Summary The English Digger movement had its antecedents in earlier times of hunger and unrest.
Even the term Diggers seems to have some historical antecedents in English history. The economic conditions of 1648-50 were especially harsh in England for the lower classes, the poor, aged and sick. Many had suffered during the Civil Wars. Many people had lost their businesses, their jobs, and even their livelihood. Sever weather conditions impacted a low crop production. The rising cost of food stuffs affected almost everyone to some degree, or another. The hardest hit were the common folk, and the poor who often did not have enough where with all to even keep themselves fed. Small campsites began to populate the ancient Common Land across England. Small agricultural communities began to cultivate the public lands to grow food. The poor were going hungry, and the Common Land was there for the taking as in the past memories. The early history of the Digger movement from 1648-50 is still somewhat sketchy due to the dispersed nature of the groups. There may be some evidence to suggest that some of these local early Digger communities may have received some assistance from some members of the Leveller movement. There is little evidence to suggest any centralized organized coordination for the general Digger movement. There does seems to have been very informal relations between certain communities during 1648-50 for mutual support, and assistance. There is good data to support the establishment of Digger communities at the following sites during 1648-50: Dunstable (Bedfordshire), Iver (Buckinhhamshire), Barnet (Hamptonshire), Cox Hill (Kent?), Bosworth (Leicestershire), Entfield (Middlesex), Wellingborough (Northamptonshire). And there is also good reason to suspect communities in Gloucestershire and Nottinghamshire too. Communities at Buckinghamshire were known from Dec. 1648 with the publication of the tract:Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. In March 1649 there was published: More
Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. Other Digger communities would soon develop throughout England during the period of severe weather from 1648-50. During 1650, there would seem to have been a general decline in the general activity of the movement possibly due to the experiences at Cobham in Surrey. The winter of 1649/50 was one of the worst English Winters on record, and which carried on well into the early Spring of 1650. Unemployment was still very high, food was scarce and expensive where available, some areas bordered on possible riots for lack of food. People were sick and dying throughout the country. Parliament was trying to cope with the conditions as best it could under the circumstances. It was these environmental conditions during 1648-50 that provided the catalyst for the Digger movement at St, George's Hill.
The English Digger movement had its antecedents in earlier times of hunger and unrest. Even the term Diggers seems to have some historical antecedents in English history.
The economic conditions of 1648-50 were especially harsh in England for the lower classes, the poor, aged and sick. Many had suffered during the Civil Wars. Many people had lost their businesses, their jobs, and even their livelihood. Sever weather conditions impacted a low crop production. The rising cost of food stuffs affected almost everyone to some degree, or another. The hardest hit were the common folk, and the poor who often did not have enough where with all to even keep themselves fed.
Small campsites began to populate the ancient Common Land across England. Small agricultural communities began to cultivate the public lands to grow food. The poor were going hungry, and the Common Land was there for the taking as in the past memories. The early history of the Digger movement from 1648-50 is still somewhat sketchy due to the dispersed nature of the groups. There may be some evidence to suggest that some of these local early Digger communities may have received some assistance from some members of the Leveller movement. There is little evidence to suggest any centralized organized coordination for the general Digger movement. There does seems to have been very informal relations between certain communities during 1648-50 for mutual support, and assistance.
There is good data to support the establishment of Digger communities at the following sites during 1648-50: Dunstable (Bedfordshire), Iver (Buckinhhamshire), Barnet (Hamptonshire), Cox Hill (Kent?), Bosworth (Leicestershire), Entfield (Middlesex), Wellingborough (Northamptonshire). And there is also good reason to suspect communities in Gloucestershire and Nottinghamshire too.
Communities at Buckinghamshire were known from Dec. 1648 with the publication of the tract:Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. In March 1649 there was published: More Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. Other Digger communities would soon develop throughout England during the period of severe weather from 1648-50. During 1650, there would seem to have been a general decline in the general activity of the movement possibly due to the experiences at Cobham in Surrey.
The winter of 1649/50 was one of the worst English Winters on record, and which carried on well into the early Spring of 1650. Unemployment was still very high, food was scarce and expensive where available, some areas bordered on possible riots for lack of food. People were sick and dying throughout the country. Parliament was trying to cope with the conditions as best it could under the circumstances. It was these environmental conditions during 1648-50 that provided the catalyst for the Digger movement at St, George's Hill.
Probably the most famous of the various Digger communities in England were the Surrey Diggers around St George's Hill (Surrey), and again later at Cobham Heath (Surrey), only a short distance away. The early cultivation efforts started at St. George's Hill on 1 April 1649. A small group of locals men were led by a local man, The Reverend
The Rev. William Everard was a graduate of Clare College (Cambridge), an ordained minister, a writer, a former New Model Army radical preacher, and now a local resident near by at Walton-on-Thames. They began to dig on the public lands about St. George's Hill, Surrey. A small encampment of local workers started formed, including the local poor,the hungry and destitute.
Shortly after the digging began on St. George's Hill a nearby neighbor, and a friend of Everard, named
Winstanley had come from a prosperous old Lancaster family. He had been a prosperous merchant tailor in London before the Civil War. Not unlike many other business men of the times, he had lost everything during the Civil War. Winstanley was now reduced to herding livestock while living nearby with his wife's relatives at Cobham, Surrey.
Winstanley was an intelligent, and educated man without much formal university education. By 1648, Winstanley had begun to write some religious and social pamphlets on his observations of the day. Winstanley had a unique philosophical train of mind which showed in his early writings.
With the publication of his tract: The New Law of Righteousness (1649), Winstanley outlined his own vision of a new reformed social order for England. Winstanley would credits his inspiration from a insight that had came to him,"Work together, Eat bread together".
Winstanley works postulated a new reformed democratic society of the "common man" as opposed to the current post-Civil War society still based on privilege and wealth. Many of the political, economic and social reforms that he advocated would have dramatically impacted the social order of the Nation, if enacted. Winstanley had a primary concern for the plight for those at the lower rungs of English Society,the overlooked, or forgotten man. The poor, the sick, the hungry, and the destitute who often did not scrape by or were simply left to die. Winstanley expressed his own views on the distribution of the wealth in the nation.
The Digger experiment at St George's Hill would provided an ideal forum for Winstanley to test out his new social philosophy. Winstanley rejected the concept of private ownership of all land, and called for a peaceful return of all public lands to the People. Some have even characterized the Surrey Diggers' experiment as a primitive Millennium movement. Later generations have simply called the Winstanley social experiment an early form of Communism.
Soon after the local campsite appeared, elements of the local wealthy and prosperous landowners and farmers were now asserting their own claims for these same Commons Lands for grazing and fodder for their livestock. The problem was simple, the resident Diggers would not wish to leave ther crops on St. George's Hill to the local farmers to feed their livestock.
On 20 March 1649, the basic case for the Digger's was presented in the manifesto:The True Leveller Standard Advanced: or, The State of Community opened, and Presented to the Sons of Men(1649). There were fifteen signatures listed on the title page of the document, including Everard and Winstanley. Winstanley is usually credited as the principal author, with some possible assistance from The Rev. Everard. Both Everard and Winstanley were shortly required to appeared before the Lieutenant-General Oliver Cromwell, and the General,Lord Fairfax. Nine days were spent answering their questioning concerning their social, and political views.
During the month of April 1649, the St. George Hill community suffered some physically attack, and some buildings were burned by thugs. The general consensus of opinion at the tyme were that paid had probably been hired by the local landowners to frighten, and disband its community. By 16 April, local officials were receiving repeated complaints against the Diggers community at St. George Hill, mostly likely from from the local farmers and land owners. On 19 April, a detachment of soldiers under the command of a Captain
Everard and Winstanley were again instructed to meet with Lt.General Cromwell and, General, Lord Fairfax at Whitehall (London) on the morrow. St. George's Hill was becoming a local problem. By 23 April 1649 there were some fifty individuals active in tilling the soil, with a small community of the local workers tilling the soil, and their families.
Winstanley was gradually becoming the "first among equals" at St George's Hill. Sometime during early May 1649, The Rev. William Everard seems to have abruptly taken his leave of the St. George's Hill community. The Rev. Everard may not have appreciated the formal questioning being associated with St. George's Hill by General, Lord Fairfax, and General Cromwell. Later there were some suspicions expressed that Everard may have had some associated with the Burford Mutiny, and simply wanted to disappear from view.
On 10 May 1649, some eight regiments of the New Model Army had resembled at Burford, Oxfordshire demanding reparations of their back pay, and possibly showing their own support for the Levellers movement currently under attack. Regiments were dispatched under the joint military command of General,Lord Fairfax, and Lieutenant-General Oliver Cromwell to put down uprising. There were reports of large disaffection's before the battle. Unwilling to disband, the remaining Mobile Army attacked the forces under General,Lord Fairfax. Lord Fairfax and his troops won the day. There were also reports that many of the troops escaped during the fighting, but were not actively pursued by Lord Fairfax's troops. The mutinous leaders were arrested and put on trial, many of the captured troops were put on trial. A major uprising within a small faction of New Model Army was put down, and many placed under arrest.
Mr. Winstanley soon found himself in a major leadership roll at St. George's Hill. During the period from May 22-29, the Diggers, their crops and buildings suffered additional attacks by various locals, thugs, and possible paid malicious soldiers. On 26 May 1649, the General, Lord Fairfax came and visited the community at St George's Hill for himself. He basically described the situation as a local civil dispute.
At the beginning of June,1649, Winstanley issued his pamphlet A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England(1649). In it Winstanley would asserted the right to fell the trees on the common lands for the benefit of the locals, and and to deny access to all others. Wood was a scarce commodity, and expensive if found.
The Ancient English tradition of Commonage date from the early Medieval period. It was not uncommon for certain tracts of privately owned lands were set aside, and were designated to be held in the public trust for the common folk of a given community. Certain rules, regulations, and restrictions were established by common traditions, and later by statutes. This Common Land available for access by the local community. Certain common restricts of usage were establish and were commonly applied across the kingdom by common law, or arrest.An early tradition was the use of the Common Land for the pasturing of livestock, or the gathering of firewood. The size of these Common Lands might vary in size from a few acres to large tracts of land such as St. George's Hill in Surrey.
Since the land was held in common trust certain restrictions were place of the use of the land for the benefit of all.
Many of these same Common Lands were often wooded areas which were beneficial of grazing livestock. By tradition the gathering of "fire wood" usually from old dead tree was a common practice. But it was considered a major crime to fell any living trees on the Common Land. The trees were on the Common Land, and were therefore the joint property in trust to all of the folk. Otherwise individuals might try a profit by felling trees for lumber, or fire wood. This was always a potential problem for outsiders who might wish to make a profit.
When Winstanley issued his work A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England (1649). His claim to fell the trees on the Common Land for the local good of the folk at St. George's Hill was a violation the ancient principals of Commonage. He claims the right to fell the trees for the "common good" of his own people, and to the exclusion of all others on the Common Lands. There was active criticism of this pamphlet, and its social message.
On June 11th, a group of individuals disguised as women would attacked the Digger community and attacked four of its members. They were presumed to have been hired thugs, paid by the local land owners. The incident is related in Winstanley's workA Declaration of the Bloudie and Unchristian Acting of William Star and John Taylor (1649). Winstanley raised this event to General, Lord Fairfax in A Letter to Lord Fairfax (1649).
About the 23rd of June, members of the Surrey Diggers community were again arrested and charged with trespassing. Winstanley expressed his ire in the work of July 11th: An Appeal to the House of Commons, desiring their answer; whether the Common-People shall have the quiet enjoyment of the Commons and Waste Lands; Or whether they shall be under the will of Lords of Manors still (1649), an appeal against the undue influence of the local gentry and other wealth land owners.
It was becoming a regular practice for the Surrey Diggers to be arrest and fined by the local authorities for "e;trespassing"e; and would than to have them removed from the property in question. The Surrey Diggers were grudgingly tolerated at the local level until the wealthy land owners became involved. When the local gentry brought their political and economic pressure to bear o on the local authorities, the Diggers community St George's Hill, Surrey their position started to wane. Even the local parish clergy even preached against them in their own local parishes.
During July-August 1649, the Surrey Diggers adopted a new tactical ploy , they simply packed up and moved their community a mile or so to the Cobham Heath on the commons of Cobham Manor. They numbered about fifty individuals with their belongings. They started where they had left off on St George's Hill: tilling, planting and building shelter for their new community with a harsh winter ahead of them.
On August 26th, Winstanley published: A Watch-word to the City of London and the Armie (1649). Winstanley makes a basic plea of support to the City of London that Freedom is won not just given and extols the general populace to take action in their own behalf.
In October 1649, the local authorities were endeavoring oust the Diggers from the Cobham Heath Common Land. In November 1649, a detachment of soldiers were dispatched to Cobham Heath to give assistance to the local Justices of Peace.
In December 1649, Winstanley was again before General, Lord Fairfax in Whitehall (London) for questioning. Winstanley published another work on 1 Jan. 1650: New-Yeers Gift for the Parliament and Armie (1649) basically as an overview of the progress and setbacks of the Surrey Diggers during the year of 1649.
The winter of 1649-50 was very harsh, but their crops were doing well on Cobham Heath. Their community was active with some eleven acres under cultivation with some six or seven shelters. Local pressure continued into the early Spring 1650, and the remaining community became hard put to maintain itself. There was some encouraging news that other Digger communities had developed and were doing well in other parts of England. A letter was sent out by the Surrey Diggers requesting financial assistance from among the other Digger communities.
Legal actions were still being directed against the Diggers at Cobham Heath as at St. George's Hill. Winstanley published his next work: An Appeale to all Englishmen, to judge Between Bondage and Freedom, sent from those that began to Digge Uppon George Hill in Surrey, , but now are carrying on that Publick work upon the the little Heath, in the Parish of Cobham, near unto George's Hill, ... (1650) for needed assistance.
The State government was becoming concerned with the radical social views of Winstanley, and his writings. In response to the continuing protests from the local land owners and authorities, a small military detachment was dispatched to Cobham Heath in March 1650.
With pending legal actions against the Surrey Diggers, and their diminishing financial resources, the Surrey Diggers quietly disbanded their community. By July of 1650, the former Surrey Diggers residents were just a memory at Cobham Heath in Surrey. There is little information of the disposition of those that left Cobham Heath in July 1650, including Gerrard Winstanley.
As a social-economic movement, the Surrey Diggers struck at the heart of the privileged society and its fear of new a growing middle class of common people. Without any political or economic support from the community at large for their social cause, the Surrey Diggers quickly vanished from the landscape by the powers that be.
The larger Digger movement did demonstrate a basic need of the people to act together to fend for themselves in times of common hardships. It also showed the grit of the new growing English character.
The Leveller leadership actually disavowed any support for or relationship with the Surrey Diggers in 1650. The Surrey Diggers would become target for radical social reforms then even the Leveller Movement was willing to associate itself with.
A full picture of Gerrard Winstanley's personal life still has many blanks spots before St George's Hill, and after Cobham Heath. The time period from 1643-1648 is still sketchy. There are some rumors that Winstanley may have even acted as an itinerant preacher with Baptist leanings for a period.
After 1650 there is much speculation on his movements. Some have suggest that he may have continued to reside in the Cobham area of Surrey. Some have suggested that Winstanley may have involved himself with other Digger communities after Cobham Heath. Some have suggested that Winstanley may have been able to improved his financial situation after the Restoration (1660).
Winstanley's own radical vision of a new society died a quite death in Surrey, but his writings and their message have not. Although only a small movement unto themselves in a much larger context of the Interregnum, the Surrey Diggers were sometimes referred to as the "True Levellers" for their broader social democratic vision of a new society of the common man.
Along with the Levellers, Winstanley and the Surrey Diggers struck a symbolic blow at the halls of wealth and power of 16th century English society. Their efforts and their philosophy were not wasted on later generations seeking the same spirit of liberty and freedom in a more democratic social structure. These groups left behind an amazing vision from the Seventeenth Century England.
A SELECT DIGGERS BIBLIOGRAPHY
[Anon.] A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, or A Discovery of the Main Ground, Original Causw of all Slavery in the World but Chiefly in England: Presented by way of a Declaration of many of the Wel-affected in that County, to all their Poore Oppressed Country men of England, &c. (1648)
[Anon.] A Declaration of the Wel-affected in the County of Buckinghamshire (1649); [Wing D776]
[Anon.] More Light Shining in in Buckingham-shire (1649)
[Anon.] Speeches of Lord General Fairfax and the Officers of the Armie to the Diggers at St. Georges Hill in Surrey and the Diggers several Answers and Replies Thereunto (1649)
[Anon.] The Declaration and Standard of the Levellers of England, Delivered in a Speech to His Excellency the Lord Gen. Fairfax, on Friday last at White-Hall, by Mr. William Everard, a Late Member of the Army, and his Prophesie in Reference thereunto ... (1650)
[Anon.] A Declaration of the Bloudie and Unchristian Acting of William Star and John Taylor of Walton, vvith divers men in Women's Apparell, in Opposition to those that dig upon George-Hill in Surrey (1649); [Thomason Tracts; 86:E.561(6)] [Wing (2nd ed.) D644] [ESTCR206011 ]
[Anon.] No Age like unto the Age (1649)
Coster, Robert. The Diggers Mirth, or, Certain Verses Composed and Fitted to Tunes, for the Delight and Recreation of all those that dig, or own that work, in the Commonwealth of England (1650); [Thomason Tracts; 179:E.1365(3) ] [Wing (2nd ed.) C6366A ] [ESTCR209239]
Everard, William, [1575?-165?] et al. The True Leveller Standard Advanced, or the State of Community Opened and Presented to the Sons of Man. By William Everard, Iohn Palmer, Iohn South, Iohn Courton. William Taylor, Christopher Clifford, Iohn Barker,Gerrard Winstanley, Richard Goodgroome, Thomas Starre, William Hoggrill, Robert Sawyer, Thomas Eder, Henry Bickerstaffe, Ihon Tayler, &c. Beginning to Plante and Manure the Waster land upon George-Hill, in the Parish of Walton, in the county of Surrey.  [Thomason Tracts; 85:E.552(5)] [Wing (2nd ed.) T2716] [ESTCR205713]
[Fairfax, Lord] The Speeches of the Lord Generall Fairfax, and the Officers of the Armie to the Diggers (1649)
Heard, Jacob, [fl. 1650], et al. A Letter Taken at Wellingborough (1650)
Smith, Richard, [fl.1650]. A Declaration of the Grounds and Reasons why we the Poor Inhabitants of the Town of VVellingborrow, in the County of Northampton, have begun and give Consent to dig up, Manure and sow corn upon the Common, and Waste Ground called Bareshanke, ... (1650); [Thomason Tracts; E.669.f.15(21)] [Wing (2nd ed.) D685] [ESTCR211361 ]
Winstanley, Gerrard [1609?-1660?]. An Appeal to the House of Commons, Desiring their Ansvver vvhether the Common-people shall have the quite Enjoyment of the Commons and Waste Land; ... (1649); [Wing W3040] [ESTCR204110]
______. The Breaking of the day of God. Wherein , four things are Manifested... (1649); [Wing W3042]
______. A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England, ... (1649); [Wing D595]
______. A VVatch-vvord to the City of London, and the Armie wherein you may see that Englands Freedome, which should be the result of all our Victories, is Sinking Deeper under the Norman power, ... (1649); [Thomason Tracts; 88:E.573(1)] [Wing (2nd ed.) W3057] [ESTCR206174]
______, A Letter to the Lord Fairfax, and his Councell of VVar, with Divers Questions to the Lawyers, and Ministers proving it an Undeniable equity, that the Common people ought to dig, plow, plant, and Dwell upon the Commons, without hiring them, or paying rent to any... (1649); [Thomason Tracts; 86:E.560(10 ] [Wing W3046] [ESTCR204419 ]
[_____],A Declaration to the powers of England,... (1649); [ Attributed?]
______, The Diggers Song (1649)
______, A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England (1649)
______,The New Law of Righteousness Budding Forth, in Restoring the Whole Creation from the Bondage of the Curse. Or a glimpse of the new heaven, and new earth, wherein dwels Righteouness, ... (1649); [EEb, 1641-1700; 2068:28 ] [Wing (2nd ed.) W3049 ] [ESTCR219016 ]
______, An appeale to all Englishmen, to judge between bondage and freedom, sent from those that began to digge uppon George Hill in Surrey,but now are carrying on that publick work upon the the little heath, in the parish of Cobham, near unto George Hill, ... (1650); [Wing (2nd ed.) W3039] [ESTCR211372 ]
______, [Another ed.] (1650); [Thomason Tracts; 246:669.f.15(32) ] [ESTCR211368 ]
______, A New-Yeers Gift for the Parliament and Armie Shewing what the Kingly Power is, and that the cause of those that are called Diggers is the life and marrow of that cause the Parliament hath Declared for, and the Army fought for, ... (1650); [Thomason Tracts: 90; E.587(6)] [Wing (2nd ed.) W3050] [ESTCR206278]
______, Fire in the bush. The spirit burning, not consuming, but purging mankinde. ... (1650); [EEb, !641-1700; 804:17]][Thomason Tracts; 179:E.1365(1); 255:C.124hl(1)][Wing W3043] [ESTCR12363 ]
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