The History of London’s Commons

The term common or common land is very misleading and makes most of the general public to consider it to belong to us, the people, however this is very far from the truth.

In fact all common land has always been private property and at one time usually belonged to the Lord of the Manor and his successors, with certain people known as commoners, given commoner’s rights to use it.

These rights were normally restricted to, for example, the taking of natural produce only, whilst the taking of crops or commercially exploiting the land was most definitely not permitted.  The amount a commoner was able to take from the land was also normally restricted to an amount the commoner would need for domestic use only.   The five main rights (there are others) that were given to commoners are as follows:


The Right of Pasture

This allowed commoners to graze their livestock on the common, including animals such as cattle, pigs, horses and sheep, with the animals allowed to be grazed specified in each case.


The Right of Estovers

This gave commoners the right to cut and take bracken, reeds, heather and wood although the cutting and taking of timber was not permitted.


The Right of Turbay

This gave commoners the right to dig for peat or turf for use as fuel.


The Right of the Soil

This allowed commoners to take minerals, stone, coal, gravel and sand for example.


The Right of Piscary

This gave commoners the right to take fish from ponds and streams or other waters on the common.

Today most commons are either owned by local authorities and the National Trust along with a few other bodies and are held for the benefit of the public with rights now defined in terms such as rights to recreation, air and light, although not all commons give total access to all parts of it.

In fact the whole history and various laws surrounding the commons is a very complex one and the only reason London still has most of its open spaces such as greens, woods and commons is because they were preserved, by mostly local group action, from development, with these groups of people using various methods such as legal agitation, the tearing down of fences to re-open land that had been enclosed and by rioting.

A very fitting quote although I do not know who it is attributed to is:

“The law condemns the man or woman who steals the goose off the common but lets the greater villain loose who steals the common from the goose” – so very apt even today!



Between the 16th and 19th centuries London’s commons, open land and woods and in particular those found south of the river were either sold for the purpose of building homes or enclosed for development by their wealthy owners.

Continued growth in capitalism saw societies long held customs and social obligations starting to dwindle, with landowners now clearing woodlands and replacing traditional land use with intensive farming.   This resulted in excluding the poor from access to the commons, depriving them of grazing for their animals, fuel, food and a way of supplementing their incomes.

All this of course did not happen quietly with the poor fighting back, bringing about mass open warfare against those landowners enclosing their land.

Whilst the 17th and 18th centuries were all about the Lords of the Manors enclosing and improving their land for agricultural purposes, thereby increasing their profits, the repealing of the Corn Laws in 1846 now allowed free trade with other countries.  This meant the Lords of the Manors no longer had control over food prices which, in turn, had a knock on effect on the value of agricultural land.  The 19th century saw struggles to keep open spaces for very different reasons.

By the middle of the 19th century London had grown in size and this put pressure on large areas of open heathland, commons and woodlands.  The city had become packed tight with people and poorly built houses partly caused by the enclosing of the commons which had forced the poor to leave the land and look for work in the city.

Meanwhile, as the middle classes started to grow so did the suburbs, with the building of homes for the better off leading to many of the commons, fields and woodlands that surrounded the city to disappear, sold off for the building of these homes by the Lords of the Manors who were no longer able to make a profit from their land through agriculture, whilst some turned their hand to the business of house building themselves. The fast expanding railways also saw much land, along with homes that housed the poor disappearing rapidly too.

The 19th century also the factory reform laws and these laws along with a growing economy saw peoples working hours being reduced giving them more leisure time.   This leisure time of course made green spaces a very important issue not just for working class people but for middle class people too, particularly in the city which was seeing any green spaces rapidly disappearing for development.



Green Spaces Wandsworth

By the middle of the 19th century all this mass expansion and overcrowding saw social reformers stating that urban parks were needed for the millions of people now packed into such a small area and led to a movement for the creation of parks (lungs for the city).

It was also thought that landscaping some of these open spaces and in particular those used by rioting radicals and plebs as meeting places, turning them into beautiful parks for the middle and working classes to enjoy, would also help the poor appreciate the better things that life had to offer and thus improve their morals.

This saw for instance the creation of Victoria Park in East London and Battersea fields being turned into Battersea Park, along with Kennington Common being landscaped and policed!   Unfortunately the creation of these parks led to what was once open land being enclosed, this in turn forced the often rowdy crowds that had once gathered on them moving on to other areas that still remained open.  For instance when rowdy crowds started using Clapham Common the wealthy locals began protesting about the class of people that were using it.

The passing of the General Inclosure Act of 1845 helped in the continuing battle over enclosing land from the 1860s onwards with many legal challenges raised to prevent commons and other open spaces from being enclosed.  The Act also meant that two-thirds of commoners had to be in agreement before a common could be enclosed.  All this helped save many green spaces for at least another twenty years.

Thankfully, the last one hundred years have seen many of south London’s open green spaces being more or less protected from development but it still goes on and times are particularly difficult at the moment.  Greedy developers are always eyeing up every piece of green space there is as a potential building plot and with local councils being told by the government that they have to build a certain number of new homes every year, our precious open spaces are finding themselves under threat once more.

So just like in past times, only by actively resisting these developments will we be able save our parks, woods and open spaces from being lost forever.

Having give you a general overview of the history of London’s common lands, woodlands and open spaces, in parts ii and iii we will have a look at some of the individual commons and the history of their battles for survival.



Following on from Part I, we will now have a look at some of London’s individual commons and open spaces and their fight for survival.



Sadly, Sydenham Common is no longer here today but at one time it covered a very large area from what is now the modern Sydenham to Forest Hill.

In about 1605 the local squire tried to fence off a large part of Sydenham Common for what was termed as improvement but as there were about 500 families squatting and entirely supporting themselves on the common at this time, enclosure was not going to happen without a fight.

Years of legal wrangling ensued with the squire and his allies eventually trying to violently evict the squatters and enclose the land in about 1614.

Led apparently by the Vicar of Lewisham in 1614, locals tried various legal ways to challenge the squires actions including going to court and even marching en masse to petition the King, winning their case with the courts ruling that the enclose was illegal.

The squire ignored this ruling so the local people tore down all his fences and filled in all the ditches.  Each time new fences were put up the local people got together to tear them down again.  This battle continued for about a year until eventually, in 1615, the Privy Council ruled that enclosures were illegal and put an end to them.

Two hundred years later things were to change dramatically for Sydenham common with the passing of the Enclosures Act of 1810.   This lead to what was once nearly five hundred acres of common land  being gradually built on and thus Sydenham went from being a place of small country lanes, open space and large wooded areas with oak and yew trees to a suburb.



Barnes Common Cricket Green

Up until 1531 when it was dissolved, Barnes common was owned by a monastery, after which the locals had continued battles with new landowners to keep their common grazing rights on an area then known as Westwood common (probably Westwood Road today) whilst these new landowners tried to enclose the land in order to increase productivity and profits.

1614 saw the arrival of a new owner who enclosed the entire common, removing the locals cattle and digging ditches in order to prevent them from having access to graze their animals.  This action led to one hundred locals marching to petition the King with a court hearing reversing the enclosure of the land.

In the 1890s the local Vestry tried to encroach on Barnes Common in order to extend the cemetery but this attempt was defeated by the Commons Preservation Society.



Charles I had a passion for creating his own private hunting parks and this lead him to establish Richmond Park at some point in the 1620s.  He did this by enclosing seized land from the parishes of Richmond, Mortlake, Petersham and some small pieces of land from Kingston and Putney commons.

This led to locals being denied access to grazing land, wood for fuel, water supplies, etc until Charles lost his head and the land was taken back by the Commonwealth.

Unfortunately the Restoration resulted in Richmond Park being enclosed yet again for use by nobility and royalty, commoners being excluded with resulting bitter disputes.

In 1751 a crowd of locals broke into Richmond Park and declared that they were “Beating the Bounds”, an old system used for marking out boundaries, and asserting their rights to access what once was the old commons.

This break-in led to further breaks-ins which were led by a local shoemaker and notably, a local brewer and printer, John Lewis who declared he was “unwilling to leave the world in a worse state than he had found it” and after bringing a case against the then owner, Princess Amelia, obtained a verdict which opened up the parks pathways as rights of way in 1758.

This opening up of the pathways just led to people wandering over the entire park, declaring it as common land and taking the whole of the park back for everyone to benefit from.


Streatham Common

Around the 1790s the Duke of Bedford who owned Streatham Common started enclosing part of it along with stripping the gorse bushes which he sold for profit.

This stripping of the furze had long been a right for the local poor who used it for fuel and resulted in a group of residents burning the furze in 1794 before he had the chance to gather it, with a further group of men tearing down his enclosure.


Unfortunately in 1880, despite much local opposition, a strip of land on Streatham Common became enclosed.



In 1802 the Board of Ordnance got rid of all the gorse bushes that were on Woolwhich Common and also cleared small plots and cottages from the common in order to enclose part of the land for use as a drilling ground for the training of its troops, thus depriving some people of their homes and many others from a source of winter fuel.

Then 1908 the War Office (as the Board of Ordnance was now called) was at it again, wanting to enclose twenty acres of Woolwich Common for a polo ground and as quarters for their officers.

Despite extremely strong opposition from locals and the local council, the War Office declared that opposition would result in them withdrawing military establishments from the area entirely. As the presence of these establishments was vital to the local economy the council backed down resulting in that part of the common being lost.

Over time and with more and more of Woolwich Common becoming encroached upon, a Woolwich Committee was formed.   This Committee was successful in preserving what was left of the common, although the Ministry of Defence still owns the land.



During the 18th century local people had the right to access Wimbledon Common during certain times of the year to graze their animals, to cut loam and peat for selling and to cut wood.    This right was for many years a constant battle between the locals and landowners with an attempt to enclose the common in the late 17th century foiled by a man called Russell, whilst in about 1723 a new owner, the Duchess of Marlborough, caused unrest locally when she tried to prevent the commoners from exercising their rights.

For many, many years the pollarded oak trees on Wimbledon Common provided fuel for a high percentage of the locals but in 1812 the then Lord of the Manor chopped them all down and sold the timber, thus breaking the commons agreement.  Needless to say his actions caused numerous protests.

Although the parishes poor were still permitted to cut furze during the winter months for fuel and copyhold and freehold tenants still maintained their rights to graze cattle, disputes still continued to occur over the cutting of loam and peat along with the digging of gravel, with commoners up in arms at the way the Lord of the Manor carried out wholesale pillaging of the common.

By about the late 1700s the Spencer family were the Lords of the Manor in a large part of south west London including Putney, Wimbledon and Wandsworth and it is thought that they enclosed more land in south west London than anyone else.

In the mid 1860s Earl Spencer decided he wanted to enclose seven hundred acres of Wimbledon Common and to sell off the rest (three hundred acres).

Apparently he wished to make the common into a park, stating that in its present state it was boggy, had noxious fogs and mists rising from it and was plagued by gypsies.  He also claimed he was acting in the interests of the locals and that those wealthier commoners who had refused to allow him to buy out their rights had no business interfering with his plans as it was his land.

Those commoners then formed a Wimbledon Common Committee to enable them to fight Earl Spencer in a court of law, with the man at the helm being Henry Peek of Peek Frean Biscuits.

By 1870 the commoners had successfully forced Earl Spencer into a settlement by asserting their common rights and he passed the land over to a trust to be managed for the public and to be kept as a green open space.



Green Spaces Wandsworth

Wandsworth Common is all that remains of what was once a vast area of common land in Battersea and Wandsworth and before being known as Wandsworth Common had several different names including Wandsworth East Heath and Battersea West Heath.

From about the end of the 1700s to 1866, fifty three enclosures had massively reduced this common land in size with most of these enclosures having been put in place by the Spencer family (the then Lords of the Manor).

Many battles were fought over the years to try and save the land and involved both wealthy residents and the working classes and in particular, in 1870 about three to four hundred people gathered together armed with pickaxes to re-open a footpath that had been enclosed at Plough Green.



In 1868 a Commons Preservation Society was formed in order to oppose the recent enclosures that had taken place on Mitcham Common and in 1877 that society, along with the locals, not only successfully prevented the London, Brighton Railway from building right across the common, they also put a stop to plans for a sewage works to be built there too!

Following further protests against enclosures in 1890 an Act was passed to protect the Common.



Local residents rioted in 1794 when the landowner fenced off the village green so when a W Thompson purchased Tooting Graveney Common in 1861 and started enclosing the land he should have thought twice!

With twenty five acres having been immediately fenced off a protest meeting was held in 1868 with locals deciding to break down all the fences.  Each time the fences were put back up the locals just tore them down again.

Thompson then took some of those involved to court for trespass but the commoners retaliated by filing a counter suit about the legalities of the enclosures.   Although Thompson claimed that common rights had not been exercised for many years and with no freehold rights he was entitled to enclose as much of the common as he wanted, in 1870 a court deemed that the enclosures were in fact illegal.

Luckily for the locals five years later Tooting Common was purchased for the public.



With the freehold tenants of Plumstead Common having been able to exercise their rights to graze cattle along with collecting turf and gravel etc for many centuries, the owners, Queens College, Oxford, suddenly started an aggressive policy of excluding the local freeholders and enclosing land from 1859.    All these enclosures resulted in the common being reduced by a third and in 1866 the entire areas of Shoulder of Mutton Green and Bostall Heath had also become enclosed.

The residents of East Wickham were outraged at this latest enclosing of open land and formed a protest committee leading them to tear down the fences around the Green along with destroying fences around Bleakhill and Heathfield during March 1866.    A challenge to the College by local tenants as to the legality of the Common and Bostall Heath having been enclosed was also raised and resulted in the Master of the Rolls announcing that the enclosures were out of order.

Of course this didn’t stop more illegal encroachments from occurring with locals continuing to demolish fences that stood in their way.

Then in 1871, with Woolwich Common now considered too small for the Woolwich Barracks, they instead took over large areas of Plumstead Common in order to carry out drilling and exercises, completely wrecking the common by stripping out all the grass, brambles and bushes and although protests followed nothing was done about it

Later, in 1876, Queens College then went ahead and permanently leased a very large part of the common to the Woolwich Barracks to enable them to extend their parade ground amongst other things.

Naturally this did not go down at all well with the locals and lead to notices being placed around the town in June 1876 calling for a demonstration and on 1st July over one thousand people gathered for meetings in Arsenal Square and at the Old Mill Public House.  The crowd then made their way up to the north side of Plumstead Common and tore down fences.

By the next day the fences had been rebuilt again so the crowd returned and demolished them but were attacked by the police.   This resulted in a battle between rioters and the police which involved stone throwing and fires being started, with more rioting continuing over the following few days.

Eventually, and in order to prevent any more rioting, constitutional campaigners further increased their negotiations with Queens College.   The result was that Queens College eventually sold Plumstead Common to the Metropolitan Board of Works for the princely sum of £16,000 and along with the introduction of the 1878 Plumstead Common Act, ensured that one hundred acres of land would remain as open space for the general public in perpetuity.

During the late 19th century many other areas of open space in south London were also saved from either being built on or enclosed, with some of them being:



A long public agitation between 1875 and 1896 of mostly middle class people and largely led by the Commons Preservation Society along with a lady called Octavia Hill (one of the founders of the National Trust) eventually saved Hilly Fields from the developers.



The Commons Preservation Society along with the London County Council put a stop to the Nunhead and Shortlands Railway from being able to build a railway line right over the recreation ground in 1888.



Forging links with local radicals and socialists who had a lot of power in the borough, the Commons Preservation Society prevented the building of homes on this wasteland in 1888, stating that this densely populated part of Battersea was in need of open space for the mainly working classes who lived in the area.




The owner of Petersham Park, Lord Dysart, decided in 1896 that he wanted to use part of the park for the building of a vicarage and introduced a Private Enclosure Bill.   He then proceeded to close footpaths and part of the land alongside the river.   The locals along with added pressure from the Commons Preservation Society successfully defeated the Bill.



During the 19th century Croham Hirst, which was owned by the Whitgift Hospital, was a very popular spot used for recreational purposes by the locals so when they tried to sell it off in 1898 for development the residents of Croydon formed a Defence Committee to oppose their plans.   Their successful campaigning resulted in the local council buying it for the general public.

Unfortunately, in the 1860s the local council were not so generous when they decided to sell off Fair Field (and thus make a big fat profit) to the Brighton Railway Company to enable them to build a railway line across it.

This site had been used since Tudor times to hold a very important annual Fair and despite strong protests from locals they still went ahead and sold the land to the Brighton Railway Company as they had long found the Fair and its resulting problems difficult to manage.

It turned out that the site was very rich in gravel and its removal continued for many years until it eventually became an underground car park in the 1960s when Croydon College of Technology was built alongside it and Fairfield Halls across the road, with Fairfield Gardens being created on top of the underground car park!



Having always been a lovely open space where locals gathered together and then latterly becoming a place for recreation, you can image how angry the people were when it was suddenly enclosed for a golf club in 1896!

Protests meetings followed with an Enclosure of Honor Oak Hill Protest Committee being set up which received support from the Commons Preservation Society.

Unfortunately many members were getting very disgruntled at the slow progress being made by the Committee and also due to the fact that the Committee refused to take direct action to remove the fences.  This dissatisfaction led to a mass meeting in October 1897 with voting in favour of removing the fences.

The chosen date for this action was Sunday, 3rd October when about fifteen thousand people gathered at Honor Oak Park and waited for the person appointed to demolish the fencing.  A section of the crowd must have got fed up waiting and deciding to pull down the fencing themselves, caused the rest of the crowd to be able to rush forth onto the hill.

With the hill now covered in so many mutinous people, some of whom attacked the house belonging to the grounds keeper, the local police soon needed more back up in order to keep the crowds at bay, whilst the more constitutional members of the crowd tried to gain some control by starting a meeting and asking for quiet and order.   This proved successful and after singing Rule Britannia the crowd then dispersed.

With the Golf Club continuing to state that as owners of the land they were entitled to do with it as they wished, on 17th October a crowd of what was estimated to be between fifty and one hundred thousand people gathered.

Faced with around five hundred police officers, some of whom were mounted, the crowds were unsuccessful in their attempts to pull down the fences and rush the hill, with a following attempt a week later also proving unsuccessful.

In the meantime the Committee had discovered that there were several rights of way across the hill and therefore it was decided to take court action over the enclosure.

Although the process of taking action continued to drag on there were no further riots and in the meantime Camberwell Borough Council continued to pressurise the owner of the hill to sell his land.   Of course he refused and just asked for an unreasonably high amount of money to sell.

The London County Council then decided to add a clause to their General Powers Bill of 1902 for a compulsory purchase and so the hill was bought in 1904 for the sum of £6,100.



In about 1907/8 the War Office decided that it was going to build officers quarters for the army on Eltham Common and proceeded to fell masses of trees, claiming that they owned it and it wasn’t actually common land.

Thankfully pressure from local residents along with the help of the Commons Preservation Society, the War Office abandoned this idea.



Wimbledon Green was once a small piece of land with part of it to be found by the War Memorial and another part being found to the east of Parkside, with another piece of open space to be found opposite the Old Town Hall and the Crooked Billet Public House.

Then, at the beginning of 1901, a development company stated that they owned all this land having purchased it, rather ironically, from the heirs of Henry Peek (he who campaigned to save Wimbledon Common in the 1870s).

In March of that year the Wimbledon Commons Conservators announced that they could find no legal grounds to allow them to oppose the company’s development plans, whilst the locals had very different ideas and the fences enclosing this land, along with eight police officers to guard it were attacked by a mob of about three to four hundred local people who not only pulled them down but also set fire to them using petrol.

Thirteen people were arrested and charged with the destruction of the fences but luckily for them one of the magistrates happened to be an ex-local radical.  The thirteen were discharged with the magistrate stating that there was no actual proof that the company had any rights to the land.

A further boisterous crowd marched on The Green in 1902 but despite this and the continuing legal challenges the company continued to build.

As there were no real clear common rights the challenge and case could not hold water and therefore the matter was dropped by the local council and building continued with The Green lost forever.



In 1912 The Rookery, which can be found alongside Streatham Common, was put up for sale but a local committee got together and thereby preserved it for public use.



When Norwood Grove became under threat from developers in 1923 the same committee that saved The Rookery reconvened to save Norwood Grove for future generations to enjoy.

Of course we are still continuing to fight off the developers and unfortunately whilst we don’t always win a couple of the most notable victories have been:



Between 1985 to 1993 proposals were put forward for the building of an East London river crossing, including a motorway through the beautiful and ancient eight thousand year old Oxleas Wood in Eltham, along with the demolition of hundreds of homes.

Very strong campaigning by locals who formed the People against the River Crossing, along with environmentalists defeated this proposal.

Hundreds of people stated that they would physically fight any attempts that were made to destroy the woods, with other methods to save the woods such as beat the bulldozer and adopt a tree being employed.

At this particular time there was countrywide and mass direct action against the building of motorways, particularly at Twyford Down and in 1993 the government decided to back down from its proposals for Oxleas Wood.



Beckenham Place Park

During the 1990s Bromley Council proposed to sell off the top end of Crystal Palace Park in order to build a massive complex to house a multiplex cinema.

The mostly middle class locals formed the Crystal Palace Campaign which held many demonstrations and lobbies, including very strong legal challenges against these proposals, whilst in vast contrast an eco-camp was set up in the park by mostly people from outside the area, building tree houses and erecting barricades and occupying the park for over a year.

In 1999 the police sprang a complete surprise on the eco camp, arriving hidden in double decker buses, where they proceeded to violently evict the camp.

The vast costs involved in not only evicting the camp but also having to fight off successive legal challenges meant several years of delay to the council’s plans and eventually, in 2003, Bromley council stated that their plans had now collapsed.


Article was written by Karen Arnold.

Edited by Conner D on 01/07/2019.

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