Here are some initial findings from summary data on the landownership of the sites represented in the Open Spaces Society lantern slides: https://images.oss.org.uk/ at the Museum of English Rural Life. *
Dates: Many of these images were taken in the year that they were purchased on behalf of the public or the nation. I could only find this out once I researched the history of their acquisition. So these lantern slides are meant as much as a celebration of their acquisition and preservation as they are just recording the sites.
NB I haven’t yet filtered the database to individual sites, so the counts are of percentage of total images, and e.g. there may be multiple images of the same site.
20% of the images are sites now owned by local councils or parish councils, or 23% if we include the streets. I need to do a bit more research on what percentage of the sites were under council ownership at the time that the photographs were taken, but it will be less than that.
14% of the images of sites are still in private ownership today.
8.5% of the images now are owned or managed by the National Trust.
The Church of England own 6.6% of the images depicted, though note this is skewed by the numbers of images of Canterbury Cathedral and the abbey at East Malling.
CL = City of London Corporation. Many of the metropolitan commons are included in the images, purchased or acquired after the 1893 Metropolitan Commons Act.
concentrations of landownership: this is obviously replicating the concentrations of the sites in the south East, and is skewed by the categorisation of ‘river’ for rivers. But it clearly shows the Corporation of London’s purchase of Surrey commons in the 1890s.
Concentrations of types of landownership:
The impact of the Commons Preservation Society (now OSS) and the wider movement to ‘save’ metropolitan commons by purchase is really evident in the map around London:
Chronology of acquisitions:
Chronology of acquisitions of the 294 images of sites that I can date as acquired by councils, National Trust or other public bodies:
Please note that it is very difficult, without comprehensive land registration and access to the Land Registry database, to establish the landownership of all the sites.
There are also some categories that I have used because I am still trying to work out the landownership. For example, I have just for now categorised all images of rivers as simply ‘river’, and streets as ‘street’. There are many generic images where I have not been able to establish location or landownership.
Note also that I have generally classified the landownership according to who owns the sites today (2021). There are several images where the site was private at the time of photographing, but may have been purchased by e.g. the local council, later in the 20th century.
My Open Spaces Society fellowship has come to its formal end, but I’m still working on some of the lines of research raised by the collection.
We’re also still hoping to get the planned online exhibition of selected lantern slides up and running. Delays because of lockdown meant that there is a backlog of exciting projects and exhibitions, so we’ll wait!
I’m updating the database of lantern slides with landownership details. Who owned and owns the sites shown in the slides? When were they acquired by bodies like the National Trust or the City of London commons? What percentage of the sites are privately owned?
List of archives that can be linked to the OSS collection at the MERL:
Surrey History Centre
1621 – Sir Robert Hunter papers – e.g. box 3/14, Coulsdon Commons Preservation Committee, 1873
Box 9/2 – Commons Preservation literature
FCP – footpaths and commons preservation society papers
E.g. FCP 2/382-286 – Surrey – Coulsdon and Banstead 1930-3
FCP 1/51 – CPS files on Limpsfield Common, Surrey
> to link with the MERL, SR OSS/C07/8 – Banstead Woods, 1877 R Number 5 High Court Chancery
SR OSS/C07/9/3/4 – OSS Mitcham Common 1885 case.
FCP 2/809-814 – Annual reports and journals of the CFPS, 1927-40 – the lantern slides may have been used to illustrate talks by Humphrey Baker, Lawrence Chubb and Sir Robert Hunter.
‘The Right of Recreation’, Annual Report, v, 1937, 176-77
‘Commons, what they are and how they are protected’, Annual Report, iii, 1935
London Metropolitan Archives
CL/PK/1/131 – Surrey County Council and London Green Belt Scheme – e.g. Sanderstead and King’s Wood scheme, 1936-7
Linked selected secondary sources:
Marco Amati and Makato Yokohari, ‘The establishment of the London green belt’, Journal of Planning History, 6: 4 (2007), 311-37, has a section on the Surrey proposals, 1937
Paul Readman, Storied Ground: Landscape and the Shaping of English National Identity (2018)
Francesca Church, ‘Amenity as educator: Geographies of education, citizenship, and the CPRE in 1930s England’, Geographical Journal, 185: 3 (2018), 258-67.
David Matless, Landscape and Englishness (1998)
Earlier histories of the CPS, prior to the 20th century:
Elizabeth Baigent, ‘God’s earth will be sacred’: Religion, Theology, and the Open Space Movement in Victorian England’, Rural History, 22: 1 (2011), 31-58
Jeremy Burchardt, Paradise Lost: Rural Idyll and Social Change Since 1800 (2002)
Ben Cowell on the Berkhamstead Common dispute of 1866 – e.g. ‘The Commons Preservation Society and the Campaign for Berkhamsted Common, 1866–70’, Rural History, 13: 2 (2002)
We had a great range of papers, photography, poetry and campaigns highlighted. I’m grateful to all the speakers, participants and Kate Ashbrook, Sarah Hacking, Nichola Finan from OSS and Caroline Gould, Tom and Danielle from the MERL for helping with the event.
Summary of the presentations:
I began with an overview of the Open Spaces Society lantern slide collection, showing how most of the early 20th century slides were taken of landscapes in the south-east of England, and highlighting some of my favourites from the themes of forests, rural idyll and the intrusion of modernity into the countryside.
Ruth Quinn (University of Hull) then followed with a paper about contested ideas of conservation of the rural landscapes in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Saltaire, West Yorkshire. How does heritage preservation deal with working farms and a changing countryside?
Adam Bennett shared his evocative photographs of commons around England. The variety of landscapes, topography, flora and fauna belied any public idea that commons are a homogeneous landscape. Adam’s current project, ‘Common Ground’, can be seen on his website: http://www.adam-bennett.com/#1
Mark Gorman (Newham Heritage) gave the history of the campaign to save Epping Forest in the 1870s. The campaign was distinguished by the working-class involvement, which contrasted with the more middle-class leadership of the Commons Preservation Society. His book about the campaign can be purchased from here: https://www.herts.ac.uk/uhpress/books-content/saving-the-peoples-forest
Dave Toft (Hayfield Kinder Trespass) gave a moving performance of his poem about the Kinder Trespass. Plans for the 90th anniversary of the Kinder Trespass will be posted on their website: https://kindertrespass.org.uk/
Chris Chilton (Winter Hill 125 and Bolton Socialist Club) showed us photographs of the commemoration of the 125th anniversary of the Winter Hill Mass Trespass that had occurred on Sunday 5 September 2021. The day was attended by groups from across the region and from all sorts of communities. He noted Kate Ashbrook’s call to action, that the commemoration was not just a historical piece but had continued relevance for the campaign for rights of way and public access. https://www.facebook.com/groups/811210656375192/
Keith Sands gave the history of the Range West climbers’ trespass of 1991 in Pembrokeshire. He presented new research and contemporary photographs showing the creativity of protest, and a reminder of the long-term impact of military requisitioning of moorland by the MoD. The climbers ironically gave names to particular parts of the routes after phrases or sayings of the police, as an amusing form of resistance. Keith’s article about the trespass is in the current issue of Climber magazine: https://twitter.com/sandskeith/status/1427187351411961856
Main themes and areas of research emerging from the papers:
1. Why the prominence of forests and trees in the Open Spaces Society lantern slide collection?
The lantern slides are organised in boxes, and there are over a box of slides dedicated to ancient forests and trees. Burnham Beeches in Berkshire feature particularly. It’s obvious why the CPS would then be interested in preserving ancient forests, and be interested in ancient oak trees that were distinctive, for example the great trees in the New Forest. But why so many pictures of individual tree trunks, e.g. in the Burnham Beeches and Epping Forest images, when many were not particularly remarkable individually?
2. Flooding and erosion
There was some discussion about whether the early 20th century images could be used to show landscape change in relation to flooding and erosion in riparian landscapes.
3. The significance of locality and regional differences between commons
Adam’s photographs and the case studies presented by the speakers showed clearly how no commons are the same. Different landowners and commoners have different ideas of what the commons could be used for. A lord of the manor may not want a common to be regulated or developed because of the cost. Differences of ecology and nature preservation are also significant.
What were other countryside preservation and amenity groups elsewhere in the UK doing while the OSS focused on south-east England?
The impact of military requisition on public access and nature conservation also differs across the country.
Discussion on the chat and further links and reading:
There was a very lively discussion over the chat, with many useful links and further reading to be shared.
Simon Thurley’s Monuments Men is a good account of the development of Scheduling (introduced 1882), Matless (Landscape and Englishness) on attitudes to landscape conservation and there was a lead-up pre-war to 1947 act which introduced listing. Go to Historic England website.
Lionel Brett’s book ‘Landscape in distress’ was still bemoaning roadside advertising
Common Ground did a lot of work attempting to make the local, ordinary places ‘special’ by recognising the huge gulf between national designations and local cultural association and therefore importance. Parish Maps, Apple Days and other celebrations were part of that toolbox. Conservation rather than Preservation made the switch for developers easier.
Hosted by The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading
The Open Spaces Society is Britain’s oldest national conservation body, founded in 1865 as the Commons Preservation Society. https://www.oss.org.uk/
The OSS collection at The Museum of English Rural Life includes over 1000 lantern slides from the period 1900 to 1940, and late 19th century legal case material from their campaigns to keep footpaths and access open to commons and other sites of natural beauty. For more information on the collection, go to: https://merl.reading.ac.uk/collections/open-spaces-society/
As 2020-21 OSS Fellow at MERL, Dr Katrina Navickas is working on the contexts and connections of this archive material. These are some of the central themes arising from the images: ● Access to river and waterway towpaths ● Woods and sylviculture – ancient woods and Forestry Commission plantations ● Amenity and natural beauty in landscape preservation ● A North-South divide in preservation priorities? ● Prioritising people or nature in preservation? ● Rural modernism, urbanism and infrastructure
Symposium and call for submissions:
This half-day symposium will explore these themes and sources from the OSS collection. It will offer a range of short talks, discussion, and an opportunity to engage with the images in a ‘find the location’ challenge. It will be of interest to historians, cultural geographers, landscape conservationists, and anyone seeking to know more about the OSS collection. Contributors can draw on a wealth of related material in the MERL Library and Archive.
We are now calling for short papers or creative submissions, especially in response to the themes outlined. The focus is on countryside preservation and access in 20th century Britain, but comparative and international perspectives are also welcome.
There is space for up to 5 papers of 15 minutes each, plus practical and creative workshop sessions on the image collection.
I’m gathering together the main themes of the lantern slides in the OSS collection for the forthcoming exhibition.
The boxes are organised by type of landscape, but this also lends to geographical regions too:
Boxes A and B – mix of North Downs, especially Box Hill and Leith Hill, and Surrey commons
Box C – metropolitan parks and commons, especially Brockwell Park and Peckham Rye
Box D – parks and commons in London continued, mainly commons, especially Wimbledon and Streatham commons and Kenwood/Hampstead
Box E – Burnham Beeches, Hampstead Heath and Kenwood in bulk, mostly of trees
Box F – Rivers, predominantly the Thames, mainly Berkshire, some of the river Avon, Wye, Lea, Dee and then individual pictures of other rivers
Box G – more Hampstead Heath and Wimbledon Common
Box H – Pilgrim’s Way through Hampshire and Kent, including many of Canterbury Cathedral; mostly street scenes and buildings
Box I – Ancient Forests – mainly New Forest and Epping Forest, also Ashdown, Hainault, Savernake and Sherwood
Box J – Examples of obstructions, stiles, fences, signposts, and a few examples of the work of the CFPS in removing obstructions and mass trespass
Box K – random pictures, from old paintings to bridges – not sure there is a theme
Box L – county landscapes from B to Y – examples of type of landscape for each county, though not all counties are represented
Box M – stock types of landscape, village scenes and nature, including some that look posed by actors? Several posed at Castle Combe, Wiltshire and St Mary’s abbey, East Malling, Kent. Also portraits of the leading figures in the preservation movement, including Octavia Hill and Sir Robert Hunter.
Many of the Surrey commons images are of sites that had been preserved, and I suspect the purpose of the slides were to illustrate talks celebrating the work of the Commons and Footpaths Preservation society in their campaigns, showing their main successes. There are many in the ownership or conservatorship of the National Trust or the City of London corporation commons.
These are some of the main themes emerging:
riparian access to the Thames
a changing landscape and the intrusion of the modern
ancient woods and forests
the materiality of obstruction
I’m also compiling a list of archives in other repositories related to the OSS collection at MERL. Here are some of the most relevant so far – if you know of any others for the period 1900-40, do let me know.
I’ve now categorised and geo-located the majority of the c.1000 lantern slides in the Open Spaces Society collection at MERL.
NB not all the slides are represented on this map because some can’t be geo-located
Here are some statistics:
Urban commons and rivers are the two most common types of landscape represented in the images, at 137 ( 13.8%) and 135 (13.6%) of the total.
Downland 65 (6.5%) and buildings 61 (6.1%) were the next common type.
Surrey was by far the most common county location – 255 images (30%)
London, Buckinghamshire and Kent were the next common counties.
What’s surprised me:
Castles: There is a large proportion of pictures of castles and other ancient ruins/old buildings among the slides. As a society mainly concerned with footpaths and open spaces, one would expect that buildings wouldn’t be a main focus of their campaigns. I would have thought they would have left campaigning about ancient buildings to the National Trust and the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings (founded by William Morris in 1877).
Churches: Ditto, the same with churches. There are many pictures of churches, abbeys and cathedrals. Some of the small churches reflect the general theme of an idyllic unchanging village life, but there are also many images of statues and monuments in cathedral interiors.
Geographies: The focus on the south east of England is not surprising, given the Commons Open Spaces and Footpath Preservation Society’s origins, but I was surprised that there were very few photos of the Lake District. There are none of Dartmoor. There are only a few in the Peak District. The Midlands is very sparsely represented.
You can purchase hi-resolution copies of the images from their website.
I’m still working my way through them all, classifying them and geo-locating them. The images are collated in themes, presumably in different boxes that were taken along to illustrate different talks and campaigns.
There is a whole ‘box’ for example on the Pilgrim’s Way in Hampshire.
I will be doing the stats on which places are represented in the collection as soon as I’ve finished geo-locating everything, but it seems that the 1000 or so slides focus mainly on southern England, and are often records of places just after they had been preserved or bought by the National Trust and other bodies for the benefit of the public – e.g. Kenwood and Hampstead Heath figure highly. There are hardly any slides from northern England or Wales. The focus is also on large areas, and long-distance footpaths.
These are the main themes I am going to explore:
a) rivers and waterways – riparian access issues
There is a whole section of images of rivers and waterways, in connection with various campaigns to open up towpaths and access to embankments etc. Riparian access is still an issue today.
b) Woods and forests
There are many slides showing woods, and particularly individual trees and broad-leaved deciduous. This derives from contemporary concerns about the impact of new plantations of conifers and sylviculture, both by 19th century estates and by the 1919 Forestry Commission.
One could refer to the historic symbolism and uses of the ‘old oaks’ (for perambulations, boundaries, etc)
Burnham Beeches is a large section of the collection, and I have been in contact with a conservator from the City of London about the trees.
The impact of the 1987 great storm on the trees that are pictured in the collection would be an interesting side-project.
c) trespass and access campaigns
There is one ‘box’ of lantern slides showing a of the OSS’s campaigns. These include a few images like this:
I’ll write a future blog post about the Sunnyside Bradford trespass campaign in 1930.
There is another slide showing the society removing obstructions at Ribchester, Lancashire, 1930, but very little about this, so this is something I will look into more. If anyone has any information about this, let me know.
And more individual actions such as ‘removing an obstruction, Otterburn, Northumberland, February 1936’. Also actions against farmers ploughing up of footpaths, e.g. between Banstead and Woodmansterne, Surrey.
d) Rural modernism and infrastructure
The changing landscape of roads, petrol stations, telegraph poles and power lines.
My Rural Modernism network has been working on these themes, so there is much material on the impact of energy and transport infrastructure on landscapes, and the role of preservationist campaigns in e.g. public enquiries.
Militarisation and requisitioning of landscapes during and after World War I is also a related theme. See the excellent studies by Marianna Dudley on this topic for the post WWII period.
The closest locations of the OSS lantern slides to where I live are Waddon Ponds and the ones marked ‘Wandle Mill’. The images are a bit vague, so I am still working out exactly from where they were taken.
Wandle Mill was the manorial corn mill. Looking on the OS map, a large corn mill, with watercress beds, alongside the river Wandle just downstream from Waddon Ponds. It no longer exists but is the site of an industrial estate, including a pomo multi-storey carpark full of cars stored by a second hand car dealer, and various small workshops.
A court case was pursued in 1854 by the owner of Wandle Mill, about the rights to use and divert the water to power the mill. The 1849 Public Health Act had enabled the local Board of Health to dig a well as part of the major improvements in sanitary and water provision for Croydon. Indeed, Croydon became known as the first town to implement a comprehensive sewage system and water supply under the powers.
“In 1910 records show that Waddon Ponds belonged to two estates, Waddon Court, which was owned by Mr Crowley, and Waddon Lodge which was owned by Miss Mary Waterall. When the two owners died the Corporation bought part of both estates in 1928 following a vigorous campaign by Mr Pescott Row an author of books about the beauties of England. To commemorate the efforts of Row another local author H.M. Tomlinson donated a sundial to the park. The rest of both the estates was sold to developers and new houses were built in Waddon Court Road, Lodge Avenue, Limes Avenue and Wandle Side.”
The mansion house is Waddon Court. It is on the 1914 map but gone by the 1936 map.
The Ridgeway and other streets were built on the new streets in the 1930s:
One view that hasn’t changed much since the lantern slide is this one of the cottages and snuff mill by the Wandle as we cross into Beddington.