Monday, 4 March 2013

In Praise of Mischief: the Wellingborough Diggers of 1649

have titled this blog “in praise of mischief” because of the contribution the sixteenth century Digger movement in general, and the Wellingborough Diggers in particular, have made to our local and national history. Their contribution cannot be underestimated as we wrestle today with opposing the gross and disgusting inequalities of wealth and income across the globe that is there for all to see, and in helping us develop a vision of a different kind of society. The Diggers too had a vision of a new type of world and it is still with us today, albeit the language in which it was described at the time may have changed over the passage of time.

I have used the term mischief, because this is the word used to describe the Diggers at the time. A contemporary letter of April 15 1649, from the Government of the day to a “Mr. Pentlow, Justice of Peace for County Northampton” said:

“We approve your proceedings with the Levellers (Diggers) 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)
In particular I draw your attention to the words “… mischief these designs tend to, and of the necessity to proceed effectively against them.” 

What were the Digger’s designs and actions that were so threatening that 
“… there will not want means to preserve the public peace”?
I don’t think it was so much what the Diggers did that rattled the the government and ruling class of the day (is sowing seed on common land or manuring it so threatening?), so much as the ideas that the declaration promoted. And such ideas were spreading throughout the country at that time.

So what were the Wellingborough Diggers all about?

Their actions were very simple:
“... (we) have begun and give consent to dig up, manure and sow corn upon the Commons and Waste Ground called Bareshanks, 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 (we do not know for sure how long it lasted) the Digger enterprise in Wellingborough had been brought to an end by the forces of “law and order” - unleashed by that nice Mr. Pentlow on instructions from the Government of Cromwell. The Diggers’ leaders were arrested, taken to Northampton, and charged with riot and affray. After this nothing is known of what happened to them, but the Digger colony in Wellingborough (as colonies in other parts of the country as well) ceased to exist.

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”), and it was time of flourishing debate and discussion on the future society that people wanted to see where demands for political democracy went hand in and with demands for economic democracy through the common ownership of land. The writings of Gerrard Winstanley especially spring to mind – the spiritual leader of the Digger movement.

All this amounted to a vision of an alternative society without exploitation, without private ownership, respect for the environment, and a society of equals, without “Kingly power” and a Common-wealth for all. Such ideas had to be smashed, and smashed quickly, and they were!

But smashing the movements of that time – the Levellers, the Diggers - was easier than smashing these new emerging ideas that have resonated throughout our history since and right up to the 21st century. We owe a tremendous debt to the “ragged band” of Diggers (that Leon Rosselson refers to in his famous ballad) and we have a duty to keep their vision alive and allow it to inspire us in the struggles against the injustices of today.

This coming Saturday the third Wellingborough Diggers Festival will be hosted by Independent Socialists in Wellingborough. Please join us to celebrate and remember the Wellingborough Diggers - their ideas and their vision of an alternative society. For details of the event see here.

The Wellingborough Digger Declaration of 1649 - now in the British Museum


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