Commons Rights

by Bryan Linnell

The opening paragraph of this essay refers to the right of certain burgesses to pasture animals on the Ham for six months in every year. This is customarily between 12th August and 12th February. It was this right of common which prevented the owners putting up fences around their individual plots in 1811. Boundaries were marked by stones. The Award closely matched the owner’s plots of 1791/92. The right to put out beasts was exchanged for the rent of the same, the rent to be divided equally between the occupiers of properties on the fronts of the three main streets. 

From these "Frontagers" a body of Trustees was chosen, to protect their interests. On appointment each Trustee had to sign a certificate to the effect that he was both able and qualified by residence to act in the office. The last recorded certificate is dated 1940.

In 1946 the Town Council decided to plough the Ham, a decision of such monumental agrarian ignorance as to arouse widescale opposition in all quarters. It was enough to force the withdrawal of the proposition. In the furore it passed unnoticed that the council had taken upon themselves the title and duties of Trustees. It was a small step from taking the name to taking the money received for the aftermath, "In the public interest", naturally. A Mr C. Taylor "supposed" that the Trusteeship was a part of the Pull Court estate and therefore passed to the Town Council on purchase in 1932. A firm stand by the Commoners led by Richard Woodfin, probably the first person to read the act of 1806 since its use in 1811, scotched that effort and resulted in a new Board of Trustees, to include some Councillors. The inclusion of Councillors who are not Commoners is of doubtful legality. So is the sudden reduction reduction in the number of commoners in 1968, from 320 to 124, on the grounds that the right belonged only to those living in property that was in existence in 1808.

The question of "Ham Money" has been, and is, bedevilled by the question of who is entitled to what and when. In theory, should any part of the grazing be lost then the commoners should receive compensation. This was given in 1986 but not in 1937 nor in 1946. That which was given in 1856 for the 14 acres taken for the Severn lock set the precedent for all future compensation. The amount received was £733, about £2 for each commoner. None of those alive in 1856 lived to see the money. It took fifty years to get a decision through the courts that the cash was the same as the land - it could not be given away. Just as there was an income from the land so there must be an income from the £733. It was invested in the name of the Accountant General of the Court of Chancery and today returns between 1% and 2% on the capital.

The fact that the Trustees were moribund in 1937 may account for the fact of no compensation for the loss of land below Abbey Mill. However, the same kind of loss which occurred in 1946/49 came about through the mistaken idea of the vendor, the Town Council, that it was also the Trustee of the Commons. There is also a great deal of doubt as to whether the Council did own this land which it sold, namely the large rick-yard. The situation here is tied up with Knaves' Acre, as follows. 

Some small parts of the Ham were open to the edges of Knaves’ Acre and the two sets of grass were indistinguishable as regards commoners' rights. Other parts of the Knaves’ Acre were owned by various persons and had no grass, so no grazing rights. However, in a letter dated 6th September, 1855 all those parts not owned or open to the Ham were given to the Trustees of the Commons by Mr. Dowdeswell. The rents were to be collected by the Trustees and shared equally between Pull Court Estate and the trustees, with the Trustees managing, as owners. This they did and at no time did the Trustees dispose of this ownership. Tenants, including the Town Council, continued to pay rent for pieces of Knaves’ Acre until 1946, to the Trustees. On usurping the position of the Trustees in 1946 the Town Council immediately disposed of the large rick-yard for £50, waived compensation and required the areas to be tarmaced. In this case the town Council sold for £50 that which they did not own and that for which they had demanded £2,000 nine years previously.

Sale of the aftermath and rents of tenancies in Knaves' Acre made up the bulk of the income to the Trustees but there were other sources. The investment income from the sale in 1856 is one; others include wayleaves and War loan interest.

Over the years the Commoners have received between onehalf and one-third of the income. The remainder has been taken in taxes and administration. In 1946 the Council asked for this residue to be donated to the cost of the proposed Riverside Walk. There were no volunteers.

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