How Charity Campaigning saved our Commons for all people, for all time

This case study of how London’s beautiful Commons and Heaths were saved for everyone and for ever shows that:

 – those who disapprove of campaigning by charities have forgotten big chunks of our history such as this.

 – advancing a charitable cause cannot always be cosy, nice and loved by all. It sometimes involves a fight.

 – the law can be a great instrument for change and for the common good.

 – next time you are enjoying the Spring weather on one of our priceless Commons, spare a thought for the charity campaigners who saved them for you. Small numbers of committed, energetic people sometimes change the world.

Very late on 6 March 1866, a specially commissioned train slipped out of Euston station. This was the start of a dramatic campaigning initiative comparable in its daring with a Greenpeace action on the high seas today. It was the work of the Commons Preservation Society (CPS), a charity founded just a year before. The train passengers comprised 120 navvies kitted out with crowbars and other tools, plus supervisors, though the contractor who had engaged them was drunk and missed the train. The train arrived at Tring station in Hertfordshire at 1.30 am. The navvies and supervisors then marched three miles by moonlight, with all their equipment, as quietly as they could, until they arrived at Berkhamsted Common, on a ridge north of the town in the Chilterns. They then proceeded to tear down two whole miles of fencing, erected in an illegal effort by Lord Brownlow to enclose 430 acres of common land and add it to his Ashridge Estate. Lord Brownlow’s men, when they finally heard what was happening, were no match for the tough navvies supported by local Berkhamsted people. By dawn, the entire fencing was stacked in neat piles, ready for removal. The sequel was that Lord Brownlow launched a lawsuit to establish his rights to enclose the land, but then died. Augustus Smith, a very rich businessman who bankrolled the whole Berkhamsted campaign, counter-sued and, after a four years’ legal battle, won. The Common has been accessible to ordinary people ever since, criss-crossed with well used footpaths.

This was just one of a whole series of legal and political actions by the CPS charity that saved the great Commons of London and surrounding areas (and, later, across the whole country) from enclosure and development. Hence, hundreds of thousands of Londoners and others who ramble, jog, walk their dogs, push their prams, play, do their exercises, sunbathe, picnic and enjoy the Commons in a hundred ways have reason to be grateful to the group of whiskery, public spirited Victorian gentlemen, mostly on the Liberal side of politics, who met in Lord Eversley’s London chambers to launch the charity in 1865. Eversley was a lawyer: using and changing the law and legal system was fundamental to the means by which the charity would pursue its objects. But the group also included J.S.Mill, Liberal MP T.Fowell Buxton (future Governor General of S. Australia), the great biologist and “Darwin’s bulldog” Prof. Thomas Huxley, the Liberal former MInister Lord Mount Temple, and conservationist Edward Buxton (from a wealthy Quaker family) who with his brother Thomas would play a big part in the fight for Epping and Hainault Forests and who bought Hatfield Forest for the nation on his deathbed. Soon, the writer Charles Dilke and Octavia Hill would also get involved. The Society’s Hon Solicitor – a vital role – was Robert Hunter, who would later be a founder of the National Trust with Octavia Hill. The charity’s work showed the need for a separate charity to hold, conserve and manage land: the National Trust. Like many other small campaigning charities in our history, this was a seedbed of enormous changes.

The spur to action had been that between 1845 and 1864 over 614,000 acres of commons had been enclosed, with only derisory compensation for former commoners. Many commons in London had become degraded, muddy dumping grounds for waste, traversed by railways or roads, dotted with gravel pits as building materials were excavated for the building boom as the city grew. They were frequently inhabited by down-and-outs, criminals and wild animals. The temptation to enclose them and realise the enormous value of building land had been irresistible to both the Lords of the Manor who owned the land and the developers ready for action. The losers were the common people who had traditional rights of access and uses over common land and the general public of the future who stood to lose the commons as potential green lungs for their city. The fightback took the forms of disparate protest and resistance by local people, but also now of legal action, because it was through the Courts that the charity could establish the continuing validity of ancient shared rights over common land, regardless of who owned it; and political action, because settling and securing the future of key contested areas of commons required legislation. Key Acts shaped by the charity and its allies included the Metropolitan Commons Act of 1866, (amended in 1869) which provided the basis for rescuing Putney Heath, Wimbledon Common, Wandsworth Common and others; and the Commons Act 1876, which better protected rural common land. The Metropolitan Board of Works (precursor of the LCC) was empowered to start turning the muddy wastes into green, planted recreational and wildlife and wooded areas with pathways and, eventually, their horrible gravel pits transformed into lakes and ponds.

The charity fought battle after battle, some of them epic, in liaison with local resistance groups.  A marathon court case eventually secured some 6,000 acres of Epping Forest. Plumstead was saved after illegal fencing had been removed and the issue successfully contested in court. Tooting Common was also subject to defensive legal action. The successful legal struggle to save Banstead Common lasted no less than 13 years. Another vital victory was preventing Lord Dysart from major damage and destroying access to parts of Petersham and Ham Commons and the famous view of the Thames from Richmond Hill. His Private Bill to achieve these changes was thrown out after a CPS agitation, leading to an agreement securing the now lovely 3 mile promenade along the Thames, the amenity of the two Commons and the view from Richmond HIll, whilst Marble Hill was also later bought and handed over to the LCC. Other struggles, near and far from London, involved Ashdown Forest, the Malvern Hills, Coulsdon Common and Dartford, and the Society also became engaged in the National Park movement and left – and as the Open Spaces Society still leaves – its imprint in almost all corners of the country where there is common land. (For the full story, see W.H.Williams, “The Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society 1865-1965”, London 1965; plus two recent studies available via the Open Spaces Society website “Saving Open Spaces”, and “Common Land”).

What are lessons for us today from these events?

Firstly, this political and legal campaigning by a charity has shaped our country in ways that are vital to our well being and quality of life. The contribution of such campaigns is something to celebrate; a great part of our shared history. Those who disapprove of charity campaigning are out of touch with big chunks of our history such as this one.

Secondly, sometimes charities have to be ready to fight bitter battles for years at a time if they are to serve their beneficiaries well. Advancing a charitable cause cannot always be free of conflict and anger. Charity cannot always be cosy, nice and loved by all.

Thirdly, the law can be a great instrument for change and for the common good. This is a tonic for those who may have become jaded by their experience of the law and lawyers. The use of the law has long been a crucial strategy for environmental improvement (as for many other charitable causes) and will remain so as long as there is conflict between the short term objectives of developers and the wider public interest in sustainable use of resources for the good of all.

Fourthly, small numbers of energetic, talented and committed people can sometimes change the world. If you are inclined not to believe that, reflect on that small assemblage of Victorian gents and Octavia Hill in 1865-6, and consider the legacy they (with all the local campaigners they supported) have left to all of us.


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