Banstead Commons and Banstead Commons Conservators
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Origins of Common Land
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 The Origins of Common Land

 The one and a half million acres of common land in England and Wales are the most misunderstood, though not unappreciated, part of our countryside.  This may in part be a matter of semantics, ask ten people in the street "Who owns the commons?" and nine will probably reply, "The Queen", "No-one" or "Everyone" and for the great majority of commons they would be wrong.

 All common land has an owner; the ambiguous term ‘common’ refers to the rights held in common by certain people to use the product of the soil of the common by grazing, cutting turf and so on.  Yet the commons may be considered to belong to the people, for although the Commoners have an economic interest in the land, the people have always used commons for their festivals, holiday activities and for fresh air and recreation.  Pursue your enquiries with the ten people in the street and ask whether they have a right in law to walk on commons.  Again virtual unanimity can be expected in the affirmative yet for some four fifths of our commons this is not true.

 The Law of Commons is very complex and many well-intentioned folk, including politicians, have set off with high hopes of rationalising the law only to discover that, on many commons, that they are soon entangled in the legal thickets and beat a hasty retreat.

 Lord of the Manor

 Commons are the remnants of the manorial system, which, from mediaeval times has been the  basis of the country’s economy.  The manor was the basic unit and was supposed to be self-sufficient.  Crops were grown on the better soil and the poor land was the ‘waste’ used for grazing and for gathering fuel. The lord of the manor owned the whole of the land but the cottagers had rights recognised by the courts.

 In turn this meant that the lord of the manor could not enclose land without parliamentary authority, hence the unfenced open spaces, which we still recognise as the hallmark of a common.  The obligation on the lord of the manor to provide land for commoner’s rights derived from the Statute of Merton, dated 1235 and reflected in the variety of courts leet which determined the dates for grazing and rotation of crops.  Common land has been described as the lowest rung of the social ladder leading to the occupation of the land.

 Inevitably there were clashes of interest and attempts at inclosure were not unknown.  But the system persisted largely unchangedPark Downs until the agricultural revolution in the latter part of the 18th century.

 Inclosures

By then the prospects of more profitable agricultural methods had become too attractive to ignore.  Inclosure Acts for individual commons were quickly in vogue, usually promoted by the owners.  Although the full parliamentary procedure was involved, including the hearing of counter petitions, the system was loaded heavily against the humble commoner.

 In true English fashion however the inclosure movement produced a number of articulate and vigorous middle class champions of the poor.  At first an Inclosure Act might become law without the ordinary folk even knowing anything about it, and it was only at the end of the 18th century that it became obligatory to post notices of an intended Bill to Inclose on the church door.

 There had been more than 4000 individual Inclosure Acts, and many riots, before a general Act was passed in 1845, providing that the lord of the manor and the former commoners would each receive a freehold parcel of land in compensation for the loss of their rights.   A final residue was to be left for communal use, including land for a poorhouse or field set-aside for fuel, a gravel pit for road making and an area for the ‘exercise and recreation of the inhabitants’.  However, in the next 20 years which followed, over 615,000 acres were inclosed and only 4,000 acres allotted for recreation or the benefit of the poor.

 It is no wonder that the power of the lords of the manor caused unrest amongst the people, a verse that sums it up goes; -         

They hang the man and flog the woman

Who steals the goose from off the common.

But let the greater criminal go loose

Who steals the common from the goose.

 
It goes without saying that the poet remained anonymous! 

 Social and economic changes were to cool the ardour for increased inclosure during the Victorian era, the attraction to turn over commons to arable land was lessened by the development of corn growing in America’s mid-west which led to cheap imports.  As technological advances moved to the industrial scene the towns grew rapidly and there was a demand for open spaces to which people could go for leisure.

 It was at this time, 1865, that the Commons Preservation Society was established attracting the interest of many progressive public figures.  The Society, which is today called the Open Spaces Society, campaigned to rescue commons from inclosure and speculators, especially in the south-east.  The sagas of Berkhamstead, Wimbledon and Banstead were some of those enacted in the courts and in direct action on the ground.

 A more positive approach to the retention of commons was seen in the Metropolitan Commons Act of 1866 and the Commons Act of 1876, both of which provided important frameworks for managing commons.

 In the 20th century there has been a surge of public interest in preserving commons, with the emergence of the National Trust as a major landowner (it owns more than 200 commons including some of the most important open spaces in the country).   The National Trust and local authorities own and manage many of the most scenic commons.

 In 1958 a Royal Commission published its erudite and widely praised report on the state of common land and its recommendations for sustaining what it called ‘this last reserve of uncommitted land in England and Wales’. 

There were three principal recommendations: -

1.      A register of common land.     This objective was achieved in the Commons Registration Act, 1965.

2.     A general right of public access to common land.     The Countryside and Rights of Way Act, 2000 (CROW) achieved this                     objective by permitting access to all areas of common land, where it had previously been denied.

 

3.     Effective schemes for the management of commons.      The Commons Act 2006, once fully enacted, will provide the                             Secretary of State with the power to establish Commons Councils to manage areas of common where he deems it to be                         appropriate.  In addition this Act will supersede the Commons Registration Act, 1965 and provide for correction of                             anomalies of registration that arose under that Act.