'Wastes and Strays' Blog

Experiences of Urban Green Spaces 2: Present Uses of Urban Commons

Having explored historical perspectives on urban commons in our first webinar, our second - held on 29th April 2021 - turned to ‘Present Uses of Urban Commons’. The webinar opened with a talk by Professor Chris Rodgers (PI on the Wastes and Strays project) entitled ‘Forever Green? Nourishing our urban commons in a post-pandemic context’. After the talk and a brief Q&A session, we divided into break-out groups for discussion around four themes: defining urban commons, tradition, identity, and environmentalism.
Professor Rodgers began his talk by noting that while the current global pandemic has highlighted the urgent need to protect green space, that imperative has been around for many years, citing the warning given in 1877 by Octavia Hill (one of the founders of both the National Trust and the Commons Preservation Society) that people should not allow any of their open space to be lost. Yet, urban commons remain under threat today, not least as a result of austerity and the selling off of open spaces by local councils desperate to maintain essential services. Moreover, preservation has been hampered by confusion and misunderstanding regarding the legal designation of urban commons and their protected status (or lack of it). The legislative framework varies from one urban common to the next. Moreover, legal definitions are not good at capturing the variety of uses to which green spaces are put, and can end up restricting rights to certain groups. Furthermore, legislation and judicial decisions have limited the ability of communities to acquire communal use rights and create new commons. Rather than relying on existing legal definitions, then, Professor Rodgers suggested that it would be better to think in terms of key characteristics shared by all urban commons. While they may have different origins, resulting in different legal protection, and are subject to multiple uses, all provide vital ecosystem services from which we benefit. Given this, Professor Rodger argued, it is ecosystem services that should provide the key to protecting these important spaces in the future. So what do we mean by ecosystem services? They include a range of uses or benefits of the land, including resources for industry and/or agriculture, recreational access, spaces for social and political gatherings and protest, and sites of cultural heritage. One of the advantages of focusing on ecosystem services is that it allows for a dynamic assessment of the value of the space rather than one that is static and fixed on use at a particular point in time.
Professor Rodgers ended his talk by arguing for a new Community Charter for green space. At the heart of the Charter would be a new ecosystem services appraisal system. By embedding such an appraisal into the planning process it would be possible to prioritise and promote the provision of community green spaces, offering proper protection (on the basis of their use and value) to those that currently exist and facilitating the creation of new urban commons where they are not currently available. By this means, Professor Rodgers argued, we can perhaps ensure that Octavia Hill’s vision for the protection (and expansion) of green space can become a reality in post-pandemic times.
Professor Rodgers' reconsideration of how we define urban commons was explored in greater detail by one of our break-out groups. The group felt that the first question to ask was what purpose the definition was designed to serve. Whatever the purpose, group members were adamant that a single, fixed definition was unhelpful, and they called instead for a higher level, multi-faceted definition inclusive of different uses. They suggested that rather than speaking of urban commons it might be more helpful to refer to 'commons in urban areas' which would allow for the possible inclusion of both former rural commons now situated within city boundaries thanks to urban expansion, and even virtual commons. The group spent some time discussing the different connotations of the terms 'public good' and 'common good'.
While the two are often used synonymously, there is more of a sense of coming together, reciprocity, and shared effort implied by the notion of the common good. Another issue that was explored was the fact that commons tend to be wilder than other public spaces such as parks. But it was noted that the fluid nature of commons can blur this distinction. Do public parks that lose their funding and become neglected automatically become commons? What is the status of wild spaces that are tidied up by the local authorities or by communities themselves, do they cease to be commons as a result? Finally, the group reflected on how Covid-19 has impacted on our understanding of commons. It was noted that, due to social distancing, people's experiences of urban commons over the last year have been more individualised and that this may have diluted the sense of the common ownership and shared use of these spaces.
While the events of the last year have impacted on how we think about urban commons, our understanding of them is grounded in a much longer history. The group focusing on tradition was asked to think about whether city residents are aware of the history of their local urban commons; if so, how they gain knowledge of them; and whether that history matters to them. Group members involved with the management and maintenance of Mousehold Heath noted that volunteers on that common vary as to how much historical knowledge of the area they have when they first arrive, but even those who come with little awareness often find that it becomes important to them as they become invested in the area. Particularly for those volunteering on a regular basis, there is a sense of being part of a tradition that stretches back over many generations and this creates a sense of belonging and adds significance to the work they do. The group reflected on contrasts in this regard between urban commons in cities of different sizes. Whereas Mousehold Heath and Newcastle's Town Moor are very closely identified respectively with Norwich and Newcastle and their inhabitants, there is not the same sense of communal ownership for a common like Epping Forest, which lies on the eastern edge of London and is unknown to many Londoners. The group also discussed the way in which the history of a common can play into current issues, noting that in recent campaigns on several commons reference was made back to the historic use and also to earlier opposition to encroachment. This can be seen historically too, with those involved in conflict in the mid-nineteenth century between the Freemen and the Town Council over Newcastle's Town Moor often invoking the controversies of the late eighteenth century. Finally, the group thought about how best to reflect and transmit the history of urban commons to visitors today. Some use is made of interpretation boards, leaflets, and history walks or school visits, but it was suggested that new digital technologies perhaps present possibilities that have not yet been fully exploited.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there was some cross-over between discussions in the group focusing on tradition and that exploring the theme of identity. Here too it was noted that it is often through engagement that people come to identify with a particular space and its history. The example of a neglected riverside area in Gateshead was given. It had been all but forgotten, but once members of the community were involved in renovating it, the direct engagement of individuals with the landscape helped to create a sense of identity. It was suggested that there is a distinction between rural and urban areas in this regard. In a region like the Cotswolds there is lots of open space, but that very abundance can mean that people do not identify with a particular common or area; and, of course, much of the land in those areas is privately owned. By contrast, in cities there are generally fewer green spaces, making them more precious but also potentially more fragile. Together these qualities can create a stronger sense of identification. Just as in the discussions at our previous webinar, it was observed that social class plays a role here, with a stronger sense of identification between locals and urban commons often evident in middle-class areas or among middle-class residents of an area. Furthermore it was noted that it is easier for those already in a position of influence within the community to engage productively with local authorities. In this regard, the impact of Covid-19 was deemed to be positive. Not only have urban commons been used more extensively during the pandemic, but they have also been used by a wider range of locals resulting in the creation of new identities and relationships to those spaces.

The importance of urban commons has not just been brought into focus by the pandemic, the protection of open green spaces was already rising up the political agenda prior to the emergence of Covid-19, thanks to the growth in environmental concerns. Urban commons are, of course, crucial tools in combatting climate change but, as the group focusing on this topic acknowledged, the issues are complex. Decisions about commons are not necessarily taken communally, but depend on the views of the landowner or those involved in the management of the space. Even among those who are committed to combatting climate change, there are debates around the best policies to pursue. Tree planting is seen by some to be key, but it may not always be the most effective option, with biodiversity regarded by some as a better strategy. Yet this in turn can raise problems, since, particularly in the early stages, biodiversity may interfere with the access of local communities to the space. The group had a lively discussion about rewilding, the extent to which that actually takes land back to an 'original' state, and the question of exactly what the 'original' state of the British countryside was. The group concluded that while sustainability is certainly to be encouraged, it is necessary to take ecological specificity into account. In the final discussion it was noted that there is a need for communication and collaboration: between the authorities responsible for managing the commons and the communities in which they lie; and also between researchers and activists. It is our hope that through this project we can encourage, facilitate, and sustain those relationships so as to secure the valuable urban commons of this country for future generations.
Professor Rachel Hammersley, June 2021‌

Experiences of Urban Green Spaces: Historic Perspectives on the Urban Common

It is coming up for two years since we held the first workshop for our AHRC-funded project 'Wastes and Strays: The Past, Present and Future of Urban Commons'. So much has, of course, changed since then. Our project has been severely disrupted by the pandemic. Yet, there is now a much greater awareness among the public of the importance of open green spaces to our physical and mental health. In this context, urban commons (along with other green spaces, such as parks) are recognised as being of particular value in providing these benefits to city-dwellers, many of whom have no garden of their own and who may live many miles from the countryside. Consequently, discussion about the past, present and future of urban commons seems more timely than ever. 

So it was with some excitement that we planned our delayed second and third workshops as two webinars on 'Experiences of Urban Green Spaces'. The first offered an 'Historical Perspective on the Urban Common'. The second focused on 'Present Uses of Urban Commons'. This blogpost will summarise the first of these two webinars, a follow-up blogpost will deal with the second.

The first webinar opened, after a brief introduction, with an excellent talk 'From open space to public space: the idea of the right to air and recreation'by Dr Katrina Navickas, Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire. Dr Navickas began by highlighting the fact that there is a persistent tension between how common land, and the rights associated with it, are seen in the public imagination and their official legal status. In many cases, commons are not publicly owned at all, but instead they are private land over which certain people have been accorded rights to specific uses (for example grazing) and the access to exercise those rights.

Dr Navickas went on to point out that further ambiguity exists in the case of urban commons, which since the nineteenth century have had two dominant - but quite distinctive and sometimes conflicting - uses: first, as agrarian pastureland; and, second, as recreation grounds. The emergence of the latter use in the nineteenth century was particularly controversial. This was partly because the right to air and exercise was not at that time an explicit statutory right. This was only established in the Law of Property Act of 1925. At the same time, the provision of open space for recreation was closely tied to attempts on the part of Victorian authorities and elites to constrain and police the behaviour of working people. This was reflected in the rise of the Victorian public parks movement, which saw calls for the conversion of various English urban commons into public parks - the layout and nature of which made them easier to police. It also inflected the establishment of the Commons Preservation Society in 1865, and its early focus and direction. As Dr Navickas explained, these efforts were - at least in part - motivated by the desire to obstruct the organisation of political meetings. 

Then bandstand in Leazes Park Newcastle. The park was built, as part of the Victorian public parks movement, on Castle Leazes part of Newcastle's urban common. Wastes and Strays. 1 September 2020. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

 The Chartists frequently held meetings on common land, a trend that was continued by later parliamentary reformers and other opposition groups. At the beginning of the nineteenth century such meetings often took place on town moors, with many being short affairs that workers could attend during their lunch hour. However, as town commons were increasingly built over, protestors in many areas found themselves either confined to small spaces or forced to move out to more distant rural commons. This change also prompted a shift in the timing and duration of the meetings. Increasingly, they were scheduled for Sundays or Mondays (traditional holidays) and became whole day events - a day out rather than just a political meeting.

Dr Navickas ended her talk by noting that the tensions and issues surrounding urban commons survive to this day. This has been reflected most recently in the conflict over protests on Clapham Common in March 2021. (The slides from Dr Navickas's talk are available here: https://research.ncl.ac.uk/wastesandstrays/wastesandstraysblog/)

After Dr Navickas's talk we divided into four break-out groups, each focusing on a different theme, with the members of each group having been provided in advance with a few short extracts from some of the sources we have discovered in the course of our research. 

A sign promoting inclusivity in The Levels playground, Brighton. Wastes and Strays. 17th August 2020. Image by Siobhan O'Neill.

Those focusing on the theme Assembly on the commons noted how difficult it is for historians to unpick the motivations behind large-scale popular protest, and the fact that different motives (political action, community building, entertainment) were probably intertwined. It was acknowledged that the rise in large mass meetings was linked to the widening of the franchise with the nineteenth-century Reform Acts. Furthermore, that an element of spectacle was always built into these events. Protesters often processed through the town to the meeting and use was made of music, banners, and sashes to indicate the cause and key issues to bystanders, elements that remain crucial to protests today. It was also observed that not all crowds are the same. The gathering on Valley Gardens to celebrate the Prince Regent's visit to Brighton in 1827 was very different from the demonstrations by local pitmen and those calling for the release of Irish prisoners on Newcastle's Town Moor in 1850 and 1872 respectively. It was noted that the question of who organised the gathering was key (particularly, whether it was organised by the authorities or by opposition movements), but it was also acknowledged that official gatherings could easily be subverted by a crowd.

The group considering Fringe Society was particularly interested in the connection their sources drew between marginal space and marginal people. The question of who has the authority over urban green space is a pertinent one, and is linked to assumptions about how particular spaces should be used. In addition to bylaws trying to stop the most exploited in society from using these spaces, there are also unwritten codes of behaviour. However, it was noted by the group that these codes of behaviour could change depending on the time of day or the season and that they could also be challenged or subverted. Siobhan O'Neill, who is working on the project and was a member of this group, observed that in more hidden areas of her local common, marginal groups such as gay men or homeless people claimed the space as their own by marking areas with white pebbles or hanging up clothes. There are broader issues here about the gradual regulation of space over time and ongoing conflicts and tensions between different users of urban green spaces.

The group tasked with considering urban commons as Spaces of labour explored how both the work taking place on commons and the type of people conducting that work has changed over time. Labour on the commons might originally have centred on the grazing of animals and extraction of mineral resources, but today the focus is instead on recreation, meaning that although we treated them separately in our groups, labour and recreation are intimately intertwined. The shift towards commons being used for recreation expanded the types of labour taking place on them to incorporate things like operating fairground rides, performing in a circus, serving burgers from a van and even prostitution. This expansion of activities meant that many of those who now rely on common land for their subsistence and survival are not actually endowed with historic rights to use that land. Moreover, neither the use rights, nor the services required to make possible those activities, are enshrined in legal terms. Furthermore, it was noted that such activities challenge the notion of commons as egalitarian spaces, with hierarchies based on role, status, class and gender frequently on display.

People taking air and exercise on Mousehold Heath. N. Bucks, Mousehold Heath. Thanks to the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library for permission to use this image.

The group exploring urban commons as Spaces of recreation made simil‌ar observations, noting the existence of hierarchies of recreational use and the fact that conflict has frequently arisen over the practice of specific leisure pursuits on commons. Whether or not a particular activity is deemed a nuisance may depend on precisely where on an urban common it takes place and whether it is appropriate to the time of day or season of the year. Who defines what constitutes a nuisance and manages the space is also crucial. The group felt that bylaws, though frequently used in these contexts, are not necessarily effective means of managing behaviour and balancing different uses and needs. The group was more interested in understanding how people organise spaces for themselves and the potential for self-management. It was suggested that this perhaps works best if the use of a space is allowed to grow and develop over time in response to demand. One group member drew the analogy with a swimming pool where the desire for some to swim seriously and others to play might lead to the demarcation of space through the introduction of swimming lanes or to rules about who can use the pool at different times of day.

A sign promoting inclusivity in The Levels playground, Brighton. Wastes and Strays. 17th August 2020. Image by Siobhan O'Neill.

Although the sources each group examined were different, a number of common themes emerged in the discussions. In the past as now, the question of who is responsible for the management of urban commons, and who has control over the activities that can and cannot take place there, is particularly significant. Though understood as common land available to all, the reality is that most commons are owned and managed either by the local city council or by an independent body or, perhaps most often, by a complex historic relationship between the two. In addition to tensions between the relevant authorities and local people, our discussions made clear that conflicts also arise among different user groups, each having its own understanding of what constitutes appropriate or inappropriate behaviour in the space. Such tensions are deep-rooted and have occurred over many years. We might even go so far as to say that they are inevitable, inherent in the very notion of open or common space. That does not mean, however, that there is no value in thinking carefully about how such tensions are managed, paying attention to different voices, and exploring how conflicting uses might be accommodated. Given what the last year has revealed to us about the importance of urban green space, we owe it to future generations to learn lessons from the past and to think creatively about how we can continue to share and enjoy these valuable urban commons in ways that are fair and sustainable.

Professor Rachel Hammersley, May 2021

"From open space to public space, the idea of the right to air and recreation."

Dr Katrina Navickas has very kindly made her slides from our event available. Don't forget to sign up for part two here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/experiences-of-urban-green-spaces-tickets-148333462379

All slides from: Katrina Navickas, "From open space to public space, the idea of the right to air and recreation." 13th April 2021

Website: https://historyofpublicspace.uk






Experiences of Urban Green Spaces

  • Venue: Online event
  • Date: Tue, 13 Apr 2021 14:00:00 BST

What is an urban common? Register here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/o/wastes-and-strays-past-present-and-future-of-the-english-urban-commons-32812745571

Last modified: Thu, 18 Mar 2021 13:29:26 GMT

A Common from Time Immemorial? Mousehold Heath in the Victorian Courts.

Photo: J. Rhodes, "Gravel-Pit, Mousehold Heath" from British Geological Survey

 The legal status of Mousehold Heath in Norwich, and the property rights that Norwich residents could claim over it, was a highly charged issue in the Victorian period. The emergence of the Heath from the medieval manorial system, and its transformation into the vibrant recreational green space that we see today, saw lengthy and complex legal proceedings before the Victorian inclosure commissioners and then the courts. This culminated in Chancery litigation in 1883, leading to a decision by Mr. Justice Chitty which confirmed the title of Norwich Corporation to the Heath. The issues raised in the litigation include interesting questions about the ability (or otherwise) of community action to generate property rights, and the relevance of long usage and occupation for the informal creation of rights in land.

Long usage and the temporal dimension to property rights in land

The use of land by local communities for long periods of time is closely bound up with notions of “identity”, “belonging” and “ownership”. It generates a powerful sense of community “rights” over the land. These are themes that the Wastes and Strays project is exploring in a contemporary context through its oral history work programme with local user groups in its four case studies, including Mousehold Heath.

Long usage is also a constituent element in the law governing the informal creation of property rights in land, although the “legal” manifestation of the types of use required to create property rights - and the way that these rights can be protected and enjoyed - is often out of step with socially derived notions of “ownership” and community property. Title to land in English law is based on possession, a fact famously recognised in the law of “adverse possession” - a legal title to land can be based on 12 years possession by the claimant.[1] Long usage of land and its resources can also create property rights over someone else’s land through the principle of prescription. Rights to take the produce of the land, for example, are recognised as profits a prendre and can be created by long usage. At common law, proof of usage since “time immemorial” was required[2] – but in practice use for 20 years would suffice. A profit can also be established by proving that one’s use (taking the land’s produce for example) has continued for either 30 years or 60 years under the Prescription Act 1832;[3] or by the legal fiction of a lost modern grant[4] i.e., that 20 years use provides evidence that a grant or deed giving the rights was made by the owner at some point after 1189, but has subsequently been lost.[5] But the use of the rights in all cases of alleged prescription must have been “nec vi, nec clam, nec precario” – the rights must be openly asserted, go unchallenged by the landowner and fall within one of several types of land use right recognised by the courts. Rights of common are in practice the principal type of profit.[6]   The language of the legal discourse around the interaction of the passage of time and the creation of rights in land – and especially of the normative force created by exercising rights from “time immemorial” - coloured much of the argument and discourse in the Victorian dispute over the legal title to Mousehold Heath, to which we will now turn.     

Genesis of the Pockthorpe Dispute 

The Heath was formerly waste of the manor of Pockthorpe, the title to which was until 1869 vested in the Dean and Chapter of Norwich Cathedral. The process by which the Heath was transformed from manorial waste - common land with grazing rights for sheep and cattle depastured by Norwich residents – into an entirely different form of community asset owned by the Norwich Corporation was both lengthy and hotly contested. The principal dispute concerned the rights (or otherwise) of Pockthorpe residents to extract gravel, sand and clay from pits dug on the Heath for the purpose of brick making.  The origins of this practice are obscure, but it was a well-established activity that had been carried on since at least the sixteenth century.[7] In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it seems to have been supervised closely by the Cathedral chapter through the Pockthorpe manor court.[8]

Manorial court supervision of the practice seems to have lapsed in the course of the eighteenth century, and by the 1840s the practice of digging sand and gravel was instead being collectively organised by the local community.  In 1844 a meeting of Pockthorpe citizens resolved to make a charge for the right to remove gravel and clay from the common, and to set up a distribution system for the monies received in order to benefit the poor of the parish of Pockthorpe by issuing vouchers (tickets) redeemable at local stores. The allocation of the rights to take gravel/clay, and the distribution of proceeds, was organised and overseen by a small committee elected by the residents. This was, then, an independently organised example of community action, unsanctioned and separate from the “official” channels of community organisation represented by the Norwich Corporation and the Dean and Chapter of Norwich Cathedral (who in 1844 were still lords of the manor of Pockthorpe).The subsequent events  threw into sharp relief questions about the extent to which community action of this kind could generate property rights in the land over which they are exercised, and the extent to which (if at all) the courts would recognise these as legitimate and binding.

Before we look at the Chancery litigation, it would be useful to outline the chronology of events.[9] In 1866 the Dean and Chapter of Norwich Cathedral agreed a scheme with the Ecclesiastical Commissioners for the creation of pleasure grounds with recreational public access at Mousehold. This was followed on 17th March 1869 by an Order in Council which vested the freehold title to Mousehold Heath in the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. This ended the legal involvement of the cathedral chapter in the subsequent development of the Heath, extinguishing their title as lords of the manor over the waste of the manor of Pockthorpe. The Public Health Act of 1875 subsequently empowered local authorities to create and hold land as “pleasure” or recreation grounds. This was an important step in the realisation of the Victorian ideal for the provision of public parks as orderly green spaces for open air recreation and exercise, and the powers were used across England and Wales to create many of the well-ordered urban parks that we still see today. Norwich was no exception. In July 1880, eighty acres of Mousehold Heath were conveyed to the Norwich Corporation to hold as a recreation ground “subject [only] to rights of common, easements and other rights”.[10]

  Photo by Sarah Collins‌

The Mousehold Dispute in the Court of Chancery

While the national legal landscape for the provision of “people’s” parks was being fundamentally redrawn in this way, the activities of the Pockthorpe community on Mousehold Heath continued unabated. Indeed, so well-established was the Pockthorpe residents’ commercial operation that the Dean and Chapter of Norwich Cathedral had themselves purchased gravel from them during the 1870s, and on which they had paid “royalties”.[11] Gravel and clay were extensively removed and used for brick making.  After it acquired the legal title, the Norwich Corporation appears to have reached an accommodation with some of the brickmakers, giving them tenancies to continue their operations temporarily so as to recoup their outlay in the short term. Nevertheless, those entering into tenancies were threatened and their access to and from the brickfields impeded; the roads onto the Heath were also blocked with gates to prevent brickmakers from neighbouring parishes such as Sprowston from accessing the clay and gravel pits to source their own supplies. This led to prosecutions under the Highways Acts before the Norwich magistrates on several occasions in the early 1880s.[12]

When the Norwich Corporation presented a draft scheme for Mousehold Heath to the Inclosure Commissioners in 1881, intending to develop the Heath along the lines originally agreed back in 1866, the Pockthorpe committee sought to challenge their ability to do so by submitting a memorandum claiming that they (not the Corporation) held title to the land based on their use of it for sand and gravel extraction “from time immemorial”. This had the effect of halting the approval of the scheme as the Commissioners had no power to make rulings on matters of title to land. This in turn led in 1881 to proceedings being issued by the Corporation in Chancery seeking an injunction - both to prevent the Pockthorpe committee members interfering with the Commissioners’ hearings, and to prevent them interfering with the Corporation’s tenants who were using the Heath. In July 1881 the Court of Chancery issued an injunction preventing the removal of gravel or soil from the Heath and prohibiting Pockthorpe residents from blocking roads leading onto and from the Heath.[13] This was followed by another action in Chancery in June 1883 in which Chitty J. upheld the Corporation’s legal title to the Heath.

The legal argument put forward by the Pockthorpe brickmakers was ingenious, but ultimately failed to satisfactorily address several fundamental principles of English property law. Unfortunately for the Pockthorpe brickmakers, the right to take gravel, clay and soil from someone else’s land has never been recognised as a legitimate right of common (or profit, in other words) – and this is the case whatever the length of time for which the alleged “rights” have been exercised. They were therefore unable to claim that their “rights” were recognised and preserved either by the terms of the 1880 conveyance to the Corporation or by the Public Health Act 1875.[14] Most common rights to take the soil’s produce are characterised as estovers: sometimes referred to as “hearth rights”, these are typically rights that attach to houses or cottages adjoining a common and give the holder the right to take necessary produce for food, fuel, timber or animal bedding. They are not rights that can be used for commercial purposes. The rights claimed by the Pockthorpe residents here were essentially needed to support small scale industrial activities – to take clay, gravel etc for the manufacture of bricks. This was a type of activity for which long usage could not create property rights by prescription under the common law.

Faced with this problem, the Pockthorpe committee adopted an alternative strategy. They claimed instead that they had acquired ownership of the land itself by adverse possession. Or, rather, that the title to the land was vested in the trustees of a charitable trust for the relief of poverty in Pockthorpe, and over which they had control. The origins of the “Trust” were traced back to a meeting of the Pockthorpe parish on 23rd May 1844 which had elected a secretary and treasurer to oversee the collection of payments and their distribution as vouchers to residents, a practice that was renewed at New Year each year with the election of officers to oversee the issue of tickets giving access to the brickfields, to administer the collection of payments and to organise the disbursement of vouchers to residents of the parish.  The de facto control of access to the brickfields by the “trustees” under this arrangement had largely gone unchallenged by the Cathedral authorities – who as lords of the manor had for many years held the “paper” legal title to the Heath. This led to some criticism of the church authorities in the court proceedings, not least from Chitty J himself who commented that “what has happened is to some extent due to the laxity, if not the supineness, of the administration in later times of the Dean and Chapter of Norwich”.[15]

The key problem for the Pockthorpe community’s claim was that to constitute a trust the legal title to the land must vest in an individual or corporation – it cannot vest in a fluctuating body of persons.  Chitty J observed that “to gain an adverse title under the Statute of Limitations the possession must not be in one man one day, and in another another. There was no legal possession in these persons at all. It was in a changing and fluctuating body of persons who were not acting on their own account”.[16] Legal title had not vested in specific named members of the community who could act as the trustees of the trust, and it could not vest in “officers” elected each year to oversee the arrangements for the collection and disbursement of fees, as these would change from time to time. On the other hand, however negligent they may have been in exerting control over the heath, the paper title of the cathedral chapter and (then) Norwich Corporation was proved to the court’s satisfaction. The Corporation’s lawyers produced deeds and charters going back ultimately to the Norman Conquest to show an unbroken line of ownership of the Heath.

Several aspects of the Mousehold litigation are noteworthy. The mid-Victorian period was a time when legal battles were being waged against the inclosure of urban commons across England and Wales. The Commons Preservation Society (CPS) led numerous legal challenges to assert community control over open public spaces and scored well known successes in protecting many of the London commons. It is noteworthy, however, that the strategy adopted here differed from that in many of the Victorian cases promoted by the CPS. The tried and tested CPS tactics in the London cases[17] involved firstly raising the issue in the national media and organising a local CPS group to mount a defence of their local common. Then a lawyer or historian would gather evidence that could be used to argue that the current uses of the land were a continuation of historical commoners’ rights. Finally, a local resident would act as a CPS advocate to challenge the lord of the manor and seek the protection of the land as a legally recognised “common”. The legal challenge would usually be mounted in the Chancery, rather than the common law courts, because the equitable jurisdiction of Chancery was based on the use of discretionary remedies and offered a greater chance of success. But success in a claim structured in this way was dependant on being able to show the existence of a common right to take some of the land’s produce, one which vested in local members of the community and had been used for a long period of time (“from time whereof the memory of men runneth not to the contrary”).[18] The central problem for the Pockthorpe residents, as we have seen, was that the taking of gravel and clay to make bricks was not a recognised common right, neither had it been enjoyed by them from “time immemorial”. It was a practice that may have been in place for many years, but it had only been regularised following the parish meeting in 1844 that established the arrangements that were later claimed to have constituted a trust for the benefit of the community. 

Postscript – Making Modern Mousehold

Following their victory in Chancery, the Corporation acted relatively swiftly to finalise their plans or the transformation of the Heath. In December 1883 the Land Commissioners for England[19]  certified a scheme for the development of Mousehold Heath as pleasure grounds under the City of Norwich Act 1867. This was followed by the City of Norwich Mousehold Heath Scheme Confirmation Act 1884. The 1884 Act set out a management scheme for the Heath and provided for the appointment of the first body of Mousehold Heath conservators, of whom there were to be 12: 9 nominated by the Corporation, 2 by the inhabitants of Pockthorpe and 1 by the Commissioner of Public Works. The total sum spent on the maintenance and upkeep of the Heath in any one year was fixed at a maximum rate of 1/2 d in the £1 and no expense greater than £25 was to be made without the consent of the Norwich Corporation.

These governance arrangements continue in a modified form to the present day under the City of Norwich Act 1984, with the participation of the Mousehold Heath defenders, and the Norwich Society alongside the 9 conservators nominated to the Mousehold Heath Conservators by the council. Provision is also made for one conservator to be appointed by an organisation interested in the conservation of the environment in the city. The Pockthorpe dispute itself may be long forgotten, but the legacy of its origins in the industrial history of Norwich lives on in the landscape of the Heath. Its hollows and pits are a prominent feature of the Heath and are in large part what makes it such an interesting and valued landscape for the local community, many of whom have commented in oral history interviews on the “interesting” and “unique” nature of the landscape – which makes it both special and central to the identity of Norwich as a modern city. 

Professor Chris Rodgers 

March 2021

[1] Currently Limitation Act 1980, s. 15 (1). In 1883 (when the Mousehold litigation took place) the rule was the same under the Statute of Limitations 1874.

[2] “Time immemorial” is fixed at 1189 by a long-standing legal fiction (the accession of Richard 1); Statute of Westminster 1 1275.

[3] Enjoyment of a profit “as of right” for an uninterrupted period of 20 years cannot be defeated by proof that the use began after 1189, and if used for 40 years the right becomes absolute (Prescription Act 1832, ss 1,2). The period in both cases must be proved to have run “next before action” – that is before a suit or legal action brough to establish the claim.

[4] Dalton v Angus & Co (1881) 6 App Cas 740 (House of Lords)

[5] This was described as a “revolting fiction” by Lush J, in Angus & Co v Dalton (1877) 3 QBD 85, 94.

[6] But the use of prescription to establish common rights in a modern context has been severely curtailed by the registration of common rights under the Commons Registration Act 1965 and Commons Act 2006: see Gadsden on Commons and Greens (2nd ed, 2012) at 3-77 – 3-79

[7] For example, the Monastic and cathedral accounts for 1532-4 discuss the digging of sand:

Account of Robert Canon. Prior of the Office of Master Cellarer - 'of the digging of sand there, nothing. And of the sheep's pasture there this year 33s 4d', and for 1534-5 it is noted that ‘of the digging of sand there this year nothing, because without a farmer’. (Supplementary papers submitted, Norwich Corporation v Browne and others 1881, pp. 8,9. Norfolk RO).   

[8] In the seventeenth century the cathedral authorities certainly seem to have managed the digging of sand closely: for example, the Pockthorpe Manor Court Leet Book records that on 6th November 1670 one Augustine Blennerhasset was fined 5 shillings for unlawfully digging ‘sand pitts’ on the demesne lands, and was ordered to fill them up within one month under penalty of forfeiture of 20 shillings (Supplementary papers submitted, Norwich Corporation v Browne and others 1881, p.20. Norfolk RO). 

[9] For an excellent account of the local political tensions, political manoeuvring and the place of the Mousehold Heath case in the wider politics of the Victorian Parks movement see: Neil Macmaster, “The Battle for Mousehold Heath 1857-1884: Popular Politics and the Victorian Public Park” (1992) 127 Past and Present 117-154.

[10] Public Health Act 1875, s. 164.

[11] See discussion in the Norfolk Chronicle for Saturday 28 May 1881. The “easy going nature and laxity” of the Dean and Chapter was reported as having encouraged the Pockthorpians to build ‘clamps’ and start the manufacture of bricks.

[12] There are detailed accounts in the Norfolk Chronicle for Saturday 28 May 1881, 18 June 1881 and 2 July 1881.

[13] The 1881 Chancery proceedings are reported in some detail in the Norfolk Chronicle for Saturday 6th August 1881.

[14] Above, note 8. The 1875 Act provided that land could be transferred to be held as pleasure grounds “subject …. to rights of common, easements and other rights”.

[15] The Mayor and Corporation of Norwich v Brown and others (1883) 48 Law Times 725

[16] The Mayor and Corporation of Norwich v Brown and others (1883) 48 Law Times 725 at 900.

[17] See a useful discussion by Naomi Miller, Chapter 2 in “A Politics of the Common” in (S.Kirwan, L .Dawney and J. Brigstoke eds.) Space, Power and the Commons (2016, Routledge) at p.63ff.

[18] Co. Litt. 114b.

[19] Formerly the Inclosure Commissioners.

A Christmas Commons Carol

A Christmas Commons Carol

A Christmas confession – I hate “The Twelve Days of Christmas”! Every year at Christmas, my mother hung a tea-towel version of the song on our kitchen door. One glance and I would be compelled to finish the rhyme in my head. Then, the terrible fate of all younger children - my siblings discovered my secret obsession and took great delight in shouting-out random lyrics before scurrying away. YES! – They tortured me. But, following extensive therapy, this year I am fighting back…

I have favoured alliteration and metre over exact numbering (it is impossible to find 12 of something!), so with some urban common’s twists and a fair bit of artistic license, I present to you “A Christmas Commons Carol”.

On the twelfth day of Christmas of Commons history

Twelve diggers digging,

Eleven Prince’s parties,

Ten lords a leasing,

Nine ladies hanging,

Eight musket balls a-flying,

Seven stones a-standing,

Six Lepers laying,

A Gold-like finger ring,

Four racing courses,

Three Roman coins,

Two bomber crashes,

And an Iron Age Hillfort-eeeee

If you enjoy light and fluffy Christmas history blogs then here is your chance to stop reading, otherwise read on for the actual history. Although not all of the above numbers match as much as I would like, each line does reference the history and archaeology of one of our four case studies: the Town Moor (Newcastle); Mousehold Heath (Norwich); Clifton and Durdham Downs (Bristol); and the Steine and Valley Gardens (Brighton). There is a rich, but often invisible component to urban commons and this month’s blog highlights some impressive examples of the material remains and the features from past human interactions with these sites.

Twelve diggers digging

The Town Moor in Newcastle is better known for pastoral activity, but agriculture has had a significant and widespread impact across the surface of the green space resulting in features such as ridge-and-furrow.[i] The use of the land for food production became particularly important during WWII following the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign by the Ministry of Agriculture. The campaign encouraged people to transform their gardens, parks, and recreational spaces into allotments to support the war effort. In Newcastle, the city council established allotments on the Town Moor, Hunters Moor and on Little Moor. Some of these areas are still under cultivation, but old allotments are still visible on 1940s aerial photographs, and two raised parallel banks on Hunters Moor are the remains of tracks between allotment plots.[ii]


              Food Production, The National Archives                          Allotments, Photograph by Dr Livi Dee

Eleven Prince’s parties

In 1783, the Duke of Cumberland (George IIIs brother), invited the Prince of Wales (later George IV) to stay with him in his house on the Steine.[iii] The following year (1784), the Prince visited again and leased a house on the Steine, which belonged to Thomas Kemp, MP for Lewes. In 1787, the architect Henry Holland carried out several alterations to the house, which became known as the Marine Pavilion and was later redesigned by John Nash (1815-23) into the Indian-style palace that survives today.


The Pavilion 1788, Society of Brighton Print Collectors (CC BY-NC 4.0)


The Pavilion 1821, Society of Brighton Print Collectors (CC BY-NC 4.0)

The construction of the Pavilion directly affected the physical space of the Steine and Valley Gardens. The Prince and his neighbour, the Duke of Marlborough, funded the construction of improvement works to stop annual flooding of the green space, but in return, the town authorities granted permission to enclose the area in front of the Pavilion. This event acted as a chain-reaction - the formerly open expanse of the Valley Gardens used for boat-storage, was gradually enclosed by housing and roads. In addition, by the late eighteenth century the Steine and Valley Gardens had become a location for summer retreat and entertainment for the Prince and his friends.  

 Ten lords a leasing

Clifton and Durdham Down were two adjoining commons within the manors of Clifton and Henbury. By the seventeenth century, four landowners (Lords of the Manor of Henbury) tightly restricted the use of Durdham Down through fines, and leased areas of land for quarrying. An area now known as ‘The Dumps’ are remaining earthworks from this period of the Downs history.

Local workers quarried the site for lead, iron, manganese and calamine. The series of earthworks (outlined in red above) look like shallow bunkers much like you would find on a golf course. Unlike nineteenth century quarries (outlined in black), these pits were not infilled. They represent a period of earlier extraction that was smaller-scale and concentrated on following specific mineral veins, which was less impactful to subsequent landscape use.

Nine ladies hanging

Unfortunately it was many more than nine - On August 21st 1650 fourteen ‘witches’ were executed on the Town Moor following the Newcastle Witch trials. There are no archaeological remains of their deaths, but Eneas MacKenzie, writing in the early nineteenth century, reported the events from an extract of the Register of the parochial chapelry of St. Andrew’s in Newcastle.[iv] The witch trials were conducted during a period of heightened suspicion that was typically targeted towards women, although not exclusively – for example, a male ‘wizard’ was also a victim of the 1650 trials. The events in Newcastle took place under the authority of the self-named Scottish Witch Finder, Cuthbert Nicholson, who was paid twenty shillings per witch captured. Those under suspicion were stripped-bare before being tested with a pin – if they failed to bleed then they were guilty. In a twist of fate, Nicholson was forced to flee from Northumberland after his methods were questioned – the pin was likely retractable so never pierced the flesh of those on trial - he was apprehended in Scotland and condemned to death by hanging, but it is believed that he was responsible for over 200 hundred deaths in England and Scotland.

Eight musket balls a-flying

Mousehold Heath has a long history of military action that has left material remains and earthworks as features of the current landscape. The Long Valley, which was used as a sheep walk between Norwich and Horning Ferry, has provided evidence for military drills and practice. In c.1990, twenty-four lead balls (Norfolk HER 53875), six lead shot (Norfolk Museums Collections - NWHCM 1973.296), and fifteen musket balls of seventeenth- or eighteenth-century date (NWHCM 1974.546.1) were found from three different locations in the Long Valley. The heath continued to provide a suitable location for military practice into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Heights, for example, consists of a massive earthwork of over six metres that can be found just north of the Valley Drive estate. It was a former shooting stand constructed prior to 1863 with a set of butts for shooting practice at one end (NHER 26560).

Seven stones a-standing

The earliest documentary evidence for grazing rights pertaining to Clifton Down and part of Durdham Down dates to an Anglo-Saxon charter of AD 883. The charter detailed the boundaries as running from the bottom of Eowcumbe (Walcombe Slade) to a site close to the present Water Tower. The boundary was preserved, in 1800, by way of seven merestones (boundary markers) that run across the Downs to distinguish the administrative jurisdiction of the two manorial properties.[v]

Six Lepers laying

Lazar House, Norwich, Paul Shreeve (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Lazar House on Sprowston Road, Norwich, was once adjacent to Mousehold Heath. Herbert de Losinga (the first Bishop of Norwich) founded Magdalen Chapel (Lazar House) at some point before 1119.[vi] The building acted as a hospital for male lepers and poor sick until it was dissolved in 1547, after which it was used as an almshouse until the seventeenth century. Sir Eustace Gurney restored the chapel in 1906 and it was converted into a local library branch, which is still in use today. The building consists of various construction phases and includes flint rubble with stone and some brick dressings, and a pan-tiled roof. Some, if not all, of the materials used in the buildings construction would have come from the extraction works on the heath - it is important to remember that the activities on urban commons provide archaeological evidence beyond the immediate vicinity of the green space. 

A Gold-like finger ring

This copper-alloy ring (hence ‘gold-like’), of first century AD, is now in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Described as a casual find from Clifton Down, it has a D-shaped hoop that incorporates an oval bezel.[vii] The profile of a male head - with swollen facial features and coiffure, and a palm of victory - is in relief on the bezel within a beaded border frame, which is indicative of depictions of the emperor Nero (37-68 AD).[viii] The wearer of the ring probably used it as an outward expression of loyalty during Nero’s reign.

Four racing courses

All four of the urban commons studied by the Wastes and Strays project have an association with horseracing. In Norwich, this form of entertainment was sporadic and short-lived, but Brighton, Clifton (Bristol), and Newcastle had annual race meetings during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


Grand Stand Town Moor (unknown date), Newcastle Libraries

The archaeological remains of horseracing is particularly striking on the Town Moor, which has a history of racing from c.1721 to 1881 when racing moved to Gosforth Park. Archaeological surveying in the 1990s demonstrated that the course was roughly oval in shape and built in two phases. The early course circumnavigated the high ground of Race Hill, but the later course was more direct resulting in a cut through the summit of the hill and the construction of an embankment, which can still be seen today.[ix] The finishing post was located by the grandstand to the north of Grandstand Road (then a track leading from the Great North Road to the stand).

Three Roman coins

Antiquarian accounts from Brighton record several discoveries of Roman coins and urns during nineteenth century improvement work on the Steine and the Level. One such example is from 1876 when workers discovered a Roman coin of Antonius Pius (r AD 138-161), one of Gallienus (r AD 253-268), and one of Claudius II ( r AD 68-270).[x] Recently, Ken Fines has indicated that there is evidence to support the existence of a small port (of unknown Roman date) at the mouth of the Wellesbourne because of foundations buried in the seabed south of the Palace Pier.[xi] The Wellesbourne ran the length of the green space so the finds are consistent with the Romano-British practice of votive offerings in association with water.

Two bomber crashes

Mousehold Heath formed the base for a number of military uses during WWII, which included training facilities for practice trench digging, a Prisoner of War camp, and the location of defensive structures such as barrage balloons. The heath’s location, close to Norwich but distant enough to reduce public safety, made the space ideal for use as a dummy airfield, complete with decoy aircraft. Aerial photography analysis by the National Mapping Programme identified six bomb craters in relation to the sites WWII uses. In addition, the heath was also subject to two WWII plane crashes. On February 12th 1942, a Hampden bomber crashed in the Long Valley whilst attempting an emergency landing at RAF Horsham St. Faith (approximately 2.5 miles to the North of Mousehold Heath). The pilot, twenty-five year old - Sgt Ernest Ivo Nightingale, was killed. Five months later, on July 25th 1942, a Bristol Beaufort crashed on the eastern edge of the Heath (a plaque marks the spot at the top of Gurney Road). All four crewmen died – they ranged in age from twenty-one to twenty-five – two from the Royal Canadian Air Force, one from the Royal New Zealand Air Force, and one from the RAF.[xii]

And an Iron Age Hillfort-eeeee

The Iron Age hillfort of Clifton (Clifton Down camp) is a scheduled ancient monument of approximately 2.6 hectares. The camp was one of three forts that lay either side of the Avon Gorge. Stokeleigh and Burwalls lay on the Leigh Woods side of the Gorge, but collectively they must have been an impressive and dominant feature within the local topography. The antiquarian John Lloyd Baker described the monument in 1818 as a set of three banks and ditches, which were dugout with considerable effort and possibly surrounded by a wall (now believed to be of dry stone construction).[xiii]

William Worcestre, writing about Bristol in 1480, believed the camp belonged to an ancient giant and that the stones that lay around the enclosure were a demonstration of its strength.[xiv] Worcestre’s observation was actually the result of quarrying that had broken up the banks. By the eighteenth century, destruction through quarrying was significant. Ironically, Sir William Draper, appointed by the Society of Merchant Venturers in 1766 as a manager to prevent exploitation of the Downs, was the worst culprit. Draper was reputed to have levelled large sections of the hillfort creating irreversible damage and disrupting later archaeological phases. This destruction continued into the nineteenth century when material was quarried from the site to provide material for new roads and for lime burning. Unfortunately, by 1873, the Reverend H. M. Scarth reported that ‘the ancient fort that once crowned the down is almost obliterated’.[xv]

The evidence recorded in this blog is just a small fraction of the archaeological finds and features that so frequently go unnoticed when we visit green spaces. Local Historic Environment Record offices have a wealth of information for those wishing to know more, and each of our sites are featured within the online records that can be found at the following:

Tyne and Wear Sitelines, Newcastle https://www.twsitelines.info/

The Keep, Brighton https://www.thekeep.info/collections/

Know Your Place, Bristol https://maps.bristol.gov.uk/kyp/?edition=

Norfolk Heritage Explorer, Norwich http://www.heritage.norfolk.gov.uk/


During what has been a very strange year, and on behalf of the entire Wastes & Strays project team we wish you a very merry and safe Christmas 2020.

Dr Sarah Collins

December 2020

[i] Ridge-and-furrow is the archaeological remains of ploughing, which (as a general-rule) have wider curves in medieval examples and straighter narrower ridges in early modern examples. For those wishing to observe the features on the Town Moor there are a number of good examples observable from the path, which passes Cow Hill. Extensive archaeological surveys of the archaeological remains of the Town Moor can be found in Lofthouse, Town Moor, Newcastle upon Tyne Achaeological Survey Report (Newcastle: RCHME, 1995), pp. 42-52.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] The Duke of Cumberland purchased the house of Dr Russell in 1779 – Dr Russell, who practiced in Brighton between 1747 and 1759, was a strong advocate of sea bathing and was considered largely responsible for the towns changing fortunes during the eighteenth century.

[iv] Mackenzie, Historical Account of Newcastle Upon Tyne Including the Borough of Gateshead (Newcastle: Mackenzie and Dent, 1827), p. 37.

[v] Goldthorpe, Clifton and Durdham Downs: A Landscape History Final Report (Bristol: Bristol City Council, 2006), p. 3.

[vii] Hutchinson Pennanen and Henig, ‘A Finger-Ring from Clifton down’, Britannia, Vol. 26 (1995), pp. 308-309.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Lofthouse, Town Moor, p. 12.

[x] Accession number: MES289, East Sussex County Council HER, https://www.thekeep.info/collections/getrecord/ESHER_MES289.

[xi] Fines, A History of Brighton & Hove: Stone-Age Whitehawk to Millennium City (Chichester: Phillimore, 2002), p. 5.

[xii] For detailed findings from Norfolk’s National Mapping Programme see, Cattermole et al. (eds.), Using Air Photo Mapping for Strategic Planning in Growth Areas: A case study from the Norwich, Thetford and A11 Corridor National Mapping Project (Norwich: English Heritage Project No. 5313, 2013). A depiction of the memorial plaque and details of the men killed can be found at, https://www.flickr.com/photos/43688219@N00/2259292426.

[xiii] Baker, ‘An account of a chain of ancient fortresses, extending through the South Western part of Gloucestershire’, Archaeologia, Vol. 19, (1818), pp. 161-175; Goldthorpe, Clifton and Durdham Downs, p. 2.

[xiv] Scarth, ‘The Camps on the River Avon at Clifton, with Remarks on the Structure of Ancient Ramparts’, Archaeologia, Vol. 44, (1873), pp. 428-434.

[xv] Ibid.

Hidden Histories: Town Moor

As the oral historian attached to the Wastes and Strays project, I have been struck by the ways in which the histories of our case studies are often invisible to the hundreds of people who walk, run and cycle across them daily. This doesn’t mean that they are forgotten, rather that there is little by way of historical infrastructure or physical remains to hint at some of the monumental events that have taken place on our common land. As the researcher on the ‘present’ strand of the project, I am most interested in the ways in which the history of the case studies interacts with the present, and most importantly, preserving the voices and memories of the people who use it now. Our repository of oral history interviews will provide a new primary resource, which could inform academic research, policy change or local interest. In this series of blog posts I look at each of the case studies in turn, to explore this idea of invisible history, and how generations of people have understood and interacted with this land.

Newcastle Town Moor 

Newcastle Town Moor is open grazing land adjacent to the city centre, surrounded by the city on all sides. Despite some large-scale building work on the edges of the land, the Moor has remained a large space, with little alteration to the main plot. Where land has been given for building, for example to extend the stadium or the hospital, land is assigned in kind. This means that the Moor is divided by roads and there are some pockets of land adjacent to the main stretch. In this case, the geography of the Moor alludes to the history of the space. The Newcastle Chronicle referred to the Town Moor as one of Newcastle’s great survivors, and it is clear why.[1] Perhaps more than any of our other case studies, the history of the Moor is bound up in its survival. Where a space like Mousehold Heath in Norwich is infused with its history in a way that influences folklore over the centuries and inspires common memory, the Town Moor has carried its history forward, into the present. The rights of the Freemen to graze cattle ensure that the land cannot be developed or built upon, but unlike Clifton Downs in Bristol, these rights are not simply ceremonial, and the invisible history of the Town Moor is symbolised by the cows that graze there from April to October every year. Dr Rachel Hammersley argued that ‘a sense of historical right to a place, of this is how it is and has been since time immemorial, can be incredibly powerful … different periods of time have left layers of history in Newcastle, and the Town Moor is part of that.”[2]


Cows on the Moor (Photo: Chronicle Live)

The Town Moor has been protected by an Act of Parliament since 1774. The Act secured the Freemen’s grazing rights and there has long been a feeling of public “ownership” of the Moor. How the Town Moor is managed today is set out by the Newcastle upon Tyne Town Moor Act 1988, which updated the 1774 Act. A joint committee of the Freemen and the city council decides on the management under the terms of the 1988 Act, which says that the Moor should be maintained as an area of open space in the interests of the inhabitants of the city. Professor Christopher Rodgers has argued that these statutes are responsible for the protection that has maintained the space and access to it for centuries:

The Town Moor has survived because it has been protected by statute since 1774, updated in 1988, which sets out the responsibilities of the Freemen and the city council … The Town Moor is different in that it is a green lung right in the middle of a built-up area. A lot of local authorities are having to sell green space to raise money, but we are very lucky that our jewel in the crown is protected by an Act of Parliament, which guarantees public rights.[3]

The endurance of the Freemen and the preservation of the Town Moor are directly interlinked, and the cows that graze there have become something of a symbol of the centuries of memories residents of Newcastle associate with their open space. Indeed, a common theme of the oral histories I have collected so far is the pride in the Moor, and the recognition that it makes Newcastle different.

Aside from the history of the Freemen and the cattle, the space has other invisible histories that have left little physical trace. One macabre example, as depicted in this graphic illustration, was the murder of fifteen ‘witches’ in 1650. These executions took place on the Moor. 


An illustration of the fifteen 'witches' being hanged on the Town Moor, 1650. Courtesy of Newcastle Libraries (Image: Newcastle Chronicle)

According to writer Ralph Gardiner, in 1655 two Newcastle Magistrates sent men to Scotland to bring back a notorious witch-finder, promising him twenty shillings for every witch he identified.[4] The magistrates sent their ‘bell-finder’ through the streets of Newcastle, who proclaimed that ‘all people that would bring in any complaint against any woman for a Witch, they should be sent for and tryed by the person appointed.’ After pricking all the accused with pins, to see if they bled, fourteen women and one man were imprisoned and executed on the Town Moor.[5] Later, the witch-finder himself was ‘cast into prison, indicted, arraigned and condemned’ and executed, but only after enabling the execution of two hundred and twenty women.[6] There is no monument or memorial to this on the Moor, and the picture above appears to be one of the few physical representations of this history. But standing on the Moor, especially during one of its more isolated periods of the day, this dark aspect of its history seems more believable. 

The open spaces in our case study, particularly Mousehold and the Town Moor, seem to inspire political gatherings and revolutionary discourse, perhaps because they symbolised the commonality of the working classes, because they were large enough to contain the masses who attended, or even because the open air offered a safer place to congregate than the enclosed spaces in the city centre. In June 1910, Newcastle Suffragettes met on the Moor after processing through the town in ‘gaily decorated carriages.’ In June 1938, 70,000 people attended a meeting of the chartists to hear speeches on the rights of working-class men from Feargus O’Connor. The crowds spilled out beyond the boundaries of the Moor, and Northern Star called the meeting ‘the most splendid display of the working classes ever witnessed in England.’[7]


Newspaper article describing the intended suffrage procession (Newcastle Evening Chronicle, Friday 15 July 1910)

The environmental history of the Moor is another fascinating aspect of our research. In our interviews, some extolled the importance of a giant green lung in the centre of the city, others discussed ‘the green desert’, a monoculture that had the potential to offer much more to combat climate change and air pollution. This presented an interesting question: despite the history of the space, do we need to adapt in light of the threat to our environment, and how do we do it?

Interestingly, the history of bird watching offers insight into the environmental changes of the Town Moor over the last two hundred years. Records in the Hancock’s archives record species spotted (and often, unfortunately, shot) on the Moor. A list compiled in 1889, by a Mr R. Duncan, begins as follows:

The following is a list of birds I have either shot or observed on the Town Moor of Newcastle  during a period extending over the last thirty-five years … The Town Moor is an open grassy space, comprising about 1,000 acres, bounding the town on the north and west. Formerly, before it was so extensively drained, there were numerous sedgy pools of water, which remained all the year round, and the outskirts consisted of fine hawthorn hedges and tall trees.[8] These latter and the pools are nearly all gone, and in consequence many birds which used annually to resort here, now rarely come or have altogether disappeared … Although close to a large town, many very rare specimens are recorded.  Shooting was formerly permitted on the moor, but has been stopped for some years past.[9]

Duncan comments on the frequency of the birds, and made notes on habitat that are quite revealing when trying to consider the environmental history of the Moor. Common Sandpiper, usually spotted in May, had ‘disappeared since the ponds were drained.’ The Skylark, ‘common twenty-eight years ago’ fell victim to lark-nets and the drainage of the moor; ‘the birds have nearly all left.’ Goldfinches, spotted thirty-five years prior to Duncan’s list, disappeared along with the nurseries that had previously adjoined the Moor. By contrast, Duncan noted that the Magpie had ‘totally disappeared’, the last nest on the border of the Moor in 1853. If you walk the Moor now, Magpies will be one of the few birds you will certainly see. Newcastle residents made their concerns known through the Letters pages of the local newspapers. 




Letters (Newcastle Evening Chronicle - Friday 22 May 1970)



Letters (Newcastle Evening Chronicle, Wednesday 12 March 1980) 

As with Mousehold, it’s fascinating to consider this invisible history of gatherings, political upheaval and change, tied to place but without the physicality of a museum or any infrastructure to preserve it. We still host mass events on the moor, including the Hoppings, the Mela and the Pride festival. Despite the invisible nature of the Moor’s history, there are many ways in which these stories can be rekindled and recognised, and we can consider these options as part of the project. Audio tours, self-guided walking tours, or podcasts can provide a story to accompany a space, whilst also encouraging visitors and footfall to these important locations.

Dr Olivia Dee

December 2020

[1] Tony Henderson, “The Varied Life of Newcastle’s Town Moor, and why it remains protected.” Newcastle Chronicle, 12 June 2019.

[2] Tony Henderson, “The Varied Life of Newcastle’s Town Moor, and why it remains protected.” Newcastle Chronicle, 12 June 2019.  

[3] Tony Henderson, “The Varied Life of Newcastle’s Town Moor, and why it remains protected.” Newcastle Chronicle, 12 June 2019.  

[4] Ralph Gardiner, Englands grievance discovered, in relation to the coal-trade with the map of the river of Tine, and situation of the town and corporation of Newcastle : the tyrannical oppression of those magistrates, their charters and grants, the several tryals, depositions, and judgements obtained against them : with a breviate of several statutes proving repugnant to their actings: with proposals for reducing the excessive rates of coals for the future, and the rise of their grants, appearing in this book. (London: R. Ibbitson and P. Stent, 1655).

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Northern Star, 30 June 1838, p.4.

[8] Sedgy refers to an area covered with sedges. Sedges are grass-like plants, associated primarily with wetlands or marshes.

[9] R. Duncan, “The Birds of Newcastle Town Moor” July 1889. Hancock Museum, Newcastle, p. 213

Rambling through Enclosure

Rambling through Enclosure

Excursion 1

It is a peculiar thing to start a job while in the midst of a national lockdown. I find an unsettling strangeness in never having physically entered my place of work and virtual introductions to colleagues - their faces looming in and out of focus on my computer screen as each speaks in turn. As with most of the population, my world has shrunk to the confines of my domestic domain. At a moment when the shared resource of our public health is under threat from the Covid-19 virus, we have been enclosed by government guidelines telling us to ‘Stay at Home’.  Like many working parents, I start to juggle the accommodation of home working with homeschooling - my sphere is corralled further as I relocate my computer to a bedroom in search of working ‘space’.


 STAY AT HOME times three © Copyright Jaggery, from geograph.org.uk/p/6437309. Produced under a creative commons license.

As the artist-researcher on the ‘future’ strand of Wastes and Strays, I hope to engage communities around our four case study sites in creative explorations of their future visions for urban commons. My initial instinct is to get to the know the lay of the land; to invite local residents to guide me along a ramble, on foot and in word, so that I can come into contact with each common and each commoner’s know-how. I want to convivially walk and listen - to stories accompanied by blackcap warbles and flight path whines, to trails of thought infused with the fragrant petrichor of rain-drenched soil, to common knowledge shared along trodden paths of tarmac shock, gravel bounce and tussock spring. Listening is characteristic of my creative practice, my attentiveness, however, stretches beyond the oral-aural conversation to an engagement with all the physical senses. It is an approach grounded in my understanding that embodied listening is both a corporeal and social practice that recognises we, the human, as well as the non-human, are always in relation. In the collaborative events I generate participants might find themselves journeying through trails of moving, reminiscence and story, making with materials, writing and performance. The shifting between different forms of creative expression aim to foster exploration from different points of view. Instead, I sit grazing on digital images of the four commons’ landscapes and vicariously imagine bodily encounters at a distance. I sink into historical accounts unearthed by my fellow research associates.  Immersed in the past; my attention snags on correlations with the present. Not surprisingly, my awarenesses are lured towards other instances of constraint, when barriers were erected to curtail the everyday activities of working people. In other words, my thoughts turn to enclosure.

Fences. Photograph by Siobhan O’Neill

 Although our four case study commons were all touched by the second wave of enclosure in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the extent of incursion varied in each case. In Brighton, the common of Brighthelmstone was mostly overlaid by the piecemeal encroachment of the town, as open plain transformed into formal gardens and built facilities for the burgeoning seaside health resort. Whereas, the robust defence of rights of pasture made by the freemen of Newcastle ostensibly preserved the town’s common lands against the processes of ‘improvement’. The division and privatisation of common lands in England was arguably carried out in the name of increasing productivity. For urban commons, however, the notion of improvement extended towards ambitions to ‘tidy up’ and regulate open public space and to assuage the increased need for urban housing. All the same, enclosure was not simply a matter of inserting spatial boundaries within the landscape, of redefining legal definitions of property or economic rationalisation. Enclosure expropriated commoners from the land and in so doing, dismantled common people’s way of life. 

By Langley Bush I roam but the bush hath left its hill;

On Cowper Green I stray - ‘tis a desert strange and chill - 

And spreading Lea Close Oak ere decay had penned its will 

To the axe of the spoiler and self interest fell a prey; 

And Crossberry Way and old Round oak’s narrow lane 

With its hollow trees like pulpits I shall never see again. 

Enclosure like a Bonaparte let not a thing remain, 

It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill 

And hung the moles for traitors - though the brook is running still,

It runs a naked brook cold and chill.

Remembrances by John Clare[1]

Contemporary discourse on common property has redefined the commons to be viewed as not merely a noun but a verb as well. Historian Peter Linebaugh introduced the term ‘commoning’ in his book The Magna Carta Manifesto (2008), to depict the social practices through which shared resources are generated into a commons. As Linebaugh explains, “commoners think first not of title deeds, but of human deeds: how will this land be tilled? Does it require manuring? What grows there? They begin to explore. You might call it a natural attitude”. [2] Commoners physically interact with the land, it is through corporeal action that the common is collectively produced and maintained. Moreover, Linebaugh stretches this thinking further, for he wants us to understand that commoning is neither bodily action nor shared resource, but rather, it occurs in their inter-relation. Commons are embedded in the processes of labour that emerge in correspondence to a singular environment, whether field or upland, forest or coast. England’s commons, then, were lands infused with subsistence activities; where people foraged, pastured their animals, collected wood, quarried stone and gravel, as well as hunted and fished. Commons were also sites where customary traditions, festivities and recreational activities took place. It follows, then, that the enclosure and privatisation of common lands and the extinguishment of common rights manifestly deracinated existing ways of life. Barring ordinary people from the commons dispossessed them from their communal routines, customs and labour practices based in an economy of diversified resources. As an artist who works with the body and performance, I find myself drawn to consider the changes in embodied practices and customs that were tied up in this transformation of land ownership and usage.


Brighton. A Bird’s-eye View from the Preston Road by D Havell, 1819

 © Society of Brighton Print Collectors. Produced under a creative commons license.

In an earlier blog entry, fellow research associate, Sarah Collins, analysed a series of historical images depicting the gradual remodelling of the Steine in Brighton.[3] Viewing the illustrations, I too was attracted to the reflections of hybridity in spatial and embodied materialities. In the 1797 image On the Steine, Brighton, East Sussex by John Southerby, I can see how the town’s mariners would have landed their catches and hauled up their fishing boats in close proximity to the diverted eyes of bibliophiles in the library and the arrested ears of audiophiles tuned into a musical ensemble.[4] The engraving A Bird’s-eye View from the Preston Road by D Havell (viewed above) illustrates labourers cutting and binding up what to my untrained eye looks like sheaths of wheat. Brighthelmston Common here operated an open-field system in which individually owned strips of land were interspersed across the common. Once the crop was harvested, the land would have been opened up for pasturage.  Reference to ‘hempshares’ indicates that hemp would have been cultivated on strips; flax too was propagated. In this way, the commons provided the resources for rope-making and linen sail production in support of the local fishing industry. Mid-field in the picture, lines of laundry arc across the grassland between the streets, depicting the common custom of hanging out washing. In this case, domestic cloth but traditional use could also refer to the commercial, to the hand-loom weaver stretching out a woollen piece or the mariner drying fishing nets, as seen further down the valley upon the Steine. The images help to convey how rights of use manifest in bodily action, in the activities of sowing and reaping, of laying out and mending nets, of fingers twisting fibres into cord. 


 Beauties of Brighton Beach by Alfred Crowquill, 1825

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In J. A. Erredge’s history of Brighton, he marks the changing occupation upon the Steine, from “the depository of the materials of the aborigines, for fishing,” to “the place of rendezvous for the nobility and gentry, the beaux and belles delighting to promenade there, expend their small talk, and listen to the strains of military bands.”[5] As the seaside health resort developed through the enclosure of common land to publicly managed pleasure grounds, so the mixed function of this public space gave way to genteel leisure pursuits of the urban elites. The word ‘aborigines’, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary means, “the earliest known inhabitants of a particular country”.[6] The mariners, then, are situated as the ‘earliest known inhabitants’, possibly in contrast to the leisure resort visitors, who as ‘newcomers’ gradually colonised the town. I wonder whether the mariners might not have wielded their antecedent claim to forestall the developments of the visitor attraction investors? Indeed, J. G. Bishop, another Victorian chronicler of Brighton, assigns the term “auncient custom” to describe the fishermen’s usage of the Steine,[7] evoking some sense of substance in the durability of tradition. In other instances of anti-enclosure resistance, commoners did argue judicial legitimacy based upon having exercised their common rights for ‘time immemorial’. The legal defence presented by the Pockthorpe Committee against the city of Norwich’s enclosure of Mousehold Heath (1880-83) is a case in point. The ascription of ‘time immemorial’ indicates how the longevity of customary practices, stretching back beyond individual living memory into collective remembrance, gave a sense of immutability. It also, I believe, correlates with the understanding of commoning as an iterative process, produced and reproduced through the interactions between indigenous inhabitant and inhabited place.  It is this sense that seems to inflect Linebaugh’s assertion that commoning is independent of “the temporality of the law and state”. Although he situates the protection of customary commons practices in the Charter of the Forests of 1217 (the lesser-known counterpart to the Magna Carta), he goes on to contend that the Magna Carta “does not list rights”, but rather, “grants perpetuities”.[8] Here, he invokes a temporal elasticity, in which practices of common can be seen to be rooted in the past and propagating the future. In the struggle against changing common rights of use, commoners, like Brighton’s mariners, aimed to both preserve their past-present customs and safeguard their present-future means of self-support. In similar vein, I suggest, the Wastes and Strays research project aims to open up an understanding of the past-present narratives of our four case study commons to enable citizens and researchers to co-generate multifaceted definitions of the present-future of the urban common. 


From 1773, however, the future of the Steine lay in the hands of the Town Commissioners. Writing in Pleasure Gardens in Georgian and Regency Seaside Resorts: Brighton 1750-1840, Sue Berry notes that despite popular resistance from the town’s fishermen, the Steine was enclosed in 1776.[9] Ostensibly, she argues, because many of the new commissioners held investments in leisure facilities and acted in their private interests. The following ‘improvement’ of the Steine encompassed levelling the ground, laying new turf and the creation of footpaths to facilitate a more genteel perambulation. Trees and shrubs were planted, both as ornament and as shelter from sun, wind and salt. Sections of land were corralled by wooden fence or iron railing. The seasonal stream was channelled to a sewer. Visitor residences, including the palatial Royal Pavilion, were constructed to circumscribe the Steine; thus, cementing its edges.[10] The extent of these ‘improvements’ represents a significant level of construction, and I might surmise that a sum of Erredge’s ‘aborigines’ supplied the necessary labour. It is difficult to measure the effect of the loss suffered by labourers, mariner or agricultural worker, of common right means to supplement their wages. Certainly, the labouring-classes socio-economic position would have determined the need for some workers to become enclosers; paid to fence off land and plant hedges. Accordingly, I imagine the same economic pressures that provoked the town’s fishermen to contest the changing use of the Stein might potentially have entangled them in the physical acts of its enclosure.


The intertwining relational trails between the labouring classes and the enclosure movement drew me to wander into the work of John Clare, both as labouring commoner and poet of the natural world. In truth, the diversion occurred by happenstance; my egress was inspired by a turn in homeschooling towards the Romantic poets. It is not to say, however, that the “peasant”[11] poet’s nightingale or fallen elm made an appearance next to Wordsworth’s daffodils or Blake’s lamb in the Year 7 curriculum. John Clare has been characterised as ‘the poet of the environmental crisis’,[12] for his work is seen to critique both the capitalist subjugation of the natural world in the enclosures of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the resultant environmental degradation seen today. Living through the enclosures of his native Helpston in Northamptonshire in the 1810s, Clare acts as a valuable witness to the ecological consequences. Just as the term ecology defines the relations and relationships between organism and environment, so Clare understands the mutuality between commoner and commons. Accordingly, his enclosure elegies speak of social and environmental collapse in the devastation wrought coevally on the natural landscape and on the rural labourer’s way of life.



John Clare statue in the grounds of his birthplace 

© Copyright  Peter Turner, from geograph.org.uk/p/5098264. Produced under a creative commons license.

Enclosure came and trampled on the grave

Of labourer’s rights and left the poor a slave;

And memory’s pride, ere want to wealth did bow,

Is both the shadow and the substance now… 

Thus, with the poor, scared freedom bade good bye

 And much they feel it in the smothered sigh,

 And birds and trees and flowers without a name

 All sighed when lawless law’s enclosure came;

 And dreams of plunder in such rebel schemes

 Have found too truly that they were but dreams.

 The Moors by John Clare[13]

For Clare, the consolidation of arable land, felling of trees, diverting of streams and laying of new roads resulted in irreversible damage to the local flora and fauna and dispossessed commoners’ of their social customs and independent livelihoods. However, Clare’s recourse to work as a manual labourer in enclosure gangs and as a lime-burner[14] appears to unsettle his anti-enclosure protest. Clearly, the social and economic reordering that emerged through enclosure was messy and paradoxical. Waged employment in the processes of ‘improvement’ did offer temporary amelioration from the effects of economic depression. Here, I notice analogous threads weaving through the narratives of Helpston, facing an agricultural depression, Brighton, encountering a decline in the fishing industry and Norwich, grappling with a downturn in the worsted trade. Clare, a landless labourer who’s family consistently faced penury, had no option but to take casual work when available. Writing in John Clare: Nature, Criticism and History, Simon Kovesi astutely notes; “a choice is a product of socio-economic power, and he (Clare) had none”.[15] I equally perceive the unexpected labours of enclosure in our pandemic present and potential future. Parents have adopted the role of teacher, extending both their working hours and areas of expertise in support of their children’s education. Considering the subtleties of poetic interpretation, it is perhaps not surprising that I was pulled into a parallel learning of critical analysis alongside my daughter. Workers have been tasked with quickly absorbing new modes of job-related communication, mastering new software in its execution, from conference calling to editing video presentations. Manufacturing labourers have modified their processes to produce PEE and medical equipment, so enabling a craft distillery to make sanitiser, a flooring manufacturer to produce parts for protective shields, a trench coat factory to fabricate non-surgical gowns and masks for patients.[16] Further parallels might be drawn in the way our current lockdown enclosure could transform working practices of the future. The apparent success of labourers’ adaptation to home working has led some employers to question the necessity of paying high rental charges for city centre office space. Although there are potential benefits, a reduction in commuting could increase workers time with family and decrease pollution, the socio-economic position of workers facing a new economic depression could also lead to an acceptance of inappropriate working conditions and social isolation. 

It is, however, Clare’s ability to write from lived experience that weights his poetics to explore the common peoples’ alienation from the environment and the attendant damage done to the common land. This position is most poignantly struck in the poem, The Lament of Swordy Well, when Clare humanises nature by giving a tract of enclosed land, not simply a human voice but the voice of a labourer on poor relief.

Alas, dependence, thou’rt a brute

Want only understands;

His feelings wither branch and root

That falls in parish hands.

The muck that clouts the ploughman’s shoe,

The moss that hides the stone,

Now I’m become the parish due,

Is more than I can own.

The Lament of Swordy Well by John Clare.[17]

In the poem, Clare deftly blends the land’s experience of enclosure with the experience of hardship suffered by a labourer dependent upon parish aid. At the time, enclosure and poor relief were both perceived by the authorities in terms of ‘improvement’, where one aimed to maximise agricultural productivity, the other promoted industrious and utile labour. In contrast, Clare characterised both as conjoined forms of exploitation. Exploitation founded in enclosure’s restructuring of natural resources and human labour as commodities subject to the fluctuations of the market economy.

Stepping back from Clare but maintaining his discerning eye, I notice in Erredge that paupers in Brighton were employed in “scavenging, cleansing, and watering the streets”.[18] In this employ, the bodies of the poor were harnessed up to “muck-trucks” to haul away equine manure and tied with ropes to “barrel-constructed water-carts” to wash down the roadways. In this way, Brighton’s ‘indigenous’ labourers may well have been conscripted to maintain the roads and pathways, which had been newly carved across the common. It is difficult for modern sensibilities to imagine the physical effort of such labours but, suffice to say, Erredge likens it to the heavy work undertaken by convicts in a government prison. Eventually, he records, the parish officers were “shamed out” of this system of exploiting those “whose only crime was poverty”. Only to substitute it with another “health-destroying” activity, the wheeling of shingle and sand from the beach to the workhouse in barrows. This, I reflect, is more akin to a physical task we might be able to recreate, although I wonder to what extent public participants would engage in such an action simply for an ‘authentic’ experience of the past. The workhouse - steeped in “dread” for Clare’s ‘Swordy Well’ pauper, functioned as a routine threat meted out to the “able-bodied” who failed to observe a commitment to industrious labour. The drudgery acted as a deterrent. Another drudge that coevally exploited Brighton’s natural coastal resources and workhouse labour was the collecting and crushing of oyster-shells in large iron mortars. Oyster shell was used in the construction of footpaths in the parks and, like burnt lime, as a fertiliser for the land. It was a material bound up with the privatisation and ‘improvement’ of the commons, both in arable land and in pleasure garden. In accord with Clare’s double-bind, then, Brighton’s out of work labourers became ensnared in the entanglement of enclosure, performing the physical tasks of a landscape transformation that ostensibly excluded them the land and its subsistence usufructs, which Linebaugh reminds us are the “goods or usages required for well-being”.[19]


 Oyster Shells. Photograph by Siobhan O’Neill

It is a recurrent narrative. It resounds in Norwich, when Mousehold Heath was similarly transformed into a public park by the city corporation in the 1880s. Through the local Act of Enclosure (1883), the inhabitants of neighbouring Pockthorpe lost the mutually informing common rights and economic independence that manifested in their local monopoly of gravel extraction and brick-making. Once again, out of work labourers, dependent upon the city’s unemployment fund, were compelled to supply the physical toil that advanced the landscaping of the Heath. Writing in The Battle of Mousehold Heath, Neil MacMaster observes that over three hundred and fifty unemployed men on poor relief were taken on as manual labourers for the task.[20] The extent of unemployment here points back to the unsustainable consequences of enclosure for the people who inhabited the commons, who became subject to the uncertainties of the waged labour market. Charged with the load of taking away the “roughness of various places”, the hired hands prepared the ground for the materialisation of the landscape architect’s plans. As human tools of enclosure they cleared land plots for turfing and tree-planting, excavated soil and banked it up for a new road, and poignantly, they broke down the edges of old gravel pits and filled up the holes.[21] In other words, the labourers dismantled the remnants of the industry, which had, in some instances, sustained their independent livelihoods. Enclosure induced a profound change in commoners’ relationship with the environment; although here the common transformed to public park, the broader ‘public’ were largely not involved in the management the land as commoners had previously been. 

In an attempt to imagine the physical action implicated in grinding mollusc shell with pestle and mortar, I detour, via a visual flashback, to the BBC One living history television series 24 Hours in the Past. The programme, as the marketing tagline promoted it, saw “six celebrities travel back in time to the relentless graft of Victorian Britain”.[22] Produced as an immersive experience, the performers spent ninety-six hours in a recreation of working-class industrial life, moving each day to a different form of labour and heritage location. Following the decline in their fortunes, the final episode saw the team arrive in The Workhouse, a National Trust property in Southwell. It was here, enclosed in the workhouse yard, that I recall actor Alistair McGowan, striking a heavy metal rod into a wooden mortar to crush chunks of bone. I remember how he physically struggled with the task, failing to complete even half of the expected quota. He spoke of the pressure ricocheting through the joints of his wrist with each thud of the staff. I was interested in the way the physical simulation seemed to put him in touch with an embodied experience of the past, actualising a bodily movement that has extensively disappeared from contemporary life.

I am aware, however, that living history, whether in the form of a television production or an immersive museum exhibit, can be problematic. In accord with broader critiques of the ‘heritage industry’, 24 Hours in the Past could be accused of presenting an overly simplified and commodified version of the past, from a historical narrative that might more accurately be seen as exploitative and unstable. On the one hand, the production amplified the voices of a typically under-represented working-class existence and certainly did not shirk away from representing the dirt, toil and hardship. On the other hand, the celebrity status of the participants and the immersive reality television format corroded ‘authenticity’ and manifested working-class life as “spectacle”. Nonetheless, I am still piqued by the sense of embodiment in the recreation of bone-crushing in a conserved Southwell workhouse. I notice how interpretation emerges out of the bodily action, as the “expert” historical commentary develops in response to McGowan’s reflections of the physical strain he experiences. So, historian Ruth Goodman, explains that for skilled labourers (potters, desk clerks, actors) the physical work of the workhouse “could destroy the tools of the trade, the hands”, and as a result, labourers would be unable to return to their trades even when work became available.[23] There is a reciprocity in the sense-making, here; it arises through the encounter between the ‘participant’, the material remnants of the past and the knowledge of the Victorian specialist. By fostering a playful and visceral engagement with historical narratives, performance can help nudge participants towards a consideration of the embodied and relational aspects of past worlds. There is potential here for our urban commons research to engage performance as a means to engender embodied ways of knowing. In this way, the recreation of commonplace activities that typically go unheeded may stretch understanding beyond the easily articulable.

Getting in touch with the past, I suggest, evokes a mutuality and I hear how McGowan is touched back with affect by his corporeal encounter with workhouse labour. Struck by the “awful” task of “thumping” bone, he goes on to question whether “mental illness and depression” would have been an issue for workhouse inmates. The thought reverberates within the past-present connection, recognising how his present self would have been overstretched in this past world. As he concluded, “I always try to see a way out, but boy that would have really”, he signalled to his head alluding to a prospective detrimental impact on his mind. I note his use of gesture, here, to convey what seemingly words cannot.[24] If I listen to the resonances of McGowan’s insight within my past-present ramblings on enclosure, I might attend to the deterioration in John Clare’s mental health, as his life progressed further away from the unmitigated relationship with the natural world of his youth. Clare’s poetry was also born out of immersion, it emanated from the proximity of open access, from daily wanderings across heath and common. His depictions of the natural landscape are absorbed, saturated with the minute detail of sight, sound, smell and texture, conveyors of an intimacy available through a commoner’s know-how. When the enclosure of Clare’s parish recast his right to roam as trespass the loss of the world he knew was intensely felt. It is a reminder that commoning is deeply affective; as commons emerge through relationship, so it shapes both human and other-than-human ‘subjects’. Clare’s subjectivity, then, was woven through with threads of the commons and his alienation from the landscape, in restricted access and its physical transformation, helped to prompt an unravelling of his self-recognition.

Into the nothingness of scar and noise, -

Into the living sea of waking dreams,

Where there is neither sense of life or joys,

But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;

'I Am’ by John Clare[25]

The correspondence between mental wellbeing and access to nature equally reverberates within our present lockdown. Enclosed citizens across the country have turned to neighbourhood green spaces as a place for exercise, recreation and relief. Certainly, as I venture abroad to walk along playing field and canal bank, the opportunity to view an open horizon lifts the dreariness levied by working within the confines to my domestic pen.


Walking the Blue Line[26]

 Photograph by Siobhan O’Neill

As I increasingly skirt around the proximal bodies of other citizens I surmise a renewed interest in utilizing semi-natural spaces within the urban environment, with potentially significant impact for the future of urban commons. The bodily doings of recreation in urban common sites is something I will return to in the next Wastes and Strays blog. For now, as lockdown measures start to ease I look forward to immersing myself in the sonority, aroma and texture of our sites, hopefully in the socially distanced accompaniment of some local commoners.


Dr Siobhan O'Neill

[1] John Clare. Remembrances in John Clare. 1997. Ed. R. K. R. Thornton. London: Everyman. pp. 68-69.

[2] Peter Linebaugh. 2008. The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 45.

[3] Sarah Collins, Changing visualisations of the Steine, Victorian Gardens and the Level (March 2020) is available on this website as a blogpost.

[4] John Southerby(1797) On the Steine, Brighton, East Sussex. Accessed April 27, 2020, https://research.ncl.ac.uk/wastesandstrays/wastesandstraysblog/.

[5] J. A. Erredge. 1862. History of Brighthelmston or Brighton as I View it and others Knew it, with a Chronological Table of Local Events.  Brighton: E. Lewis. p. 194. Accessed June 6, 2020, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/50551/50551-h/50551-h.htm#page62

[6] OED Online. Oxford University Press. Accessed June 26, 2020, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/243055

[7] J. G. Bishop. 1892. A Peep Into the Past: Brighton in the Olden Time, with Glances at the Present. Accessed July 9, 2020, https://archive.org/details/apeepintopastbr00bishgoog/page/n165/mode/2up )

[8] Peter Linebaugh. 2008. The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All. Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 45.

[9] Sue Berry (2000) ‘Pleasure Gardens in Georgian and Regency Seaside Resorts: Brighton 1750-1840’ in Garden History, Vol.28, No.2, p. 224.

[10] Ibid.

[11] John Clare’s first book, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, was published in 1820. On the title page Clare was presented as “A Northamptonshire Peasant”. The image was accessed in John Clare – Delphi Poets Series. 2013. Hastings: Delphi Publishing.

[12] George Monbiot used this description in the title of his article, ‘John Clare, the poet of the environmental crisis – 200 years ago’, which was published in The Guardian on July 9, 2012. Accessed July 2, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/jul/09/john-clare-poetry

[13] John Clare. The Mores in John Clare. 1997. Ed. R. K. R. Thornton. London: Everyman. pp. 87- 89.

[14] Burnt lime or quicklime was used as a fertilizer on agricultural land to improve the quality of the soil. The 18th and 19th centuries saw an increase in the number of lime-kilns across England driven by the second wave of enclosures.

[15] Simon Kovesi. 2017. John Clare: Nature, Criticism and History. Oxford: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 19

[16] Jonny Williamson. ‘Every UK manufacturer Helping to produce PPE and equipment for NHS workers’ in The Manufacturer. Posted 16 Apr 2020. Accessed Aug 5, 2020, https://www.themanufacturer.com/articles/every-uk-manufacturers-helping-to-produce-ppe-and-equipment-for-nhs-workers/)

[17] John Clare, The Lament of Swordy Well. in John Clare. 1997. Ed. R. K. R. Thornton. London: Everyman. pp. 82.

[18] J. A. Erredge. 1862. History of Brighthelmston or Brighton as I View it and others Knew it, with a Chronological Table of Local Events.  Brighton: E. Lewis. p. 60.

[19] Peter Linebaugh. 2008. The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 8.

[20] Neil MacMaster, (1990) ‘The Battle of Mousehold Heath 1857-1884: “Popular Politics” and the Victorian Public Park’ Past & Present 127. pp.117-154.

[21] Ibid.

[22] 24 Hours in the Past, BBC One listing broadcast 2015, accessed https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05t5l7t

[23] 24 Hours in the Past, 21:00 19/05/2015, BBC1 London, 60 mins. Accessed July 15, 2020 https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/prog/0A0A1CB8?bcast=115666974

[24] Ibid.

[25] John Clare. ‘I Am’ in John Clare. 1997. Ed. R. K. R. Thornton. London: Everyman. p. 90.

[26] The blue line marks a one-mile path around the Douglas Eyre Sports Centre playing field. It is part of the Green Hearts project that aims to encourage local people to exercise. More information on the project can be found at https://www.lpff.org.uk/green-hearts/.


Kett's Rebellion, 1549

On 10 July 1549 - 471 years ago this month - Robert Kett, along with his brother William and a crowd of supporters from the surrounding rural area, arrived in the city of Norwich, teamed up with poor inhabitants of the city, and began destroying enclosures that had been erected on the city commons. Having settled on Mousehold Heath, just outside the city, they drew up a series of demands. In a previous blogpost we explored the appeals to historic rights over common land on Mousehold Heath by nineteenth-century residents of Norfolk. Mousehold Heath, then, was the focus of conflict concerning common rights and land over several centuries.

As well as constituting one moment in a longer chronological history of resistance by commoners in and around the city of Norwich, Kett's Rebellion was also one episode in a wider uprising in 1548-9 known as the 'commotion time'. While there were other issues at stake (not least attempts by the government to firmly establish Protestantism) an important spark for these uprisings was the anti-enclosure proclamations issued in June 1548 and April 1549. Enclosure - the parcelling out of common land into individual privately owned plots - was an affront to common rights. This was often viewed as a rural issue and many of the uprisings of 1548-9 were rural in focus. One distinctive feature of the Norfolk case was the urban setting and the solidarity between urban and rural protesters who travelled from all over Norfolk and Suffolk to join the rebellion. A deeper investigation of the case helps to explain this solidarity and why Mousehold Heath was chosen as the location for the rebel camp.

It was the launch of a second enclosure commission on 8 July 1549 that was the immediate spark for the uprising in East Anglia. During traditional celebrations associated with the dissolved abbey in the rural Norfolk town of Wymondham, crowds marched into surrounding fields to dismantle hedges and fences. Some of these fences were on land belonging to Robert Kett a local yeoman farmer. Rather than objecting to the destruction of his property, Kett agreed with the rioters that the enclosures should be removed and offered to lead them 'in defense of their common libertie' (Holinshead Chronicles as quoted in Andy Wood, Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England. Palgrave, 2001, p. 63). The rebels marched ten miles towards the city of Norwich, destroying other enclosures along the way.

While the city authorities refused the rebels entry, the poor people of Norwich were quick to make common cause with their rural neighbours, having recently been engaged in conflicts over the enclosure of common land within the city. In choosing Mousehold Heath as the location for their camp, the rebels were further alluding to these issues. Mousehold was itself a vast tract of common land (originally stretching all the way from the city to the coast), which was increasingly subject to enclosure. The very act of occupying that land was a symbolic enactment of the common rights being demanded. In addition, Mousehold had also been the site of a rebel encampment 60 years previously at the time of the Peasants' Revolt, further strengthening its symbolic significance.

Kett and his supporters arrived at Mousehold Heath on 12 July and immediately set up camp. Over the next month they engaged in negotiations with the national government, which led to the drawing up of a list of demands. While similar demands were issued from various rebel camps, only those from Mousehold survive in full. In line with the broader aims of the movement, the Mousehold articles begin by calling for an end to the enclosure of common land. Reclaiming the rights of commoners from the gentry and clergy and preventing communal resources from being exploited to the point of depletion were also key concerns. As well as rights to common land, the demands also referred to common rights to the waterways, insisting that rivers should be 'ffre and comon to all men for fyshying and passage'. Yet perhaps the most striking aspect of the Mousehold demands is the emphasis on the right to common. This was the focus of the third article, which read: 'We pray your grace that no lord of no mannor shall comon uppon the Comons.' The implication of this was that the rights of the commons were to be reserved for the commoners alone, not the nobility and gentry. The point was reiterated in article 11. 'We pray that all freholders and copieholders may take the profightes of all comons, and ther to comon, and the lordes not to comon nor take profightes of the same.' ('Kett's demands being in rebellion', 1549, reprinted in Anthony Fletcher and Diarmaid MacCulloch, Tudor Rebellions, 5th edition, London & New York, Routledge, 2014, pp. 156-9).

Moreover, as well as asserting their right 'to common' at the expense of local landowners, the rebels also adopted communal - even proto-democratic - practices. Despite the numbers involved being in the thousands - possibly as many as 16-20,000 - the camp was carefully organised. Justice was administered by Kett and his councillors from the 'Oak of Reformation' located in Thorpe Wood at the southern edge of the Heath. On their orders a number of gentlemen were imprisoned at Surrey Place, the former residence of the Earl of Surrey who had recently been executed. A representative council was also established comprising spokesmen from each of the Norfolk and Suffolk hundreds participating in the rebellion. It was this council that issued the Mousehold demands (suggesting that they were the outcome of a consultative process). It also issued warrants to gather food, cattle, weapons, and people on Mousehold Heath to allow the camp to function.

On 21 July a royal herald arrived at Mousehold Heath. Some rebels accepted the general pardon that he offered, but Robert Kett refused on the grounds that he and his supporters had broken no laws. The herald then declared him a traitor. Kett and his followers stormed the city of Norwich the following day and took control, forcing the mayor to put his name to their demands. The rebels defeated the Earl of Northampton's army sent to crush them and held out for a month. It was only following the arrival of reinforcement troops on 23 August, under the leadership of the Earl of Warwick, that they were eventually defeated. Even then it took four days of skirmishes, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 2-3,500 protestors. Kett was captured and he and his brother were sent to London to stand trial at the King's Bench. They returned to Norfolk for their execution. William was hanged from the tower of Wymondham Abbey and Robert on the wall of Norwich Castle.

The historian Andy Wood has argued that the brutality of the closing stages of the Norfolk uprising (which was out of line with those that took place elsewhere) was largely due to the rebels' distrust of the pardons that were offered to them, and that this reflected deeper divisions within Norfolk society. There were long-standing tensions between the commons and the gentry, but such tensions were also as much a feature of urban as rural areas, meaning that the poor of Norwich and the commoners of rural Norfolk sympathised with each other and were willing to make common cause at a time of crisis. (Andy Wood, 'Kett's Rebellion', Medieval Norwich. London: Hambledon, pp. 277-300).

Kett's Rebellion, then, reveals a number of interesting points about conflict over common rights and the relationship between the substance and method of protest that was employed. While in other areas the 'commotion time' of 1548-9 was a predominantly rural affair, the specific circumstances of Norfolk and the recent history of conflict in both the city and rural community - as well as the important presence of urban commons both within the city walls and just outside - brought together urban and rural rebels in pursuit of a common cause. The conflict was essentially a simple, but fundamental, one between the poor and the rich. At issue was not merely the ownership of land, but the exercise of rights. In their choice of location for their camp and in their actions, Kett's supporters were able to make manifest the connection between urban and rural demands and could simultaneously voice and enact their right to 'comon uppon the Comons'.

Dr Rachel Hammersley, June 2020

Common Celebrations

Social isolation has quickly become a way of life. Over the last two months, local residents have used urban commons for daily exercise within household groups giving an isolated feel to these green spaces. Historically, commons could also be places of extreme isolation. Such isolation occurred, in part, because of the location of green spaces relative to the population that used them. Clifton Down, Mousehold Heath, and the Town Moor are all good examples of urban commons where the built environment did not encroach the green space until the later nineteenth century. In addition, isolation was also present for those who led secluded lives, such as the incumbent of the lone Shepherd’s Hut on Mousehold Heath. However, urban commons were also spaces of communal gathering and merriment. At a time when many of us are creating new ways to celebrate with each other via a screen, or eagerly awaiting the embrace of loved ones, it seems appropriate to consider these more positive aspects of past human behaviour within our urban commons. This month’s blogpost is a celebration then of three such gatherings that occurred on the urban commons, we are studying in the past.

Royalty on the Steine and Level:

Brighton has a history of culinary festivities in association with Royal visits and the Steine and Level provided suitable space to accommodate these events. J. A. Erredge[i], writing in 1867, recorded three of these events:

  • On 19 July 1821, crowds gathered on the Level to celebrate the coronation of George IV. The Corporation had two bollocks roasted whole, which were served out to the crowd to mark the occasion;
  • On 3 September 1830, a commemorative dinner was held on the Steine to commemorate William IV and Queen Adelaide;
  • On 4 October 1837, Brighton officials hosted a banquet on the Steine when Queen Victoria visited the city for the first time.

 The celebrations to mark William IV and Queen Adelaide’s first visit to Brighton were one of the most elaborate the town had experienced. The Morning Post detailed the excited preparations for their arrival on 30 August.[ii]  Particularly impressive was the erection of the Triumphal Arch at the southern end of Marlborough Place, adjacent to the North Steine and just north of the Royal Pavilion.[iii]


The Triumphal Arch, Erected for the 30th of August 1830

© Society of Brighton Print Collectors

Reports vary, but there can be no question that the finished structure was impressive. The arch was approximately thirty to fifty-feet high and made up of separate compartments that were similar to boxes and galleries at the theatre, and then ornamented with foliage and hundreds of flowers, as well as flags and banners.[iv] Within the structure tiers of men, women and children waved to the Royal carriage and at the summit of the arch were sailors and officers from the Hyperion Frigate, three of which can be seen in the above image starting to scale the central flagpole. The following report from the Morning Post captures the fanfare of the day,

‘In the midst of the rattle on cannon, and the shouts of the populace, and the waving of handkerchiefs, their Royal Highnesses reached the Pavilion, the jolly tars on the summit of the splendid bridge uniting their huzzas in the common cause’.[v]

The celebrations continued into the night with the triumphal arch illuminated by 4000 lamps, and the houses along Pavilion Parade (to the east of the Steine) decorated with further illuminations. Then at 10pm, fireworks were let off on the Steine.

The celebratory events caused huge excitement and crowds – the Morning Post recorded that 60,000 visitors[vi] had been in attendance whether as spectators crowded behind the railings that encircled the Steine, or watching from the balconies of the surrounding buildings to catch a glimpse of the spectacle. The final celebratory gesture took place on 3 September, when town officials organized a great feast. At the southern extremity of the Steine, a marquee accommodated the King and Queen, and children from local charity schools were invited to dine on ‘an unlimited quantity of roast and boiled beef and plum pudding’ at tables and benches in front of the Royals.[vii]

 A celebration of the agricultural on Clifton and Durdham Down:

Culinary revelry also occurred on Bristol's urban common Clifton Down during the nineteenth century, but here it was associated with one of the oldest surviving agricultural shows in England. In 1853, the Royal Bath and West Committee (founded 1777) proposed that the show move from place to place to exhibit a different town within the region each year. Clifton and Durdham Down hosted the event at least five times during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and with each exhibition, the event grew in size. The first exhibition (1864) saw the enclosure of twenty-five acres of the Downs and 545 entries of livestock for the events. By 1903, the exhibition was so sizeable that forty acres were required. Events included exhibitions of poultry, livestock and machinery, practical instructions on skills such as bee keeping, a working-dairy, which instructed on how to make clotted cream, and performances from musicians.[viii] 

An American visiting the show in 1878 observed how little it compared to American agricultural shows. Besides the animal enclosures and latest innovations, he found the most interesting feature to be the people – he saw farmers’ wives and house-servants in dresses that had little to distinguish them from their superiors, although in their speech he could detect ‘the lower and richer intonation of educated persons’.[ix] More enlightening for him was the enormous amount of drinking - ‘men and women – of many classes, too – crowding about the numerous large booths where beer and spirits were sold…such beverages would drive an American crowd beyond the limits of decency, and quite beyond the control of the police; here it had no more effect than water’.[x]

Plan of the Clifton and Durdham Down Agricultural Show, 1878

*reproduced in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Vol. LVIII, Dec 1878 to May 1879

Source: https://books.google.co.uk

Like the Royal Visit in Brighton, members of the Royal Family visited each agricultural show. Attendance by George V in 1913 was a great honour for Bristol, which is why the appearance of a Suffragette during the open-topped carriage procession proved particularly distressing to the committee. In an act that is reminiscent of Emily Davison’s sacrifice only a month before, Mary Richardson of the Women’s Political and Social Union (Clifton), darted from the pavement and dropped a scroll of paper promoting the suffragist cause on to the knees of the King. She was swiftly taken into police custody but not before the crowd mobbed her – one spectator slapped her and another hit her over the head with their umbrella.[xi]

Temperance Fair on the Town Moor:

In stark contrast with the merriment of drinking on Clifton Down was Newcastle upon Tyne’s first Temperance Fair on the Town Moor. The three-day festival opened on the 28 June 1882. The first fair was a positive response to a visit by the temperance lecturer R. T. Booth in 1881. Temperance organisations wished to build on his success and the fair provided a suitable venue to champion the cause. In addition, officials favoured the scheme because it helped to retain the midsummer holiday, which they feared would lapse because the Town Moor race meetings relocated to Gosforth after the 1881 season.[xii] The event, which attracted 150,000 people, was organised by Newcastle’s Freemen, Councillors and various Temperance societies. The Newcastle Courant wrote, ‘townspeople and persons from neighbouring towns and villages attended in much larger numbers than we have ever known assemble on the Moor before’.[xiii]

The fair was a deliberate departure from vice that some felt accompanied the Town Moor race meetings – the prohibition of alcohol was a notable success, but so too was the ban of cardsharps or other incitements to gamble.[xiv] Instead, those in attendance enjoyed brass-band contests, bicycle races, football and cricket matches, children’s sports and games such as hurdle races and tug-of-war, as well as fairground rides and acrobatic displays. The event was a mixed social occasion with benefactors’ deliberately showing benevolence to the local poor children though treats such as oranges and buns, and prizes such as hats and shoes.

The Hoppings has been providing a welcome and vibrant sight to the Moor throughout its multiple iterations. By the 1890s, visitors welcomed the steam-driven roundabouts from show-families such as the Murphy’s and Hoadley’s, and in the early 1900s, the ‘helter-skelter’ was introduced for the first time.[xv] The success of that first fair established an annual tradition that is a northeast institution, and although the rides are much faster today the spirit of family oriented fun remains by combining the traditional and modern.


(right) Swing Ride, 1940; (left) View of the Hoppings, 1990

© Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums

Comparatively these examples share some common themes despite temporal differences. Firstly, they reveal the important association between food and drink within festival settings – whether through its consumption or deliberate rejection. Moreover, although the amount of alcohol consumed at the agricultural show was surprising to the American visitor his reflections were not intended as chastisement, but rather acknowledged the sociability that drinking together encouraged. The emphasis on socialisation, entertainment and participation was an important driving force at these celebratory events. The joyous nature of these occasions was a possible contributing factor in the crowd's negativity towards Mary Richardson in the moments that followed her protest – people were unwilling to compromise celebration for such a political act. Such emphasis on participation was also present in acts of benevolence – the contributions of local benefactors in Brighton and Newcastle meant that children not only participated, but also experienced special treatment. Such acts were valuable to those children for whom social participation and treats were rare. The observing adults also valued these events – the Newcastle Courant noted the joy, for all, of seeing ‘hundreds of happy faces’.[xvi] The over-whelming theme from these examples however is the emphasis on social and class interaction. Historians need to be cautious when linking historical and spatial contexts – simply placing historic events within urban space fails to engage properly with why specific places have meaning to people in the past – yet the events detailed here reveal the importance of green space within urban settings that had reduced capacity for communal gathering. Throughout the nineteenth century, many towns and cities experienced increased social segregation of the population. The open space of urban commons facilitated use by a wider distribution of the populace, regardless of social standing, and eased class distinctions (at least temporarily) during events that enabled mass celebration and shared human experience.

While our current crisis has resulted in absence of celebratory events such as these on our urban green spaces this year, the bright lights, sounds and action associated with them will be a welcome sight to everyone in the years to come.

Dr Sarah Collins

[i] J. A. Erredge, The Ancient and Modern History of Brighton, with a reprint of “The Booke of all the Auncient Customes, 1580” (Brighton: W. J. Smith, 1867), p. 195.

[ii] Arrival of the King and Queen, Moring Post, September 1, 1830 (Issue 18634), accessed April 29, 2020, www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk.

[iii] The Triumphal Arch,Aquatint engraving drawn by A S, printed and published by W Leppard (Brighton), accessed 29 April 2020, https://sbpc.regencysociety.org/the-triumphal-arch/.

[iv] Ibid; Arrival of the King and Queen.

[v] Arrival of the King and Queen.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Erredge, The Ancient and Modern History of Brighton,p. 195.

[viii] Bath and West Exhibition to be opened at Bristol To-Day, Western Times, May 27, 1903 (Issue 16814), accessed May 27, 2020, www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk.

[ix] Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Vol. LVIII, Dec 1878 to May 1879 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1879), pp. 217-229.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Suffragette and King, Tamworth Herald, July 12, 1913 (Issue 2344), accessed April 21, 2020, www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk.

[xii] The Temperance Gala on the Town Moor,Newcastle Courant, June 30, 1882 (Issue 10826), accessed April 21, 2020, www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid; Bill Weeks, History of the Town Moor (Newcastle upon Tyne: Kenton Local History Society Bulletin 6, 1994), pp. 3-6.

[xv] Weeks, History of the Town Moor.

[xvi] The Temperance Gala on the Town Moor.

People's Parks

With the spread of COVID-19 confining us all to our homes, the value of green space - and of access to it - has taken on new meaning and importance. Mine cannot be the only family that has come to realise in the last few weeks how lucky we are to live close to an urban park. Our regular evening walks there lift our mood and provide time for conversation and reflection after a day cooped up indoors.

The benefits of access to green space for physical and mental wellbeing have been regularly cited in the media for some years now and are acknowledged by the World Health Organisation (https://www.who.int/sustainable-development/cities/health-risks/urban-green-space/en/). Living in close proximity to such space has been linked to very specific health benefits such as the later onset of the menopause among women and better mortality rates.

Our attitude towards green space might seem very particular to the twenty-first-century, given its association with current concerns surrounding the environment, curbing obesity, and improving mental health. Yet, these modern debates are only the latest manifestation of discussions that have taken place for centuries. As far back as 1861, one Newcastle journalist wrote in words which with just minor tweaking could have appeared in today's Newcastle Chronicle:

            The pure and bracing air of the Town Moor, and Leazes, so frequently

            recommended by medical men to their patients for the restoration of health, and the

            footpaths and pleasant walks, with liberty to stroll where you will, and not suffer

            confinement to harsh gravel walks, have always been highly conducive to the

            health and enjoyment of the inhabitants, who ought to be extremely grateful that

            there is so large a tract of ground adjoining the town, open to them at all times for

            exercise and recreation. To be deprived of it, on any pretence, plausible as it may be,

            would be felt as a great misfortune ('The Corporation and the Town Moor',

            Newcastle Journal, 20 September 1861).

Interestingly, this article was part of a campaign opposing the proposal by Newcastle Council to convert the city's Town Moor into a 'People's Park'. Moreover, Newcastle was not the only place in the 1860s where the idea of creating a 'People's Park' was stiffly rebutted by defenders of existing urban commons. In Norwich the proposal by the Dean and Chapter that Mousehold Heath be transformed into a 'People's Park' provoked a strong and vociferous opposition movement which held out for more than twenty years. So why did the Victorian idea of a 'People's Park' fail to appeal even to those who acknowledged the health benefits of access to open spaces? As will become clear, the issue is more complicated than it seems at first sight.

Newcastle Case

In the summer of 1861, the Town Moor Committee of Newcastle Town Council sought to make a recommendation to Parliament to convert part of the Town Moor and Leazes into a People's Park incorporating 'rides, drives, cricket and drill grounds - a gymnasium, in fact, for all classes' ('Newcastle Corporation - The Town Moor', Newcastle Journal, 8 August 1861). While the case appeared public-spirited, opponents dismissed the proposal as the latest of many attempts by the Newcastle Corporation to seize possession of land that belonged to the freemen. While not denying the positive benefits of access to green open space, not just for the freemen and their widows and orphans but for all inhabitants of the city, it was argued that 'the Town Moor, Nun's Moor, and Castle Leazes already form the most healthy and extensive public park in the north of England, and perhaps in the kingdom' ('The Corporation and the Town Moor', Newcastle Journal, 20 September 1861). Turning these commons into a People's Park, it was asserted, would be a waste of taxpayers' money.

This debate was one strand of a larger conflict between the freemen and the Corporation over the Town Moor, which had a long history. Trouble had flared in the 1770s resulting in the passing of the Town Moor Act in 1774. According to this legislation portions of the Moor could be let out for cultivation, but only under strict regulations.

At a meeting in September 1861 to arrange that year's lettings, trouble flared. Acting as a freeman and on behalf of a large group of others, the solicitor Mr E. Story entered a protest against the re-letting of the intakes which were at present under lease to tenants. Concerned at the impact repeated letting of the same intakes was having on the land, Mr Story pointed out that re-letting was contrary to the letter of the 1774 Act. When the chairman of the incorporated companies, Mr Meikle, insisted that despite the objection they should proceed to the letting, Mr Story opposed each one in turn and as a result no bids for previously cultivated land on the Town Moor were made, only the lots on the previously uncultivated Leazes being let ('The Town Moor Intakes', Newcastle Journal, 5 September 1861; 'Letting of Intakes on the Town Moor', Newcastle Courant, 6 September 1861; 'The Freemen and the Town Moor' and 'The Town Moor Intakes - Protest of Freemen', Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury, 7 September 1861). At least one newspaper report in discussing the case linked the dispute to internecine conflict among the freemen, not least over rights to graze cattle on the Moor. 

What appears to have been at stake in Newcastle in the 1860s, then, was not whether maintaining an area of open space close to the heart of the city was a good idea, but rather who had control over that space, how that control was to be exercised, and how the space itself should be used.

Norwich Case

In Norwich, too, the call to establish a People's Park was bound up with the issue of who controlled the urban common land, in this case Mousehold Heath, an area of heathland that had originally stretched from the edge of the city of Norwich to the Norfolk coast. By the early nineteenth century much of this area had been enclosed, but the portion closest to the city remained. On the surface this case looks very different from that of Newcastle. Rather than the city authorities seeking to seize control, the owners - the Dean and Chapter - wrote to the sheriff of Norwich in 1864 offering all rights in Mousehold to the city on condition that the area be transformed into a People's Park. In order to make sense of this apparent act of self-sacrifice and public-spiritedness on the part of the Dean and Chapter, we need to delve a little deeper. The fact that the Dean and Chapter were said to be tired of having legal responsibility for Mousehold Heath suggests that control over the commons had become a burden rather than a benefit. One reason for this can be found in council debates dating back to the late 1850s.

On 23 May 1857 the Norfolk Chronicle reported a discussion in the recent quarterly council meeting regarding the condition of Mousehold Heath. Some development of this part of the heath had begun in the late eighteenth century and by the 1850s it was a popular place for Norwich's growing middle class to walk and take exercise. One of those present at the meeting described it as 'one of the finest places in the world to gallop over' and claimed 'it renovated any one to do so'. There were, however, concerns that these activities were being negatively affected by other uses to which the heath was being put. A number of representations were made to the watch committee regarding encroachments on the heath - in particular marl pits and ditches. Concern was expressed that these features negatively affected the experience of walkers and riders, but also that they made the road 'extremely dangerous'. One council member went so far as to suggest that the activities of a few individuals were rendering the area 'entirely useless' ('Norwich Corporation', Norfolk Chronicle, 23 May 1857).

While the Dean and Chapter, the city authorities, and the middle class inhabitants of Norwich, may have been in agreement that a People's Park provided the solution to the problem of Mousehold, other users of the common were less convinced (Neil MacMaster, 'The Battle for Mousehold Heath 1857-1884: "Popular Politics" and the Victorian Public Park', Past and Present, 127 (1990), 117-154). Residents of the parish of Pockthorpe, which bordered the Heath, had long used the land for the purposes of brick making - a key local industry. It was this activity that created the pits and quarries that caused such consternation among the more well-to-do inhabitants of the area. Their claim to the land is reflected in the fact that on historic documents the area is often described as 'Pockthorpe Heath'. These residents already felt disadvantaged by the earlier enclosures and so were keen to retain rights over the heathland that remained. They were, of course, less powerful and not as well-connected as Newcastle's freemen, making it remarkable that they were able to delay Mousehold's conversion into a People's Park for more than twenty years. This achievement was largely the work of the Pockthorpe committee but, as Neil MacMaster has argued, this group benefitted from the passing of the Reform Act of 1868, which made electoral candidates reluctant to give their support to policies that were expressly opposed by the new working-class voters. In the end the case went to Chancery, where a decision was taken in 1883 in favour of the city and the creation of a People's Park.

These cases remind us that while the idea of a People's Park, and the associated drive to encourage more ordinary people to engage with the natural environment and gain the benefits of fresh air and exercise, may seem uncontroversial and self-evidently good, apparent short-term gains could be used to mask longer term losses. This might be the transfer of rights over common land to those with a vested interest in exploiting that land for profit, or middle and upper classes uses of the land trumping any claims of members of the lower orders. What these cases reveal above all else is that the control of common land is a political issue.

Dr Rachel Hammersley, Newcastle University

Hidden Histories: Mousehold Heath

As the oral historian attached to the Wastes and Strays project, I have been struck by the ways in which the histories of our case studies are often invisible to the hundreds of people who walk, run and cycle across them daily. This doesn’t mean that they are forgotten, rather that there is little by way of historical infrastructure or physical remains to hint at some of the monumental events that have taken place on our common land. As the researcher on the ‘present’ strand of the project, I am most interested in the ways in which the history of the case studies can interact with the present, and most importantly, preserving the voices and memories of the people who use it now. This repository of oral history interviews will provide a new primary resource, which could inform future academic research, policy change or local interest.

In this series of blogposts I look at each of the case studies in turn, to explore this idea of invisible history, and how generations of people have understood and interacted with this land.

Mousehold Heath

Mousehold Heath has been used by the people of Norwich for over 1000 years. It has been, in recent years, the focus of a concerted effort to maintain it as a protected, open space. A series of management plans, the most recent of which covers 2019-2028, were created by the Mousehold Heath Conservators and the city council to ‘… to enhance the biodiversity of the site through the restoration of nationally declining habitats, building on the important work around increasing understanding of the heath through volunteering opportunities and educational programmes as well as ensuring the site offers a safe and welcoming environment for all its visitors.’[i] The Heath is designated as both a Local Nature Reserve and a County Wildlife Site.

As with so many of these spaces, there is a complex history of ownerships over the centuries, but its current status is defined in the management plan:

Mousehold Heath was given to Norwich City Council (then known as the local corporation) in 1880 by the church to look after on behalf of the citizens of Norwich. The City of Norwich Mousehold Heath Scheme Confirmation Act was passed by Parliament in 1884. The Mousehold Heath Conservators were constituted following the passing of the act to maintain and preserve Mousehold Heath.[ii]

For a historian, Mousehold is fascinating, as so much of its history is invisible or reduced to remains that only hint at the stories and local legends that have arisen over the centuries. Oral history can play an interesting part in rekindling and exploring these hidden histories, as local knowledge and memories interact; playing in the old chapel nestled in the woods on the heath and sledging down the man-man hills on the Town Moor.

Mousehold was supposedly the location of a violent and ritualistic murder. In 1144, twelve-year-old William of Norwich, now a saint and martyr, was killed and left in the woods.


 St Agatha Holding Pincers and a Breast; St William of Norwich with Three Nails in His Head (panel from a rood screen), Norwich, 1450-1470, artist unknown. Victoria and Albert Museum

A chapel was built on the site of the murder but later destroyed, likely during the Reformation. The land is managed to make the land forms and other features of the chapel visible, and blogs of local historians and writers make it clear that this history has endured:

"Within it, Long Valley in particular makes one feel that Norwich is far away and that the only exciting thing that would happen below the deciduous canopy of Mousehold is for Robert Kett to emerge with the city’s authorities in hot pursuit. The wood’s deciduous canopy also does more than cushion objects of our imagination, it muffles the noise of vehicles on those roads that run circles round the area, including that odd little field or two set amongst the trees. It is a wood veined with sand and flint edged pathways that have been cut through ridges by centuries of feet; nice pathways, many of them through birches growing in shallow areas either side. Pick the right one, but avoiding bramble, rough undergrowth, burrs and ticks and the site of a largely forgotten chapel will emerge; here the mind can get lost in time for that place is where the ‘St William’s Chapel in the Wood’ once stood."[iii]


© Copyright Evelyn Simak, from Geograph.org.uk/photo/2062003

The story of William and his chapel has been depicted in art across Great Britain. According to the Mousehold Defenders, paintings of the martyr are located in Norfolk, Kent and Suffolk, yet the site itself is largely invisible, unless you know exactly what you are looking for. In the 12th century, a new chapel was dedicated to St. William, the murdered boy. The Chapel of St-William-in-the-Wood was, according to historian E.M. Rose, likely destroyed during the reformation but ‘substantial: the walls were reputed to have been more than two and a half feet thick. Today it is marked only by some stones at the edge of a soccer field, the overgrown site protected by the Ancient Monuments Act, first enacted by Parliament in 1882.’[iv] Is a story, so imbued with violence and enduring fear, worthy of increased physical demarcation?

In an 1835 edition of the Norwich Magazine, an essay entitled “Tales of Mousehold Heath” discussed in further detail the enduring effect of the story of the William in the Wood, 700 years later. In this extract, two gentlemen are exploring the location of the long-destroyed chapel, and attempting to map the ruins in detail:

… we were on the point of abandoning the farther investigation, when we saw approaching towards us, a labourer, bearing on his shoulder the tools with which he had been at work in a neighbouring gravel pit. Wishing to avail ourselves of such opportune assistance, we hailed the countryman, when to our great surprise, without regarding our signals, he turned off abruptly from the path which crossed the monastery grounds … it was evident that he avoided us and the strangeness of his conduct induced us to follow him … When he found that we were advancing towards him, he first quickened his pace; but as soon as we had cleared the bank of earth … he stopped, as if awaiting our approach. As we drew near, we heard him exclaim, in a tone half arguing with himself, and half addressed to us, “Why sure, and they be proper gentlefolks after all!”

“Did you take us then for robbers or ghosts?” was our immediate enquiry?

“Nay, your honors,” replied he, “a poor man ha’ no need to be afeard o’robbers; and as for ghosts ….”[v] 

When the men asked about their frustrated attempts to map the land, the labourer comments on how those from the city don’t understand the power of the history of the land, and the menacing presence of those from the past: 

‘T is astounding but to hear how light you city gentry can make o’ such matters … in all the sixty long years that I have lived hereabouts, nevers the time that I have ventured across Pockthorpe Churchyard after nightfall. And as for grubbing the old walls, now that the sun’s adown, younger and stouter hearts than mine might flinch from the parlous encounter.[vi]

The labourer went on to say that although he had not seen the ghosts himself, there was a common knowledge about the space, and he knew of many who had. He also described the frequent unnerving occurrences that he attributed to the spirits of the Heath: 

In every gust o’ wind such moans and yells, such shrieking, howling, and roaring ha’ burst upon our ears that we ha’ been struck dumb wi’ terror; and sometimes, when the burly ha’ been at its height, my half-burn pipe ha’ dropped from my lips, just for all the world as if one o’ the wicked urchins had crept in and dashed it on the hearth; and my dame’s spinning-wheel ha’ stopped all on a sudden stock still, like as if the goblin had laid upon it a hundred pounds weight or more.[vii]

This story, with its likely hyperbole or emphasis, is wonderfully evocative of the communal stories and myths that surround these spaces we are researching, especially in certain, historically significant locations. This essay, part of a series, demonstrated how our understanding of common land can often come through people’s experiences of the space, in addition to archival and archaeological histories. These collective memories are a common occurrence in oral histories, and this project is no different.

There is also significant invisible history in relation to Mousehold’s use as a political stage, as the Heath was a camp ground for significant challenges to the political status quo. Mousehold was a site of rebellion after a process of land enclosure made it difficult for local peasants to benefit from the land. Despite brief success in seizing Norwich, leader Robert Kett was captured, with 3000 men killed. Kett was hung at Norwich Castle in 1549.


Samuel Wale, Robert Kett, under the Oak of Reformation at his Great Camp on Mousehold Heath, Norwich, 1549, c.1746.

Historian Geoffrey Moorhouse argued that the peasants were angry at a number of laws which threatened their way of life: “local enclosures [were] a particular target of peasant anger, but by no means the only one. People were also aggrieved by rack-renting, by the rise in food prices, by a steady erosion of tenant rights.’[viii] It is interesting to look at some of the demands put forward by the rebels.


 British library: Harley MS 304, f. 75v. 

There are several demands that relate specifically to the importance of common land for the people of Norwich and, more broadly, to all those who relied on public land to survive. This included:

  • We pray your grace that no lord of no mannor shall comon uppon the Comons.[ix]
  • We pray that Rede ground and medowe grounde may be at suche price as they wer in the first yere of kyng henry the vijth[x]
  • We pray that all ffreholders and copieholders may take the profightes of all comons and therlordes to comon and the lordes not to comon nor take profightes of the same.[xi]
  • We pray that copie your grace to take all libertie of lete into your owne handes wherby all men may quyetly enioye ther comons with all profightes.[xii]
  • We pray that Ryvers may be ffre and comon to all men for ffysshyng and passage.[xiii]
  • We pray that the pore mariners or ffyssheremen may haue the hole profightes of ther ffysshynges in this realme as purpres grampes whalles or eny grett ffysshe so it be not preiudiciall to your grace.[xiv]
  • We pray that it be not lawfull to the lordes of eny mannor to purchase londes frely and to lett them out ageyn by copie of court roll to ther gret advaunchement and to the vndoyng of your pore subiectes.[xv]

These demands place such emphasis on the dependence so many placed on the lands where they could forage for food, fire wood and their livelihoods, and how they felt that this land, in a sense, belonged to them, and not the wealthier members of society, who were beginning to encroach on this space. Acts of Enclosure and other limitations on common spaces were a serious threat to the well-being of the poorest members of this society. In my oral histories with currents users of these spaces, there is obviously less concern about food and foraging rights, but there is still a fervent belief in the rights of citizens to use these lands for exercise, recreation, health and wellbeing. Just because the nature of use has changed, attachment and dependence on the land has endured.

Aside from these two examples of invisible history, it is clear that Mousehold has inspired creative responses in art and literature for centuries. Art historian Sam Smiles, in his article Mousehold Heath as a Location, has commented on the absence of infrastructure, of subject matter in artistic depictions of the Heath, but also that this itself comments on the power of nothingness. Smiles pointed to Samuel and Richard Redgraves, art writers, who reflected that the barren nature of John Crome’s painting of Mousehold Heath demonstrated ‘how very little subject has to do in producing a fine picture’, arguing that the work was interesting ‘from its painter-like treatment, certainly not from [its] subject.’[xvi]


John Crome, “View on Mousehold Heath, near Norwich”, c. 1812. Victoria and Albert Museum 

These open spaces do present similar issues for artists as they do for historians. The absence of features but the presence of vast political and social memory and history mean that, as Smiles observed, Mousehold Heath ‘may be regarded as a landscape whose past whose past was bound up in its present.[xvii] Although painting a picture of MH as more of a blasted heath than the biodiverse, fiercely protect land that we see in modern documents, it is clear that there was something in this space that was worth capturing, and that perhaps this absence of infrastructure was a form of muse. Indeed, art historians Trevor Fawcett and Sam Smiles summarised the importance of local spaces and local art to local people, arguing that ‘the Redgraves’ lofty dismissal of its subject as irrelevant would not have been shared in Norwich … Crome’s treatment of the location in Mousehold Heath, Norwich was deliberately anachronistic, presenting the landscape as though enclosure had not taken place, precisely to re-engage with a landscape lost to modernity.’[xviii]

There is a clear belief in the power of common land for the people of Norwich, whether that be for food and livelihoods in the medieval and early modern period, or in more recent years. In the Mousehold Heath management plan 2019-2028, the Mousehold Heath conservators said that ‘in sharp contrast to [its] outward economic prosperity, Norwich has a low wage economy and high levels of deprivation.’ They continue:

Although important for its wildlife and history, it is much more than a museum or a nature reserve. It is a space that is highly valued as a place where people can enjoy a feeling of being in the countryside whilst still being in the city. It is a place where people can walk, play sport, learn about nature and history, attend an event, or just unwind from the pace of city life. 

For many Mousehold is a crucial part of the city, heathland, insect friendly, wildflowers beds with over 40 species, a wide range of birds, mammals and amphibians, bioverse because of a carefully co-ordinated set of monitoring schemes, but still imbued with an almost invisible history, of crucial importance to the citizens of Norwich. As the oral historian on this project, it will be useful to consider firstly how current users understand the history of these spaces, and whether local knowledge has endured, and secondly, whether there are ways of bringing out the history, without the addition of any permanent infrastructure that would impact on the space itself. 

Dr Olivia Dee

[i] Mousehold Heath Conservators, “Mousehold Heath Management Plan 2019-2020” Norwich City Council 2019, p. i.

[ii] Mousehold Heath Conservators, “Mousehold Heath Management Plan 2019-2020” Norwich City Council 2019, p.6.

[iii] Norfolk Tales Myths, “William in the Wood” 6th May 2018. https://norfolktalesmyths.com/2018/05/06/william-in-the-wood/

[iv] EM. Rose, The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) p.44.

[v] Anonymous, “Tales of Mousehold Heath” The Norwich Magazine (Norwich: Josiah Fletcher, 1835), p. 151.

[vi] Anonymous, “Tales of Mousehold Heath” The Norwich Magazine (Norwich: Josiah Fletcher, 1835), p. 151.

[vii] Anonymous, “Tales of Mousehold Heath” The Norwich Magazine (Norwich: Josiah Fletcher, 1835), p. 152.

[viii] Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Pilgrimage of Grace: The Rebellion that Shook King Henry VIII’s Throne (London: Orion Books, 2002), p. 366.

[ix] ix-xv are extracts taken from Andrew Dunning, “Kett’s Demands Being in Rebellion.’ British Library Medieval Manuscripts Blog,16 November 2016. https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2016/11/ketts-demands-being-in-rebellion-1549.html Translation: We pray your grace that no lord of no manor shall common upon the common.

[x] We pray that reed ground and meadow ground may be at such price as they were in the first year of King Henry VII.

[xii] We pray that all freeholders and copyholders may take the profits of all commons, and there to common, and the lords not to common nor take profits of the same.

[xiii] We pray that Rivers may be free and common to all men for fishing and passage.

[xiv] We pray that the poor mariners or fishermen may have the whole profits of their fishings as porpoises, grampuses, whales, or any great fish so it be not prejudicial to your grace.

[xv] We pray that it be not lawful to the lords of any manor to purchase lands freely and to let them out again by copy of court roll to their great advancement, and to the undoing of your poor subjects.

[xvi] Sam Smiles, “Mousehold Heath as a Location’, in Sam Smiles (ed.), In Focus: Mousehold Heath, Norwich c. 1818-20 by John Crome, Tate Research Publication, 2016. https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/in-focus/mousehold-heath-norwich-john-crome/mousehold-heath-location

[xvii] Sam Smiles, “Mousehold Heath as a Location’, in Sam Smiles (ed.), In Focus: Mousehold Heath, Norwich c. 1818-20 by John Crome, Tate Research Publication, 2016. https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/in-focus/mousehold-heath-norwich-john-crome/mousehold-heath-location

[xviii] Trevor Fawcett, ‘John Crome and the Idea of Mousehold’, Transactions of the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society, vol.38, part 2, 1982, pp.168–81 in Sam Smiles, “Mousehold Heath as a Location’, in Sam Smiles (ed.), In Focus: Mousehold Heath, Norwich c. 1818-20 by John Crome, Tate Research Publication, 2016. https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/in-focus/mousehold-heath-norwich-john-crome/mousehold-heath-location



Changing visualisations of the Steine, Victoria Gardens and the Level

In July 2019 the Wastes and Strays project team travelled to Brighton for our first workshop, Four Urban Commons: methodologies for engagement.[i] As the event was held on Grand Parade it provided ample opportunity to explore and consider the spatial history and character of the Steine, Victoria Gardens and the Level. What struck me at the time was the emptiness of the green space, despite the summer months. Plans to revamp the space by Brighton & Hove City Council are on temporary hold – the high fencing to protect the site in the meantime has resulted in an absence of people. However, the hope is that on completion the scheme will offer ‘a better environment, with more public space and landscaped areas’, which will have the added benefit of enhancing Brighton’s major heritage assets such as the Pavilion and St Peter’s Church.[ii]

Artistic Impression of Victoria (Valley) Gardens (left) and the Steine (right)

* Source: https://www.brighton-hove.gov.uk/content/parking-and-travel/travel-transport-and-road-safety/a-vision-valley-gardens

With this contemporary focus on increased accessibility, the plans led me to wonder about the former landscape character of this part of Brighton. A rich collection of historical visual sources that depict Brighton have survived. This material has been analysed by the Wastes & Strays project team to understand the historic development of the Steine, Victoria Gardens and the Level, as well as those using the green space. This month’s blogpost provides a summary of some of the key findings from Brighton’s artworks.

The popularity of Brighton which owed much to Prince George (later George IV) resulted in multiple artistic representations of the Steine, Victoria Gardens and the Level being produced from the late eighteenth century continuing well into the early twentieth century. An indicative sample of thirty prints, oils and watercolours was analysed to compare active functions, users, and landscape change over time. The images ranged in date from 1765 to 1910 and were selected using an online collection, The Society of Brighton Print Collectors,established by the Regency Society of Brighton and Hove, and Brighton and Hove museums and art galleries collection provided by Art UK.

As a starting point the analysis considered the range of activities visualised by artists that occurred on the green space. These activities were largely temporary in nature, apart from ‘transportation’, in which permanent road networks physically altered the green space resulting in shrinkage of the formerly unenclosed landscape. In addition, activities occurring adjacent to, rather than on the green space – agriculture, commercial and residential uses - were recorded because artists depicted these as part of the broader landscape, impacting the general character of the area, and contributing significantly to long-term change. The number of images that depicted adjacent residential use, for example, is significant because it highlights the increased development of agricultural land to the east of the green space from the early nineteenth century onwards.

In total seventy-two activities were recorded within the thirty image sample (the results of which are shown in the graph above). Recreational use was recorded more than any other activity – twenty-seven artworks depicted people engaging in leisure. The emphasis on recreation is unsurprising. The eighteenth century saw a surge in leisure facilities of all types, and Brighton as a seaside town was ripe for recreational development, particularly after its endorsement by Dr Richard Russell in the mid-eighteenth century.[iii] The pictorial analysis strongly favours artworks from the mid-eighteenth century onwards, which skews the dataset – it was only once the green space became established as an area of elite interaction that artists were inspired to visualise it. In addition, the type of activity portrayed was determined by the view of the artist. For example, representations from the Steine looking north, east, and west were more likely to portray recreation, while those images benefitting from the height of the South Downs and looking south were more likely to include a broader range of activities including residential and transportation uses surrounding the green space. As the dataset consisted of artists who favoured northern views, from the Steine, recreation became a defining visual feature of the space between 1765 and 1910. In light of the number of surviving documentary sources that detail leisure activities taking place on the green space we can surmise that the images provide observed scenarios (at least in part), rather than merely imaginary scenes. Having said this, written sources provide greater nuance. Whereas the majority of images favoured promenading scenes, newspapers have catalogued an array of spontaneous activity. Take for example a report from the Morning Post, 9th of August 1805, ‘the fineness of the day renewed the sport of donkey riding, and airing in dashing curicles, &c. The Steyne, as usual, was covered with beauty’.[iv]

So what about other uses? Well, these were important too and reveal the continued variety of activities for which the Steine, Victoria Gardens and the Level were used. Three instances of commercial use were recorded. Two of these involved female hucksters selling perishable goods (most likely fruit), whilst the third provided an example of use of the southernmost end of the Steine for boat storage. Use of the green space for boat storage can be dated to at least the sixteenth century. J. A. Erredge’s[v]  history of Brighton documented that the Steine was used as an area for boat-storage before its development into recreational grounds from the 1780s, but it is interesting that John Sotherby’s 1797 depiction (below) includes boats so close to the circulating library. If boat-storage was still happening despite ‘improvements’ funded by Prince George and the Duke of Marlborough in the early 1790s then it suggests that transformation of this space was a gradual process.


On the Steine, Brighton, East Sussex by John Sotherby, 1797

(note the row of boats in the centre of the picture to the right of the circulating library)

* © Brighton and Hove Museums and Art Galleries. Produced under a creative commons license.

Evidence of domestic practices continuing to take place on the green space during the nineteenth century is also important in showing the contribution that working class users made to the Steine and other green spaces. For example, View on the Steine, Brighton (1808)[vi] depicts three working class males in the foreground cleaning a carpet in close proximity to urban elites promenading, and A Bird’s-eye View from the Preston Road (1819)[vii] shows several washing lines in use for clothes drying on the grassed area between the current Victoria Gardens and St Peter’s Church. Such depictions of mixed-use practices well into the early nineteenth century is indicative of greater acceptance of complex spatial and social arrangements in English towns developing during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century.[viii] Whereas, by the mid-nineteenth century onwards the failure of artists to continue to represent such mixed-use activities within urban settings, such as wastes, might be interpreted as movement towards greater segregation of spatial arrangements associated with the Victorian period. This does not necessarily mean that green spaces became more exclusive, but the images do demonstrate increasing access by the middle-classes within a publicly ornamented setting, and a decline in its use as a functional working space for members of the working class.

This brings us nicely to the depiction of the users of the Steine, Victoria Gardens and the Level between 1765 and 1910. Sex, age, class, and animal subjects were all considered within the analysis, the results are shown in the two graphs below.


Pictorial quality meant that the precise number of men, women, children and soldiers could not be determined. However, the artworks revealed an overwhelmingly mixed gendering of space. None of the thirty images had single-sex subjects. Instead, of the twenty-eight images that depicted figures there was an equal balance between male and female subjects. At least three of the images had soldiers who were represented both on and off duty. This group was measured separately because it represented a transient part of Brighton’s population, but nevertheless an important part of the community and attraction for tourists. Finally, it is worth observing that over half the images contained children (male and female). Five of the nineteen examples featured children at play with balls or dogs, and all examples included children with accompanying adults – these were family groups enjoying the green space as an area for recreation.

Similar analysis was undertaken of the depiction of animals within the artworks. Twenty-three of the images featured animals including horses, dogs, sheep, oxen and donkeys. On the one hand, the representation of animals might be considered negligible – a visual tool only - but it also supports the notion that the green space transitioned gradually from a working landscape with oxen and sheep to one in which there was greater reference to domesticated species such as dogs. The 1797 image Western Side of the Steyne, North of Castle Square (shown below) demonstrates this transitional landscape unmistakably. A small flock of sheep are depicted grazing on the enclosed Steine where a family group is also participating in leisure. The proximity of this view to Sotherby’s 1797 image above further supports observations that the Steine remained in use for activities other than elite recreation until at least the late eighteenth century.


Western Side of the Steyne, North of the Castle Square, Brighthelmston, 1797

* © Brighton and Hove Museums and Art Galleries. Produced under a creative commons license.

In contrast, horses were commonly depicted with riders or accompanying carriages on the road networks that increasingly surrounded the green space, and all fourteen examples that contained dogs showed them in the company of humans. One can only assume that these were intended to represent pets because of the regularity with which dogs are depicted walking or playing with humans (see the example below). So, much in the same way that the Steine, Victoria Gardens and the Level is enjoyed by families (in its broadest interpretation) today, the same held true for this green space from at least the mid-eighteenth century.


The Victoria Fountain, Brighton. Erected May 26th 1846

* © Society of Brighton Print Collectors. Produced under a creative commons license.

What the images overwhelmingly demonstrate is that this green space was a landscape of intense human activity, and even when roads and public footpaths started to dominate the space, in ways that have become controversial in modern times, images such as The Old Steyne, Brighton, 1824 (© Society of Brighton Print Collectors. Produced under a creative commons license), shown below, continue to portray the importance of this space as an area of human interaction. In fact, while the retraction of the green space has been a significant process between the 1780s and present, Brighton’s current street layout has actually preserved the east to west, and north to south extent of the original green space.

In contrast with other urban wastes, loss of green space was not the result of built structures so it would be relatively easy to reinstate the waste as it looked before the rise of leisure – with this in mind, a scheme that hopes to prioritise the pedestrian within the landscape is not necessarily a bad thing if all modern user groups can reach a compromise.

Dr Sarah Collins, Newcastle University

March 2020 

[i] An overview of the event is available on this website as a blogpost by Dr Rachel Hammersley.

[ii] A Vision for Valley Gardens, accessed January 27, 2020,www.brighton-hove.gov.uk/content/parking-and-travel/travel-transport-and-road-safety/a-vision-valley-gardens. For discussion on the controversy that surrounds the plans see, Sarah Booker-Lewis, Controversial Old Steine revamp approved, February 8, 2019, accessed January 27, 2020, www.brightonandhovenews.org/2019/02/08/controversial-old-steine-revamp-approved/.

[iii] For general discussion on the rise of leisure in English towns: Peter Borsay, ‘The English urban renaissance: the development of provincial urban culture c.1680-c.1760’, in Peter Borsay (ed.), The Eighteenth-Century Town: A Reader in English Urban History 1688-1820 (London: Longman, 1990), pp. 159-187; Joyce M. Ellis, The Georgian Town 1680-1840 (Hampshire: Palgrave, 2001); Rosemary Sweet, The English Town 1680-1840: Government, Society and Culture (Harlow: Pearson Education, 1999). For Brighton specifically: Sue Berry, ‘Pleasure Gardens in Georgian and Regency Seaside Resorts: Brighton, 1750-1840’, Garden History, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Winter, 2000), pp. 222-230.

[iv] Morning Post, August 9, 1805, accessed January 28, 2020, www.go.gale.com.

[v] J. A. Erredge, The Ancient and Modern History of Brighton, with a reprint of “The Booke of all the Auncient Customes, 1580” (W. J. Smith: Brighton, 1867), pp. 182-83.

[vi] View on the Steine, Brighton (1808), accessed January 27, 2020, https://sbpc.regencysociety.org/donaldsons-library-in-view-on-the-steine-brighton/?highlight=Steine.

[vii] A Bird’s-eye View from the Preston Road (1819), accessed January 27, 2020, https://sbpc.regencysociety.org/brighton-a-birds-eye-view-from-the-preston-road/?highlight=Steine.

[viii] Sarah Collins, ‘A comparative study of urban space in Newcastle upon Tyne and Charleston, South Carolina, 1740-1840’, (PhD diss., Northumbria University, 2019); Colin G. Pooley, ‘Living in Liverpool: The Modern City’, in John Belchem (ed.), Liverpool 800: Culture, Character and History (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006); Gregory Stevens Cox, St Peter Port, 1680-1830: The History of an International Entrepôt (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1999). 

Restricting Legal Protection for Community “Green” Space: Village Greens in the Supreme Court

Land can be registered as a town or village green (‘TVG’) under the Commons Act 2006 if it has been dedicated by an Act of Parliament for the recreation of the inhabitants of a locality; if the inhabitants of a locality have a customary right to indulge in local sports and pastimes; or if it is land on which, for not less than 20 years, a ‘significant number of the inhabitants of any locality, or any neighbourhood within a locality’ have indulged in lawful sports and pastimes.[1] The TVG legislation has been generously interpreted by the courts over the last 20 years or so, and the contemporary legal concept of a village ‘green’ is some way from the idealistic conception of the traditional village green with maypole and village pub in the background. The courts have ruled in the recent past that there is no requirement for the land to conform to a specific physical description: it does not have to represent the traditional village ‘green’ and may include, for instance, part of a beach or even land that has been ‘created’ by the deposit or accretion of soil.[2]

Whatever its nature or locale, once registered as a TVG the land is protected as a community resource – but the legislation makes no provision for the vesting of individual property rights over it in members of the community, or for the registration of specific recreational rights in them.[3] Land that is registered as a TVG can be used for all ‘lawful sports and pastimes’, not just those that gave rise to the claim for registration.[4]  This is another concept that has been generously interpreted by the courts. In R v Oxfordshire County Council ex parte Sunningwell Parish Council[5] it was held that ‘lawful sports and pastimes’ can include a wide range of recreational activities including dog walking, playing with children, blackberry picking and other forms of informal recreation. It is not necessary for the activity to be communal, and neither must it involve what is usually considered a ‘sport’.

The somewhat generous interpretation of the legislation on TVGs seen in earlier cases came to an end shortly before Christmas 2019, when the Supreme Court gave its ruling in two cases that will have a profound impact on the future ability of communities to register land as a TVG.[6] The first was an appeal by Lancashire county council (as local education authority) against the registration of 13 hectares of land in Lancaster as a TVG (the “Moorside Fields” case). The second was an appeal by the NHS against the registration of 2.9 hectares as a TVG in Leatherhead (the “Leach Grove Wood” case). In the Moorside Fields case the planning inspector had recommended registration following a public inquiry; in the Leach Grove Woods case the inspector did not recommend registration, but Surrey County Council had decided to register the land as a TVG in any event.

The Supreme Court ruled, by a 3:2 majority, that both appeals should be allowed and that the land could not in either case be registered as a TVG. The legal basis for the majority decision was that where land is held by a public body for statutory purposes which are inconsistent with the recreational rights granted to members of the community by registration of the land as a TVG then it cannot be registered. The court had to consider the principle of statutory incompatibility – whether the recognition of community recreational rights over a TVG (if registered) would render it impossible for a public body to carry out the other statutory purposes for which it held the land. In another recent case decided in 2015  – R (Newhaven Port and Properties Ltd v East Sussex County Council[7] - the Supreme Court had applied the statutory incompatibility principle to rule against the registration as a TVG of a specific area of land held by the Newhaven port authority for the purposes of the port operation. The judgement in the Moorside fields and Leach Grove Woods cases greatly extends this principle to deny registration as a TVG to land that is held by public bodies which have general powers granted by statute to hold any land for educational or health purposes.

In the Lancaster case the local education authority had argued that designating the fields adjacent to the Moorside primary school as a TVG would be incompatible with its statutory duties under the Education Acts of 1944, 1996 and 2002 to ensure that there they made available ‘sufficient schools’ in their area and supplied suitable outside space therewith for outside play and physical recreation.[8] The planning inspector had considered the council’s detailed plans for the extension of Moorside primary school on different land, and concluded that the only future intended purpose for the land in question was  to provide outside activities and sports for the school – uses which were not necessarily incompatible with the use of the land by inhabitants of the locality for lawful sports and pastimes if the land were also a TVG.[9] Giving the leading judgment in the Supreme Court, however, Lord Carnwath held that the issue of incompatibility must be decided by reference to the statutory purposes for which the land is held by a public body – not be reference to how the land is used at any given time.[10] He also stressed that the Commons Act 2006 does not enable a public authority to buy out rights over a TVG on land it owns, where this is necessary to pursue its other statutory purposes, other than by supplying alternative replacement land as a TVG – and that it would therefore be ‘surprising’ if Parliament when passing the 2006 Act had intended to allow the 2006 Act to be used to “frustrate” important public interests expressed in statutory powers.[11]

This decision will greatly restrict the ability of local communities to register land that is owned by public bodies as a TVG – and to secure its long-term protection as community green space. In an age of austerity, local authorities and other public bodies are under enormous pressure to raise funds for core services. If land that has been used by communities for local sports and pastimes, often for long periods in excess of 20 years, cannot be registered as TVG and given the legal protection that this entails, then there is often little to stop it being sold for development. The importance of public access to green space is an important public policy that the Supreme Court decision will do nothing to promote. It also underlines the importance of the bespoke statutory protection given to some of our most important urban commons such as Town Moor in Newcastle, Clifton Downs in Bristol and Mousehold Heath in Norwich – three of the Wastes and Strays project case studies – which are legally protected by private Acts of Parliament. In the absence of this bespoke legal protection, the Moorside fields litigation shows just how vulnerable community green space can be – and will continue to be in the future.

Chris Rodgers, Newcastle University

January 2020 

[1] Commons Act 2006, s 15.

[2] See Newhaven Properties and Port Ltd. v East Sussex County Council [2013] EWCA Civ 2013 (a tidal portion of a beach, covered by water for part of each day, was held to be in principle registrable as a TVG); R (Beresford) v Sunderland City Council [2014]1 AC 889 (sports arena maintained by the local authority, with seating etc. provided); R (Lewis) v Redcar Borough Council [2010] UKSC 11 (golf course over which public also exercised recreational use).

[3] “The law relating to greens produces a public right to land but in private form”: McGillivray D., Holder, J., ‘Locality, Environment and Law; the case of town and village greens’, (2007) 3 International Journal of Law in Context 1, at 3.

[4] Oxfordshire County Council v Oxford City Council and Robinson [2006] UKHL 25.

[5] R v Oxfordshire County Council ex parte Sunningwell Parish Council [2000] 1 AC 335

[6] R (Lancashire County Council) v Secretary of State for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs; R (NHS Property Services Ltd.) v Surrey County Council [2019] UKSC 58 (11th December 2019).

[7] [2015] UKSC 7

[8] Education Act 1944, ss.8; Education Act 1996, ss. 13 and 14; Education Act 2002, s. 75 (4);  School Premises Regulations 2012, SI 2012/1943, reg. 10.

[9] See excerpts from planning inspectors report at [2019] UKSC 58 para 15 (Lord Carnwath).

[10] [2019] UKSC 58 para 56 et seq.

[11] [2019] UKSC 58 para 64.

An Un-Common Waste

One of the important questions that the ‘Past’ aspect of the Wastes and Strays Project is considering is the role of commons in relation to their specific urban contexts. What were these spaces used for, by whom, and with what authority? Several functions spring to mind – many of which will be explored further within these blogposts – but, there are also unexpected uses that resonate with contemporary debates on misuse of landscape and environmental impact. To facilitate these discussions it is worth recounting one such unconventional use of the Town Moor in Newcastle upon Tyne that challenges our notions of what urban commons were used for in the past.

At approximately 4pm on the 17th of December 1867 Newcastle’s buildings shook as a loud explosion was heard throughout the city and along the banks of the River Tyne. The origin of the explosion was difficult to ascertain – some suspected a locomotive had exploded, whilst for others it heightened fears of an attack from the Irish Republican group, the Fenian Brotherhood.

The true cause was rooted in the disposal of a rather un-common waste on the Town Moor. 

‌On the morning of the 17th, Newcastle’s police were alerted to the existence of nine canisters of nitro-glycerine being stored within the cellar of the White Horse Inn on Cloth Market (marked by the red star on Reid’s map of Newcastle, 1863).

The Krummel factory in Hamburg (left). Alfred Nobel (right).

*The Krummel factory in Hamburg (left), where Alfred Nobel (right) & Company experimented to find safe solutions for the use of nitro-glycerine. The canisters found in Newcastle came from the Krummel factory.[i]

The Corporation took swift action. Newcastle’s town clerk, Mr Philipson, advised police that unless the nitro-glycerine was taken out of town and destroyed within the hour, the owner would be liable to penalties and prosecution. As a precaution Mr John Mawson, a chemist and Sheriff of Newcastle, and Mr Thomas Bryson, the Town Surveyor, were tasked with assisting the police officers. Mawson and Bryson settled on a spot on the Town Moor where historic coal extraction had already caused subsidence.

The nitro-glycerine was taken through the city by cart. In total nine people were present on the Moor to assist or watch the disposal of the nitro-glycerine: Mawson and Bryson; Thomas Appleby (the cartman); James Shotton (a local labourer); Constable Donald Bain and Sub-Inspector Mr Wallace; Stanley Waddley and James Stonehouse (fourteen year old bystanders who followed the cart out of curiosity); and a further unnamed adult male.

Shovels were used to shear off the ends of the canisters and the liquid nitro-glycerine was poured onto the Moor, but the cold weather had caused crystallisation within the canisters.[ii] Ever the chemist, Mawson broke off a piece of the crystal and put it into his pocket for later inspection. The decision was then taken to dispose of the remaining crystallised nitro-glycerine a few yards away within a secondary area of subsidence. Sub-Inspector Wallace was left at the first site to cover up the liquid nitro-glycerine with soil.

Moments later, there was a terrible explosion at the second site.

Wallace’s life was saved due to a small hill that screened the first site from the blast occurring at the second site. He described scattered fragments of clothing and human remains falling around him, including his friend’s foot! A similar account was produced by Dr Walpole who had been taking a walk on the Moor and was about three hundred yards away when the explosion occurred. Of the original party, Wallace was the only survivor. Furthermore, the list of fatalities included by-standers, one of whom was never identified and two of young age. Nor were all the deaths immediate – a 14 year-old boy survived for a further hour before dying, and Mawson and Bryson clung to life until the following day. This highlights both an alarming lack of attention to safety by Mawson and Bryson and also contests the anticipated emptiness of the Town Moor by the authorities – they saw no danger in spreading chemicals on the Moor because it was perceived as vacant. 

The events were shocking, but even during their grief there was also some relief for Newcastle’s inhabitants. The following day the Newcastle Daily Journal expressed an opinion that was likely shared by some, while deploring the great extent of the calamity that has befallen us, we may well be thankful that it is no worse, and that the centre of Newcastle, with its valuable buildings and extensive commercial transactions and busy population, has not been reduced to a heap of ruins.[iii] As it turned out it was indeed fortunate – it was only after the explosion that the authorities realised that thirty canisters had been stored in the cellar for at least six months without detection.[iv]  The Newcastle Daily Journal calculated that this quantity of nitro-glycerine had the equivalent explosive power of more than two and a half tons of gunpowder – furthermore the rear of the White Horse Inn was close to the Bank of England building on Grey Street!

There appears to have been little regard for the impact that the events had on the Moor as a landscape. The Pall Mall Gazette summarised the problem presented to the Corporation succinctly. The nitro-glycerinewas not in a proper place, and the magistrates ordered its destruction. It was taken to the Town Moor, a large open space, and emptied on the soil.[v] The choice of words here is important because it was, and still can be, reflective of attitudes towards commons as open spaces of lesser economic benefit. It is interesting that of the choices presented to them, including emptying the nitro-glycerine into the River Tyne, disposal on the Moor was considered the least damaging option.[vi] In other words, the city depended on the river as an economic resource, but the Moor was not viewed in this way. It was a place within Newcastle but disconnected from the built environment of the city, and its use was sporadic rather than constant. Furthermore, it was an opinion that was shared – in the weeks that followed police enquiries within the north east led to the discovery of other stocks of nitro-glycerine including a canister found near to Chester-le-Street that was taken onto Waldridge Fell and detonated, producing a five-by-six foot crater in the peat.[vii]

Town Moor, Newcastle, July 2019 © Sarah Collins 

Town Moor, Newcastle, July 2019 © Sarah Collins

 Lesser known histories can facilitate discussion between urban commons and human experience. Our project is concerned with understanding these commons as a valued space within the daily lives of the urban inhabitants who lived in proximity to them, rather than an isolated geographic location. Unconventional practices on the common - some that were far removed from original rights and customs - reflect attitudes that counter this notion: commons could be treated as a space of ‘otherness’, somewhere that was expendable in comparison to the built environment of the city. To a contemporary audience the events on Newcastle’s Town Moor are striking as we have better understanding of the health and wellbeing benefits of green spaces. In Newcastle, events such as World Cleanup Day have been used by non-profit organisations such as the Skill Mill to litter-pick after events such as the Hoppings, whilst providing employment opportunities for young people. But, our urban green spaces are still under-threat and it has been encouraging to uncover the amazing work of volunteers fighting to protect them from future damage like that considered here.

Dr Sarah Collins, Newcastle University

December 2019

[i] Birgitta Lemmel, ‘Alfred Nobel in Krümmel’, created February 1998 by The Nobel Prize, https://www.nobelprize.org/alfred-nobel/alfred-nobel-in-krummel/

[ii] The Newcastle Daily Journal, December 21, 1867, accessed May 17, 2019, Issue 3717. British Library Newspapers, Part III: 1741-1950

[iii] The Newcastle Daily Journal, December 18, 1867, accessed May 17, 2019, Issue 3714. British Library Newspapers, Part III: 1741-1950

[iv] Ibid.

[v] The Pall Mall Gazette, December 18, 1867, accessed May 17, 2019, Issue 891. British Library Newspapers, Part I: 1800-1900

[vi] Mawson feared that the nitro-glycerine would be washed about in the River and cause damage. Alternative suggestions included removing it from Newcastle by rail, but the Clerk of the railway refused after learning of the compounds destructive properties. See, The Newcastle Daily Journal, December 18, 1867, accessed May 17, 2019, Issue 3714. British Library Newspapers, Part III: 1741-1950

[vii] The Newcastle Daily Journal, December 30, 1867, accessed May 17, 2019, Issue 3723. British Library Newspapers, Part III: 1741-1950

Wastes and Strays: Reflections on Methodologies for Engagement Symposium

On Tuesday 9 July the AHRC-funded project 'Wastes and Strays: The Past, Present and Future of Urban Commons' held its first workshop. The location was highly appropriate in that we were in the Grand Parade Building of The University of Brighton which faces onto Valley Gardens, one of our four case studies. The fact that the whole area is currently a building site was disappointing for those of us who had travelled from afar and wanted to get a good picture, but is indicative of the dynamism and constantly changing nature of urban common land. Moreover, the improvements the work will bring certainly sound promising. 

The workshop was led by members of the project team: Chris Rodgers (PI) of the Newcastle Law School, Alex Zambelli (Co-I) an Architect from Brighton University - who has posted his own engaging account of the event here: https://scandalousartefacts.com/2019/08/04/the-memory-playfulness-and-imaginary-of-english-urban-commons/, John Wedgwood Clarke (Co-I) a poet based at Exeter University, Rachel Hammersley (Co-I) from the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at Newcastle, Sarah Collins the RA working on the past strand of the project, and Livi Dee the newly appointed RA working on the present strand. Emma Cheatle of the University of Sheffield is also a Co-I and key member of the team, but was unable to attend this event. Also participating in the workshop were representatives from each of our four case studies: Newcastle's Town Moor, Mousehold Heath in Norwich, Clifton Down Bristol, and Brighton's Valley Gardens, together with Nicola Hodgson from the Open Spaces Society, Duncan MacKay from Natural England, and Nick Gant from Community 21.

The day involved discussion of various issues relating to the project and prompted a number of insights. In the first place, we explored issues of definition. This involved thinking about what the difference is between an urban common and a public park, and noting the seemingly curious fact that only one of our four case studies - Bristol - is actually an official registered common. Moreover, in that case grazing - the main historical reason for the establishment of common lands - now plays only a very minor role in the life of Clifton Down.

In listening to our workshop participants I was also struck by how different our four case studies are. They differ not just in how they are organised and funded, but also in how they look. The Town Moor has retained its wild open character, whereas the topography of some of the others is more diverse. Mousehold, for example, includes a mixture of woods and heathland. Moreover, grazing cattle, which are such a key feature of Newcastle's urban common do not feature on Mousehold at all and rarely on Clifton Down. While all of our case studies have roads cutting across them (some of which have been the subject of fierce battles in the past) in Valley Gardens cars seem to outnumber pedestrians and the voices of car users, bus companies, and taxi drivers have long been central to debates over that common. 

There are also sharp contrasts with regard to how the four commons are used today. The participants from Bristol conveyed a sense of extensive use by the community - with overuse a real and present danger, particularly at a time when limited funds necessitate commercial exploitation. Town Moor by contrast seems to be less regularly used by the people of Newcastle, which brings certain advantages, but also different kinds of difficulties. Yet in all four cases it was clear that our workshop participants felt a strong sense of attachment to, and ownership over, their particular common and that this feeling was shared with the wider communities they represent.

While undoubtedly positive, those strong feelings do generate problems, not least the contestation between different user groups that seems to have marked the history of all four commons. At Mousehold contestations can be traced back at least as far as Kett's Rebellion in 1549. Robert Kett's supporters camped on Mousehold Heath and many of their demands were concerned with securing the use of common land for the ordinary people against exploitation by the local gentry. Later, in the nineteenth century, conflicts arose between the residents of Pockthorpe - a community bordering Mousehold Heath whose residents used the land for quarrying, brickmaking, and other activities - and the city authorities who wanted to turn the area into a 'People's Park' (N. MacMaster, 'The Battle for Mousehold Heath 1857-1884: "Popular Politics" and the Victorian Public Park', Past and Present, 127 (1990), 117-54). More recently conflicts have arisen between the city authorities and an action group calling itself the 'defenders of Mousehold Heath'. Thankfully relations are much more positive today, but the potential for conflict between different groups remains.  

The history of Newcastle's Town Moor is also fraught with contest. In the past this often pitched the Freemen against the Mayor and city magistrates who were felt to be exploiting the Moor for their own gain rather than in the interests of the Freemen and their families. In the mid-1770s these tensions boiled over into national politics leading the Freemen to put up a radical Wilkite candidates for the 1774 election and resulting in the Town Moor Act which laid down rules as to how the Moor was to be managed and the uses to which it could be put. All this makes clear that balancing the different interests and needs of various user groups (and local residents who do not currently use their urban common) is crucial to the future management of these areas. 

Moreover, alongside the specific examples of conflict in the past and continuing tensions today in each particular common, our discussions brought to the fore several more deep rooted tensions that are inherent in the very idea of an urban common. All commons, but especially urban commons, have at their heart the tension between nature (whether that is the grazing cattle, the heathland, or a wildflower meadow) and human users. Managing the two is central to the work of wardens like Will Stewart at Mousehold Heath. Another inherent tension we discussed is that between on the one hand the wildness that is often a defining feature of urban commons distinguishing them from parks (and the edginess associated with it) and on the other hand the need for these places to be safe and accessible for a wide variety of users. As these examples suggest, there is no easy answer to the problem of managing and balancing these tensions. As the same time it is crucial that we find ways of doing so, not just to secure the future of our urban commons, but also our democracy and our planet.

Dr Rachel Hammersley, Newcastle University

November 2019