The Garden Guide

Book: London Parks and Gardens, 1907
Chapter: Chapter 8 Commons and Open Spaces

Commons Preservation Society and Metropolitan Commons Act

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Tis very bad in man or woman To steal a goose from off the common, But who shall plead that man's excuse Who steals the common from the goose ? As OLD DITTY. IT was only fifty years ago, when the want of fresh air and room for recreation was being realised, that people began to wake up to the truth that there were already great open spaces in London which ought to be cared for and preserved. It was brought home by the fact that over �1000 an acre was being paid to purchase market-gardens or fields so as to transform them into parks, while at the same time land which already belonged to the people was being recklessly sold away and built over. All through the history of most of the common lands encroachments of a more or less serious nature are recorded from time to time. The exercise of common rights also was often so unrestrained as to inflict permanent injury on the commons. The digging for gravel was frequently carried to excess, whins and brushwood were cut, and grass over-grazed until nothing remained. At last in 1865, a Commons Preservation Society was formed with the view of arousing public attention to the subject. As is often the case, some people ran to the opposite extreme, and wished to transform the commons into parks without giving compensation to the freeholders and copyhold tenants, who thereby would lose considerable benefits. In some cases after the Metropolitan Commons Act of 1866 was passed, the Lord of the Manor, on behalf of all the freeholders, disputed the right of the Metropolitan Board of Works to take the land without compensation to the owners. The lord of the manor was considered unreasonable by some of the agitators for the transference of the common lands to public bodies, but he was fighting the battle of all the small owners. The freeholders in some cases were as many as fifty for some 40 acres. Many of the commons were Lammas Lands. The freeholders, of which there were a large number, had the use of the land from the 6th of April until the 12th of August, and the copyhold tenants of the manor had the right of grazing during the remainder of the year. The number of cattle each could graze was determined by the amount of rent they paid, and the grazing was regulated by the "marsh drivers," men elected annually by the courts of the Manor for the purpose. A curious incident in connection with these rights happened on Hackney Downs in 1837. The season was late, and the steward of the Manor put up a notice to the effect that as the freeholders' crops were not gathered the grazing on the Downs could not begin until the 25th, instead of the usual 12th of August. The marshes and other common lands in the parish were open, so there was actually plenty of pasture available for those entitled to it. There was a fine crop of wheat on some plots on the Downs, and on the morning of Monday the I4th August, "a few persons made their appearance and began to help themselves to the corn." Summoned before the magistrates, the bench decided that after the usual opening day the corn "was common property, and could be claimed by no one parishioner more than another." On the strength of this decision the whole parish turned out, and a terrible scene of looting the crop took place, while the poor owners vainly tried to save what they could. The freeholder with the most wheat, a Mr. Adamson, lost over �100 worth, although he worked all night to save what he could. A case followed, as Mr. Adamson prosecuted Thomas Wright, one of the many looters who thought they had a right to it, for stealing his wheat. This time the magistrates fined the man twenty shillings, and half-a-crown, the value of the wheat he had actually taken, as he had no right to take away the crop, although he had a right to put cattle on the Downs. Further trials for riot before the Court of Queen's Bench resulted in the prisoners being discharged after they had pleaded guilty. It appeared both the looters and Mr. Adamson were in the wrong. They had no right to remove the corn, neither had he, after the 12th August, and those who had grazing rights could have turned on their cattle to eat the standing corn. This incident just shows how the right of freeholders and copyholders could not lightly be trifled with.