Packer's Field : Reminds me of another time
and another place
'Most of the open spaces - commons,
woods, greens - that exist in our cities remain today because
they were preserved from development by collective action.
Whether by rioting, tearing down fences and reopening enclosed
land, or by legal agitation, many of the commons and parks
we know and love would have been lost if they hadn't been
South London Radical History Group
What link could there be between a 21st
Century inner-city campaign to keep a recreation ground open
to the public and the struggles of peasants more than 250
years ago to retain their custom and right to common land?
On the face of it, none. However the experiences of the fight
for access to Packer's field in Whitehall, Bristol have produced
a strange resonance with the history of enclosure and the
struggle for common land in Britain. These echoes relate to
ideas of custom and right, ancient legal precedents and the
tactics and propaganda of the land enclosers. This essay is
an elaboration of some of these strange 'coincidences' and
explains why past struggles, in this world of neo-liberalism,
are not as far away as we may think. The article is split
into two parts, separated by several hundred years, so I hope
I have been able to illuminate the connections for the reader.
Part 1 : Packer's Field
Protestor: 'When you see a hole
in a fence and a green space beyond, what do you think ?'
Councillor: 'I think it is vandalism'
Protestor: 'Can you remember being twelve years old?'
Conversation overheard at a Bristol
City Council planning meeting 2005
Packer's field, as it is commonly known
by the people of east Bristol, is a seven-acre green field
site bounded by the inner-city communities of Whitehall, Easton
and Greenbank. Its ancient origins are not well known but
by the end of the 19th century the expansion of Bristol driven
by the industrial revolution meant that this piece of land
lay on the boundary of the city. The land became part of the
Packer's Chocolate factory complex and served as a recreation
ground for the workers and the local community. Sports and
pastimes abounded with football, cricket and family picnics
fondly remembered by local residents.
The economic depression of the 1930's
put Packer's Chocolate factory in deep financial trouble. As
a way of raising capital the owners were forced to put the
recreation grounds up for sale. So like many local facilities,
the maintenance and upkeep of the recreation ground passed
into the hands of local government in the generalized intervention
of the state in acquiring and protecting 'public assets' for
the benefit of the community. The field was simultaneously
used as a sporting resource for local schools, as a venue
for sports clubs and as a free green space for local residents
to use. As the rate of housing and business development accelerated
during the post-war reconstruction, Packer's field became one
of the few flat green spaces in east Bristol suitable for
sport and recreation.
The 1980's marked the rise of neo-liberal
policy under the Conservative government of Thatcher. With
the ruthless destruction of 'heavy industries' (coal, steel,
shipbuilding etc.) completed and the shift of manufacturing
industry from the U.K. to economies with cheaper labour underway,
there was a need for rejuvenation of inner city districts.
Central government introduced programs that created zones
in cities freed from some planning restrictions, with low
rents for business and encouraged the construction of high-value
properties for the so-called 'yuppies'.
Property speculators seized the initiative in Bristol and
significant swathes of the city were ruthlessly developed.
This process was halted by the recession of the late 1980's,
which was followed by stagnation, and a considerable number
of newly constructed but seemingly useless, empty buildings.
Packer's field seemingly survived these 'boom and bust' years
that marked the rise of neo-liberal city development policy.
By the 1990's Easton in particular retained
no large sports grounds and the pressure to use spaces for
formal or informal sport became intense. The 1997 general
election victory for the Labour Party convinced many that
the general sell-off of Council facilities and lack of protection
for school playing fields, sports grounds and recreation grounds
marked by the Thatcher era would end. However it wasn't long
before the truth dawned on everyone that Blair was just another
neo-liberal wolf in sheep's clothing. Far from stopping the
sell off of state assets he seemed to continue the policy,
albeit with smile, rather than the Thatcher scowl. Blair's
buzzword for his plan for continuing the neo-liberal assault
on the public sector would be 'public-private finance initiatives'
In the early part of the new millennium,
the ruling Labour group on the City council, in line with
government policy nation-wide, began to draft a plan
to 'rationalize' school playing fields across Bristol. This
basically meant creating a series of high capital investment
hub sites for sport. The locations for these sites would be
driven in part by the 'strong market interest' in sports facilities
by business and they would be partly funded by selling off
'surplus' playing fields
to private property developers.
This policy dovetailed nicely with the
Blair inspired plan for a new PPFI initiative for education,
the construction of 200 City Academy schools across the nation.
These 'new' schools would be existing schools seized by the
state, taken out of Local
Education Authority (LEA) control and handed over to be run
by a board of directors involving private businessmen who
had invested the required amount of money
to get control of the
school. The benefit to the community was an investment
by the state in new buildings and facilities for these specialized
St. Georges school in Lawrence Hill was
ear marked for Academy status and was designated as a 'Sports'
college. This brought benefits and problems. On the plus side,
as far as the government and the new Principal Ray Priest
were concerned, private investors were easy to come by. Bristol
City Football Club and the University of West of England
were all eager to get involved. After all, for a relatively
modest investment, they got access to new inner city sports
facilities, nine tenths of which were probably going to be
paid for by the state and local government. But where were
these 'state of the art facilities' going to be built?
After developing the St. Georges school
site (including the playing fields there) only part of the
remit for Sports Academy status had been achieved. One of
the requirements for the Sports status of this new City Academy
was the need for an Athletics stadium and facilities. This
had to be achieved by a given deadline else there would be
no state funding. Where were they going to put the Athletics
stadium they needed? They had already built over their own
school playing field. The beady eye of the City Academy Principal
and the private investors fell on Packer's field.
The City Academy Plan
Initially the Academy plan to develop
Packer's field had, on paper, a major difficulty to be overcome.
The land was controlled and maintained by Bristol City Council
and as such was not technically theirs to develop. However
the ruling Labour Party hacks
were certainly not going to oppose the City Academy School,
and defy the pet project of their party leader. This was not
exactly the best way to improve one's career prospects. So
the process was set in place to hand public land over to a
'private' institution for development.
With the land 'sell off' agreed behind
closed doors in the Council House in 2002, all the Academy
and their political partners had to do was put together the
development plan for Packer's Field which tied in with the
'hub sites' proposals of the City Council's Playing Field
Strategy document and satisfied the Academy's funding requirement.
This entailed a two stage plan of enclosing Packer's field,
preparing a car park and new entrance and then in the second
phase constructing an Athletics stadium. Unfortunately the
Academy had made a fatal error with the plan. In all of this
process they had ignored the local community.
The Campaign Begins
In 2002, some local residents had attended
the so-called 'public consultation' meetings and had challenged
the plans for the stadium, car parks and new entrance and
as well as questioning the lack of public access to the site.
Rumours from the ground staff at Packer's field of '8 foot
fences, swipe cards and cameras' spread to many of the
informal users of the facility. A campaign group was swiftly
formed which recognized that the struggle for free access
to the site was now clearly on.
The City Academy and the Council realized
that they had a problem and withdrew their plans. No explanation
was given, but local opinion was that they had gone too far,
too fast. In August 2003 the Academy returned to the fray
with a new plan but with no mention of the Athletics stadium.
Now the planned development only entailed enclosing the site,
improving the sports pitches and constructing new changing
rooms and a car park.
It was obvious to the campaigners that
once the first phase had been achieved (i.e. leasing of the
land to the Academy and rubber stamped planning permission)
then it would leave the way forward to build the Athletics
stadium in the so far unmentioned second phase. While the
Academy were boxing clever, they weren't expecting the big
left hook that the community delivered in the second round
of the contest.
The Town Green application
Local residents whose questions about
public access to Packer's field remained unanswered and whose
objections had been ignored during the planning applications
were now faced with what they regarded as a 'done deal'. At
successive planning meetings, it became obvious that the local
Councillors were 'in the pocket of the Academy'
and were not representing the interests of their constituents.
The nature of Blair's 'Public-Private' partnership was made
clear, it was a Council-Business partnership that excluded
One local resident came upon a new line
of attack, with guidance from the Open Spaces Society.
This organization promoted the use of the 1965 Commons Registration
Act which allowed land used 'as of right' by members of a
'locality' for more than 20 years to be registered as a Town
Green. This meant that land could be potentially protected
from development by its owners because it was an amenity that
was used by the local community whether the owners intended
it to be used as such or not. The interesting part of
this legislation was that it harked back to some old ideas
about customary right and so was in conflict with more
modern legal concepts based on the absolute right of ownership.
The Town Green application was submitted
to the Councils legal department in July 2004 a couple of
days after the last part of Packer's field was leased to the
City Academy for 100 years by Bristol City Council for a peppercorn
rent. The City Council and Academy had seriously underestimated
the response of the local community. They thought that, at
worst, they would be arguing about details of the planning
applications. The irony was that Bristol City Council was
now in a fight with their own constituents about who controlled
the public land that was Packer's Field.
Oh No, the public have turned up !
The practical reaction of the City Council
and the Academy to the 'affront' of the Town Green application
would become clear as the months went on. A 'dirty' propaganda
campaign bordering on harassment was unleashed on the campaigners,
involving the use of children, sophisticated surveillance
techniques, the police and the local press.
As the local residents pooled resources
and began to collect evidence for the Town Green application
the Academy and the City Council marshalled their superior
financial resources for a widely disseminated disinformation
campaign. Letters and flyers from the Academy were circulated
around Easton, Whitehall, Greenbank and to local sports clubs
saying that if the Town Green application was a successful
then all sport at Packer's field would cease, no improvements
or investments could be made, there would be no security at
the site and the Academy would not fund its upkeep.
This mixture of lies and blackmail frightened
many away from support for the Town Green application. Soon
after, a follow-up letter was sent out by the local Labour
Councillor Robin Moss which casually asked local residents
if they supported the '£2.5m investment in state
of the art sports facilities for our children at Packer's field'
or not. Moss's letter not only failed to describe the content
of the Town Green application it also neglected to mention
that Moss himself was on the board of the City Academy.
In the local press letters implied that
the local residents who supported the Town Green application
were vandals or just selfish 'dog walkers'.
In addition Town Green supporters were bombarded with copies
of letters from school children at Whitehall Primary School
and the City Academy. These letters claimed that Packer's Field
must be 'saved' from the campaigners who wanted to
stop the children using it. Many bluntly stated that the campaigners
were trying to 'make money out of it'. Amongst the
letters were lurid drawings of drug dealers, dogs defecating
and litter. All the letters had been addressed by the children,
showing admirable knowledge of local government organisation,
to Stephen McNamara in the legal department of Bristol City
Council and most mentioned the Town Green application.
In a bizarre twist, reminiscent of some
totalitarian state, Bristol City Council surveillance vehicles
mounting periscopes and video cameras began to appear on a
regular basis around Packer's field. Startled (and somewhat
paranoid by now) local residents questioned the security guards
inside the vans and were told they were 'watching the field
for dog walkers or vandals'. This was getting ridiculous.
To cap it all, local sports teams who set up football tournaments
on Packer's field were reported to the police as trespassers,
along with 'ring leader' local residents. Gates were locked,
others welded shut and the first signs of an attempt by the
Academy to seriously enclose the site began. This all happened
before the public enquiry date.
Meanwhile the local residents stuck to
their guns despite the harassment. The first legal hurdle
to overcome was to get a public enquiry so that the Town Green
application could be considered independently. Bristol City
Council were obviously unhappy to see the application succeed
so at a lively (some would say democratic) meeting of the
Public Rights of Way and Greens Committee in January 2005
the clearly sulking Councillors were faced with a large number
of witnesses who turned up in person, written statements and
a petition of more than 500 signatures asking for a public
enquiry. After reluctantly agreeing
to the request Councillors whined about being 'put over
a barrel' and accused those present of 'bullying them
into a decision'. Witnesses sarcastically replied with
shouts of 'Oh No, the public have turned up'.
Vandals and Drug Dealers
One of the most consistent aspects of
the propaganda campaign by the City Academy and its allies
was the representation of the users of Packer's field. Essentially
the 'commoners' were categorized by the Academy and Whitehall
school governors, head teachers and supporters into the following
- Vandals, joy riders and arsonists
- Thieves and muggers
- Drug dealers and drug abusers
- Suspected paedophiles
- Dog walkers
The impression was given that without
the enclosure of the field and the development by the City
Academy, Packer's field would become some kind of living hell
where there would be a 'free for all'
(though what this actually meant was never quite explained).
Many of the letters opposing the Town Green application came
from people who did not live in the neighbourhoods of Whitehall,
Greenbank or Easton, in fact often they lived much further
away in better off parts of the city or in surrounding towns
and villages. The Academy had to struggle to find many local
residents who openly supported them.
How much of the branding of the 'commoners'
was down to a clearly contrived plan by the City Academy is
debatable, though many of the letters and statements showed
peculiar similarities. What is clear is that there was a common
perception by those who lived outside of inner city Bristol
and who used the field for 'official' activities that the
environs were a jungle inhabited by dangerous 'beasts'. The
fact that many of these 'beasts' were probably pupils at the
City Academy School or local residents was lost on them and
fear was clearly the emotive reaction of the outsider. This
is a common perception from the 'outside' of so called 'rough
areas' and is of course tied closely with issues of race and
The actual facts of incidents of vandalism,
joy-riding and drug dealing undoubtedly had some truth as
they do in all parts of inner-city Bristol, but at no time
did the Academy actually accept that the vast majority of
the children, youth and adults who used the field informally
were law-abiding citizens. Clearly the fear of the 'other'
was a useful weapon in achieving their aim of development
and enclosure. As they said themselves:
'Should the Town Green application
become successful, there will be no security on the site'
For the City Academy, fences, CCTV cameras,
swipe cards and of course the intended commercialisation of
a space were equated with security, safety and progress. Conversely,
free space was equated with backwardness, rubbish, dog shit,
drugs, violence and sex-crime.
The Public Enquiry
In April 2005 the long-awaited public
enquiry into the Town Green application began. Bristol City
Council and the City Academy had employed a legal team at
some considerable expense to oppose the application. The team
was led by barrister Philip Petchey an expert in land law
and a veteran of Town Green enquiries. The local residents
were represented by Sandra Willavoys the original signatory
of the Town Green application. The 'independent' advisor,
Leslie Blohm, was chosen by the City Council to adjudicate
the evidence and was of course from the outset in a strange
position. He was going to be advising the City Council, who
were a primary objector to the Town Green application, whether
to accept the application!
During the initial cross-examination of
the witnesses it became clear that Academy barrister Petchey
was following a particular line of questioning regarding the
definition of the 'locality' around Packer's field. Some hasty
research showed that Petchey had won his previous Town Green
cases on a loophole in the definition of 'locality' within
a city. It seemed that the 1965 Commons Registration Act,
which the application was based on, was aimed at clearly defined
communities surrounding a piece of land, much like a 'traditional'
view of the village green. Definition of locality was based
on the presence of 'recognisable facilities' such as a church,
school, scout hut etc.
Packer's field lay between three inner
city districts and could be accessed by a 12 mile long cycle
path running from Bristol to Bath, so its catchment was wide
both due to its location and the lack of nearby green spaces.
Petchey's initial line of attack was precisely this lack of
spatial definition of a 'locality' in a city. Communities
in a city (especially the inner-city), unlike the village,
are often more defined by social relations than by spatial
or property driven boundaries. The spread of the users of
Packer's field amongst several formally constituted local districts
would be a constant thread in the barristers' case against
the Town Green application.
As the enquiry continued many witnesses,
especially older residents, spoke or wrote of their beliefs
that Packer's field had been bequeathed to the community as
a kind of philanthropic gesture.
Others spoke of their feelings that it was 'their field'
or even that it was a 'town green already'.
The head of the enquiry, Blohm stated:
'The Packer business may, like other
chocolate businesses, have been philanthropic. I have heard
it said on behalf of the Applicants that they understood that
the field was given to the City for good local purposes, and
that the perception may well have influenced the views of
local inhabitants as to the propriety of uses to which the
field might be put and their own rights over it, over the
However, neither the Applicants nor Blohm
were able to find any specific documents stating that Packer's
field was bequeathed to the community under any philanthropic
conditions or covenants. Interestingly, the documents that
could be found which related to its hand over to the City
Council seemed to be incomplete. However, the historical legal
basis for any kind of 'customary right' was lacking.
The verdict of the enquiry became available
in a report in July 2005. Despite of the optimism of some
of the local residents, the application for the Town Green
was lost. The primary reasons for the defeat were:
- There was supposedly not enough evidence
of usage of the field.
- Not enough people who did use it came
from Whitehall (the two other neighbouring areas of Easton
and Greenbank apparently did not count).
- The 'locality' defined in the 1965
act had not been 'proven'.
One last irony that was to haunt the verdict
was the decay of formally constituted communities in general.
Part of the reason that the application was lost was the difficulty
in contacting all the users of the field and motivating them
to write statements or take time off work to attend the public
enquiry. Also some of the main groups who used the site informally,
children and teenagers were unable or unwilling to represent
themselves. As communities
fragment and atomise both socially and physically the capability
to protect 'common' green spaces thus becomes more difficult
(as was seen in the legal requirements and verdict for this
Town Green application). The loss of such spaces, of course
lessens the possibility of constructing community and consequently
the chance of protecting them. The potential exponential nature
of such a process is worrying, though the benefits to the
property developer and commercial interests are clear.
Part 2 : Time Tunnel
'There may be rich men,
Both yeomen and gentry
That for their own private gain
Hurt a whole country
By closing free commons,
Yet they'll make as though
'Twere for the common good,
But I know what I know'
Roxburghe : Ballads 1607
The history of common land in Britain
and its subsequent enclosure over a period of 300 years can
be characterized by an ideological and physical struggle between
the concept of the absolute right of private property and
the popular customs of the commoners. This struggle was fought
on many levels. The land owning enclosers used propaganda,
the courts, fraud, intimidation, evictions, imprisonment,
transportation and even deployed armies to achieve their aims.
The commoners employed direct appeals to the enclosing land
owners, legal means in the courts, songs, stories, public
meetings, protests, threats, fence-breaking, occupation, riot
and ultimately rebellion to try to protect their livelihoods.
This history seems a long way away from us now but some of
the similarities between it and the struggle over Packer's
field are striking.
Consider the case of Cannock Chase,
'a rolling stretch of heath and woodland between the industrial
centres of Birmingham and Stoke'. This 30 mile square
stretch of land was the scene of an intense struggle in the
18th century between thousands of commoners (mostly poor cottagers,
labourers, colliers and weavers) and the Earl of Uxbridge
who in addition to Cannock Chase owned over 100,000 acres
of land in Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Dorset, Berkshire, Anglesey,
Middlesex and Ireland.
Primarily the commoners used the land
to provide game (hares, rabbits, fish, pheasants and deer)
to supplement their meagre diets, but it was also a source
of fuel, grazing, building materials, fruits and vegetables.
It has been estimated that access to common land at that time
could double a poor families income.
The Earl of Uxbridge wanted control over the whole of Cannock
Chase so he could run it as a game reserve for hunting and
as a moneymaking enterprise for, amongst other things, the
breeding of rabbits. His motivations for enclosing the land
were a sense of pride, aristocratic right, profit and leisure.
The Commoners instead were driven by practical needs for food,
heat etc. and a belief in their customary rights that were
enshrined in the Exchequer survey of 1595.
As the Earl began to encroach on the commons,
by building rabbit warrens and enclosing parts of the land
he also stepped up his use of private armies of gamekeepers
to beat, capture and prosecute 'poachers' as he called them.
Poaching is an interesting term. For commoners it was hard
enough to understand how someone might try and personally
'own' something that was held in common like a forest, river
or meadow but to try to own the animals, birds or fish that
lived there seemed just plain crazy! The game that lived on
the Cannock Chase were there for everyone and had no 'owner'.
So as far as the commoners were concerned poaching was a new
crime created by the landowners. Across Britain communities
were resisting the introduction of these new philosophical
and legal concepts.
The initial response of the commoners
to the attempts at enclosure and repression of 'poaching',
was to appeal to the Earl with respectful letters, these were
ignored. Instead the Earls representatives confronted the
commoners with a copyhold agreement of 1605 showing the Earls
supposed right of ownership and explaining he could exercise
more severe restrictions if he so chose. The commoners were
not cowed by this and decided to follow a legal route, to
prove their 'ancient' customary right of access to the Chase.
It should be understood that the recourse
to the use of the law in the 18th century was a particularly
risky route for commoners. Not only were they often illiterate
and/or uneducated and thus had to rely on costly solicitors
but also losing was unimaginably expensive and could be a
sure way to put yourself in a debtors prison or cause you
to lose what little property you owned.
In addition to this JP's were renowned for being in the pockets
of the gentry both socially and financially.
Finally the law itself was complicated, confusing and fundamentally
stacked in favour of the right of private property.
Nevertheless the commoners collected their
money together, and believing their case was invincible because
of the Exchequer survey of 1595, went to law in June 1751.
Two expensive years of legal fees and costs passed before
the case finally came to court in August 1753. Hay goes on
'The (commoners case) was greatly weakened
by a serious gap in the evidence: their solicitors were
unable to find the original record in Exchequer of the manorial
customs in 1595. As it happened, however, their case was
lost on one of the intricate technicalities which made 18th
century pleading the delight of the lawyers and the despair
of all but the wealthiest litigants. The commoners lost
because an aged witness defined the boundaries of Cannock
The loss of the 1595 document laying out
the manorial customs is a cruel allegory of the change from
'customary right' to 'legal right'. The commoners had been
using the common land for as long as they could remember.
To them the 'right' to use it was almost natural. It was just
what you did. With the rise of 'property rights' and enclosure
in Britain commoners were faced with new laws that required
some kind of proof of ownership, something which was not only
a strange concept but mostly not possible to attain. Even
if the commoners had recovered the 1595 manorial document,
it probably would have granted them a customary right to the
'use' of Cannock Chase but it did not define them as 'owners'.
In a similar vein, the inability of the witnesses to legally
define the 'boundaries' of the Chase correctly encapsulates
the conflict between the 'common' and the rule of the 'absolute
right of private property'. How was it possible to geographically
define the common? It could only be defined in court according
to the rules of property which automatically assumes boundary
and of course enclosure. Because the common abstractly defied
enclosure it had to be physically enclosed. The commoners
appeared to lose a legal battle but in a wider sense a hegemonic
struggle between them and the owners was being waged over
how space was to be conceived.
During the years of the court cases (and
before the verdicts) the Earl of Uxbridge asserted his rights
of property over Cannock chase by force, enclosure and development
of the land. All of this was opposed on a daily basis by the
commoners, who continued to hunt and gather on the Chase despite
the threats, violence and arrests. After the legal defeat
most people had had enough of the courts. Also as Hay explains,
the commoners had:
'heard of the success of the commoners
of Charnwood Forest in Leicestershire, thirty miles away,
where rioters successfully defied troops, keepers, constables
and three Lords of the Realm to dig up the warrens in the
commoners) decided that shovels might do more than writs.'
They began by sending messengers to the
'famous colliers' of Charnwood forest, paid the town crier
of Walsall to announce the 'free company on Cannock Wood'
would be digging up the Earl's warrens and spread the news
by word of mouth amongst the other communities close to the
Chase. On the 28th December 1753 the assault on the fences
and warrens began. For two weeks between 200 and 300 labourers,
colliers, weavers, masons and shoemakers worked, filling in
the burrows and killing the Earl's rabbits. Two troops of
Dragoons were marched over from Stafford and an uneasy stand
off between the two sides began. To the consternation of the
Earl, the Dragoons were then withdrawn, probably to avoid
a bloodbath and 'the ryott and destruction went on with
more fury than before'.
Five of the six warrens on the chase were completely destroyed
and the financial loss to the Earl was a massive £3000.
However the Earl now unleashed the full
fury of the law on the commoners. He made representations
to the House of Lords and 'proved' his 'right' to the Chase
in the Stafford Assizes in April 1754. When the commoners
refused to accept it, he sued them with the intention that
this would cause 'the total ruin of themselves and their
is in fact what happened. Over the next two years families
were turned out of their homes, cottages were pulled down,
many were imprisoned, property seized and others pauperised.
His final legal victory came in 1755 after six years of litigation.
The judge stated that the commoner could not be allowed to
'destroy the estate of the lord, in order to preserve his
own small right of common' 
As Hay concludes:
'The words echo the reality of 18th
century property relations : the estates of the aristocracy
were paramount, and the rights of the commoners were beginning
the last decline to extinction. After 200 years of conflict
the Pagets finally established the pre-eminence of game over
the rights of their tenants. The new temper of the courts,
the inexplicable loss of a document crucial to the commoners'
case, and the massive financial resources of the family finally
brought the Earl of Uxbridge the victory that had eluded his
ancestors. The case was enshrined in the law reports and
given a full page in the reference books of the Justices of
Legal process of this kind had a great
bearing upon the practical transformation of British law from
a connection with older medieval ideas of customary right
to the newer absolute property rights required by the enclosers.
They became enshrined in the law books and set the precedents
for numerous future cases, till this very day.
Thieves and Vagabonds : the representation
of the commons
The process of enclosure of common land
in Britain between the 15th and 19th centuries was paralleled
by a propaganda campaign carried out by the spokesmen of the
landowners. This characterised the commons variously as 'nurseries
and receptacles of thieves, rogues and beggars'
or as a source of 'laziness and disorder'.
The inhabitants of the Forest of Dean near Gloucester for
example were labelled 'people of very lewd lives and conversations,
leaving their own and other countries and taking the place
for shelter as a cloak to their villanies'.
The poor in Northamptonshire were said to 'dwell in woods
and deserts and live like drones, devoted to thievery, among
whom are bred the very spawn of vagabonds and rogues'.
The continually repeated 'truth' of the association of commons
with criminality was to spearhead the campaign of enclosure
for several hundred years. It reappeared numerous times during
the disputes over Cannock Chase most notably when the 'commoner'
was described by a professor and judge as 'that desperate
character, a poacher, he who sleeps by day and prowls for
food at night, soon acquires the disposition of a savage or
a wild beast - a disposition which must lead to robbery, and
every species of nocturnal depredation'.
A second more subtle theme was also to
arise during the periods of enclosure. An Elizabethan surveyor
said of the cottagers of Rockingham forest 'so long as
they may be permitted to live in such idlesness upon their
stock of cattle they will bend themselves to no labour. Common
a maintaining of the idlers and beggary
of the cottagers'.
The supposed connection of idleness with the commons was noted
again in 1649 by Samuel Hartlib who stated 'England had
many hundreds of acres of waste and barren lands and many
thousands of idle hands; if both these might be improved,
England by God's blessing would grow to be a richer nation
than it now is by far'.
Silvanius Taylor wrote the seminal work providing the justification
for enclosure of common land in 1692.
In it he describes the commoners as 'lazying upon a common
to attend one cow and a few sheep'
and 'in unenclosed villages children are nursed up in idleness
and become indisposed for labour; then begging is their portion
or thieving is their trade'.
The direction of this propaganda was summed up by Adam Moore
who said that enclosure 'will give the poor an interest
in toiling, whom terror never yet could enure to travail'.
Throughout the period of enclosure this
barrage of disparaging media was unleashed on society by the
'modernizers' to convince the populace that removing the commons
was for the good of society. Any opposition was either attacked
as treason, sedition or mocked as nostalgia for the past.
Huge numbers of commoners dispossessed of the land through
this process were now without means to support themselves.
Ironically they were then forced into the vagabondage, beggary
and thievery they had already been accused of. The propaganda
was relentless, with the 'new' poor labelled as being little
more than 'vermin and dogs'.
The continual description of the commoner
or poor cottager as both 'criminal' and 'idle' was not just
a tactic for the landowner to enclose the commons but served
a more sinister purpose. With the rise of mercantile capitalism
and eventually the factory system there was a huge labour
shortage where natural resources were being extracted (mines,
quarries, forests), and in the centres of manufacture both
in Britain and the 'new' colonies.
The enclosures provided this much needed labour as the 'new'
poor without land or commons had no other means of survival.
Thus an unholy alliance between the landowner and the emerging
factory owner was born. The enclosures propaganda (consciously
or unconsciously) served the aims of both. The landowner used
accusations of 'criminality' to gain control over the commons
and the manufacturer (eventually the factory owner) used claims
of 'idleness' to gain control over labour.
Enclosure and the collapse of community
The commons not only functioned as a provider
of food, fuel and materials but also as a social resource.
They encouraged 'collective decision making and work cooperation,
the commons were the material foundation upon which peasant
solidarity and sociality could thrive'.
All the festivals, games and gatherings of the peasant community
were held on the commons. In addition, 'the social function
of the commons was especially important for women, who, having
less title to land and less social power, were more dependent
on them for subsistence, autonomy, and sociality. We can say
that the commons were for women the centre of social life,
the place where they convened, exchanged news, took advice
and where a women's view point on communal events, autonomous
from men, could form'.
The enclosures caused this web of social
relations to fall apart. Federici goes on 'Not only did
cooperation in agricultural labour die when the land was privatised
and individual labour contracts replaced collective ones;
economic differences among the rural population deepened,
as the number of poor squatters increased who had nothing
left but a cot and a cow, and no choice but to got with 'bended
knee and cap in hand' to beg for a job. Social cohesion broke
down; families disintegrated, the youth left the village to
join the increasing number of vagabonds or itinerant workers
- soon to become the social problem of the age - while the
elderly were left behind to fend for themselves'.
The enclosures not only separated people from the physical
space of the common they denied the social space of the community.
The echoes of this change are felt to this very day.
This essay has tried to show some of the
resonance between the struggles against the enclosures in
the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries and the campaign to protect
Packer's field from development. Without wishing to patronise
the reader, who I am sure has spotted many of them, I will
briefly summarise these connections as I see them.
- Neither the commoners of Cannock Chase
nor the residents who used Packer's field wanted to 'own'
the land. Their 'customary right' was based on their individual
and communal 'use' of the spaces. Both sets of commoners
were unable to locate the legal documents that defined their
'customary right' but, as far as they were concerned, their
right was defined by their activity, their use of the land.
- The rise of the 'absolute property'
relation does not in any way respect the social use of land
or buildings. In its pure legal form it denies 'social use'
and necessarily leads to enclosure of space. The consequent
legal definitions of space (maps, boundaries, deeds) are
the only method of fighting enclosure in a legal sense,
so the commoners in both cases were already fighting on
the terrain of the owners.
- There is an irony that both the commoners
of Cannock Chase and the Packer's field campaigners lost
on a definition of locality. The incorrect definition of
the 'indefinable' boundary of the commons of Cannock Chase
led to the eventual legal defeat in 1755. The inability
to legally define the 'locality' of a community (!) in a
city defeated the Town Green application in 2005. Legal
definition of boundary applies to land and community with
the same purpose, the denial of the social.
- The similarity of the representation
of the commoners during the enclosures and the residents
of Whitehall, Easton and Greenbank in 2004/5 by the landowners.
The use of fear of the 'other' to try to swing public opinion
towards enclosure. The idea that 'common' equates to danger
and 'enclosure' equates to security.
- The idea propounded by the encloser
that the common will be more efficiently used if it is enclosed
and developed. That this is 'progress' and the commoners
are 'backward looking'. That commercialisation is necessary
for security, for well-being and of course, I might add,
- The loss of the commons had profound
negative social and economic effects on communities during
the time of the enclosures. The current loss of common spaces
in cities in particular has and will have profound effects
upon the health,
community and security of city neighbourhoods. We are already
far along with this process and it has accelerated with
the rise of neo-liberalism and the consequent central and
local government privatisation policies.
Epilogue : Common Feelings
Earlier in this essay I remarked upon
some of the changes in the philosophical and legal aspects
of 'ownership' with regard to the commons and the animals
that lived on them that occurred in the periods of enclosure.
Related to this is the psychological aspect of how the commons
were understood by the people that used them for forage or
fun. Sometimes it is hard for us today to imagine the feeling
of collective connection to such spaces. In our world almost
everything is mapped, enclosed and owned by someone or something.
Even spaces that have an emotional connection to us like football
stadiums for example, are not places we can freely enter when
we want. Almost always they are beyond our control, even collectively.
We often feel this whether we are in a so-called 'publicly'
owned space or in a 'privately' owned space. In each case
we are separated from the space because we do not feel that
it is ours. Instead we are offered our houses and the 'back
garden' a pitiful parody of the spaces that commoners once
had connections to.
To understand the collective and personal
relationship between the commoners and the commons of more
than 300 years ago we have to think differently. We have to
imagine places where boundaries are unclear, maps can fail
to explain and use overrules ownership. Places that are vital
to sustaining us but are also where we party and play games.
Places where we are in control and where we have responsibility.
- Silvia Federici : Caliban and the
Witch : Women the body and primitive accumulation : Autonomedia
- Christopher Hill : Liberty Against
The Law : Some seventeenth century controversies : Penguin
- Hay, Linebaugh, Rule, Thompson and
Winslow : Albion's Fatal Tree : Peregrine Books : 1988
- Christopher Hill : The World Turned
Upside Down : Radical Ideas During the English Revolution
: Penguin : 1991
R. Ball 27-11-05
Neo-liberalism is a relatively recent term that refers to
the broadening of 'free market' economics into all aspects
of our lives with consequent commercialisation, privatisation
and introduction of economic competition. It also involves
the rolling back of state subsidies, nationalisation and Keynesian
economic policies along with the destruction (or suppression)
of Trade Unions, state bodies or other organisations impeding
the development of 'free' trade and economic competition.
Its introduction in Britain can be traced to the end of the
Labour government in the 1970's and the rise of 'Thatcherism'
in the 1980's. [Return To Text]
See especially the activities in Bristol of the Urban Development
Corporation between 1987-90, water front developments in the
old dock areas and attempts by property speculators in the
same period to compulsorily purchase land in order to build
the proposed Metro system. [Return To Text]
Playing Pitch Strategy Document : Bristol City Council : Environment,
Transport and Leisure Scrutiny Commission : Agenda Item 12
:29-11-04 Appendix A. [Return To Text]
Bristol City Council crowed about their new plan quoting Councillor
Simon Cook, Executive Member for health promotion and leisure
as saying "Instead of having 400 fairly poor quality
pitches we will have a range of facilities serving the whole
city that we can be proud of". Of course he failed to
mention that this meant selling off a large amount of land
that the public already used formally and informally. [Return
They were to be seized on the basis of being 'failing inner-city
schools', though various recent struggles by parents and teachers
against their local school becoming an Academy have shown
that the Labour Party would often fiddle the figures to achieve
the 'failing school' status. [Return To Text]
until 2005 this was a minimum of 2.5 million pounds, however
recent plans have reduced this to 1.5 million pounds (probably
to make it more attractive to private investors). [Return
This 'control' literally meant control over the education
syllabus, as was famously exposed in Sunderland where the
Christian fundamentalist Vardy family took over the board
of an Academy school after making the requisite investment
and began to introduce creationism into science classes !
[Return To Text]
Ironically the investment by the state and local government
was often far larger than that of the private businesses (a
ratio of 9:1, in most cases). As has been pointed out by many
parent campaigners against Academy schools, why is it that
this finance was not available before ? Why was it only for
Academy schools ? [Return To Text]
One of the interesting aspects of the Academy school idea
was that each school would specialize in a particular subject,
for example sport, business, technology or languages. [Return
The Academies had dispensed with the 'old-fashioned headmaster'
term and had introduced the hardly disguised U.S. term for
a school head. Maybe Blair had got too excited about being
in the Simpsons. [Return To Text]
Other investors included the Bristol Chamber of Commerce and
Bristol Business West. [Return To Text]
By this stage Robin Moss the local Labour Councillor was already
sitting on the board of directors of the City Academy in any
case.[Return To Text]
Comment by local resident in 'Infinite Space : The battle
for Packer's Field' : Video : Space Invader Films : Bristol
: 2005. [Return To Text]
[Return To Text]
R. Moss leaflet to 5000 residents of Easton ward. [Return
It is generally recognised that this kind of deception (amongst
others) led to Moss's resounding defeat in the local elections
of 2005. [Return To Text]
Bristol Evening Post : 07-04, 08-09-04, 14-01-05 et al.
[Return To Text]
The council knew that if they did not have a public enquiry,
they could have left themselves open to Judicial Review Proceedings.
However they were relying on an uninformed, disorganised or
even non-existent turn out for the meeting. [Return
See especially, Bristol City Council : Public Rights of Way
and Greens Committee : Public Forum Statements : 10-01-05.
[Return To Text]
Ibid. [Return To Text]
Bristol City Academy leaflet. [Return To Text]
The law actually states 'the applicants must establish the
recreational use of the land is by the inhabitants of a defined
locality, or neighbourhood within a locality'. [Return
One elderly resident stated that Cole, owner of the Chocolate
Factory at the time of the sell off, had clearly stated that
they had 'bequeathed Packer's Field to the community in perpetuity'.
[Return To Text]
Bristol City Council : Public Rights of Way and Greens Committee
: Public Forum Statements : 10-01-05. [Return
P. 15 Report to Bristol City Council : Packer's Field : L.Blohm.
[Return To Text]
Ibid., P.15-16. [Return To Text]
The protestors were clear that they would not 'use' minors
in the council meetings, public enquiry or letter writing
campaigns. The Bristol City Academy as has been noted did
not share such reservations (see the letter writing campaign
on page 5) and in fact sanctioned one child to take time off
school to give 'evidence'. [Return To Text]
Most of the information about this struggle over common land
comes from 'Poaching and the Game Laws on Cannock Chase':
by Douglas Hay in Albion's Fatal Tree 1988. [Return
P. 28 Hill : Liberty Against The Law. [Return
Typically this could mean eviction and usually destitution.
[Return To Text]
Typically JP's were 'controlled' by the country gentry using
social nepotism and bribery (often with game). If these tactics
didn't work then less subtle persuasion could be used. The
Earl of Uxbridge, like many others of his class, often compelled
JP's to make the decisions he wanted by use of the 'misdemeanour
in the conduct of his office' charge, which he applied through
the King's Bench. Fighting against such charges was extremely
expensive for JP's and could be costly in a 'political' sense
so they usually backed down. [Return To Text]
P. 227 Hay : Albion's Fatal Tree. [Return To
Ibid., P.227. [Return To Text]
The three years of riots near Loughborough began in the summer
of 1748. Dragoons dispersed crowds of two thousand, but the
commoners were victorious in establishing the right of common
for 26 towns and villages Ibid., P.227. [Return
P.229 Hay : Albion's Fatal Tree. [Return To
can be equated today to approximately £300,000! [Return
Ibid., P.231. [Return To Text]
P.234 Hay : Albion's Fatal Tree. [Return To
Ibid., P.234. [Return To Text]
P.123 Silvia Federici : Caliban and the Witch. [Return
Ibid ., P. 71. [Return To Text]
P.51 Hill : The World Turned Upside Down [Return
Ibid., P50-51 [Return To Text]
P.205 Hay : Albion's Fatal Tree. [Return To
P.50 Hill : The World Turned Upside Down [Return
Ibid., P.51 [Return To Text]
Silvanus Taylor : Common-Good : Or, The Improvement of Commons
Forest and Chases, by Inclosure 1692. [Return
P.25 Hill : Liberty against the law. [Return
Ibid.,P.26. [Return To Text]
P.52 Hill : The World Turned Upside Down [Return
P.51 Hill : Liberty against the law. [Return
Of course once you were turfed off the commons, usually into
vagrancy or vagabondage it was only a few steps to being forcibly
transported to the colonies. This nice legal arrangement acted
as the 'white slave trade'. [Return To Text]
Silvia Federici : Caliban and the Witch. [Return
Ibid., P.72. [Return To Text]
Ibid., P.72. [Return To Text]
For discussion of this point see article 'Health and Open
Spaces' in Bristle No. 20 Autumn 2005. [Return