Common People

The moonlight raid known as the “Battle of Berkhamsted Common” is justly famous and has featured in many articles, including in the Chronicle. Claim and counter-claim between Lord Brownlow (and his estate after his death) and Augustus Smith meant that the real battle raged not across the gorse and bracken of the Chiltern hills, but through the courts.

Two trials would hear viva voce evidence from 48 witnesses via sworn affidavits, and in some cases, cross-examination, which came from interviews conducted in the King’s Arms in Berkhamsted. The witnesses’ average age was over sixty, some of them were much older: two of them, James Dorrofield and George Tarbox, gave evidence to the trial in 1866, but died before it was concluded in 1870. The evidence, which runs to some 25,000 words, paints a fascinating picture of the common in the first half of the nineteenth century.

The most surprising thing about the evidence was the scale of use of the common. Rather than a marginal and (as Lady Marian Alford suggested) potentially dangerous place, the evidence presented to the trial shows that the common was, at least for part of the year, a busy working landscape. It was at the centre of a semi-communal system of agriculture, which profited all the local farmers, and allowed a certain amount of social mobility to entrepreneurial locals with no land of their own.

Detail from Augustus Smith’s map showing iron fences, 1866

The fences that appeared on the common in 1866 were the end of a process, not the beginning of one. New roads built by the 7th Earl and Lord Brownlow either side of the common might be thought of as providing an uncomplicated economic benefit to the town, but, viewed through the prism of the trial evidence, suggest there may always have been an unstated intention to direct traffic around the central part of the common prior to its incorporation in the estate. Lord Brownlow’s fences aimed to set in iron the project started by the 7th Earl, when the first spade was sunk into the old road across the common. The dell hole in the garden of Woodyard Cottage was the beachhead from where the opening shot was fired in the Battle of Berkhamsted Common.

When Lord Romilly, the Master of the Rolls, gave his judgement on the case he could not have been clearer. Smith’s lawyers had proved nearly every commonable right. The testimony from both sides pointed “all one way” and the evidence was “comprehensive, conclusive and uncontradicted.” Ironically, because this was the raison d’être of the Commons Preservation Society (CPS), they had not proved any general right for the public to access the common for recreational purposes, but the effect of the ruling was the same, the fences would not return.

Perhaps after all, the real battle was between private and public versions of amenity. Society was rapidly changing from an agrarian to an industrial one. The furze cutters had, with a few notable exceptions, already left the scene. The shepherds would follow them in due course. One final irony is that the Brownlows’ last assault on the common set in train a series of actions that meant, whatever happens in the future, the nineteenth century past of the common is protected by 25,000 words of witness testimony. It can be rebuilt, like Ashridge House, brick by brick.

Let’s raise a glass to the trial witnesses: the people who made the bricks behind the stone facade of Ashridge House, the forgotten history of a super plant, and the hidden geology that put the common at the centre of a semi-communal farming system stretching back hundreds of years – perhaps, in one form or another, to the beginning of farming itself.

Richard Shepherd, Chronicle, v.XVIII (Mar 2021)