playing fields

st george's field braintree

‘nuisance’

I’m recently reading a lot about the concept of ‘nuisance’ in the Victorian city, and have been really taken by discussions by David Churchill, Christopher Hamlin and Andy Croll about the concept.

Podcast on my initial reflections:

Manchester and Salford Sanitary Association, a paper by W. T. Marriott on the necessity of open spaces and public playgrounds, 15 December 1861
Manchester and Salford Sanitary Association, a paper by W. T. Marriott on the necessity of open spaces and public playgrounds, 15 December 1861

The extract above from a talk given to the Manchester and Salford Sanitary Association urged for the necessity of public playgrounds in easy walking distance of all districts, not least because working-class children had little opportunity to play out. ‘to play in the street is illegal … an infraction of municipal law’.

As far as I am aware, there were no specific byelaws against children playing in the street at that time, but they could be accused of obstructing the highway under the 1835 Highways Act. They would also be picked upon by the legion of sanitary inspectors who began to police ‘nuisance’ and ‘annoyance’ in public spaces, who would (as well as local curtain-twitching property owners and ratepayers) raise grievances to the local police about such activity as snow-ball throwing and play-fighting (Churchill, p. 104; Crook, 373).

I’m drawn to the idea of the ‘urban commons’ as (not the technical definition of a common in the boundaries of a borough, but rather) an ideal of a public realm and being the parallel to the rural commons in this period. Property owners and local government and policing determined what this ideal was, often centred around the right to use the king’s highway, and with similar debates and contests over who had customary right to use it, and who could police and regulate it. As Hamlin discusses, urbanisation and over-crowding stretched the capability of the public realm to cope with the numbers, in effect creating a ‘tragedy of the urban commons’ in its over-use (Hamlin, 374). Regulation was enacted in byelaws and local policing as well as inspection regimes. But this often excluded those deemed to be trespassing or encroaching or taking advantage of the urban commons.

Further reading:

David Churchill, Crime Control and Everyday Life in the Victorian City: the Police and the Public (Oxford University Press, 2017)

Andy Croll, ‘Street Disorder, Surveillance and Shame: regulating behaviour in the public spaces of the late Victorian British Town’, Social History, 24: 3 (1999), 250-68

Christopher Hamlin, ‘Nuisances and Community in Mid-Victorian England: the attractions of inspection’, Social History, 38: 3 (2013), 346-79

Tom Crook, ‘Sanitary Inspection and the Public Sphere in late Victorian and Edwardian Britian: a case study in Liberal Governance’, Social History, 32: 4 (2007), 369-393

lockdown

monbiot article

George Monbiot has written about the lockdown and the longer history of controls over public spaces in The Guardian, with a quote from me.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/22/lockdown-coronavirus-crisis-right-to-roam

I was grateful to have a long conversation with him, much of which just couldn’t be fitted into his short piece. We discussed in particular the long history of private streets, particularly those developed in the mid Victorian period by speculators and investors, with lodges and gatehouses to keep people out. There is a brief article on this topic by Sarah Blandy, ‘Gated communities in England: historical perspectives and current developments’, GeoJournal, Vol. 66, No. 1/2, Gated Communities: An Emerging Global Urban
Landscape
(2006), pp. 15-26.

We also discussed the debates over public meeting places on street corners (Monbiot briefly mentions the Salvation Army in this respect – although it was more the case that the ‘Skeleton Army’ of publicans instigated the violence against them rather than the other way around), including the Socialist Democratic Federation’s battles over Dod Street Corner in Limehouse, East End of London, in the 1880s. See also Constance Bantman, ‘Anarchists, authorities and the battle for public space, 1880-1914’, in Sarah Pickard, ed., Anti-Social Behaviour in Britain: Victorian and Contemporary Perspectives (Palgrave, 2016) for similar issues regarding the anarchists.

We also discussed more recent and contemporary lockdowns on public space, notably the Cutteslowe Walls and other divisions between council and private housing, and playgrounds in new developments that children in social housing were prohibited from using.

more on historic access to open space

wyck gardens lambeth

new podcast

hyde park riot

I’m experimenting with podcasting my developing ideas for the book. Here’s episode 3: legislation, which covers a parliamentary debate in 1872, and the legal concept of jus spatiandi.

episode 1 on the concept of property and the law:

episode 1b on who are the public in public space?

episode 2 on the coming of war and its potential impact on access to public space:

episode 4 on ‘air and exercise’ definitions in the legislation:

two great blog posts on public space and the lockdown

Antonia Layard on parks:

Antonia Layard

David Mead on the implications of the emergency legislation for public protest:

Also a useful legal exegesis thread of the latest updated guidance on going for a walk:

Various police tweets that seem more Scarfolk than Scarfolk ever did:

https://twitter.com/CentralBedsCPT/status/1249003469098319873

who has the right to use public space? (1/n)

brockwell park

Yet again, research and writing for a chapter in my book that originally was historical and as I thought, non-controversial, has now become urgently relevant in the wake of the current crisis.

I’ve written (not finished!) a chapter on Victorian public parks, and contests over their use, particularly by political groups for meetings. I’ve got a hard drive full of photos of council parks committee minutes from various boroughs in England across the late 19th century and early 20th century.

At the time of researching, so far so historical. The relevant research was being done by Dan Hancox on the commercialisation of parks and their temporary closing off for big concerts and other ticketed events, where councils make a little money to the expense of local residents not able to enter their parks for a few weekends a year. Enclosure by privatisation is easy to recognise. (https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/jul/05/revealed-how-london-parks-are-partly-privatised-festivals-wireless-finsbury-park)

But now we have the threat that all public open spaces will be closed, just as the weather warms up, with the lock-down. Morally it’s a trickier issue. Of course, this may be the measure we need to prevent the spread of the virus and to enforce social distancing. Stay at home if you have a garden folks. But it has raised huge debate about the lack of access to public space among urban residents living in small flats with (as is increasingly common) not even a Juliet balcony to get any fresh air at all. The balancing of public health between preventing the spread and maintaining people’s physical and mental health by allowing them to exercise outside is very difficult to work out.

The issue has centred around Lambeth Council’s decision to close Brockwell Park.

Brixton Buzz

It often seems to be the south London parks and Lambeth council that are the lightning conductors for these issues. Perhaps because of the highly urbanised nature of south London, and its gentrification southwards.

Will Jennings and others on Twitter raise the issue of what is a park and what is a common in these areas:

The south London commons are in somewhat an unusual position in that they are technically still urban commons, but because their ownership and management passed to the Metropolitan Board of Works in the later 19th Century (and then subsequently to the LCC and then to their respective borough councils), they are regulated more as public parks.

Lambeth Council byelaws: https://www.lambeth.gov.uk/sites/default/files/lsp-parks-open-spaces-byelaws.pdf

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LCC map of parks 1924
London County Council map of parks and recreation grounds, 1924

Survey of London history: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/architecture/sites/bartlett/files/49.5._parks_and_open_spaces_chapter.pdf

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Parks, recreation grounds and other council-controlled public spaces have always been heavily regulated with regulations and bye-laws. That was part of the point of parks – they were former commons and open spaces that have been enclosed and regulated both legally by regulations and physically by railings and gates that are usually closed at night, and by park wardens monitoring public behaviour. Urban commons (which differ from rural commons) were often the product of the commons preservation societies’ campaigns from the 1860s onwards. Many were regulated by as many byelaws as parks. Access to open space in urban areas in the late 19th century was always about social control, of improving the morals and ‘civilising’ the behaviour of the population, particularly the working classes and poor who lived in overcrowded urban streets who needed the ‘lungs’ of the park as a respite from their polluted working lives.

update from a discussion on Twitter on whether London councils have the right to close commons:

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Jonathan Healey jokingly raised the issue of restrictions on behaviour in public spaces made by clergy and local authorities in the early modern period:

This moral regulation continued well up to the 20th century. With the new public parks in the later 19th century, Sabbatarians and other religious were keen to prevent the population using them on Sundays, when they should be in church. Organised games (football, cricket) and music (e.g. brass bands on the bandstand) were banned in many public parks until well into the first decades of the 20th century. Debates raged in council parks committees and in the local newspapers about whether leisure activities should be allowed on Sundays, and only gradually were concessions made, for example allowing band concerts after 2pm, but then only playing classical music with no dance tunes allowed.

musical world 1870 Sunday League on music in parks
Musical World, 23 April 1870, https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=VJMPAAAAYAAJ&dq=public%20park%20prohibit%20%20Sundays%20music&pg=PA287#v=onepage&q&f=false
LCC pamphlet 1924
LCC pamphlet, 1924, Lambeth Archives
council restrictions on games 1922
LCC guide to public parks, 1924

field and court games should be allowed on Sundays from 1pm in winter and 2pm in summer at such parks and open spaces as might be prescribed.

LCC guide to public parks, 1924

There were no restrictions on access to public parks during the cholera pandemics, not least because it was still believed that disease spread in the air, so access to fresh air was seen as essential. The Boards of Health were more concerned with patrolling and inspecting other sites where particularly the poor and vagrants congregated or were confined – they set up inspections of lodging houses and backstreet pubs for example.

The restriction on use of public parks and commons for political meetings is another story I’ve related elsewhere and which will be the main focus of my chapter on ‘Railings’, and its most obvious expression was during the Hyde Park riots of 1866 when the crowd tore up the railings in protest at their exclusion.

A later debate about access to parks and commons was during both world wars. Some (though not as many as perceived) of the Victorian railings had been removed for the metal salvage effort during WWII, and much debate in the council parks’ committee minutes concerned whether there should be extra wardens employed to police the parks now that access was easier. Even for parks that retained their railings, some had to be left open at night because air raid shelters were constructed within them. This led to a large rise in juvenile delinquency and petty vandalism to for example the toilets or cricket pavilions recorded by the parks committees, and there was pressure on them to restrict or police them using the air raid wardens to prevent further criminal damage.

The town planning schemes and idealistic or indeed simply pragmatic reconstruction plans after both wars sought to maximise access to open green space for all residents (see my previous blog), although in already congested urban centres this was often done aiming at an average acreage per 1000 population rather than trying to make sure every residence was within easy reach of an open space. The space syntax of this accessibility is something I need to do more research on. With the selling off of playing fields, the renewed densification of urban centres as family houses have been split up into several flats, with front gardens turned into driveways and back gardens also sold off or only accessible to the ground floor flat, and especially with all the office block conversions allowed by the easing of planning regulations for permitted use, and new build flats only having those useless julienne balconies, the main issue debated today is that yet again, many people, including young professionals as well as people in lower income bands, have no access to any open space apart from their local parks.

Further reading:

Hazel Conway, People’s Parks: The Design and Development of Victorian Parks in Britain (Cambridge University Press, 1991)