Diggers camped at Cooper's Hill, met at the nearby Runnymede monument, where Magna Carta was signed on 15th June 1215, to discuss their ideas about freedom and the right of people around the world to shelter and grow food on disused land.
Diggers camped at Cooper's Hill, met at the nearbye Runnymede monument where Magna Carta was signed on 15th June 1215 at to discuss their ideas about freedom and the right of people around the world to shelter and grow food on disused land.
The original Diggers or 'True Levellers' were founded by Gerard Winstanley in 1649 after the first English Civil War and his ideas were based on the relationship between man and the environment; an early ecologist he stated that "true freedom lies where a man receives his nourishment and preservation, and that is in the use of the earth" and that "England is not a free people, till the poor that have no land have a free allowance to dig and labour the commons." They took ideas of sharing of property from the New Testament and they harked back to a time before 1066, when the Norman conquerors took hold of the land and divided it between themselves. Although it is not clear what the situation was before that time, there has been remarkably little change in land ownership over the almost 950 years since then, with the same families still owning the great majority of English land. A minute fraction of the UK population - 0.65% - currently own more than two thirds of the UK land area.
In April 1649 at a time when food prices had risen to unheard of levels, local landowners at St George's Hill in Weybridge (now a very exclusive private estate) called in the army because the Diggers had begun to plant vegetables on common land, and invited others to join them in defying the landowners.
The army commander, Sir Thomas Fairfax came to see what was going on and he interviewed Winstanley and the others, but decided the diggers were not harming anyone and told the landowners to take their case to court. Instead the Lord of the Manor decided to start by employing gangs of ruffians to attack the Diggers, and they beat them up and burnt down a house. There followed a court case not about their use of the land but accusing them of being members of the heretical Ranter sect which abandoned all traditional restraints, embraced immorality and rejected the idea of private property and obedience to laws. It was more a witch hunt than a court case, with the Diggers being refused the right to speak - and some historians now believe that there was never such a movement. Certainly the Diggers were not Ranters, but they lost the case, and this meant that the army could have been used to remove them, and they abandoned their plots in August, around 4 months after they had moved in.
There have been a number of similar occupations and cultivation of disused land in recent years, for example by 'The Land Is Ours' at the Wandsworth/Battersea Guinness site in 1996, and more recently the Kew EcoVillage and Grow Heathrow sites.
A week ago, a small group set out from the Syon Lane Community Allotment hoping to start a community on a disused piece of land on the Crown Estate at Windsor. They had publicised their intentions widely and were accompanied by police and served with injunctions forbidding them to go into Windsor Great Park. When they arrived at the site that locals had assured them had long been disused, the Crown Estate produced someone who told them he was shortly to crop the site which was pretty full of nettles as silage. They moved on and out of the Thames Valley Police area to a temporary site on a riverside park in Runnymede for the night before moving on to woodland owned by Royal Holloway College, part of the University of London, on Coopers Hill. Despite promises by the Diggers to move on at the end of the week, the college applied for an injunction and papers were served on Thursday evening.
The diggers are now on a definitely unused site a short distance away on the actual Cooper's Hill site, which was sold by Brunel University (it had been Shoreditch College) in 2007. This large site is now owned by a property developer who hopes at some time to build 600 eco-homes there, but lack of cash and planning permission mean this is unlikely to happen for some years. The Diggers camp is just to the north-east of the 'Pillar Hall' one of several locally listed nineteenth buildings on the former Runnymede Campus, in the now rather overgrown gardens. Relations between the Diggers and site security men are good after the campers promised not to attempt to enter the buildings. Parts of the grounds are used occasionally for police dog training and it remains to be seen how this might effect the Diggers!
Today's meeting took place at the memorial to Magna Carta erected by the US Bar Association on National Trust Land a few hundred metres north of the camp site (though several times farther by footpath and road.) At the start of the meeting there was a very friendly police officer and a National Trust person present, both of whom contributed some information about the area and the site. We got considerable insight into the area and the historical and current relevance of Magna Carta - as well as the lesser-known but more relevant to the common man 'Charter of the Forest' which was issued shortly afterwards and joined with Magna Carta in 1297 from a lecturer in history from Royal Holloway who took an active part in the discussions of the afternoon.
The Diggers hope to be able to stay on the current site for some time and to use it as a practical example of their philosophy. There was also considerable support among the twenty or so people present for the idea of a popular celebration of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta at Runnymede to take place as well as the more formal and business-oriented celebrations being put forward by the district council and others. It was also mooted that their might be some annual 'gathering of rights' celebration leading up to this, with mention being made of the Windsor Free Festival that took place nearby in Windsor Great Park in 1972-4, organised by Ubi Dwyer and Sid Rawle. There was a general agreement that something needed to be done to reclaim civil liberties that have been eroded over recent years with various suggestions for action and perhaps a new people's charter.
After a couple of hours of discussion, with some people leaving and others joining, we walked up to visit the Diggers camp. It was made clear that visitors are always welcome - especially if they bring some biscuits or cakes or other supplies - and if you want to stay for a night or more, a tent or sleeping bag. Once they are clearer about their position they will also need some help with cultivation and other work on site. The Diggers have a blog at diggers2012.wordpress.com/ which gives information about what is happening and how to find them - and contact details.