1.3 Suggested research questions

You may have your own particular interests in the history of your common, and these will shape your research.  Our project is particularly interested in the changes that people have seen on their common, and the local experiences and knowledge that has gone hitherto unrecorded.  We would therefore be interested in the answers to three broad questions, tracing the story back as far as possible.  This may be no further than the limits of living memory but earlier evidence would be very welcome.  The following sets of bullet points are provided as triggers, to prompt memories when you are talking to people in the community and to provide a checklist of topics when you are interrogating historical records.

1. How was the common used and how has the use of the common changed?

This is the central question.  Common land has been used for a wide variety of purposes across the centuries and its use has varied greatly from place to place.  Grazing, field sports and outdoor pursuits have been the main uses of upland commons; dog-walking, riding and blackberrying some of the uses to which lowland patches of common land have been put.  Some commons have been used for military purposes; others for social events, such as fairs.  What activities have taken place on your common?  How has the use of the common changed?  Is it still grazed by livestock?  Here is a checklist of uses of common land to act as a start:

  • Grazing: what types of livestock?  How many? Have numbers and types of animals grazing the common changed across time?
  • Other resources (e.g. peat, bracken, sticks/firewood, berries).  Again, have these uses changed over time?  If resources such as peat, bracken or firewood are no longer taken from the common, when did they stop being collected?  Who took such produce from the common?
  • Field sports: i.e. grouse shooting; hunting; fishing.
  • Military use.  Has the common been used for military training?  If so, when and by whom?  Have any military installations been built on the common (e.g. trenches; anti-tank defences; radar masts during the Second World War)?
  • Recreation.  Walking, rambling, rock climbing, paragliding; swimming; bird watching; picnicking.  How has recreational use changed?
  • Educational use; e.g. field excursions for schoolchildren, students and adult education groups (geological, environmental, biological, archaeological, historical)
  • Social events. Were any organised (or impromptu) social gatherings held on the common, such as fairs, sports days, shows?  If so when and for whom?

Who used the common?

Another way of looking at this broad question is to ask who might be encountered using the common.  How many of the following categories of people might have been encountered on the common in the past?  How have the numbers in each group changed over time?

  • Graziers: were these local farmers or people from further afield?  Were paid herdsmen employed to look after livestock on the common?
  • Sportsmen
  • Other members of the local community: in what capacity? (perhaps as picnickers or as poachers – or lovers!)
  • Military personnel
  • Tourists: where did they come from (local towns; elsewhere in UK; overseas)?
  • ‘Outsiders’, in the sense of people on the margins of mainstream society; for example: travellers (gypsies, tinkers, new age travellers); tramps; etc.


2. How was use of the common regulated?

Were there rules governing how the common could be used?  If so, what were they?

  • How were the numbers of livestock grazing the common regulated?
  • Were there seasonal restrictions on grazing (a ‘closed season’, for example)?
  • Did each commoners put his or her animals on to a particular section of the common?
  • Were there rules governing the exploitation of other resources (peat, bracken, sticks etc)?

What institution(s) drew up the rules regulating the use of the common?  One of the big questions which this project is hoping to answer is who actually regulated common land in the period c.1850 to c.1970.  There are several possibilities (not necessarily mutually exclusive):

  • Manor court.  Before c.1800, the manor court was often the main body which drew up rules governing common land.  Many manor courts had faded away by 1850 but some survived until modern times (a few still survive and oversee the use of commons).
  • Parish council.  Sometimes the parish vestry or (after 1894) the civil parish council gained (or assumed) the power to regulate common land.
  • Local commons committees.  These took two forms:
  1. Commoners’ association or meeting: an informal body in which the commoners themselves got together to manage common land.  Some (such as the stintholders’ meetings found in parts of Yorkshire) can be traced back to the 19th century; many more commoners’ associations were founded to help commoners deal with the requirements of the Commons Registration Act 1965.
  2. Conservators acting under statutory powers.  Some local committees had their origins in acts of Parliament, either general acts such as the Commons Act 1876 (which allowed boards of conservators to be established to make rules governing the use of commons) or local acts specific to a particular area (such as the Malvern Hills Act 1884).
  • Informal arrangements.  On some commons there appear to have been no formal body in charge.  Presumably those with interests on the common came to informal agreements on how to regulate its use.  Sometimes there are hints by the mid-20th century of a power vacuum, leading to a free-for-all on the common.


3. How has the common itself changed?

Environments change over time, though the rate of change is sometimes imperceptibly slow.  What we are interested in here is how local people perceive the rate and nature of change on the common.  The Foundation for Common Land, which is a partner in this project, is particularly interested in this question.  We should like you to gather perceptions under three headings:

  • Vegetation change.  How has the vegetation of the common changed in living memory?  Conservation bodies have expressed concern about the deteriorating ecological condition of many commons (the various agri-environmental schemes, such as ESA and HLS and (in Wales) tir gofal and Glastir, are attempts to rectify this). Do local perceptions, particularly those of older residents, stretching back 50 or more years, confirm this view?  Is it possible to chart vegetation change back beyond living memory, using old photographs, for example?
  • ‘Infrastructure’.  By this we mean the whole array of features built on or over common land, including roads, footpaths, sheepfolds, shooting huts, military buildings, benches, signposts, signs, lighting etc.  Which of these features are found on the common you are studying? Is it possible to give approximate dates to when they were built, and to establish by whom they were built and why?
  • Looking to the future.  Much contemporary debate about land use and environmental policy focuses on the concept of ‘sustainability’.  We would be interested to hear the views of commoners and other local residents on how they see the common changing in the future.  Do they think the common will be in a better or a worse condition in, say, twenty years time?


(Text by A.J.L. Winchester and E.A. Straughton)