Of Lammas Land and Olympic Dreams

Gerrard Winstanley office at evnuk.org.uk
Tue Aug 14 01:14:10 BST 2007

Of Lammas Land and Olympic Dreams
Rosemary Johnson addresses the 'small rabble'.Rosemary Johnson
addresses the 'small rabble'.

Article written by Anthony ILes

At noon on Sunday, 17th December, 2006 a small rabble made up of
walkers, locals, journalists, two shire horses and TV crew met on
Marsh Land Fields, E10, one of the remaining green spaces between
Leyton and Hackney marshes. Whilst the numbers may be insignificant in
terms of recent public protest (2 million at the largest Stop the War
march in 2003), the meeting may turn out to be a historic event worth

Those convened were there to protest the planned seizure of one of the
remaining sections of ancient Lammas Land; land bequeathed to the
commoners of Leyton by Alfred the Great and assured by customary use
as commons possibly as far back as since pre-Roman times. The land we
stood on was neither as well kept as a park nor quite as wild as a
true wilderness, but rather something in between - containing a
playing field, a children's playground, a stream, two cottages and two
horses - a savage oasis of urban pasture.

I grew up in Waltham Forest on spaces like this, playing football,
exploring, walking, drinking, meeting girls and getting into trouble.
This is nothing like the managed spaces of London's parks, no
manicured beds or paths, this is somewhere you could potentially let
yourself go. The day before we visited one of the group had watched
gypsies riding horses bareback here. As we walked we were interrupted
regularly by a gentleman giving his name as Lawrence of Leyton ringing
a bell and bellowing 'Oh Yea Oh Yea, they're giving our land away!'.
Thus, this brief perambulation of an obscure field in East London
connects my own personal history to several hundred years of history,
a history of enclosures old and new, past and present.

Following the draining and enclosure of parts of Hackney Marsh, the
industrial revolution came to Leyton in the form of the railways. The
Waltham Forest Guardian report states it was the East London Water
Works Company who attempted a land grab in 1892 whereas our guide on
the day asserted it was a railway company, whose tracks had intruded
into Lammas land and were therefore thrown off and effectively
destroyed by a crowd of 2000 local inhabitants joined by councillors
of Leyton Borough. The riot that ensued is commemorated by a plaque at
the entrance to Marsh Lane Fields that remembers the arrest of two
councillors by the police during the successful defence of the fields
from the railway company's attempted expropriation. Not much chance of
the current councillors of the borough acting in concert with the will
of its constituents, oh no.

Now, Marsh Lane playing fields have been identified by the London
Development Agency (LDA) as a prospective site to relocate the Manor
Garden allotments, which fall within the 2012 Olympic park, from
Waterden Road, Hackney. In a typical gesture of divide and rule, the
LDA has chosen to transplant one problem onto another â€" the Lammas
Land Defence Committee and The Manor Garden Allotment Holders are two
of the groups contesting the current Olympic plan. However, the
allotment holders do not wish to move at all from the site they have
occupied now for over 80 years, preferring to be incorporated as part
of the so-called 'green' Olympic site. So the two groups have a common
cause. Angry locals and members of the New Lammas Lands Defence
Committee contend that the proposed site is common land and therefore
should be preserved as such for the use and enjoyment of all, not by a

The current proposals would involve significant works on the land to
make it viable for vegetable cultivation, fencing surrounding the
prospective allotments, the closure of the cycle path that runs
through the fields and widening of the path to allow for high volume
traffic to and from this and other 'regeneration' sites in the area.
The Lammas land is technically 'owned' by Waltham Forest Council only
to the extent that it looks after the interests of the inhabitants of
Leyton and maintains the land as open space for the enjoyment of all
in perpetuity. Who is to say whether the Council would still have
rights to the land once it having reneged on its responsibilities?

    A brief history of the commons of Hackney and Leyton

    The original licence granted to Stratford Abbey in 1248 to inclose
the wood of Leyton, later known as Wallwood, reserved free passage in
and out for the deer.

    Thenceforward the forest waste in Leyton appears to have been
gradually whittled away, an acre or rood or two at a time, to build a
cottage or house, or enlarge a garden or forecourt. Between 1700 and
1850 31 grants and inclosures of waste in Leyton manor amounted to
little more than 10 acres., and 12 grants in Ruckholt to under 3
acres. But it was enough to rouse anxiety in the inhabitants, and by
the mid 18th century the vestry's consent to inclosure was required,
as well as licence from the lord of the manor and the forest court. An
inclosure made in 1766 against the wishes of the vestry cost the
offender £100 in compensation to the poor, and in 1767 the occupant of
a recent inclosure was warned to remove his pales and level his
ditches if he did not wish “the proper persons having common right on
the forest” to do so for him. In 1805 the vestry resolved that
satisfactory payments to provide bread for the poor should in future
be a condition of consent.

    In 1843 there still remained 237 acres. of common or waste in the
parish. [2]

    Hackney Marshes

    Most common and Lammas lands were then preserved by an Act of
Parliament and passed to the control of the Metropolitan Borough of
Hackney, but the marsh remained excluded from the MWB scheme because
many of the lammas rights were still exercised, predominantly grazing.
This was a period of increasing arguments between landowners and
groups, such as the Eton Manor Mission, who were trying to use the
marsh for recreation. The 337 acres of marshes were finally preserved
by the LCC in 1890, by purchasing the rights and landowners' interests
for £75,000.

    Part of the London Olympic park for the Summer Olympics of 2012
will be built on Hackney Marshes. This has caused some controversy
with local residents' groups who have expressed concerns that East
Marsh is to be tarmacced and used as a coach park for the games. This
is a temporary measure, and promises are in place for their complete
restoration, after the games, together with considerable investment to
improve facilities for amateur sport on the marshes.

    Arena fields, however, will be taken by the games permanently;
this area is to be replaced by parkland of comparable size and value,
on the Hackney side, at the end of the games.

    It will not be possible to reinstate the loss of mature and varied
trees that the plans entail; or to compensate for the disruption
caused to wildlife by construction.[3]

In 1905 much of the existing Lammas land remaining in Leyton was
incorporated by a vote in which inhabitants of the then borough of
Leyton agreed to transfer their grazing rights to the Borough in
exchange that they be held in perpetuity as open space to be used for
sports and leisure activities. The fields at Marsh Lane however did
not come under this agreement, instead remaining Lammas land. Each
year after Lammas Day - Lughnasadh (roughly August 1st) local
inhabitants perambulate the borders of the land to ensure there are no
new building works or fences inpinging on the common land.[4] On this
occasion walkers sang a song written by Rosemary F. Johnson for the
current campaign (an excerpt):


    (to the tune of 'Marching Through Georgia')

    Sing a song of Open Space and sing it far and wide,
    Sing of ancient Lammas rights and justice on our side.
    Let the voice of reason rise above this looney tide,
    This is the land of the people!


    The Land! (* *) The Land!! (* *)
    - our ancient Lammas Land,
    The Land! (* *) The Land!! (* *)
    - the ground on which we stand.
    We will not be robbed when there's a ballot in this land,
    This is the land of the people! 

It is important that the 'land' related in the song is not necessarily
'our land' as that would depend on who the WE is in this construction
- it is the land of its users and its defenders. The land, and all
historical commons, should not be understood as static and unchanging
open space. Much of the commons in the Lea Valley were the seasonal
home of Gypsies, fairs, markets and circuses (under agreement with its
commoners). As well, the changing geological composition of the land
in question should be paid attention to, the Marsh Lane Lammas Land
was used to dump asbestos and rubble from the wreckage left by bombing
raids on London during World War II and this condition provides a good
technical reason for why it is not a suitable site for allotments:

    Mr Spears [chairman of Waltham Forest Allotment Holders and a
resident of nearby Manor Road] says the site is contaminated with
asbestos, full of Second World War rubble and would need 8,000 tons of
clay and top soil to make it suitable for allotment use.[5]

The Lammas Land then is part of the historical commons that was
gradually eroded from the 12th Century onwards and Marsh Lane Fields
is one of a number of historical commons being annexed for the Olympic
developments. Other sites to be annexed by the Olympic plans include
White Hart Field, Weekes Field, Morris Field and Arena Field, 'all
constituent parts of Hackney Marshes and all properly registered as
Common Land and Metropolitan Open Space and given to the people of
London in 1894 for their enjoyment and recreation and that to be "in
perpetuity"'.[6] What is it that links these two forms of enclosure
the historical and the one commencing presently?

The customary use-rights associated with the commons were fiercely
asserted by commoners throughout history and became a battle-ground
for class warfare as the UK industrialised during the 18th Century. In
fact, so successful were the commoners forms of contestation that into
the 18th Century 'all or most householders in forest, fen, and some
heathland parishes enjoyed the right to pasture cows or sheep.'[7]

The commons were seen as a challenge to the evolving concept of
'private property' which was the cornerstone of a growing landowning
and capitalist class. The enclosure of the commons was the means not
only to ensure growing pasture for sheep and cash crops for the
market, but also to ensure the availability of labour for this growing
industry. The poor subsisting by their customary access to rights of
herbage, piscary, estovers and so on were unlikely to work for a
landowner or factory boss while they could survive on their own off
the land and occasional casual work. Thus at the end of the 17th
Century landowners including the church resorted to Parliamentary Acts
to ensure the enclosure of their land and defeat of the assertion of
customary use-rights in their parishes. The old enclosures become
constitutive of a cementing and absolutist conception of property, one
which the growing field of criminal law was to engender and protect.
The new enclosures we see at work in the Olympics and other
regeneration projects such as the transfer schemes of public housing
are part of the neoliberal transformation which would reduce all
state, shared or public assets to the resources of a new class of
developers wishing to privatise these assets and profit from their
transformation into property. Yet again 'arguments of property and
improvement are joined to arguments of class discipline.'[8]

The object of the new enclosures is to destroy existing resources of
subsistence (housing, water, cheap food, free entertainment) available
to the population and instead produce the perfect environment for us
to become wage labour at significantly reduced local wage levels. It
is couched in an understanding of under-regulated green space as
'disused'. It is legalistic, yet its authority has more to do with
political economy than legal precedent. It is driven by the neccessity
for a stream of high-profile 'events' and 'projects' to project a
vision nationally and internationally of the UK and its government as
capable, prosperous and tolerant. And yet the Olympics follows on from
a series of public projects that have left huge public costs,
divestment of public assets, faliure, disaster and gentrification in
their wake: The Clissold Park, Stoke Newington swimming pool, Wembley
Stadium, The Millenium Dome ... not to mention the growing housing
crisis which the Olympic led ‘regeneration’ is supposed to, but will
not, allay.

When you think of 'new enclosures' think not of a specific space or
area, but rather any given freedom, something habitual or common that
is imminently removed â€" think of a lunch break shortened or an amateur
sport professionalised and privatised, it is as much by small 'cuts'
as by Acts of Parliament that these new enclosures are made.

The original enclosures by Act of Parliament depended on the legal
fiction that commons were granted by generous Saxon or Norman
landlords, or a King and were therefore 'less of a right than by
grace' and this fiction guarded against 'the danger that these
use-rights might be seen as inherent in the users.'[9] Now the LDA's
challenge to these venerable use-rights are not so much dependent on
legal fiction as upon the political efficacy of Labour councils in
both Hackney and Waltham Forest. The percieved obscurity of the legal
status of these parcels of land being matched by the very real
obscurity of the planning process around the Olympic sites under the
highly questionable jurisdiction of the LDA and ODA.

Thus, in the increasingly frequent scene of young offenders obliged to
carry out improving environmental work on the canals, paths and open
spaces of the Lea Valley in preparation for the Olympics, we pass from
the seizure of land and sites understood as 'waste' to the invocation
to work, to integrate with the dominant value system. The gypsies who
have a long (but soon to be curtailed) history in the Lee Valley are
not welcome at the debating table. Gypsies are villified in this case
(and in just about every other) precisely because they stand outside
the wage and private property relation, or at the very least they
stand for the potential to remain outside it.

It is fitting that in the legacy plans for what remains after the
Olympics, where formerly stood a housing co-op of really affordable
housing (Clays Lane) as well as gypsy and traveller sites, the design
for the site is covered with numerous 'new neigbourhoods' - areas
given over to developers for luxury apartments. Tessa Jowell has
countered inflammatory statements about the cost of the games by
proudly touting the (short term) revenue gained from this real estate
gold rush. On top of this, the LDA's gift to the communities they are
displacing is an 'Employment Centre' intended to corall the newly
'deprived' of Hackney and Tower Hamlets into service work, hospitality
and other jobs more suited to the projected new economy of the area.

If we are to resist the deterioration of our lives and environment
that the Olympic plans are predicated upon, all 'commons' whether
historical or not must be defended. Whilst avenues of legal
contestation should be pursued, it is neccesary to remember that the
law remains the tool of the powerful. The tool of the commoner,
however, is anything that can be found at hand and that includes the
ceaseless invention and re-invention of use-rights and pleasure lands
new and old that no enclosure can contain.


[1] 'SAVE MARSH LANE FIELDS' (announce for day of action)

[2] All above quotes from 'Leyton: Economic history, marshes and forests'

[3] All above quotes from Wikipedia article on Hackney Marshes

[4] Guardian Waltham Forest 'A Wet Beating of the Bounds'

[5] 'Opposition is growing to Lammas Land proposals' By Mark Killiner

[6] Paul Hodge comment for 'Loss of Common Land, historic landscape'

[7] J.M. Neeson, 'Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure, and Social
Change in England, 1700-1820' (Cambridge, 1993), p. 317

[8] E.P. Thompson 'Customs in Common' p163, Penguin, 1991.

[9] Ibid

Anthony ILes is assistant editor of Mute magazine.

You can download a copy of this article from the link below.

The video below is by John Rogers

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Submitted by Anthony Iles on Mon, 08/01/2007 - 18:54.
add new comment | printer friendly version
Manor Gardens Allotments
Submitted by Martin Slavin on Thu, 11/01/2007 - 13:35.

For information about Manor Gardens allotments check out their website

and watch the BBC1 'Inside Out' programme.

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