A common land history project is essentially an exercise in gathering local knowledge, particularly from people who have known the common in question over many years. In seeking answers to the Research Questions listed above, there will be no substitute for capturing the memories of the older generation. If possible, you might also like to investigate relevant written sources, not only formal records such as the Registers of Common Land but also any local records about the common which may survive in private hands. One of the subsidiary aims of the project is to establish more clearly the nature of the surviving archival heritage concerning the history of common land.
We suggest that you go to some of the formal records first, to establish some basic factual information about the common.
- Common land website. A good starting point for commons in England (but not, sadly, in Wales) is provided by the ‘Common Land in England’ website, which provides a searchable database of all registered commons and gives some basic information. Go to http://common-land.com/ and enter the name of the civil parish in which the common you are studying lies in the box beside the ‘Search Land’ button. (More – see Part 3 of this toolkit)
- Commons Register. The Commons Registration Act 1965 required all rights claimed over common land to be registered. The resulting registers, held by the Commons Registration Officer in each local authority, provide full details of modern property rights on common land (More – see Part 3 of this toolkit).
- Commons Commissioners’ decisions. Where provisional registrations made under the 1965 Act were subject to challenge, the Commons Commissioners took evidence and adjudicated. Their decisions (available online at http://www.acraew.org.uk/index.php?page=commissioners-decisions) often contain a wealth of information about the history of common land where registrations were challenged. (More – see Part 3 of this toolkit.)
Research in the local community
Having established the basics, you will be ready to flesh these out from local sources, which fall under three headings:
- Your primary resource will almost certainly be local memory, the wealth of knowledge held in the memories of those who have known the common over many years. A major part of your research will therefore be finding appropriate ways to capture local memory and oral testimony , drawing on (and perhaps recording) the memories of older residents. For more on capturing local memory see Part 3.2 of this toolkit.
- Check to see whether relevant documentary sources survive, either in your local county record office or in private hands. Manorial and parish records, maps and plans may yield relevant information. Try to ascertain whether any records of informal commoners’ meetings/associations survive – if they do, these will probably be the most informative documentary source. For more on documentary archives, see Part 3.1 of this toolkit.
- Photographs, which will probably mostly survive in private hands, may yield evidence of activities which took place on the common (whether the mundane, such as picnicking or blackberrying, or the exceptional, such as fairs) and may also provide a way to explore the changing face of a common across time. Early photographs may enable you to extend information about the character and use of the common back beyond the limits of living memory. You might attempt a ‘then and now’ comparison between early photographs and contemporary images.
Once you have gathered as much information about the history of ‘your’ common as time will allow, we hope you will draw it together into a report presenting information about each of the Research Questions in turn. You may find that there is little to say about some of the questions – that’s fine; no two commons are the same!
(Text by A.J.L.Winchester and E.A. Straughton)