Saturday, 8 March 2014

The Wellingborough Diggers of 1650: A tribute to Mischief-making on a grand scale

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

I would like dedicate this short article to Les Parsons. Les is responsible for undertaking research in the Digger movement in general and the Wellingborough Diggers in particular. Much of what I am about to say is as a result of this work. But Les is also a local political campaigner whom I deeply respect and admire. Without Les I would have probably remained unaware of the Diggers.

I have called it “a tribute to mischief-making on a grand scale” because the contribution of the Diggers cannot be underestimated as we wrestle with opposing the gross and disgusting inequalities of wealth and income across the globe that is there for all to see and developing a vision of a different kind of society in the future. 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. I have used the term mischief, because this is the word used to describe the Diggers at the time. A contemporary letter of April 15th 1649 (1650)[1], from the Government of the day (Council of State) to “ … Mr. Pentlow, Justice of Peace for County Northampton” said:

“We approve 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”.

In particular I draw your attention to then 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”?

In a unique “Declaration of the Grounds and Reasons” issued by the Wellingborough Diggers in 1649 (1650), we have an opportunity to hear their own voice across the centuries:

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 the nice Mr. Pentlow, Justice of the Peace, 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.

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 promoted and was spreading throughout the country. Are there resonances here of how the Occupy Movement and UK-Uncut and other movements against injustice around the world are being treated today?

The Digger movement was reflective of the times - the flourishing of democracy (albeit limited to men of property). This was also the time when the monarchy was ended, in January 1649, with 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”), 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 of land, 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 ideas that were emerging and these ideas have resonated throughout our history right up to the 21st century. We owe a tremendous debt to those “ragged band” of Diggers (that Leon Rosselson refers to in his famous ballad) and we have a duty to keep this vision alive, and to struggle against the injustices of today, as the Diggers did in the 17th Century.

Paul Crofts

The Diggers – a brief history

This information is taken from Wikipedia. Footnotes are mine.

The year 1649 was a time of great social unrest in England. The Parliamentarians had won the First English Civil War but failed to negotiate a constitutional settlement with the defeated King Charles I. When members of Parliament and the Grandees in the New Model Army were faced with Charles' perceived duplicity, they tried and executed him.

Government through the King's Privy Council was replaced with a new body called the Council of State, which due to fundamental disagreements within a weakened Parliament was dominated by the Army. Many people were active in politics, suggesting alternative forms of government to replace the old order. Royalists wished to place King Charles II on the throne; men like Oliver Cromwell wished to govern with a plutocratic Parliament voted in by an electorate based on property, similar to that which was enfranchised before the civil war; agitators called Levellers, influenced by the writings of John Lilburne, wanted parliamentary government based on an electorate of every male head of a household; Fifth Monarchy Men advocated a theocracy; and the Diggers, led by Winstanley, advocated a more radical solution.

Gerrard Winstanley and 14 others published a pamphlet[2] in which they called themselves the True Levellers to distinguish their ideas from those of the Levellers. Once they put their idea into practice and started to cultivate common land, they became known as "Diggers" by both opponents and supporters. The Diggers' beliefs were informed by the Winstanley's writings which envisioned an ecological interrelationship between humans and nature, acknowledging the inherent connections between people and their surroundings[3].   Winstanley declared that "true freedom lies where a man receives his nourishment and preservation, and that is in the use of the earth".

An undercurrent of political thought which has run through English society for many generations and resurfaced from time to time (for example, the Peasants' Revolt in 1381) was present in some of the political factions of the 17th century, including those who formed the Diggers, and held the common belief that England had become subjugated by the "Norman Yoke." This legend offered an explanation that at one time a golden Era had existed in England before the Norman Conquest in 1066. From the conquest on, the Diggers argued, the "common people of England" had been robbed of their birthrights and exploited by a foreign ruling class.

St. George's Hill, Weybridge, Surrey
The Council of State received a letter in April 1649 reporting that several individuals had begun to plant vegetables in common land on Saint George's Hill, Weybridge near Cobham,   Surrey at a time when food prices reached an all-time high. Sanders reported that they had invited "all to come in and help them, and promise them meat, drink, and clothes." They intended to pull down all enclosures and cause the local populace to come and work with them. They claimed that their number would be several thousand within ten days. "It is feared they have some design in hand." In the same month, the Diggers issued their most famous pamphlet and manifesto, called "The True Levellers Standard Advanced".

At the behest of the local landowners, the commander of the New Model Army, Sir Thomas Fairfax, duly arrived with his troops and interviewed Winstanley and another prominent member of the Diggers, William Everard. Everard suspected that the Diggers were in serious trouble and soon left the group. Fairfax, meanwhile, having concluded that Diggers were doing no harm, advised the local landowners to use the courts.

Winstanley remained and continued to write about the treatment they received. The harassment from the Lord of the Manor, Francis Drake (not the famous Francis Drake, who had died more than 50 years before), was both deliberate and systematic: he organised gangs in an attack on the Diggers, including numerous beatings and an arson attack on one of the communal houses. Following a court case, in which the Diggers were forbidden to speak in their own defence, they were found guilty of being Ranters, a radical sect associated with liberal sexuality (though in fact Winstanley had reprimanded Ranter Laurence Clarkson for his sexual practices). Having lost the court case, if they had not left the land, then the army could have been used to enforce the law and evict them; so they abandoned St George's Hill in August 1649, much to the relief of the local freeholders.

Wellingborough, Northamptonshire
There was another community of Diggers close to Wellingborough in Northamptonshire. In March 1649, the community published a declaration which started:

A Declaration of the Grounds and Reasons why we the Poor Inhabitants of the Town of Wellingborrow, in the County of Northampton, have begun and give consent to dig up, manure and sow Corn upon the Common, and waste ground, called Bareshanke[4] belonging to the Inhabitants of Wellinborrow, by those that have Subscribed and hundreds more that give Consent....

This colony was probably founded as a result of contact with the Surrey Diggers. In late March 1649, four emissaries from the Surrey colony were arrested in Buckinghamshire bearing a letter signed by the Surrey Diggers including Gerrard Winstanley and Robert Coster inciting people to start Digger colonies and to provide money for the Surrey Diggers. According to the newspaper A Perfect Diurnall the emissaries had travelled a circuit through the counties of Surrey, Middlesex, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Huntingdonshire and Northamptonshire before being apprehended.

On April 15, 1649, the Council of State ordered Mr Pentlow, a justice of the peace for Northamptonshire to proceed against 'the Levellers in those parts' and to have them tried at the next Quarter Session. The Iver Diggers recorded that, nine of the Wellingborough Diggers were arrested and imprisoned in Northampton jail and although no charges could be proved against them the justice refused to release them.

Captain William Thompson, the leader of the failed "Banbury mutiny" of Levellers (most were killed in the churchyard in Burford whilst trying to escape) was killed - in a skirmish on his way to join the Digger community in Wellingborough - by soldiers loyal to Oliver Cromwell in May 1649.

[1] Note that there is often confusion around dates due to a change in the calendar at this time. It is sometimes difficult to know if event took place in 1649 or 1650. I have changed some of the dates from the Wikipedia entry - that the “The Diggers – Brief History” (see below) is drawn from - to, hopefully, make the dates more consistent.
[2] The New Law Of Righteousness (January 26, 1649), Gerrard Winstanley
[3] The Diggers have also been described as the first British “communists” and “socialists” because they also sought an egalitarian society, challenged the privilege and wealth accruing from land ownership, and opposed “kingly power”. They said in the Wellingborough Digger Declaration: “God made the Earth for use and comfort of all mankind, and let him in to till and dress it, and said, that in the sweat of his brow he should eat his bread; and also we find that, that God never gave it to any sort of people, that they should have it all to themselves, and shut out all the rest, but he saith, The Earth hath he given to all the children of men, which is everyman”
[4] Bareshanke is a piece of land on the left-hand side of the road coming from Wellingborough (from the Park Farm Industrial Estate past the “Mad Mile”) at the junction where it meets the Sywell to Little Harrowden Road.



  1. Great post Paul, I only recently discovered the Diggers, I found an article written by Tony Benn some years back in which he made reference to them, a brave group of people who should be remembered and celebrated.