Imperialism and the Diggers

On 1st April 1649, two months after the execution of Charles I, the Diggers, a group of poor radical agrarian protesters, arrived to farm unused land at St George’s Hill in Surrey, England. Prominent Digger Gerrard Winstanley wrote, “England is not a Free People, till the poor that have no Land, have a free allowance to dig and labour the Commons, and so live as Comfortably as the Landlords that live in their Inclosures.” Charles I’s death, interpreted by many as the end of the divine right of kings, opened the floodgates for previously inconceivable claims to land access. Diggers took the former Crown Land and surrounding wastes to collect wood, grow beets, carrots and corn, and to house and clothe those in need. Their acts of care were met with ongoing violent assaults. 

Winstanley rallied adamantly against the ‘buying and selling of the Earth’ calling for the abolition of money, private property, imperialism, and enclosure. He declared, “Those that Buy and Sell Land, and are landlords, have got it either by Oppression, or Murther, or Theft”. The backlash from local landlords was systematic. The Diggers faced beatings and arson, forcing them to move from St George’s Hill to a second site in Cobham, until they were finally driven off the land entirely. 

For 200 years after the Diggers were forced from St George’s Hill, the land continued to be the site of various disputes over gathering wood and other commoning practices. St George’s Hill went from a prominent site for resistance against enclosures and imperialism to some of the most expensive acreage in the world. All the while, anti-enclosure protestors in England were routinely deported to Barbados, as vast amounts of plantation wealth from the Caribbean flowed into landed estates in Surrey.

Looking beyond the security gates and patrolled perimeters, as well as national borders they mimic, provides an illuminating lens in the global processes of colonial land dispossession, through which the Diggers’ insurgency can be read within a broader international anti-imperial struggle in the seventeenth century. 

Today 37 of the luxury homes are registered offshore in the Caribbean British Virgin Islands to avoid taxation, a trend in which vast amounts of global wealth are made both untaxable and untraceable. However, St George’s Hill’s links to the Caribbean, and a broader colonial history, far precede the contemporary absentee owners and global investors frequenting the golf course. 

Imperialism through St George’s Hill 

If you were to visit St George’s Hill today you would be confronted with a near-thousand-acre private gated community, with some of the most expensive acreage in the world where properties sell for between £15-30m. Houses in the 11/2 acre plots have been second or third homes to celebrities such as John Lennon, Elton John, and Cliff Richard. Needless to say, the site is guarded by 24-hour security patrols, whose disdain for visitors is second only to the stronghold of the residents’ own curtain-twitching neighbourhood watch. 

However, the accumulation of wealth at St George’s runs much deeper than world famous pop stars and oligarchs. As part of the violent centuries-long transference of common access to exclusive private property, in the 1640s, manorial lords sought to raise cash at St George’s Hill, selling off felled wood and cutting trees, an encroachment onto common rights that ignited the Diggers and their supporters. Many more conflicts over access and use of these manorial wastes raged on, with the land passing through various aristocratic hands.In 1804 a portion of the land passed to Prince Frederick, the Duke of York. It was rapidly sold to Jeremiah Hodges, who inherited estates in England as well as plantations in the Caribbean, one of many Englishmen to amass vast sums of wealth through imperial ventures.

Accessing the hill in any capacity became a crime of trespass, and collecting felled wood became theft. To raise yet more capital, Hodges sold the land to Sir Henry Fletcher, whose wealth also derived directly from colonial trading, this time as a director in the East India Company. In the 1840s a further portion of the estate was enclosed and gifted to parliamentary Conservative Sir Francis Egerton, the 1st Earl of Ellesmere. In 1911, the Egerton family sold the 946-acre plot at St George’s Hill to builder and developer Walter George Tarrant. Employing a 5,000 person workforce for around sixpence a day on 10-hour shifts, Tarrant cleared the hill for residential development. Hundreds of trees were blasted from the ground with dynamite to make way for the Harry Colt-designed private golf club, around which the current multi-million pound residential properties converge. Today, golf courses make up more than 2% of land use in Surrey while centuries-old grouse hunting moors take up around 4%. This is in comparison to the 1% used for housing. 

English land, a global commodity

The food, climate, and racial justice organising of Land in Our Names (LION) shows that historicising land in Britain in light of empire demonstrates not who owns the land, but how it came to be owned, and why. Part of the fallacy that sustains Britain’s rural self-conceptualisation as ‘white’ is derived from a historical amnesia, which wilfully disconnects England from a colonial past steeped in racial capitalism. This disconnection is upheld by fierce immigration law, separating former colonies from the wealth of empire. Undoing this fallacy broadens the scope of land justice work to centre international anti-imperial struggles, which can and should be articulated on British soil.

In the years surrounding the beheading of Charles I, insurgency in England and Ireland, the Caribbean, and the New World, raged against enclosure and colonisation. Uprisings across colonial space called for access to land and to the life-sustaining resources land provides, as well as bigger resistances to private property and ‘buying and selling of the earth’. As historian Peter Linebaugh demonstrates, the 1600s experienced a crisis of forestry in which the ability to collect felled wood (the main subsistence resource, analogous to coal or oil today) was overwritten by the commodification of wood and trees. Demand for wood as a commodity rose excessively among elites to repay expenses of the civil war, while evermore wood was required for ship building for the expanding colonial navy. Each merchant ship or gun boat required between 4-6,000 mature oaks.

Increasing expansion required increasing wood supplies, and in turn criminalisation and curtailment of centuries-old commoning practices. In 1650 the Council of State dispatched troops to Surrey to restrict wood access for commoners. It was understood that if harsh measures were not taken, it would “encourageth that looser and disordered sort of people to the greater boldness in other designs against the Commonwealth.” It was clear then, that common people’s attempts to resist private property were taken to be a direct attack not only on the government, but on the empire. Colonial elites searched for ‘the right and proper nurseries’ for timber in Ireland, and in newly colonised space. The island of Barbados was one of the most extensive and swift deforestations, with the majority of the island converted from woodland to plantation between 1627 and 1660. Deforestation not only provided an immediate cash crop, it also curtailed the spaces of refuge for resistance movements.

Disorderly forest dwellers and an English Eden 

In England, as in the colonies, existing characterisations of forests as dangerous and uncivil spaces were further emphasised by Enlightenment expertise, whose interest in cultivation applied equally to plants and people alike. Seventeenth-century agriculturalist Samuel Hartlib wrote that those who “spend their time in Idleness” are “disorderly, and cannot be reduced to any certain Employment … [and should] be banished from the Common-wealth, Even as weeds are to be rooted up and cast out of a fruitfull garden”. 

As historian Hilary Beckles shows, many advocates for the destruction of private property in England, such as Ranters, Diggers, and Levellers, were indeed exiled to the colonies, notably to Barbados. England was being cultivated as an Edenic paradise, cleansed of rebels and those in resistance to enclosures. While some exiled rebels from England joined forces with enslaved and indentured workers in Barbados, multi-racial insurgency across colonial space was increasingly curtailed by segregation and the instantiation of white-led slave patrols. 

Looking beyond the security gates and patrolled perimeters, as well as national borders they mimic, provides an illuminating lens in the global processes of colonial land dispossession

Wood, timber, and colonial improvement 

The intensification of empire, realised initially through establishment of the East India company in 1600s, and the settlement of parts of North America and the Caribbean were to have profound effects on land in England. Ten years after the forcible removal of the Diggers, on 28th November 1660, the Royal Society for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge was founded. This was the same year that the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading into Africa (later the Royal African Company) was issued its official charter. The two organisations had significant overlap in membership, and so, unsurprisingly, much of the scientific thought produced during the early years by the Royal Society was directly concerned with land management and conversion of the natural world into saleable commodities. John Evelyn wrote the Society’s first publication, Sylva, or, A Discourse on Trees, in 1664, advocating for intensifying land enclosure and improving tree cultivation for maximal profit. Similarly, Royal Society-endorsed methods of cultivation under the guise of ‘improvement’ directly provided the justifications for enclosures, such as the enclosure of St George’s Hill in 1804 and 1840 respectively. Improvement discourse also fed into outsourcing timber supplies and the introduction of slave-plantation economies in the Caribbean and later the New World, all of which sent inconceivable amounts of wealth back into England. 

Following the money 

The University College London’s Legacies of British Slave-ownership online database, as well as the Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery (2020) provide evidence of vast amounts of colonial wealth flowing from the Caribbean to Surrey, specifically the land surrounding St George’s Hill. The Ankerwycke Estate, Clandon Park, Claremont House, Hatchlands Park, and Polesden Lacey, all large landed sites with significant links to colonialism, all sit within a 10-mile radius of the Diggers’ former commune. A further extensive list of colonial wealth in landed estates in Surrey is detailed by Stephanie Barczewski in Country Houses and the British Empire, 1700–1930 (2014). Beyond this, there are scores of under-researched private manor houses in the area that are the direct beneficiaries of colonial wealth. 

As the Diggers of St George’s Hill showed over 350 years ago, land justice work in England can and should be directed at English imperialism in all its guises. Global narratives of wealth accumulated in English soil are often easily obscured by the naturalisation of sovereign borders, which on paper no longer include the Empire. This means that English land is now too easily imagined as picturesquely parcelled in hedgerows, manicured into golf courses, private woodlands, and royal moors, all of which are purposefully disconnected from colonial pasts. 

Tracing whose labour and lands were violently exploited in the accumulation of colonial wealth now shored up in England extends the scope of English land activism beyond the borders which define English soil. This means alongside crossing hedgerows, fences, and security gates, land justice also means rallying furiously against the borders of England designed to conceal and protect wealth from former colonies. ∞

Rowan Powell is a PhD student at the University of Santa Cruz, California. Rowan is a former member of STRIKE! magazine and Calverts, both worker co-operatives. Rowan’s research explores anti-imperialism through struggles against private land ownership.

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