Our History

As we reach, on 16 August, the 150th Anniversary of the formation of the Commons as we know them today, we look back at how the Commons came into being.

What is a Common? Historically, a Common was a large area of wasteland which had never been brought into cultivation, either because it was not needed for a small population or because the soil was poor. In theory, the waste land was owned by the lord of the manor, but over the centuries, his tenants gained certain definite rights ”of Common”. When and how these rights came into existence is uncertain, but their value to every villager was considerable. Wimbledon and Putney Commons, as they were transferred to the Conservators in 1871, were what remained of the waste of the manor of Wimbledon.

By 1864, very few commoners remained in the Manor of Wimbledon and the Commons became very vulnerable. The then Earl Spencer, Lord of the Manors of Wimbledon and Battersea, followed the example being set across the country and had a bill drafted for submission to Parliament. On 11 November 1864 he called a meeting, at very short notice, of some local residents at the Lecture Hall in Wimbledon, without giving any indication to what the meeting was about.

At the meeting, he explained that the Bill would provide for the enclosure of no less than 700 acres of the Commons as a park, and for the sale of large portions of the remaining 300 acres to compensate him and the surviving commoners and to defray the costs he would incur. The Bill also provided for the building of a “manor house” on the site of the windmill, with two acres for grounds.

The reason he gave for this? “The land was boggy and noxious mists and fogs arose from it and great nuisance was caused by gypsies whose encampments and activities he had insufficient power to control”.

Whilst most of those attending were in favour, second thoughts prevailed and as a result, committees were formed in Wimbledon and Putney to watch the progress of the Bill through Parliament.  Early in 1865, Lord Spencer’s Bill was referred to a committee to enquire into the condition of the Commons and open spaces in the vicinity of London, and the Committee found against Lord Spencer.  He withdrew the Bill before it was put before a Select Committee.

Sir Henry Peek

But the danger had not passed as Lord Spencer still claimed that the Commons were his absolute property and sought to strengthen his position by buying up copyhold properties in order to extinguish the rights of Commons attached to them, and intensified his exploitation of the Commons to increase his revenue. In March 1866, another meeting of the residents of the parishes adjoining the Common appointed the Wimbledon Common Committee with the object of “the preservation of the whole of Wimbledon Common and Putney Heath unenclosed, for the benefit of the neighbourhood and the public.” Its chairman was Henry W Peek.

In April 1870, Lord Spencer indicated he was willing to come to terms. The negotiations that followed were prolonged and difficult, and included Putney Lower Common for the first time. Terms of settlement were eventually agreed and embodied in a Bill which was deposited on 17 December 1870 and passed by the House of Commons on 22 May 1871. Further difficulties arose when demands came from the War Office for the use of the Commons for military purposes. At length, on 16 August 1871, the Wimbledon and Putney Commons Act finally received Royal Assent.

What were its provisions? Of course the property had to be paid for. The price agreed was based on the average income received by Lord Spencer during the preceding 10 years, a sum of £1,200 to be paid as a perpetual annuity. For this, Lord Spencer’s estate and interest in the whole of the Commons was conveyed to a body of Conservators, whose duty it was to keep the Commons open and unenclosed, protecting the turf, gorse, trees and other natural products. The yearly payment of £1,200 was the first charge on the Commons Fund and in order to provide the money to pay for this annuity, and to cover the cost of keeping, preserving and improving the Commons, the Act empowered the Conservators to levy a charge on the occupiers of properties situated within three-quarters of a mile of Wimbledon Common or Putney Heath (distances to be measured by nearest available road or footpath), and the Parish of Putney. It is by this means that the upkeep of the Commons was funded in 1871, and still is today.

In the mid-1950s, the then Conservators created a Redemption Fund, and after 10 years, succeeded in raising enough money to purchase the annuity.

And so here we are today – the Commons and the Conservators are governed by the same Act of Parliament, and although it has been amended over the years to remove aspects relating the National Rifle Association and to change the way in which the levy is collected, its fundamental core remains. Today, the Conservators are equally bound to keep the Commons “uninclosed and unbuilt on, their natural aspect and state being, as far as may be, preserved”.




You can find out more about how the Commons look today from our range of resources available to buy at the Ranger's Office, from maps and guides to postcards and notelets.