Working Lives

Creating St Clement’s Common (1972-2022)

Location: Norfolk

Maurice describes how St Clements Common, Rushall, became the first new common in 150 years and how he came to own his right of common. He was clerk to the Dickleborough and Rushall parish council for 26 years from 1972/73.

Acquiring the land

I was born and raised in Scole in Norfolk and initially became involved with Dickleburgh and Rushall when they advertised for a clerk to their parish council in about 1972/1973. I was their clerk for 26 years. Amongst the people I came across, all with many interests, was Daphne Buxton who lived in the house called St. Clements. After her husband died, in about 1970, she and her recently widowed mother lived and worked together at St. Clements, looking after a few animals on their smallholding.

In 1974 Daphne had the opportunity to buy an adjacent piece of land plus a house and an old smithy. One has to remember that even the tiniest communities were completely self-sufficient at one time, particularly between 1875 and 1925. Almost every service was available to them in their communities. Even little Rushall had its own smithy. Daphne bought the properties and three pieces of land on the opposite side of the road. It took her almost 20 years to decide what to do with them long term.

Echoes of Epping Forest

In 1993 Daphne was looking to safeguard the land and its future should she decide to give it to the parish council. At that time school playing fields and open spaces were being sold off with complete disregard for anything that had been said in the past. The wishes of those who had donated land were completely ignored in favour of capitalising on an asset. Daphne did not want her gift to be squandered for some other purpose. I became involved, as clerk to the parish council, when she started looking into preventing such a thing happening. We talked about the possibility of the parish council being a likely body to receive a gift of land. Daphne had spent her childhood not far from Epping Forest and she remembered that the rights of common over Epping Forest had been instrumental in saving that land from massive encroachment which was beginning around London. Land was becoming so valuable people were beginning to enclose bits of Epping Forest for building purposes. Daphne recalled that there were people with common rights who, if they were denied their rights, could take legal action against those encroaching.

Creating a common

Throughout 1993 we developed a plan of action. It was interesting because nobody had ever done it before. There had been a Commons Registration Act, I think, of 1965, which was the first attempt at providing a definitive record of all common land and village greens that existed at that time. There was a very complicated method of registering people wanting to object and hearings were held before a Commons Commissioner who had to decide on disputes. We were well aware of all that but they were all registering old common land, old village greens. No new common land had been created for at least 150 years so this was a very novel exercise. Unfortunately, during this time Daphne developed cancer and had periods in hospital and I can remember on various occasions meeting in a little huddle around her bed. She had long periods of remission in between so we could still develop our plans.

From time to time we involved The Open Spaces Society who had legal expertise, but how to create a common? The first thing was to actually create a right of common. We were looking for an individual who might have such a right conferred upon him or her. I can remember sitting at her bedside, in what is now The Spire Hospital in Norwich, and agreeing that perhaps it should be me, and so, in due course, her solicitor was instructed to draw up a grant of a right of common.

The usual right of common in East Anglia is grazing of animals but many other rights exist. There’s pannage which is about pigs being able to gobble up acorns and the like. There’s even a right of turbary where people are able to take turf. The right we settled upon was one of estovers which is the one which saved Epping Forest. Those commoners have a right of estovers that is being able to collect fallen branches, bracken and the like. We didn’t go for grazing because we thought we might be able to make money out of grazing and if the right of common had been grazing that would be been denied. So, we went for the right of estovers.

Daphne had sold off the old smithy and its garden but remained in possession of the three pieces of land on the opposite side of the road. As you enter the common the first piece of land has a pond in it and is interesting as it is rather uneven and looks as if a roadway has gone through it before the present road along the northern edge of the common. Of the other two pieces of land one is very flat and is now kept mown and the other was a stack yard. If stack yards are used for many years they tend to get very high nitrogen levels and become an ideal spot for growing weeds, in particular nettles. So there were three distinct areas of common.

Stack yards and thrashing

Before the advent of combine harvesters which do the whole exercise of harvesting in one fell swoop, farmers would harvest their grain with a binder, initially pulled by a horse, and later by a tractor. The binder would bind the corn after cutting it into sheaves. The sheaves would then be stacked into shocks on the field because the grain would still be in the process of ripening. The farmer and his men would cart away those sheaves and build a stack where the grain would continue to ripen until the autumn/winter. Then a thrashing machine would trundle along, a great day in the lives of the local community because a large number of rats would have inhabited the stack and so, as the stack was gradually being thrashed, men with their little Jack Russell dogs would be catching the rats as they tried to escape. Thrashing was putting each sheaf of corn into the great big machine which gobbled up the whole sheaf, shook out the grain which came out at one end of the machine while the straw came out of the other end of and then the grain was bagged up.

Establishing the right of common

Once the right of common was granted we set about registering the land itself as common land which proved to be a novel exercise for the legal team at Norfolk County Council as nobody had ever had to do it before. It was quite a protracted process since they had to go through an exercise of public notices, giving time for people to object. Eventually we achieved both the registration of the right of common and the registration of the land as common land. Daphne then conveyed the land to Dickleburgh and Rushall parish council for general recreation, as a natural resource for everybody.

St Clement’s Common

The right of common explained

With regard to a right of common, it doesn’t actually confer any part of ownership of the land or indeed management of the land because, obviously, that completely rests with the owner of the land, but it inhibits the ability of an owner to dispose of the land, which was Daphne’s main concern, or to undertake any works or actions which would impede the commoner in the exercise of their right. Meanwhile a commoner enjoys what another person’s land produces.

There are two sorts of rights of common. One is held in gross which means it is held by an individual who can pass it on, either by gift or, indeed, in the person’s will. The other one is a right appurtenant which means it is attached to a dwelling, so it means successive owners of that dwelling will have that right passed to them as part of the ownership of the dwelling.

In our case, after the granting of the right, the registering of that right, the registering of the common as common land, the conveying of the land to Dickleburgh and Rushall parish council as a gift, there then had to be some sort of management programme put in place.

Daphne Buxton was very generous as she provided around two thousand pounds to enable quite a lot of initial work to be done. There was a lot of tidying up because the land had gone slightly to seed so there was quite a bit of grass cutting. Also, because we had hoped to make some money out of grazing by sheep rather than horses, the middle field with the flattest of surfaces was completely fenced in with sheep fencing. The plan didn’t prove as successful as we’d hoped. The only sheep that actually appeared were the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s movable flock which they take around all their sites to help maintain vegetation. This land is now used for playing games and the life.

Daphne’s gift to the community

The question of signage rather went over the top to begin with but by now it’s quietened down. Thank goodness Daphne was still around to agree it all and we were able to follow her wishes and that she was able to appreciate the land coming into use. The people of Rushall really took it to heart and they now have a small committee which organises events on St. Clements Common. There were not many during lockdown but it lends itself, on fine evenings, to concerts and a Christmas carol event takes place with floodlights, so it is well used by the village community, just as Daphne wished.

Passing on the right of common

My right of common was held in gross so it belonged to me individually. I wondered how to pass it on. Who does one leave a right of common to? Another individual? One tends to know people of one’s own age rather than younger people who might take it up in the same way as those who remember the ins and outs of its founding. I decided to give it to The Open Spaces Society during my lifetime. Daphne Buxton’s father-in-law had a great deal to do with the Society in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s and it is the oldest conservation body in the country, founded in 1865. Very much at the forefront of campaigning, their full title is The Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society; they are the sole custodians of the very complicated law of common land and village greens. In the main it is the Ramblers Association which takes on responsibility for the law of footpaths and the like, but the Open Spaces Society still dabbles with rights of way and dealing with obstructions.

An historic handover

So when in 2015 The Open Spaces Society was celebrating its 150th anniversary, I presented my right of common, to celebrate the occasion in a small way. The owner of the land, Dickleburgh and Rushall parish council, was fully involved and invited me to meetings whilst it was all happening. It makes no difference to their ownership and the land is being managed well at the moment.

In the end Daphne Buxton’s wishes were fulfilled and she lived to see them realised and was well satisfied. The first new common in 150 years. That has never been challenged so, believe it! At least once a year I exercised my right of common by gathering up dead branches.


Maurice Philpot (b. 1942) talking to WISEArchive on 11th August 2022.

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