On the night of 6 March 1866, 120 navvies marched from Tring Station to Berkhamsted Common in Hertfordshire to fell the unlawful fencing erected by the landowner Lord Brownlow. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of this event the National Trust has staged an excellent exhibition at the Ashridge visitor centre.
Lord Brownlow, egged on by his mother Lady Marian (who claimed the townsfolk had little interest in their common), had erected two five-foot-high fences with seven horizontal rails.
According to the History of Berkhamsted Common by George H Whybrow, ‘one ran alongside the Ringshall road, from the point where the common begins to broaden out on the east, and as far as the south-west corner of the park. That made it impossible for anyone to get to the main part of the common from the Northchurch side. The other fence was from the corner of Frithsden Beeches, where a road runs down to Frithsden, and it terminated at the edge of the common near the old rifle range. This effectively shut off the main part of the common from the eastern side.’
The enclosure was about 400 acres, roughly the same area as had been enclosed by King Charles in the 1640s before the tenants, the Edlyns, pulled down the fences.
The Commons Preservation Society had been formed in 1865, the year before the fences went up, and fortunately there was a wealthy commoner, Augustus Smith (Lord of Scilly). Under the society’s auspices he was prepared to take direct action.
Hence the navvies congregated at Euston Station, went by special train to Tring Station, marched three miles to the common and pulled down the fences. It is recorded graphically in an anonymous poem published in Punch a fortnight later: A Lay of Modern England (a parody of Macaulay’s Horatius (A Lay Made about the Year of the City CCCLX).
Augustus Smith of Scilly,
By Piper’s Hole he swore
That the proud Lord of Brownlow
Should keep the waste nor more.
By Piper’s Hole he swore it,
And named a trysting night,
And bade his myrmidons ride forth.
By special train from London’s north,
To venge the Common Right.
The poem describes the event at length, with frequent references to the navvies’ hope for beer. In fact their contractor drank too much at Euston Station and George Mickelwright, confidential clerk to the Commons Preservation Society’s solicitor P H Lawrence, is believed to have stepped into the breach and led the navvies to the common.
There, miles of iron railing
Scowled grimly in the dark,
Making what once was Common
The Lord of Brownlow’s Park:
His rights that Lord asserted,
Rights which they hold a myth,
The bold Berkhamsted Commoners,
Led by Augustus Smith.
Spoke out their nameless Leader,
‘That railing must go down.’
Then firmer grasped the crowbar
Those hands so strong and brown.
They march against the railing,
They lay the crowbars low,
And down and down for many a yard
The costly railings go.
It is recorded that the job was completed by six am, with the railings left in neat heaps on the ground. By seven o’clock the alarm was given but in the meantime the inhabitants of the villages had ‘flocked upon the scene’ and taken away ‘morsels of gorse to prove, as they said, the place was their own again’.
The National Trust’s exhibition celebrates the event and the common. It has been put together by the Ashridge ranger, Emily Smith, who has done a great deal of thorough research. I photographed her next to some iron railings which were found on the common, which the trust believes date from about the time of the navvies: could they be the very ones (the only difference is that there are eight railings not seven)?
Emily found a poster from 1870 calling on people to pull down fences erected by Lord Spencer on Wandsworth Common in London. It shows that the Berkhamsted escapade was well known. At the bottom it says:
Follow the Noble Example of Mr Augustus Smith, who destroyed three miles of fence on Berkhampstead Common; the men of Wigton who broke down the fence erected by the Earl of Galloway; the men of Buckinghamshire who broke down the fences on Northall Common; the men of Surrey who broke down the fences on Shalford Common and so preserved their rights! Men of Battersea and Wandsworth, GO AND DO THOU LIKEWISE!
In a panel about the two societies, the National Trust has recognised the role of the Commons Preservation Society (now the Open Spaces Society) in saving Berkhamsted Common from enclosure.
The exhibition is at the visitor centre until 31 March 2016, entry is free. You can pick up a leaflet (illustrated above) of the waymarked commemorative walk from Dick’s Camp car- park on the B4506 (just south of the Aldbury turning) which follows the route of Lord Brownlow’s enclosure.
On the actual anniversary, Sunday 6 March 2016, there is to be a celebratory guided walk led by Emily and archaeologist Gary Marshall followed by barbeque (you must book ahead). I shall be there to speak for the Open Spaces Society. It should be fun. Read more about the exhibition and walk here.
The Countryside and Communities Research Institute at Gloucester University has made a video of the story of Berkhamsted Common, as part of its online courses on commons. It was produced by Ryan Powell. You can watch it here.