In a corner of South East London is Plumstead Common once the site of “disgraceful riots” that generated the headline in the Kentish Independent:
“Can this be England?”
Well, it very much was England as commoners had ancient rights to cut furze, graze cattle and cut turf for fuel on common land. It looked different in those days a more rugged terrain with gravel and sand pits. In 1871 the military, based in Woolwich, had rights to exercise on the common. The nearer Woolwich Common was thought to be too soft and swampy. Over time the furze and brambles disappeared. To top this the developers moved in.
In the C17th Queen’s College, Oxford inherited the rights to the land. Over a period of time there had been encroachment of the common land and areas had been enclosed sometimes for the benefit of the poor or for individual gain. A local builder Mr Tongue was responsible for many of the encroachments as was Edwin Hughes who later became the first Member of Parliament for Woolwich. The building of Central and Slade schools on the common were done with the permission of the College.
The real threat to the common came in 1876 when Queen’s College wanted to develop a new housing estate. The people of Plumstead took direct action to protect their common and began to rip down and burn the fences of the enclosed land. The properties of Hughes and Tongue were a particular focus. They were led by John de Morgan who called himself a Champion for the Common Rights. He also boasted that he was “an irishman, a rebel and had been in prison several times”. He was obviously a persuasive speaker as 700 men from The Royal Arsenal lost pay and took the afternoon off work to hear him speak.
Local opinion, of the time, including the liberal Woolwich Gazette, was in favour of the preservation of the common. The rioters included family groups, women and children and the “respectable working classes”. The more critical Kentish Independent described the rioters as “roughs and hobble-de-hoys.” The riots started on Sunday 1st July and went on well into Monday evening. The demonstrations did have an impact and in 1878 The Plumstead Common Act ensured that about one hundred acres of land remained as public open space.
Today the Common is effectively divided into two as roads were built before the Act. Along Plumstead Common Road still stands The Ship public house, now painted a Germoline pink. Some two hundred metres along the road is the historic Prince of Wales where, in October 1886, the Arsenal Football Team was formed. It’s now flats.
Mill Pond Road dissects the common and the original mill can still be seen. At the time of the riots it was a public house and remains one.
The original common was much larger and extended along Plum Lane to Shrewsbury Park and Shooters Hill. There is still an amazing amount of green space at the top of the hill and well worth the climb as the views are remarkable, overlooking London to the West, Dartford to the East and Essex to the North.
A Bronze Age Tumulus still survives and hidden in Shrewsbury House is a Cold War bunker: though not open to the public. The original manor house is now a community centre.
The houses around the common and the streets leading to Shrewsbury park tell you that this was not a place for the hoi polloi, there are some seriously posh houses. Large “tea caddy” houses, enormous three storey Victorian mansions overlooking the common. It may have lost some of its sparkle but with the advent of Crossrail this could well be a place on the up.