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Colin Thomas of the Bristol Radical History Group looks at the age-old battle over British land use

Words: Colin Thomas
Illustration: Liane Aviram

The law locks up the man or woman who steals the goose from off the common, But lets the greater villain loose who steals the common from the goose.”

During a Bristol Radical History group meeting, American historian Peter Linebaugh describes the ongoing significance of the 800-year-old Charter of the Forest. “The concept of the commons is grasped as an anchor of hope in the storm”, he says.

In 1215 when its first draft was set down, the Charter of the Forest was seen as the smaller companion of the Magna Carta. The ‘big charter’ laid down political and juridical rights while the ‘little charter’ dealt with economic survival. It enabled the poor to get food, firewood and building materials from the forest and gave ‘free men’ some access to ‘royal’ land.

The notion of ‘the commons’, of land to which all were entitled, persisted through to the events of the Peasants’ Revolt a century later.  

Attempts by the Stuart Kings to restrict access to timber caused grievances that eventually contributed to the Civil War. There was a riot in defence of the commons in the Forest of Dean in 1632 and when cannon was brought in from Bristol to suppress it, the gunners refused to fire their guns.

When the Parliamentarians stormed Bristol in 1645, it was a Leveller leader, Colonel Thomas Rainsborough who led the successful attack. He articulated the Levellers’ movement towards equality: “I think the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he.”  

The Levellers’ petition of 1648 was against “all late enclosures of Fens [areas of English marshland] and other Commons.” Losing common rights, they argued, led to the criminalisation of the commoner.  When the Civil War was over, the Levellers were crushed; three Leveller soldiers were executed at Burford and Bristol dissenter James Nayler, who had preached against enclosure, was imprisoned and branded with a B for blasphemy.

But the idea of the commons refused to die. When the jurist William Blackstone published his commentary on the laws of England he wrote of:

“…the final and complete establishment of the two charters, of liberties and of the forest, which from their first concession under King John in A.D. 1215, had been often endangered, and undergone many mutations, for the space of near a century; but were now fixed upon an eternal basis.”

That was not the way MPs in the late eighteenth century saw it – a torrent of bills were passed enclosing land previously thought of as common, with ruthless penalties for those who opposed them.

Those penalties didn’t stop the protestors. When petitions to Parliament were ignored, Warren James and the Free Miners of the Forest of Dean led over two thousand men, women and children in the methodical destruction of sixty miles of fencing during 1831 – the same year as the Bristol riot in which most of Queen’s Square was burned down.

Although Warren James was transported and nine protestors were imprisoned, free mining rights were set out in law in 1838 and the Chartist movement maintained demands for restoring land to the people.

At the end of the century, William Morris evoked the possibility of a green Utopia in his News from Nowhere. He wrote of a future where the “tyranny of the rights of property” would be no more and “mastery has changed into fellowship.” Morris also spoke in Bristol on ‘Art and Labour’; the Bristol Evening News declared his talk “pernicious nonsense”.

Confrontations with capitalism in the 20th century took place more often in the workplace than in the countryside, with the Kinder Scout mass trespass of 1932 a notable exception. Ramblers got into violent clashes with local gamekeepers and were immortalized in Pete Seeger’s song I’m a rambler:

“ ‘All this land is my master’s’, at that I stood shaking my head no man has the right to all mountains any more than the deep sea bed.”

Arguably the mass trespass led to the legislation that created National Parks and eventually to the ‘right to roam’ Act of 2000.

In the 21st century, Cameron’s government learnt that the spirit of defiance – strengthened by historical tradition – was still strong. In 2010 it tried to pass a Public Bodies Bill that would have allowed it to sell off publicly owned forests. Hands Off Our Forests sprang into existence and the Forest of Dean Commoners Association specifically mentioned the Charter of the Forest in its angry – and successful – protests.

Back in Bristol, Peter Linebaugh points out that the ‘commoning’ provisions in the Charters of Liberties have too often been ignored as out-of-date feudal relics. On the contrary, he argues, “their time has come.”

Further information: More in Peter Linebaugh’s The Magna Carta Manifesto and his Stop! Thief and in Bristol Radical History’s The Life and Times of Warren James by Ian Wright.

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