Sunday, March 15, 2015

Can You Dig It?

Turning over the earth on the allotment in yesterday afternoon’s intermittent sunshine, preparing the soil for potatoes, it occurred to me that there was a time when digging and planting on communal land such as this was a truly dissenting act – one that could lead to persecution and prosecution.

Over three hundred and fifty years ago, a group of radicals began planting vegetables and building homes on common land that had been seized and enclosed by local landowners at St. George’s Hill in Surrey. Food prices were high in the wake of the English Civil War, and the protestors called for others to join them in their project of communal farming and living. Alarmed by such militant action, the landowners called in the troops and the threat of trouble quickly drove some away; but many stuck it out. Throughout the spring and summer of 1649, the “Diggers” as they became known, were led by Gerrard Winstanley as they withstood a campaign of violence and intimidation. It was only after being taken to court that the Diggers were evicted from St. George’s Hill and, when they had left, they immediately established another community at nearby Little Heath. Convinced of their design for life, Winstanley and his followers sent out envoys to spread the word and Digger communities were founded in Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire as a result.

Gerrard Winstanley, a herdsman and Protestant reformer, had come to prominence earlier in 1649 with the publication of a pamphlet in which he, and others, called for equality for the common people of England; he felt that the people had been deprived of their birthright since the Norman conquest. Unlike the Levellers, who had begun campaigning during the Civil War for equality in relation to law, Winstanley and his followers argued that freedom could only be obtained by restoring and strengthening the people’s relationship with the land. They called themselves The True Levellers but, because of the nature of their direct action, the term Diggers was quickly attached to them. And it was the putting into practice what they preached that made the Diggers so dangerous to the authorities. This led to their movement being quickly quashed but their example informed much subsequent anarchist and agrarian socialist thought, and led to some of their ideas being put into practice with startlingly contrasting results: think the Quakers and the Khmer Rouge.

Perhaps the real legacy is a little more prosaic. In his 1973 book Anarchy in Action, Colin Ward defined the allotment as land where ordinary people are the catalysts and designers of their own space and community. The true heirs, you might say, of the Digger spirit.

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