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.
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
I am going to be collaborating with them to use their archive for my forthcoming exhibition at the People’s History Museum next summer.
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:
Talking to them about my quest to find more about the residents and spaces of Cropper Street/Osborne Street, they reminded me of the importance of micro-geographies: the social and sectarian boundaries that are invisible from all maps and most written records of places. So as historians and historical geographers, we need to drill down to the micro: the difference between one street and the next, the persistence of ‘parish xenophobia’ as Keith Snell perhaps somewhat pejoratively put it, the subtle gradations in social class that only residents recognised and acted upon.
Here are the front covers of a couple of their magazines. They talked vividly about the significance of that red rug on the bannisters of the ground floor flat. I won’t share the personal story here, but it reminds us again to be acutely aware of such signs, and listen to the people who remember what they mean.
My tweet while researching in Manchester Archives got more likes than I expected:
I’ve been looking through the Parks and Cemeteries committee minutes from council records in various parts of England from the start of the parks movement in the 1840s to the present day, and they are bringing up all sorts of oddities like this.
This Manchester committee had a strict definition of what was ‘appropriate’ music: Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn, ‘national anthems’ (presumably God Save the Queen and Rule Britannia), and specifically ‘avoiding all “dancing” music’.
I need to do more research on who actually formed the committee (I have noted R Adeane Barlow as the Hon Sec), but it’s from 1856, the second volume of Manchester parks committee, created after the formation of the first public parks in 1846-7: Queen’s Park, Philips Park, and Peel Park (transferred over to Salford corporation). Societies and associations made requests to the council for permission to use the parks for meetings and events. For some groups the councils issued licences and took a cut of their profits, while for others like charities, they issued one-off permissions.
This request from the committee of promoting music was typical of the wider ‘rational recreation’ promoted in the mid 19th century by anxious middle classes and paternalist gentry, worried about the vices of gambling and drinking and blood sports engaged in by the urban poor. Highly regulated parks were also seen as one solution to problems of the poor hygeine and lack of exercise and fresh air experienced in the slums. There’s a long historical debate about the extent to which the middle classes attempted to ‘civilise’ the working classes from the 18th century onwards by a clamp down on popular recreation, and to what extent it succeeded (Storch, Cunningham).
This concern not to be providing “dancing” music demonstrates the interesting conflict with the cultural and religious norms of the time – there was still a strong Sabbatarian tradition, particularly in Manchester, that meant that much leisure activity and entertainment was prohibited on Sundays. So the parks committee minutes also have several motions debated for and against allowing bands to play and sports and games matches to be held, even informally, on Sundays. The next entry in the minutes is a deputation from the Sunday School Teachers of Manchester, stating their objections to the ‘introduction of bands of music into the public parks of this city on Sundays’. This led to debate in the parks committee, who after several motions and amendments, decided not to allow the bands on Sundays.
There was much clerical pressure on local authorities to ensure that there would be no alternative distractions that would lure people away from divine service at church. So even the argument that rational recreation would keep people out of the pubs was not enough for many parks bye-laws, particularly in Manchester, from prohibiting music and games on Sundays.
It was a political issue. Here’s a couple of tweets from Dr Kathryn Rix of the History of Parliament:
Hazel Conway has written extensively about the history of the Victorian parks movement, so I won’t repeat all she’s done. But she points out how early Manchester was in forming public parks, largely on the initiatives of paternalist city fathers like Mark Philips, MP, who had presented evidence to the select committee into public walks in 1833 and then promoted the formation of parks from 1844. He pointed to continental examples such as Dresden, where the population ‘enjoy themselves rationally’ and the promenades of Rouen, the ‘Manchester of France’. Typically therefore, one of the first parks was named Philips Park to the east of the city centre.
Unlike in other towns and cities, however, the three Manchester and Salford parks were promoted and funded by private subscription and charitable endeavour rather than direct council involvement in the acquisition of the land; it was only after their formal opening that the corporation took over their control and maintenance.
I’ll be looking more at which councils allowed political meetings in their parks; having surveyed the volumes for the WWII period, Manchester seems very open to allowing left wing groups to hold meetings, in complete contrast to Croydon, who refused permission for them all, and this contrast is something I need to go into much more detail relating to the politics of local government.
Manchester Archives, Council Minutes/Parks Committee, vols 1-3, 1846-1869
Hazel Conway, People’s Parks: the Design and Development of Victorian Parks in Britain (Cambridge University Press, 1991)
R. D. Storch, ed., Popular Culture and Custom in 19th century England (London, 1982)
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.
I do like doing Open House London. It marks the start of autumn, the start of a new academic year, a chance to talk to architects, residents, nose round places.
There is a tension, however, when you go on a tour of post-war social housing. The guide today around the Golden Lane estate in the City of London, the ‘older sister’ estate to the Barbican, surely must have shared an unease I’ve felt.
Open House London, especially in the inner boroughs, is essentially middle-class/bourgeois people and art school students touring cool architecture appreciating its aesthetics, facilities and design, but never really interacting with the working-class residents who live there. Maybe local residents do rush round London with their Open House brochure, ticking off the art deco 1930s or postwar brutalist sites, but I’ve never really sensed they were there in any of the tours I’ve been on.
An exception perhaps was Cressingham Gardens. A couple of years ago I went on a resident-led tour when the Save Cressingham campaign had only just got going, and there was certainly a clearer and bolder political purpose to the Open House day there than simply ‘let’s look at the interesting architecture’.
Back to today’s tour of Golden Lane estate. It’s grade II* listed as a whole, built from 1952 by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon.
Details here: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1021941 and Guide for Residents (PDF) (I’m not going to do a post to the level of research that Municipal Dreams does, for reasons of time and that this isn’t one of my case studies). Listing is unusual for council estates, contrasting with the other estates that have been in the news over the past couple of years because of their demolition or proposed demolition, including Cressingham and Elephant and Castle.
It’s recently been (controversially) renovated, with a revamped community centre (where the architects of the renovation held talks and there was a small archive) and the first stage of big renovation, the main thing I was looking out in particular for the types of open space in the estate.
The guide said that the original plans allocated 66% for open space. As the estate was built on top of the ruins of blitzed houses, there was a lot of uneven ground and rubble, so the estate is stepped and on different levels. There are some attractive communal gardens with some water features, but the first stage of the buildings do not have much outdoor space for the residents other than small balconies.
The Great Arthur House, now newly restored, had a roof garden with a water feature that was supposed to be reflected off the concrete at the top, but it had been closed for over a generation. The later buildings however anticipated the Barbican that the architects would go on to design, with shared walkways looking out over open courtyards.
The piece de resistance of the estate were the sports facilities, notably the beautiful indoor swimming pool. I did notice that there was evidence of some debate about whether the pool should be restored or not on a poster on display. Two major changes to the original design of open space were firstly the replacement of the bowling green with tennis courts, and more significantly, allowing car parking on the main square, which has diminished its use as a potential communal gathering space.
The estate was designed to be inward looking, in order to foster a sense of community and also to provide an escape from the grim blitzed rubble of bomb sites around it.
I’m also interested in the byelaws and rules around residents’ use of the communal spaces. And whether they count as public space, as this is technically a private estate run by the City of London corporation and having its own rules.
Here are the rules governing the Barbican. They include maintaining safety along the balustrades, keeping dogs on leads, no playing of music outside, riding or bringing animals in, climbing trees.
The two modern contrasts nearby were the ‘developmental aesthetics’ on the hoardings around the private estate being built directly opposite, and the awful sterility of the privately-owned public space of the shopping development next to Liverpool Street station:
The debate is still ongoing about plans for the estate: ‘no green space’
I’m currently working my way through the council bye laws of my case study towns, especially those produced in c.1890-1920 in relation to the Municipal Corporations Act of 1882, section 23, ‘power of councils to make bye-laws’.
Much of the literature on public parks comments on rules and regulations as evidence of the intent of municipal authorities to control the activities and recreation of the lower classes, enforced through park wardens and the middle classes. Urban historians have similarly commented on bye-laws regulating street behaviour in a similar way. Patrick Joyce argued that park regulations and similar rules enacted a mode of ‘liberal governmentality’ on Victorian society, applying a Foucauldian model of ‘surveillance and punish’ and power to the Victorian urban streetscape. He also suggested that such spaces were heterotopic, or in simple terms, people could misbehave and not follow the rules set by the elite in those spaces.
Patrick Joyce, The Rule of Freedom: Liberalism and the Modern City (Verso, 2003)
David A Reeder, ‘The social construction of green space in London prior to the Second World War’, in Peter Clark et al, eds, European City and Green Space, pp. 48-9.
Here are some of the more amusing bye-laws I’ve quickly surveyed:
(TNA, HO 45/10915/B8975 – Croydon byelaws, 1920):
No person shall in any street or public place throw or leave any orange peel, banana skin, or other dangerous substance on any footway.
Here is the debate about which part of the street this rule should apply to:
…In the case of an ordinary carriageway, there is by no means the same danger to pedestrians of the throwing down of orange peel etc as in the case of a foot pavement, and to prohibit the placing of orange peel etc anywhere eg in the gutter, would be too stringent.
No person shall place or suspend any flag containing any advertisement relating to any trade or business, in, over, or across any street to the annoyance of residents or passengers or to the alarm of horses.
Most of the byelaws are in the vein of social control of the lower orders, but laws like the above ‘suspension of flags across streets’ is both a continuation of the older 18th century improvement act regulations against shopkeepers putting adverts for their businesses out in the street, and a prelude to the aesthetic critique of street ‘clutter’ (advertisements, telegraph poles, aerials) that came to dominate the preservationists’ campaigns against ‘subtopia’ or the encroachment of the town on the country.
This article exposing how the resurfacing of the road at Cutteslowe, Oxford, stopping where it reaches the old boundary of the wall that separated private from social housing – shows the materialities and economics of the long legacy of that division:
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)
I’ve been looking at Croydon council’s Parks Committee records for the early and mid 20th century, so these issues over municipal finances and control of parks is high on my research agenda at the moment. more thoughts in the next blog…
Some of the many recent articles on public space & privatisation: