Victory over wealthy landowners – Londoners fight to save common land we enjoy to this day

When the sun is shining London’s open spaces suddenly become much more attractive places to visit. Groups of friends gather for impromptu team games, families enjoy picnics and some (hoping they won’t get caught by the authorities) fire up a barbecue. For a city as populous as London, we are quite literally spoiled for choice when it comes to greenery.

Walking the Capital Ring trail last year and dipping into the Green Chain in southeast London this summer, I have come across countless parks that are appreciated by locals – and sometimes visitors, like me.

Plumstead Common in Greenwich is not a place I had been to before, but visiting on Sunday afternoon, it was somewhere I really enjoyed chilling out with a newspaper. As well as grabbing a bench on the edge of the grass area, the Old Mill beer garden and neighbouring Plumstead Pantry are excellent places to head to and unwind on a hot day.

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Plumstead Common

The greenery is protected by the 1878 Plumstead Common Act which secured in perpetuity one hundred acres of land for use by the public and came on the back of considerable protests by local people. They were fighting back against development plans by Queens College, Oxford, who wanted to build a luxury estate.

Activist John De Morgan, who was part of the Commons Protection League, spoke to about a thousand locals in front of the Old Mill beerhouse. He encouraged them to tear down erected fences – which were preventing them from grazing their livestock, cattle and geese – but was swiftly charged with riotous assembly and disturbing the peace. De Morgan was sent to prison for 17 days as a result.

Commoners exercised their rights to let animals graze on the Common until just a few decades ago (although technically they still remain). Other traces of the past are more apparent, not least that part of an 18th century windmill. The Grade II-listed brick tower is still attached to the friendly Old Mill pub (it was converted from a windmill to a beerhouse in 1853).

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Rights lost, rights saved

Sitting in the sun outside Plumstead Pantry and overlooking beautiful Plumstead Common, seemed the perfect place to try to understand about the wider struggle for ordinary people’s rights to common land, pasture and woodland in years gone by. In fact, it is estimated that between 1700 and 1900, nearly 7 million acres of land was enclosed across England (of which 2.5 million acres had been common or waste land) and access removed.

While the enclosed land may be subsequently privately cultivated, it was often (particularly in the case of London) given over to developers.

For some, common land was considered to be wasted land which should either be used for productive farming or be used for building housing. Comments made about Hounslow Heath Heath by John Middleton in 1798 illustrate this point well:

“Such part of this tract of land lie within the parishes of Twickenham, Teddington, and Hanworth, in case they were inclosed, would lett for very high rents. The rest of Hounslow-heath is land of such good quality, that it is disgraceful to the country, and insulting to the inhabitants of the metropolis, that it should remain in its present unproductive state…..”.

Over the course of the 19th century, people did sit up and start to take notice of the open swathes of land that was disappearing in the capital. Had things continued as it did, there was the worry that there would be little greenery left for Londoners to enjoy.

Hampstead Heath provides probably the most well-known of case studies of a battle fought to save land for the people. Sir Thomas Maryon-Wilson, who owned the manor, and the surrounding estate, attempted to allocate long-term building leases on his land. Between 1829 and 1869 (when he died), he put a series of private bills before parliament, but they were all rejected.

For those that wanted to save the Heath, the campaign was helped having a prominent neighbour in Lord Mansfield who didn’t want his view from his Kenwood house to be obstructed by new homes. And the opening of Hampstead Heath rail station in 1860 brought more people to the area for trips for recreational trips and to enjoy the setting. In 1871 Mary-Wilson’s heirs finally decided to sell their manor rights to the London Metropolitan Board of Works.

Instrumental in the Hampstead Heath campaign were the likes of philosopher John Stuart Mill, author Thomas Hughes and social reformer Octavia Hill. They formed the Commons Preservation Society which lobbied Parliament to pass the important Metropolitan Commons Act in 1866 which effectively forced local authorities to protect surviving commons.

As I found in Plumstead, which needed the passing of another specific piece of legislation to give it the protection it needed this was not the end of the story. But it was an important milestone and would in time help ensure the likes of Clapham Common, Putney Heath and Woolwich Common continue to be enjoyed by the public to this day.

Enjoying Blackheath

Once I reached Woolwich Common after an enjoyable day of walking, I got the 89 bus back towards Lewisham. Sitting on the top deck you have a wonderful view of the vast expanses of greenery on the edge of Blackheath before the service reaches the main high street.

The 1866 Act was instrumental in how the development of the common changed. According to an 1893 account of ‘Old and New London’, until 1865 “a considerable part of the surface of Blackheath has been greatly disturbed and cut up, owing to the Crown having let, for a rental of £56, the right to excavate an unlimited quantity of gravel”. But following the passing of legislation, “these and other such encroachments, however, were brought to an end….” and “Blackheath was secured to the public as a place of healthful recreation”.

And the 1893 book went on to describe that during the summer, “the heath is largely resorted to by holiday-makers, and, like Hampstead Heath, it is much infested with donkeys…. Cricket matches take place here in the summer, the Royal Blackheath Golf Club also use the heath as their play-ground, and in the winter a well-contested match at foot-ball may often be witnessed here”.

Looking out the bus window on my journey to Lewisham, it seemed that people were having as much fun in 2016 as they were in Victorian times.

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