Open Spaces Society fellowship at the MERL – penultimate update

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.

southampton bargate

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!

Outputs of the project:

Next steps:

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?

box hill 1936
Surrey XXV SE 1936 Box Hill and West Humble

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

Parliament Archives 

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)

obstruction and protest

Since the 1835 Highways Act and the implementation of the 19th century police, police have sought to control or disperse protest by classifying stationary groups of people as obstructing the right of free passage along the highway. government takes out further injunction against climate activists

In reaction to the Insulate Britain tactic of obstruction, the government has in October 2021 taken out a High Court injunction against the protestors, though it is specific to particular motorways and A-roads:

Verges are important as they are technically classed as part of the highway, and therefore councils and police have historically tried to protect right of free passage along them as well, classing any encampments on verges or roundabouts as obstruction.

Further reading on ‘obstruction’ and ‘nuisance’ in 19th century policing:

David Churchill,  Crime Control and Everyday Life in the Victorian City: the Police and the Public (Oxford, 2017);

Christopher Hamlin, ‘Nuisances and Community in Mid Victorian England: the Attractions of Inspection’. Social History, 38: 3 (2013), 346-79.

Open Spaces Society symposium for The MERL, 8 September 2021

As part of my Open Spaces Society fellowship for the Museum of English Rural Life, I hosted a symposium on open spaces, commons and trespass on 8 September 2021.

merl logo

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.

open spaces society logo

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:

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:

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:

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.

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:

We then had a practical session identifying some of the missing locations in the lantern slides collection. To help, go to:

near box hill
Open Spaces Society lantern slide, near box hill

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.

The OSS Online Exhibition at The MERL, exploring the history of the Open Spaces Society and the invaluable work it continues to do today:

The main exhibition page:

Dr Katrina Navickas’ blog, Mapping the Lantern Slides, on The MERL website:

Felicity McWilliam’s blog, Contested Countryside: Commons & the Cold War:

MERL Blog:

Shane Ewan has also written about flooding as a part of urban environmental history:

The Thames Conservancy Archive at the Berkshire Record Office was recently catalogued for anybody working on the history of rivers.


The DEFRA Magic Map:

Wokingham District Veteran Tree Association

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.

Nicola Chester’s new book ‘On Gallows Down’, which addresses various aspects of commons and enclosure from a personal and a nature-writing perspective.

Dr Keren Jones (Hon Sec of Landscape Institute) has an interesting story on owners v commoners on

Ewan Maccoll’s ‘moving on song’ comes to mind in connection with travellers being thrown under the bus:

Relating to rights of access but with swimming water, here’s a podcast on the legacy of Waterlog by Roger Deakin.

Map of potential lost rights of way which need to be claimed before 1st January 2026:

Further Reading:

David Matless, Landscape and Englishness (Reaktion Books, 2001):

Marianna Dudley, An Environmental History of the UK Defence Estate 1945 to the Present (Continuum, 2013):

Paul Salveson, Will Yo Come O’ Sunday Morning:–the-1896-battle-for-winter-hill/

John Withington, Flood, Nature and Culture, published by Reaktion Books, 2013:

Paul Readman, Storied Ground (2018)

Booking now open for Open Spaces Society online symposium at the MERL, 8 September

near box hill

Booking is now open for my online symposium for the Open Spaces Society and the Museum of English Rural Life on 8 September. Free, all welcome.

Go to the MERL website for more information and to book:


Session 1: 2pm-3pm

  • Introductions and welcome from The MERL and OSS
  • Katrina Navickas (The MERL OSS Fellow), ‘The Open Spaces Society lantern slides collection at The MERL’
  • Ruth Quinn (University of Hull), ‘Cows not campus: open space preservation in the ‘bufferzone’ at Saltaire World Heritage Site’

3pm: virtual coffee

Session 2: 3.15pm-4pm

  • artists’ showcase – artists and poets show their work on landscapes and open spaces
  • Mark Gorman (Newham Heritage), ‘Saving the People’s Forest: the commons preservation campaign and Epping Forest’
  • David Toft (Hayfield Kinder Trespass) and Chris Chilton (Winter Hill 125), ‘Commemorating the Winter Hill Mass Trespass’
  • Keith Sands, ‘The 1991 Range West Mass Trespass’

Session 3: 4pm-4.30pm

  • find the location challenge – get access to the lantern slide collection and do some geo-location with Street View and old maps!
  • round up and close