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Diggers

[dig-er]

The Diggers were an English group, begun by Gerrard Winstanley as True Levellers in 1649, who became known as "Diggers" due to their activities.

Their original name came from their belief in economic equality based upon a specific passage in the Book of Acts. The Diggers attempted to reform (by "levelling" real property) the existing social order with an agrarian lifestyle based upon their ideas for the creation of small egalitarian rural communities. They were one of a number of nonconformist dissenting groups that emerged around this time.

Historical background

The year 1649 was a time of great social unrest in England. The Parliamentary victors of the First English Civil War failed to negotiate a constitutional settlement with the defeated King Charles I. When members of Parliament and the Grandees in the New Model Army were faced with Charles' perceived duplicity, they reluctantly tried and executed him.

Government through the King's Privy Council was replaced with a new body called the Council of State, which due to fundamental disagreements within a weakened Parliament was dominated by the Army. Many people were active in politics, suggesting alternative forms of government to replace the old order. These ranged from Royalists, who wished to place King Charles II on the throne; men like Oliver Cromwell, who wished to govern with a Parliament voted in by an electorate based on property, similar to that which was enfranchised before the civil war; agitators called Levellers, influenced by the writings of John Lilburne, who wanted parliamentary government based on an electorate of every male head of a household; Fifth Monarchy Men, who advocated a theocracy; and the Diggers led by Winstanley, who advocated a more radical solution.

Theory

Winstanley and fourteen others published a pamphlet in which they called themselves the True Levellers to distinguish their ideas from the Levellers. Once they put their idea into practice and started to cultivate common land, they became known as "Diggers" by both opponents and supporters. The Diggers' beliefs were informed by Gerrard Winstanley's writings, which encompassed a worldview that envisioned an ecological interrelationship between humans and nature, acknowledging the inherent connections between people and their surroundings.

An undercurrent of political thought which has run through English society for many generations and resurfaced from time to time (for example, during the Peasants' Revolt in 1381) was present in some of the political factions of the 1600s, including those who formed the Diggers, and held the common belief that England had become subjugated by the "Norman Yoke." This legend offered an explanation that at one time a golden Era had existed in England before the Norman Conquest in 1066. From the conquest on, the Diggers argued, the "common people of England" had been robbed of their birthrights and exploited by a foreign ruling class.

More important was the democratic and anarchist aspect of the Diggers' beliefs. They contended that if only the common people of England would form themselves into self-supporting communes, there would be no place in such a society for the ruling classes. The ruling elite would be forced to join the communes or starve, as there would no longer be anyone left to hire to work their fields or pay rent to them for use of their property.

Practice

St. George's Hill, Weybridge, Surrey

The Council of State received a letter in April 1649 reporting that several individuals had begun to plant vegetables in common land on Saint George's Hill, Weybridge near Cobham, Surrey at a time when food prices reached an all-time high. Sanders reported that they had invited "all to come in and help them, and promise them meat, drink, and clothes." Their intentions were to pull down all enclosures and cause the local populace to come and work with them. They claimed that their number would be several thousand within ten days. "It is feared they have some design in hand." In the same month, the Diggers issued their most famous pamphlet and manifesto, called "The True Levellers Standard Advanced."

At the behest of the local landowners, the commander of the New Model Army, Sir Thomas Fairfax, duly arrived with his troops and interviewed Winstanley and another prominent member of the Diggers, William Everard. Everard was astute enough to see that the Diggers were in serious trouble and soon left the group. Having concluded that they were doing no harm, Fairfax advised the local landowners to use the courts.

Winstanley, however, true to his convictions, remained and complained about the treatment they received. The harassment from the Lord of the Manor, Francis Drake (not the famous Francis Drake, who died more than 50 years before), was both deliberate and systematic: he organised gangs in an attack on the Diggers, including numerous beatings and an arsonous attack on one of the communal houses. Following a court case, in which the Diggers were forbidden to speak in their own defence, they were found guilty of being Ranters, a radical sect associated with liberal sexuality (though in fact Winstanley had reprimanded Ranter Laurence Clarkson for his sexual practices). Having lost the court case, if they had not left the land, then the army could have been used to enforce the law and evict them; so they abandoned St George's Hill in August 1649, much to the relief of the local freeholders.

Little Heath near Cobham, Surrey

Some of the evicted Diggers moved a short distance to Little Heath. Eleven acres (45,000 m²) were cultivated, six houses built, winter crops harvested, and several pamphlets published. After initially expressing some sympathy for them, the local lord of the manor of Cobham, Parson John Platt, became their chief enemy. He used his power to stop local people helping them and he organised attacks on the Diggers and their property. By April 1650, Platt and other local landowners succeeded in driving the Diggers from Little Heath.

Wellingborough, Northamptonshire

There was another community of Diggers close to Wellingborough in Northamptonshire. In 1650, the community published a declaration which started:
A Declaration of the Grounds and Reasons why we the Poor Inhabitants of the Town of Wellingborrow, 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 belonging to the Inhabitants of Wellinborrow, by those that have Subscribed and hundreds more that give Consent....

This colony was probably founded as a result of contact with the Surrey Diggers. In late March 1650 four emissaries from the Surrey colony were arrested in Buckinghamshire bearing a letter signed by the Surrey Diggers including Gerrard Winstanley and Robert Coster inciting people to start Digger colonies and to provide money for the Surrey Diggers. According to the newspaper 'A Perfect Diurnall' the emissaries had travelled a circuit through the counties of Surrey, Middlesex, Herfordshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Huntingdonshire and Northamptonshire before being apprehended (see Keith Thomas, 'Another Digger Broadside' Past and Present No.42, (1969) pp.57-68).

On April 15 1650 the Council of State ordered Mr Pentlow, a justice of the peace for Northamptonshire to proceed against 'the Levellers in those parts' and to have them tried at the next Quarter Session (see Calendar of State Papers, Domestic, 1650 (London, 1876) p.106). The Iver Diggers recorded that, nine of the Wellingborough Diggers were arrested and imprisoned in Northampton jail and although no charges could be proved against them the justice refused to release them.

Captain William Thompson, the leader of the failed "Banbury mutiny," was killed in a skirmish close to the community by soldiers loyal to Oliver Cromwell in May 1649.

Iver, Buckinghamshire

Another colony of Diggers connected to the Surrey and Wellingborough colony was set up in Iver, Buckinghamshire about 14 miles from the Surrey Diggers colony at St George's Hill (see Keith Thomas, 'Another Digger Broadside' Past and Present No.42, (1969) pp.57-68). The Iver Diggers "Declaration of the grounds and Reasons, why we the poor Inhabitants of the Parrish of Iver in Buckinghamshire ... revealed that there were further Digger colonies in Barnet in Hertfordshire, Enfield in Middlesex, Dunstable in Bedfordshire, Bosworth in Gloucestershire and a further colony in Nottinghamshire. It also revealed that after the failure of the Surrey colony the Diggers had left their children to be cared for by parish funds.

End of the movement

The Digger colonies, consisting in all of only about 100–200 people throughout England, were finished by 1651. The collapse of the movement may have been due to the efforts of local landowners backed by the Council of State to crush the Digger colonies whenever they arose.

Writings

Diggers influence on literature and popular culture

  • "The World Turned Upside Down", by Rosselson, Leon - 1975 (a song about the Diggers and their activities on St. George's Hill in 1649), performed by Billy Bragg on Between The Wars EP, 1985; Chumbawamba on English Rebel Songs 1381-1984 (although this is not the same song, but merely shares the title), 1988; Dick Gaughan on Handful of Earth, 1981; Attila the Stockbroker with Barnstormer on The Siege of Shoreham, 1996; Seattle Celt-rock band Coventry on the album Red Hair and Black Leather, 2005; Clandestine (band), a Houston based Celtic group on their To Anybody At All album, 1999; and The Fagans, an Australian folk group, on their album, Turning Fine, 2002.
  • Winstanley, a fictionalized movie portrait of the Diggers, directed by Brownlow, Kevin. 1975. (Based upon the novel Comrade Jacob by Caute, David.)
  • Rev Hammer's Freeborn John (The Story of John Lilburne - The Leader of the Levellers), by Rev Hammer (and company). - Cooking Vinyl CD. London. 1997. (This production is a recent example of the confusion that has been created between the Levellers and True Levellers.)
  • Ringolevio (A life played for keeps) by Grogan, Emmett. - Little Brown & Company, 1972. Library of Congress No.78-186970. (The story of the revival of the Diggers in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, California and New York during the mid-1960s. Grogan was one of the leaders of this revival. He sang backup with Ramblin' Jack Elliott on "Mr. Tambourine Man", written by Bob Dylan.)
  • Truth lifting up its head above scandals - title track of a CD by the noise duo Coin Gutter. Vanity Records, 2001.
  • As Meat Loves Salt by McCann, Maria, Harcourt, 2001 (ISBN 0-15-601226-X) deals in part with the founding and destruction of a fictional Digger colony at Page Common near London.
  • The His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman includes the idea of The Republic of Heaven, a phrase taken from Winstanley's writings, the influence of which can be seen throughout the trilogy.
  • David Weber's Honorverse science fiction series briefly features a political dissident group called The Levelers, who are described as pushing a frighteningly radical economic agenda involving policies of absolute economic equality. Their attempt to overthrow the government of The People's Republic of Haven is brutally suppressed by an ambitious naval officer–not out of loyalty to her current government, but because the repressive Committee of Public Safety is judged to be the lesser evil.

References

  • Laurence, Ann, "Two Ranter Poems" (The Review of English Studies, New Series, Vol. 31, No. 121. [February, 1980], 56-59), 57.
  • Vann, Richard T., "The Later Life of Gerrard Winstanley" (Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 26, No. 1. (January - March, 1965), 133-136), 133.

Further reading

Books

Footnotes

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