common rights 1965

Herts county council commons registration act 1965

I’m coming back to earlier archival research I did on common rights and the Commons Registration Act 1965.

Key reading is chapter 4 of Christopher P Rodgers et al, Contested Common Land: environmental governance past and present (2011) and J. W. Aitchison, ‘The commons and wastes of England and Wales, 1958-1989’, Area, 22: 3 (1990), 272-77. The Royal Commission on Common Land 1958 report and its interpretation by Dudley Stamp and W. G. Hoskins, The Common Lands of England and Wales (1963).

These point to the deficiencies of the 1965 legislation, not just in creating confusion among who was allowed to register land and rights, multiple registrations of the same common, confusion between commons and village greens, and a lack of sensitivity to customary regulations that were time limited and designed to maintain environmental subsistence and ecology.

I was also inspired by the artist Ruth Beale (http://ruthbeale.net/work/commons-drones-gifs/) who spoke about her art using the 1965 Commons registers for Northamptonshire, at an event at Manchester School of Art on Commons last year.

The Hertfordshire registers for the Commons Registration Act 1965 are in Hertfordshire Local Studies, on microfilm (ref CL; also VG for the village green registers). I have had trouble trying to find the equivalent registers in other counties – Surrey History Centre, for example, said the council never purchased the originals for their county in the first place, so they don’t have them. They are held in the County Hall with the modern updated maps: https://www.surreycc.gov.uk/land-planning-and-development/countryside/common-land-and-village-greens#where

Hertfordshire shows some distinctive patterns which reflect, as always, how landscape and community shape regions, and how regions thereby shape the common and customary legal framework in which people dwelt.

Aldbury common
Aldbury Common, from geograph.org

Aldbury Common near Tring, and Berkhamsted Common, were the predominant commons in the Hertfordshire registers. They demonstrate the legacy of the fight to save Berkhamsted common in the 1860s which led to the formation of the Commons Preservation society (see Ben Cowell, ‘ The Commons Preservation Society and the Campaign for Berkhamsted Common, 1866–70’, Rural History, 13:2 (2002). The commons were purchased or donated to the National Trust in the early 20th century. It is on those commons that the registers recorded the most claims of common rights. The current NT website https://www.chilternsaonb.org/ccbmaps/376/137/aldbury-common.html states that there are over 900 commoners, though only a few claim their rights, mainly to estovers (wood gathering).

A total of 146 claimed rights in 1973 according to the registers. Most commoners were farmers claiming pasturage for substantial numbers of animals, thus illustrating the continued role of customary forms of agriculture, even as late as the mid 20th century. 26 commoners at Aldbury claimed estovers and wood gathering, though this was regulated to ‘fallen wood not more than 9 inches diameter within one month of falling’, and ‘cut ripened fern from 1 September’. They also claimed the right to cut chalk from the chalk pit, reflecting the regional geology of this part of the Chilterns.

I am interested in the continuance of these claims to rights, particularly over small subsistence (e.g. the right to graze 6 geese) into the later 20th century and whether people exercise the rights today. How were these rights passed down? How many were rights appurtenant (belonging to the land/property)? Did people learn about them through generations, or to what extent were they bought and sold, a trade that seemed common in 18th and 19th century studies of enclosure? Were they recorded in deeds etc?

If you know of more 1965 commons registers in county archives or local studies or elsewhere, please comment below. Thanks.

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