Enclosure, commons and the meaning of place and privatisation

Two articles serendipitously appeared this week after my IHR seminar paper on Monday.

First, this article by Bradley Garrett about contemporary disputes in Lancaster over 'common' land: http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/feb/10/battle-for-freemans-wood-lancaster-common-land-locals-property-development

Some quick observations:
  1. My students should read this article when we study 17th and 18th century enclosure riots so that I can show them that such events weren't odd and purely historical, but still have resonance and indeed share the same sentiments and tactics
  2. Indeed, those tactics seem awfully familiar to a historian of rural protest: 'In addition to filing an application for three well-trodden footpaths across the wood to be officially recognised, a council document records that “local people took exception” to the No Trespassing signs and “they disappeared”. Those signs that remained were subversively mutilated'.
  3.  A quote from the article about the company who are going to build on the land in Lancaster: 'The firm owns more than 30 properties in England, and had submitted an informal planning proposal in 2010 to build housing in Freeman’s Wood. According to John Angus, director of Lancaster arts organisation StoreyG2, the lodging of that proposal means:

“this scrubby patch of land has direct links to global economic, political and social networks”.

This statement chimes exactly with what I was arguing on Monday about Doreen Massey and David Featherstone's arguments about how local people defending local places could be connected to multi-scalar layers of space - from the local to the global at points in time. And even if they are defending the place for very localist reasons, they are still taking part in a wider struggle informed or in this case shaped by global structures, which, Massey argues, have a very uneven geography determined by the power of capital.

The other article is by Mark Hailwood on the Many Headed Monster Blog (and indeed echoes a comment on the Guardian article btl) about the complex history and meaning of enclosure:

Historians of enclosure will warn any more idealistic land campaigner that the popular view of the 'common' (to quote the Guardian article, 'common – a place formally defined as “pertaining or belonging equally to an entire community, nation or culture”') wasn't quite so rosy in practice. There was never such a thing as purely 'common' land in early modern Britain - it always belonged to private owners, but commoners were those people who had customary rights to use it for grazing, gleaning, etc.

Not everyone was a commoner; not everyone (certainly not an 'entire community, nation') had those customary rights.

So although it's fascinating that the protesters in Lancaster have put up a sign with the verse well known to enclosure-riots (and historians) 'They hang the man and flog the woman / That steals the goose from off the common / But let the greater villain loose / That steals the common from the goose', it somewhat gives the impression that it applied to all poor and working people, when it didn't historically.

As Andy Wood has defined, place was custom because it was defined by customary rights, and therefore the people who belonged to that place were those who were also defined by those rights. Enclosure was the process of the main landowners taking away those rights and monopolising the economic and social uses of the land, but the variety of landholding practices and processes (copyhold, various sorts of leases etc) often meant that enclosure was not resisted and indeed was applied for by commoners.There's links to some excellent studies of early modern land rights and enclosure on Mark's page, and he notes how commoners could and did switch sides mid-disputes. So although resistance to enclosure - and particularly the stopping up of footpaths - was significant, it was not total, and it certainly wasn't a complete story of 'property owners versus the common people' that perhaps the more popular view of enclosure likes to think it was.

See also Peter Linebaugh, Stop Thief! The Commons, Enclosure and Resistance


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