The Diggers, agrarian communists and self-styled "True Levellers", briefly forced themselves on to the public stage in the years 1649 to 1650. They settled on the common lands - most notably in Surrey but also in a number of other counties - built makeshift homes, planted crops and grazed their animals. It was the novelty of their enterprise rather than the numbers involved that attracted notice both at the time and later.
Gerrard Winstanley (1609-76), their principal and most eloquent spokesman, has understandably occupied centre stage in all discussions of this distinctive popular movement in the mid-17th-century English Revolution. G. H. Sabine and Christopher Hill edited collections of his writings in 1941 and 1976 respectively. Hill's famous book The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution (1972) analysed Winstanley's social thinking and placed it in its volatile contemporary context. Since then, a veritable "history from below" industry has developed, with a whole host of historians and literary scholars contributing to the debate on Winstanley's immediate significance and legacy. Kevin Brownlow's remarkable film Winstanley (1975) brought this intriguing man further into the limelight.
John Gurney's meticulously researched book is the fullest investigation of the Digger colonies to appear, and he sheds much new light on Winstanley himself. Here, we learn more than ever before about Winstanley's Lancashire background, his troubled time in London, his local connections with Cobham, Surrey - the site of one of the Digger colonies of 1649 - in which he was known as a member of the lesser gentry. A careful, insightful analysis is provided of his writings, at once millenarian and (in his eyes) practical in the solution they offered to the problem of the poor. Gurney is helpful, too, in documenting Winstanley's later life, his brief association in 1650 with the prophetess Lady Eleanor Davies in Hertfordshire, his re-establishment within the local community of Cobham where he served - tellingly - as overseer of the poor in 1660 and churchwarden for two years after 1667. His interactions with the Quakers are rehearsed.
So much of this is new that historians cannot fail to recognise the debt they owe to Gurney. Even more original, however, is this author's revealing reconstruction of the Digger communities themselves, which were set up on St George's Hill and in Cobham. The economy, the pattern of land-owning and the social structure of the area is scrutinised. Evidence relating to population pressure, agrarian tensions, religion and the local impact of the Civil War is drawn into the discussion. Carefully piecing together all available information from parish, manorial, court and probate records, Gurney demonstrates conclusively that in Cobham many of the Diggers were local men. The agrarian experiment there, deliberately sited in a spot least likely to cause offence to others, has to be seen partly at least as an insiders' attempt to reorganise their own community. In Cobham, opposition came not from lesser folk but chiefly from local gentry, clergy - rector John Platt was also lord of the manor - and from the county sheriff and the army. On the other hand, in nearby St George's Hill in Walton-on-Thames, the Diggers were classed as intruders from the start and were attacked by those who had most to lose by their unwanted presence. The Diggers' claims to St George's Hill as their "common treasury" - Winstanley's famous rallying cry - could easily be viewed as a direct threat to the interests of other commoners who relied on the wasteland for grazing and fuel supplies.
It is a gripping story, a vivid demonstration of the interactions in the mid 17th century between economics, religion and politics, and a vindication of the continuing value and importance of history from below and of local history. Gurney's important book firmly situates the Diggers within their specifically local context but also makes clear how their fate was sealed when the appeal of their message of freedom, expressed in Winstanley's resounding and challenging prose, threatened to spread.
R. C. Richardson is professor of history, Winchester University, and author of The Debate on the English Revolution .
Brave Community: The Digger Movement in the English Revolution
Author - John Gurney
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Pages - 2
Price - £55.00
ISBN - 9780719061028