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’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:
On 12 March 2021, I took part in an excellent discussion about the Winter Hill mass trespass near Bolton in 1896.
Local historian Paul Salverson, land reform campaigners Guy Shrubsole and Nick Hayes, and actor Maxine Peake spoke, alongside me. We were chaired by Bolton FM’s Keith Harris. It was a great evening with a large number of local people participating.
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.
I’m trying to find the locations of the Open Spaces Society lantern slides at MERL. Can you help with the more tricky images? They are labelled very generally, or just show a tree or a field. Comment below with suggestions.
Information on the Roman Road south of Croydon by Pengeology: