The Diggers, also known as the True Levellers, were a 17th century British political movement involved in setting up communities by squatting uncultivated common land. Diggers are first mentioned in connection with the Midlands rising against enclosures in 1607, and the Digger movement can be seen as the culmination of many decades of unauthorised squatting in forests and uncultivated areas by the poor and the landless.
The Diggers believed that political freedom was impossible without economic equality, and that that meant abolishing wage labour and private property. They were against the enclosure of common land by rich individuals and supported the poor commoners who had traditional rights in commons and forests. They believed that if poor people could take over and farm the wastes and commons there was enough land for ten times the existing population. They were willing to use direct action to achieve this, and tried to cultivate unused land as communal groups. They hoped that poor people everywhere would follow their example. They wanted the earth to be “a common treasury of livelihood to whole mankind”.(Winstanley)
At St. George’s Hill, the Diggers planted corn, beans, carrots and parsnips. These were the usual staple crops of the day. In the coming years, the widespread use of such crops also for animal fodder meant an increase in livestock holding throughout winter rather than slaughter of many of the animals. An increase in the number of animals meant an increase in the ammount of manure available for the fertilisation of arable land. This, in turn, meant an increase in the quantity of food for people, and, in particular, for the urban inhabitants of Britain who had no access to the land. These were the people who were to become the urban proletariat.
Winstanley placed great emphasis on manuring the fields, as well as on bringing new land under the plough. It is possible that agriculture as proposed by Winstanley and practised by the Diggers could have been a viable alternative to the enclosure and capitalist expansion of agriculture which in fact took place. This would have meant much less disruption of the existing rural society with its commons and commoners.
The most famous Digger community was at St. George’s Hill in the parish of Walton-on-Thames in Surrey. This existed from 1st April 1649 until August 1649, when they moved to Cobham Heath, a mile or so away. The group survived the winter but were victims of repression the whole time. In April 1650, their huts and furniture were burned, and the community was broken up. By the start of 1650 other Digger communities had come into being. Documented Digger communities were at Cox Hall in Kent, Barnet in Hertfordshire, Enfield in Middlesex, Dunstable in Bedfordshire, Bosworth in Leicestershire, Wellingborough in Northamptonshire and Iver in Buckinghamshire. Digger communities also existed at unknown sites in Nottinghamshire and Gloucestershire. There were also many sympathisers.
One of the most famous of the Diggers was Gerrard Winstanley. He was the author of some of their manifestos and pamphlets, including “The True Levellers Standard Advanced” and “A Declaration from the Poor oppressed People of England”.
“Winstanley – The Law of Freedom and other Writings” Edited by Christopher Hill, Pelican Classics, 1973. Introduction by C.Hill.
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