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):
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:
The site was also renowned as where the Methodist leader George Whitefield preached:
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.
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.
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.
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:
Rights of way and public access run through these perceptions of who owns the land and who has the right to use it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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:
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:
This is the most radical street in Manchester history, in my opinion.
In April 2017, I took a field trip around Ancoats and Miles Platting, north Manchester, to investigate some of the sites of protest and popular politics that I researched for my previous book, Protest & the Politics of Space and Place, 1789-1848.
My final destination was Osborne Street, formerly known as Cropper Street, a place that I wrote about as a ‘locale’ in my book, and which I’m still obsessed with.
This blog post is a quick recap of what I’ve already found out. I’ll update with new posts soon with new research.
Situated off Oldham Road on the boundary with Miles Platting, Cropper Street was one of a couple of strings of terraces erected on a building ground (from the maps sometime around 1812) still surrounded by fields and a coal pit, and thus somewhat isolated from the centre.
The streets feel isolated because they’re still set apart from the other terraces in the rest of north Manchester and Miles Platting, and they border the scrubby St George’s Fields, which look out onto St Patrick’s RC church and views of the ever-increasing towers of central Manchester.
From an ad in the paper selling two houses in 1843, it looks like the leases began in January 1817, and were described as ‘very substantially built, have large house place and kitchen, two large bedrooms and are let at three shillings a week each’.
Then followed also a court case between the Corporation and the main landowner, Edmund Buckley, ‘a gentleman of considerable property’, who refused to pave and sweep the street, arguing that it was the Corporation’s job. Manchester Times 21 August 1846.
From the 1838 land tax records (see below), he owned at least 10 properties on the street (though this may have increased by 1846 – I need to check).
The renowned urban historian H. J. Dyos wrote about the impact of railways on reinforcing poverty over time in Victorian London, especially in sites that were cut off by ‘tourniquets’ of lines:
The most general explanation for slum tendencies in particular places is that, without the kind of general control on the spatial development of the city that might have been given, say, by a rectilinear grid, there were bound to be innumerable dead ends and backwaters in the street plan…
A more careful reading of Booth’s maps would show how some additions to the street plan – a dock, say, or a canal, a railway line or a new street – frequently reinforced these tendencies….
They all acted like tourniquets applied too long, and below them a gangrene almost invariably set in. The actual age of houses seldom had much to do with it and it was sometimes possible to run through the complete declension from meadow to slum in a single generation, or even less.
First attempt at a 3D rendering. I will add the occupiers once I work out the street numbers properly:
Link to a 1915 photograph from Manchester Images Collection: http://images.manchester.gov.uk/web/objects/common/webmedia.php?irn=26973&reftable=ecatalogue&refirn=59278
I will add the valuation key asap (when I find it – the National Archives indexes IR 58 for IR 133 are hard to navigate!)
The 1818 ratebook listed 83 houses on the street, with a population of around 600. There is also a Back Cropper Street. Most households had only one family, with perhaps a couple of lodgers: that is, these were not overcrowded slums quite yet.
1841 census entries, HO 107/574/8
Occupational breakdown of heads of households:
46% of the heads of households of Cropper Street, Back Cropper Street and adjoining Pump Street, were cotton weavers. 17 out of the 56 households on Cropper Street had Irish heads of household.
By the 1841 census, over-crowding, particularly of Irish, is evident.
This one house somewhere in the middle (annoyingly the 1841 census didn’t number the houses, but it was probably hard to do so with all the courts and cellars), had a 75-year old Irish cotton weaver, George Jordan, as head of household, two male relations Christopher (c.45) and Peter (c.15) (son and grandson?) and then 13 other people, including some more Jordans, and one other family, in the same house.
The site was presumably flattened during the post-war slum clearance programme, and these new houses built by the council. I need to find out more about this.
Of course I found a Lucy’s electrical box on New Allen Street, my main touchstone for wherever I go.
I will be writing why this was the most radical street in Manchester in the next installment…
landscape and dwelling