work in progress: Wells estate, Epsom, Surrey

os map epsom

Doing some map surfing and came across the Wells estate on Epsom Common, Surrey. It’s a 1930s housing estate in the middle of the eastern edge of the common.

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Wells estate, Epsom

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Wells estate, Epsom 51.326214, -0.290279 Wells estate, c.1930s, Epsom Surreyhttp://www.epsomandewellhistoryexplorer.org.uk/EpsomCommonShort.htmlhttp://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/descriptions/798540Epsom England, United Kingdom (Directions)

epsom common

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1871 OS Map shows the farm at the centre of the circle:

1871 os map epsom
https://maps.nls.uk/view/102347460

 

epsom estate
google street view of The Crescent

Thanks to some asking around on Twitter by Municipal Dreams, and some basic information on local history websites, the site is based around the ancient Epsom Salt well but this had long gone. There was an 18th century farm there that made the rectangular encroachment, but I’m still looking for information on the rest of it. (http://www.epsomandewellhistoryexplorer.org.uk/EpsomCommonShort.html: states, “The obvious feature is the circular area whose origin is the “Epsom Wells”. By the time of the late 18th century and early 19th century these days were long gone and the area was a farm with farm buildings and a windmill. The rectangular area to the south was removed from the Common to enlarge the area of Wells Farm and as such was never an encroachment, more of an eventual occupation but it seems that the farm struggled to survive and by the 1850s was no longer a complete working farm and became a residence for a wealthy tenant. The 1851 Census return shows John Richard (Landed proprietor) in residence at the Old Wells. It was probably during this time that occupancy of the rectangular area took place, with many small individual plots (the 19th century version of allotments) combining and overtime, the first cottages started to appear about 1858.” But notably the website doesn’t then say anything about the 1930s estate.

Here’s a picture of the well, apparently dressed by the church, on 8 July, taken by Simon Webster:

well at epsom

I’m hoping a trip to Surrey History Centre will provide more information on the landownership and development of the estate. As always, I’m interested in how the residents conceived of public space, especially in being in such an unusual position on the common.

Any information or further reading welcome before I go and find out. Comment below.

locales: Kennington

Kennington Park, 22 Feb 2018

I’m involved with a great HLF-funded project by the Friends of Kennington Park to commemorate the Chartist monster meetings of 1848 on what used to be the common.

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Kennington Common

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Kennington Common 51.481370, -0.107095 [caption id=\"attachment_274\" align=\"alignnone\" width=\"6000\"] Kennington Common, Feb 2018[/caption]Kennington Park, site of mass Chartist meetings since 1839, culminating in the monster meeting on 10 April 1848.Go to the post on Kennington and video of the 10 April commemorationsKennington Park Gardens England, United Kingdom (Directions)

Here are some pictures of a very cold February lunchtime walking round the park, followed by some commonplace snippets of the long history of public use of the space in Lambeth, south London.

Kennington Common, 22 Feb 2018
Kennington park, 22 Feb 2018
Kennington Common, 22 Feb 2018
Kennington park, 22 Feb 2018
Kennington common
‘common’ on the other side of the park boundary

 

Kennington park
cherry blossom just emerging

 

The monster meetings on Kennington Common were just one of the many uses of the open space.

Here’s a potted history of the park in Curiosities of London by John Timms (1855):

http://mapco.net/cary1837/cary44.htm
1837, Cary’s new plan of London and its vicinity, http://mapco.net/cary1837/cary44.htm

Site of execution:

The common became renowned as a site of execution in the 18th century, most notably of Jacobites in 1745.

read the popular ‘last confession’ pamphlets below:


Site of new religious practices:

The site was also renowned as where the Methodist leader George Whitefield preached:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Whitefield#/media/File:George_Whitefield_(head).jpg

Site of Chartism:

ok here’s the famous daguerrotype of the 10 April 1848 mass meeting.

https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/kennington
https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/kennington

 

Kennington Common
Kennington  park, 22 Feb 2018
http://www.unionhistory.info/timeline/Tl_Display.php?irn=7000002&QueryPage=../AdvSearch.php
http://www.unionhistory.info/timeline/Tl_Display.php?irn=7000002&QueryPage=../AdvSearch.php

Dave Steele has done some excellent research piecing together exactly from where it was taken, and consensus is that it is from the second floor of a building that stood on the site of what is now a brutalist Job Centre.

  • See F. C. Mather, ‘The railways, the electric telegraph and public order during the Chartist period, 1837-1848’, History, Volume 38, Issue 132 (February 1953), 40–53 on how the army and police were kept informed by telegraph about the Chartists’ movements.
  • David Goodway, London Chartism 1838-1848 (Cambridge 1982)

Protest meetings had been occurring on the common since at least the 1830s:

The Champion, 23 April 1838, on the mass trades’ procession to call for the pardon and repatriation of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, which assembled at Kennington Common:

The Chartists held their first big monster meeting on the common in 1839:

NorthernStar17Aug1839
Northern Star 17 Aug 1839

There was trouble at the Chartist meeting in August 1842, when the police were alleged to have attacked some of the participants in the meeting. The Northern Star continued to comment on the brutality of the police with reference to this meeting.

Northern Star 1842
Northern Star 27 August 1842

Here’s a report of the mass meeting of 10 April 1848:

Northern Star 15 April 1848
Northern Star 15 April 1848

In reaction to the monster Chartist meetings of 1848, the common was quickly enclosed. In part this was reflective of the wider Victorian public parks movement that wanted to have accessible spaces for working class leisure in urban areas, but in this case it was definitely about control. The railings, set out walks and flower beds, and the park wardens patrolling and shutting up the park at night, ensured that the ‘respectable’ classes could control both the leisure activities of the working classes and prevent mass political meetings using the space.

  • Kennington Common, &c. Improvement. A Bill to Empower the Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Works and Public Buildings to Inclose and Lay Out Kennington Common in the County of Surrey as Pleasure Grounds for the Recreation of the Public (1852)


The ‘Prince Consort house’, a show-house for the respectable working classes displayed at the Great Exhibition, was a material symbol of this new attitude in the Victorian public parks movement.

Prince Consort Lodge
Prince Consort Lodge

 

common land and common misconceptions

Newcastle town moor
Newcastle town moor
Newcastle Town Moor, 2014

‘Common land’

The common misconception about commons is that commoners had common land ‘taken away from them’ by the general enclosure acts of the 19th century.

I’ve included many ‘commons’ in that opening sentence, deliberately.

Just to pick one example of the type of generalisations about the process of enclosure and what was the relative position of landowners, tenants and government, see:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/apr/30/remember-kinder-scout-britain-common-land
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/apr/30/remember-kinder-scout-britain-common-land
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/apr/30/remember-kinder-scout-britain-common-land
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/apr/30/remember-kinder-scout-britain-common-land

 

The Kinder Scout Mass Trespass of 1932 is perhaps the most common reference point for debates about common land and access, and there is a reason for this.

Kinder Scout is a short-hand for a particular view of what common land is and represents: that common land is open to all the people for the benefit of the people, and in effect should therefore be ‘owned’ by the people. And ‘the people’ means the whole nation, rather than just the immediate residents living in and around a particular piece of common land.

The mass trespass of 1932 was the largest collective action inspired by that view of common land as public space. The idea however had been developing only since the mid 19th century, but was crystallised by the event and has continued to mean that ever since.

This is the ‘universal’ or ‘timeless’ myth

The idea that common land is commonly owned by the people, and can be used by all people is still pervasive. It gives the impression that common land has always been common, timeless and universal.

There is already a paradox or contradiction inherent in the myth:

  1. on the one hand, the local common is for local people to graze animals, gather fuel, and other use-rights;
  2. on the other hand, commons are ‘public’ and therefore for everyone to use for recreation.

Rights of way and public access run through these perceptions of who owns the land and who has the right to use it.

But common land was always owned by someone (usually the lord of the manor) in England and Wales

C. P. Rodgers, E. A. Staughton, A. J. L. Winchester and M. Pieraccini ‘s introduction to their excellent book Contested Common Land: Environmental Governance Past and Present (Routledge, Abingdon, 2011), p. 4, define it as:

privately owned land over which others possess use rights, giving them legally recognised access to particular resources.

The ownership of common land or ‘waste’ was usually vested in the lord of the manor, while the local community could have use rights. This general state of affairs existed from about the 13th century until the 1965 Commons Registration Act.

 

The picture portrayed in the Guardian article above, of a sudden out-turning of a landless peasantry between 1750 and 1850, is over-simplistic and does not appreciate the extent of commercialisation of rights – including by commoners themselves – by this period.

What are common rights?

Most rights were ‘appurtenant’, attached to a landholding as a subsidiary right. Common rights ‘in gross’, were rights independent of holding land.

Common law recognised 6 categories of common right, which were not exclusive:
  • common of pasture

  • common of turbury – right to take peat or turf for fuel

  • common of estovers – right to take wood or other vegetation

  • right of pannage – right to grove pigs in woodland

  • right of piscary – right to take fish

  • profits a prendre –  rights to take minerals or soil

  • ferae naturae – right to take animals.

    (Rodgers et al, p. 5).

Yet even these rights of use were complicated by shifting uses, customary law and customary uses, and commercialisation. Common land seemed to be a symbol of shared resources, but in fact legally was a complex patchwork of ownership and rights, often jealously guarded. Customary law mediated between the two perceptions: common usage, and exclusive ownership.

The privatisation and commercialisation of common rights had been occuring since at least the 17th century. And the important impact of this process was to remove the connection between local resident and common. Again, this is another myth-buster: common land and its uses did not always ‘belong’ to the local residents who lived near it. You could hold common rights to a piece of land other than where you lived.

So stints or rights of pasture could be sold separately from the land to which they were attached. Rights to urban commons, moreover, were often leased, shared or sub-let, ‘further distancing the user from the legal commoner’ (Rodgers et al, p. 23).

This presents a parallel and alternative picture to the deeply local story outlined by Keith Snell in his richly evocative book, Parish and Belonging, in which he described how attachment to place is shaped legally by the settlement regulations of the poor laws, and a long-standing ‘local xenophobia’ engendered by the primacy of the parish boundary in legal and administrative impacts on everyday life.

Blackstone Edge
Blackstone Edge

On top of the legal definitions lay custom

Whatever was defined legally, customary uses and interpretations of the law of custom complicated matters even further. Practice was very different from theory. Whereas the law stated that common pasture rights applied to the whole common, in practice commoners subdivided the land by usage, in effect privatising sections with invisible boundaries. There was  therefore ‘a strong sense of customary property rights operating below the level of the law’ (Rodgers et al, p. 24). These customary rights were no less real in practice to the users, even though they were not defined in law.

Where does the ‘common land’ misconception come from, and why is it misleading?

There were precedents in the Diggers of the 17th century, and later minority radical groups, particularly the Spenceans. But, as much as historians like to focus on such groups because of their radicalism, we should remember that they were in the minority. Most people in England & Wales did not believe in land redistribution. Even the Chartists’ big experiment of the Land Plan was still predicated on property ownership.

diggers pamphlet
http://www.diggers.org/digger_tracts.htm

England and Wales’ whole political, representative and legal system was predicated on property, a conservatism with a small c that depended on the institution of property to define class and elites.

In effect, the popular idea that the commons belonged to all, meaning all people and not just local commoners, derived from the debates over enclosure in the 19th century.

The commons preservation movement was a 19th century phenomenon, but essentially started with the societies for the preservation of footpaths, which formed in Manchester and York in the 1820s after the massive wave of parliamentary enclosure during the Napoleonic Wars. I don’t have room to go into this here, but will do so in a future post. In the meantime you can read: Wendy Darby, Landscape and Identity: Geographies of Nation and Class in England (Bloomsbury, 2000).

There’s also a related myth, which swirls around the preservationist debate and rhetoric around National Parks and Areas of Outstanding National Beauty, eliding them with the idea of common land, access and use, in that common land is unspoiled, whereas in reality it was always about production and extraction of natural material resources.

new thoughts 11/2: The right to roam movement, with its longer precedents in campaigns against the stopping up of footpaths in the 1820s, had a much stronger sense of what public space is and defence of legally defined rights of way used by all people.

But the simplistic misconception about the enclosure acts ‘taking away common land’ from local people has, I argue, arisen from a conflation of the right to roam movement (i.e. footpaths) with the debates and resistance against parliamentary enclosure (i.e. common land).

This confusion has arisen, as I explain below, out of the legacy of the later 19th century preservation movement, who deliberately employed rhetoric of common land to defend the use of land for recreation and amenity, rather than for pasturage and other productive rights.

And this rhetoric about common land ignores, or is not aware of, the already long-established patterns of encroachment, privatisation and commercialisation of stinting and other customary rights, that led to the situation in some areas where the holders of such rights had bought or leased them, and were not necessarily local residents. I will find more evidence for these patterns of ownership of common rights from my case studies in due course.

The main shift was in the idea of commons as a place of agricultural production and resources, to one of recreation and open access.

From the 1860s onwards, legislation was often directed towards regulation in support of preservation and recreation rather than enclosure (Rodgers et al, p. 38).

Basic chronology:

In effect, the broader ideal of common land as ‘for the people’ has therefore only existed since the mid 19th century, with the rise of the preservation movement and broader municipal concerns about public health and access to open space as urbanisation and industrialisation reached their peak.

George Shaw Lefevre reinvigorated the myths in his account of the Victorian preservation movement in his English Commons and Forests: The Story of the Battle During the Last Thirty Years for Public Rights Over the Commons and Forests of England and Wales (1894):

 

The popular battles over access to common land and to the ‘right to roam’ were galvanised by the idea of common land as belonging to ‘the people’ as a whole, for recreation, rather than the common as a piece of land to which a particular set of local people had customary rights.

I’ll continue this theme by looking more into the myth of ‘land being taken away from the common people’ in a future post…

 

Bibliography:

  • Wendy Darby, Landscape and Identity: Geographies of Nation and Class in England (Bloomsbury, 2000)
  • C. P. Rodgers, E. A. Staughton, A. J. L. Winchester and M. Pieraccini, Contested Common Land: Environmental Governance Past and Present (Routledge, Abingdon, 2011)
  • Peter Linebaugh, Stop, Thief! The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance (PM Press, 2014)
  • Nicola Whyte, Inhabiting the Landscape: Place, Custom and Memory, 1500-1800 (Windgather Press, 2009)
  • Ben Cowell, ‘The Commons Preservation Society and the Campaign for Berkhamsted Common, 1866–70’, Rural History, 13: 2 (2002)
  • Keith Snell, Parish and Belonging: Community, Identity and Welfare in England and Wales, 1700–1950 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006)