Playing fields and recreation grounds

I went on my government mandated local exercise once a day to my local open space, which is some council owned playing fields. The ubiquity of this sort of open space – slightly scrubby grass fields, no fences or barriers apart from a raised mound around the perimeter to stop vehicles, no planting apart from a line of trees along the edge of the path. © Copyright Dr Neil Clifton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. Photo from c.1978

In debate about the current imposition of restrictions on parks and city commons – here I’m thinking of the hundreds of flat-dwelling residents no longer able to descend on Victoria Park in Hackney or another city park – the focus has been on definable green spaces that can be closed off, notably parks with railings. But for many of the population, their nearest open green space is not a landscaped park or a National Park, but a playing field or a recreation ground – less definable, less manicured, less uniform, and more open.

Hackney Citizen article

As we know, the Victorians became obsessed with public parks as a form of improvement and to some extent social control as well as preservation of open space against intense urban density. Railings is a major theme of my new book’s chapters covering this period, symbolised by the crowd pulling up the railings of Hyde Park during the popular agitation of the 2nd Reform Bill in 1866.

In the early 20th century, by contrast, the main theme is of open space without railings. Though the parks movement was still lobbying councils for more formal parks, new types of recreation spaces developed. We see a shift from the Victorian railed park with gates closed at night, to open playing fields and recreation grounds, to inner city children’s playgrounds. Once large estate building and slum clearance went underway, there was a proliferation of even less defined open grassy spaces such as the small areas in between tower blocks and houses.

The push for more open space in the driven first by pressure and lobbying by the National Playing Fields Association, founded 1925, who became a powerful body in influencing planning decisions.

The move to ‘un-urbanising’ inner cities was further enabled by bombed out sites providing more opportunity (though inner city blitzed areas more often rebuilt upon or converted to car parks, outdoor and multi-storey) and by the optimism and vision of postwar reconstruction plans.

The NPFA proposed standard of 6 acres per 1000 people became a mantra and main target for councils developing town and city plans, and postwar reconstruction. It was technocratic as well as about caring about access to open space.

In some areas and among some associations and planners, the open space standard became a matter of civic pride to increase the proportion of acres per population.

New towns such as Stevenage could boast of planning for well over the acreage standard. Inner cities and industrial boroughs had more trouble, and had to either patch together small spaces which were never enough or extend commons on their outskirts. It would be useful to do a space syntax analysis of the inequalities of access to open space in and between inner cities, suburbia, London vs other cities, rural villages surrounded by privately owned land e.g farms and forest.

The selling off of playing fields from the 1980s onwards, coupled with the decline of large company’s social facilities for their workers which often included playing fields, and further urbanisation and suburbanisation, meant a decline in the ideal of the space standard.

Further reading:

Mike Huggins and Jack Williams, Sport and the English, 1918-1939: Between the Wars (Routledge 2006)

John Allan Patmore , Land and Leisure in England & Wales (Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1970)

public health and public space

corona virus regulations

The closing down of public space means something completely different now that we are in the middle of a global pandemic. Little did I anticipate even 6 weeks ago, never mind when I started the research and writing of this project on the history of public space, that I would experience the strictest restrictions on access to public space in my lifetime, and indeed in the lifetimes of most people since the end of the war.

These analyses by legal scholars Raphael Hogarth and Julian Norman of the quickly pushed through legislation illustrate a major theme of the history of public space and the law: the ambiguity inherent in defining public space. They also point to the further ambiguity of who forms the public in public space (and private space vice-versa), and subsequently the variegated application of the regulations on the ground by the police, who exercise discretion and interpretation. As Iain Channing’s work on the Public Order acts against gatherings and trespass has shown, usually it is police powers of discretion that shape how the legislation is enacted and experienced by those it affects.

The question of ‘reasonableness’ in how the public health regulations are implemented also raises the ‘Wednesbury reasonableness’ principle in law and how it is applied by public bodies using discretion:

The restrictions on freedom of movement for the sake of public health are of course entirely necessary, but the unprecedented severity highlights the complacency we have perhaps shared over the last few decades over how we assume what is public space, and our rights of access. The confusion raised by the pre-lockdown encouragement to go to National Trust sites and other open landscapes, only to be clamped down on when this did not prevent social distancing and large gatherings, with a rush to enjoy the spring weather in anticipation of the lockdown, is also something I’d like to explore more in retrospect.

derby peak district news

There’s also an issue about whether the emergency legislation is also being stretched by landowners and farmers to block legitimate rights of way:

tweet by @ianphilips2454

I’m not going to do more comparisons yet, as we’re still in the middle of an evolving situation, but needless to say the current lockdown is bringing into sharp relief the spaces we regard as public and the nature of public gatherings in everyday life as well as at festive occasions. It highlights the types of behaviour and practices we enact in them. It also vividly brings to bear and arguably exacerbates the deep class, gender and ethnic inequalities in access to both public and private space, and their policing, that will need further investigation.

‘Aggravated trespass’ and the Ramblers

private land keep out sign

Current government proposals to make trespass a criminal offence have been criticised by groups representing Gypsies & Travellers, and the Ramblers. Trespass has always been a civil offence, but the change to criminal office would increase police powers and potential sentences for those convicted. Guy Shrubsole, as always, is at the helm of bringing the issues to attention.

BBC news report, 21 February 2020

This is not the first time that the government have tried to do this, nor received criticism from both Gypsy/Traveller groups and the Ramblers’ Association.

Criminal Justice bill 1994 and ‘aggravated trespass’

The Criminal Justice and Public Order bill of 1994 raised huge opposition. The most famous resistance was by ravers and New Age Travellers against the clauses aimed at outdoor raves, restricting events playing ‘repetitive beats’.

But another major intervention was the clause that developed a new offence of ‘aggravated trespass’. Section 68 (1):

A person commits the offence of aggravated trespass if he trespasses on land in the open air, and in relatio to any lawful activity which persons are engaging in or are about to engage in on that or adjoining land in the open air, does there anything which is intended by him to have the effect

a) of intimidating those persons or any of them so as to deter them or any of them from engaging in that activity,

b) of obstructing that activity or

c) of disrupting that activity.

Section 68 (1) Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994

The Ramblers’ Association challenged the clause. Their correspondence about the bill is now in London Metropolitan Archives.

private no access sign
LMA, Ramblers’ Association archives

The Ramblers did consider what the landowning associations thought would be the application of the Act, and were consoled by the fact that in the December 1994 issue of the Country Landowner Association magazine, their legal advisor warned that ‘it would be imprudent in the extreme for Members to misuse the provisions to cover ordinary forms of trespass … it should not be used to curtail peaceful forms of protest’. They noted the expense and publicity if such a case were prosecuted would be adverse, ‘and would give credence to the argument that the offence is a ruse to make trespass generally a criminal offence’. The warning against using the legislation against trespassers was supported by an agent for several Peak District landowners. (magazine, July 1995, in LMA, 4287/03/057, Ramblers’ Association file on the Criminal Justice Act 1995).

independent 25 July 1994
Independent, 25 July 1994

Court cases

The first court case raised by the Act and the section on aggravated trespass was against Richard Lloyd and Margaret Jones, who took part in a peaceful protest on the road near Stonehenge to mark the 10th anniversary of the Battle of the Beanfield, which in itself was a landmark event in the history of protest about the freedom of public assembly. Penny English published an excellent analysis of the long-duree history of battles of access to Stonehenge from 1894 onwards, from which this summary is taken (English, 2002).

In 1985, the Free Festival that had taken place at Stonehenge for many years, was banned by English Heritage and the National Trust. People travelling to Stonehenge for the festival were arrested on charges of unlawful assembly, obstruction of the highway and obstruction of police. The incident and the New Age Travellers who were the targets, were a key target of the 1985 Public Order Act, together with gypsies and also striking miners.

Ten years later, in 1995, Salisbury district council prohibited the holding of trespassory assemblies within 4 miles of Stonehenge. Jones and Lloyd were convicted under section 14 of the 1986 Public Order Act, and although their appeal to the Crown Court was successful, the Divisional Court reinstated their convictions. The court held that ‘peaceful assembly does exceed the limits of the public’s right of access to the highway’. A further appeal to the House of Lords was successful. (English, 2002, 14).

The Ramblers’ papers on the 1995 Act contain a report of the case from one of the defendants’ character references. It concluded ‘three points of concern to ramblers that the prosecution made:

  1. that an assembly need not necessarily include twenty people
  2. that they do not have to have common purpose
  3. that the right of the public on a highway is limited to passing and repassing’.
criminal justice act 1994

‘static/mobile’ or ‘sedentarist’ binary in law

In an advice sheet to members, the RA and British Mountaineering Council noted that under the new legislation in Scotland, ‘trespassing on a moor with the intention of disrupting (even peacefully) a legally organised shoot and other similar activities is now a criminal offence, punishable with a fine of up to £2500 or a 3 month prison sentence’.

Although they didn’t mention the legal precedent, this harks back to a law case from 1892 ( Harrison v Duke of Rutland, [1893] 1 Q.B. 142 (1892). A man was prosecuted for obstruction of the highway when he attempted to disrupt a grouse shoot on the moors outside Hathersage in the Peak District. The owner of the land and head of the grouse shoot, the Duke of Rutland, got his servants to restrain and hold down the man on the road. The man appealed for unlawful imprisonment, but his appeal was rejected because he was ‘admittedly on the highway, not for the purpose of using it as a highway but for the purpose of preventing the Duke and his friends from exercising their undoubted right of shooting [therefore] he was a trespasser on the road’. (Manchester Guardian, 5 December 1892; LMA, 4287/02/010, Harrison v Rutland, 1892; Sheffield Independent, 5 December 1892).

This was a significant judgement as free passage along a public highway is a common right, whether or not it goes across private land, but the case proved that people could only use the public highway for getting from A to B, and not for other purposes.

This is an example of what I am terming the ‘static/mobile’ binary, in which landowners and static uses of property have precedence over mobile or nomadic uses. As I’ve blogged before, I’m influenced by Antonia Layard’s model of the ‘trespass/licence binary’ in English law, that explains why anyone who doesn’t have licence to use a piece of land is automatically a trespasser. My ‘static/mobile’ binary framework also echoes Zoe James and Rebekah Southern’s idea of what they call a ‘sedentarist binary’ that discriminates against Travellers, Gypsies and Roma in legal and social policy, and is relevant for the current government’s proposals on trespass.

But the RA and BMC did conclude that, as long as climbers and hillwalkers behaved responsibly, they could not be liable to be prosecuted for aggravated trespass. There was clearly a class and ethnic consideration to the sorts of people who were more likely to have the legislation used against them.

Richard Card and Richard Ward’s study of the Act in the Journal of Planning and Environmental Law in 1996 argued that ‘ramblers who simply trespass, or the family who picnic beyond the confines of the footpath (and who thus become trespassers) do not intend to have any of the effects set out in section 68 (a, b and c above, about intimidating or obstructing the lawful activity on adjoining land) … irrespective of whether their conduct has such an effect or not.’ Nor does the section criminalise mass trespass, unless something is done in relation to any lawful activity, actual or imminent, on the land or adjoining land’. (Card and Ward, 1996, 6).

i.e. there has to be an intent of disruption or obstruction of landowners, deliberately, for it to be aggravated trespass.

I’m researching more on legislation and especially county council policy towards gypsies and travellers, and how it has changed over time. More anon.

Further reading:

  • Richard Card & Richard Ward, ‘Access to the Countryside: the impact of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994’, Journal of Planning & Environmental Law (1996)
  • Zoe James and Rebekah Southern, ‘Accommodating nomadism and mobility: Challenging the sedentarist binary approach to provision for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma’, International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, Vol. 39 No. 3/4 (2019)
  • Penny English, ‘Disputing Stonehenge: Law and Access to a National Symbol’, Entertainment Law, Vol.1, No.2 (Summer 2002), 1–22
  • Gavin Parker and Neil Ravenscroft, ‘Land, Rights and the Gift: The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 and the Negotiation of Citizenship’, Sociologia Ruralis, 41: 4 (2001)

Public Order law and space

A quick summary here of the development of public order law in relation to space and protest and the freedom of assembly.


Highway Act 1835, s72 – used to regulate public processions

Metropolitan Police Act 1839 s52 and s54

Town Police Clauses Act 1847 s21 – ‘the commissioners may from time to time make orders … for preventing obstruction of the streets within the limits of the special act in all times of public processions, rejoicings or illuminations, and in any case when the streets are thronged or liable to be obstructed’.

Trafalgar Square (Regulation of Meetings) Bill 1888 – though omitted in the royal speech 1889, response to the 1887 riots

Public Meetings in Open Spaces bill July 1888 – clause 1 stated that where the public had used any open space for public meetings for the last 20 years, they could be deemed to ‘have acquired an absolute and inalieable right’ to it

Public Meeting Act 1908 – in response to the suffragettes

Processions (Regulations) Bill 1932 – in response to the NUWM’s national hunger marches, especially the 4th march in October 1932

Public Order Act 1936 – police could prohibit processions in advance, proscribed the wearing of political uniforms, revised and nationalised existing local provisions relating to threatening and abusive behaviour (Channing, The Police, p. 16). passed after Cable Street and the BUF marches.

Public Order Act 1986 – common law offences of riot, rout, unlawful assembly and affray were abolished under s9 and replaced with statutory offences of riot, violent disorder and affray (Channing, The Police, p. 17). Passed in response to the industrial unrest of 1984-5

Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 – increased police powers of stop and search. part V introduced the new definition of aggravated trespass. Passed in response to new age travellers, anti-roads protesters and also increased restrictions on gypsies and travellers.

key cases:

Beatty v Gillbanks (1881-2) LR 9 QBD 308 – considering the purpose and conduct of the assembly in judging whether it should be considered unlawful. Involved the Salvation Army vs the ‘Skeleton armies’ opposition to their processions.

Duncan v Jones (1936) 1 KB 218 – Lord Hewitt CJ: ‘English Law does not recognise any special right of public meeting for political or other purposes’. Stamp LJ: ‘liberty to speak, the liberty to assemble, which is more consistent with the notion of residual freedom than expressly defined and legally protected rights’.

Hubbard v Pitt (1976) QB 142 – Lord Denning cited Barnard v Perryman, ‘as long as all is done peaceably and in good order, without threats or incitement to violence or obstruction to traffic’.

Rural and urban spaces

The legal scholarship on the 1986 and 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order acts has a strong focus on the rural, reflecting on the freedom of movement and assembly of one section of society that the legislation targeted, namely new age travellers gathering at Stonehenge and at raves in the countryside.

Iain Channing’s book, The Police and the Expansion of Public Order Law in Britain, seeks to cover all the legislation relating to public order and its policing. It examines for example the 1936 legislation passed against political processions in the wake of Cable Street. But the book is a little patchy and jumps around a lot, so the analysis is somewhat difficult to follow.

Suggested reading:

Nicholas Fyfe, ‘Law and order policy and the spaces of citizenship in contemporary Britain’, Political Geography, 14: 2 (1995), 177-89

Gina Clayton, ‘Reclaiming public ground: the right to peaceful assembly’, Modern Law Review, 63: 2 (2000), 252-8

Iain Channing, The Police and the Expansion of Public Order Law in Britain, 1829-2014 (Routledge, 2015)

Jon Lawrence, ‘Fascist violence and the politics of public order in inter-war Britain: the Olympia debate revisited ‘, Historical Research, 76: 192 (2003)

David Mead, The New Law of Peaceful Protest: Rights and Regulation in the Human Rights Act Era (Hart Publishing, Oxford, 2010)

Richard Card and Richard War, ‘Access to the countryside: the impact of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act’, Journal of Planning and Environmental Law (1996)

Penny English, ‘Disputing Stonehenge: law and access to a national symbol’, Entertainment Law, 1: 2 (2002), 1-22

David Sibley, ‘Endangering the Sacred: nomads, youth cultures and the English countryside’, in Paul Cloke and Jo Little, eds, Contested Countryside Cultures: Rurality and Socio-Cultural Marginalisation (Routledge, 1997)

P. A. J. Waddington, Liberty and Order: public order policing in a capital city (UCL Press, 1994)


TNA, HO 144/18294, ‘Police: powers and duties of the police at meetings, processions and demonstrations’ 1932?

TNA, HO 144/20159, ‘Disturbances: Public Order Bill 1936’

TNA, HO 342/369, review of Public Order Act 1936, ‘right to demonstrate’, 1980-1

TNA, HO 325/305, Public order acts, from 1978-9

TNA, MEPO 3/2940, fascist disorder at public meetings, 1934-8

Parliamentary debates:

HC Deb 21 Sept 1886 vol 309 c1103

Neeson’s commoners

wisley common

I’ve just done a deep reading of J. M. Neeson’s now classic study of enclosure in Northamptonshire, Commoners, Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820 (Cambridge University Press, 1993).

neeson book cover

It’s important to come back to influential texts to see why they were so significant in the historical field. What I enjoyed the most on the re-read was Neeson’s polemic. It is possible to write a detailed social and economic study grounded in deep archival research, while still having an overall message and a ‘feel’ for history that is less tangible and evidence that is read between the lines.

Enclosure and its impact is very difficult to capture holistically. By its very nature, it was local, dependent on local landowners, tenants and social structures specific to the village or the farm to be enacted. The acts and petitions are local. Economic and ecological conditions are local. So summarising and generalising a national picture is hard to do, and something I’m still grappling with.

Neeson points to the groundedness of private conceptions of property and agriculture today. She notes ‘imagining how commoners lived off the shared use of land is difficult in an age such as ours when land is owned exclusively and when enterprise is understood to be essentially individual not co-operative’. ‘The historians’ excuse is distance’. (p. 6-7)

This is a polemic against previous historians who took the descriptions and the values of the voluminous writings about agricultural improvement and the benefits of enclosure at face value. Improvers and enclosures argued that enclosure was necessary to increase national agricultural productivity; numerous pamphlets and parliamentary debates portrayed commoners as idle and inefficient, and common rights in decline. Neeson spends the rest of the book disproving this view. She takes the side of the local and the commoner, arguing powerfully, ‘the historian’s job is not to argue the national interest’ (p.7)

Neeson’s main conclusion, set out on p. 223, based on evidence from the land tax records, is that ‘high rates of turnover, a striking contraction in the size of original holdings, and an absolute decline in the number of small owner occupiers, landlords and tenants, were common in Northamptonshire at enclosure’.

Her study of resistance to enclosure highlights the now infamous West Haddon riots, which started disguised as a football match, an important symbol of the defence of old customs and community. She picks up on the more intangible elements of popular resistance, which are now common to protest historians infused with the work of James C. Scott on ‘weapons of the weak’, and Keith Snell on ‘deferential bitterness’. This is where historians, she argues, lose their conviction and rely on numerical evidence for protest, in the forms of numbers of signatures on an anti-enclosure petition or the instances of overt riot.

Yet Neeson also looks for less tangible evidences of hostility and bitterness. Hence, as Nicola Whyte has also indicated, we should not focus on the ‘special case’ or most extraordinary instances of riot and resistances, which as the Otmoor rising in Oxfordshire in 1830, or other similar large expropriations of common land (p.287).

[but NB the 2018 protest against roadbuilding in Otmoor: ]

Rather, it was a deep hostility, set in place, and long lasting, that was the impact and legacy of the smaller enclosures that are buried in the archives and newspaper reports. Again, somewhat intangible, Neeson suggests that social classes were already dividing and increasingly hostile to each other before enclosure. But ‘until enclosure it was masked by other relationships born of customary agricultural regulation and shared use rights over land’ (p. 290). Enclosure exposed and deepened these divides, and created hostility and bitterness that was ‘as corrosive of social relations as signing a petition or pulling down fences’, (p. 291) and indeed lasted much longer.

military requisitioning of commons and public space

kenley MoD sign

growing bibliography on the continuing hold of the MoD on land that they requisitioned for the war efforts.

Peter Coates, Tim Cole, Marianna Dudley and Chris Pearson, ‘Defending nation, defending nature? Militarised Landscapes and military environmentalism in Britain, France and the United States’, Environmental History, 16: 3 (2011), 456-91

Marianna Dudley, ‘Traces of Conflict: environment and eviction in British Military Training Areas, 1943 to Present’, Journal of War and Culture Studies, 6: 2 (2013), 112-126

commons regulation as ‘accumulation by dispossession’

city of london post

I’m reappreciating Alun Howkins’s study of parliamentary enclosure in the 19th century: ‘The Use and Abuse of the English Commons, 1845– 1914’, History Workshop Journal, 78 (2014), 107–32

Howkins argued that historians have focused generally on the process of enclosure prior to the 1845 General Inclosure Act, (J. M. Neeson’s excellent Commoners, Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change ends in 1820) and that much significant enclosure occurred in the second half of the 19th century. We know of many of these enclosures where the campaigns were whipped up by the new commons preservation movements and by enigmatic popular leaders such as John de Morgan, and/or ended in violence and the pulling up of hedges and railings, especially at the metropolitan commons.

wisley common
Wisley Common, August 2019

But another key point made by Howkins is of the significance of commons regulation. The 1876 General Inclosure Act and later legislation allowed local authorities to set up commons commissioners and/or byelaws to regulate the use of commons. Indeed, the 1913 Select Committee into the Commons argued that regulation was preferable to enclosure as it would prevent overstocking the pasture (the main complaint and often the main reason for enclosure) and allow commoners to continue using the common while retaining the lord of the manor’s other rights (e.g. to minerals and gravel).

select committee report 1913

Howkins pointed out, however, that regulation was just another form of privatisation of common land rights. The commissioners were often self-selecting from among the local elites, and decided which rights would be maintained by whom. The ostensible hope of the 1913 select committee that both commoners and the lord of the manor would be satisfied was a pipe dream given the still very stratified nature of rural society. The Committee admitted that people who used the common for gathering ferns for fuel or ‘pasturing geese’ but were not commoners would be excluded, and therefore recommended, ‘if such privileges have existed for a long period they should be continued as a right’. But again, this would have been very unlikely to have been enacted.

Regulation was therefore just as much about ‘accumulation as a form of dispossession’ that Doreen Massey found was enacted in enclosure. The primacy of property and class was upheld by byelaws and commissioners.

Coulsdon common byelaws
Coulsdon Common byelaws, 1954, still in place

Coulsdon Commons in Surrey is a City of London common (there’s another story about how these came into being…).

Here are the byelaws from 1954, posted up on noticeboards around the site. (full version PDF:

e.g. ‘gambling, betting, playing with cards or dice, fortune telling, begging, brawling, quarrelling, fighting, cursing, swearing, being drunk, using indecent, disgusting or improper language, selling indecent books or prints or being otherwise disorderly, committing any nuisance or wilfully or designedly doing any act contrary to public decency, or which comes within the meaning of section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 (5 Geo IV cap 83) whether such act shall have been or shall be committed with intent to insult any female or not’ is punishable with a fine.

Coulsdon Common byelaws
Coulsdon Common byelaws

I do wonder how many times the commons are driven and any non-commoners’ animals impounded into a pound. Here is the list of fees:

list of fees coulsdon common
Coulsdon Common list of fees

most radical street? exhibition moved to new homes

You can see one of the panels of my People’s History Museum exhibition, ‘The most radical street in Manchester?’ in its new home, the Lakeside Cafe, Boggart Hole Clough Park, Manchester.

It describes the contest over the park in 1896-7 between the council and the ILP and other socialist groups.

boggart hole clough cafe
my exhibition panel, and preparations for Christmas…
Boggart Hole Clough
Boggart Hole Clough, 11 November 2019

The other panels are now at Manchester Communication Academy, Harpurhey, with my fab contributor Amanda Rogers, who has mapped the names of the Collyhurst War Memorial.

manchester communication academy

[mapsmarker map="3"]

the book

some thoughts on emerging chapters of the forthcoming book.

‘For the People’ day of talks, Manchester, 9 November 2019

for the people flyer 9 nov 2019

The Modernist Society are holding a super day of talks on the democratisation of design in mid 20th century Britain.

Litter and street furniture including bins are an integral part of public space. I am speaking about the anti-litter campaign in Britain, from the Anti Litter Leagues of the 1920s to the Keep Britain Tidy campaign from 1951-77. I will also be discussing the changing design of litter bins in public spaces.

What do attitudes towards litter tell us about 20th century British society? How were the preservation of the countryside groups involved? Why were the women’s institutes so heavily involved? Why was it so associated with royalty? What do their story tell us about notions of Englishness, orderliness and patriotism?

Booking page for the event:

advert for my talk 9 Nov