English Commons

Across England and Wales, there are open spaces called ‘commons’ which are generally rough open spaces for fairs and walking dogs. But what does this term mean? This is from Lord Eversley, Commons Forests & Footpaths:

“In most parts of England ansd Wales there exist many ranges of open land, which hae never been subject to cultivation or agricultural improvement, and which have consequently remained in their original state of nature from earliest times. Their permanence in this condition has been due to the fact that the ownership of them has never been complete and absolute. They have been burdened from time immeorial with the rights of numerous adjoining owners and occupiers to turn out cattle or sheep on them, and to dig turf, or cut gorse, bracken or heather for fuel, litter, or thatching. The existence of such rights has prevented the nominal owners of the soil from exercising the full rights of inclosing and cultivating the land, and has indirectly been the means of securing to the public the unrestricted use and enjoyment of walking or riding over the land in all directions, whatever their strict legal rights may be. Such common lands are technically the wastes of the manors in which they are situate, and must be distinguished from other lands, which, though open and unenclosed, are yet private property in the full sense of the term, and which the owners could at any time enclose with fences

These Commons are not to be found only in purely rural districts Many of them are near to London and other large towns, where they form, as it were, oases of nature, in striking contrast to their surroundings., They have ceased, however, to be of any substantial profit to those who have rights of common over them. The growth of large populatins in their neighbourhood has made it dangerous to turn out valuable cattle on them. Cheap coal has superseded the necessity of cutting turf or gorse for fuel. Bracken and heather are no longer wanted for litter or thatching. People have taken the place of cattle and sheep, and use the wastes for recreation though it will be seen that the law has not recognised the change or given full sanction to the new user. The common rights still subsist in law, though no longer of any practical value for the purposes which gave rise to them. They are valued by the adjoining owners of land only because they afford the means of preventing the owner of the soil, the Lord of the Manor, inclosing and appropriating the Common for building, and thus excluding the public.

Where such Metroolitan or Suburban commons exist it it difficult to exaggerate their value to the public. They are natural parks, over which every one may roam freely; for though the public may be trespassers in strict law, there are no practical means of preventing the use of these waste lands for exercise and recreation. They are reservoirs of fresh air and health, whence fresh breezes blow into the adjoining town. They bring home to the poorest something of the sense and beauty of nature.”

This notion of common ground also has major importance to places that Britain colonised. The notion of waste land today suggests something truly barren, perhaps even contaminated, but for centuries it just meant that it was not productive: no houses, no farming on it, hence when the English arrived in places like the Americas and Australasia, what they saw was not recognizable as organised land management, so was labeled as waste, hence there for the taking. In fact, the whole of Aiustralia was titled ‘terra nullis’ ie there was nothing there. This is ot about the indiginous peoples, it was about land, because as Defoe complained, the English invested too much in land. Some things never change.

3 thoughts on “English Commons

  1. No land seems to be wasted in the UK these days with such an emphasis in London on building on every bit. Thank goodness the common land is fairly safe but often cut through with roads.


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