Diggers / Levellers

Group – South and central England, United Kingdom

1647 – 1652

The Levellers were a loose political group that formed in England in 1647 around demands for a widening of voting rights, the toleration of religious difference and for due judicial process. The group were popularly named after the practice of 'levelling' hedges and fences, erected by landowners to keep peasants out of what used to be common land available for all to gather firewood and graze livestock. The Levellers however did not support such action and tried to distance themselves from it.

A more radical group formed in 1649 who named themselves the 'True Levellers'. Led by Gerard Winstanley they advocated an end to all property rights, a return to the state of affairs before the Norman invasion of 1066, when land was not owned by the state or the monarchy, but instead small plots of land were owned by peasants according to folk-laws or customs, which usually followed kinship principles and where each cultivated their own small holding. Over and above this the True Levellers also advocated the collective cultivation of land. In 1649, the group took over St George's Hill in Surrey and began digging the land for cultivation, living and working in the same place. This was to be the start of a series of collective communities across England, established mostly in the south, including Wellingborough in Northamptonshire, Cox Hall in Kent, Iver in Buckinghamshire, Barnet in Hertfordshire, Enfield in Middlesex, Dunstable in Bedfordshire, Bosworth in Leicestershire, as well as a few other sites across Gloucestershire and Nottinghamshire. The activities of these groups, of digging the land for cultivation as well the removal of hedges and fences, earnt them their popular name of The Diggers. At the same time the group also published a manifesto, The True Leveller's Standard Advance. At its peak the movement consisted of some 100-200 people across southern and central England, but the communities were heavily persecuted by the government. They were eventually driven out by angry landowners supported by the clergy. The movement finally came to an end around 1652, the same year that Winstanley published his treatise on social reform, The Law of Freedom in a Platform.

Whilst the Digger movement only lasted for a few years in the C17, their vision of a society based on common ownership of the land has inspired many, including the San Francisco Diggers of the 1960s whose mixture of direct action and street theatre advocated a free lifestyle, handing out free food, setting up free shops and establishing a free medical centre. The Land is Ours which has been campaigning in the UK since the mid-1990s references the Diggers in their call for access to land, the saving of common spaces and the participation of ordinary people in decisions about land-use and its resources. The Diggers and Dreamers website and publications for communal living in Britain are another offshoot from this short period of history.

Other Work

Gerard Winstanley, 'The True Levellers Standard Advanced' (London, 1649), http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/winstanley/1649/levellers-standard.htm

---, 'The Law of Freedom in a Platform' (London, 1652), http://www.bilderberg.org/land/lawofree.htm

References About

Lewis Henry Berens, 'The Digger Movement in the Days of the Commonwealth' (London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co., 1906) www.gutenberg.org/etext/17480

Christopher Hill, The English Revolution 1640 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1940) http://www.marxists.org/archive/hill-christopher/english-revolution/index.htm

---, 'Levellers and True Levellers', in The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (London: Temple Smith, 1972).

Steve Wyler, A History of Community Asset Ownership (London: Development Trusts Association, 2009).

Quotes

"The earth (which was made to be a Common Treasury of relief for all, both Beasts and Men) was hedged in to In-closures by the teachers and rulers, and the others were made Servants and Slaves: And that Earth that is within this Creation made a Common Store-house for all, is bought and sold, and kept in the hands of a few, whereby the great Creator is mightily dishonoured, as if he were a respector of persons, delighting in the comfortable Livelihoods of some, and rejoicing in the miserable povertie and straits of others. From the beginning it was not so."

Gerard Winstanley, The True Levellers Standard Advanced (London, 1649), http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/winstanley/index.htm

"The Work we are going about is this, To dig up Georges-Hill and the waste Ground thereabouts, and to Sow Corn, and to eat our bread together by the sweat of our brows."
- Gerard Winstanley, The True Levellers Standard Advanced (London, 1649), http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/winstanley/index.htm

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