The growth of nineteenth-century London was unprecedented, swallowing up once remote villages, commons and open fields around the metropolitan fringe in largely uncontrolled housing development. In the mid-Victorian period widespread opposition to this unbridled growth coalesced into a movement that campaigned to preserve the London commons. The history of this campaign is usually presented as having been fought by members of the metropolitan upper middle class, who appointed themselves as spokespeople for all Londoners and played out their battles mainly in parliament and the law courts.
In this fascinating book Mark Gorman tells a different story – of the key role played by popular protest in the campaigns to preserve Epping Forest and other open spaces in and near London. He shows how throughout the nineteenth century such places were venues for both radical politics and popular leisure, helping to create a sense of public right of access, even ‘ownership’. At the same time, London‘s suburban growth was partly a response to the rising aspirations of an artisan and lower middle class who increasingly wanted direct access to open space. This not only created the conditions for the mid-Victorian commons preservation movement, but also gave impetus to distinctive popular protest by proletarian Londoners.
In comparing the campaign for Epping Forest with other struggles for London’s commons, the book highlights influences which ranged from the role of charismatic leaders to widely held beliefs regarding the land, in which the rights of freeborn Englishmen had been plundered by the aristocracy since the Norman conquest.
Mark Gorman reveals a largely hidden history, since ordinary Londoners left few records behind, but his new research clearly reveals how their protests influenced the actions of the more visible elite groups who appeared in parliament or in court.
Mark Gorman was born and brought up in north London. He studied history at Cambridge University and subsequently qualified as a teacher. After teaching in Nigeria he returned to West Africa for several years as a Programme coordinator for VSO. He has spent his working life in the field of international aid, and in 2008 was awarded an MBE for his services to international development. He lives in east London, on the borders of Epping Forest, which has enabled him to foster his twin passions for history and the environment. In 2018 he received a PhD for his study of popular protest and open space in Victorian London. He speaks and writes regularly on local history topics, and in recent years has been involved in the organisation of the annual Newham Heritage Festivals.