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Saving London's common ground

As we face the increasing privatisation of London's public spaces, curator Alex Werner looks back at how the city's commons were preserved in earlier centuries.

Our City Now City Future season looks at how to survive on an urban earth.

Alex Werner

Lead Curator,New Museum

3 October 2017

Today, with local authorities stretched to pay for essential services, there is a pressure to sell off buildings and land. We see libraries converted into private gyms and school playing fields sold off to leisure and housing companies. We face the question of which parts of our modern city should remain in public ownership. But London has faced similar pressures before, notably in the nineteenth century. Rising population and wealth fueled a ‘march of bricks and mortar’ over much of the surrounding countryside as London expanded outwards. One-time villages such as Hackney, Islington and Kensington lost their sense of separateness, speculative housing covering over the green fields in-between. In 1822, William Cobbett noted the pace of development on the main route out of London towards Croydon; there were, ‘erected within these four years, two entire miles of stock-jobbers’ houses on this one road, and the work goes on with accelerated force’.

Reproduction of etching, 'London Going Out of Town or the March of Bricks and Mortar'. Regiments of new streets march ruthlessly out of London into the surrounding country under the leadership of 'Mr. Goth'. This satirical image comments on the frenzy in the construction that was taking place in London around the 1820s. The image gives a detailed picture of the brickmaking and house-building processes. The pits formed by brick digging were filled with domestic rubbish where rows of houses were built.

London Going Out of Town or the March of Bricks and Mortar: 1829

Print by George Cruikshank. Regiments of new streets march ruthlessly out of London into the surrounding country under the leadership of 'Mr. Goth'.

A 'Mush-Faker' was a street trader who made, mended and sold umbrellas. In this photograph he is talking to a man vending his home-made ginger beer. The image is taken from a series of 37 photographs published in the book, 'Street Life in London' (1877), with text written by John Thomson and the journalist Adolphe Smith. After taking photographs in the Far East, Thomson opened a portrait studio in London in 1875. Two years later he collaborated with the journalist, Adolphe Smith, to produce 'Street Life in London'. The book was conceived as a follow-up to Henry Mayhew's famous study, 'London Labour and the London Poor' (1861–2). The photographs were used to guarantee the book's authenticity.

'Mush-Fakers' and Ginger Beer makers: c.1877

Street sellers on Clapham Common in the era of London's explosive growth. ID no. IN645

The demand for new houses was never-ending. In the first half of the nineteenth century, London’s population grew at a dramatic rate, rising from around one million in 1800 to two and half million at the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851. There was no let-up in the second half of the century, as the city expanded further to reach over eight million by 1914. Housing developments mushroomed around London, consuming farmland, market gardens and common land. An army of labourers descended – bricklayers, carpenters, joiners, plasterers, glaziers and painters – to produce the now familiar rows of terraced houses as well as accompanying shop parades, school buildings, churches and libraries.

The Japanese Garden Peckham Rye. Peckham Rye Park is one of the most beautiful parks in South London it opened in 1894. The Friends of Peckham Rye Park began a campaign to have the Park restored to its former Victorian splendour. They launched a campaign to bid for money from the Heritage Lottery Fund for this restoration, which took many years of hard work but with the help of Southwark Council, the money was granted and the campaign was successful. The restoration work started in 2004 and was completed in 2005.

The Japanese Garden in Peckham Rye Park

The crunch moment in terms of open spaces and urban sprawl was probably the 1860s. Londoners, and the politicians who represented them, began to realise that green spaces were being lost at an alarming rate. Often the land was viewed by local inhabitants as common land. In 1866, an act of parliament enabled parishes to use income from the rates to buy and maintain common lands.

Close to where I live, there are two open spaces - Peckham Rye and Goose Green. Both of these were threatened in the 1860s when the lord of manor proposed to develop the land for housing. The new railway lines were spreading across south London at a rapid rate, driving up land values. Even the commons were considered ripe for development, unless protected by local government. With the new act in place, the Camberwell Vestry, the local authority at the time, was able to acquire both Peckham Rye and Goose Green, securing them as public open spaces.

Sledging on Hampstead Heath. In late February 1969, snowdrifts lay across southern England. The slopes of Hampstead Heath are traditionally popular for sledging, especially Parliament Hill which gives views across London.

Sledging on Hampstead Heath, 1969

© Henry Grant Collection/Museum of London. ID no. HG2576/36

A view across Wandsworth Common pond.

Wandsworth Common pond; 2009

This was happening all over Greater London. Sometimes the land was bought for the public, and in other areas legal protection was secured through the act of parliament, with ‘common land’ protected even if rights were retained by the land owner. In the 1860s, local people mounted a campaign to save Wandsworth Common when it was threatened with development. A long campaign ensued leading to the Wandsworth Commons Act in 1871 which secured it for public use. In 1912, the LCC purchased a further 20 acres extending the common.

The Corporation of London came to the rescue on a number of occasions when open spaces in parts of outer London when probable development loomed. In 1892, it purchased the remaining part of West Wickham Common, now in the London Borough of Bromley. The Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) was another active body in the acquisition of open spaces. For instance, Hampstead Heath was threatened in the 1860s and finally became public property when the MBW took it over. It expanded in the late 1880s when Parliament Fields was acquired, largely through the philanthropy of Baroness Burdett-Coutts. Plans to develop the surrounding farmland continued apace in north London. In 1907, the area known as Hampstead Heath Extension was acquired with the help of Henrietta Barnett. She went on to develop Hampstead Garden Suburb after buying a large parcel of land from Eton College. The London County Council (LCC) set up in 1888 took over the responsibilities of the MBW for London’s open spaces.

When we spend some time enjoying one of London’s many fabulous parks and commons, we should remember to say a quiet thank you to our forebears who campaigned to secure and safeguard these open spaces for the benefit of all Londoners.