On Sunday I learned from one the elders at the Quaker meeting a bit of English history that at the same time inspired me and depressed me:
In the 1640’s Gerard Winstanley was living in Cobham, Surrey. Originally from Wigan, the son of a clothier, he had come to London to learn his father’s trade, and had married the daughter of a surgeon. When trade between London and Lancashire was disrupted because of the Civil War, his business collapsed, and he went to live in Cobham, where his wife’s family originated.
There he found work as a herdsman for his wife’s family, and partly through his own experience of poverty, was disturbed by the plight of the poor, and especially the powerlessness of those who had been evicted from their homes. Winstanley played a leading role in the early 1640’s in the ‘Digger’ movement by landless peasants to live and farm on common land.
‘He and a handful of poor men established a colony on St Georges Hill to take symbolic ownership of uncultivated common and waste land and came under a great deal of attack.
In addition to collective labour on this farm, which the Diggers occupied, Winstanley wrote pamphlet after pamphlet defending their cause.’
His pamphlets advocated some radical ideas, including the abolition of private property.
As he looked at the church, whether it was the Church of England or the Sectarians, he did not see anyone really concerned to help the poor. He came to believe that until everyone had enough to eat, and some security, it was no good preaching pious sermons. His message was summed up in phrases such as: ‘Work together’, ‘Eat together’, ‘Let Israel go free’, ‘Let Israel neither give nor take hire’.
Winstanley lived on in Cobham until 1676, and in the same year the death of a Gerard Winstanley, a corn merchant and a Quaker, is recorded in London. Was this the same man ? Quite possibly.
On 3rd April 1999, on the 350th anniversary of the Diggers, 282 people set out on a march to St George’s Hill in Surrey to erect a stone in honour of Winstanley. It was common land in the 1640’s. Winstanley tried to use it as a place for the ‘common people’ to live and work. The area is now a golf course and private residential area!
The conflict between Winstanley and the ‘powers’ of his day is repeated all over our nation today. The gap between rich and poor in this country, and even more so globally, is as wide as ever. For any town/city in this country, I wonder if we could get together people who live in the rich part of town, together with the homeless, people on the council housing list etc, and hear the story of Winstanley, and reflect on what we can learn from it ?
For full story of the march in April 1999 see :