At one point in time the great forests and rivers were open to everyone and the small population of Britain meant there was little pressure on the land.
The Norman conquest of 1066 saw the introduction of the manorial system in which common land and common rights have their origins. The powerful lords were granted land by the King and these great estates (or 'manors' as they were called) formed the basis of the rural economy. Under the feudal system, the serfs and villeins who worked the land enjoyed the protection of the Lord in return for their labours.
After the harvests had been gathered in each year from the cultivated land of the manor, the open field strips and hay meadows were made available for common grazing by the sheep, oxen, geese and other animals owned by all those who lived and worked on the estate. Often, there was poorer quality land which was not cultivated, but might be available for occasional grazing by livestock (called the 'waste of the manor'). In addition to grazing, there was access for those who worked on the estate to other resources, such as coal, peat or brushwood for their hearths, turf for their roofs, or fish for their tables. Many of these 'rights' owed their existence to and were attached to the homes and land (if any) of the commoners - known as the 'dominant tenement'.
As time passed, rights of common became recognised at law and the Statute of Merton in 1235 made provision for land to be provided for 'commoners' to exercise their rights. Around this time, special courts of law, called Courts Leet, were also established to deal with disputes between the commoners and their lords. Some of the earliest case law of England concerns commoners and their rights. Whilst the lords of the manor held their lands subject to the commoners rights, they had the right themselves to shoot game, mine under the land and cut standing timber. They could also exercise the balance of any grazing where this was possible. When there was more than sufficient land for the grazing needs of the commoners livestock, the lords could inclose it (i.e. remove common rights from land) and might later seek to physically enclose the land.
By the sixteenth century, inclosure of land was more frequent. An increasing population of Britain had led to pressure on the land for housing and food production, and the thriving wool and leather industries meant that there was greater demand for grazing land. Because rights of common had legal status, they could only be removed (inclosed) either by agreement with the commoners, or by recourse to law, by means of a Private Act of Parliament. Arrangements would then be made for the land to be surveyed, for highways and field boundaries to be laid out, and for the parties (including commoners) to be granted part of the land by virtue of an 'award'.
Much of the common land of England and Wales was inclosed over the next two hundred years and by the beginning of the nineteenth century, general Acts were introduced to make the inclosure process easier. By the 1850's, demands upon land for food production diminished with the growth of food imports from America. However, there was pressure of a different sort, resulting from demand for access to open spaces for air and recreation from those living in the towns and cities. The Metropolitan Commons Act of 1866 and the Commons Act 1876 saw the first legislative measures to protect and manage common land and the Law of Property Act 1925 introduced the major statutory protection which common land enjoys today. The formation of the Commons Society (known today as the Open Spaces Society) in 1865 resulted from the greater interest in access to open land by the public and the society purchased several areas of land which were later gifted to the National Trust.
The twentieth century saw the pressure for access to common land grow but, following the Second World War, there was concern about common land and village greens. Many commons had been ploughed up for agriculture during the war, whilst others had fallen into disuse and in some areas common rights had been abandoned or lost. The recreational needs of the public were also increasing. Growing ownership of motor cars and demand for housing and other development were bringing different pressures to bear upon village greens. In 1955 a Royal Commission was established to enquire into whether any changes were needed in the law to promote and balance the needs of owners of land, commoners and the enjoyment of the public. The Royal Commission reported in 1958, but it was not until the Commons Registration Act of 1965 that some of the recommendations of the Royal Commission were implemented.
The Commons Registration Act established a system of Registration Authorities in England and Wales to record and maintain public registers of:
Boundaries of common land and village greens.
Rights of common.
Owners of common land.
County councils, metropolitan and London borough councils and unitary authorities in England and Wales are Commons Registration Authorities and hold the registers for public inspection.
How beautiful it is to do nothing and rest afterwards...........