The National Archives, HLG 116/523, enquiry into amenities and open space in new towns, 1968-9
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.
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.
I’m working on terminology and usage this week. Reading through and keyword searching the local newspapers, it is evident that ‘open space’ is by far the more common term for places that we would now call ‘public space’. I will do some more digging on when I think the terminology shifted, but this crude google books ngram shows a similar pattern:
The term public space only starts to pick up frequency/proportion of books published in the mid 1970s, and overtakes open space in the late 1990s.
The peaks in usage of open space are in 1913 and 1945.
The term ‘privatisation of public space’ only hits the bookshelves in (British) English in 1998.
The impact of Oscar Newman’s Defensible Space, published 1972, is clear too:
James Greenhalgh’s book, Reconstructing Modernity: space, power and governance in mid-twentieth century British cities (Manchester UP, 2017) is a thought-provoking account of the development of postwar planning, especially in Manchester and Hull.
His main point concerns the continuities between planning in the 20s/30s and the postwar periods.
Yet what struck me the most from his research – and which I need to do more of in this project – is his focus on everyday spaces.
So rather than outlining, as many planning historians do, the well-known architectural experiments of Modernism in planning and construction, he examines the ordinary indoor and outdoor spaces that shaped residents’ lives in estates like Wythenshawe or on the temporary prefab developments. He trawls through planning disputes and estate archives for local controversies over the uses of cleared bomb sites, grass verges and other ambiguous spaces (though he uses the term ‘liminal’ to describe these, which I will not).
What further jumped out at me – and here’s the benefit of looking at this topic from a long-duree perspective – are the parallels with early modern/18th century types of protest or resistance by residents against the pre-planned uses ascribed to spaces by landowners, developers and the council.
In May 1943, a few residents of the Roundwood Estate in Northenden took the campaign for ‘dig for victory’ into their own hands by digging small plots in a piece of land that divided their gardens from an ajoining industrial area. This move was unsanctioned by the council, and indeed the city surveyor condemned their actions,
that it is most undesirable that any tenant of adjoining property should be permitted to establish would become a precedent, for other people could justly claim a like privilege. this would endanger the growth of the whole belt of trees and defeat the scheme of development of the Estate.
Greenhalgh points out how the council wished to preserve not only its legal position over the land but also its ordering vision of the space as a tree-lined boundary between industrial and garden. (p. 173)
In the cold winter of 1947 Manchester city surveyor reported several occasions whereby damage had been done to trees on the council estates. It is likely that, during the fuel shortages still in place after the war, residents were taking wood for fuel. Greenhalgh derives from the evidence of Wythenshawe estate committee that such incidents were common, and
‘whilst most of these incidents were recorded as vandalism, damage was also caused by residents viewing the trees as a resource’,
a view that over-rode attitudes of the greenery beautifying the estate. Interestingly, the Corporation reported that ‘constant patrols have been organised to cover all the development areas and spinneys’, to prevent further degradations. (p. 174).
There were further debates over trespass over private gardens, and the degradation of grass verges by local residents taking short cuts that turned into what we now call desire paths, thereby again subverting the ways in which the planners intended residents to walk through and around the estates.
Briony McDonagh amongst other early modern historians have underlined the significance of subaltern forms of resistance and protest against dominant landowners’ delineation and enclosure of land. These include:
- mass ploughing of fields,
- trespassing along short cuts or stopped-up paths,
- releasing of animals for pasture.
Briony McDonagh, ‘Making and Breaking Property: Negotiating Enclosure and Common Rights in Sixteenth-Century England’, History Workshop Journal, Volume 76, Issue 1, October 2013, Pages 32–56.
The continuities of tactics in these very different circumstances and places is intriguing – the claiming or reclaiming of land through ritual and habitual forms of work and play: digging up soil for planting, overturning (or intriguingly in the postwar case, creating) fences and hedges, trespassing by using old paths or creating new ones.
The repeated use or ritualised actions, deliberate or not deliberate, echoes the emphasis in histories of early modern and 18th century on the role of ritualised bodily actions in community justice and protest, for example in the moral economy food riots and in enclosure riots. Hence the gathering of firewood from the trees by the Wythenshawe residents has echoes of gleaning and fuel gathering (albeit not customary reclaiming rights they had felt had been taken away).
The main difference perhaps is the type of property: in the mid-20th century, the residents are enacting these forms of small resistance against the purposes ascribed to these essentially new spaces, marked out as new estates by the Corporation. As council tenants for the most part, they also occupied a different status than the tenants of the lord of the manor.
Social crime or protest?
There is an old debate in the historiography about the extent these sorts of actions constituted ‘social crime’ or popular resistance, or vandalism or juvenile delinquency. Greenhalgh stresses the role of young people in such actions, and the differing views of authority on whether or not their actions were legitimate, criminal or vandalism.
Some indicative reading:
- Roger Wells, ‘Popular Protest and Social Crime: The Evidence of Criminal Gangs in Southern England, 1790—1860’, Southern History, 13 (1991)
- John Rule and Roger Wells, Crime, Protest and Popular Politics in Southern England, 1740-1850 (Hambledon Press, 1997)
- Bob Bushaway, ‘From Custom to Crime: Wood Gathering in Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth-century England’, in J. G. Rule, ed., Outside the Law: Studies in Crime and Order, 1650-1850 (Exeter, 1982)
- Timothy Shakesheff, Rural Conflict, Crime, and Protest: Herefordshire, 1800 to 1860 (Boydell Press, 2003)
More recent work for example by Iain Robertson, drawing from Karl Jacoby, has described such actions as Highland crofters protecting land usages and Forest of Dean Free Miners asserting their customary rights as enacting a ‘moral ecology’.
- Carl Griffin and Iain Robertson, ‘Moral ecologies: conservation in conflict in rural England’, History Workshop Journal, 82 (2016)
- Iain Robertson, Landscapes of Protest in the Scottish Highlands after 1914: the later Highland Land Wars (Routledge, 2013)
The residents of Wythenshawe and other estates in the postwar era perhaps were not consciously or deliberately enacting a moral economy by any means: it was often, just taking a short cut or growing some veg on the side, but there is still a sense of resistance against the definitions of space and how they were planned to be used by the developers and Corporation.
I’ve recently visited three US cities: Boulder CO, Portland OR and Seattle WA. Wandering round neighbourhoods in all three, I saw similar placards in front gardens, driveways and windows. These are liberal cities, so the most common placards to see were defiant Black Lives Matter placards, and also, variations on a poster about welcoming all genders, sexualities and ethnicities, and the placard starting with ‘in our America all people are equal…’
I may come back to how the placing of these placards in front yards of people’s homes in residential neighbourhoods change the nature of public space in different ways to posters displayed on shopfronts. Hopefully there is already work being done in sociological and cultural geography studies about the identity politics of the campaign propaganda.
What I also noticed in many neighbourhoods were placards from more local campaigns around housing policy, gentrification and more specifically about the building of affordable housing. The placard above in a residential neighbourhood of Seattle was opposing the 2014 HALA (Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda):
for an opposing opinion piece, see www.seattletimes.com/opinion/dont-believe-hala-upzone-hype/
For Portland, see this pair of op pieces:
The scholarly literature on American cities and gentrification is much more advanced than that of the UK in cultural geography, urban studies and sociology. From David Harvey onwards, there are numerous strands on the neo-liberal city, including by Setha Low and others. I’ll keep updating my bibliography on this, but if you have suggestions of useful material to read on this more specific issue of policies to address unaffordable housing with altered planning, do comment below.
But the point of view of the residents in the neighbourhoods making these protests is also clear and understandable in terms of the impact on their public space and established forms of community. It was really noticeable walking around that after going through a leafy neighbourhood with older wooden detached houses, some derelict, one would turn a corner and there would be large construction projects of apartments. And it would always be flats. So the level of greenery would be lessened; more density changes the functions and functioning of the local communities.
In such cities with a very high cost of living (and the mass homeless issue in Portland and Seattle is another separate issue), problems of housing are acute and it is interesting to compare the debates around affordability, supply, zoning and city policies with what has been going on at home, not least in Croydon where every other office block has been bought up and changed into ‘luxury’ flats following the relaxation of restrictions on change of use a few years ago, spearheaded by the then MP and housing minister Gavin Barwell.
I’m piecing these somewhat disconnected bits of my holiday with current local issues at home with my research because I’m currently reading Peter Saunders, Urban Politics: a Sociological Interpretation (Hutchinson & Co, 1979), which is a sociological case study of planning policy in late 1970s Croydon. It has a whole chapter on why and how ‘the deep south’ stockbroker belt of Purley and Sanderstead opposed building on the Green Belt on their outskirts, using the justification that they were not nimbyists, but also preserving open space for the benefit of the poorer residents of the north part of Croydon, Thornton Heath and South Norwood. Yet because in effect the great and the good of the ‘deep south’ were part of the political elite, they were able to influence council policy, and the effect of rejecting development plans in south Croydon intensified the problem of lack of housing and public space in the north of Croydon. (pp. 242, 248).
questions I will be thinking about and trying to find more literature on relating to the US comparison:
- why and how do local residents’ groups oppose policies on affordable housing or the building of different forms of residence such as apartment blocks?
- how do such communities view what public space is and how they use it?
- why do people put placards in their front gardens? Does this change the nature of the public space around them and the street?
- Do placards in front gardens make the street political? Does it work? what happens if someone with a ‘we welcome…’ placard is neighbour to someone more conservative?
- how do groups like the anti-HALA campaign in Seattle operate; are they NIMBYists or how do they conceive their aims and role?
I’ve also been comparing the US Open Spaces society and their National Parks movement history with the UK equivalents, but as that’s rural and this post is urban, I’ll leave it until a future post…
For an older planning history of Portland OR, see Martha J Bianco, ‘Robert Moses and Lewis Mumford: competing paradigms of growth in Portland, Oregon’, Planning Perspectives, 16: 2 (2001)
Dr Niamh NicGhabhann has just sent me a link to her new article on the aesthetics of protest and spaces in the campaign for abortion rights in Ireland: ‘City walls, bathroom stalls and tweeting the Taoiseach: the aesthetics of protest and the campaign for abortion rights in the Republic of Ireland’, Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, 2018:
I’ve been ruminating on a relatively recent issue of Environment and Planning A (49: 3, 2017), which outlines and challenges the debate in geography and sociology about the ‘end of public space’.
Don Mitchell’s article revisiting his previous work about People’s Park, CA is perhaps the most strident in the issue to argue against the prevailing acceptance that privatisation has killed off urban public space. There’s a kernel of ‘mea culpa’ in his reflection on the impact of his original 1995 study of the riots in People’s Park of 1991, and other riots of that era such as in LA in 1992 (Mitchell, 1995). This study was part of a range of geographical and sociological works proclaiming the ‘end of public space’ in the 1990s.
Before this period, contemporary studies of public space had not been so pessimistic. Oscar Newman’s 1970s polemic about ‘defensible space’, though influential in architecture, stood alone in its critique of hostile architecture. Yet from the 1990s onwards, volumes of material has been produced on privatisation of public space: private policing, anti-homeless spikes and benches, Business Improvement Districts and ‘pseudopublic’ ‘malls without walls’.
At the same time, sociological studies of popular protest were identifying a shift in policing tactics, from the 1960s tactic of ‘escalation of force’ (i.e. beating protesters up) to ‘negotiated management’. Police were increasingly enabled by two frameworks governing public space: new legislation governing rights to assembly and speech, and local authorities zoning space for (peaceful) protest. In turn, they moved to negotiation with protest organisers over the form of protest: ‘Both strategies eventually reworked the relationship between public space and politics, emphasising public space as a space of control, limits and again order’ (Staeheli and Mitchell, 2008; Mitchell, 2017, 506).
Mitchell identifies the two key books that started this trend in the 1990s towards a critique of the privatisation of public space:
- Mike Davis, City of Quartz: excavating the future in Los Angeles (1990)
- Michael Sorkin, Variations on a Theme Park: the New American City and the End of Public Space (1992)
Davis argued that private encroachment by capital into the public realm was remaking the city as a violent frontier of capital accumulation (Mitchell, 2017, 504). Sorkin posited gentrification as a process that turned urban space into Disney World style commodification.
The image [of public space before privatisation] seems to be one of open or relatively open access, of little capital control over the full functioning of the space, of light policing. Public space is primarily defined by what it is not: private space. The end of private space in the American city is its privatisation. (Mitchell, 2017, 504).
Mitchell’s focus is on the US, where much of this early literature originated. In the UK, the theoretical literature on private-public spaces has come a little later (though I need to do more research on this), and has been publicised even more recently in the press by the work of Owen Hatherley and Anna Minton, and to some extent, the Guardian’s ‘Cities’ section.
Where Mitchell disagrees with this literature now is that it assumes that the process ‘from above’ is a given. At the very point in the 1990s when it seemed that privatisation was closing down all avenues for expression, in fact the emergence of ‘new social movements’ and the ‘invention of new modes of urban sociability’ reworked the meanings and userships of public spaces. Mitchell argues that public spaces are still evolving and continue to be challenged and used in different ways.
Florian Langstraat and Rianne Van Melik have already participated in this critique of the ‘end of public space’ thesis in a 2013 article. They also challenge Sorkin’s ‘rather bleak picture of modern life … characterised by social exclusion, sanitised consumerism and restrictive security measures’ (Langstraat and Van Melik, 2013, 429).
They group their main objections to the thesis into three points:
- the dominant tendency in the literature to define ‘publicness’ in narrow terms (i.e. defined by the owners or authorities rather than by the users)
- the over-emphasis on well-known primary or ‘flagship’ urban spaces
- the dominance of studies on Anglo or American sites. (Langstraat and Van Melik, 2013, 431).
Drawing from Paddison and Sharp’s study of two neighbourhoods in Glasgow (2007), they argue in particular that most public space is not located in the city centre, and is therefore not as well known, and ‘processes such as privatisation might work out differently in these ‘banal’ spaces’ (Langstraat and Van Melik, 2013, 432).
I think perhaps they go a little too far in swinging the pendulum the other way – their argument ‘such claims [about the privatisation of public space] should only be made, if at all, for a very limited number of newly regenerated inner city areas (Langstraat and Van Melik, 2013, 432)’. The work of Minton and others on pseudo-public spaces has shown how the process is dominant in most city centres in the UK and USA, although I accept their (and Mitchell’s) challenge to examine these sites in new ways, looking at how the public uses such spaces in practice, ‘reinventing new forms of urban sociability’. But their pointing to the ‘banal’ spaces of suburbs (and by extension, rural spaces?) is promising, and something I definitely want to investigate.
Neil Evans has pointed out an older critique of the ‘decline of public space’ by Lynn Hollen Lees, ‘Urban public space and imagined communities in the 1980s and 1990s’, Journal of Urban History, 20: 4 (1994), 443-465
- Darshan Vigneswaran, Kurt Iveson and Setha Low, ‘Problems, Publicity and public space: a resurgent debate’, Environment and Planning A, 49: 3 (2017), 496-502
- Don Mitchell, ‘People’s Park again: on the end and ends of public space’, Environment and Planning A, 49: 3 (2017), 503-38
- Don Mitchell, ‘People’s Park: Definitions of the Public, and Democracy’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 85: 1 (Mar., 1995)
- Mike Davis, City of Quartz: excavating the future in Los Angeles (1990)
- Michael Sorkin, Variations on a Theme Park: the New American City and the End of Public Space (1992)
- L Staeheli and Don Mitchell, The People’s Property? Power, Politics and the Public (New York, 2008)
- J Kayden, Privately Owned Public Space: the New York Experience (2002)
- M Kohn, Brave New Neighbourhoods: the Privatisation of Public Space (2004)
- N Fyfe, ed, Images of the Street: Planning, Identity and Control in Public Space (1998)
- Florian Langstraat and Rianne Van Melik, ‘Challenging the “End of Public Space”: a comparative analysis of publicness in British and Dutch Urban Spaces’, Journal of Urban Design, 18: 3 (2013), 429-48.
- M Akkar, ‘The changing ‘publicness’ of contemporary public spaces: a case study of the Grey’s Monument Area, Newcastle Upon Tyne’, Urban Design International, 10: 2 (2001), 95-113
- T Banerjee, ‘The future of public space: beyond invented streets and inverted places’, Journal of the American Planning Association, 67: 1 (2001), 9-24
- C. De Magalhaes, ‘Public space and the contracting out of publicness’, Journal of Urban Design, 15: 4 (2010), 559-574
- B Fraser, ‘Madrid’s Retiro Park as a Publicly-Private Space and the Spatial Problems of Spatial Theory’, Social and Cultural Geography, 8: 5 (2007), 673-700
- D Madden, ‘Revisiting the end of public space: assembling the public’, City and Community, 9: 2 (2010), 187-207
- R Paddison and J Sharp, ‘Questioning the end of public space: reclaiming control of local banal spaces’, Scottish Geographical Journal, 123: 2 (2007), 87-106
- A Madanipour, Public and Private Spaces of the City (2003)
- G. Macleod, ‘From urban entrepreneurialism to a revanchist city? On the spatial injustices of Glasgow’s renaissance’, Antipode, 34: 3 (2002), 602-24
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.
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.
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):
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:
- George H Wright, Towards a History of the Gallows at Kennington Common (decommissioned 1799) (self-published, 1997)
Site of new religious practices:
The site was also renowned as where the Methodist leader George Whitefield preached:
- George Whitefield, ‘What think ye of Christ?”: a sermon preached from Matthew xxii, 42 at Kennington Common in the year 1739 (1832 reprint): https://archive.org/details/cihm_63956
Site of Chartism:
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.
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:
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:
- 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
1865 Commons Preservation Society was formed
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
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)
The Webb Estate near Purley, Surrey, is an odd place, a exclusive-feeling village of ‘desirable’ houses, but with indications of something else behind the gates.
The official website of the company that run the estate: http://www.webbestate.co.uk/history-1
Here are some pictures of a wander around I went on in July 2017:
The monument to French soldiers who fell during the Great War is bizarre to modern eyes because of its location, hidden away at the end of the long Promenade de Verdun. It almost feels as if it’s a family monument, and a visit there if you’re not a resident is slightly unnerving, as if you’re trespassing.
The useful local history sign erected by the village green explains the history of this garden village.
“William Webb (1862-1930) a visionary local estate agent spent his lifetime developing his Garden Estate idea. he purchased land in 1888 and began to develop it in line with his own principles of housing development. The land was cleared of fences and fifty plots were laid out divided by privet hedges. When building began in 1898, houses were set on predefined plots separated by mature boundary hedges and established planting. Webb expressed these design principles in his book, Garden First in Land Development.
The Webb Estate covers about 260 acres and was designed with the character of country lanes and English garden villages. …”
“In 1903 a model village, Upper Woodcote Village was laid out in the south-western corner of the Webb Estate. The cottages surrounding the green were originally intended to be occupied by the men working on the Estate but proved too expensive and so were leased to private individuals.
…In 1921 William Webb transferred the land of the Green in perpetuity to Coulsdon and Purley Urban District Council. He stipulated that it was to be used as a Village Green or Rural park for the enjoyment of the inhabitants of Purley and neighbourhood and as a memorial to those that had falled in the Great War. Webb also arranged for the provision of the Cornish Granite War Memorial that stands outside the Lord Roberts.”
The Garden Village was such a pervasive idea in the first couple of decades of the 20th century. The history of Ebeneezer Howard and the garden cities has been well told, (see also this Historic England booklet (PDF)), but these types of smaller developments are different even though their creators were inspired by similar principles. Whereas Howard saw cities holistically, and sought to embed the garden principle in whole town design, to create “a new hope, a new life, a new civilisation”, this type of garden village ended up being more of idyllic residential escape from London life for the upper middle classes.
Webb noted in 1916:
A few City men live at the West End but by far the greater number seek to spend their leisure time and bring up their families at the nearest spot to their work where they can find a comparatively country home.
The emphasis of the settlement, as enforced in restrictive covenants mainly to do with keeping the gardens well kept and from new buildings being erected, made this estate exclusive. In Garden First in Land Development, Webb expressed his intention that:
the occupiers of houses (should) not only have the enjoyment of their own premises in desirable seclusion, but that, both from their own upper windows and when passing along the roads, it may appear as though they are one large garden of which their own holding is a part.
Whereas Howard’s garden cities were designed to be inclusive (and also self-sufficient for facilities and light industry), this was purely a private estate, with the large iron gates across the roads in and out (still there) to enforce that feeling of privacy and exclusiveness.
Webb lived at Upper Woodcote House, completed in 1903, and the whole estate was completed by 1925. He was renowned for his philanthropy, and also held the summer show of the local horticultural society in the grounds of the house.
Transcribing the 1911 census, I get a different feeling than when I transcribe the working-class districts that are my other locales. This was solidly stockbroker commuterville, pleasant escape from the commute to the City. Most of these large houses were occupied by one nuclear family – a head of household and his wife, mostly from London or another part of Surrey, either retired early and with no children, or in their 30s with small children. Most of the houses have servants – a housekeeper, cook, governness for the small children – who usually have migrated from other parts of the UK.
As a historian, I shouldn’t say this, but I feel it hard to find an immediate connection with the residents – do I care about Horace Whitaker, aged 32, ‘of private means’, living with his wife, three children and 2 servants, in ‘Waveney’ on Rose Walk? Or William Jones O’Hara, a 43-year old stockbroker born in Ontario, Canada, living with his wife, 2 children and 3 servants, in ‘Keewaydin’ [sp?] a few doors down? I must confess I’m more interested in the servants – was this their first employment? Did they miss home? Did they tease each other for having different regional accents and dialect? Did they ever meet the other servants in the other houses? One suspects not, as the estate is designed around privacy: the hedges and long boulevards create the desired privacy, but mean that it would be much harder, for the servants at least, to meet their neighbours unlike in the hustle and bustle of, say, a row of London townhouses.
I don’t know enough about domestic service in the early 20thC, but here are the first places to start:
The other aspect that I’m going to develop is trespass and vagrancy.
This newspaper article from 1939 about a man charged with trespass and vagrancy (and indeed the column adjoining about Caterham footpaths and parks) reflect much on the sense of privacy in these estates, and the suspicion of strangers and vagrants:
Upper Woodcote Village
Finally, the issue of village greens and private space divided by class is another line of enquiry. The workers’ houses that were too expensive for workers to live in are also a historical parallel for many issues today.
The Lord Roberts was a former temperance inn. Here is the 1911 census entry of its occupants: