The Garden Guide

Book: Landscape Planning and Environmental Impact Design: from EIA to EID
Chapter: Chapter 4 Public open space POS

Enclosure of common land

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Enclosure of common land in England 

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, surviving areas of common land were looked on with disfavour by the authorities. They were said to be agriculturally unproductive, unsightly, politically dangerous and socially disruptive - as meeting grounds for criminals, drunkards, prostitutes and malcontents. The English political meeting which led to the 'Peterloo massacre' of 1819 was held on common land and in 1848 the Chartists gathered on Kennington Common. Cattle grazed on Boston Common, in Massachusets, until the 1830s. Sheep still graze on Luneburg Heath in Germany . Some commons were saved from extinction by being converted into public parks. John Stow records that Moorfields, in London , 'were turned into pleasant walks, set with trees for shade and ornament' during the seventeenth century. By 1720 they were 'no mean cause of preserving Health and wholesome Air to the City; and such an eternal Honour thereto, as no Iniquity of Time shall be able to deface' ( Stow 1720: 70). His optimism was ill-placed: the fields were sold for building development in 1814. Many other commons survived as public parks with restricted use. The Meadows in Edinburgh , the Strays in Harrogate and Clapham Common in London are, to the uninformed visitor, indistinguishable from other municipal parks. No modern poet is likely to write of: Ye commons left free in the rude rags of nature, Ye brown heaths be clothed in furze as ye be, My wild eye in rapture adores every feature, Ye are dear as this heart in my bosom to me. (Hoskins & Stamp 1963: 63). The injustice done to the people of England does not equal that done to the native peoples of America and Australia , but comparisons can be drawn. According to Hoskins, 'millions of acres' of common land were enclosed and 'in most places this legalised theft was carried through without any active threat from the illiterate and cowed small peasantry, who rarely had a leader in their cause' (Hoskins & Stamp 1963: 60). J C Loudon both defended the commons and argued the case for public parks. In 1835, the year in which he designed England 's first public park, Loudon made the following plea for the commons: The preservation of some of these chases is as essential to the poorer classes of the metropolis as to the rich. To the former they afford health, exercise and amusement; in the latter they produce and cherish that love of the country, and of rural sports, so important in a constitutional point of view (Loudon 1835: 562). Loudon also campaigned to save Hampstead Heath from building development (Simo 1981). It was saved as an open space in the 1870s but in the 1970s local residents were still fighting - to stop park managers converting land from heath to park [Fig 4.4] (Davies 1983: 199). Wimbledon Common is owned by trustees and managed as traditional heathland. The natural vegetation is maintained at one fifth of the cost of a standard town park and also accommodates a wider range of uses: golf, horseriding, walking, football, children's play, cricket, model boating, outdoor swimming, gathering firewood, courting and picking blackberries. Common lands should be held in trust, by the people for the people, to be managed with as little expenditure of the people's money as possible.