Friday, 31 August 2012

Winstanley and the Witch-Burners

As of tomorrow, the First of September, 2012, 'squatting' (the act of temporarily occupying an empty property or area without the owner's permission) will be added to the list of activities which have - in recent times - turned previously law-abiding British citizens into criminals.

I never actually 'squatted' a house in my youth, but I knew plenty of people who did, and I have to say that - in many cases - I felt quite a lot of sympathy with the owners of the properties, especially if they were genuinely trying to sell as non-professionals who did not speculate on housing as a way of making money.  I had no sympathy with local authorities who deliberately kept our properties empty for financial reasons at a time when housing was short, and families were becoming homeless after events like the London Blitz, however.

The law regarding the eviction of unauthorised occupants was extremely complex and slow-moving, relying heavily on the law of 'trespass'.  When the lawyers looked into it, they discovered that the 'trespass' law was virtually toothless ever since it became illegal to shoot poachers on sight, and the quickest you could expect to have squatters legally removed from your property was about three months, having established that a trespass had taken place through expensive and protracted hearings in the Civil Courts.  Margaret Thatcher (yes, her again) soon gave the trespass law some teeth and, effectively, tomorrow sees it all go back to Criminal rather than Civil proceedings, the only difference being that you still won't be able to shoot a poacher - yet.

In 1649, Gerard Winstanley occupied a patch of common land at St George's Hill, near Weybridge, Surrey, with a band of companions called 'Diggers', because they dug for vegetables, etc. as well as building a small homestead of simple huts and hovels.

'Common Land' is supposed to be what it says it is - land for the commoners - but during the brief period of Oliver Cromwell's 'Commonwealth' government, it became land belonging to the 'State', with grazing rights only given out to a small number of locals who already had somewhere to live and farm, and who were expected to support any members of their community who were not so fortunate as they, even though most of them lived a hand-to-mouth existence themselves, suffering greater hardship in times of famine and winter.

Winstanley and his band were taken to the High Court where the charges against them were read out in Latin - the legal language of the time - and their defence also had to be submitted in Latin, so it was not surprising that they lost case after case, being virtually illiterate even in English and too poor to afford legal representation.  After a gruelling winter, they were all violently evicted and disbanded by Cromwell's Roundheads, who made sure they could never return by torching the whole area.

Today, St Georges Hill is one of the most expensive areas to live in Surrey, and the Beatles can thank the Diggers for making it possible to have their mansions built there, over 300 years later.  I wonder what happened to that bit of common land.

Witchcraft was also made illegal in the seventeenth century, and thousands of elderly women were burnt at the stake for the heinous crime of keeping a black cat for company whilst being a burden on their neighbours, or simply just an eyesore for the younger inhabitants of a village.

Ironically, eBay has only just caught up with the 17th century zeitgeist and - also as of tomorrow - it will become illegal to sell 'spells, hexes and magical items' on it's website.  Where am I going to buy them now?


  1. well that was an interesting read

  2. So, civil becomes criminal... will upside-down laws now become upside-up?

    1. I am holding out for it becoming legal to smoke tobacco in taverns again, as it had been for 400 years, and so are the rest of the bar-staff in my local.

    2. ... but I'm not holding my breath...

  3. I thought it was 1st September tomorrow. Have I gone forward in time...!

  4. This was a very interesting but also depressing read. The area in which I live has just been rezoned for development. What I can look forward to is seeing a lively community that has been here for generations, all of them mainly illiterate and title to their land being only by inheritance, evicted. The local Administrator, C0-ordintator and Vice Co-ordintator responsible for managing the villages affairs have been selling off communal land at a frantic pace. While everyone else walks, kids as young as ten struggling from the river with TWO twenty litre containers of water, no electricity at home, these three drive around in flash Landcruisers, dress and eat well, have the only big boats here and illegally net the river and sea leaving no chance for the poor artisan fisherman to catch any fish. They are the ones for blocking all my attempts to build a clinic and install a water treatment plant. Why? They would lose their grip on a subservient population ad the improvement in living standards would negate the excuse that it would be better to relocate this impoverished population. It's a bit like 'starving the natives out' only this time conducted by their own race rather than colonists. And then, with no clean water they will get sick. With no clinic they will die.

    Coincidentally, it is elections today in Angola. As far as democracy goes, Angola won independance in 1975 and then had elections in 1992 (failed), 2008 (ruling party won with 97%) and now 2012. Marcia said she wasn't going to bother to vote. I told her if she didn't, we would not get the bank loan we need as she would not be able to prove she had performed her 'Civic Duty'. She is now going to drive the 160 km round trip to the voting station. How's this for a gamble... If, by some miracle, the opposition got in, she would not get the loan as it has been approved by the ruling party (yes, certain types of bank loan, in this case for development) have to be approved by politicians). Had she voted for the party she really wants to, the opposition, and they got in, she would probably get the loan. So, does she vote with her conscience and in all probabilty have the loan application rejected when the ruling party, with all its mysterious ways, is returned to power with a massive majority or, as I hope, does she vote for the status quo?

    Come the Revolution...

    A damn good read, Tom.

    1. And you say my post was depressing, Hippo. Oh well, I am further enlightened by YOUR good read, and no harm can come as a result of that.

      I have always found Africa to be a frightening place, for various reasons, some of them mentioned in your comment. Shame really, as that is where we all come from - black or white - isn't it?

      Good work with the mine clearance.