Town Common Lands

Town Common Lands

Sudbury Common Lands

Following the first and second World Wars many common lands were in a parlous state through lack of manual attention. Much of the land was turning to scrub and apparent wasteland. Common land in general represented a large proportion of the national landscape.

A Royal Commission was set up in 1955 to make recommendations as to what changes were desirable in the law relating to common lands. This had become necessary as the problems over ownership and common rights could be better resolved with farming and public recreational access. The project was led by leading authorities Professors Dudley Stamp and W G Hoskins. An attempt had previously been made in 1874 by the Copyhold, Inclosure and Tithe Commissioners to collate the acreages of commons in the country, but there were difficulties with the figures recorded. Many commons had been encroached upon piecemeal over the years.

Technically and in general a common as with all other land has an owner. Generally the surface (and herbage) is farmed in severalty and ‘in-common’ by others who have ‘rights’ to do so. The Commission sat for three years and published a 204-page report. The Commissions Advice:

“ We have come to the conclusion that as the last reserve of uncommitted land in England and Wales Common Land ought to be preserved in the public interest. The public interest embraces both the creation of wider facilities for public access and an increase in the productivity of the land. Our recommendations are designed to carry out these principles.”

The question of ‘rights’ met with many reactions by the holders and the general public. Contested claims, if not settled informally, were recommended to go to a legal officer appointed as a Commons Commissioner, with right of appeal to the Lands Tribunal. With modifications, their recommendations duly became law under the umbrella of the eventual Commons Registration Act (CRA), 1965.

Significantly, Town Commons are architecturally different to the rural commons. The town Common is fenced and gated. In their history a town common was as much a part of the property as the town and guild halls and subject to the local customs and by-laws. Rural (standard) Commons are noticeably without fencing and in most cases surrounded by ‘ditch and bund’ where the soil from the ditch is piled onto its far bank making a considerable barrier to retain livestock. This may be augmented with cattle grids where necessary and poles for gateways.

’The Sudbury ‘Commons’ have for many years been referred to as such. They were called this in the Private Act of Parliament for the sale of Armsey and release of Shackage, promoted by the new Borough Council replacing the old Corporation in 1836. However, the Registration Authority, (Commission) recommended that the land adopted was owned in common and therefore should ‘be excluded from registration’ and the control of the new law!

The draft Scheme for management of the Sudbury Common Lands, asked for by the Borough Council, however, had an extra clause, inserted at the request of the Council, to cover retention of rights of pasturage and recreation. It is therefore to be presumed that there may have been others than freemen of the common with rights of pasturage on the commons at that time! Under the apparent threat that unregistered land and/or rights, could lose protection, Mr Allan Berry, and his brother initially and independently, recorded their interests in the lands. I believe that was later rejected until a more suitably worded registration could be agreed by the body of Freemen with the Trustees.

It seems to me, and it was Mr Berry’s view (in later reflection) that the ‘Freemen’s lands’ should never have been registered as ‘common lands’ and better privately remained governed by the Trustees in conjunction with the Council. In several cases where ‘Freemen’s lands’ remain, such as the Newcastle Town Moor, full control remains with the Freemen. The lands are effectively private, but permission is given for recreational purposes. Of course these matters are now conjectural as the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act, 2000, has opened all ‘registered’ Common lands be they Rural or Town Commons ‘open to the general public for quiet recreation’. I can say, from personal experience, that registration under the CRA 1965 Act prevented the building (by compulsory order) of a slip road to a Bypass when Mr Grimm of the Highways authority had to withdraw under the combined reasons of its registration controls and its liability subject to flooding.

Alan Shelley

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