, development and the precarious places and existences people make for themselves. There’s land there that greedy eyes see can be made much more of; but also where public officials see unproductivity that could be turned into assets. Occupied and used by people who they see as taking up space a better class of person could be making more of.

London needs homes, yes, but for rents we can afford, in the communities we want to live in, without destroying everything that makes those places a joy to live in. And there is plenty of housing lying empty in the capital. It’s owned by the wealthy, by property developers and corporations. Second homes and flats for business jollies. Palaces with hundreds of rooms for a couple of parasites.

Housing is not generally built for need, its built for profit. Attempts by councils, ‘social landlords’ like housing associations to alter this cannot be built on alliances with huge private developers or turning themselves into private developers and make any noticeable dent in the gradual erosion (now more of a landslide) of genuine social housing provision. Labour bollocks about ballots is smokescreening their complicity almost everywhere with social cleansing and love affairs with greedy property speculators.

It’ll take more than voting in any Corbyns or Sadiq Khans to push that back. It can only be based in people at the grassroots like at Tidemill and any number of struggles around London. And it’s hard, and often loses. It needs people to stand by them who aren’t facing that process themselves (remembering that social housing and open space are a collective legacy, a commons, the fruit of centuries of battling and campaigning, and belong not just to those who live or work or play there but to all of us, in common). And it needs to open the question of who the city is FOR, and challenge fundamental assumptions about housing, space, who owns things, who runs things…

The fight to keep Tidemill does closely echo the battle against enclosures of previous centuries. people have built up space, created uses for it, helped to survive through using it, built up emotional and practical ties to it. But the forces of cold financial or bureaucratic progress sees all that as irrelevant, counting only the hard cash or the planning gains. These days our years of struggle have made them more wary of proclaiming their contempt openly, so there’s lots of gloss and schmooze. But still bailiffs, fences and men with sticks to knock you down hiding round the corner, if you don’t buy their bullshit.

Ballots Not Bollocks?

Lewisham’s Labour council has refused to allow residents of Reginald House a ballot on the plans, though 80% of them don’t want their homes destroyed. This makes a mockery of Jeremy Corbyn and London mayor Sadiq Khan’s promise of ballots to all tenants on estates facing demolition. Khan endorsed the idea of ballots only for estates whose regeneration involves GLA funding – the Tidemill plan does involve GLA funding. But the mayor stealthily approved the destruction of 34 estates — including Reginald House — before his new policy took effect.  Lewisham also now has a stated policy of ballots on demolition: but not for Tidemill and Reginald. Tenants and leaseholders in Reginald House have also been effectively denied repairs since 2015 despite paying rent and service charges…

Instead, Lewisham Council’s cabinet approved the current plans last September, and terminated the community’s lease on the garden on August 29 this year.

Not Removing

Instead of handing the keys back, however, members of the local community occupied the garden, and are fighting court battles to prevent the demolition. They have crowdfunded over £10,000 to launch a Judicial Review of the planning application, but need more to help pay for this… In the latest court appearance, the judge confirmed the council’s right to possession of the garden, he ruled that it cannot take place until seven days after a High Court judge holds an oral hearing at which campaigners will seek permission to proceed to a judicial review of the legality of the council’s plans. This oral hearing will take place on October 17… they may be allowed to proceed with the Review, they may not…

Pledge some cash for this legal battle – the campaign’s Crowd Justice fundraising page is here: https://www.crowdjustice.com/case/save-reginald-save-tidemill/.

The Garden is now constantly occupied, with events happening all the time, displays on the history and ecology of the garden, and treehouses being built, banners being painted, and much more… A lovely and inspiring fight. If the court case doesn’t proceed, it will not be the end – far from it…

Four years of campaigning are now coming to the sharp point – the community is determined to resist the destruction of the garden, and this may well come to blockading the garden and trying to prevent their eviction physically. They need not only cash for the legal challenge, but help, support, publicity…

Contact the campaign: savereginaldsavetidemill@gmail.com

Phone: 07739 469097

https://www.facebook.com/savetidemill/

There’s more on the campaign, and other interesting current events in Deptford, here too:

https://novaramedia.com/2018/09/13/the-battle-for-deptford-and-beyond/

http://crossfields.blogspot.com/

https://deptfordischanging.wordpress.com/

http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2018/09/28/30-days-into-the-occupation-of-deptfords-old-tidemill-garden-campaigners-celebrate-court-ruling-delaying-eviction-until-oct-24/

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The community demands:

“Refurbish Reginald House, give residents a ballot Reginald House residents have good homes, but council has refused to listen to them or to consider a plan which keeps their homes. Instead the residents have been lied to and harassed by council officers, and their homes run down. Lewisham Council should respect its residents’ needs and wishes and not break up communities. As in other developments, residents must be given a ballot on regeneration plans.

Keep Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden a community garden for ALL Any redevelopment must include, not bulldoze, the thriving Garden which was built in the 1990’s by local people, teachers, parents and kids from Tidemill School. An alternative architectural plan shows how the garden and Reginald Road CAN be kept by building on the playground and developing the old school buildings. This area has some of the highest pollution levels in London, which will only get worse if the garden is lost. And the green space on the site should be kept public, not transformed into private gardens as under the current plans.

Public land, and public money, should be 100% used for the benefit of the public Lewisham Council want to sell this land, meaning a valuable public asset will be lost forever. Millions of pounds of public money is being spent to subsidise this development, behind a cloak of secrecy due to the ‘confidentiality clauses’ of the Council’s private partners. This land should be redeveloped in partnership with the community – to build as many social homes as possible but keep our invaluable current homes and community Garden.

We want the council and developers to truly partner with the community to redraw the plans for the site!”

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In case you’re interested…

… check out some other posts on historical resistance to enclosure of open space in London

Today in London rebellious history, 1855: Rioting in Hyde Park, against the ‘Sunday Trading Bill’,

Hyde Park became royal property when king Henry VIII confiscated it from the Church in the 1530s. It has remained royal property ever since (bar a short period in the English Revolution when it was sold off). The park was opened to the public in the 17th century, and became a favourite playground of the rich, who liked to parade there in their coaches.

But although the park was a place of leisure for the powerful, the poor were largely excluded (except when people snuck in to rob the rich on occasions)… As central London was built up, open space gradually vanished.

By the 1850s, Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square were the only two major open spaces in central London, and both were the scenes of conflict as the state tried to stop people meeting in them. A serious of confrontations in the Square culminated in Bloody Sunday 1887, when several people were killed by police during a mass illegal demonstration. In Hyde Park, the key battles took place in the 1850s and 1860s.

1855, round one: 
In June 1855, Hyde Park was the scene of mass defiance of the authorities. The spark was Lord Grosvenor’s Sunday Trading Bill, which sought to stop shopping and other activities on the Sabbath, and would have mainly affected the poor. There was also resentment at the Crimean war and at the hypocrisy of the aristocracy who wanted to parade up and down Hyde Park on Sundays while stopping others from enjoying themselves. It was not surprising therefore that the Park became the centre of opposition to the Bill. The first protest took place on Sunday June 25th, and among those present was Karl Marx, then in London, who wrote a report of the events for the German newspaper Neue Oder Zeitung:

“There has been a rapid succession of measures of religious coercion. The first measure was the Beer Bill, which shut down all places of public entertainment on Sundays, except between 6 and 10 pm. Then came the Sunday Trading Bill. In both cases there is a conspiracy of the Church with monopoly capital, but in both cases these are religious penal laws against the lower classes to set the consciences of the privileged classes at rest. The Beer Bill was as far from hitting the aristocratic clubs as the Sunday Trading Bill is from hitting the Sunday occupations of genteel society. The workers get their wages late on Saturday; they are the only ones for whom shops open on Sundays. They are the only ones compelled to make their purchases, small as they are, on Sundays. The new bill is therefore directed against them alone.

This was the occasion yesterday of a mass demonstration in Hyde Park. We were spectators from beginning to end and do not think we are exaggerating in saying that the English Revolution began Yesterday in Hyde Park (sorry Karl, we’re still trying!).

Lord Robert Grosvenor, who fathered the Sunday Trading Bill, when reproached on the score of this measure being directed solely against the poor and not against the rich classes, retorted that “the aristocracy was largely refraining from employing its servants and horses on Sundays.” The last few days of past week the following poster, put out by the Chartists and affixed to all the walls of London, announced in huge letters:

“New Sunday Bill prohibiting newspapers, shaving, smoking, eating and drinking and all kinds of recreation and nourishment, both corporal and spiritual, which the poor people still enjoy at the present time. An open-air meeting of artisans, workers and `the lower orders’ generally of the capital will take place in Hyde Park on Sunday afternoon to see how religiously the aristocracy is observing the Sabbath and how anxious it is not to employ its servants and horses on that day, as Lord Robert Grosvenor said in his speech. The meeting is called for three o’clock on the right bank of the Serpentine, on the side towards Kensington Gardens.”

It should be borne in mind, of course that what Longchamps means to the Parisians, the road along the Serpentine in Hyde Park means to English high society – the place where of an afternoon, particularly on Sunday, they parade their magnificent horses and carriages with all their trappings, followed by swarms of lackeys. It will be realised from the above placard that the struggle against clericalism assumes the same character in England as every other serious struggle there- the character of a class struggle waged by the poor against the rich, the people against the aristocracy, the “lower orders” against their “betters”.

“we are treated like slaves”

At 3 o’clock approximately 50,000 people had gathered at the spot announced on the right bank of the Serpentine in Hyde Park’s immense meadows. Gradually the assembled multitude swelled to a total of at least 200,000 due to additions from the other bank. Milling groups of people could be seen shoved about from place to place. The police, who were present in force, were obviously endeavouring to deprive the organisers of the meeting a place to stand upon. Finally a rather large crowd made a firm stand and Bligh the Chartist constituted himself chairman on a small eminence in the midst of the throng. No sooner had he begun his harangue than Police inspector Banks at the head of forty truncheon swinging constables explained to him that the Park was the private property of the Crown and that no meeting might be held in it… meanwhile Finlen, a member of the Chartist executive, rushed to a tree some distance away followed by a crowd who in a twinkle formed so close and compact a circle around him that the police abandoned their attempt to get at him. “Six days a week,” he said, “we are treated like slaves and now Parliament wants to rob us of the bit of freedom we still have on the seventh”.

Suddenly shouts could be heard on all sides: “Let’s go to the road, to the carriages!” The heaping of insults upon horse riders and occupants of carriages had meanwhile already begun. The constables, who constantly received reinforcements from the city, drove the promenading pedestrians off the carriage road. They thus helped to bring it about that either side of it was lined deep with people.

“A music that could drive one mad”

The spectators consisted of about two-thirds workers and one-third members of the middle class, all with women and children. The procession of elegant ladies and gentlemen in their high coaches-and-four with liveried lackeys in front and behind, did not this time pass by in review- but played the role of involuntary actors who were made to run the gauntlet. A Babel of jeering, taunting, discordant ejaculations, in which no language is as rich as English, soon bore down upon them from both sides. As it was an improvised concert, instruments were lacking. The chorus therefore had only its own organs at its disposal and was compelled to confine itself to vocal music. And what a devils’ concert it was: a cacophony of grunting, hissing, whistling, squeaking, snarling, growling, croaking, shrieking, groaning, rattling, howling, gnashing sounds! A music that could drive one mad and move a stone.

Meanwhile the metropolitan electric telegraph had informed all police stations that a riot was about to break out in Hyde Park and the police were ordered to the theatre of military operations. Soon one detachment of them after another marched at short intervals through the double file of people, each received with the popular ditty: “Where are the geese? Ask the police!”. This was a hint at a notorious theft of geese recently committed by a constable in Clerkenwell.

The spectacle lasted three hours. Only English lungs could perform such a feat. During the performance opinions such as “this is only the beginning!” “That is the first step!” “We hate them!” and the like were voiced by the various groups. Shortly before the end the demonstration increased in violence. Canes were raised in menace at the carriages and through the welter of discordant noises could be heard the cry of “you rascals!”.

Most of the London papers carry today only a brief account of the events in Hyde Park. No leading articles as yet, except in Lord Palmerston’s Morning Post- it claims that “a spectacle, both disgraceful and dangerous in the extreme has taken place in Hyde Park, an open violation of law and decency- an illegal interference by physical force in the free action of the legislature.” It urges that “this scene must not be allowed to-be repeated the following Sunday, as was threatened.””

1855: round two
: A week later another protest took place in the Park, in defiance of a ban on meetings there. Faced with such protests, Lord Grosvenor eventually withdrew his proposals. Marx describes what happened on July 1st:

“Even according to the account given in the police bulletin at half past two already 150,000 people of every age and social estate surged up and down the park and gradually the throng swelled to such dimensions as were gigantic and enormous even for London… once again the crowd lined both sides of the drive along the Serpentine, only this time the lines were denser and deeper than the previous Sunday. However, high society did not put in an appearance. High society had given wide berth to the place of combat and by its absence had acknowledged vox populi to be sovereign.

It got to be four o’clock and it looked as if the demonstration for lack of nutrition was going to simmer down to harmless Sunday amusements, but the police reckoned differently. Were they going to withdraw amidst general laughter, casting melancholy farewell glances at their own big-lettered placards – posted up on the portals of the park? Eight-hundred constables had been strategically distributed. Big squads were stationed in neighbouring localities to serve as reinforcements. In brief, the police had drawn up a plan of campaign which was “of a far more vigorous description,” according to the Times “than any of which we have yet had notice in the Crimea.” The police were in need of bloody heads and arrests in order not to fall from the sublime to the ridiculous without some intermediate link.

[Orders were issued] allegedly for the protection of passing carriages and riders. But as both carriages and riders stayed away and there was therefore nothing to protect, they began to single some individuals out of the crowd and have them arrested on false pretences, on the pretext that they were pickpockets. When this experiment was repeated more and more often and the pretext no longer sounded plausible, the crowd raised one big cry. At once the constabulary rushed from ambush, whipped their truncheons out of their pockets, began to beat up people’s heads until the blood ran profusely, yanked individuals here and there out of the vast multitude (a total of 104 were thus arrested) and dragged them to the improvised blockhouses.

Only a small strip of land separates the left side of the drive from the Serpentine. Here an officer of the police and his detail manoeuvred the spectators to the very brink of the lake, threatening to give them a cold water bath. To escape the clubbing one of the crowd swam across the Serpentine to the opposite shore, but a policeman followed him in a boat, caught him in a boat and brought him back triumphantly.

During the demonstration several attempts were made again to hold separate meetings in various places. At one of them an anonymous speaker harangued his audience about as follows: “Men of Old England! Awake! Rise from your slumbers, or be forever fallen! Oppose it every succeeding Sunday, as you have done today… Don’t fear to demand your rights and privileges, but throw off the shackles of oligarchical oppression and misrule. His lordship wants to drive us to church and make us religious by act of Parliament; but it won’t do. Who are we and who are they? Look at the present war; is it not carried on at the expense and the sacrifice of blood of the producing classes? And what do the non-producing classes do? they bungle it”. The speaker as well as the meeting were stopped, of course by the police.”

The following extracts are from the report of the parliamentary enquiry “into the alleged disturbance of the public peace in Hyde Park on Sunday, July 1st, 1855; and the conduct of the Metropolitan Police in connexion with the same”:

“It was observed that many of the most disorderly characters were collected in front of the rails on the south side of the Drive near the Receiving House… to clear the crowd back to some distance from the railings [orders were given] to the police to clear the road and the rails, and to use their staves… the police advanced with their truncheons drawn along the carriage road of the Drive, clearing it of people. Some of whom, not readily yielding or quitting the road, were pushed, struck, and roughly handled. The policemen also passed along the Drive, striking on the rails, and brandishing their staves over the heads of the crowd there, and in some instances striking at them, in order to compel them to . These proceedings produced or increased irritation and ill feeling on the part of the people assembled; offensive expressions were used to annoy the police, some stones were thrown at them, and frequent collisions took place.

About six o’clock in the evening a large mass of people set out from Hyde Park towards Grosvenor Gate and Pink Street, with cries of “Now to Lord Robert Grosvenor’s.” Soon afterwards a crowd was collected before Lord Robert Grosvenor’s house in Park Street. No actual violence, beyond throwing a stone at Lord Robert Grosvenor’s messenger, was committed by them; but their number and clamour were alarming. The crowd yelled and groaned, calling “Chuck him out,” and using other expressions of hostility to Lord Robert Grosvenor, and their aspect and proceedings were sufficiently menacing to excite the fears of the inmates of the house, though some of the cries were of a jocular character.

The police rushed forward with their staves drawn. Though there was no serious resistance, some of them, whilst dispersing and pursuing the crowd, used their staves, and otherwise acted with violence, inflicting severe injuries on several persons who were not shown to have been guilty of any violence, but who refused to move off when requested so to do, or who, being inoffensively there, ran or stood still when the police came up the street.”

Hyde Park remained an arena of (often violent) mass demonstrations and struggle. In 1862, there was fighting between radical sympathisers of Italian nationalist Garibaldi and  mostly Irish catholics who saw Garibaldi as having attacked the Pope… 1866/7 saw riots there during the Reform agitation… There were mass suffragette demos before World War 1, unemployed riots (1932), anti-fascist rallies in the 1930s, hippie gatherings for the legalisation of cannabis (1967), and the 1994 anti-Criminal Justice Bill demo and rave which became a massive riot…

Much more on Hyde Park can be read in The Battle for Hyde Park: Ruffians Radicals and Ravers, 1855-1994 (from which this is an excerpt). Available to buy from here

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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Today in London radical history: more disturbances in Trafalgar Square, after riot the day before, 1848

Trafalgar Square was built in the 1830s, after the previous mass of royal mews, stables and other buildings, which had grown up over several centuries, was cleared after 1826. The aim was to have a great plaza with outstanding views of the new buildings on it edge, most notably the new National Gallery. The whole square, its monuments and surroundings was touted as a celebration of Britain’s military might, empire, royalty and culture. Us unruly plebs being who we are, the Square was almost from the first a venue for political and social struggles against these institutions and the power they hold over us. Despite the best intent of the authorities, we still gather there and ever now and again we kick off…

The first use of Trafalgar Square, then recently completed, as a rallying point for a demonstration came on 6th March 1848, when protesters gathered to hear speakers denouncing the increase of income tax from 3 to 5 per cent. A planned protest against the then relatively novel idea of income tax had been called by Charles Cochrane for Monday 6 March. Under pressure from the police, however, he reluctantly withdrew and made efforts to cancel the open air meeting.

The plinth of Nelson’s Column was still covered by hoardings as building work slowly progressed.

Scared by police threats of prosecution, Cochrane tried to cancel the rally, and declined to speak for fear of arrest, leaving the platform to G. W. M. Reynolds, then a young Chartist and a republican (later to found the famous Reynolds’ News magazine). The Times lamented, ‘8,000 to 10,000 persons assembled in the Square, belonging entirely to the working classes [some estimates say as few as 1,500], and the great mass of them apparently out of employment … judging from appearances, not a dozen probably were subject to tax.Speaking of the events in France which had toppled Louis Philippe and proclaiming, ‘A Republic for France – The Charter for England’, Reynolds was catcalled by someone in the crowd (an agent provocateur it seems) asking what he would do if he had Philippe in his grasp – would he kill him? Cleverly avoiding a charge of treasonable sedition, Reynolds answered that he would put him in the zoo as an exhibit!

According to the admittedly partisan Northern Star, just as the crowd began to dissolve “some sleek well-fed man asserted that the people assembled were lazy and would not work”. In the uproar which followed, the police moved in with truncheons flying and a riot ensued. The police now had to contend with a pelting of stones from the Column’s base, after which the hoardings were torn down and thrown. Builder’s sheds were also set alight as a section of the crowd made its way to St James’ Park with the cry of ‘To the Palace! Bread and Revolution!’, smashing windows and lampposts on the way.

By 4pm that afternoon, the police were in control of the square. But as they withdrew two hours later, the crowd flocked back in, pulling down the wooden hoardings around Nelson’s Column and arming themselves with granite blocks from the new roads. The fighting continued until late into the evening, with parts of the crowd heading off to smash the windows of the gentlemen’s clubs in Pall Mall , breaking into bread shops to seize loaves and – shortly after midnight – moving into Grosvenor Square .

It was 1am before peace was restored, and by 9am the following morning (March 7th) the crowd was back, erecting a barricade in Charing Cross next to the statue of Charles I.

All that day and into Wednesday 8 March the fighting continued. The authorities built up their forces over these days. On the Monday, there had been just 1,189 police on duty or reserve in London ; two days later, there were 2,460.

Despite the continuing excitement, the police regained control during the course of the Wednesday and the rioting began to subside. This, however, did little to prevent 700 rioters heading for the City by way of Temple Bar and Fleet Street. After a Chartist meeting on Stepney Green that evening, the crowd once again broke windows in the City and along Regent Street . This, however, was to be the end of the tumult for now.

By Friday, The Times was able to report that “scarcely any traces” of the week’s excitement now remained. In all, 127 rioters were arrested between Monday to Wednesday. The names of those arrested, taken from police records now in the National Archives (Ref: MEPO 2 64) are set out in the table below. The leaders of the riot were named as John White (“an eighteen-year old wearing epaulettes, smashing windows.. and shattering and extinguishing the gas lamps…”), and Charles Tothill (“a clerk, aged twenty”).

The arrested, by name, age, result of court hearing:

John Jones 20 Committee for trial (felony)
Morris Paton 18 Committee for trial (felony)
James Marchant 23 Fined 20s or 8 days
John Melvill 27 Committed 14 days
James Durkin 17 Fined 20s or 8 days
William Westwood 18 Fined 20s or 9 days
Thomas Leggett 24 Fined 20s or 9 days
Edward Andrews 42 Fined 20s or 9 days
Benjamin Pemberton 24 Fined 20s or 9 days
John Rees 21 Fined 30s or 14 days
Alexander Reeves 20 Committed 21 days
Frederick Cox 21 Fined 30s or 14 days
Jim Meehan 21 Committed 21 days
Charles Tothill 20 To find bail to answer the charge at Clerkenwell sessions
John White 18 To find bail to answer the charge at Clerkenwell sessions
John Read 36 To find bail to answer the charge at Clerkenwell sessions
John Feigle 26 Committed for 21 days
William Hack 21 Committed for 10 days
William Harrison 35 To find bail himself in £40 and two sureties in £20 each to keep the peace 2 months
John Varley 48 Committed for 14 days
William Sudbury 19 Fined 10s or 10 days
Michael Foy 28 Fined 10s or 10 days
Francis Holroyd 26 Discharged
Charles Haskin 22 Fined 10s or 7 days
George Robertson 17 Discharged
Charles Allen 17 Fined 10s or 7 days
Frederick Hinde 16 Discharged
Henry Calcutt 19 To find surety in £10 to keep the peace 1 month
John Head 12 Committed 3 days and once whipped
Thomas Condon 16 Committed 6 weeks
Arthur Fanley 16 Discharged
Charles Carey 21 Discharged
William Bute 29 To find bail himself £50 and 2 sureties each £25 to keep the peace 2 months
William Riddle 16 Discharged
William Mullins 24 To find surety in £10 to keep the peace 2 months
William Davis 17 Discharged
Thomas Read 40 Discharged
George Phillips 59 Fined 10s or 7 days
James E Duncan 26 To find sureties in £10 to keepthe peace 2 months
Charles Godwin 36 Fined 10s or 10 days
Robert Davis 17 Committed 10 days
Nathan Parry 26 Fined 20s or 14 days
William Sims 18 Discharged
Frederick Evans 21 Committed 10 days
Thomas Jones 19 1 month
William Carter 17 1 month
Richard Nicholls 22 Committed 14 days
John Gunthorp 25 Fined 20s or 14 days
Henry Hunt 18 Discharged
Charles Banks 23 Discharged
Robert Holmes 18 Discharged
James Simbilcock?? 42 Discharged
Charles Davis 19 Fined 10s or 10 days
George Peck 21 Fined 10s or 10 days
William Lucas 22 Fined 10s or 10 days
John Sage 19 Fined 20s or 21 days
Thomas Bedford 17 Fined 10s or 10 days
Abraham Ruff 30 Discharged
William Bayden 18 Discharged
Robert Rudland 23 Committed 21 days
James Haggar 18 Discharged
Morris Reasding 24 Fined 10s or 10 days
William Scarborough 17 Discharged
John Harbridge 19 Fined 10s or 10 days
George Allsop 20 Father recognisance £10 for 3 months
William Gifford 22 Committed 14 days
Alfred Wilson 23 Discharged
Stephen Callaghan 21 Discharged
Edward Macfarline 18 Discharged
William Dodd 16 Discharged
Michael Sullivan 15 Discharged
Eugene Sullivan 18 10s or 10 days
John Milton 25 Discharged
Thomas Wallis 24 10s or 10 days
Henry Oxbury 26 14 days
Michael Fitzgerald 17 To find surety in £40 to keep the peace 3 months
Peter Fitzstephen 22 21 days
Henry Stamper 19 Fined 20s or 14 days
John David 16 10s or 10 days
William Merry 19 Discharged
Charles Foster 23 Discharged
William Thompson 21 Discharged
John Moloney 20 1 month
Robert Frisby 17 Fined 10s or 10 days
William Woollams 15 10s or 7 days
James Kew 16 Discharged
William Salter 12 Discharged
James Turner 19 30s or 14 days
William Alias 18 30s or 14 days
James Abbott 30 £3 or 1 month
John St Leger 20 30s or 3 weeks
Mitchell Moore 25 20s or 14 days
George Ryan 21 30s or 3 weeks
Frederick Dorrell 20 £3 or 1 month
William Smith 34 1 month
Charles Keen 16 20s or 14 days
Miles Phillips 18 Discharged
John Hopkins 19 30s or 3 weeks
Henry Roach 18 Fined 20s or 14 days
John Johnston 25 Discharged
Henry Davy 17 30s or 3 weeks
Walter Ford 18 40s or 1 month
John Lewis 28 £3 or 21 days

Following these events, a ban on political rallies was put into effect, and remained in force until the 1880s.

Trafalgar Square would go on to become one of the central pillars of both London and national ‘free speech fights’ and come to hold an iconic place in the pantheon of public gathering points, especially for political demonstrations and rallies. From the 1880s, when the emerging socialist movement, eg the Social Democratic Federation, began holding protests. On 8 February 1886 (also known as “Black Monday”), protesters rallied against unemployment leading to a riot in Pall Mall. A larger ‘riot’ (“Bloody Sunday”) occurred in the square on 13 November 1887, when police battered gathered radicals and socialists, leading to 3 deaths.

Through post-war anti-fascist demos, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament demos (eg the Aldermaston Marches protesting against the Atomic Weapons Establishment), the Committee of 100 rallies from the early 1960s, the March 1968, anti-Vietnam War demos beginning here… The list is endless.

Just a few things I can remember from my own time… my first demo in London (CND, 1983); gathering to join the non-stop picket of S Africa House after the annual Anti-Fascist Action get-together to block fascists from November 11th cenotaph ceremony (1988); rioting against the poll tax in March 1990 with a building on fire behind me; the illegal Anti-Election Alliance march and rally we put on in the Square in 1992; a huge NHS march in 1993, where we tried to encourage people to go from there to the occupation of a ward at threatened University College Hospital; the Reclaim the Streets carnival to support the striking Liverpool dockers in April 1997, which ended in a huge police assault, driving us over Waterloo bridge; demos against the Afghan and Iraq Wars (both 1991 and 2003)… the occupation of the square by the Camp for Climate Action in 2009… running from the Square up to Piccadilly in the student protests in 2010…

Not to discount the numberless mundane demos with turgid speakers, us milling round muttering ‘which pub we off to then – the Chandos?’

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘A FYTTE OF ITACKNEY DOWNS.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow past tense on twitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A Spirit of Unrest”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A Lurid Glare upon the Upturned Faces”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public services today are stretched to breaking point by financial austerity, (imposed ideologically to take back as many resources as possible from all to aid the push for them to be sold to private interest). Local authorities everywhere are debating what to cut. One area under increasing threat is open green space; allegedly expensive to maintain. Some local authorities are proposing to make cuts of 50 or 60 % to budgets for parks. As a result, there are the beginnings of changes, developments that look few and far between now, but could be the thin end of the wedge.

So you have councils looking to renting green space to businesses, charities, selling off bits, shutting off parks or parts of them for festivals and corporate events six times a year… Large parts of Hyde Park and Finsbury Park are regularly fenced off for paying festivals already; this could increase.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more on the Croydon Plan here and here

Get involved to defend open space:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE COMMONS ARE OURS!

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

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

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

Follow past tense on twitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check out the Open Spaces Society website.

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

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

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

Stealing the Commons

Down With the Fences

Kennington Park

Rights of Common

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