|3. Everything / History & Politics / Historical Figures|
Gerrard Winstanley - a Very English Anarchist
Where do the breadcrumbs come from, the ones you find down the back of your settee?
It goes without saying that there's a lot of exclusive property in Surrey. Security fences protect some of the beautiful houses in Camp End Road, where Gerrard Winstanley used to live. There was no golf course up on the hill in his day, and the locals didn't drive sports cars.
There are a few residents in the area who came from somewhere else before they came from Walton-on-Thames or Weybridge, but they usually keep quiet about it. That's probably why Gerrard's origins are seldom spoken of. Few remember that he came from Wigan, Lancashire, or that his dad was in the textile trade.
Gerrard came to London just before the War, and tried a bit of tailoring himself. He married Susan in '40, but he could hardly have picked a worse time to set up in business in that part of the world - the war ruined him. Fortunately, a few sympathetic friends got him back on his feet, and he began to think about the charity of gentlefolk, and about everything he should be thankful for. He became pretty handy at living off his allotment, too.
Now, Gerrard was a very religious man. Faith like his is rare these days; as rare as allotments just off the Esher By-Pass. It wasn't long before soldiers were being demobbed, and Gerrard was deeply affected by their stories and experiences. He picked up the pen, and he began to write.
Gerrard might have been one of those people whose conviction grows in adversity. By '48, he had published a number of books. They were short, but they were popular. One of them went under the title "The New Law of Righteousness". Not very catchy perhaps, but it soon earned him a following.
He had a pretty unusual philosophy, it has to be said, but quite a few strange ideas took hold in those post-war days. London was an odd mix of an austere establishment and an uninhibited population.
It was about now that politics got complicated. The events that followed the war are, of course, well-remembered: the Church of England was abolished, the House of Lords was dissolved, the Judiciary was disbanded and the King was put to death.
Yes, this was the English Civil War. These were the 1640s.
Whenever the slate is wiped as clean as this, along come new kingdoms of God, many of them based on some fairly idiosyncratic interpretations of the scripture. The Quakers were perhaps the most conventional of these newcomers, and certainly the most enduring. Even they were a little unsteady in those days, though. They tended to take their clothes off in public quite a lot.
Then there were the Muggletonians led by personal acquaintances of John the Revelator, and the still less stable Ranters who found God in just about every vice imaginable. The aforementioned ex-soldiers were loosely ascribed the label of Levellers and professed a singularly apocalyptic view of things. They were still caught up in the whole idea of resisting authority. Compared with these groups, Gerrard and his simple ideals were quite benign.
The First Settlement
There weren't any BMWs on St George's Hill in the Spring of 1649. Camp Close was pretty much a track alongside a ditch, littered with the relics of a few half-hearted outhouses. The estate agents didn't have anything good to say about it, because there weren't any around to see its potential.
Only Gerrard could see that. With a few like-minded friends, he took to tilling the ground and spreading manure. At first nobody noticed, and nobody objected. The question of ownership was, to say the least, a little blurred. The land nominally belonged to the crown, but there wasn't a royal head to set one on.
As far as Gerrard was concerned, his community were the New Levellers. Somebody else called them Diggers, intending disparagement. Gerrard didn't actually mind the handle; it was just a shade too utilitarian, that was all. He was looking for something more aspirational, redolent of salvation and a new order. But Diggers was sticky, and it stuck.
Gerrard planted parsnips, carrots, beans and a little pamphlet that went by the name of The True Levellers' Standard Advanced. The relative priority of these sowings is a matter for conjecture, but it was certainly the last one that grabbed the attention of the powers-that-be.
The tenets of the Diggers' manifesto are simple and lucid. The clarity of thought, the economy of style and the essential humanity of the doctrine are all quite different from most of the political and religious literature of the 17th Century. Small wonder then that they caused trouble.
Gerrard's central belief was that land belonged to everyone. The earth was divinely created as a common treasury, so nobody has the right to own it, to sell it or to exclude other people from it. God has ordained that whatever comes out of it has to be shared. A corollary to this enormous notion was that enduring institutions inevitably become contentious. People fortify their self-interest, and strife and suffering follows. Gerrard's answer was to propose that nobody should be allowed to be in charge of anything for very long.
These ideas appealed greatly to everyone who had nothing. On the other hand, they did not appeal to anyone who already held power, or thought they held power, or who aspired to power, or who held any other kind of possessions, or thought they did, or thought they should, in any way or in any form whatsoever.
It takes two things to become a revolutionary. One is an incendiary message. The other is a flammable time. Gerrard lived in a time that was strewn with the tinder of change and discord. One spark, and whoosh, the tinder was lit.
Communist. Religious Fundamentalist. Anarchist. Thief.
Guilty on all counts. England surely never deserved Gerrard.
The backlash came from local landowners. The lord of the manor was called Francis Drake, a more sedentary pirate than his earlier namesake. He wasn't a violent man. He just hired a couple of evil psychopaths, John Taylor and William Starr, to organise the gangs. They threatened the Diggers and destroyed their crops. Gerrard was passive and reasonable. Drake's tactics became more brutal, and animals were maimed. Homes were damaged and despoiled in a cowardly raid by men disguised as women.
Few people have ever exemplified Christ's exhortation to turn the other cheek like Gerrard did. Throughout his life, he met brutality with reason. And every sweet page of every letter he wrote in polite objection sent the bonfire burning higher. He soon surprised Drake, who was already seeking the help of the army to suppress the Diggers, by writing directly to General Fairfax, chief among Cromwell's lieutenants.
Thomas Fairfax received some of the most eloquent correspondence ever written by a political constituent. He did not reply to any of it, but he did visit the settlement in person. He concluded that the Diggers were doing no harm, and left the protagonists to it.
The Second Settlement
Soon afterwards, Gerrard decided that the opposition he faced was a local aberration, and that others elsewhere would surely be more welcoming and reasonable. With touching and tragic naivety, the community packed up their minimal belongings and moved themselves a few miles to Little Heath near Cobham. This brought them into confrontation with an uglier customer even than Drake.
Pastor John Platt appeared to welcome the Diggers at first. Ultimately, he was to feel none of the uncertainty that had restrained their first adversary. Drake was a wealthy man, and a fence-sitter in the clash of cultures that had been the English Civil War. He discerned a consistency of philosophy between the rabble on the Hill and the administration of the Protectorate. He was never quite sure whether bullying Gerrard might risk the attention of some very powerful friends. However, the nemesis of the Diggers, Platt, was a Puritan - one who used his pulpit as a weathercock and who unashamedly followed the canon of the Commonwealth.
At first, things went well for the Diggers in their new community. They tilled a total of eleven acres and built six houses. Over the winter of 1649, they produced a substantial harvest of root vegetables and distributed them among the local populace. They sought no payment. They merely extended an invitation to join in and help.
The writing of pamphlets, too, continued. William Everard, a cashiered officer from the New Model Army, had until now concentrated on farming activities. He became a spokesman, as did Anthony Wren. Satellite Digger communities were springing up at Cox Hill in Kent, at Wellingborough in Northamptonshire, and at Iver in Bucks.
It could all have been so different, if only Gerrard had been a little less vociferous. Fairfax's apathy might have been a lifeline. The malice of the landlords could perhaps have been endured, or maybe even avoided. What the Diggers were attempting was in many ways aligned with the greater project of Cromwell's English Revolution.
But the Lord Protector was a pragmatist, and one faced with a spectrum of popular activism from devout proto-socialism to deliberate self-serving rebellion. There are many interpretations of Cromwell's decrees in the literature. Possibly he only intended a crackdown on other, more aberrant communities. Perhaps he was poorly advised. He may never have been involved at all, with some minion making pronouncements in the confusion. Whatever the truth, there is little doubt that pastor Platt received orders to destroy the Little Heath settlement.
There was nothing surreptitious about the evictions this time. Platt had the houses pulled down and the crops trampled. The animals were simply stolen. A few of the Diggers, contrary to Gerrard's pleas, resisted. Some were beaten up, and others were imprisoned on charges of affray.
By the end of 1650, the practical manifestation of the Diggers' project was finished. All of the communities had been dispersed. Though Gerrard was to remain active in politics for another ten years, and was to write further influential tracts, the moment that could have changed everything had passed.
His later writings reveal a certain disillusionment. A direct critic of Cromwell, Gerrard probably nonetheless believed that the man was half-right and that his country was set on a good, if slow, road. But England soon slipped back, readmitting its crass and pointless monarchy, leaving it to other nations to fashion flawed facsimiles of socialism. Gerrard stayed in the Cobham area, but reverted to mercering instead of politics. He professed himself a Quaker in 1660 and died in relative obscurity in 1676.
A Backward Glance
It's difficult to imagine public order in modern England without the foundation of property ownership. Nowadays, an Englishman's home is his castle, his safest refuge, his convertible asset. Only 350 years ago, a man of the noblest and sweetest spirit espoused a perfectly opposite philosophy. He carried people with him. He proved, albeit on a simple scale, that a different way could work. There is an alternative to market economics, provided only that people are decent.
The World Turned Upside Down? For a few months, yes. And this in England - the one that is, the one that was, the one that could have been, all at one and the same time.
Those who languish on St George's Hill today, remember what happened here. Remember, indeed, the heroes of that other age, the men who opposed Gerrard Winstanley as well as those who followed him. That was a time of conviction, of vision, in which strong hearts strove to build a future greater than themselves.
On 1 April, 1649, a community was established near this spot. Though it was to be short-lived, it will live forever. The Diggers broke bread together to mark their kinship and their pact of co-operative labour. Think of them, now that you know where the crumbs came from.
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