2.2 Key historical themes

Management and regulation: from manor courts to commoners’ associations

From the medieval to the modern period, the institution responsible for management of common land in England and Wales was the manor court.  The lord of the manor’s interests were protected by the presiding steward, with the jurymen and officers drawn from members of the community.  The jury dealt with offences presented to the court, levied fines, appointed officers (such as ‘pinders’ and ‘commons lookers’), and issued byelaws or orders for the regulation of resources.  The efficacy of a court and the importance given to commons management varied greatly between manors, and the court system is generally believed to have been weaker in Wales than in England. Most manor courts had collapsed by the nineteenth century, though some struggled on into the twentieth, and a handful still operate today.

In the wake of a manor court’s decline, the management of common land varied greatly.  Some commoners and landowners struggled with an institutional vacuum, while others operated successfully on an informal basis, perhaps holding meetings when matters arose.  In other cases, new voluntary institutions were set up, in the form of voluntary commoners’ associations, committees or annual meetings, which produced written records such as minute books.  Some were formed in response to the Commons Registration Act 1965, which required the registration of all common lands and rights. The actual number of local associations formed in the wake of the manor courts’ demise is not currently known on a national scale.  There is indeed a general lack of documentary evidence for common land management since the demise of manor courts, and it is often the communities themselves which hold a store of unwritten knowledge and experience, or ‘living memory’, of how their commons were used and regulated across the twentieth century.

Land use: from natural resource to green space

Historically, common land provided communities with a wide range of natural resources: pasture for sheep, cattle, horses and geese; and a range of other products used by households, such as peat and turves, bracken (used for thatch, animal bedding and burning for potash), gorse, nuts and berries, soil and stone.  Coastal commons might provide reeds and sand, and more specialist products such as samphire.  By the twentieth century, many of these more varied uses had fallen away, and grazing had become more specialised – particularly in upland areas – through concentration on sheep.  Nevertheless, an older generation of commoners might remember mixed grazing and cutting of bracken; and in some areas, traditional practices are being maintained or reintroduced for conservation reasons: for example, the grazing of cattle on upland commons in the Lake District, and the cutting of bracken for compost on the Gower Commons in South Wales.

As we have seen, common land was originally deemed to be open ‘waste’ – the least productive components of the manorial landscape – and of limited use to the lord of the manor.  However, methods of enclosure, improvement and land reclamation promised new returns from previously uncultivated land.  Piecemeal enclosures were ongoing from the time of the Statute of Merton (1235).  However, the greatest impact was made during the era of parliamentary enclosure, between circa 1760 and circa 1860, when vast areas of open arable fields and meadows, and common waste, were enclosed. Common rights were extinguished over some 2.75 million hectares of land – 21% of the land area of England, for example. Parliamentary enclosure was a highly contested process, leading to public protest and legal battles, and leaving a deep imprint on rural society and culture.

By the late nineteenth century, in the wake of widespread losses of commons, and increasing urbanisation, the political ethos began to turn away from enclosure towards preservation of commons.  This movement led to the formation in 1865 of the Commons Preservation Society (known today as the Open Spaces Society), which in turn led in 1895 to the formation of a land-holding body, The National Trust, which became a major owner of common land across the country.  Some urban commons were the subject of their own acts of preservation and regulation for the benefit of the public, e.g. Wimbledon Common.  Thus, the history of conservation and landscape preservation in England and Wales is inextricably linked to the history of common land.  More recently, this growing emphasis on public access and recreation culminated in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which gave the public a right of access to registered common land and other eligible ‘access’ lands.  A right of public access is a significant and late development in the history of common land, reflecting the nation’s affinity for open spaces.  Whilst some commons, particularly in urban areas, are now primarily recreational green spaces, and no longer support commoners or active graziers, the popular image of the common as a park or a village green is somewhat misleading: large areas of common land remain in agricultural use, particularly in upland regions of England Wales, and continue to perform a vital role as common pasture and open spaces for rural communities today.


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