Michael Wood has been at the heart of some excellent history television programmes for over thirty years. His latest project, The Great British Story: a People’s History, developed from The Story of England which told the history of the country from the viewpoint of one community. Last week at The Lightbox in Woking I saw an extract from a forthcoming episode of the new series during a talk about one of my historical heroes.
Not enough people have heard of him although in some circles he is, or has been, thought of very highly. In Moscow there is a monument, one of the earliest to be set up in Soviet Russia, to commemorate ‘outstanding thinkers and fighters for the emancipation of the working people’.1 It has the names of only nineteen people, and alongside Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx, Charles Fourier and Thomas More is listed one Gerrard Winstanley.
The English Revolution of the mid-seventeenth century led to the beheading of Charles I and the setting up of a theocratic republic: a time of great turmoil, some thinking that Judgement Day was approaching – Christopher Hill’s excellent book on the period is called The World Turned Upside Down. A number of religious sects came into being at the time, many of them with rather odd names – the Ranters, Muddlers, Levellers, Quakers, Muggletonians, and the Diggers.
Winstanley has been the subject of an eponymous film by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, based on a novel (Comrade Jacob) by David Caute, a song by Billy Bragg, as well as many many books and academic articles, and was quoted in a speech by Gordon Brown:
‘Call it as Abraham Lincoln did – the better angels of our nature; call it as Gerrard Winstanley did – the light in man; call it as Adam Smith did – the moral sentiment; call it benevolence, as the Victorians did; virtue; the claim of justice; doing one’s duty. Or call it as Pope Paul VI did – “the good of each and all”.’2
I think most historians would agree that Winstanley was a communist: he described private property as ‘the curse and burden the creation groans under’. I think he was also an anarchist, but he was also a very religious man who thought God was to be found as a light within each person.
In an early example of Direct Action he and his followers occupied part of St George’s Hill in Surrey, built shelters and tilled the soil with the intention of producing food. They were eventually violently harassed and forced to move on, going to Little Heath in Cobham where they had slightly more success, but were again eventually, and very violently, evicted.
It was a relatively small action by a few people lasting a short period of time, but it is still seen by many as a defining moment in British politics, Winstanley is a hero of the Left even now, and his thoughts are there for us in his writings, now available (at a price) as his Complete Works. Apparently the Lennon line ‘there’s nothing you can do that can’t be done’ refers to him.
There’s a plaque in his memory in Cobham Church, there is a Diggers Trail, consisting of a number of information boards in various parts of Elmbridge Borough, as well as a monument to Winstanley near Weybridge Station (as well as in Moscow). This was placed on St George’s Hill during a more recent occupation, but removed at the same time as the occupiers and subsequently placed in its present position.
It’s ironic that St George’s Hill is now one of the (if not the) most exclusive private estates in the country, gated with private security guards restricting access (there’s an account of Iain Sinclair’s foray into the estate in his excellent London Orbital).
In Cobham there is a mural depicting Winstanley – theological libertarian, ur-communist and advocate of the redistribution of wealth, believer in fairness for all, hater of greed and duplicity. It’s on the side of Barclays Bank.
The best book I have found specifically on the Diggers is John Gurney’s Brave Community: The Digger Movement in the English Revolution, just recently, and at last, reissued in paperback; Gurney also has a biography of Winstanley due out in the autumn. Winstanley and the Diggers, 1649-1999 edited by Andrew Bradstock is also excellent, although being a series of conference papers is uneven and quite dry reading in parts. Weybridge Museum sells Gerrard Winstanley in Elmbridge by David C Taylor, which is a useful short introduction to the subject.