There are still surprisingly large areas of land in England and Wales, both in cities and rural areas, that are classed as common land in that certain rights to its use have been laid down as being for the benefit of the people in general and not for the private profit of an individual.
Common Land under the Feudal System
Under the system of land ownership that was given institutional force after the Norman Conquest, lords of the manor owned the land in and around village communities. The best land was cultivated or pastured by “villeins” who lived off what they could grow and raise and paid a proportion to the lord as rent. The worst land was not assigned to anyone in particular and, although owned by the lord, was regarded as “common”.
Under a succession of laws, the rights of the people to this land were laid down as falling under six headings:
Common pasture. Anyone was free to grraze their animals here.
Turbary. The right to extract turf or peat for use as fuel.
Estovers. The right to take wood for fuel or to mend fences.
Piscary. The right to take fish from streams or ponds.
Pannage. The right to allow pigs to graze for acorns and/or beech mast.
“Common in the soil”. The right to take stones (e.g. for building walls) and coal or other minerals.
The exercise of these rights was governed by the lord’s court, which dealt with any abuses that might occur.
The common land was therefore preserved and managed for the good of the whole community. Indeed, for some members of the community the common was essential. Those peasants who came below villeins in the pecking order had no land of their own to cultivate and relied entirely on the common for grazing land and the food, such as berries and nuts, that was available in season.
Common Land during the Agricultural Revolution
Developments in agricultural techniques from the 18th century onwards meant that it became possible to cultivate land that had been regarded as waste in earlier times. Acts of Parliament were passed to enclose increasingly large areas of common land and transfer the rights to it from the villagers to the manorial lords.
This caused considerable distress in many areas, leading to widespread rural depopulation as the people moved away from a countryside that could no longer support them to the growing cities where manufacturing industry made increasing demands for factory workers. For those who depended entirely on the common land this was a disaster, and those who could not move to the cities, for reasons of age or infirmity, either went into workhouses or starved to death.
It looked at one time as though all the common land would disappear, but in the 1860s and 1870s Acts were passed to restrict further enclosures and preserve the remaining commons.
Common Land Today
The Commons Registration Act of 1965 provided for a register of all existing common land and set out the rights and duties that attach to it.
Among the lands covered by the 1965 Act are vast areas in such places as Dartmoor and the New Forest, where ponies and other animals are free to roam and graze as they have done for centuries. The right of pannage (locally known as Mast) is a vital element of the New Forest ecosystem, as it prevents oak saplings growing unchecked and also saves ponies from eating the acorns, which are poisonous to them.
Common land today is often owned by National Parks or local authorities in trust for the public, or by private trusts established under laws that guarantee public access.
Many smaller areas of common land also exist in the form of village greens and other public open spaces. The Commons Act of 2006 made it easier for local people to register village greens as common land.
Stelling Minnis Common
This is an example of an extensive area of common land in a Kent village, the very name of which (the “Minnis” element) derives from the Saxon word for “common pasture”. Registered under a 1925 Act of Parliament, the Common is managed today by a charitable trust that upholds the bylaws governing the Common. Interestingly enough, these bylaws include prohibitions of several traditional common rights, notably pasturing, turbary and piscary. Grazing rights are limited to “commoners” who are permitted to keep only a certain number of animals on the common.
The common, covering 50 hectares (123 acres) to the north of the village, is therefore preserved as a wildlife haven and for the quiet enjoyment of villagers and visitors. It is especially noted for the wild orchids that grow there and the variety of butterflies, other insects, invertebrates, reptiles, birds and mammals it supports.