Friday, 28 September 2007

The Wellingborough Diggers: “A Tribute to Mischief-making on a Grand Scale”

I would like dedicate this short article to Les Parsons. Les has undertaken research into the Digger movements locally and nationally. Much of what I am about to say is based on his work. Les is also a local political campaigner who I deeply respect and admire. Without Les I would probably have remained unaware of the Digger movement in general and the Wellingborough Diggers in particular.

I have called the article “a tribute to mischief-making on a grand scale” because the contribution of the Diggers to world history cannot (in my view) be underestimated. As we struggle into the 21st century - with the challenges of gross and disgusting inequalities of wealth and income across the globe that is there for all to see - what the Diggers said and belived in is still relevent. The Diggers dreamt of a new type of world and that dream is still with us today, albeit the language in which the dream is described may have changed over the passage of time.

The term "mischief" was the actual word used to describe the Diggers in a contemporary letter of April 15th 1650, from the government of the day (Council of State) to “ … Mr. Pentlow, Justice of Peace for County Northampton” (Pentlow – a good Northamptonshire name!). The letter said:

We approve (of) your proceedings with the Levellers in those parts, and doubt not you are sensible of the mischief these designs tend to, and of the necessity to proceed effectively against them. If the laws in force against those who intrude upon other men’s properties, and that forbid and direct the punishing of all riotous assemblies and seditious and tumultuous meetings, be put in execution, there will not want means to preserve the public peace against attempts of this sort of people” (my emphasis).

What were the Digger’s "designs and actions" that were so threatening that “… there will not want means to preserve the public peace”?

In a unique “Declaration of the Grounds and Reasons” issued by the Wellingborough Diggers in 1649, we have an opportunity to hear their voices across the centuries:

“(We) have begun and give consent to dig up, manure and sow corn upon the Commons and Waste Ground called Bareshanks (now near Park Farm Industial Estate), belonging to the people of Wellinborrow by those that have subscribed and hundreds more that give consent”

Why were they taking this action?

“We are in Wellinborrow in one parish of 1169 persons that receive alms… our trading is decayed; our wives and children cry for bread; our lives are a burden to us, divers of us having 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 in family, and we cannot get bread for them by our labour. Rich men’s hearts are hardened; they will not give us if we beg at their doors. If we steal, the law will end our lives. Divers of the poor are starved to death already; and it were better for us that are living to die by the Sword than by the famine …”

How did they justify their action – what underpinned the philosophy or set of ideas that encouraged them?

“We find (in the word of God) that God made the earth for the use and comfort of all mankind, and sat him in it to till and dress it…
God never gave to any sort of people that they should have it all to themselves and shut out the rest … We find that no creature that ever God made was deprived of the benefit of the Earth, but mankind … it is nothing but covetousness, pride and hardness of heart that hath caused man so far to degenerate.

That in the last day the oppressor and proud man shall cease and God will restore the waste places of the Earth to the use and comfort of man, and that none shall hurt or destroy in all His Holy Mountain.

We have great encouragement from two righteous Acts, which Parliament of England has set forth, the one against kingly power and the other to make England a free Common-wealth”

Within a few weeks the Digger enterprise in Wellingborough had been brought to an end by the forces of “law and order” - unleashed by the nice Mr. Pentlow, Justice of the Peace, on instruction from the Government. The Digger’s leaders were arrested, taken to Northampton, and charged with riot and affray. After this nothing is known of what happened to them.

I don’t think it was so much what the Diggers did that rattled the ruling class of the day (is sowing seed on common land so threatening?), so much as the ideas that the declaration represented and reflected - and they were spreading rapidly throughout the country, with Digger colonies being established from Surrey right up to Nottinghamshire.

The Digger movement was reflective of the times - the flourishing of a new democracy (albeit limited to men of property) following the end of the monarchy in January 1649 and the beheading of Charles I. Within the ranks of the Cromwellian New Model Army there was the Leveller movement with its call for wider political democracy (“the poorest that lives hath as true a right to give a vote as well as the richest and greatest”).

But it did not take long before Cromwell reigned in this fledgling democracy and established his own dictatorship - in the interests of the men of property who had no intention of allowing the "common people " a voice. The right to vote for all was to come nearly three centuries later. These were also times of flourishing debate and discussion on the future society that people wanted to see: where demands for political democracy also went hand in hand with demands for economic democracy, through the common ownership of land. The writings of Gerard Winstanley especially spring to mind – the spiritual leader of the Digger movement.

All this amounted to an evolving vision of an alternative society without exploitation, without private ownership of land, respect for the environment (and what we would now call "sustainable development"), and a society of equals, without “kingly power”, and a Commonwealth of all.

Such ideas, whilst perhaps useful at the start of the English Revolution to encourage ordinary peole to support the overthrow of "kingly power", now had to be smashed, and smashed quickly, because they now posed a threat to the rich and powerful. But smashing these movements of that time – the Levellers and the Diggers - was easier than smashing these new ideas that were emerging.

The pandora was firmly out of the box and would not go back in! And what is clear is that these ideas have since resonated through history right up to the 21st century. We owe a tremendous debt to those “ragged band of Diggers” that Leon Rosselson so elequently refers to in his famous ballad.

Isn’t it time that we remembered the Wellingborough Diggers in some way?

Isn't it time we remembed and celebrated the contribution of these ordinary Wellingburians, who so bravely stood up for themselves and their famillies and proclaimed their desire for a new society? Isn't it time we encouraged such "mischief" again?

May it start here in Wellingborough in 2008, with a fitting memorial to the Wellingborough Diggers and to political action by people across the world opposing injustice and exploitation?

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