I will be announcing the first of the public workshops soon, but in the meantime, I’ll be taking part in this debate organised by Whitechapel Gallery on the commons: rural at Manchester School of Art on 15 November, 6pm.
There are two excellent books that chart the planning processes that shaped open green space in London in the 19th and 20th centuries:
Matti O Hannikainen, The Greening of London, 1920-2000 (Routledge, Abingdon, 2016)
Peter Clark, Jean-Luc Pinol and Richard Rodgers, eds, The European City and Green Space: London, Stockholm, Helsinki and St Petersburg, 1850-2000 (Routledge, Abingdon, 2006)
Another related and useful book is by Hazel Conway, People’s Parks: the design and development of Victorian Parks in Britain (Cambridge University Press, 1991)
Most of the current literature on the history of ‘greening’ policies is London-centric, Conway’s book an earlier exception. Apart from James Greenhalgh’s work on Manchester, there is otherwise very little on municipal bodies’ policies to open space in urban areas and, especially, residents’ use of such spaces. This project will seek to fill in some of these gaps.
What was distinctive about London?
London was particularly unusual because it had so many different layers of jurisdiction – overlapping and mutable administrative geographies. So the borough councils were overlapped by the regional authorities – the LCC and then the GLC. In amongst these authorities were the City of London, and also, important with respect to parks and open space, the Crown Estate and Royal Parks. The Green Belt was a dominant theme in shaping the relations between inner and outer London authorities and the regional authorities, but as Hannikainen and Clark show in their books, the political changes and motivations that the borough and regional councils brought to decision making in response to bigger political changes in government and policy shaped all aspects of green space within the city as well as on its outskirts.
The dominance of Abercrombie and Forshaw’s County of London Plan (1943) and Greater London Plan (1944) in accounts of 20th century planning also underline the uniqueness if not the exceptionalism of the metropolis. Historians of planning and modernism tend to get somewhat caught up in the utopianism of the wartime reconstruction plans, envisaging a world that could have been had it not been for those pesky municipal authorities prioritising cost and efficiency in the provision of housing and new roads over the more idealistic elements of the plans. Notably, the aim of providing 4 acres of open green space per every 1000 inhabitants, though remaining an aspiration, was hampered by factors not fully considered in Abercrombie’s plans, notably land values, and national and local governments’ reluctance to radically interfere in existing forms of land use and ownership by private owners and developers. (Hannikainen, p. 97; Garside, ‘The failure of regionalism’, p. 106).
Hannikainen points out the exceptionalism of London compared with other cities in creating over 800 acres of public green space, which he attributes to the fact that the authorities were ‘vested with new legal powers and following a coherent town plan’ (p. 94).
Although Abercrombie also created earlier plans for Hull and Sheffield amongst other towns, it was often local planners and officials who created the plans for other towns. And also crucial was that the postwar financial, political and social demands of retrenchment and rehousing tempered and reduced the importance of providing extensive open space in these plans.
I need to compare this complex mix of administrative geographies and policies with the municipal governments of other areas in England. Was London the exception or to what extent did the story of policies on open space in English towns follow the patterns found by Hannikainen and Clark?
This is the general chronology of policy changes they chart:
As part of the ‘urban renaissance’ (as charted by Peter Borsay), squares and promenades were developed in improvement of town centres and private estates. Most of these squares were for residents only.
mid 19th century
gradual opening of royal parks to the public, though still highly regulated. Kew Gardens and the botanical and zoo gardens in Regent’s Park were opened to the public in the 1830s and the park itself, a project of the Crown Estate commissioners and intended as a private estate park, was fully opened in the 1840s. (Reader, in Clark et al, p. 31).
The cholera outbreaks of the 1830s and 1840s led to growing concern about industrial and smoke pollution, and the slums – Victorian sanitary movement characterised open spaces as ‘breathing spaces’ or ‘lungs’.
1833 Select Committee on Public Walks revealed the lack of access that working class people had to the countryside. Local elite concern for the potential for social disorder in overcrowded slums also fuelled the rise of the public parks movement.
St James’s park opened in the 1840s; Victoria Park 1845, and Battersea Park in 1860.
The emergence of the commons preservation movement from the 1860s onwards drew attention to the enclosure of commons and forests on London’s periphery.
1920s – 30s
Secularisation had an impact on people’s leisure time, and pressure was put on councils to allow organised games in their parks on Sundays. The trend towards more organised and commercialised outdoor entertainment also put pressure on the borough councils to provide shows in their parks, enabled by the LCC (General Powers) act of 1935. Hannikainnen argues that the introduction of electric lighting and amplifiers into park entertainments (notably in an attempt to lure people away from sitting in cinemas) ‘marked a break with the natural order of park life that was based on the amount of daylight, and outdoor entertainment began to encroach on areas traditionally limited to outdoor spaces’ (p.76). Arguably the upper and middle-class pleasure grounds of the 18th and early 19thC century had provided this with their evening shows lit by candlelight and gas, but the change in this respect concerned open public parks and the lower classes.
WWII and post-war reconstruction
Huge areas of green space were requisitioned by councils and the military during World War II. Some types of space were closed off – i.e. for military purposes – while others were effectively opened out through conversion to allotments.
The 1950s and early 1960s ‘marked the most intensive period in the provision of new public green space in London during the 20th century’ (Hannikainen, p. 113). A major force was the decision by the LCC and borough councils to privilege public interest over private property ‘as a national policy in town planning and in the actual reconstruction of London’ (Hannikainen, p. 108). Compulsory purchase orders of war damaged sites were an important part of the development of new open spaces.
Increased wealth and leisure time of the working classes drew them indoors again, while the subsequent economic decline left parks underfunded and therefore a cycle of under-maintenance and becoming no-go areas because of crime developed.
By the mid 1960s, the planners’ view of the Green Belt was less about giving Londoners open space for leisure and health and more about curtailing London’s growth (Reader in Clark, p. 39)
A major change that developed gradually from the 1960s onwards was a growing interest in the preservation of nature. Arguably this began formally with the creation of National Parks and Sites of Special Scientific Interest from 1949, but the idea that nature should be conservation for environmental reasons rather than solely for human enjoyment only really had an impact on the preservation of open green space from the 1970s.
The economic crisis of the 1970s and the new political priorities of the Conservative government in the 1980s, together with the re-organisation of London councils in 1963-5, saw the provision of new green space become dependent on external and private funding.
De-industrialisation also impacted on what sorts of open spaces were ‘greened’, notably ‘blue space’ = the docklands, canals and rivers from the 1980s onwards.
The redevelop of the Docklands promoted three new practices in planning: (Hannikainen, p. 171):
preference of the government for public-private partnerships instead of municipal planning.
town planning focused on a single project instead of a comprehensive redevelopment, reducing the powers of the municipal authorities and participation of the public in the planning process.
reduced role for public green spaces in the plans.
Hannikainen argues strongly that the abolition of the GLC in 1986 was a turning point, not just in marking the end of co-ordinated regional planning in London, but also confirming how private amenity and business had superseded public interest in influence in planning.
Yet out of this decline of the role of central and local governments in shaping the traditional public green spaces, new priorities and opportunities arose.
New types of green space were developed in particular because of the growing awareness of ecology and nature and desire to conserve it. Importantly, it was local borough councils and voluntary associations who pushed for this new definition, while central government lagged behind in considering the purpose of public green space to be, as traditional, about recreation and leisure in the form of organised sports.
The preservation of disused Victorian cemeteries, especially Nunhead and Highgate, marked a shift in thinking about what open green space was, and could be.
From the 1980s onwards, disused riversides, canals and railway embankments came to attention of local groups for conservation and renewal in the forms of greenways, linear parks and nature reserves. The increasing popularity of nature trails, city farms and wildlife areas marked the shift to a new appreciation of conservation and definition of open green space. Hannikainen argues that this marked ‘a profound conceptual change’ in how green spaces were viewed and maintained: (p. 191):
The provision of new green space focused neither on secured unrestricted public access nor outdoor recreation, because new ecological parks in particular were created as natural habitats for wildlife and to educate children. The role of people was reduced to the appreciation of nature.
Yet at the same time, the policy of selling off of playing fields and sports grounds for development substantially decreased the public’s access to green spaces used for sport. A somewhat viscious circle of lack of funding for public parks led to their decline, exacerbated by crime and delinquency, which increased the decline in their use. Public preference for indoor leisure also meant that open green spaces and parks were declining in use, and more traditional leisure amenities such as lidos. Sports funding went to indoor sports centres (p. 202).
One aspect that comes out of their accounts is how the LCC and Crown Estate classified different types of open green space, and how much of this was based not just on size and usage types, but also location and perceptions of class.
So when the LCC was constituted in 1889, and well into the 20th century, it allocated the maintenance and funding of its green spaces according to a hierarchy of two categories of parks and open spaces, with a long list of subcategories from Parks Class I (a), Battersea Park and Victoria Park – to Open Spaces Class IV (b). The classifications were not static but nevertheless reflected status (p. 76). The distinction between Royal Parks and municipal parks and open spaces was reflected in their uses: royal parks promoted rational recreation and informal uses (i.e. walking) rather than organised sport and games (p.56).
After WWII and in the process of modifying the postwar reconstruction plans, the borough councils were critical of Abercrombie’s County of London Plan’s proposal of a standard of 4 acres of open green space per 1000 inhabitants. This hampered their main priority of providing new housing. Yet on the other hand, some councils thought of open space differently, beyond the classifications of the LCC. Hannikenen sifts through Bermondsey council minutes for example, to find that they thought that the prevailing ‘concept of open space’ presented by the LCC did not include the gardens and playgrounds attached to council housing estates. The LCC apparently refused to classify such green spaces as substitutes for ‘real’ public parks and gardens.
As James Greenhalgh’s work on grass verges and patches of lawn in postwar Manchester estates has shown, such spaces were vital for play and recreation for working class residents.
There’s more work to be done here on ‘no ball games allowed’ on such sites (I’m sure there’s some studies in sociology and childhood studies; if you know of any relating to geography and public space, do let me know).
Regional differences that I need to follow up in more detail:
Hannikainen, drawing from work done by sport historians on working-class football, states that whereas the LCC gradually accepted the dominance of amateur games being played in parks on Sundays, other major cities including Manchester and Sheffield continued to prohibit games, ‘due to the strong opposition of the church’ (p. 59).
“In contrast to the interwar period, now most new green spaces created within the city were acquired through piecemeal purchases. Only a few other cities such as Birmingham constructed new public green space during these years.
In general, research concerning the provision of new public green space in the UK is far from complete, especially for other cities.’ (p. 108)
David Reeder, in his chapter in Clark’s book, points out another particular aspect of London, the reasons why the commons preservation and open spaces movements were so influential:
“what particularly characterised the London initiatives was the way that movements were orchestrated by influential networks of politicians and philanthropic social workers, many of them based in the West End and Hampstead and in contact with members of the aristo willing to act as patrons of organisations such as the MPGA and the London Playing Fields Association.” (p.55)
He also underlines the role of well connected women in these groups – the Hill sisters, Henrietta Barnett, and Dorothy Hunter.
The class and gender elements of these movements were significant and I need to find more on whether this was similar in other towns and cities.
P. Garside and M. Hebbert, eds, British Regionalism, 1900-2000 (1989)
James Greenhalgh, Reconstructing Modernity: Space, power and governance in mid-twentieth century British cities (Manchester University Press, 2018)
Hazel Conway, People’s Parks: the design and development of Victorian parks in Britain (Cambridge University Press, 1991)
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.
Map loading, please wait ...
1871 OS Map shows the farm at the centre of the circle:
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:
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.
ok here’s the famous daguerrotype of the 10 April 1848 mass meeting.
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:
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.
Here’s a report of the mass meeting of 10 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.
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:
on the one hand, the local common is for local people to graze animals, gather fuel, and other use-rights;
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.
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.
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).
General Inclosure Act of 1845, included provisions for enclosure commissioners to consider recreation grounds and allotments for the poor, though this was often not enacted in practice
1899 Commons Act – introduced mechanisms for district and parish councils to regulate and manage common land. c.200 commons involved
1925 Law of Property Act – gave public access to metropolitan commons and commons lying wholly or partly within urban district areas
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…
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)