‘contested public space and protest in urban Britain from the 18th century to today’
A couple of weeks ago, news of private developers netting hedges and trees to prevent migratory birds nesting in them started to raise objections on social media.
More recently, local people near the affected areas have taken action such as setting up a petition, and in some places taken more direct action by pulling down the nets.
This act of protest resistance recalls types of actions undertaken in 18th and 19th century rural Britain (often but not always) within the context of disputes over enclosure of common rights and land.
The historiography of enclosure has a long pedigree, but more recent work in cultural geography has rethought the nature and types of protest, moving away from the major and well known riots that pulled up fences and hedges, and more towards acts of rural resistance undertaken over longer time scales and within more micro-contexts of tense community relations. These include Timothy Shakesheff’s work on rural tactics in Herefordshire, to Carl Griffin’s voluminous work on tree-maiming, Briony McDonagh’s uncovering of cases of ploughing, and most recently Leon Baker’s survey of commoners using animal trespass as a form of resistance to enclosures.
Much of this work was originally inspired by anthropologist J. C. Scott’s concepts of ‘weapons of the weak’ but the main influence now is Karl Jacoby, and his model of ‘moral ecology’. Drawing directly on E. P. Thompson’s ‘moral economy’ model, which explained how food rioters enacted particular customary rituals as forms of community justice to reassert a ‘fair price’ determined by the community, Jacoby’s ‘moral ecology’ suggested that communities enacted environmental resistance as forms of community justice against large landowners threatening their livelihoods. In other words, just as a local community defended their ‘fair price’ for food against outsiders attempting to hoard it and make a profit from artificial price hikes (the ‘moral economy’), local communities could also defend their environment against outsiders attempting to impose a different form of landscape upon it (the ‘moral ecology’). This idea of inhabitants being closely attuned to the economy and ecology of their environment also links closely to Tim Ingold’s interpretation of the landscape as a ‘taskscape’ for its residents, a land to be worked and subsisted in rather than to be viewed from a distance or reshaped wholesale by external powers.
Iain Robertson’s study of Highland crofters’ forms of action and interaction with their environment after the Clearances, and with Carl Griffin and Roy Jones, have applied Jacoby’s model to British examples. Local rural residents were acutely aware of the environment, and in farming and subsistence on it, sought to defend their landscapes against any outsider influences which might change the ecology, and therefore erode their livelihoods. There were glimpses of an early environmentalism within these actions, much earlier than the more generally recognised mass recognition of the importance of ecology from the 1970s onwards.
The current protests against bird netting, and the direct action against them, recall such earlier forms of resistance and ideas about nature and the environment. It is significant that much of the netting has been placed there by private developers building new housing next to, or on, agricultural land. I suppose the major difference is that the people taking off the nets do not directly rely on the surrounding fields for their domestic economies, but nevertheless it indicates a continuity with earlier centuries of rural resistance.
- Karl Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation (2001)
- Carl Griffin and Iain Robertson, ‘Moral Ecologies: Conservation in Conflict in Rural England’, History Workshop Journal, 82: 1 (2016), 24-49
- Carl Griffin, Roy Jones and Iain Robertson, Moral Ecologies: Histories of Conservation, Dispossession and Resistance (Palgrave, 2019)
- Carl Griffin, ‘‘Cut down by some cowardly miscreants’: Plant Maiming, or the Malicious Cutting of Flora, as an Act of Protest in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Rural England’, Rural History, 19: 1 (2008)
- Carl Griffin, ‘Protest practice and (tree) cultures of conflict: understanding the spaces of ‘tree maiming’ in eighteenth‐ and early nineteenth‐century England’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 33: 1 (2008)
- Leonard Baker, ‘Human and Animal Trespass as Protest: Space and Continuity in Rural Somerset and Dorset’, History Workshop Journal, ? (2019)
- Timothy Shakesheff, Rural conflict, crime and protest: Herefordshire, 1800-1860 (2003)
- Briony McDonagh, ‘Subverting the ground: private property and public protest in the sixteenth-century Yorkshire Wolds’, Agricultural History Review, 57: 2 (2009), 191-206
- Nicholas Blomley, ‘Making Private Property: Enclosure, Common Right and the Work of Hedges’, Rural History, 18: 1 (2007), 1-21
- James Winter, Secure from Rash Assault: Sustaining the Victorian Environment (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1999)
I’ve been reading some legal scholarship on the registration of commons and village greens. One of the main themes throughout is the continued difficulties faced in compiling any truly accurate register, given the complex ways in which land has been held and conflicting registrations and non-registrations of common land.
database of commons (2015): https://data.gov.uk/dataset/05c61ecc-efa9-4b7f-8fe6-9911afb44e1a/database-of-registered-common-land-in-england
- Christopher P. Rodgers, Eleanor A. Straughton, Angus J. L. Winchester and Margherita Pieraccini, Contested Common Land: Environmental Governance Past and Present (Routledge, Abingdon, 2011) is the most recent major overview of common land and the impact of enclosure.
- Barbara Bogusz, ‘Regulating public/private interests in town and village greens’, International Journal of Law in the Built Environment, 5: 1 (2013), 21-39 – is a fascinating argument about the problems raised in recent years about communities registering village greens to save them from development for housing. Often environmental concerns are posited as a major reason as well as use of the green spaces for leisure. It also raises the question of ‘proximity’ of the ‘neighbourhood’ from which users of the village green come. As transport enables people to travel to green spaces much further away from their residences than was usual in the 19th century, the old assumptions that local people use their local commons is weakened. This process thereby braodened the idea of the right of use and access.
- John Aitchison, ‘The town and village greens of England and Wales’, Landscape Research, 21: 1 (1996) – on the inaccuracies of the first registration of village greens by the 1955 Royal Commission on Common Land, and charting the different geographical concentrations of village greens in England in the 1990s. The largest number they charted were in Cumbria (191) and Hertfordshire (116).
- Donald McGillivray and Jane Holder, ‘Locality, environment and law: the case of town and village greens’, International Journal of Law in Context, 3: 1 (2007), 1-17.
- J. W. Aitchison, ‘The Commons and Wastes of England and Wales, 1958-1989’, Area (1990)
I’ve also been looking through old civil court cases around commons registration using the Westlaw UK database. More on my findings about common rights and access using these to follow…
I’m curious as to why there has been an upsurge in academic and trade books on the issue of land reform. Of course, Anna Minton was part of pushing the issue of the privatisation of public land back onto the agenda a few years ago, and I’m also including the work of Stuart Hodkinson theorising the ‘new urban enclosures’. There have recently been a glut of new provocative books. These include the following:
Brett Christophers, The New Enclosure: the appropriation of public land in neoliberal Britain (Verso, 2018) – I might do a quick review in another blog post: basically, his general argument is good, though I’m less keen on his writing style and his generalisations about the history of feudalism and enclosure, for which he mainly draws on Polanyi, and on the 1870s register of land owners, for which he draws mainly on Cahill.
Michael Tichelar, The Failure of Land Reform in Twentieth Century England: the triumph of private property (Routledge, 2018) – bringing together a life time’s work on the topic, though mainly focused on the role of the Labour Party in pushing for various land reform policies regarding the ‘unearned increment’ in land acquisition policies.
Guy Shrubsole, Who Owns England? (out in May) which I’m looking forward to: a summary no doubt of the excellent research being done for his project and blog of the same name.
Of course these studies have been years in the making, and reflected perhaps the debates around Publicly-Owned Private spaces that Minton drew attention to.
But it’s interesting that they’re being published at a time when there seems to be much publicity around councils now re-investing in buying land and real estate, using new loans, such as for shopping centres and hotels (Croydon – https://insidecroydon.com/2018/11/01/council-pays-53m-to-buy-unloved-colonnades-centre/) (Rochdale – https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/business/business-news/rochdale-council-buys-retail-park-15565577)
These acquisitions seem to be reversing the process identified by Christophers and Hodkinson of ‘new urban enclosures’, whereby land previously owned by public bodies such as councils has been sold off for redevelopment at a rapid rate. Yet these are not ‘unenclosing’ these spaces; the councils’ investments perhaps are just another part of the longer process of ‘financial landownership’ that Doreen Massey and A. Catalano, and David Harvey identified has been occurring since at least the 1970s, whereby companies invest in the value of land as a capital asset (Christophers, p. 112).
Anna Minton, Ground Control: fear and happiness in the twenty-first century city (Penguin, 2009)
Stuart Hodkinson, ‘ The new urban enclosures’, City, 16: 5 (2012), pp. 500-518
David Harvey, The Limits to Capital (1982; rev. ed. Verso, 2007)
Doreen Massey and A. Catalano, Capital and Land: private ownership by capital in Great Britain (Edward Arnold, 1978)
Hannah Priest of North Manchester Radio interviewed me last week for her programme A Helping of History. Listen to hear about the radical history of Cropper/Osborne Street Collyhurst. Hear it now on Mixcloud:
I’m starting to compile as many definitions of public space as I can from here.
First, the definition from the London Assembly’s 2011’s report, ‘Public life in private hands Managing London’s public space’, which started to acknowledge the massive shift to privately-owned public spaces in the capital.
‘all spaces including streets, squares and parks that everyone can use and access in principle, regardless of who owns or manages the space’.
The 2011 report also quoted the 2004 government report, Living Places: Caring for Quality, https://www.futurecommunities.net/files/images/ving_Places_Caring_for_Quality_Report__ODPM_.pdf, which defines ‘public realm’ as
‘all those parts of the built environment where the public has free access. It encompasses: all streets, squares and other rights of way, whether predominantly in residential, commercial or community/civic uses; the open spaces and parks; and the ‘public/private’ spaces where public access is unrestricted (at least during daylight hours). It includes the interfaces with key internal and private spaces to which the public normally has free access’.
The 2011 report notes ‘this is different from the legal definition in the Town and Country Planning Act of 1990’ (https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1990/8/section/336)
“open space” means any land laid out as a public garden, or used for the purposes of public recreation, or land which is a disused burial ground’
and the more traditional planning definition of Public Open Space.
It also notes the additional category of ‘public green space’, including urban parks and gardens, country parks and canal and riverbanks.
See also the 2014 government guidance about the definitions of Open Green Space in replation to planning and sport: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/open-space-sports-and-recreation-facilities-public-rights-of-way-and-local-green-space
Quick post –
As you may know, this project is very much inspired by the great project Who Owns England? led by Guy Shrubsole and a team of researchers, sending in FOI applications and scraping maps to campaign for more transparency in land registration.
The data lead Anna Powell-Smith has charted in their latest blog post study the amount of land is still unregistered in England – 15%. https://whoownsengland.org/2019/01/11/the-holes-in-the-map-englands-unregistered-land/
Twitter comments have noted how some of the 15% area is railway lines – Network Rail apparently haven’t registered their land, or land that has remained in the same hands and unmortgaged since 1990.
Remarkably, we don’t know who owns 15% of the country.
I think this should be better understood, so I’ve made the first ever map of unregistered land in England & Wales. Check out your area…https://t.co/jxrQGfz19g pic.twitter.com/6qhfV9MscG— Anna Powell-Smith (@darkgreener) January 11, 2019
I’m very much looking forward to Guy Shrubsole’s book, Who Owns England? out in the spring: https://www.harpercollins.co.uk/9780008321673/who-owns-england/
The ancient rights of man, woman, hog and ghost are kept on the many commons of the county. pic.twitter.com/118FVq9zB8
— Hookland (@HooklandGuide) November 30, 2018
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.
I also met someone from the Freeman’s Wood campaign conducted a few years ago in Lancaster. http://www.storeyg2.org.uk/
In Sheffield, I met with people from the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University, and Nicola Dempsey of the University of Sheffield to discuss all the issues around green spaces and community groups in the city. I found out how save the trees campaign seems to have skewed the broader issues of the responsibilities of the council and consultation regarding open spaces.
If you know of any more similar groups campaigning for their open spaces, especially if they have their own archive material or if they would like to be interviewed or have a link on this site, do get in touch.
I’ll leave you with Hookland’s imagining of the common:
My favourite common. pic.twitter.com/838CwyYe4w
— Hookland (@HooklandGuide) November 30, 2018
I’ve been working on the archives in Bolton relating to the Winter Hill mass trespass of 6 September 1896. More to follow but here are some links to work that has already been done on the event.
‘Will yo’ come o’ Sunday morning’,
For a walk o’er Winter Hill.
Ten thousand went last Sunday,
But there’s room for thousands still!”
“O the moors are rare and bonny,
And the heather’s sweet and fine,
And the road across this hill top,
Is the public’s – Yours and mine!”
The main account is by Paul Salveson, in his 1982 pamphlet,
‘Will Yo’ Come O’ Sunday Mornin? The Winter Hill Mass Trespass of 1896′
Douglas Hope, Thomas Arthur Leonard and the Co-operative Holidays Association (Cambridge Scholars, 2017):
Walking Histories, edited by Chad Bryant, Arthur Burns, Paul Readman (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016):
Last week I met the lovely organisers of the Once Upon a Time history group at the Manchester Communication Academy, Collyhurst.
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.
If you have memories to share about Osborne Street, Collyhurst, do get in touch with me – firstname.lastname@example.org, or through the Once Upon a Time Group: https://www.communitymca.co.uk/becomingamember