The new colony:
The Diggers moved here at the end of July or at the start of August 1649. Here they cleared and cultivated about eleven acres of land. They built six houses, and, despite problems, were able to get through the winter and harvest some of the winter crops that they had planted. They also continued their propaganda activities, publishing a number of pamphlets written by Gerrard Winstanley, including “A New Year’s Gift for the Parliament and Army” and “A Vindication of those ….called Diggers“.
Repression 1649 – 1650:
After a short period where they were tolerated, they began to experience some opposition and even repression. On the 24th August, the opponents (gentlemen and rich freeholders) held a meeting at the White Lion public house in Cobham where they organised a boycott of the Digger colony. They were clearly worried that the Digger colony might grow and that they might lose their power and influence in the area. A local landowner who had contracted to sell the Diggers some hay went back on the deal, and sold it to another before Winstanley’s face.
Furthermore, two local lords of the manor, Francis Drake of St. George’s Hill, and Parson Platt of Cobham, had Winstanley arrested for trespass. He was fined 4 pounds. In November 1649, the colony at Cobham was visited by troops, who stood by while the local gentry and some freeholders and poor tenants pulled down the Diggers’ houses, destroyed the Diggers’ tools, trampled crops and beat up the men. Some of the rank and file soldiers seemed sympathetic to the Diggers, and one trooper gave them a donation of a shilling, but the landlords had given their men ten shillings for drinks, so the Diggers got no active protection or support. They gained little or no support from the local poor tenants either. Winstanley believed that the poorer tenants had only taken part in the attacks on them and their property because they were threatened with eviction. He thought that “in their hearts they are Diggers”. By the winter of 1649/1650 the Diggers had big financial problems, and much of what they had planted for the following summer (wheat and rye) had been destroyed. Their houses had been destroyed and they were living in “little hutches….like calf-cribs”.
A New Years Gift for the Parliament and Army:
It was in this period that the Diggers published this pamphlet written by Winstanley. In it he addressed both the politicians and the military authorities of the Commonwealth which had come into being by an act of parliament on the 19th May 1649. It was in three parts. The first dealt with “kingly power”, and argued that, with the execution of Charles the First, the poor people of England had regained their rights to the land. This freedom was being kept from them by the gentry and by lawyers who had taken over the kingly power. Winstanley also detailed the legal repression and court cases that he had been subjected to, both in Cobham and at St. George’s Hill beforehand. He appealed to the poor tenants and the rank and file of the army to stop supporting the gentry.
The second part, “The Curse and Blessing that is in Mankind”, repeated many of Winstanley’s basic philosophical and political ideas about universal love and reason. It set out a mythical history of mankind and explained how “kingly power” and oppression had come into being. It also described the socio-political situation existing at the time, with gentry enclosing more and more land, and poor people forced to work for wages which were not enough to live on.
The third part was “A bill of account of the most remarkable sufferings that the diggers have met from the great red dragon’s power since April 1, 1649, which was the first day that they began to dig and to take possession of the commons for the poor on George Hill in Surrey” . It clearly details the violence and repression, the attacks on men and their property, that the Diggers had suffered in the previous seven months. Sadly, the repression was to continue.
Attempts to get support:
At the start of 1650, a number of other digger communities had formed, and in the spring, low on food and money, the Diggers at Cobham Heath sent out two members with a letter signed by Winstanley and 21 other members asking for help. They toured through the Home counties and the Midlands, visiting sympathisers and other Digger groups. However, the little financial help that they could get was not enough.
The end of the Surrey Diggers:
The campaign against the second Digger community continued and was eventually successful. In April 1650, a year after their start at St. George’s Hill, the colony was broken up, the huts and the furniture burned. The local population were ordered to refuse the Diggers lodgings, and guards were employed to keep a 24 hour a day watch on the heath to make sure that no Diggers came back.
Christopher Hill’s Introduction to The Law of Freedom and other writings by Gerrard Winstanley. Pelican Classics Edition, 1973.
“A New Years Gift for the Parliament and Army“, Gerrard Winstanley, 1st January 1650. (In “The Law of Freedom and other writings”, Edited by Christopher Hill.)
Wikipedia on the Diggers. (Link below)
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