Our Common Land (and other short essays)/Chapter 8

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Our Common Land (and other short essays) by Octavia Hill
The Future of our Commons

VIII.


THE FUTURE OF OUR COMMONS.


The question of the appropriation of the common land of England is one which is of great importance now, and which will be of increasing importance as time goes on. The matter is not simply one of providing a public park or common in the near neighbourhood of cities which are now large and rapidly increasing, nor of securing a cricket or recreation ground and an acre or two of cottage gardens to a few villagers. The question before the country—and it is well we should realise its magnitude before important decisions are made—is whether, consistently with all private rights, there is still any land in England which can be preserved for the common good; and, secondly, in what way such land can best be used. Is it best to parcel it out amongst various owners, and increase the building or corn-growing area? Is it best to let the largest possible amount of it in allotments to the poor? Is it well to devote any portion of it, in rural as well as suburban districts, to the public, to be by them enjoyed in common, in the form of beautiful, wild, open space?

It must be observed that the nation as a nation is not held to possess the open, uncultivated, unappropriated land of England. True, generation after generation has passed over much of it freely, but it seems that the people are not thereby held to have acquired a right to do so. Perhaps this is because such right has no money value, for rights of way, rights of light, rights of possession of soil, even rights on these very open spaces of pasturing cattle, cutting furze and of playing games are recognised by law when they have been long enjoyed. Had the right to wander freely, and to enjoy the beauty of earth and sky, been felt to be a more distinct possession, it may be that these rights also would have been legally recognised; but it has not hitherto been so. It is, therefore, lords of manors and commoners who have mainly the control of such waste places. When, however, they come to Parliament to ask to have their respective rights settled, and to get leave to inclose, Parliament has, under the Inclosure Acts, distinctly a voice in deciding the appropriation of the land. What ought its decision to be, having in view the future life of the nation as well as the present one?

That aesthetic considerations govern individuals in the disposition of their own estates is clear. When a gentleman possesses an estate he apportions it to various uses. He asks himself how much of it he will devote to arable land and kitchen garden; some small part he may set aside for his children, that they may dig in it and plant it in their spare time; and a part of it he will devote probably to a flower-garden or a park; for he knows that the family has need of enjoyment and of rest, and that beauty sustains in them some higher life than the mere material one. Are we as a nation to have any flower-garden at all? Can we afford it? Do we care to set aside ground for it, or will we have beet-root and cabbages only? In other words, is all the land, so far as the people are concerned, from sea to sea, to be used for corn-growing, or building over only? Are those who own estates to have their gardens, and the people to have none? or, if any, how many and how pretty may they be? Is there only land enough for exercise near the big city, or can we have any for beauty far away from it?

Surely we want some beauty in our lives; they cannot be all labour, they cannot be all feeding. When the work is done, when the eating is finished, the soul and spirit of men ask for rest; they want air, they want the sense of peace, they want the sense of space, they want the influence of beauty. Men seek it on the rocky sea-shore, on the peaks of the mountains, by the streams in the valleys, or on the heather-covered moorlands. Overexcited in the cities, over-strained by toil, they need, if it were but once in their lives, that wonderful sense of pause and peace which the near presence of the great creations of God gives. The silence brings them marvellous messages, the clouds seem their companions, the lights which pass over the heather-covered hills fill them with an immeasurable joy. Old cares seem so far away as hardly to be real; and in the great peace which surrounds them the whole spirit is brought into harmony with grander music, tuned to nobler imaginings, and nerved for mightier struggles. "Man does not live by bread alone." And the words God speaks to us on the moorlands proceed, indeed, from His mouth with audible power, and memories of them haunt us with ennobling and consoling thought in the bustle, the struggle, and the pain to which we must return. This as individuals we know. There are signs that, as a Nation, we are beginning to see it.

A very remarkable change with regard to the relative value of different uses of land has taken place in England during the last thirty years, as the course taken by the Legislature sufficiently proves. Mr. Cross, in introducing the Commons Act of last year, laid stress upon this change. He pointed out that the Inclosure Act of 1845 was framed when the notion of statesmen was that England must depend, at any rate in case of war, wholly on herself for the wheat which her people needed. The Corn Laws were not then repealed; the country was not nearly so thickly populated; space was far more abundant; and the production of wheat seemed the best possible use to which land could be devoted. It was far different now. Corn reached our shores untaxed; our population had so vastly increased that it necessarily depended largely on imported wheat; we had learned much more about the importance to health of fresh air and exercise, and we felt increasingly the value of space as well as food for our people. The needs of the nation in 1845 demanded inclosure for purposes of cultivation, and the Act of that year was accordingly specially drawn to facilitate it. But now the case was different, and Mr. Cross stated that his Bill was specially intended to promote regulation to meet the growing need of open space.

Further proof of the change in public opinion is afforded by the course taken by Parliament with regard to the New Forest. In 1851 no public objection was raised to an Act which was passed, empowering the Crown to plant formal and monotonous plantations of fir-trees, valuable as timber, in such a manner as eventually to cover the whole expanse of forest; while in 1876 this Act was repealed in favour of one which provided that the ancient trees and wild undergrowth should be left henceforward undisturbed; thus showing that the nation is now willing to sacrifice the profits accruing from fast-growing timber in order to preserve forest glades and heathery slopes, valuable only for their beauty.

The advantages to the Nation of possessing uninclosed land in perpetuity in certain instances, as opposed to the advantage of cultivating every available acre, have thus been distinctly recognised. But the proportion and situation of such uninclosed land remains to be determined, and will be decided by Parliament in the course of the next year or two.

Mr. Cross's Act prescribes that the application for regulation or inclosure shall be made to the Inclosure Commissioners (who were appointed under the Act of 1845), the Commissioners are to hold a local inquiry, and then prepare a scheme which is to be submitted to a committee of the House. The scheme, when approved by the committee, comes before the House for confirmation. It may prove unfortunate that agents originally selected to administer an Act having for its main object inclosure—i.e. the dividing of the land among separate owners—should have been chosen to carry out one specially intended, as Mr. Cross explained, to facilitate regulation—i.e. the preserving of the land open for the use of all.

So great has been the tendency to inclose that, out of 414,000 acres available for allotments, recreative-grounds, &c., under the Act of 1845, only 4,000 had actually been thus allotted; whilst in 1869, out of 6,916 acres proposed to be inclosed, such were the views of the Commissioners, that they considered nine acres to be adequate reservation for public purposes—viz. three for recreation, and six for field-gardens. And the four schemes hitherto submitted to Parliament under the new Act contained a provision for only seventeen acres to be reserved for recreation and sixty-five for field-gardens out of 6,000 to be inclosed. The lords of the manors subsequently offered two more in each case, if opposition in committee were withdrawn. The offer was accepted by the committee, but the attempt to pass the Bill at the fag end of the session was most fortunately frustrated.

There is yet time, therefore, for consideration whether regulation would not meet the requirements of some of these cases rather than inclosure; and in some of them, or at least those parts of them which are commons or waste lands of manors strictly speaking, as distinguished from commonable lands, it would seem that if ever regulating schemes are to be adopted in rural districts, these are cases most suitable for them.

One of the commons recommended for inclosure—Riccall Dam—is pasture land, and will never be available for growing corn, as it is subject to floods. It is close to the village, and is constantly used for cricket. The chief objection to its present condition is that the existing rights of turning out cattle upon it are improperly used, an evil which it is admitted could be remedied by regulation. If such an open space is to be inclosed, it is difficult to conceive what rural common, in the opinion of the Inclosure Commissioners, would be a fit subject for regulation.

The conviction is forced upon us that, unless the Inclosure Commissioners insist upon regulation wherever it is practicable, there will be little prospect of this part of the recent Act having a fair trial. Those who are pecuniarily interested in the commons the lords of the manors and the commoners will, as a rule, prefer inclosure to regulation, and the bias of the Commissioners will probably be in the same direction ; and if the option rests only with them there is little doubt which course will be preferred.

It behoves, then, the Commissioners to carry out the intentions of Mr. Cross, and to refuse inclosure in any case where regulation may be applicable, and not to act only upon the instance and preferment of those interested. The failure so far of the regulating clauses of the Act of 1876 bears out the views of those who opposed the Act, and who, while conceding the good intents of the promoters, pointed out that the regulating clauses were so hampered by the necessity of consents that they practically presented no alternative to inclosure, and who predicted that few, if any, schemes would ever come before Parliament under this part of the Act.

It has been shown that in all probability thirty-seven schemes for inclosure come before Parliament next session. Many thousands of acres now open will be subjected to inclosure under these schemes, and they will form the precedent for dealing with others in the future. They will come before Parliament; but the evidence in each case is heard only by a small committee; and there are but few outside that committee who will notice or care anything about each scheme as it successively comes forward. And yet, if the schemes are all carried out, England will have next year from this cause alone thirty-seven fewer open spaces than she has hitherto possessed. A great deal of this land might be saved if public attention were aroused, and aroused in time. On the next two or three years the fate of our commons will mainly depend. For seven years past, pending legislation, it has been possible to resist all schemes for inclosure; but since the passing of the Act of 1876 postponement of action is no longer possible, and each scheme must be dealt with immediately, and on its own merits.

There is danger lest, as the schemes may relate each to a small area, and may not come before the public simultaneously, the gravity of the issue may not be generally perceived. It is no less a one than what proportion of the soil of England—of its commons, charts, and forests, its scars, fells, and moorlands—shall be retained to be used in common by her people as open unappropriated space both now and in the time to come.

Such, however, has been the growth of public opinion, that we may assume that Parliament would not sanction the inclosure of a common in the near neighbourhood of any large and populous town. But there seems some danger lest our legislators and the public should not duly consider how rapid is the growth of many towns, and that some which are not large and closely packed now may in a few years become so, and may need commons in their vicinity; nor how in many places suburb stretches beyond suburb as year succeeds year, and thus the town approaches the commons which once were rural. Increased facilities of swift and inexpensive travelling, and the opening of new lines of railway, make many a common once out of reach of the dwellers in town practically easy of access.

And there is a reason why even, the still more distant rural commons should if possible be saved from inclosure. Every year, in many country neighbourhoods, population is increasing, and houses for letting are being built; more and more the field-paths by the river-side are being closed, and the walks through the cornfields or bright upland meadows are being shut. The hedge through the many gaps of which it was easy once to step into the roadside-wood and to gather primroses in thousands is now stoutly repaired, and new boards are put up warning trespassers that they "will be prosecuted." In self-defence the landowners erect barriers and warn off the public wherever that public becomes numerous. The field shut up for hay in the remote country has so small a chance of being trampled on, that the farmer, hospitably or carelessly, leaves the gate unlocked; but as the neat little rows of lodging-houses come to be built near it, or as substantial villas multiply in the neighbourhood, and the buttercups tempt the more numerous little children to run in among the tall grass near the path, or the great boughs of may induce the big boys to make long trampled tracks beside the hedge, the farmer is obliged to lock his gate, put up his notices, or, if "right of way" exist, erect a fence which should leave the narrowest admissible pathway for the public. So it is, so it will be, year by year increasingly, with all private property. It is not only the artisan who, on his day's holiday, will depend more and more on the common or public park; the professional man, the shopkeeper who is able to take a house or lodgings for a few weeks in August or September for his family, will also depend more and more each year on finding some neighbourhood where there is a heath, or forest, or moor which is public. He does not take his wife and children away only to breathe fresher air, nor is the small lodging-house garden all they want to spend the day in. To walk merely along the roads, if these roads pass between parks or fields barricaded from entrance, frets the human love of freedom which makes us want to wander farther, to escape the dusty prescribed track, to break away over the hills, or pause in the meadow by the pool or the river, or gather the flowers in the wood. The more these are and must be closed, the more intensely precious does the common or forest, safe for ever from inclosure, become. It is not only the suburban common, it is the rural also which is of value to us as a people.

Nor does the allotment scheme, admirable as it is in giving the landless classes a share in our common soil, in the least degree meet the need for beauty. Under all the schemes for inclosing rural commons, it is probable that henceforward provision will be made for field-gardens. This is excellent. But do not let it be supposed that such allotments compensate for the entire loss of all open unappropriated land.

It is, moreover, possible that allotments might, as time goes on, be provided from quite other sources than our commons. The very considerable area held in trust for charitable purposes may well furnish ground for the purpose. Moreover, future changes which should facilitate the transfer of land, and should enable men to buy or rent it in small quantities, would meet the demand for allotments. Such changes might easily be effected when Englishmen come to the conclusion that small gardens are desirable for the people. If the allotments are not made now we may still hope for them in the future; but if we lose our open spaces now, shall we ever recover them? Think of the cost of purchasing them back! Think of the compulsory powers to compel sale of contiguous plots! Think of the impossibility of breaking them ever again into uneven surface of woodland, dingle, or old quarry, or getting the forest trees on them again; and pause before you barter them for a few cultivated gardens, rented at high rates to a small group of men valuable as field-gardens in themselves maybe.

Note, too, by-the-way, what is done in giving them. For allotments, working-men will pay four or five times the agricultural value and have done so, under the old Inclosure Acts. That proves them to be appreciated. Under the recent Act the amount of payment is limited. But is it not strange to take away free enjoyment from many, and to offer in exchange, at any money payment, a privilege to the few?

We have mentioned the schemes of inclosure now coming before the Legislature, but besides these there is another extensive process of inclosure going on for which the Legislature is not responsible. It is that which is silently pursued by lords of manors, without any distinct legal settlement of rights. They may be taking only their due; they may be taking more. In some cases they are offering to the commoners, or to the poor, where lands are left for their benefit, gifts of money or land or coals, in lieu of their old rights of cutting fuel or turning out a cow. Perhaps the coals are quite equivalent to the value of the fuel to the individual cottager; but they depend often on the will of squire or lord, are administered by churchwardens to the needy, and become a form of dole instead of a birthright. Again, all land in England is increasing in value. Why should the ignorant agricultural labourer be induced, by the gift of a few poles of land, to part with the valuable inheritance of his descendants? Why should the lord absorb to himself alone the "unearned increment of the land?" It ought not to be left to any private person to make such terms with his tenants, still less ought he to be allowed to decide, by high-handed erection of fence, how much is his and how much is theirs. Yet there are numbers of such inclosures silently going on throughout England in districts where there is no one powerful enough, rich enough, or with knowledge enough to carry the matter into a court of law, or watch effectually that justice be done. Such suits are very costly; the law in such cases is often complicated; a large amount is needed to secure the plaintiff against loss should he not have costs awarded him; and landowners, knowing that these difficulties prevent their being opposed when they inclose the tempting ground adjoining their park, and give a little bit of it to all neighbours likely to be troublesome, too often exercise a power which there is no one at hand to prevent.

Even the metropolitan commons, which might have been thought to be already secured by the Metropolitan Commons Act of 1866, are not absolutely safe. No one now would apply for leave to inclose one of these into to, but there is hardly a company advocating a scheme for a reservoir or sewage farm, sidings for a railway or what not, that does not cast longing eyes on the cheap common land, one little bit of which it is supposed will hardly be missed. Accordingly, application is made to Parliament for compulsory power to take a small portion. So our metropolitan commons even may be nibbled away, and polluted and spoilt by the proximity of objectionable buildings or works. No less than five such schemes came before the public in 1877 affecting Barnes, Mitcham, and Hampstead.

The reader will perceive from what has been said that three distinct dangers threaten our common land:—

1st. That due use should not be made of the powers given by the Act of last year, to promote regulation rather than inclosure, and that in the separate schemes about to be presented to Parliament no weight whatever should be given to the growing importance of wild open spaces free to all.

2nd. That illegal inclosure should take place unnoticed, or be unopposed, for want of legal knowledge or money to organise resistance.

3rd. That the commons already protected by the Metropolitan Commons Act should be injured by the action of bodies applying for compulsory powers of purchase for small portions of them.

It remains only to consider what can be done to meet these three dangers.

First. Let the public take care that they thoroughly understand the bearings of every scheme submitted to Parliament. Let due notice be taken that the proportion of land allotted to the public be adequate, and that the situation of it be well selected. Much depends also on its character. To revert to the parallel of the disposition of land made by the owner of an estate, who certainly would not place his kitchen - garden in the loveliest part of his park, do not let the Nation surrender forest or hillside, but, preserving them intact, apportion for purposes of cultivation the less beautiful, flatter, and probably more productive ground. Let the public watch how many of the schemes brought forward relate to regulation, not inclosure. Mr. Cross announced, as we have said, that his Bill was intended to promote regulation; let us watch that its intention is thoroughly fulfilled. The machinery of the Act to regulate commons being now provided, it remains for those who care for open space to see that it is not used to promote inclosure.

Second. The high-handed inclosures for which no Parliamentary sanction is sought, are more difficult to meet. The expense of opposing is considerable; the legal questions complicated. Few individuals can deal with the problem single-handed. Here again, however, happily, the machinery exists ready to our hands. The Commons Preservation Society[1] was founded twelve years ago with the express object of watching over the interests of the public in the remaining commons of England in Parliament and in the courts of law. How much this was needed will be seen when we consider that about 5,000,000 acres have been inclosed since the reign of Queen Anne, and that there remain only 1,524,648 acres of open land, according to the Domesday-book, for all present and future needs. The Committee of this Society gives advice (free from all cost), to those who wish to consult them respecting the course to be adopted when open spaces in their neighbourhood are threatened with in closure. If the neighbourhood is poor, and legal resistance is the only way to meet the difficulty, the society will, to the best of its means, aid with money and influence.

It appears to me that the objects of this Society are so important and far-reaching that it ought to be a large national union, every one joining it as members and supporting it to the utmost of their power. It is not a question which ought longer to be left to a comparatively few zealous men; it ought to be supported by, and its machinery used by, everyone who cares to keep the common land open. If legal decisions are to be arrived at, if landowners are to be made to feel that they will be called to account for any inclosures made by them, the matter cannot be left in the hands of individuals, and it is only by combination, and under good legal advice, that the undertakings can be rightly and wisely begun and brought to a successful issue.

To meet the third danger—that arising from attempts to obtain compulsory power to purchase small portions of the metropolitan commons supposed to be protected under the Act of 1866—it is important (equally as in the case of rural commons) to watch each scheme that may be brought forward, and thus to let Parliament see that the matter is one about which the Nation cares. The schemes previously referred to, relating to commons at Barnes, Mitcham, and Hampstead, were only defeated by strenuous public opposition. Under these schemes it was actually proposed to take four acres of Barnes Common for a sewage farm, and to widen the railway that crosses it by additional sidings and coal depots; to cut up Mitcham Common with additional lines of railway, and to take 100 acres of it for sewage purposes, and to surround and partly undermine Hampstead Heath with a railway provided with three or four stations situated on some of its prettiest spots!

One other point bearing on the question of metropolitan commons may be noted here. Whenever the question of their inclosure has come up before the courts of law to be tried, it has been hitherto found that the rights of commoners have been adjudged sufficient to preserve them from inclosure. It is therefore deeply to be regretted that last session the Board of Works again resorted to their old practice of purchasing these rights; they gave £5,000 for Bostal Heath, near Woolwich. The purchase was clearly unnecessary in this case, because a decree of the Court of Chancery exists preventing the inclosure of the heath. The Board probably took this step from a dislike to the trouble of defending their scheme for regulation. Such a practice must heavily burden the ratepayers of London, already quite sufficiently taxed. And this is done in order to secure for them that which there seems no reason to suppose could not be secured without any such expenditure, open spaces having already been legally preserved without purchase in the cases of Epping, Coulsden, Berkhampstead, and others. It is an old idea of the Metropolitan Board, and not a harmless one. In 1865, the chairman and members of the Board proposed to make the Board the central authority to protect and preserve commons; they asked for large taxing powers in order to raise money sufficient to buy up all rights of the lords of the manors and commoners, and to sell parts of the metropolitan commons for building, in order in some degree to recoup the ratepayers. The committee of the House of Commons which was then considering the question rejected this scheme of the Metropolitan Board, holding that the rights of commoners being amply sufficient to keep the commons open, purchase was unnecessary. This opinion has since been repeatedly confirmed by decisions in the law courts. There seems no reason to suppose that Hampstead Heath, for which the Metropolitan Board gave nearly £50,000, might have not been kept open without purchase had the matter been carried to an issue. The question is an important one as far as the ratepayers are concerned; it is also very important as a matter of precedent. The plan of operation of any body of men which, like the Commons Preservation Society, should examine the rights of the public and uphold them by law, is much to be preferred to the purchase scheme, though this may be more acceptable to large landowners, and have more appearance of magnificence.

To sum up. It is by watchful care that every scheme under the new Act can be well considered and wisely decided when it is brought before Parliament; it is by steady co-operation to bring to a legal issue every unauthorised inclosure that a share in our common land can alone be preserved for the landless classes. Shortly—before, perhaps, as a Nation, we awake to its importance—will this great question be permanently decided.

In England there is a very small and continually decreasing number of landowners. We have no peasant proprietors as in France; and few tenants of small holdings, as in Ireland. Yet the love of being connected with the land is innate; it deepens a man's attachment to his native country, and adds dignity and simplicity to his character. Each family cannot hope to own a small piece of cultivated land as in France—no inaccessible mountain-ranges exist for our people to learn to love as in Switzerland—but it may be that in our common-land we are meant to learn an even deeper lesson:—something of the value of those possessions in which each of a large community has a distinct share, yet which each enjoys only by virtue of the share the many have in it; in which separate right is subordinated to the good of all; each tiny bit of which would have no value if the surface were divided amongst the hundreds that use it, yet which when owned together and stretching away into loveliest space of heather or forest becomes the common possession of the neighbourhood, or even of the County and Nation. It will give a sense of a common possession to succeeding generations. It will give a share in his country to be inherited by the poorest citizen. It will be a link between the many and through the ages, binding with holy happy recollections those who together have entered into the joys its beauty gives—men and women of different natures, different histories, and different anticipations—into one solemn joyful fellowship, which neither time nor outward change can destroy—as people are bound together by any common memory, or common cause, or common hope.




charles dickens and evans, crystal palace press.
  1. Offices, 1, Great College Street, Westminster.