Saving the People's Forest : Open spaces, enclosure and popular protest in mid-Victorian London

Saving the People's Forest : Open spaces, enclosure and popular protest in mid-Victorian London

Mark Gorman

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The growth of nineteenth-century London was unprecedented, swallowing up once remote villages, commons and open fields around the metropolitan fringe in largely uncontrolled housing development. In the mid-Victorian period widespread opposition to this unbridled growth coalesced into a movement that campaigned to preserve the London commons. The history of this campaign is usually presented as having been fought by members of the metropolitan upper middle class, who appointed themselves as spokespeople for all Londoners and played out their battles mainly in parliament and the law courts.

In this fascinating book Mark Gorman tells a different story - of the key role played by popular protest in the campaigns to preserve Epping Forest and other open spaces in and near London. He shows how throughout the nineteenth century such places were venues for both radical politics and popular leisure, helping to create a sense of public right of access, even 'ownership'. At the same time, London's suburban growth was partly a response to the rising aspirations of an artisan and lower middle class who increasingly wanted direct access to open space.

This not only created the conditions for the mid-Victorian commons preservation movement, but also gave impetus to distinctive popular protest by proletarian Londoners. In comparing the campaign for Epping Forest with other struggles for London's commons, the book highlights influences which ranged from the role of charismatic leaders to widely held beliefs regarding the land, in which the rights of freeborn Englishmen had been plundered by the aristocracy since the Norman conquest. Mark Gorman reveals a largely hidden history, since ordinary Londoners left few records behind, but his new research clearly reveals how their protests influenced the actions of the more visible elite groups who appeared in parliament or in court.