The Diggers, the land and direct activism Aug20

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The Diggers, the land and direct activism

| Dr. John Gurney |

The Runneymede Eco Village has, at the time of writing, continued in being for seven weeks, despite the bad summer weather and the frequent and inevitable attempts by the authorities to move the Diggers on. The action began on 9 June, with a march from Syon Lane Community Allotment towards Windsor, where activists aimed to set up a self-sustaining community on disused land belonging to the Crown Estate. Eventually they settled on land surrounding the former Cooper’s Hill campus of Shoreditch College of Education and Brunel University, and it was here that they began building a long house, complete with wattle and daub and cob. The published demands of the participants in the venture were simple and direct. Everyone should have the right to live on disused land, to grow food and to build a shelter: ‘no country’, they claimed, ‘can be considered free, until this right is available to all’. As so often in the past, the question of access to land, shelter and livelihood had led people to articulate demands for a radical shift in society’s attitudes, and to engage in constructive and imaginative direct action to advance their cause.

The Runneymede activists’ demands might, at first sight, appear to present something of a paradox. On the one hand, they address very real twenty-first-century problems, among them today’s serious housing shortages and the reluctance of politicians of all major parties to take action to bring rents and house prices down to affordable levels. Allied to this is the issue of how best to promote viable strategies for sustainable living on an increasingly crowded planet. On the other hand, the activists’ demands very deliberately invoke those of the original, mid-seventeenth-century Diggers, a group of activists whose world was very different from the one we now inhabit. What possible relevance could the example of seventeenth-century Diggers have for activists today?

It was in April 1649 that the Diggers, inspired by the writings of Gerrard Winstanley, occupied waste land on St George’s Hill in Surrey, and sowed the ground with parsnips, carrots and beans. For Winstanley, the earth had been corrupted by covetousness and the rise of private property, and the time was ripe for it to become once more a ‘common treasury for all’. Change was to be brought about by the poor working the land in common and refusing to work for hire. The common people had ‘by their labours … lifted up their landlords and others to rule in tyranny and oppression over them’, and, Winstanley insisted, ‘so long as such are rulers as calls the land theirs … the common people shall never have their liberty; nor the land ever freed from troubles, oppressions and complainings’. The earth was made ‘to preserve all her children’, and not to ‘preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the earth from others, that they might beg or starve in a fruitful land’ – everyone should be able to ‘live upon the increase of the earth comfortably’. Soon all people – rich as well as poor – would, Winstanley hoped, be persuaded to throw in their lot with the Diggers and work to create a new, and better society. To Winstanley, agency was key, for ‘action is the life of all and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing’.

Winstanley’s vision was as much religious as political; he was strongly influenced by the mystical writings that were so popular among seventeenth-century radicals, and he shared fully in the millenarian excitement of the age. Yet in many respects the central elements of his programme remained resolutely practical, and it is largely this that explains the continuing interest in his ideas. The Diggers were active at a time of severe economic hardship and rapid political change. England had only recently emerged from several years of debilitating civil war, an experience made worse by a series of disastrous harvests in the immediate post-war years. King Charles I had been executed just two months before they began their digging, and England was in the process of being transformed into a republic. The Diggers’ programme was both revolutionary and practical: in occupying the commons Winstanley and his companions hoped both to advance their aim of ridding the land of private property and monetary exchange, and also to provide people with the opportunity to subsist in a time of scarcity. We should not be surprised to find that many of those who joined Winstanley on St George’s Hill, and who stayed with him until their settlements were destroyed, were local inhabitants. The traditional view that the Diggers were naive urban radicals, who descended upon an unsuspecting rural community before being swiftly driven away by outraged locals, now has little to commend it. It is clear that Winstanley’s vision, and his astute social criticism, had particular resonance for rural inhabitants whose livelihoods had suffered in the years of war and scarcity, and for whom England’s unprecedented political changes appeared to offer the chance to radically re-order their community.

Digging lasted for just over a year from April 1649. The Surrey Diggers abandoned their St George’s Hill colony in the summer of 1649, after having succumbed to frequent assaults and legal actions, and by late August they had relocated to the neighbouring parish of Cobham. Here they remained until 19 April 1650, when local landowners brought hired men to destroy their houses and burn the contents and building materials. New Digger colonies had, however, sprung up elsewhere, inspired by the Surrey Diggers’ example and by Winstanley’s extraordinarily rich body of writings. The longest lasting was probably the one established at Iver in Buckinghamshire, but we know of others too at Wellingborough in Northamptonshire and at Barnet, Enfield and Dunstable. Further colonies – most of them unspecified or difficult to identify – were reported elsewhere in Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire as well as in Gloucestershire, Kent, Nottinghamshire and possibly Leicestershire. Clearly Winstanley’s ideas had – for a brief time at least – fired the imagination of significant numbers of radicals and country people.

After Winstanley had completed his last major work in 1651, his writings were little read for more than two centuries. It was not until the 1890s that they were picked up again, first by Marxists and then, significantly, by land reformers. Today knowledge of Winstanley is widespread, and he has become one of the best-known figures from the period of the English Revolution. There have been numerous plays, novels, TV dramas, songs and films, and Winstanley has often been cited as an inspirational figure by politicians of the left. It is, however, for modern activists that his ideas and achievements have come to be seen as particularly relevant, and the Diggers have become one of the historical groups with which activists today are most likely to identify. From the 1960s Haight Ashbury Diggers, through Britain’s Hyde Park Diggers and Digger Action Movement, to The Land is Ours, G20 Meltdown and Occupy movement activists, one finds frequent echoes of Winstanley’s writings in modern social movements. His memory, and that of his fellow Diggers, has in recent years also been invoked by freeganists, squatters, guerrilla gardeners, allotment campaigners, social entrepreneurs, greens and peace campaigners; and both Marxists and libertarians have laid claim to him as a significant precursor. Last year’s Land and Freedom camp on Clapham Common included a timely showing of Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s classic 1975 film Winstanley, and independent socialists in both Wigan (Winstanley’s birthplace) and Wellingborough (the site of a Digger colony) have begun holding annual Digger festivals. Even well-heeled Cobham now has its Winstanley Walk and Winstanley Close.

The best-known attempt in recent years to draw on the example of the Diggers was the campaign launched in the 1990s by The Land is Ours. In 1995 TLIO activists set up camp at the disused Wisley airfield in Surrey and briefly invaded the fairways of St George’s Hill golf course. Four years later, on the three-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Digger experiment, activists marched to St George’s Hill – now an exclusive housing estate – and set up their tents, yurt and compost toilets on North Surrey Water Company land near the summit. The occupation lasted for just under a fortnight, when the site was abandoned before a possession order could be put into effect. Other land occupations soon followed. TLIO’s activities and their thoughtful publicity material helped draw attention both to pressing land-access issues, and to the continuing relevance of the Diggers’ example for modern activists.

It is often thought that TLIO were among the first activists to make the connection between modern land rights campaigns and the activities of the Diggers. Others had, however, got there some years before. More than a hundred years ago Stewart Gray, a mystic, hermit and former Edinburgh lawyer – and a figure now almost completely forgotten – travelled to Cobham to honour Winstanley, who had, he said, ‘grabbed a piece of land and taught the people how to grow their own food’. While living in Manchester, Gray had thrown in his lot with the unemployed and had become a pioneer of land grabbing. In 1906 he and others had seized church land at Levenshulme in Manchester, where they set up camp and hoped to ‘teach the unemployed to dig’. Soon other camps had appeared in Manchester, Bradford and Poplar. Gray later invaded the pulpit of Manchester Cathedral and led an unemployed hunger march – one of the first of its kind – to London. He planned, in anticipation of the 2012 Diggers, to settle part of Windsor Great Park as a colony for the unemployed, but when this failed to materialize he announced instead his intention of going on hunger strike. It was at this time, in February 1908, that he arrived at the gates of St George’s Hill. Finding the hill closed to himself and his companions, he took a growing cabbage from a cottage garden and planted it in protest outside the entrance to the hill.

Gray was not alone in late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain in invoking Winstanley’s memory in connection with modern land-access campaigns. Lewis Berens, who in 1906 published the first full-length study of Winstanley’s life and ideas, had for many years been active in land nationalisation campaigns in Britain and South Australia, while Morrison Davidson, whose The Wisdom of Winstanley the Digger appeared in 1904, was also heavily involved in the cause of radical land reform. In 1910 Joseph Clayton could claim that Winstanley’s ‘social teaching on the land question has thousands of disciples in Great Britain today’.

We should be careful not to assume that the popularity of Winstanley and the Diggers has persisted unabated since their rediscovery just over a century ago. The ‘land question’ that so exercised Edwardian radicals has never fully gone away, but by no means every land activist in the last hundred or so years has claimed to draw inspiration from the Diggers or been aware of their story. As Alun Howkins and others have argued, the many generations of activists that have addressed land-rights issues since 1649 have often responded to familiar problems in very similar ways, without necessarily being conscious of the example of their predecessors. But the place of the Diggers in modern popular memory is striking. In part this derives from the work of the historian Christopher Hill, who first wrote about Winstanley and the Diggers in the 1940s, when he was active in the Communist Party, but who presented a rather different, and to modern readers more sympathetic, view of Winstanley in his classic The World Turned Upside Down, published in 1972. Here for the first time Winstanley was portrayed as the articulate representative of an early modern counter-cultural radical underground; Winstanley’s insights into the corruption of the earth were also now seen to have profound contemporary relevance for a generation alarmed by the destruction of the environment and by threats of nuclear war. Hill’s Winstanley could be seen to speak powerfully to the new social movements of the 1960s and 70s, and to those members of a younger generation who increasingly questioned the achievements of post-war capitalism and rejected its values. Others too helped to forge this image of Winstanley, most notably George Woodcock, whose influential book Anarchism contained an important section on Winstanley which portrayed him as a figure who ‘stood at the beginning of the anarchist tradition of direct action’.

David Caute’s 1961 novel Comrade Jacob, and the radio and theatre plays it inspired, also helped to bring Winstanley and the Diggers to new audiences, as did Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s film. All these brought home the importance of Winstanley’s attempt to deal with the land question of his day, in ways that continued to resonate across the centuries. Most influential, however, was Leon Rosselson’s song ‘The World Turned Upside Down: Part 2’. Rosselson wrote the song after reading Hill; it has since been memorably recorded by Dick Gaughan and Billy Bragg among others, as well as by Rosselson, and has been regularly sung by Roy Bailey in his performances with Tony Benn on their ‘The Writing on the Wall’ tours. It has become one of the best-known protest anthems of recent times, known to activists not only in Britain but across the world. Over the years it has been adopted by activists at Greenham Common, by miners’ support groups, by land campaigners and by campaigners in the United States, Australia and Nicaragua. The BBC is even said to have once broadcast it as a traditional anthem of Nicaraguan coffee bean pickers. At Occupy London last year, Rosselson sung it memorably, and appropriately, at the camp at the foot of St Paul’s Cathedral. Rosselson’s song brilliantly captured Winstanley’s message, and articulated it for a new generation that could easily identify with the Diggers’ spirited aims and their sufferings at the hands of their opponents. ‘To make the waste land grow’, the slogan adopted by the Runneymede Diggers in 2012, echoes Rosselson’s song more directly than Winstanley’s own writings, and reminds us of the ways in which the arguments of 1649 have been so importantly refracted through Rosselson’s 1974 words. As long as Rosselson’s song continues to be sung, the memory of Winstanley and the Diggers will no doubt be kept alive, and future generations of activists will be reminded of the example and relevance of their seventeenth-century predecessors.

 

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John Gurney is author of Gerrard Winstanley: the Digger’s Life and Legacy (to be published by Pluto Press in November) and Brave Community: the Digger Movement in the English Revolution (Manchester University Press, 2007; reissued in paperback, 2012).