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: https://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/news/16340941.otmoor-riots-road-protesters-take-inspiration-historic-uprising/ ]

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…). https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/green-spaces/city-commons/coulsdon-common/Pages/default.aspx

Here are the byelaws from 1954, posted up on noticeboards around the site. (full version PDF: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/green-spaces/city-commons/farthing-downs/Documents/Coulsdon-commons-byelaws.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

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.

moral ecologies of resistance

A couple of weeks ago, news of private developers netting hedges and trees to prevent migratory birds nesting in them started to raise objections on social media.

Samantha Fisher article bbc news
netting trees
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-47627749
BBC news 'where is it happening'

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-47627749

More recently, local people near the affected areas have taken action such as setting up a petition, and in some places taken more direct action by pulling down the nets.

anti bird netting in Ludlow story BBC news
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-shropshire-47886345

This act of protest resistance recalls types of actions undertaken in 18th and 19th century rural Britain (often but not always) within the context of disputes over enclosure of common rights and land.

The historiography of enclosure has a long pedigree, but more recent work in cultural geography has rethought the nature and types of protest, moving away from the major and well known riots that pulled up fences and hedges, and more towards acts of rural resistance undertaken over longer time scales and within more micro-contexts of tense community relations. These include Timothy Shakesheff’s work on rural tactics in Herefordshire, to Carl Griffin’s voluminous work on tree-maiming, Briony McDonagh’s uncovering of cases of ploughing, and most recently Leon Baker’s survey of commoners using animal trespass as a form of resistance to enclosures.

Much of this work was originally inspired by anthropologist J. C. Scott’s concepts of ‘weapons of the weak’ but the main influence now is Karl Jacoby, and his model of ‘moral ecology’. Drawing directly on E. P. Thompson’s ‘moral economy’ model, which explained how food rioters enacted particular customary rituals as forms of community justice to reassert a ‘fair price’ determined by the community, Jacoby’s ‘moral ecology’ suggested that communities enacted environmental resistance as forms of community justice against large landowners threatening their livelihoods. In other words, just as a local community defended their ‘fair price’ for food against outsiders attempting to hoard it and make a profit from artificial price hikes (the ‘moral economy’), local communities could also defend their environment against outsiders attempting to impose a different form of landscape upon it (the ‘moral ecology’). This idea of inhabitants being closely attuned to the economy and ecology of their environment also links closely to Tim Ingold’s interpretation of the landscape as a ‘taskscape’ for its residents, a land to be worked and subsisted in rather than to be viewed from a distance or reshaped wholesale by external powers.

Iain Robertson’s study of Highland crofters’ forms of action and interaction with their environment after the Clearances, and with Carl Griffin and Roy Jones, have applied Jacoby’s model to British examples. Local rural residents were acutely aware of the environment, and in farming and subsistence on it, sought to defend their landscapes against any outsider influences which might change the ecology, and therefore erode their livelihoods. There were glimpses of an early environmentalism within these actions, much earlier than the more generally recognised mass recognition of the importance of ecology from the 1970s onwards.

The current protests against bird netting, and the direct action against them, recall such earlier forms of resistance and ideas about nature and the environment. It is significant that much of the netting has been placed there by private developers building new housing next to, or on, agricultural land. I suppose the major difference is that the people taking off the nets do not directly rely on the surrounding fields for their domestic economies, but nevertheless it indicates a continuity with earlier centuries of rural resistance.

further reading:

  • Karl Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation (2001)
  • Carl Griffin and Iain Robertson, ‘Moral Ecologies: Conservation in Conflict in Rural England’, History Workshop Journal, 82: 1 (2016), 24-49
  • Carl Griffin, Roy Jones and Iain Robertson, Moral Ecologies: Histories of Conservation, Dispossession and Resistance (Palgrave, 2019)
  • Carl Griffin, ‘‘Cut down by some cowardly miscreants’: Plant Maiming, or the Malicious Cutting of Flora, as an Act of Protest in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Rural England’, Rural History, 19: 1 (2008)
  • Carl Griffin, ‘Protest practice and (tree) cultures of conflict: understanding the spaces of ‘tree maiming’ in eighteenth‐ and early nineteenth‐century England’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 33: 1 (2008)
  • Leonard Baker, ‘Human and Animal Trespass as Protest: Space and Continuity in Rural Somerset and Dorset’, History Workshop Journal, ? (2019)
  • Timothy Shakesheff, Rural conflict, crime and protest: Herefordshire, 1800-1860 (2003)
  • Briony McDonagh, ‘Subverting the ground: private property and public protest in the sixteenth-century Yorkshire Wolds’, Agricultural History Review, 57: 2 (2009), 191-206
  • Nicholas Blomley, ‘Making Private Property: Enclosure, Common Right and the Work of Hedges’, Rural History, 18: 1 (2007), 1-21
  • James Winter, Secure from Rash Assault: Sustaining the Victorian Environment (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1999)

commons (2)

1871 os map epsom

I’ve been reading some legal scholarship on the registration of commons and village greens. One of the main themes throughout is the continued difficulties faced in compiling any truly accurate register, given the complex ways in which land has been held and conflicting registrations and non-registrations of common land.

Key legislation:

1965 Commons Registration Act

2006 Commons Registration Act

database of commons (2015): https://data.gov.uk/dataset/05c61ecc-efa9-4b7f-8fe6-9911afb44e1a/database-of-registered-common-land-in-england

  • Christopher P. Rodgers, Eleanor A. Straughton, Angus J. L. Winchester and Margherita Pieraccini, Contested Common Land: Environmental Governance Past and Present (Routledge, Abingdon, 2011) is the most recent major overview of common land and the impact of enclosure.
  • Barbara Bogusz, ‘Regulating public/private interests in town and village greens’, International Journal of Law in the Built Environment, 5: 1 (2013), 21-39 – is a fascinating argument about the problems raised in recent years about communities registering village greens to save them from development for housing. Often environmental concerns are posited as a major reason as well as use of the green spaces for leisure. It also raises the question of ‘proximity’ of the ‘neighbourhood’ from which users of the village green come. As transport enables people to travel to green spaces much further away from their residences than was usual in the 19th century, the old assumptions that local people use their local commons is weakened. This process thereby braodened the idea of the right of use and access.
  • John Aitchison, ‘The town and village greens of England and Wales’, Landscape Research, 21: 1 (1996) – on the inaccuracies of the first registration of village greens by the 1955 Royal Commission on Common Land, and charting the different geographical concentrations of village greens in England in the 1990s. The largest number they charted were in Cumbria (191) and Hertfordshire (116).

Further reading:

  • Donald McGillivray and Jane Holder, ‘Locality, environment and law: the case of town and village greens’, International Journal of Law in Context, 3: 1 (2007), 1-17.
  • J. W. Aitchison, ‘The Commons and Wastes of England and Wales, 1958-1989’, Area (1990)

I’ve also been looking through old civil court cases around commons registration using the Westlaw UK database. More on my findings about common rights and access using these to follow…

a revival of interest in land reform

I’m curious as to why there has been an upsurge in academic and trade books on the issue of land reform. Of course, Anna Minton was part of pushing the issue of the privatisation of public land back onto the agenda a few years ago, and I’m also including the work of Stuart Hodkinson theorising the ‘new urban enclosures’. There have recently been a glut of new provocative books. These include the following:

book covers of Tichelar, Christophers and Shrubsole

Brett Christophers, The New Enclosure: the appropriation of public land in neoliberal Britain (Verso, 2018) – I might do a quick review in another blog post: basically, his general argument is good, though I’m less keen on his writing style and his generalisations about the history of feudalism and enclosure, for which he mainly draws on Polanyi, and on the 1870s register of land owners, for which he draws mainly on Cahill.

Michael Tichelar, The Failure of Land Reform in Twentieth Century England: the triumph of private property (Routledge, 2018) – bringing together a life time’s work on the topic, though mainly focused on the role of the Labour Party in pushing for various land reform policies regarding the ‘unearned increment’ in land acquisition policies.

Guy Shrubsole, Who Owns England? (out in May) which I’m looking forward to: a summary no doubt of the excellent research being done for his project and blog of the same name.

Of course these studies have been years in the making, and reflected perhaps the debates around Publicly-Owned Private spaces that Minton drew attention to.

But it’s interesting that they’re being published at a time when there seems to be much publicity around councils now re-investing in buying land and real estate, using new loans, such as for shopping centres and hotels (Croydon – https://insidecroydon.com/2018/11/01/council-pays-53m-to-buy-unloved-colonnades-centre/) (Rochdale – https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/business/business-news/rochdale-council-buys-retail-park-15565577)

These acquisitions seem to be reversing the process identified by Christophers and Hodkinson of ‘new urban enclosures’, whereby land previously owned by public bodies such as councils has been sold off for redevelopment at a rapid rate. Yet these are not ‘unenclosing’ these spaces; the councils’ investments perhaps are just another part of the longer process of ‘financial landownership’ that Doreen Massey and A. Catalano, and David Harvey identified has been occurring since at least the 1970s, whereby companies invest in the value of land as a capital asset (Christophers, p. 112).

Further reading:

Anna Minton, Ground Control: fear and happiness in the twenty-first century city (Penguin, 2009)

Stuart Hodkinson, ‘ The new urban enclosures’, City, 16: 5 (2012), pp. 500-518

David Harvey, The Limits to Capital (1982; rev. ed. Verso, 2007)

Doreen Massey and A. Catalano, Capital and Land: private ownership by capital in Great Britain (Edward Arnold, 1978)

commons

A major part of this project is on the long history of commons and enclosure. I’ve not started working on new research yet as I’ve mainly been looking at post-enclosure spaces such as parks this autumn, but it is on the horizon for the New Year. Hookland’s appeal to the age-old customary rights inherent in common land is a reminder of the mythical and folkloric power of such spaces.

But the history of commons have an urgent connection to current concerns about access to green space, landownership and its uses.

I was honoured to be part of an event on 15 November called ‘commons’, organised by the Whitechapel Gallery and hosted by Manchester School of Art.

Commons

whitechapel debate

I was intrigued by Chris Blake’s talk on the community project he’s involved with in the Rhondda Valley, The Green Valleys Skyline project, which seeks to rekindle the idea of ‘stewardship’ of the hillside enveloping the former mining town of Treherbert. https://skyline.wales/community/treherbert

The landscape, formerly owned by the National Coal Board and now owned by various bodies including the Forestry Commission, is a constant site of work, rethinks the meaning of ‘taskscape’ in that it has been mined and forested for commercial gain, and the livelihoods of the residents, but the residents did not and do not have access or use of it. It is also near Aberfan, and thus a site of catastrophic loss. Using art, the project seeks to get the residents to think big, beyond the immediate horizon and look upwards to the possibilities of reasserting some kind of custodyship over the natural resources in a sustainable way.

Artist Ruth Beale has been working on drone footage of the London parks and commons, many of which I tried to recognise in her short film (including flying her drone over Tooting Bec Lido, which I think I remember while swimming there this summer!). http://ruthbeale.net/work/commons-drones-gifs/

She has also made art using registration archives from the Commons Registration Act of 1965, in Nottinghamshire Record Office. These are my sort of archives and I will be examining similar returns in my research. They detail the surviving common rights that people claimed to have when registering their commons and village greens in response to the legislation.

Here are my slides of my talk. I was asked to do a potted history of commons and enclosure in England. It start with a summary of one of my earlier blog posts on this site:

Campaign groups and the issue of public green space today

I’ve also been approached by several groups campaigning for the preservation of their local open spaces. This is so much more than simply nimby attitudes against building of houses on open spaces. At Manchester I met several of them. The Save Ryebank Fields have a decades-old campaign running about their local space. http://www.saveryebankfields.org

ryebank fields campaign

I am going to be collaborating with them to use their archive for my forthcoming exhibition at the People’s History Museum next summer.

 

I also met someone from the Freeman’s Wood campaign conducted a few years ago in Lancaster.  http://www.storeyg2.org.uk/

 

 

 

 

 

In Sheffield, I met with people from the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University, and Nicola Dempsey of the University of Sheffield to discuss all the issues around green spaces and community groups in the city. I found out how save the trees campaign seems to have skewed the broader issues of the responsibilities of the council and consultation regarding open spaces.

If you know of any more similar groups campaigning for their open spaces, especially if they have their own archive material or if they would like to be interviewed or have a link on this site, do get in touch.

 

I’ll leave you with Hookland’s imagining of the common:


 

Winter Hill mass trespass 1896

winter hill

I’ve been working on the archives in Bolton relating to the Winter Hill mass trespass of 6 September 1896. More to follow but here are some links to work that has already been done on the event.

‘Will yo’ come o’ Sunday morning’,
For a walk o’er Winter Hill.
Ten thousand went last Sunday,
But there’s room for thousands still!”

“O the moors are rare and bonny,
And the heather’s sweet and fine,
And the road across this hill top,
Is the public’s – Yours and mine!”
The main account is by Paul Salveson, in his 1982 pamphlet,

Will Yo’ Come O’ Sunday Mornin? The Winter Hill Mass Trespass of 1896′

Books, pamphlets and periodicals

see also:

http://www.justusuk.com/2009/11/will-yo-come-o-sunday-morning.html

Douglas Hope, Thomas Arthur Leonard and the Co-operative Holidays Association (Cambridge Scholars, 2017):


Walking Histories, edited by Chad Bryant, Arthur Burns, Paul Readman (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016):