'Wastes and Strays' Blog

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. 
 https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2016/11/ketts-demands-being-in-rebellion-1549.html

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