Between the 16th and 19th centuries much of England’s open land and commons were enclosed, often bought by rich landowners for house-building as the population began to expand. Although people had customary commonable rights, common land was generally not land held in common but was privately owned, frequently by the successors of the Norman Lord of the Manor. Often, rights of common were part of an unwritten social contract carrying little legal weight. This enclosure did not happen without protest - in 1607 thousands of landless country folk in the midlands fought pitched battles against the militia, destroying fences and breaking open land that had been inclosed. Out of these rebellions grew the Diggers and the Leveller movement, important in the English Civil War.
With industrialisation, agriculture became less important in the economy. By the mid-19th century, for the first time in England’s history there were more people working in non-agricultural pursuits than worked on the land. London grew rapidly and pressure over large areas of surrounding woodland, heath and marshland increased. The expansion of the railways began a building boom in the suburbs. Many commons, woods and fields around the city disappeared under new housing estates.
In 1845, the General Inclosure Act stated that two-thirds of commoners had to agree to a common being enclosed, thus allowing many green open spaces to be saved. Across outer London, gatherings of thousands to protest and the smashing of fences by hundreds of people were frequent throughout the second half of the 19th century. There were mass meetings and even riots as people objected to the enclosure of common land for railway uses; in 1861 the Malicious Damages (Railways) Act was passed - it is still in force today.
William Morris, who was born and brought up in Walthamstow, was instrumental in setting up the Commons Preservation Society in 1865 and in 1866 the Metropolitan Commons Act was passed, protecting land that could be shown to have been the focus of common rights in the past. In the 1870s the Irish-born radical John de Morgan was organising struggles against enclosure of common land (such as Hackney Downs) in and around Hackney, and addressed packed meetings across the capital.
As the 19th century wore on, economic growth and factory reform led to reduced working hours and so people living in the new suburbs had more leisure time to enjoy. Gradually, the resistance to enclosures by rural commoners with traditional rights gave way to struggles by suburban workers for retention of and access to open space for recreation and relaxation.