Battle of Berkhamsted Common Walk 2021

Did the real Battle of Berkhamsted Common take place in the Crystal Palace? New research suggests the Commons Preservation Society’s version of the famous moonlit fence break was not wholly accurate. This walk, part of the Heritage Open Days festival, took place on Saturday 11th September 2021.

The Crystal Palace, Berkhamsted 2021
The Crystal Palace, Berkhamsted 2021


Thank you for enlisting in our Battle of Berkhamsted Common walk. I’m Richard Shepherd and I’m joined today by Judy Mead and Linda Williams. 

We presented a similar walk in 2019 which was well received. Last year I posted an audio version of that walk on my blog which was – quite rightly – completely ignored. So it’s good to be back on the common for a proper walk!

The walk today is about 2 miles long. The paths are all good but uneven in places and possibly muddy. I don’t really have any safety advice, although it is always a good idea to keep half an eye on the ground in front of you and to look out for stray branches at eye level. I expect the walk to last about two hours. 

Now I’ll give you a quick summary of the story and we’ll get going. 

200 years ago if you had seen a boy of 7 or 8 on the common, he wouldn’t have been playing: he’d have been working. A lucky boy might have been ‘sheep dunging’ – collecting sheep droppings to sell for manure. A bright lad might even be trusted to look after sheep. Others might find themselves raking leaves on the estate, or pulling up nettles and thistles from the sides of drives. A less lucky boy would find himself in a group of about 40 or 50 boys, breaking flints for Lord Bridgewater’s roads.

That’s not to say that Lord Bridgewater ( 1753-1823) was an ogre. He was, by the standards of the day, a paternalistic employer. If it was a particularly cold day, he made sure to tell his steward, another ex-army man, to give the boys a cross-country run, to warm up before starting work.

This story also involves a boy at the other end of the social scale. When John William Spencer Brownlow Egerton Cust (1842-1867) inherited the Ashridge Estate in 1851 he became, overnight, the richest 12-year-old boy in England.

In 1866 Lord Brownlow, now 24 years old, put up fences denying local people their right since time immemorial to graze their animals and gather fuel on the common. The 2 miles of iron fences were 5ft high and had no gates, cutting off access to about half of the existing common. The western fence followed the line of the Dunstable road from here to the boundary of Ashridge Park and the eastern fence went through Frithsden Beeches from a point near the rifle range.

‘The law locks up the man or woman

Who steals the goose from off the common

But lets the greater villain loose

Who steals the common from off the goose’

The chief impetus to resist this land grab came from London. The mid-nineteenth century saw a rapid expansion of the city which was notorious for cholera and slums. Whig politicians and their friends came to realise the importance of protecting green spaces, like Hampstead Heath and Wimbledon Common, for city dwellers. In 1865 the Commons Preservation Society (CPS) was formed to galvanize public interest, to raise money for legal battles and, where necessary to take direct action.

It was they who took up the gauntlet thrown down by Lord Brownlow. They immediately found a contractor to take the fences down and looked for a local landowner with commonable rights who could act as a figurehead for the legal battle. They found him in Augustus Smith who owned Ashlyns Hall, but now spent most of his time between the Scilly Isles, of which he owned the lease, and the House of Commons, where he was the radically minded MP for Truro.

Soon after midnight on Tuesday 6 March 1866, a team of 100 navvies, mostly recruited from the workforce constructing the Thames Embankment (1864-1874) at Westminster, left Euston station on a specially chartered train. They knew only that they were hired for a ‘night job, down Tring way’. 

The real story of the night’s events has never been told but this year I found some overlooked eyewitness testimony that sheds new light on the battle. The main contractor, George Shayler, 41, the office manager of a wire rope and submarine cable firm, met his subcontractor at a pub near Euston on the night of the fence break. The subcontractor was dispensing bread, cheese and beer among the workmen. For reasons that aren’t clear, they argued and the subcontractor marched off taking the money with him that was meant to pay the workmen the following day. 

The loss of his subcontractor with the men’s wages signalled a looming problem for Shayler on Wednesday morning. But that wasn’t his only problem. Shayler had ‘borrowed’ the money from his employers assuming that he would pay it back before they noticed it gone. If everything had gone to plan, by the time the office opened on Wednesday morning, the books would balance, the people of Berkhamsted would have had their common rights restored to them, and he would be £25 (£3,000 in today’s money) to the good for his time and expenses.

Reaching Tring at about 1.30 am, the men marched to the common, Shayler and representatives of the CPS leading in a dog-cart. By 6.00 am the fences had been put beyond use. Arriving at Berkhamsted the men not unnaturally asked to be paid. The representatives of the CPS had melted into the night and George was on his own.

He was locked into the Crystal Palace – I know that doesn’t sound like a punishment but a hundred unpaid navvies may not have been his first choice of drinking companions. They turned his pockets out, tore his trousers and threatened to tear him limb from limb. 

His wife and teenage son made an unsuccessful attempt to rescue him but were forced to return to London to find cash. Meanwhile, the pub was trashed. Money was borrowed and some of the men were paid. The rest set off with George for Tring stopping at another hostelry en route and pawning his watch for 16 pots of beer.

There is a letter to George Shayler in the archive from the aggrieved landlord of the Crystal Palace:

[Reading 1]


As I have not heard from you according to promise, I now write to you to say that there is the backs of three mahogany chairs broken, couch damaged and fender broken and door smashed in, the parlour smoking room large dining table leg broken off and top splintered and window smashed: there was the refreshments the policeman & yourself and men had in the parlour which will amount to £5 altogether let alone the nuisance I had to put up with. Sir, if you send me the £5 I shall be satisfied – an answer will oblige.

Yours respectfully, Thomas Meek, Berkhamsted.”

The messiness of the night’s events was quickly erased by a careful media campaign. The high drama of the fence break caught the public’s imagination. The CPS had scored a massive publicity coup. This poem in Punch is a flavour of the sort of positive media story the intervention provoked.

[Reading 2]

Lay of Modern England 

Augustus Smith, of Scilly,
     By Piper’s Hole, he swore
That the proud Lord of Brownlow
     Should keep the waste no more. 
By Piper’s Hole, he swore it, 
     And named a trysting night,
And bade his myrmidons ride forth,
     By special train from London’s north,
To venge the Common Right.  

Loured the foul London gaslights,
     And made the gloom more deep,
The million-peopled city’s sons
     Were in their early sleep,
When from the Euston Station
     Glided the special train
That bore the force that went to win
     Berkhamsted’s waste again.

So down went Brownlow’s railings,
     And down went Hazell’s beer,
And from the gathering crowd up goes
     One loud and lusty cheer.
For carriage, gig, and dog-cart
      Come rushing on the scene,
And all Berkhamsted hastes to see
     Where Brownlow’s rails had been.

Bold was the deed and English
     The Commoners have done,
Let’s hope the law of England, too,
     Will smile upon their fun.
For our few remaining Commons
     Must not be seized or sold,
Nor Lords forget they do not live
     In the bad days of old.”

Lord Brownlow immediately sued Augustus Smith for damages. The case would lapse when Lord Brownlow died the following year. But meanwhile, Smith, at the CPS’s instigation, had taken out a counterclaim, to prevent enclosure ever happening again, and for a legal ruling to clarify the rights of the commoners. The case would continue against the estate of the deceased earl. The Battle of Berkhamsted Common would be fought, not through the gorse and heather of the Chiltern hills, but through the courts. It was a battle that would drag on for the next four years.

We’re now going to make our way to Coldharbour Farm. 

Coldharbour Farm Meadow

We are now in the area taken out of the common in the early 17th-century. 

In 1866 the court would hear evidence from local people which gives a fascinating insight into the use of the common in the first half of the 19th century. 

Perhaps the most surprising thing to me was the scale of use being made of the common which sometimes caused tension between the estate and other users. Several witnesses remembered an event in May 1835, when the common was driven at the behest of the estate: that is to say, all the grazing animals were rounded up and put into a field at Coldharbour Farm to be claimed by their owners. It was thought that some outsiders – interlopers – were turning their sheep on the common and the common was becoming overstocked.

[Reading 3]

“Joseph Swaby

I know every part of Berkhamsted common well. The first summer I lived at the Old Dairy the common was drove up to a meadow on Coldharbour Farm. I was present and had orders from Mr Spicer, the head keeper, to assist in driving the cattle into the meadow. All animals we found grazing on the common whether horses sheep or cows were driven into the meadow. I think this was in the month of May. We drove a great many sheep into the meadow, it is called the big meadow, and a few horses. 

Afterwards several of the owners came into the meadow and claimed their sheep. I recollect that Benjamin Cook of Potten End, Mr Costin, George Watson, Francis Thorn, Isaac Saunders, John Bedford, John Cook, Daniel Bedford, Mr Sutton of Rossway, and several others whose names I do not recollect came there and claimed their sheep.   The sheep were afterwards allowed to go on the common,  but orders were given afterwards to report the names of all those persons who turned sheep on the common who held no land and they were reported accordingly,  and afterwards, they ceased turning on.”

Is anybody brave enough to guess how many sheep were wondering about Berkhamsted Common in May 1835?

The surprising answer is more than 5,000: and that might underestimate the true figure. News that the common would be driven was leaked in advance and some sheep had been removed in anticipation.

Coldharbour Farm Furze Field

Modern place names sometimes hold a clue to past land use. The wood you can see across the fields is called ‘Furzefield Wood’. Furze we now call ‘gorse’ and we can see from the 1840 tithe map that furze was being grown on the farm as a crop.

Furze was much prized as fuel. It has a ‘high calorific value’, which means it burns very hot, very quickly, and leaves little ash. It was especially prized for bread making and brewing – ovens couldn’t burn coal in those days, even if anybody could afford it – it was also used by farmers and smallholders for the bottoms of their ricks – a kind of breathable base layer. 

Many commoners, when other work was short, cut furze for a basic living. The furze on the common was a valuable and renewable community resource.

Its chief industrial use was in brick making. We’ll let Thomas Cox – whose engraved wooden cross can still be found in Little Gaddesden Church – take up the story.

[Reading 4]

Thomas Cox aged 78 States as follows

I live at Ringshall. I was born at Pitstone, lived there till I was about 13 years old, I then went to farm service and enlisted for a soldier in the year 1805, in the marines, was at the Battle of Trafalgar, and got my discharge in 1815. In 1816 I went to Ashridge and worked on the estate 47 years. After I had been at work on the estate for about 5 or 6 years I was employed brickmaking on the estate. The first place I burnt at was Ivinghoe Common. The next place was Outwood Kiln, in Aldbury Parish. We used furze for burning. The furze was cut on Berkhamsted Common and carted to the kilns. We cleared the common of furze. It took a 1,000 furze to burn a kiln of bricks. One kiln held about 16 or 17,000 bricks. The second kiln would require 700 furze and would burn 10,000 bricks. Each season we should burn about 28 kilns (14 in each kiln). We were burning constantly for about 8 years. In the 8 years we cut the furze fields belonging to Cold Harbour Farm twice. They consist of about 30 acres. During the 8 years I cut the furze on the common (that was when we had no work at the kiln) several times & was never interrupted. 

I recollect Mr Hemmings setting out the ride leading from Aldbury to Potten End – before he done so this ride was like the rest part of the common – the furze was stocked up & a ride made – the ride was widened and levelled from time to time & always kept in order for Lady Bridgewater. Lady Bridgewater used to ride a great deal on horseback. I recollect Mr Hemmings forming most all the rides. I recollect the common when there was scarcely a ride about it.”

So to build the mansion (c.1808-14), Lord Bridgewater cleared the common of its most precious commodity. William Bell remembered that by the end ‘you could not find a bit of furze about the common as high as your shoe’. Thomas Waterton remembered that whilst it was being built, there were 20 full-time furze cutters but at last ‘the furze was cut so low we were obliged to mow it’.

The trashing of a renewable community resource didn’t keep Lord Bridgewater awake at night. Why? He had his own supply: he owned Coldharbour Farm. 

Woodyard Cottage

The Bridgewaters had been poaching bits of the common long before Lord Brownlow inherited the estate.

Woodyard cottage was built on the common by Lord Bridgewater for his wood bailiff, Theophilus Hemmings. 

The dell hole that you can see in the garden was an old gravel pit, later converted to a garden pond, dug to block an old road across the common between Aldbury and Hemel. When the Woodyard was built the park pales were moved out onto the common and a strip several hundred yards long laid into the park.

The evidence is mixed on the status of the blocked road: some estate loyalists suggest that it was never a proper road. Others remember a good hard road that could be used by loaded carts. In favour of the latter, the line of the road is shown clearly on the estate’s own plan (1762).

[Reading 5]

William Waterton 

I reside at Potten End.  I am 59 years of age next birthday.  I was born at Frithsden and lived there until I was 20 years old.  I know Berkhamsted Common and have been employed on the common by the Ashridge estate.  The first work I did was digging gravel –  we dug it between Dairy Park Corner and the woodyard.  I done it before the cottages near the woodyard were built. There was a way from Dairy Park Corner under the park pales, through Bungays Gate to Little Gaddesden, and straight on to Frithsden.  It was a byway or a cart way not a regular road. I recollect the pond being dug across the way and I also recollect the woodyard being fenced in and taken off the common.  Part of the old way now forms part of the woodyard. The old way was thus destroyed,  and gravel pits at places were dug in it.  At the time the woodyard was made Lord Bridgwater made a new road from the woodyard to Coldharbour Farm across the common, destroying the furze in the line of route.”

It is ironic that the Wood Bailiff – Theophilus Hemmings – who managed all the woodland on the estate and common, and who represented the law on both –  had almost the power of life and death over its users – was living in a house on land which had itself been stolen from the common.

It is difficult here not to call to mind another poem about enclosure by one of England’s greatest ever poets: anon.

‘The law locks up the man or woman
     Who steals the goose from off the common
But lets the greater villain loose
     Who steals the common from off the goose’

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 every commonable right – with one or two exceptions. The evidence, Lord Romilly found, was comprehensive, conclusive and uncontradicted. 

Ironically he found that there was no right to recreation, which was the ultimate purpose of the CPS: to protect commons because of their amenity value to the general public. But the effect was the same: the fences would stay down. No one – with the exception of poor old George Shayler – was inclined to see the result as anything other than what it was. A stunning victory for the Commons Preservation Society and the commoners of Berkhamsted.

(c) Richard Shepherd, 2021

Published by Richard Shepherd

Richard Shepherd is a writer and musician and lives in Kentish Town.

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  1. Thoroughly enjoyed listening to your brilliant commentary. I’ll reprise your walk round the common when I can as I was away at the time. Do people still have the right to graze animals even thought the ‘common land’ is owned?

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