The CPS were certainly not the first to organise in the name of the English commons. The Chartist movement, which had been active between the 1830s and 1850s, had mobilised the term in its occupation of public spaces such as London’s Hyde Park, calling for rights for free assembly and rejecting the policing of public space. This gave rise to new concepts of “public space” which would become central to democratic political thought, even after the Chartist movement faded out. Before this time, Leveller and Digger movements had also claimed “commons” when the manorial system of land management, dominant since Domesday, were being legally dismantled throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This process of enclosure continued into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, although in the time of the CPS social movements were no longer responding primarily to the conversion of agrarian land into private property. Instead the principle concern was the open land on the fringes of manor estates, the former “wastes” or “commons,” which were being sold off for large urban building projects.
The tensions surrounding the commons and its relation to liberty were felt especially in London. In 1864 when Earl Spencer proposed a bill for the enclosure of Wimbledon Common, Frederick Doulton, the MP for Lambeth, was able to instigate a House of Commons select committee to interrogate the bill and to re-examine the state of open spaces in London. This select committee produced a report in 1865 on London’s commons calling for an immediate end to enclosure; the recognition of the rights of the “public” over the commons; and the imposition of regulations for their better management. The CPS was founded the same year with the purpose of giving effect to the select committee’s recommendations.
George Shaw-Lefevre, the first Baron Eversley, was a key figure in the new Society, and it was in his chambers in the Inner Temple on 19 July 1865 that the Society was inaugurated. Entering Parliament in 1863, Eversley had become a prominent member of a radical group of Liberal MPs intent on reshaping the party for social reform. Leading up to the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, Parliament had been dominated by debates between well-represented landowners on the one hand, struggling to keep existing limitations on corn imports to ensure the premium value of their crops, and new industrialists on the other, keen to open up the markets and force down the cost of labour. Eversley and his allies, including J.S. Mill, Lord Mount Temple, Professor Huxley and Andrew Johnston, developed a “third-way” argument within this debate, premised in ideas of protecting a public good. This was a relatively new idea in Parliament. It called for the creation of collective forms of ownership, through which recreational land and cultural heritage could be protected from excessive development. However, whilst representing clear opposition to the pursuit of individual gain over all over social aspirations, this public good was not really a rejection of the basic principles of private property ownership. The “commons” protected by the CPS were understood as national heritage and a poetic source of inspiration, rather than a radically different economic model.
Parliament’s adoption of Eversley’s report did, however, lead to the passing of the Metropolitan Commons Act of 1866, which made enclosure of the London commons practically impossible. However it also made Lords of Manors quickly rush ahead to enclose, beginning with Hampstead Heath. It was at this moment that, under Eversley’s supervision, the first solicitor for the CPS, Philip Lawrence, began to collect evidence of the continued existence of common rights on the Heath, since “time immemorial”. The battle for Hampstead Heath was concluded successfully in 1868, and was followed by protracted campaigns for commons, and later forests, including Wimbledon (1865-70), Wandsworth (1870-71), Plumstead (1866-71), Tooting Graveney (1868-71), Epping Forest (1865-71), Ashdown (1876-82) and Berkhamsted (1866-70).
This sequence of campaigns reflected the emergence of the CPS as a growing and increasingly formidable force of influence. It also reflected the solidification of a protocol for contesting any threatened park or heath that could be very rapidly rolled out. In each case the central CPS working-group would bring a planned enclosure to local public attention, raising the issue in national papers and often working with local associations or individuals to build interest for a local CPS group. Then, the society’s historians and lawyers would gather evidence of the continual practice of commoners’ rights on the site in question through history, and into the present day. A local resident with sufficient influence and funds—often a personal friend of Eversley—would then be prevailed upon to bring a legal challenge against the Lord of the Manor, while public events were organised to rally the newly christened “commoners.”
In the way it connected influential people to achieve its goals the CPS was characterised by both conservative and radical progressive tendencies. The grounds of the Society’s appeals were based in ideas of historical heritage: that is, the idea that particular places ought to be protected because they had been used as commons “since time immemorial.” The Society’s activities were largely dominated by the interventions of already powerful white men, and mobilised nostalgic visions of the pre-industrial English countryside to gain wider support. On the other hand, its models for action were inspired by experiments in collective management abroad, and by progressive economic critiques. For example, many CPS proponents were influenced by social thinkers such as John Ruskin and William Morris.