Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Reflections on the commons and independence

The commons of UK and James Boyce's. Van Diemen's Land

In his very well researched history, Van Diemans Land (Black Inc. 2008), James Boyce relates how the early convicts there felt they had been dumped on the edge of a vast common. Ironically, many had been sentenced to transportation because they had been caught using the commons of England in traditional ways – trapping and snaring game, ways which had been made illegal under the Game laws and Acts of Enclosure. Boyce’s Introduction contains many  references to the convicts’ acceptance  of sharing resources  with Aboriginals and each other – land, water, game – and their adaptability  to go bush, to obtain ‘the essentials of life from the new land’.  ‘Van Diemen’s Land was aught but a vast common’ quotes Boyce, p70, Ref32. Defining his book as ‘an environmental history’ with the main interest of how the environment changed the settlers, the early chapters contain many specific references to Tasmania as a common and its effect on the early settlers, how the free access to the natural resources led to much entrepreneurial activity

So there was rugged independence in the early days of settlement and it was engendered by easy access to common land and its natural resources.
Commons are, to this day, very important parts of British society but the concept of shared use of the land is not a basic feature of modern mainstream Australia. English Commons have featured strongly in my own history having been an active Commoner of Ashdown Forest in Sussex (exercised my ‘Rights of Common’ to wood for fuel, bracken for litter and heather for thatching etc during the 60s and 70s).
The present UK Commons – and they are countless, many not publicly marked – are the remnants of the countryside still not fully privatised, remnants left over from the time before ‘ownership’ and formalised property rights, centuries ago. In the British Isles there were small communities simply living off the land, simply sharing what resources there were to provide rudimentary shelter and sustenance; Iron Age stuff and earlier – as seen on TV’s ‘Time Team’ with Tony Robinson! The present Ashdown Common, 3,000 acres between London and the south coast has a number of villages, dwellings, cricket pitches and tennis courts, a golf course, wild deer, it supports Commoner’s sheep and occasional cattle, has many horse trails and footpaths. It is its present size because the local inhabitants, the commoners of 1400 AD resisted attempts to enclose the late John of Gaunt’s estate; the later earl got his way with about half but that was 600 years ago!

Thus the commons of those northern isles supported many communities which in due time – with many battles, invasions, resistance and general skulduggery - coalesced into the sort of central government we know today. But the close association with the land persists in the English psyche today so that Bill Bryson can write of it as ‘the cherished land’ (UK Magazine, Resurgence No245). It is crisscrossed by footpaths, bye ways, tow-paths, bridle paths – many dating from Roman times and earlier – rights of way in use today and is adorned with marshes, moors, fells, forests, woodland and ponds having public access rights which are fiercely defended against all comers – sadly not always successfully. It is this literally ‘grass roots’ history that gives strength and meaning to Local Government in the United Kingdom today. 
In contrast, the Van Diemen’s Land/early Australian experience of commons was harshly suppressed by Lieutenant Governor George Arthur in order to supply a servile workforce for the growing number of free settlers. In chapters 12, ‘Controlling the Convicts’ and 13, ‘Imposing Dependence’ James Boyce shows how Arthur, with British support and experience, used every device – secure barracks to prevent ‘fraternising’, informers, a police force comprising two-thirds serving convicts,  meagre carrots and very heavy sticks – to secure the desired servility.  Before 1820 many ex-convicts and some still under sentence had been allowed plots of land to build crude shelters on, or small land grants for subsistence living for themselves and families; some had licences to resources to support rudimentary commercial enterprises. But Boyce quotes, page 126, a John Henderson complaining that a low-born migrant, ‘soon imbibes such ideas of liberty, equality and independence’ that renders him totally useless ‘for the situation of a subordinate’.  This was no way to run a prison nor to support the ambitions and provide the free labour for the increasing numbers of free-settlers and must be ended. Lt.Gov Arthur was the man to do this - though there was much resistance and opposition and total success was never quite achieved. 


  1. Excellent points. So glad that I found this site, via IndependentOz via the grauniad - tortuous journey but it's the destination that matters.

  2. A shame Tasmania never had common land, we might have respected and treated her differently