Gilbert White: The Commons and Resistance to Enclosures

Along with observation on birds and wildlife and seasonal patterns, Reverend Gilborne White makes a number of fascinating remarks on human relationships with the world around them — such as the process of enclosure of the commons already well under way. Again there is reference to the ‘irresistible temptation’ to hunt, which he sees as part of human nature. It could, of course, also be attributed to holding fast to long traditions of food provision. Also hunger, or any mix of these three. From Letter VII:

Though large herds of deer do much harm to the neighbourhood, yet the injury to the morals of the people is of more moment than the loss of their crops. The temptation is irresistible; for most men are sportsmen by constitution: and there is such an inherent spirit for hunting in human nature, as scarce any inhibitions can restrain. Hence, towards the beginning of this century, all this country was wild about deer-stealing. Unless he was a hunter, as they affected to call themselves, no young person was allowed to be possessed of manhood or gallantry. The Waltham blacks at length committed such enormities, that government was forced to interfere with that severe and sanguinary act called the Black Act,* which now comprehends more felonies than any law that ever was framed before. And, therefore, a late bishop of Winchester, when urged to re-stock Waltham-chase,** refused, from a motive worthy of a prelate, replying that ‘it had done mischief enough already.’ (* Statute 9 Geo. I. c. 22.) (** This chase remains unstocked to this day; the bishop was Dr. Hoadly.)

Such forests and wastes, when their allurements to irregularities are removed, are of considerable service to neighbourhoods that verge upon them, by furnishing them with peat and turf for their firing; with fuel for the burning their lime; and with ashes for their grasses; and by maintaining their geese and their stock of young cattle at little or no expense.

This not only describes how important forests were to the surrounding communities, who depended on them for things very necessary to life itself, but is also a very curious take on the Waltham Blacks. They were a group of men who came together to poach in protest of enclosures, from another site I found this:

In October 1721, sixteen poachers assembled themselves in Farnham to poach the Bishop of Winchesters lands. Deer were taken and killed. Four of the poachers, their faces blackened to prevent identification, were caught and sentenced. The poachers came back and in a calculated manner, that was a conspicuous social statement, signalling much more than just poaching for the pot, they attacked the Bishop’s lands again, taking and killing more deer.

A clear message was being sent from a section of society who were full of resentment at the draconian game and forest laws which were making life very difficult for non land owning classes in Britain. The exploits of these Hampshire outlaw groups spread, with further gangs establishing themselves in Windsor Forest and around London. The Hampshire groups though, ‘upped the game’ and stole a shipment of the King’s wine, things were about to become increasingly difficult for these groups of outlaws.

black-act-1723-Google-Search

There is a little more than a love of hunting ‘intrinsic’ to human nature happening here, though I quite love the phrase ‘allurements to irregularities’. I’d definitely love to read a history that is a bit more nuanced and critical.

White gives another couple of descriptions of common folk resisting the attempts of the wealthy to enclose their lands. This is from Letter IX (1767):

General Howe turned out some German wild boars and sows in his forests, to the great terror of the neighbourhood; and, at one time, a wild bull or buffalo: but the country rose upon them and destroyed them.

A very large fall of timber, consisting of about one thousand oaks, has been cut this spring (viz., 1784) in the Holt forest; one-fifth of which, it is said, belongs to the grantee, Lord Stawel. He lays claim also to the lop and top: but the poor of the parishes of Binsted and Frinsham, Bentley and Kingsley, assert that it belongs to them; and, assembling in a riotous manner, have actually taken it all away. One man, who keeps a team, has carried home, for his share, forty stacks of wood. Forty-five of these people his lordship has served with actions. These trees, which were very sound and in high perfection, were winter-cut, viz., in February and March, before the bark would run. In old times the Holt was estimated to be eighteen miles, computed measure, from water-carriage, viz., from the town of Chertsey, on the Thames; but now it is not half that distance, since the Wey is made navigable up to the town of Godalming in the county of Surrey.

I love that the community wasn’t going to stand for the introduction of things just for the hunting, and took care of it. I love that the same went for the rights to firewood.

A final short note on another kind of commons — created in the places where gypsies camped. You can imagine Reverend White was no fan of the gypsies who move about in ‘hordes’ and ‘infest’ the area, but I am rather charmed by this note describing the thoughts of the ‘gravest historians’ from the 2nd of October, 1775:

We have two gangs or hordes of gypsies which infest the south and west of England, and come round in their circuit two or three times in the year. One of these tribes calls itself by the noble name of Stanley, of which I have nothing particular to say; but the other is distinguished by an appellative somewhat remarkable. — As far as their harsh gibberish can be understood, they seem to say that the name of their clan is Curleople; now the termination of this word is apparently Grecian: and as Mezeray and the gravest historians all agree that these vagrants did certainly migrate from Egypt and the East two or three centuries ago, and so spread by degrees over Europe, may not this name, a little corrupted, be the very name they brought with them from the Levant? It would be matter of some curiosity, could one meet with an intelligent person among them, to inquire whether, in their jargon, they still retain any Greek words: the Greek radicals will appear in hand, foot, head, water, earth, etc. It is possible that amidst their cant and corrupted dialect many mutilated remains of their native language might still be discovered.

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