In February 1866 the trustees of Lord Brownlow’s estate enclosed part of Berkhamsted Common in the Hertfordshire Chilterns with iron railings, unlawfully excluding those with common rights, and the local inhabitants who traditionally visited the common and cut fern and gorse for use on their properties.
The estate stole the common from the people with the intention of incorporating it into the neighbouring Ashridge Park.
Fortunately George Shaw-Lefevre (later Lord Eversley), who had founded of the Commons Preservation Society (now the Open Spaces Society) the previous year, knew Augustus Smith, Lord of Scilly, who had rights on the common. Shaw-Lefevre persuaded Smith to take direct action
Shaw-Lefevre described the event in his 1894 book English Commons and Forests:
It was arranged with a contractor in London to send down at night to Berkhamsted a force of 120 navvies, for the purpose of pulling down the iron fences in as short a time as possible. On March 6th 1866, a special train left Euston, shortly after midnight, with the requisite number of labourers, skilled workmen, and gangers, armed with proper implements and crowbars. The train reached Tring at 1.30 am. … A procession was formed at the station. A march of three miles in the moonlight brought them to Berkhamsted Common …. Before six a.m. the whole of the fences, two miles in length, were levelled to the ground, and the railings were laid in heaps, with as little damage as possible.
Court actions ensued on both sides, with Smith eventually emerging as the victor. The fences were never put back and the common has remained open to this day.
I went to Tring Station and Berkhamsted Common to relate the event for a video which is being made by the Countryside and Community Research Institute (CCRI) of Gloucestershire University. This will be used to introduce a six-week distance-learning course on commons for an international audience, through the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC).
John Powell, senior research fellow at CCRI, put the questions to me, while Ryan Powell operated the camera and Clearhos Papanicolaou, managed the sound.
Tring Station has deteriorated aesthetically since 1866; today it is a cheerless spot.
We went down to the platform for trains from Euston. The steps, which used to have diamond-shaped rubber treads, are now concrete, and the bridge over the railway and the steps to the platforms are no longer covered.
From the platform I spoke to camera of how the special train had set off from Euston and the navvies had disembarked at Tring Station
and then a train arrived—sans navvies.
Then we went to the common and set up the recording equipment close to where we believed the fences were erected. I told the story of the heinous enclosure and explained why direct action was necessary: correspondence and letters to The Times failed to make an impact on Lord Brownlow’s trustees.
We also called in for a snack at the unfortunately-named Brownlow Café next to the visitor centre (why couldn’t they have called it the Shaw-Lefevre Café or the Augustus Smith Café, rather than name it after the common’s enemy?).
Now Berkhamsted and neighbouring commons (including Northchurch, Pitstone, Aldbury, Ivinghoe and Hudnall) form the Ashridge Estate which belongs to the National Trust. The commons are not grazed because of the unfenced roads which cross them, and the trust mows the open land to maintain the sward.
The commons are immensely popular for quiet recreation and were superb in their autumn colours.
Through the video an international audience will learn that it is thanks to the far-sightedness of the Commons Preservation Society, and the energy of those 120 navvies, that the commons are open and free for all to enjoy.