In a recent paper for the Changing Landscapes research network, Prof Paul Readman argued that aristocratic landowners have been keen to register definitive footpaths on their estates, not out of benevolent belief in the right to roam, but rather so they can define more easily the routes that people can and more importantly, cannot go. Registering footpaths was therefore a practice of exclusion, as it could be a defensive measure against open access.
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:
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.
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
I’ve just done a deep reading of J. M. Neeson’s now classic study of enclosure in Northamptonshire, Commoners, Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820 (Cambridge University Press, 1993).
It’s important to come back to influential texts to see why they were so significant in the historical field. What I enjoyed the most on the re-read was Neeson’s polemic. It is possible to write a detailed social and economic study grounded in deep archival research, while still having an overall message and a ‘feel’ for history that is less tangible and evidence that is read between the lines.
Enclosure and its impact is very difficult to capture holistically. By its very nature, it was local, dependent on local landowners, tenants and social structures specific to the village or the farm to be enacted. The acts and petitions are local. Economic and ecological conditions are local. So summarising and generalising a national picture is hard to do, and something I’m still grappling with.
Neeson points to the groundedness of private conceptions of property and agriculture today. She notes ‘imagining how commoners lived off the shared use of land is difficult in an age such as ours when land is owned exclusively and when enterprise is understood to be essentially individual not co-operative’. ‘The historians’ excuse is distance’. (p. 6-7)
This is a polemic against previous historians who took the descriptions and the values of the voluminous writings about agricultural improvement and the benefits of enclosure at face value. Improvers and enclosures argued that enclosure was necessary to increase national agricultural productivity; numerous pamphlets and parliamentary debates portrayed commoners as idle and inefficient, and common rights in decline. Neeson spends the rest of the book disproving this view. She takes the side of the local and the commoner, arguing powerfully, ‘the historian’s job is not to argue the national interest’ (p.7)
Neeson’s main conclusion, set out on p. 223, based on evidence from the land tax records, is that ‘high rates of turnover, a striking contraction in the size of original holdings, and an absolute decline in the number of small owner occupiers, landlords and tenants, were common in Northamptonshire at enclosure’.
Her study of resistance to enclosure highlights the now infamous West Haddon riots, which started disguised as a football match, an important symbol of the defence of old customs and community. She picks up on the more intangible elements of popular resistance, which are now common to protest historians infused with the work of James C. Scott on ‘weapons of the weak’, and Keith Snell on ‘deferential bitterness’. This is where historians, she argues, lose their conviction and rely on numerical evidence for protest, in the forms of numbers of signatures on an anti-enclosure petition or the instances of overt riot.
Yet Neeson also looks for less tangible evidences of hostility and bitterness. Hence, as Nicola Whyte has also indicated, we should not focus on the ‘special case’ or most extraordinary instances of riot and resistances, which as the Otmoor rising in Oxfordshire in 1830, or other similar large expropriations of common land (p.287).
Rather, it was a deep hostility, set in place, and long lasting, that was the impact and legacy of the smaller enclosures that are buried in the archives and newspaper reports. Again, somewhat intangible, Neeson suggests that social classes were already dividing and increasingly hostile to each other before enclosure. But ‘until enclosure it was masked by other relationships born of customary agricultural regulation and shared use rights over land’ (p. 290). Enclosure exposed and deepened these divides, and created hostility and bitterness that was ‘as corrosive of social relations as signing a petition or pulling down fences’, (p. 291) and indeed lasted much longer.
growing bibliography on the continuing hold of the MoD on land that they requisitioned for the war efforts.
Peter Coates, Tim Cole, Marianna Dudley and Chris Pearson, ‘Defending nation, defending nature? Militarised Landscapes and military environmentalism in Britain, France and the United States’, Environmental History, 16: 3 (2011), 456-91
Marianna Dudley, ‘Traces of Conflict: environment and eviction in British Military Training Areas, 1943 to Present’, Journal of War and Culture Studies, 6: 2 (2013), 112-126
I’m reappreciating Alun Howkins’s study of parliamentary enclosure in the 19th century: ‘The Use and Abuse of the English Commons, 1845– 1914’, History Workshop Journal, 78 (2014), 107–32
Howkins argued that historians have focused generally on the process of enclosure prior to the 1845 General Inclosure Act, (J. M. Neeson’s excellent Commoners, Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change ends in 1820) and that much significant enclosure occurred in the second half of the 19th century. We know of many of these enclosures where the campaigns were whipped up by the new commons preservation movements and by enigmatic popular leaders such as John de Morgan, and/or ended in violence and the pulling up of hedges and railings, especially at the metropolitan commons.
But another key point made by Howkins is of the significance of commons regulation. The 1876 General Inclosure Act and later legislation allowed local authorities to set up commons commissioners and/or byelaws to regulate the use of commons. Indeed, the 1913 Select Committee into the Commons argued that regulation was preferable to enclosure as it would prevent overstocking the pasture (the main complaint and often the main reason for enclosure) and allow commoners to continue using the common while retaining the lord of the manor’s other rights (e.g. to minerals and gravel).
Howkins pointed out, however, that regulation was just another form of privatisation of common land rights. The commissioners were often self-selecting from among the local elites, and decided which rights would be maintained by whom. The ostensible hope of the 1913 select committee that both commoners and the lord of the manor would be satisfied was a pipe dream given the still very stratified nature of rural society. The Committee admitted that people who used the common for gathering ferns for fuel or ‘pasturing geese’ but were not commoners would be excluded, and therefore recommended, ‘if such privileges have existed for a long period they should be continued as a right’. But again, this would have been very unlikely to have been enacted.
Regulation was therefore just as much about ‘accumulation as a form of dispossession’ that Doreen Massey found was enacted in enclosure. The primacy of property and class was upheld by byelaws and commissioners.
e.g. ‘gambling, betting, playing with cards or dice, fortune telling, begging, brawling, quarrelling, fighting, cursing, swearing, being drunk, using indecent, disgusting or improper language, selling indecent books or prints or being otherwise disorderly, committing any nuisance or wilfully or designedly doing any act contrary to public decency, or which comes within the meaning of section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 (5 Geo IV cap 83) whether such act shall have been or shall be committed with intent to insult any female or not’ is punishable with a fine.
I do wonder how many times the commons are driven and any non-commoners’ animals impounded into a pound. Here is the list of fees:
I’m coming back to earlier archival research I did on common rights and the Commons Registration Act 1965.
Key reading is chapter 4 of Christopher P Rodgers et al, Contested Common Land: environmental governance past and present (2011) and J. W. Aitchison, ‘The commons and wastes of England and Wales, 1958-1989’, Area, 22: 3 (1990), 272-77. The Royal Commission on Common Land 1958 report and its interpretation by Dudley Stamp and W. G. Hoskins, The Common Lands of England and Wales (1963).
These point to the deficiencies of the 1965 legislation, not just in creating confusion among who was allowed to register land and rights, multiple registrations of the same common, confusion between commons and village greens, and a lack of sensitivity to customary regulations that were time limited and designed to maintain environmental subsistence and ecology.
I was also inspired by the artist Ruth Beale (http://ruthbeale.net/work/commons-drones-gifs/) who spoke about her art using the 1965 Commons registers for Northamptonshire, at an event at Manchester School of Art on Commons last year.
The Hertfordshire registers for the Commons Registration Act 1965 are in Hertfordshire Local Studies, on microfilm (ref CL; also VG for the village green registers). I have had trouble trying to find the equivalent registers in other counties – Surrey History Centre, for example, said the council never purchased the originals for their county in the first place, so they don’t have them. They are held in the County Hall with the modern updated maps: https://www.surreycc.gov.uk/land-planning-and-development/countryside/common-land-and-village-greens#where
Hertfordshire shows some distinctive patterns which reflect, as always, how landscape and community shape regions, and how regions thereby shape the common and customary legal framework in which people dwelt.
Aldbury Common near Tring, and Berkhamsted Common, were the predominant commons in the Hertfordshire registers. They demonstrate the legacy of the fight to save Berkhamsted common in the 1860s which led to the formation of the Commons Preservation society (see Ben Cowell, ‘ The Commons Preservation Society and the Campaign for Berkhamsted Common, 1866–70’, Rural History, 13:2 (2002). The commons were purchased or donated to the National Trust in the early 20th century. It is on those commons that the registers recorded the most claims of common rights. The current NT website https://www.chilternsaonb.org/ccbmaps/376/137/aldbury-common.html states that there are over 900 commoners, though only a few claim their rights, mainly to estovers (wood gathering).
A total of 146 claimed rights in 1973 according to the registers. Most commoners were farmers claiming pasturage for substantial numbers of animals, thus illustrating the continued role of customary forms of agriculture, even as late as the mid 20th century. 26 commoners at Aldbury claimed estovers and wood gathering, though this was regulated to ‘fallen wood not more than 9 inches diameter within one month of falling’, and ‘cut ripened fern from 1 September’. They also claimed the right to cut chalk from the chalk pit, reflecting the regional geology of this part of the Chilterns.
I am interested in the continuance of these claims to rights, particularly over small subsistence (e.g. the right to graze 6 geese) into the later 20th century and whether people exercise the rights today. How were these rights passed down? How many were rights appurtenant (belonging to the land/property)? Did people learn about them through generations, or to what extent were they bought and sold, a trade that seemed common in 18th and 19th century studies of enclosure? Were they recorded in deeds etc?
If you know of more 1965 commons registers in county archives or local studies or elsewhere, please comment below. Thanks.
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.
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.
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)