Monday, 20 May 2013

The Diggers

This 1985 song, The World Turned Upside Down, sung here by Billy Bragg and written ten years earlier by folkie Leon Rosselson, is one that, being a socialist, I've long enjoyed the sentiments of yet I've only ever had the scantest of understanding about what actually inspired it.

I decided to properly rectify that today and learnt that its basis is very close to home to me, namely in the neighbouring town of Wigan.

The song is about a 17th century egalitarian movement known as The Diggers or The True Levellers who represented the voice of the common people and believed that the land should belong to every person to work upon to sustain their own self by the sweat of their brow. In short, as the song says, 'The earth was made to be a common treasury for all'

It was in 1649 that a man called Gerrard Winstanley led his group made up of poor families with no land of their own -  and thereby nothing to sustain themselves with - to unused common land at St George's Hill, Surrey where they proceeded to farm it and live off it. From there he began to produce pamphlets of his writing, explaining his agrarian socialist beliefs and his desire to reform social order and create and give power to rural communities who believed in equality. 

However their occupation of the free land soon incensed local landowners such as Francis Drake (not the Francis Drake of The Armada I hasten to add) and following his petitioning of the government on this matter, Cromwell's New Model Army, headed up by Sir Thomas Fairfax, arrived to intervene 

Unfortunately for Drake, Fairfax found The Diggers harmless and suggested he take his concerns to the courts. Not to be defeated, Drake did just that, but also used underhand methods such as employing gangs to attack St George's Hill and Winstanley's comrades doling out beatings and committing arson on the communal houses.  

When the case arrived at court, The Diggers were forbidden from voicing their own defence and sentenced as Ranters, a radical sect practicing liberal sexuality. The court case was subsequently found in Drake and his fellow landowners favour and The Diggers were told to leave their land or face forcible eviction from the army.

The Diggers left St George's Hill in August of 1649, but took their methods and ideology to Little Heath, Near Cobham where they cultivated 11 acres and set up home. They were soon met with further hostility and forced out in April the following year.

But their influence was beginning to be felt in other areas and similar settlements sprung up in Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire, and by the 1960s the notion had travelled across the Atlantic  to San Francisco where a group calling themselves The San Francisco Diggers gave away for free food, stock, medical aid, transport and housing. Winstanley's beliefs and actions continue to be felt in the present day, a precursor to squatting, self suffiency and communalism. I would certainly argue that, given the current climate, his views are just as valid today as they were in 1649 and may even become more valid if the economy continues its downfall.

Art by Erik Ruin

Reading up on Winstanley today I learnt that he was born in Wigan in 1609. I'm surprised that such a key local figure never figured in my education at school. We did The Tolpuddle Martyrs, but not to my recollection The Diggers. I wonder why?

From Wigan Winstanley moved South in 1630 and worked the land for himself reasonably successfully for three years until the outbreak of Civil War and the abuse of power from government and King ruined him, leading him to become bankrupt in 1643. It is believed that the seeds of Winstanley's work were sown by his experiences in Wigan and the success of the coal and clay workers who had previously won the right to dig up common land to protect their livelihood; an action that many believe makes Wigan the natural home of British socialism. As such local groups in Wigan have formulated a yearly Wigan Diggers Festival to celebrate the life work and ideology of their famous son. 

Amazing what you can learn from a song isn't it?

For more info please look at the following; 


  1. That was really interesting.

    I love songs with stories, you can learn some fascinating facts that way. :-)

    1. Thanks, yes isn't it/don't you just? I'm definitely going to head to the next Diggers Festival in Wigan given the chance.

      There's even a film of Winstanley's life on youtube in 3 parts 'Levellers, True Levellers and the Diggers of 1649' Though the actor playing Winstanley is very posh, hardly Northern!