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Gerrard Winstanley & The Diggers

Our name Manchester Urban Diggers (aka MUD) came from a hard day's brainstorm around a kitchen table with lots of brews and biscuits. The Diggers were a group of people & movement that was started in 1649 by angry people who needed to feed themselves and saw unused land going to waste whilst they starved.

You may have seen the poster at our home Platt Fields Market Garden bearing a quote from the leader of The Diggers - Gerard Winstanley - “Was the earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease; or was it made to preserve all her children?”.

I recently visited the Working Class History Library in Salford to talk to them about their gardens and a volunteer gave me a tour around the building. I thought I would do some research into the Diggers and the context in which they came to be.

Anglo Saxon Rule

From the 5th to 11th Century, Britain was under Anglo-Saxon rule. There were many minor lords throughout the country and also landless peasants who worked in return for food and protection. Much of the land was people farming for themselves and their families on small patches of their own land. However the majority of Britain was common land.

Common Land or The Commons

Common land has a long history in England and refers to land that is owned by one or more persons, but which is subject to certain rights of use or access by the general public or certain groups of people (i.e. commoners). These rights are known as common rights and may include rights to graze animals, collect firewood, or gather berries or mushrooms etc. Over the centuries, many common lands were enclosed and privatised by landowners, leading to conflicts with local communities who had previously relied on them for their livelihoods.

Norman Rule

In 1066, William the Conqueror invaded and defeated the Anglo-Saxon King Harold. After his victory, William became King of England and began a program of radical social and political reform that had far-reaching consequences for English society.

One of William's most significant reforms was the introduction of the feudal system to England. Under this system, all land in England was owned by the king, who granted it to his nobles in return for their loyalty and military service. The nobles, in turn, granted land to their tenants in return for rent and other services. This system created a hierarchical social structure that was based on land ownership and loyalty to the king.

Under William's reign, the common land was controlled by the lord of the manor, who was responsible for managing the land and ensuring that it was used fairly by all. The common people had certain rights to use the land, but these were subject to the lord's discretion.

However, over time, the rights of the common people to access and use common land began to erode. Many lords of the manor started to enclose common land, converting it into private property and depriving the common people of their rights to use it.

King Harold’s (Saxon) death at Hastings in the Bayeux Tapestry

The Black Death (1300s)

The Black Death of 1348–1350 killed 30–60% of Europe's population. As a consequence the surviving population had access to larger tracts of empty farmland and wages increased due to a shortage of labour. Richer farmers began to acquire land and remove it from communal usage as smaller landowners struggled to pay the increased wages. An economic recession and low grain prices in fifteenth century England gave a competitive advantage to the production of wool, meat, and milk. The shift away from grain to livestock accelerated enclosure of fields.

Dissolution of the Monasteries

The Dissolution of the Monasteries was another significant event in English history that took place in the 16th century, during the reign of King Henry VIII. The Dissolution was a political and religious movement that aimed to seize the property and wealth of the Catholic monasteries and nunneries in England, and to transfer it to the control of the English Crown.

The Dissolution began in 1536 and continued until 1540, during which time over 800 monasteries, nunneries, and other religious houses were dissolved, and their lands and property were confiscated. The wealth that was seized by the Crown included vast estates, farmland, forests, and other valuable properties, which were then sold or granted to wealthy landowners and nobles.

The impact of the Dissolution on land ownership in England was significant. The seized lands were often distributed to courtiers and nobles, who quickly began to enclose and consolidate the land. This process of enclosure meant that common land, which had previously been used by local communities for grazing, agriculture, and other purposes, was now being taken away and fenced off for private use. This had a profound impact on rural communities, who were suddenly deprived of their traditional access to common land and forced to work for the new landowners.

Land Enclosure in the 1600s

The 17th century in England saw a significant shift in land ownership and use, with the enclosure of common lands becoming increasingly common. This period saw the consolidation of land into larger estates, the displacement of small farmers and rural communities - who had traditionally relied on the commons for grazing, hunting, and other subsistence activities - and the creation of a new system of agriculture that laid the foundations for modern farming practices. The people who previously used the common land were forced to migrate to the cities or seek alternative forms of livelihood.

Despite this opposition, enclosure continued throughout the 17th century, and by the end of the century, much of the common land in England had been enclosed. The legacy of enclosure can still be seen in the English countryside today, in the form of large estates and monoculture farming practices.

The English Civil War (1642 - 1651)

One of the primary factors that contributed to the emergence of the Diggers was the widespread economic dislocation and poverty that plagued England in the aftermath of the English Civil War. This conflict, which lasted from 1642 to 1651, pitted the supporters of King Charles I against the forces of Parliament and resulted in widespread destruction throughout the country. Many people were forced to leave their homes and livelihoods, as armies marched across the country and requisitioned food, supplies, and other resources. It ultimately led to the execution of the king and the establishment of the short-lived Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell.

The war had a significant impact on the development of the English economy. The destruction of farms and other infrastructure led to a decline in agricultural productivity, while the disruption of trade and commerce led to a decline in industrial activity. This in turn led to higher prices for food and other goods, as well as increased unemployment and poverty. Thousands of displaced people, including former soldiers and their families, struggled to make ends meet. Many turned to subsistence farming, which was made more difficult by the widespread enclosure of common lands by wealthy landowners.

Books & pamphlets on the history of The Diggers & English folk music.

The Diggers

On 1st April 1649 half a dozen poor men began to dig common land at St. George’s Hill in Weybridge under the Leadership of Gerard Winstanley & William Everard. Winstanley proclaimed that he had received a divine injunction that people should ‘work together, eat bread together.'

Half a dozen people tripled in a week - they soon were arrested & locked up. A record from a local testified “They invite all to come in and help them and promise them meat, drink & clothes”.

Winstanley & Everard argued at Whitehall after another arrest “.. the liberties of the people were lost by coming in William the Conqueror, and that ever since the people of God had lived under tyranny & oppression worse than that of our forefathers…”.

They did not do any damage to people's property but only what was common land & untilled - they wanted to make it fruitful for use by all people. They also said that they did not need money in this new community & could provide everything they needed for themselves.

The Digger movement declined in the mid-1650s, as the political situation in England became more stable and the government became more repressive. Many of the Diggers were arrested and imprisoned, and their ideas were largely forgotten for many years.

Gerard Winstanley continued to develop his thinking around a fair & just system of organising society and wrote several ‘manifestos’ including “The Law of Freedom” which had rules such as “No one would work beyond the age of 40”!

Winstanley went on to join George Fox and the beginnings of the Quakers and it is said that his writings influenced them greatly.

It is interesting to us that the context in which the Diggers first appeared - high levels of poverty, inequality, high inflation for costs of food, civil rights being removed - are not too dissimilar to which we find ourselves now. Land ownership by the rich and powerful is entrenched and unquestionable, although history tells us that it was taken from us - the common people. Our current political & economic system is not working as we can see from the massive transfer of wealth to the super rich, the current mental health epidemic and the destruction of our environment (amongst everything else!).

Looking to the peoples movements of the past, such as the Winstanley & the Diggers, can give us hope that change can be achieved through communal action!

The Pankhurst Plot in Chorlton Park - March 2023


Interesting further reading & references:

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