Common People Part I: Sheep

‘… Common ’tis named/And calls itself, because the bracken and gorse/Still hold the hedge where plough and scythe have chased them’
‘Up in the Wind’ by Edward Thomas 1

Battle Lines

In 1866 Lord Brownlow, the young and fabulously wealthy owner of the Ashridge Estate, erected iron fences to enclose (privatise) about 400 acres of Berkhamsted Common. Resistance was led by the Commons Preservation Society which had been formed the previous year. The fences were taken down in a celebrated moonlight raid and, after a lengthy legal battle, stayed down. The episode, known as ‘The Battle of Berkhamsted Common’, was of national, not just local importance. It is a foundational story of both the Open Spaces Society (the successor to the CPS) and the National Trust – who first operated out the CPS offices. I’ve been studying witness evidence from the trial, which gives voice to people not often heard in the historical record – those whose working lives were spent on the common.

Space precludes much contextual background but it is worth bearing in mind when reading the evidence, that commons were and are private land (Lord Brownlow owned Berkhamsted Common: today it is part-owned by the National Trust and Berkhamsted Golf Club), that other people have certain rights to, eg. the right to graze animals or to collect fuel. Grazing commons are still relevant in upland regions of Britain, but in the Chilterns, London, and the south-east generally, commons are protected for their amenity value.

It is also worth remembering that the Battle of Berkhamsted Common was part of a very long war. Riots met two 17th-century attempts to enclose it. The first was not successful in halting the enclosure of the central portion which later became Coldharbour Farm, and left the remainder of the common with its distinctive horseshoe shape. The second riot, in which a hundred locals joined with soldiers stationed at Hemel, pulled down fences and set fire to the enclosure, met with more success: those fences stayed down. That is until Lord Brownlow decided that he would put up his own fences on more or less the same footprint in 1866.

Detail from Augustus Smith’s map, 1866.
Detail from Augustus Smith’s map, 1866.

The CPS immediately sort contractors to take them down and found a local landowner with commonable rights to head up the campaign and to seek a judicial ruling to protect the rights of all the commoners. They found their man in Augustus Smith who owned Ashlyns Hall but spent most of his time in the Scilly Isles, of which he held the lease. He was also the MP for Truro: a whig and a natural ally of the CPS.

The moonlight raid is justly famous, but for present purposes, it is enough to point out that there was no battle: night time was chosen to avoid any confrontation with estate staff. The fences were dismantled rather than torn down. In spite of that, Lord Brownlow immediately sued Augustus Smith for damages. The case would lapse when Lord Brownlow died the following year. Meanwhile, Smith had taken out a counterclaim to prevent the fences from returning and to seek a legal ruling protecting the rights of the commoners. This case would continue against the estate of the deceased earl. The real Battle of Berkhamsted Common would be fought, not across the gorse and bracken of the Chiltern hills, but through the courts.

The two trials would hear viva voce evidence from 48 witnesses. This was in the form of affidavits, and in some cases, cross-examination, which came from interviews conducted in the King’s Arms in Berkhamsted. The witnesses’ average age was over sixty, some of them were much older: two of them, James Dorrofield and George Tarbox, gave evidence to the trial in 1866, but died before it was concluded in 1870. The evidence, which runs to some 25,000 words, paints a fascinating picture of the common in the first half of the 19th century.

If I were to draw just two conclusions from the evidence, the first would be that Team Brownlow was rather hampered by one fact. Their witnesses all wore two hats. Even the most loyal estate worker, with sometimes decades of service, was also a commoner. Not in the strict legal sense – arguments about that took up much of the court’s time – but rather in the ‘common sense’ sense: they were local people who used the common for their own purposes. They might pick gorse to fuel Lord Bridgewater’s brick kilns six days a week, but on the seventh, they would gather it for their own hearth. If work was slack they might gather some for their neighbours as well, perhaps to sell to the baker or brewer. Equally, whilst they crisscrossed the common every day on estate business, they were used to doing the same on their own business. An overloaded cart might very occasionally be turned back, especially since the only hard road had been taken out of service, but mostly people went where they liked: had done since time immemorial. Why would anybody pay for the privilege of taking a more inconvenient route round by the turnpike?

The other key point I took from the evidence as a whole, was the sheer scale of use of the common. I had been vaguely aware that it was grazed by sheep right into the early twentieth century and, for the most part, treeless. I hadn’t realized that almost all the local farmers and smallholders, and some enterprising people who had no land at all, turned sheep on to the common for a good part of each year. It became apparent that contemporary depictions of the common as ‘marginal’ land awaiting ‘improvement’ were as much ideological as factual. If a sensible part of your income was from sheep, then the common was central to your local economy, not a missed opportunity to grow corn.

Equally, whilst I knew that brickmaking took place on the common, I had no real understanding of the scale of the enterprise. Chiltern brickmaking has been characterized as small scale and seasonal. But this evidence showed that for a few years at the height of demand, during the building of Ashridge House (1808-c1821) 20 people were employed full time cutting furze on the common and on Coldharbour Farm, to provide fuel for the brick kilns. My mental image of scale for bricks, as with sheep, was quickly being revised upwards.

With help from the Chiltern lidar survey, we are able to fit Brick Kiln Cottage back into its 19th-century landscape, surrounded by small pits, not always obvious at ground level in today’s woodland.2 Lidar evidence can’t tell you what the purpose of a pit was. The beauty of the trial evidence is that it can tell you not just what it was for, but who dug it. The dell hole in the garden of Woodyard Cottage on the northern edge of the common was once a pond. Before that, it had been a gravel pit. Samuel Garrett, who was 77 at the time of the trial, worked on the conversion. He remembered helping to slope the sides around about 1831. He dug the clay on the left-hand side of the road to Coldharbour and puddled the pond himself.

All of the witness testimony is fascinating. Although one feels the controlling hand of the questions (which are not usually recorded), the answers come across as spontaneous. They rarely appear to have been briefed or spun. I imagine, possibly unfairly, a pint of something to set the tongue wagging, and minds wandering freely back over long working lives. There is also something special about reading a transcription as opposed to authored testimony, as though someone has managed to record real voices, like discovering a wax cylinder or a pile of ’78s: a lost language emerges from the dry court documents.

I shall present the testimony in three sections. The first is mostly about sheep, the second, bricks and lastly, roads. All of the sections are linked by the common’s signature plant, gorse, known as ‘furze’ to our 19th-century ancestors. But, with apologies for not getting straight to the point, I need quickly to introduce a new character. This character is every bit as important to our story as the key talent, arguably more so. Before we hit the ground running, we need to take a peep beneath it.

Beachhead

I led a walk on the common for Heritage Open Days in 2019 and was delighted when someone introduced themselves as a geologist. I suddenly realised that one of my research questions (as it turns out, a rather important one) remained stubbornly unanswered. Many of the trial witnesses remembered the gravel pits at the woodyard, one of which, as we’ve seen, became a garden pond and can still be seen, waterless once more, from the adjacent footpath. William Waterton, 59, remembered that his first job was digging gravel there before the woodyard was built. In fact, he remembered a whole series of pits dug along the line of the old road under the park palings which marked the southern border of the Ashridge Estate.

But I had never seen any gravel or sand on the common. Like many people who grew up in Berkhamsted, I had always been fascinated by the dell holes that you often come across on walks in the Chilterns. Even today I can’t resist climbing down into the accessible ones. My parents were friendly with the historian, Sheila Fletcher, who lived at the end of a long drive on Cross Oak Road. The fact that she was a historian didn’t impress me at the time. What did impress me was that she had a dell hole in her back garden. My mum used to take her playgroup to inspect a fox earth sometimes. Like many of the big gardens, it later became two or three smaller gardens and the dell hole was tidied up and made into a pond. Perhaps there are only so many landscaping options open to the custodians of our ancestors’ subterranean burrowings.

The Chilterns are a band of chalk hills that stretch from the south of Oxfordshire, across Buckinghamshire to Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. Whilst the chalk bedrock is close to the surface at the scarp slopes and a very obvious feature of the landscape at, for example, Ivinghoe Beacon, most of the Chiltern plateau is covered by a layer of clay-with-flints up to 15 metres thick. In some areas, the clay erodes to a marly composition. This is the brick earth which provides a rather obvious explanation for the small pits visible on the lidar survey near Brick Kiln Cottage, and the rather larger pits around the kiln site on Aldbury Common, where there was enough raw material to keep a brick-making operation going right into the 20th century.

But more interesting than this, the geologist explained, is what you can’t see on the surface. In some places – even today the geological maps are not complete – there are layers of sand and flint gravel between the surface and the chalk bedrock. The lower layer of gravel is or was a beach. He told us that he had been involved in a project to preserve a historic gravel pit at Little Heath, just off Bullbeggars Lane. The pit, an SSSI for its geological importance, now has an information board and is an essential resource for anyone wishing to contextualize their understanding of Berkhamsted’s uplands.

Now I could not just visualize William Waterton’s entry into the working life at the start of the nineteenth century, I could hear the clang of shovel on gravel. It was geology too that explained the gorsey heathland. Gorse thrives on the acid soil above the buried sand and gravel. It is particularly adept at maximizing the benefits of limited calcium and other nutrients, so much so that it can grow quite happily in builders’ rubble. 3 Gorse heathland characterized much of the common in the 19th century before it stopped being grazed in the 20th century and a secondary woodland grew up characterized by silver birch, the signature tree of our morning’s walk.

If its geology had so far protected the common from the plough, you might think that it was an area of little activity – a few sheep dotted about, odd souls gathering gorse or firewood, carts passing through to market, a peddlar: the only change in tempo provided by the arrival of the annual fair or the occasional cricket match. But you would be wrong.

Passing Bells

In fact, Benjamin Gravestock, 57, who started his working life at Coldharbour Farm when he was 9 years old, remembered, ‘I believe all the farmers or nearly all in the parish used to turn sheep on the common’. Thomas Foskett, 60, a shepherd at Little Heath had seen various farmers come and go at the farm during his working life. They used to turn between 300 and 500 sheep on the common: ‘We turned on the common every year I was there, generally used to turn on about the latter end of April or beginning of May, and used to keep them on sometimes as late as Christmas.’ He remembered that Augustus Smith’s father had also turned sheep on the common – but not Smith himself.

At the other end of the scale, William Saunders, 74 (or 75, he wasn’t sure), who ran the Anchor public house in Northchurch, had, until his brother’s death, turned a small flock of sheep on to the common. They owned about 50 between them. His brother was a shepherd by profession and was able to look after their own stock whilst looking after his employer’s. Even before William had made enough money to rent a couple of meadows, they had kept their small flock on the common, often folding them at night on nearby farmland. In fact, the farmers would often pay them: sheep dung was highly prized. (Another witness, John Wells, 39, had first earned a living picking up sheep dung on the common, before joining the estate, aged 12.) In the winter William would pay a small amount of money to farmers to allow his small flock a free run of the turnip fields.4

John Burnham, 55, lived on the common and remembered that Mr Bovingdon of Kings Hill Farm, had 100 sheep on the common. They sometimes ‘remained on the common all night’, he adds, perhaps disapprovingly. Thomas Waterton, 61, a ‘rough carpenter’, was born in a cottage whose garden gate opened on to the common and had worked on the common from age 6, mostly as a furze cutter. He also found time to keep 70 sheep. On a smaller scale still, Charles Garrett, 54, who had been employed stone-breaking and leaf-raking on the estate before going to Coldharbour Farm to look after poultry, turned his own diminutive flock of 8 sheep on the common – that is, until the common was driven in 1835, a legendary, almost mythological, event that we shall turn to in a moment. Other animals mentioned by the witnesses are a few horses, ponies and donkeys and one justly famous cow belonging to Mr Hawley of Whitehill.

But it wasn’t just local people, or at least their sheep, making the common a rather busier place than one might have thought. There was also passing traffic. Frederick Waterton, 44, the landlord of the Plough at Potten End had been employed ‘in the countess’s time’ catching hares and rabbits on the common.5 ‘I have seen droves of sheep, horses and cow kind being driven along the Broad Drive towards Potten End – the droves of horses would be about Barnet Fair times – I remember seeing these droves of horses being taken along the common as long as 30 years and I have seen them recently.’

With so many people invested in the common, it is probably not surprising that tensions sometimes arose between the estate and other users. John Tompkins, 50, ‘had orders not to let Northchurch sheep go on Berkhamsted Common. Aldbury had to keep their sheep on their common. I have frequently told the Northchurch and Aldbury shepherds to take their sheep off and they always drove them off.’ Things came to a head in May 1835, when the common was driven at the behest of the estate, that is to say, all the grazing animals were rounded up and put into a field at Coldharbour Farm, to be claimed by their owners. It was thought that people with no land in the parish, were turning their sheep on the common and the common was in danger of becoming overstocked.

Joseph Swaby, 57, now a woodman, remembered the event very well – and provides historians with a useful directory of local sheep owners into the bargain:

‘I know every part of Berkhamsted common well. The first summer I lived at the Old Dairy the common was drove up to a meadow on Cold Harbour Farm. I was present and had orders from Mr Spicer, the head keeper, to assist in driving the cattle into the meadow. All animals we found grazing on the common whether horses sheep or cows were driven into the meadow. I think this was in the month of May. We drove a great many sheep into the meadow, it is called the big meadow, and a few horses. Afterwards several of the owners came into the meadow and claimed their sheep. I recollect that Benjamin Cook of Potten End, [?] Costin, G Watson, Francis Thorn, Isaac Saunders, John Bedford, John Cook, Daniel Bedford, Mr Sutton of Rossway, and several others whose names I do not recollect came there and claimed their sheep. The sheep were afterwards allowed to go on the common, but orders were given afterwards to report the names of all those persons who turned sheep on the common who held no land and they were reported accordingly, and afterwards, they ceased turning on.’

The total number of sheep rounded up on the 25th May 1835 was about 6,000, of which a third were deemed to be owned by people ‘having none or very little land in the parish’. William Saunders’ sheep, absent from the common at the time of the roundup, were now confined to his own land in Northchurch, along with those of his brother. Charles Garrett of Little Gaddesden had to get rid of his small flock but was grateful that ‘they did not charge me anything – but actions were brought against Thorn and several others and they had to pay – I have heard some £30 and others more’.

Benjamin Gravestock remembered that after the drive ‘neither those men nor anyone else who had not land in the parish were allowed to turn on. If they had a little land they turned on in proportion … Before the common was drove they used to turn on what number they liked, but afterwards they used to turn on by stint: but I do not know what the stint was.’

John Blacknell, 78, had lived at Potten End Farm since 1812 and had been a shepherd on the common for three or four years. He remembered that it had been a bit of a free-for-all before the drive and that even after the drive there were repeated incursions from farms in Hemel. He pointed a finger at Warners End and Boxstead Farms specifically. He told the court that Norcott Hill Farm in Northchurch parish was still turning sheep on to Berkhamsted common, and pointed out that the farm was owned by the estate. He doesn’t expand on this fact, but it surely suggests a certain double standard to modern eyes. The estate was blithely pursuing people through the courts for breaking rules which it wasn’t applying to itself. Given this rather unlevel playing field, it is perhaps understandable that several witnesses remembered the drive being a somewhat bad-tempered affair. The estate, worried about trouble, had enlisted backup.

Henry Newell, 62, had worked as a brickmaker with his father before assisting in the great drive and remembered ‘a man named James Meager, and another man named Shadrach Bedford [a furze-cutter from Frithsden] had sheep on the common, neither of whom had any land in the parish, and while the sheep was being driven they sent their dogs forward to drive them back. Lady Bridgewater had two Bow Street officers there. They were on horseback and I recollect one of them told them that if they didn’t keep their dogs back he would shoot them. The officer had a pistol in his hand – I saw it.’

Thomas Smith, 70, remembered a similarly tetchy confrontation: ‘I recollect Costin coming after his sheep at night with his father. He swore at the officer and was very saucy to him, and the officer at last pulled out his staff and told him he would knock him down if he didn’t hold his tongue. He allowed Costin to have them. Mr Newman counted them out for him.’

6,000 sheep, may be an underestimate. George Whybrow suggests that news that the common would be driven was leaked in advance and some sheep may have been removed in anticipation.

Furze provided grazing for sheep, who eat the young shoots. This was particularly important in early summer when farmers wanted their own meadows in the more fertile valley to make hay. The common was a vital part of a system that maximized the use of local resources and allowed all the local farmers to raise more livestock than their own land could support in isolation. [see footnote 3]

But furze wasn’t just a vegetable. It was a kind of super-plant with several uses to our nineteenth-century ancestors. Its chief one being fuel. On the common, this meant that furze was intimately bound up with the manufacture of bricks.

Broad Green Drive, 2019
Broad Green Drive, 2019
  1. Selected Poems, Faber & Faber, 1964, R.S. Thomas (Ed.)
  2. Like aerial photography, lidar, which works on the principle of radar, but uses laser radiation instead of microwaves, can detect ‘lumps and bumps’ in the landscape that aren’t always visible at ground level. It has an advantage over old tech: it can ‘see through’ trees, making it extremely useful to study wooded landscapes, like Berkhamsted Common. The whole of the Chilterns area has been surveyed and is available to study online at Beacons of the Past LiDAR Portal: chilternsbeacons.org.
  3. Gorse, Broom and Heathlands, Chris Howkins, 2007. Chris Howkins is an ethnobotanist. My knowledge of gorse, particularly its relationship to sheep farming on common land, comes from his book.
  4. William Saunders’s description of his journey from sheep to shop, alongside evidence from the other sheep owners at the trial would have been instantly familiar to Pehr Kalm (1716-1779), the Swedish naturalist, who had observed similar practices on the common when he visited the Chilterns in 1748. The Chilterns in 1748, Pehr Kalm, translated by William Mead, Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society, 2017. For more information on Kalm – and a full transcript of William Saunders’s testimony, please visit common-people.uk.
  5. John William Egerton, the 7th Earl of Bridgewater, was a former cavalry officer and Tory politician when he inherited the Ashridge Estate on the death of ‘The Canal Duke’ (Francis Egerton, the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater) in 1803. It was the 7th Earl who built the present house at Ashridge between 1808 and c1821. When he died, in 1823, his wife, Charlotte Catharine Anne Egerton, Lady Bridgewater, lived at the house until her death in 1849. John William Spenser Egerton Cust (1842-1867), the 2nd Earl Brownlow, inherited the estate, and several others, after a long lawsuit pursued on his behalf, in 1854. His mother, Lady Marian Alford, a widower, administered the estate until his coming of age in 1863. The 2nd Earl’s health had always been frail, and he spent much time in Italy and elsewhere, seeking a cure. He died, of tuberculosis, in Mentone in 1867, aged 24. Lady Marian Alford died at Ashridge in 1888.
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