Landholding in England/Chapter 16

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CHAPTER XVI.—THE DIGGERS


MISERY was not confined to particular counties. It was universal. The Moderate Intelligencer says that "hundreds of thousands" in England have a livelihood which gives them food in the summer but little or none in the winter ; that a third part of the people in most of the parishes stand in need of relief ; that thousands of families have no work, and those who have can earn bread only. "There are many thousands near to this City [London] who have no other sustenance through the week but beer-meals — neither roots, flesh, drink, or other necessaries are they able to buy, and of meal not sufficient." The Impartial Intelligencer speaks of the extraordinary price of provisions (taken into consideration by the House). "Labour is cheaper and food twice dearer than formerly." So acute was the misery that some people began to look into the causes. They were called "Levellers," this time because it was said they wished to "level men's estates." But they did not—nor were they Jesuits, as others averred. The best known of them is Lieutenant-Colonel John Lilburne—the only man of that age who understood representative government. He was thought a madman, a fanatic, a man so captious, that, were he the last man left in the world, Lilburne would quarrel with John and John with Lilburne. Colonel Rainborow, another of the levellers, told his fellow-officers in Council: "The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he." The levellers said : "The most necessary work of mankind is to provide for the poor. The rich can help themselves … the wealth and strength of all countries are in the poor, for they do all the great necessary works, and they make up the main body of the strength of armies." And Winstanley the Digger wrote: "England is not a free people till the poor that have no land have a free allowance to dig and labour the commons, and so live as comfortably as the landlords that live in their enclosures."

The Digger movement has been misunderstood. In its main features, it was neither anarchical nor Utopian. It was an attempt to recover the commons. The diggers are often called "levellers," but though all levellers were in sympathy with the diggers, the diggers were more concerned with the social than with the political question, and their aim, explained with passionate earnestness by Gerrard Winstanley, their leader, was to recover the rights to the land of the "younger brother," as he pathetically calls the poor. The diggers, he protests, desire to deprive no man of his enclosure. Let "the elder brothers" remain in their enclosures, but let the common people ("after all their taxes, free-quarter and loss of blood to recover England from the Norman yoke") have freedom to improve the commons and waste lands. That is all he demands. He knows that it is falsely reported that the diggers "have intent to fortify ourselves, and afterwards fight against others, and take away their goods from them, which is a thing we abhor." But why should the elder brother take all? Why should some be "lifted up in the chair of tyranny, and others trod under the footstool of misery, as if the earth were made for a few, and not for all?" The poor are driven by misery to steal, and then laws are made to hang them for stealing. "The earth was made by the Lord to be a Common Treasury for all, not a particular treasury for some. Leave off dominion and lordship one over another; for the whole hulk of mankind are but one living Earth." Winstanley is not ashamed to be called a leveller, for "Jesus Christ, the Saviour of all Men, is the Greatest, first and truest Leveller that ever was spoken of in the World; and He shall cause men to beat their swords into plough-shares, and their spears into pruning-hooks, and Nations shall learn war no more." Winstanley had written these things in many pamphlets, "yet my mind was not at rest, because nothing was acted." So on Sunday, 1st April 1649, he and his disciples began to dig on "Little Heath," on St George's Hill, between Cobham and Weybridge. They put forth a manifesto, which says: "The work we are going about is this, To dig up George's Hill and the waste grounds thereabouts, and to sow corn, and to eat our bread together by the sweat of our brows … that everyone that is born in the Land may be fed by the Earth his Mother that brought him forth."

Two hundred years after Winstanley, a clergyman of the Church of England, whose writings were long among the text-books of our universities, expressed in one of those very text-books opinions which might have been taken straight from Winstanley. "The poor," says Archdeacon Paley in his "Moral Philosophy," "have a claim founded in the law of nature, which may be thus explained:—All things were originally common. No one being able to produce a charter from heaven, had any better title to a particular possession than his next neighbour. There are reasons for mankind agreeing upon a separation of this common fund: God, for these reasons, is presumed to have ratified it. But this separation was made and consented to, upon the expectation and condition that everyone should have left a sufficiency for his subsistence, or the means of procuring it … and therefore, when the partition of property is rigidly maintained against the claims of indigence and distress, it is maintained in opposition to the intention of those who made it, and to his, who is the supreme Proprietor of everything, and who has filled the world with plenteousness for the sustentation and comfort of all whom he sends into it." Paley, indeed, goes farther than Winstanley; for Winstanley was always most careful to disclaim any intention of taking that which belonged to the rich; but Paley says that "a man, in a state of extreme necessity, has a right to use another's property when it is necessary for his own preservation to do so; a right to take, without, or against the owner's leave, the first food, clothes, or shelter, he meets with, when he is in danger of perishing for want of them." And Paley is in accord, not only with all the great civil and religious moralists who went before him, but even with the law of England, which, as Bacon says, "chargeth no man with default where the act is compulsory … necessity carrieth a privilege in itself. Necessity is of three sorts: … first, of conservation of life; if a man steal viands to satisfy his present hunger, this is no felony nor larceny."[1] And the only authorities who deny this, do so on the ground that since the establishment of a Poor Law, no man can say he is in danger of starvation.

The poor diggers! They soon found that a parliament was much the same as a king, so far as privilege was concerned, and that the great and glorious Acts lately made to abolish kingly government, and erect this nation into "a Free Commonwealth" meant neither freedom nor commonwealth; but the earth and the fulness thereof was still to be the landlords'. The elder brother had no notion of giving up the commons and wastes to the younger.

When the soldiers went to disperse the diggers, they said they only meant to meddle with what was common and unfilled, "waiting till all men should willingly come in and give up lands and estates and willingly submit to this community." They kept on their hats, but said they would submit. Asked why they did not take off their hats, they said: "The Lord-General was but our fellow-creature."

The poor diggers ! As they dug, they sang a rude doggerel:

"Stand up now, Diggers all!
The gentry are all round—stand up now! stand up now!
The gentry are all round, on each side they are found.
Their wisdom's so profound, to cheat us of our ground.
Stand up now! stand up now!

The clergy they come in—stand up now I stand up, now!
The clergy they come in, and say it is a sin
That we should now begin our freedom for to win,
Stand up now, Diggers all!

To conquer them by love, come in now, come in now,
To conquer them by love, come in now !
To conquer them by love, as it does you behove,
For He is King above ; no power is like to love.
Glory here, Diggers all!"

The poor diggers, trying with their humble spades to make the political revolution a social reformation! The Lords of the manors and "Parson Platt" were all round; the officers of the law promptly summoned Winstanley for trespass, heavy fines were imposed, and as the diggers still persisted, their wooden houses were pulled about their ears, their carts were destroyed, and their spades and hoes taken away, "and we never had them again." They were starved out; and those who at Wellingborough imitated their example fared no better.

There were 1169 persons in one parish in Wellingborough receiving alms. They had made their case known to the justices, who ordered the town to "set them on work; but as yet nothing is done, nor any man that goeth about to do it. Our lives are a burden to us. … Rich men's hearts are hardened; they will not give us if we beg at their doors. If we steal, the law will end our lives. Divers of the poor are starved to death already; and it were better for us that are living to die by the sword than by the famine. And now we consider that the earth is our mother; and that God hath given it to the children of men; and that the common and waste grounds belong to the poor. Therefore we have begun to bestow our righteous [i.e. 'honest'] labor upon it. … And truly we have great comfort already through the goodness of our God, that some of those rich men amongst us that have had the greatest profit upon the common have freely given us their share in it … and the country farmers have preferred divers of them, to give us seed to sow it."[2]

The poor fellows hoped that some who approved "would but spread this Declaration before the great Council of the Land." But when the Council of State read it, they wrote to Mr Justice Pentlow, a J. P. for the county of Northampton, approving his proceedings against "the levellers"; adding that they doubted not that he was sensible "of the mischief those designs tend to, and of the necessity to proceed effectually against them"; and desiring him to let the Council know if any "that ought to be instrumental to bring them to punishment, fail in their duty."

And when Cromwell returned victorious from Ireland, he made short work of the political levellers, shooting them down in Burford churchyard, and at York and Norwich, sending John Lilburne to the Tower, and observing a Day of Thanksgiving as for a great deliverance.

And now enclosure went merrily on, and instead of the poor recovering the commons, they lost much of the "open field"—the arable land, theirs from time immemorial. The following quotation from one of the many contemporary pamphlets gives a complete and intelligible picture of what was done, and how it was done. The pamphlet is entitled "The Crying Sin of England in not caring for the Poor," by J. Moore,[3] minister of Knaptoft, in Leicestershire, 16th September 1653.

"But how great a shame it is for a Gospel Magistracie not to suppresse Make-beggars, which make such swarms of Beggars in Countries, Cities, and Towns. … I mean the unsociable, covetous, cruel, broode of those wretches, that by their Inclosure do unpeople Towns and uncorn fields. … My whole County of Leicestershire and such wasting of the Inland Counties can witness with me. Question many of our beggars that go from dore to dore, with wife and children after them, where they dwell, and why they go a begging. Alas, Master (say they) we were forced out of such a Town when it was inclosed, and since we have continued a generation of Beggars. When we take a view of the multitude of poor in Market Towns and fielden Towns, we see how these poor wretches were driven out of their hive, their honey taken away. … They make four sorts of people Beggars ; first, the Tenant; secondly, the Cottier; thirdly, the Children of both; fourthly, all those that shall stand in their way to hinder their uncharitable, yea, unjust designs.

"Truly it would make a charitable heart bleed to come now into our Markets, where we are now so busie upon such Inclosures, in Leicestershire, where the Market is full of injurie and complaint of such Tenants to all they meet. Can you help me to a farm, or a little land,' to employ my team? I am discharged, and if I sell my horses and Cattel, I shall never get a team again, or so many milch cows to maintain my family. … In some Towns, there is fourteen, sixteen, or twenty Tenants discharged of plowing.

"One of the inhabitants gave this reason why they must do it … The poor increase like fleas and lice, and these vermine will eat us up unless we inclose. … Depopulation comes by degrees, and the next generation usually knows neither Tenant, nor Cottier in such enclosed places, for Towns we must call them no longer. They usually upon such inclosure treble the price of their Land, and this they get by flaying the skin off the poor. Seldom the third generation can call these inclosed grounds his own. … Every one trembles to set his hand first to them."

The last words refer to the deep-rooted belief that lands unjustly come by cause the dying out of the family of the robber. It seems that these Leicestershire enclosers tried to cheat the vengeance of God by signing their names in a round-robin to the document empowering them to enclose. Thus no man by signing first marked himself out as the leader in the business.

There can be no doubt that the lands these people were enclosing were in great part the "town-lands"—the "open field" which lay around every village from time immemorial, and was assigned in strips by lot each year to the families in that village. In ancient times the villeins had these lands and were called customary tenants; they lived off them, and, by way of rent, performed soccage. All such tenants were at once cleared off the monastery lands at the dissolution; but, in many parts, the "customary tenants" still remained on lands which did not change hands. The enclosers of the first half of the seventeenth century seem to have stopped at taking commons, coppices, etc. Now the town-lands themselves were seized upon.[4]

Enclosure, eviction, destitution, vagabondage. This is the dismal sequence.


  1. Locke, as little a visionary as any man who ever lived, said: "God has not left one man so to the mercy of another, that he may starve him, if he pleases … no man could ever have a just power over the life of another by right of property in land or possessions."
  2. From a Broadsheet declaring "the Grounds or Reasons why we, the poor inhabitants of Wellinborrow have begun … to dig up manure and sow corn upon the Commons and Waste Ground called Bareshanks, belonging to the inhabitants of Wellinborrow, by those that have subscribed and hundreds more that give consent."
  3. Moore was, of course, one of the ministers put in by the Parliament when the Episcopalian clergy were driven out.
  4. Villages are called "towns," and the places we call towns were then frequently called "markets" or "corporations," according as they were corporate or only market towns.