The ‘Commons Stories’ Toolkit and workshops arise out of a major research project, the ‘Contested Common Land’ project, undertaken in a collaboration between Newcastle Law School and Lancaster University History Department between 2007 and 2010. It was funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, which has now provided further funding to enable us to build up a store of knowledge about common land in England and Wales, past and present. The Contested Common Land project adopted a case study approach, focusing on four areas of common land, three of which (Elan Valley (Powys), Eskdale (Cumbria) and Ingleborough (North Yorkshire)) were extensive upland grazing commons; the fourth (Brancaster and Thornham (North Norfolk)) encompassed lowland commons and coastal marshes, with extensive use of common rights for recreational purposes (such as wildfowling). Reports on the history of these commons will be found on the project website (http://contestedcommons.s3-website-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com) and in the book presenting the project’s findings: C. P. Rodgers, E. A. Straughton, A. J. L. Winchester and M. Pieraccini, Contested Common Land: environmental governance, past and present (Earthscan, 2011).
The current project, which runs until June 2013, is a partnership between the two universities and the Foundation for Common Land and The National Trust. It aims to create an online ‘Commons Knowledge Resource Bank’, containing both a comprehensive database of research resources on common land and new material on the history of commons in England and Wales. During the previous project we became aware of the lack of knowledge about how common land was used and governed across much of the 20th century. We also recognised that local communities – especially the older generation of commoners – hold a substantial body of memory for this period in the history of commons. Gathering local evidence about customary practices and uses of common land is a central aim of this project and will supply this deficiency. So, our aim is to provide free advice and resources, and to train commoners and others, particularly local historians, to capture the unwritten history of the commons in the 20th century by collecting oral testimony and relevant documentary evidence from members of their local communities. We are hoping to encourage people to begin new common land history projects in their area, or support those who already have an interest. Research outputs and findings submitted back to our project will be archived in the Commons Knowledge Resource Bank as ‘Commons Stories’, helping to preserve local memory, and making the oral history of the commons available to community groups, researchers, and stakeholders for the first time, thereby creating a valuable research and cultural resource.
In order to achieve this aim, we are running a series of four Commons Community History Workshops in Cumbria, North Yorkshire, Powys and Devon, with a focus on how to research and record the history of your common. The workshops will give commoners and local historians a ‘toolkit’ for recording the histories of their own commons. The ‘toolkit’ and associated training materials will be posted on the project website, so that people who were unable to come to the four workshops – and, indeed, people in other parts of England and Wales – will be able to benefit from these resources and carry out research into the history of commons in their areas. Over the coming months, we hope that people will feel able to send us brief histories of their commons, personal recollections, links to their own common land research outputs, and any other material they wish to share – including images, audio recordings and film clips – for inclusion in the Commons Knowledge Resource Bank.
The key questions we hope that those involved will be able to answer include:
- How was your common used and managed across the 20th century?
- What changes have taken place on the common in living memory?
- Did any cultural or social events take place on the common?
- What rules, whether formal regulations or unwritten conventions, governed use of the common?
The aim is therefore to provide the tools for historical research, so that those with a direct interest in the future management of common land– commoners and other members of the local community themselves – can generate a new body of source material on the history of commons, which can then be archived on the project website. The story of common land is an intrinsically interesting (and often important) part of local history. Moreover, there is currently something of a black hole in our knowledge of how common land was used and managed across much of the 20th century, which the ‘Commons Stories’ project seeks to plug. By doing this, we hope that the project will encourage a celebration and sense of ‘ownership’ of the cultural heritage of common land among commoners and local communities across England & Wales.
We hope that you’ll join us in this task!
Lancaster University, September 2012.
(Text by A.J.L. Winchester and E.A. Straughton)