Commons, Greens, and the end of a decade

Image of a grassed field, surrounded by green trees. There are two black and white pigs grazing the land. The text "Customary rights, property and contested belongings in English commons and village greens, 1795-1965,' is overlaid.

The last Landscape Surgery session of the decade was opened by Katrina Navickas’s (University of Hertfordshire) presentation : ‘Customary rights, property and contested belongings in English commons and village greens, 1765-1965’. The seminar was a collaboration with Provincialism at Large – a new seminar series co-ordinated by Ruth Livesey (RHUL),  building on the collaboration between the Centre for Victorian Studies and the Centre for the GeoHumanities. Katrina was joined by Ruth and two PhD researchers (RHUL) Saskia Papadakis and Gemma Holgate, whose doctoral research projects are titled  ‘Northerners in London: Englishness, place and mobility’ and ‘Writing Socialist Feminism: Women Activists and the Novel, 1887-1908,’ respectively.

Katrina positions herself firmly as a regionalist, and promotes the study of particular regions in English history.  Today, she is presenting her research on legal geographies of the commons and village greens in England.  The 1965 Commons Registration act was legislation which aimed to survey all common land in England and Wales, however it was flawed and revealed the widespread difficulties of defining a common, its rights and ownership — many of which still exist today. The resulting registers are inaccurate and conflicting. 

Image of a booklet entitled "Common Land: Read this booklet to find out how to preserve your rights and interests."
1965 Commons Registration Act

But, how is common land defined? We were challenged to define these three terms as a group– with varying degrees of success!

  • Common: Private land which is subject to rights of common–  including pasture, turbary (taking peat or turf), estovers (taking wood), piscary (taking fish)..etc. The land could be fenced or open and was usually attached to private property.
  • Waste: Land which belongs to the manor, is uncultivated and while is not subject to rights of common can be used for pasture. 
  • Village Green: Land ‘owned’ by the village parish, which has been allotted for recreation and leisure for the inhabitants of the village.
A slate sign listing byelaws of fees. From 1954 - still erected today it the common today.
A sign listing Coulsdon Common’s byelaws, and list of fees. From 1954 – still erected today it the common today. 

Katrina reminds us of the importance of commons, to working people particularly, throughout history as meeting places; their integrity to political movements; the commons preservation movement; and points to the new shift to ecological concerns. 

Today many are fighting for their commons to prevent housing developments and retaining commons as nature reserves. Katrina also points to the landmark case in November 2019 in the which the Supreme Court ruled the banning  of Extinction Rebellion’s Autumn protest between 14-19 October was unlawful, which reminds us of how important laws on customary rights can be in the present: the right to liberty and protest still need to be protected. 

We would like to thank Katrina Navicka for her engaging presentation, and imagery; Ruth Livesey and Sasha Engelmann for organising this session; Saskia Papadakis and Gemma Holgate for presenting their research; and the other Landscape Surgery participants for their contributions to the discussion.

Written by Rachel Tyler.

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