In 1649, Gerrard Winstanley led one of the UK’s most notable political protests, when his group of forty ‘diggers’ took up residence on St George’s Hill, near Weybridge. They planted vegetables, erected their own homes, and invited anyone to come to join them, promising to ‘work in righteousness and lay the foundation of making the earth a common treasury for all.’
Winstanley believed that oppressive social structures kept people in poverty. If access to land was restored, people would form communes and look after themselves in a happy and democratic anarchy. Nobody would work for the oppressive upper classes if they had their own land to farm, and social hierarchies would crumble.
Needless to say, the local authorities were scandalised and called the army. When the army decided not to move them on, they resorted to intimidation. There were beatings and arson attacks, crops were trampled, and eventually Winstanley was hauled into the courts and the camp disbanded. The occupation lasted from April to August, and after similarly unsuccesful projects in other parts of the country, the diggers finally abandoned their efforts in 1651.
Despite their lack of success, the diggers movement was profoundly influential. It inspired the American revolutionaries, pioneered many of the principles of communism, and is often cited as the birth of ‘direct action’ protest in Britain.
350 years on, the diggers’ cause is still unresolved. Land ownership in the UK is a subject we rarely talk about, but it remains a deeply rooted inequality, stretching right back to old class structures. 70% of the UK is owned by just 1% of the population, with big landowners including the queen, the military, and many duchies and inherited estates. The Duke of Westminster owns my office in London, part of estates that total 140,000 acres. Two thirds of Britain is owned by just 6,000 landowners. Houses and land remain hugely expensive and beyond the grasp of many people, while vast estates remain unused and in private hands. Because the monarchy and the government are among those landowners, and many more of them sit in the House of Lords, reform is not on the cards any time soon.
Fortunately, the legacy of the diggers lives on. Today the radical protest collective are due to move onto some disused land near Hammersmith. They will pitch tents and dig composting toilets, and start building themselves an eco-village. Raised beds will be assembled and the former industrial land turned into a productive growing space. Volunteers will head out to meet local residents and tell them what is happening, bringing the community into the project.
The last occupation of this type was in 1996, when 500 activists occupied a site on the banks of the Thames and made themselves homes and permaculture gardens. They lived there for five months until the landowners, Guiness, evicted them with the help of the riot police.
Who knows how long this particular protest will last, perhaps the summer. Whether or not it survives, it’s a bold and subversive statement, and may highlight the neglected issue of land reform once again.