Kennington Common, the Occupy Movement & the Freedom of Assembly (From the Archive)
[Originally published in History Workshop Online on 3 November 2011]
In 1852, a seemingly insignificant piece of legislation passed through the House of Lords. It created a park from lands of the Duchy of Cornwall, a possession of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. The area – Kennington Park – was to be a space of public recreation, improving the lives of residents nearby.
The impetus for the park, according to the newspapers, had come from local residents. As one contemporary, Thomas Miller, described the land, it was ‘a small grassless square, surrounded with houses, and poisoned by the stench of vitriol works and by black, open, sluggish ditches. Unlike so many open spaces in mid nineteenth-century London, speculators did not get the chance to build over the green. Rather, the plan was to clean it, drain it, plant trees, and create flower-lined paths. A new iron fence would replace the dilapidated wooden railing that separated the road from the park boundaries.
But, the legislation in the House of Lords was more than a simple public works project. In fact, it was much more. It was one of many similar efforts in the name of improvement that radically altered the structure of working-class society and politics in Britain. It represents an instance in history when calls for the enhancement of public space functioned as a way to suppress popular dissent. Nineteenth-century struggles over the creation of Kennington Park parallel many of the twenty-first century discussions taking place over the Occupy movements in the United States and Britain. The lessons from the 1800s should resonate with activists and their supporters alike.
To understand the creation of Kennington Park, we need to go back nearly a thousand years. By the reign of Edward the Confessor in the 11th century, the kings of England already claimed the land of Kennington, a derivation from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Chenintune’ meaning ‘King’s Town’. In the 14th century, Edward III granted the manor to his son Edward, the ‘Black Prince’. Since then, it has remained in either the hands of the crown or the Prince of Wales through his subsidiary title, the Duke of Cornwall.
Like all medieval manors, Kennington contained an area, held by custom to be in common. By the nineteenth century, it was approximately 20 acres . On the common, locals could graze their livestock for a small fee . The land served other communal needs as well. It was a place of public gathering for people from all walks of life. Fairs were a regular feature of the landscape. Itinerant preachers, such as John Wesley and George Whitefield, could draw thousands of spectators. Boxing matches were held there. In the eighteenth century, Kennington Common was one of the primary cricket grounds for major matches. These occasions could be rough-and-tumble, cheek-by-jowl affairs. A cricket match might be as violent as a boxing contest. For example, in 1737, a man by the name of John Smith died from a stone thrown in a mass altercation — certainly not the last to die from a sports-related injury on the common .
Kennington Common was more than a space for grazing, preaching, and sociability, though. It was also a place for the state to represent its authority and power. By the end of the 17th century, it was one of several locales for the public execution of criminals. For example, in 1678, Sarah Elston was burned at the stake for murdering her husband . Several Jacobite rebels were hanged in “full Highland costumes” and quartered in the years following the uprising of 1745 
Thousands of Londoners might turn out to the regular executions at Kennington Common. As far as the government was concerned, this was a good thing. The executions showed the proper functioning of the state. Justice was brought to bear on those who had undermined the social contract. And, if public execution on the common were not enough to demonstrate the power of the state, executed felons were sometimes hung in chains from a gibbet on the nearby causeway – just to guarantee that the populace did not forget.
Nevertheless, public executions could have a secondary and unintended effect. By nature, an execution was a performance, with its own rules and expectations. As theatre, it asked the crowds to consider the nature of political authority. Were the rulers, magistrates, and the court system just or unjust? Each death sentence revealed to the public the interests of those who governed them – interests that were not always in line with the population at large. As an example, Hannah Griffiths was hanged at Kennington Common in 1796 . She was a girl of eighteen and had stolen from her master’s house. The newspapers reported that she was ‘peculiarly pitiable’ and that a large crowd of women attended the execution. While we have no record of the women’s conversations, it is unlikely that they thought the punishment fit the crime.
Thus, the gallows at Kennington Common was a political space – one which was supposed to teach the virtue of obedience to authority. But, as became increasingly clear to the government, it could not control how the populace interpreted the theatre of execution. To the public, the gallows could simply be a sign of despotism and arbitrary power. And, when the French Revolution broke out in 1789, it became apparent to governments throughout Europe that executions – the mass spectacles of state power – could potentially do more harm than good. This is one of the reasons why the last execution on the Kennington Common took place in the early nineteenth century. The site was soon covered over by a new church, St. Mark’s.
As a site of communal gathering and of political rhetoric, it is not surprising that Kennington Common was central to popular politics. For example, when food prices increased during the Napoleonic wars, the people used the open space to demonstrate for their rights. In 1800, 500 people turned out to protest the cost of food – despite government attempts to suppress the gathering . As reformers pushed for an expanded franchise, the green became a place to demonstrate for political ideals.
After the Reform Act of 1832, the common’s preachers, charlatans, and touts were joined by candidates stumping for Lambeth’s seat in Parliament. In turn, they were joined by Chartists, who were determined to reform the state still further. The Reform Act of 1832 may have opened the franchise for many middle class men, but it still denied the right to vote to most people. The Chartists wanted universal male suffrage, a secret ballot, annual elections, equitable representation, and salaries for MPs. In all, they wanted to level the political playing field – for adult men at least.
Chartists spoke at Kennington Common throughout the 1840s – sometimes to crowds of thousands. Being a common area where people regularly gathered was part of the location’s appeal. Likewise, the site was over a mile from the gates of Westminster, a requirement for meetings of more than 50 people . So, unsurprisingly, in 1848, when the Chartist leadership attempted to petition Parliament for constitutional change for a third time, they decided to hold a mass rally on Kennington Common. From there, they would march their petition to Westminster.
Even as the Chartists prepared for a non-violent demonstration of moral force, the government armed itself. It feared an uprising. The military and police barricaded public buildings and streets. The royal family fled to the Isle of Wight. The Times, no friend to radicals, was piled in stacks around government buildings to protect their defenders from gunfire . Even the staff of the British Museum, sworn in as special constables, set up a perimeter around the building. They moved stones to the roof to hurl at potential assailants.
Tens of thousands of British residents trekked to Kennington Common on 10 April 1848 – 150,000 in all. Some who crossed over the bridges to the south side of the Thames soon found their return roots blocked. The military had taken control of the bridges and began to control the movement of the crowd. Robert Crowe, a tailor who participated on the march, described an early form of kettling. He recounted that after his group crossed the bridge, ‘for nearly three hours we were held as prisoners’  The participants were eventually released, but in the weeks that followed, the government began rounding up leaders and putting them on trial.
Kennington Common would not see another demonstration on this scale again. After the radicalism of the 1840s, the government took tried to limit the access of radicals to public spaces. In the case of Kennington Common, government interests converged with those of the Church of England, wealthy local residents, and moderate middle-class reformers. The clergy of St. Mary’s, the parish which included Kennington Common, was one of numerous parishes that focused on reforming London’s commons. They claimed that the commons had become dens of iniquity – places where non-conformists and atheists preached by day and drunkards and prostitutes walked by night. The vicar of St. Mark’s Church teamed up with moderate reformers among his congregation, notably Oliver Davis who led local residents in a quest to clean up the area – to make it more sanitary . This meant removing not only the hoi polloi, but also revoking unrestrained access to the commons. The masses, so the argument went, had overgrazed, dumped refuse, and been responsible for the poor state of upkeep. One newspaper article summed up the concerns of the government, church, and moderate reformers alike:
Kennington-Common has for years been a public nuisance. On Sundays ignorant controversialists in politics and religion have made it the sporting battle field of Atheism, Deism, Chartism, and every other species of “ism.” When the weather is fair, the common in the day time is a field for discussion, and at night for immorality. When the weather is foul the common is impassable, and even unapproachable .
The solution was simple. Only through fencing and policing the grounds could the moral and physical health of the community be improved.
In point of fact, the poor state of the common was the responsibility of the Duchy of Cornwall. As the flow of aristocracy and gentry had dwindled to the area in the early nineteenth century, the Prince of Wales had invested little in Kennington Common . However, the issue over responsibility and the rights of the common were generally ignored in the discussions. The desire to limit dissent, coupled with the urge to improve and sanitize public spaces, trumped traditional rights. The masses were pushed aside by the converging interests of the state, church, and middle classes.
Oliver Davis wrote to the Prince of Wales in 1851, requesting that the commons be converted into a park . The response was positive, but because the 200 copyholders who had a variety of rights on the common were reluctant to give them up, the parish had to appeal to Parliament. Lord John Manners – a Tory MP, who considered infidelity, Chartism, and communism to be related – led the effort to enclose the land and designate it as a park . This was a way around the rights to the common and effectively wiped the slate clean for the Prince of Wales to do with the land as he pleased 
While there was a façade of community engagement in plans for the new park, public input was limited. At one meeting, the churchwarden of St. Mark’s, Mr. Taylor, flat out rejected an idea from a parishioner who suggested putting a bath and washhouses on the former common land. Taylor said that a public building of that sort would not be allowed. Instead, he suggested a new vestry hall .
Building the park took place quite quickly from 1852-53. Queen Victoria’s Commissioners of Woods, Works, and Public Building surrounded it with six-foot iron palisading to control foot traffic during day and night. They planted grass, trees, and shrubberies. Oval walks and tree-lined pathways were complemented by a gymnasium . It was a model Victorian park – a perfect example of a public space created to meet the desires of moderate, middle-class residents.
On the one hand, it provided an open recreational green space that improved the health of urban residents. The fresh air and pleasant walks were a change from the piles of fetid garbage that critics claimed were as high as Mt. Olympus. On the other hand, the park was structured to limit the moral and political excesses formerly associated with Kennington Common. Both the park-keeper and local constabulary patrolled the park. They could ban, or even arrest, political agitators and sex workers.
Violent sports and fairs disappeared. Temperance-minded moralists saw them as the morally corrupt enjoyments of the working classes. Physically and conceptually, the park became walled-off from the community-at-large. In 1848 150,000 people could converge on Kennington Common to protest political inequity. The gates and fences in the new park prevented any repeat of this event. By limiting the use of the park to activities approved by the monarch’s representatives, the regime put an end to a number of public events – many of which in previous centuries had allowed workers and wealthier citizens to participate in shared cultural customs and traditions.
In the name of cleaning up the city for the public’s benefit, the creation of Kennington Park in 1852 necessarily destroyed customary rights and curtailed the freedoms of speech and right of assembly. The new urban space did not serve the interests of all. Rather it functioned to benefit the state, church, and moderate middle classes. In the name of the public good, in fact, the voices and interests of most of the public – the working classes in particular – were pushed aside. As if to drive this point home, Prince Albert became directly involved with Kennington Park in 1852.
Prince Albert was the President of the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes (SICLC). For the Crystal Palace exhibition of the previous year – an exhibition that was meant to show off the technological and artisanal creativity of the nation – SICLC built two model working-class cottages. The concept was to create low-cost, sanitary housing for workers throughout Britain. Albert had worked closely with the architect Henry Roberts on their design. Originally displayed in Hyde Park, in 1852 he had them removed and placed at the gates of the new Kennington Park. Two attendants lived in one of the cottages, and the other was turned into ‘a Museum for Articles relating to Cottage economy to which the public may be admitted’.
Very few of these cottages were ever built for workers. And, placed at the entrance of Kennington Common, they served as symbols – not for how Britain was, but as it could be. They showed a largely middle-class audience an imagined world of workers who were healthy, happy, moral, and domestic. With the park, the cottages imposed an ideal of proper living on the working classes – even as the park functioned to erode their customs and traditions and to deny them of the political rights of assembly, speech, and the franchise.
The history of Kennington Park provides an object lesson for twenty-first century activists and their supporters – especially those who, such as the Occupy protestors, wish to use public space to exercise their democratic rights.
Parks in both Britain and the United States are still maintained and regulated according to the expectations of a Victorian society. Curfews, fences, rangers, and police all exist to preserve a certain kind of civil order – one that seeks to minimize crime to person and property while preserving health standards and moral codes. For the most part, citizens, including those who wish to use parks to protest, appreciate the safe and clean open spaces for which the laws legislate. However, it should be remembered that modern, urban green spaces emerged from attempts by a number of powerful institutions to control society. Calls for civility, sanitation, and order have been and continue to be used to stifle dissent.
Those who have occupied, or attempted to occupy, public spaces and parks in recent weeks have met with a panoply of reasons why they cannot gather together. Commentators and critics have accused the Occupy movement of an upsurge in crime, fire code violations, and unsanitary conditions. Increasingly, cities have met protestors with brute force. Pepper spray, tear gas, riot gear, and armed officers have provoked resistance in a number of locales. The center of media attention has most recently been on Oakland, CA where, on 25 October, police fractured Scott Olsen’s skull with a rubber bullet. In Oakland, protestors called for a general strike on 2 November. Police have made mass arrests in Nashville, TN, Denver, CO and Portland, OR while officers in Richmond, VA and Albuquerque, NM have cleared out protestors.
Police brutality speaks for itself, but the soft power of bureaucratic red tape is more insidious – and every bit as effective at controlling activists. In Philadelphia, a city where the police force and magistracy seem to have been conflicted about how to handle the protests, the dialogue between police, government, and protestors has been cordial – at least on the surface. The city’s stated commitment to first amendment rights implies that it does not plan to use force against its citizens. But, in cities such as Philadelphia, protestors and supporters must remain vigilant. There are many ways to deny the citizenry of their right to continuous assembly.
A letter from Philadelphia’s Deputy Mayor for Administration and Coordination, Richard Negrin, to Occupy Philly from 11 October represents some of the hurdles facing the Occupy movement . After outlining some basic codes of conduct for protestors, including the necessity of staying twenty feet from City Hall and hiring portable toilets, the letter accused Occupy Philly of ‘public urination, litter and several acts of graffiti . . . captured in photos’. It continues by suggesting that protestors can expect to be moved in the near future. Dilworth Plaza, where the protestors are currently camped, will soon become a construction site, forcing them to vacate. It seems that if safety and health codes do not give the city an excuse to remove protestors, a new public works project will. And, more recent debates on local radio stations reveal that there is an effort to paint Occupy Philly as a drain on city resources – the cost of the extra police is exorbitant, so the explanation goes. This charge is clearly aimed at undermining public support during a time of economic crisis  And, it is yet another excuse that city officials can give to disband the group.
Philadelphia is not alone. In New York, safety concerns prompted the city to remove generators from Occupy Wall Street – even as a snowstorm bore down on the area. In London, protestors outside of St. Paul’s cathedral may soon receive notice from the Corporation of London that they are in violation of the Highways Act. Claiming that protestors are blocking the thoroughfare, legislation and the courts may be used to eject occupiers.
Using arguments about public safety and health is an effective ploy. They appeal to a general expectation that public spaces should be quiet, peaceful, and convenient – essentially green spaces that are more like Kennington Park than Kennington Common. By turning the public debate to matters of procedures and park rules, anti-Occupy groups can justify the removal of protestors while ignoring their calls for reform. They can rely on the fact that well-meaning citizens will forget that the laws they are enforcing are the consequence of a long-term historical move to stifle dissent – and with it the rights of free speech and assembly.
Wall street, corporations, and banks – those whom the protestors are critiquing – have little need to participate in the same spaces. They have the resources to both influence politics and to make their positions known through the media. They have no need for messy debates in public parks. And, they can rest assured that the citizenry’s freedoms of assembly and speech will eventually be curtailed by regulations originally created to control public space.
It is here – at the point where rights and regulations butt up against each other – where those who back the protestors can make a difference. They can ask critical questions about their local governments’ response. They can call their mayor’s offices, police chiefs, and fire departments to vocalize their support. They can remind their fellow citizens that well-meaning demands for health and safety can be a cover for suppressing dissent. The protestors also want health and safety – perhaps more than any of the people involved. It is, after all, their own health and safety that they are risking.
Citizens must demand that governments protect their constitutional rights with at least as much creativity and determination as they give to regulating public parks.
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Richard Negron and Jazelle Jones to Jodi Dodd and Occupy Philly, ‘Public Safety Risks’, October 11, 2011, http://pastebin.com/bwFZSRAf.
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