Why Does South London Have So Many Commons?

Harry Rosehill
By Harry Rosehill Last edited 90 months ago

Last Updated 05 December 2016

Why Does South London Have So Many Commons?

Clapham Common, Tooting Bec Common, Peckham Rye Common, Wimbledon Common and so many more common parks lie across south London. Ever stopped to wonder why? And why is there so much more common ground south of the river than north?

Wimbledon Common. Photo: Joe Dunckley

Let's begin with a brief history of commons. These didn't start out officially as common land; instead there was an informal system where they were treated as such. The land was almost always held by the lord of the local manor, but he would allow local people to some rights on it: grazing animals, gathering wood for fuel and sowing small plots to grow food. These rights were granted as an unwritten social contract... which led to trouble down the line.

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, traditional land uses shifted, as Britain moved from a feudal system to a capitalist one. It increasingly befitted landowners to turn every single square metre that was theirs to turn a profit, including the common land. Many of the locals (or commoners) had come to rely on the land, so when fences were put up and the woodlands cleared, they weren't exactly enthralled.

Wandsworth Common. Photo: Andrew McCarter

The most common method of fighting against the loss of commons was destroying the fences that kept people out. (Legal tactics to save the commons would often run parallel to the violent ones.) Those protesting the enclosures were just as self-interested as the landowners; many local parishes didn't want to have to deal with skint peasants who resided on the common and were worried they'd become a burden on the taxpayer. Such was the case at the now disappeared Sydenham Common.

Sydenham Common might just be housing now, but back in the day, people would give anything to save it. Even their life, as happened to one Michael Bradley in 1792. Samuel Atkinson had bought the land and was confronted by Bradley and a few others who wanted to assert their rights to what they believed was common land. Atkinson said if any of them came any closer, he'd shoot. Bradley stepped forwards. Atkinson shot. Atkinson never served any sentence for the murder and not too long later Sydenham was enclosed.

Clapham Common. Photo: Steve Reed

Over time the nature of the debate over commons changed. Britain industrialised and land was no longer such an economic necessity; instead London was a metropolitan hub that needed housing. In a battle that still rages to this day, locals want to keep the spaces for recreation, a lung of green in which to escape the city.

Not unlike today, there were also serious worries about London's air quality in an industrial age, which the destruction of common land would only harm further. Victorian morals came into play too; there was a belief that green spaces were a good influence on people. Without them, it was thought citizens would turn to the cities' numerous vices: drink, prostitution and violent sports. (Clearly these Victorians never got a Facebook invite to any mash-ups on the green.)

After years of violence and destruction, the General Enclosure Act of 1845 was eventually passed stating that two thirds of the commoners must agree to the land being enclosed. This was the first of many moves to protect London's commons, which by this stage mainly lay south of the river.

Take a look below at a more recent case of defending south London's commons against those attempting to turn them into profit. Tongue in cheek as he may be, Sacha Baron Cohen has history on his side in trying to use violence to stop the development going forwards.

The protesters were successful that time, but in 2010 plans were approved to redevelop the northern part of the park into housing. They could have done with Ali G starting a "ruck" then.

As for the north London Vs south London question: we attempted to work out the amount of common land on both sides of the river. North of the river there's roughly 826 hectares of common ground, compared to 1,469 hectares south. Not only is that gap pronounced, but the common ground in south London is much more evenly spread throughout the area — whereas north of the river it's mostly in Greater London's fringes in Hillingdon and Havering (Hampstead Heath is a very noticeable exception that greatly boosts north London's stats).

The Rookery, Streatham Common. Photo: Venesha Thompson

There are a couple of reasons that commons are much more common (sorry) in south London. One theory states that north London land prices were traditionally higher, so landowners had more to gain from monetising the land. This was especially the case as the city grew north before heading south, so the common land in the north was taken with relatively little organised opposition. By the time landowners tried to enclose common land in the south, people could see what had happened in the north, and took action. It's also clear that no one fought tooth and nail, quite like south Londoners for the protection of their common land.

There's also another interesting strand of thought — still unproven, mind you — which states that the geography south of the river meant the land traditionally had different uses to that in the north. This is the same reason there is a dearth of tube stops south of the river, and might have affected whether land was used for agricultural purposes or became waste — the humble beginnings of most common land.

Any park in London that is followed by the word common — and many that aren't — are still free to use to this day. So if you want to head for a jog, graze your animals or have a picnic, you're welcome. Just remember to thank past Londoners who battled for that right.

With thanks to the folks at Past Tense for their help.