Read my blog post for the Museum of English Rural Life on my Open Spaces Society fellowship:
Visited here on 9 May 2021
Published now, my walking tour of the most interesting modernist buildings in Croydon!
Wednesday 8 September 2021, 2pm-5pm , online
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.
To offer a paper or creative response, contact:
Dr Katrina Navickas, email@example.com by 1 July 2021. For more information on the project, see https://historyofpublicspace.uk/my-oss-fellowship-at-merl-2021/
For updates, follow @katrinanavickas on Twitter. Booking details will be available via The MERL and Eventbrite soon.
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.
Surrey History Centre:
FCP – the main collection of the Commons Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society, forests and commons papers (link)
for example FCP 2/382-386 – Surrey commons – Coulsdon and Banstead, 1930-3
London Metropolitan Archives:
CLA/077/B – Epping Forest conservators papers
CL/PK/1/131 – LCC Green Belt scheme – Surrey, 1936-7
I am also reading this book, which has a chapter on the Commons Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society and the National Trust:
Desmond Fitz-Gibbon, Marketable Values: Inventing the property market in modern Britain (Chicago University Press, 2018): https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/M/bo28907929.html
Here’s a notice registering footpaths on Buckhurst Park on the Withyham estate of the 11th Earl de la Warr, Ashdown Forest, East Sussex, for the definitive map under the 2006 Commons Act.
All footpaths need to be registered by 2026 or they will be ‘lost’ and will lost their right of way status.
google street view of the location:
Here’s a link to the application: https://www.eastsussex.gov.uk/leisureandtourism/discover-east-sussex/rightsofway/the-definitive-map-and-statement/register-of-deposits-made-by-landowners/withyham-estate
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.
See the talk here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1T0JIDtmwjCmznghia8zU0h2wONm4Pe5G/view
for a list of current applications, challenges and cases.
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 watch my short paper on the history of preservationist movements, access, amenity and the Industrial Pennines, for the University of Reading Changing Landscapes AHRC network symposium, 30 March 2021.
Link on their webpage, with some of the other talks, including Corinne Fowler on her work on Green Unpleasant Land, and Paul Readman on footpaths:
Direct link to file: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1nVGlBkoJrGfuwYte0t3uwUVHS3IuyJ6h/view