The City of Coventry: The common lands

Pages 199-207

A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 8, the City of Coventry and Borough of Warwick. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1969.

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The extensive common lands around the city long held a prominent place in Coventry's affairs. In 1817 they were believed to cover about 3,000 acres, (fn. 2) and in 1850 were estimated at 2,300 acres. (fn. 3) At the first comprehensive inclosure, in 1860, their extent was shown to be about 1,400 acres. (fn. 4) Of this substantial area about 300 acres were waste, (fn. 5) available to commoners throughout the year, and the remainder Lammas and Michaelmas lands, available during the winter months only. The Michaelmas lands included very little open-field land, and indeed the city's commons formed part of an agrarian economy in which arable and pasture closes, farmed in severally, were far more prominent than open arable fields. Coventry was not an 'openfield town', like Leicester, Nottingham, or Cambridge, and in this respect it resembled York; but York, while having no open fields of its own, established commonage over, inter alia, the open fields of adjoining villages in the champion country of the Vale of York. (fn. 6) Coventry lay in the Arden and not the felden country of Warwickshire.

The contrast between the Arden and the felden is well-known. The felden has been described (fn. 7) as more populous, with a settlement pattern of nucleated villages and with extensive open fields in the normal two- or three-field system. The settlement pattern in the Arden was one of scattered hamlets and farms and, although some of the hamlets had small open fields, inclosure was far advanced by the 16th century. A multiplicity of small inclosed fields, held in severalty, was a natural consequence of the assarting of woodland much of which in the 16th century still remained to be cleared. Coventry was near the southern edge of the Arden but the surrounding hamlets - often with names significantly ending in 'ley' - appear to have had the Arden characteristics of predominant closes and of small open fields enclosed by at least the 16th century. (fn. 8) Thus the common lands of Coventry are found to comprise open and unimproved waste, and meadow, pasture and arable closes which were held in severalty and opened to the commoners' beasts after hay-making or harvest - the Lammas and Michaelmas lands.

The waste comprised, in the 19th century, Top Green, Greyfriars Green, Barras Heath, Stoke Heath, Hearsall, Stivichall, Radford, and Whitley commons, Stoke Aldermoor, and stretches of land on either side of Binley Road, reaching as far as the River Sowe, and including Gosford Green, Stoke Green (see map), and Stoke Hill. Of the commons, the most important were Whitley, Stivichall, and Hearsall, to the south-east and south-west of the city, each of them reaching as far as the boundary of the ancient county of the city. (fn. 9) It is unlikely that the inhabitants of Coventry exercized rights over Sowe Common, or over the several small outlying patches of waste to the north of the city, such as Brownshill Green, Keresley Green, and Exhall Green and Exhall Heath. (fn. 10) From a 19th-century account it is clear that the grazing of Coventry beasts even on the Stoke commons was then exceptional. (fn. 11)

In the 19th century the greater part of the Lammas and Michaelmas lands surrounded the western half of the city, extending for a distance of about a mile from its edges (see map). The approximate eastern limit was marked in the north by Foleshill Road, and in the south by the former Cheylesmore Park. Southwards the lands stretched to Stivichall, westwards as far as the ancient county boundary, and northwards to Radford. There were also isolated parcels, including those next to Stoney Stanton Road in Foleshill, east of Gosford Green in Stoke, and between the city and Whitley Common. (fn. 12)

The distribution of these lands bears a close resemblance to that described in the earliest detailed survey, made in 1423. (fn. 13) From the 16th to the 19th century summer pasture was also available in Cheylesmore Park. (fn. 14) The use made of the common lands varied from year to year. In principle the Lammas lands, open to pasture from Lammas to Candlemas, were meadow, and the Michaelmas lands, open from Michaelmas to Candlemas, were arable fields. In 1833 each Coventry freeman had the right to turn out two horses and one cow or two cows and one horse upon the waste, the Lammas lands, and the Michaelmas lands, provided that at no time were more than three of his beasts at pasture together. Freemen's widows were allowed two beasts. (fn. 15) In the course of an inquiry by the Charity Commissioners in 1854 pasture rights were also claimed by the owners of five mills - Charterhouse, Wilton's, Hammerton's, and two mills in the Hole - and by certain Radford freeholders. (fn. 16) The right of the inhabitants of Radford to pasture cattle on the city commons was confirmed in 1559; (fn. 17) in 1675 a council order forbade the sub-letting of such rights, which were then already restricted to specified tenements. (fn. 18) In 1833 butchers who were freemen were additionally entitled to turn ten fat sheep into two fields, totalling about eight acres, for a period of fourteen days. (fn. 19) The earliest mention of the butchers' special rights occurs in 1538 when they were allowed to turn fifteen sheep onto the common. (fn. 20) This concession was apparently withdrawn in 1543 (fn. 21) but the two fields were ultimately assigned to the butchers' use in 1607. It was, however, found necessary to order the clearing of butchers' sheep from the commons in 1671. (fn. 22)

Figure 11:

Common lands in the later 19th century

Although the matter is obscure, there is evidence to suggest that pasture rights originally belonged to all the inhabitants and not to a restricted body of freemen, and one authority dates the freemen's usurpation from the later 17th century. It was certainly complete by the 18th century. (fn. 23)

Management of the common lands was vested in the two chamberlains who, by the 19th century, had no other important functions. The chamberlains found money to pay the pinners and ensured that the cattle were marked before being turned loose. They were entitled to certain fees for marking and to fines for strays. It was also the duty of the chamberlains, in the yearly ceremony of Lammas-riding, to inspect the boundaries of the common lands to see that they had, in fact, been made open. (fn. 24) In connexion with this event the chamberlains were expected to entertain some 150 to 200 guests at a public dinner. (fn. 25) Though there was no comparable ceremony on Michaelmas day, Lammas ridings are recorded from 1495, (fn. 26) while the feast was a firm custom by 1625 (fn. 27) when the numbers were restricted because of the plague. By a council order of 1466 the chamberlains were allowed 5s. for their costs on Lammas day. (fn. 28) In 1833 their income over four years was said to have been £408, and their expenditure £471. (fn. 29) Mention was also made in 1560 and 1564 of ten overseers of the commons, each representing a ward, but the lack of any further record suggests that this additional office did not become either permanent or important. (fn. 30)

Common arable fields, which later became the Lammas and Michaelmas lands, at Spon and at other places subsequently forming part of Coventry are identifiable from the 13th century, (fn. 31) but the origins of Coventry commoning rights may probably be traced, at least in part, to customary privileges within the several square miles of woods formerly held by Godiva and in the hands of Nicholas in the Domesday Survey. (fn. 32) The woods of Spon (Spanna) and Ashaw are mentioned in a deed of 1208, (fn. 33) and another deed of 1244 refers to tenants' rights of pannage in 'the wood of Coventry'. (fn. 34) Such rights were preserved as the cultivated area expanded and woods were inclosed. Thus about 1245 Walter of Coventry confirmed to his fellow burgesses common of pasture in all his lands, of which some were specifically described as newly inclosed. (fn. 35) These arrangements may be compared with those made in 1236-7 when Geoffrey de Langley inclosed demesne fields and woods at Pinley, reserving to his tenants the right of commoning after the harvest. (fn. 36)

In 1258 (fn. 37) and again in 1277, (fn. 38) when the priory was permitted to inclose wood and waste, allowance was ordered to be made for the commoning rights of the inhabitants. These were defined in a deed sealed by Cicely de Montalt between 1260 and 1265, confirming the priory in possession of recently acquired lands in Coventry, as reasonable pasture for as many beasts as they needed to till and carry in their lands, (fn. 39) implying a restriction of pasture to landed tenants. The transactions of 1258 and 1277 appear to refer primarily to the inclosure by the prior of parts of a large tract of wooded country to the north of the town, from Whitmore in the west to Hasilwood in the east. Whitmore was finally emparked in 1332, (fn. 40) after the prior had complained that the boundaries had been broken down, unreasonable fuel taken, and cattle pastured in the woods in ruinous numbers. (fn. 41) The city's claims to pasture in the new park were formally relinquished in 1355. (fn. 42) Although Broad Oak Waste, or Prior's Waste - the eastern part of Hasilwood - had been inclosed for some years by 1423, (fn. 43) the inclosure was not conceded by the citizens until 1469. (fn. 44) As late as 1480 the mayor claimed for the townspeople unstinted rights of common pasture in Hasilwood for all beasts, including swine and goats. (fn. 45) The commoners were then still taking underwood, turves, clay, and sand from the wood. (fn. 46)

Established pasture rights were jealously guarded. Thus in or about 1374 a group of 'disturbers of the peace' roused the populace and marched behind minstrels to the house of the mayor. They compelled him to join them in breaking down inclosures made by Ralph Hunte in several fields, felling his trees, and taking away underwood. (fn. 47) According to one version the people on this occasion 'cast loaves at the mayor's head and cast open that which the mayor had inclosed'. (fn. 48) About Michaelmas 1396 the close of Henry Wychard at 'Sponnewell' was broken into, and wood and grass, valued at ten marks, taken, and there were other cases of close-breaking the same year. (fn. 49)

From an obscurely-phrased leet order of 1439 it appears that even during the summer only land sown with crops was fenced, while the common meadow was kept open all the year. (fn. 50) On the other hand, long before the end of the 14th century, the mayor and his advisers had already begun to authorize the holding of common lands in severalty throughout the year. Thus in 1384 the master of Holy Trinity Guild complained that whereas certain fields had been so held by the guild 'time out of mind' they were now being regularly broken open at Lammas, with the result that their yearly value was reduced by a half. These fields - Poddycroft, Stivichall Hiron, Long Croft, and Bateman's Acre - were retained by the guild in return for paying the city's fee-farm rent of £10 due to the prior. The leet agreed that they should be several all the year, (fn. 51) and in 1414 allowed the guild master to imprison anyone interfering with the inclosure. (fn. 52) After this date the guild inclosures appear to have been popularly accepted or at least tolerated, and, apart from Miry Field, added about 1421, (fn. 53) they do not figure in later protests against encroachment. They were confiscated by the Crown together with other guild lands and their repurchase in 1552 in accordance with the agreement of 1548 cost the corporation £1,315 and £90 annual rent. (fn. 54)

During the 15th century the common lands were subjected to heavy pressure both by the townspeople and by the local magnates and sheep-graziers whose flocks helped to sustain Coventry's important cloth industry. (fn. 55) The wastes and common pastures were so surcharged and so much Lammas and Michaelmas land was inclosed that, if a contemporary ex parte statement be accepted, a half of the traditional commons was denied to the citizens by 1480. (fn. 56)

The practice of surcharging is indicated by the measures invoked against it. Thus in 1421 mares were excluded from the common lands. (fn. 57) In 1425 the leet decided to fine offenders 1d. for every four sheep pastured, and the same for every extra ox, cow, or other beast. (fn. 58) In 1469 the chamberlains were ordered to drive beasts belonging to surchargers to the fold and to exact fines; (fn. 59) the same year the pasturing of swine was forbidden and a heavy fine imposed. (fn. 60)

The chief offenders, both as surchargers and encroachers, were the prior and the Bristow family, lords of Whitley, across the Sherbourne to the south of Coventry. Mention has already been made of the priory's inclosures in Whitmore and Hasilwood. At some time before 1411 the prior licensed his tenants to inclose the Little Waste at Stivichall. (fn. 61) In 1428 he asked permission to keep several certain other parcels near Coventry, including the rabbit warren in Hasilwood, a number of crofts, and some rough pasture. Although permission was withheld on this occasion, (fn. 62) in 1469 the prior inclosed a croft outside the New Gate, and had his inclosure of Broad Oak Waste recognised by the city. (fn. 63) By 1480 the priory had made a further inclosure, Bishopshay, lying between the town and Hasilwood. (fn. 64)

John Bristow, a draper, was mayor of Coventry in 1428, and later served as a justice of the peace and as master of the Trinity Guild. Shortly after his mayoralty he hedged in various pieces of common land, close to his estate and adjoining Whitley Common, and sowed them with corn. (fn. 65) His son William, who succeeded c. 1455, (fn. 66) extended the inclosures over meadows between Baron's Field and the Sherbourne, and pastured his cattle and those of his tenants on the Coventry commons. (fn. 67)

The 15th-century inclosures were made in the face of stubborn popular resistance. Thus in 1421 the townsmen rioted and destroyed some gardens outside Greyfriars Gate which had been inclosed by several prominent citizens, notably Giles Allesley, mayor in 1426, William Attilboro, a member of the council of twenty-four, and Richard Southam, a justice of the peace. (fn. 68) After this episode the mayor and council had a careful survey made of the extent of the commons. (fn. 69) If an allegation made by Prior Deram some 60 years later is to be believed they also ordered the boundaries of Whitmore Park to be broken. It is certain that the inhabitants continued to gather underwood and wood from the park and from Hasilwood throughout the century and in defiance of successive priors. (fn. 70)

The attitude of the mayor, the municipal officers, and the leading citizens to popular discontents over the commons question was persistently ambivalent: strict where their own or the city's interests were at stake, complaisant where anger was turned outwards and directed against 'foreigners'.

In 1469, during the mayoralty of William Saunders, the leet issued an ultimatum that all unlawful closes should be thrown open by 1 November. (fn. 71) The populace had responded to the first inclosures of John Bristow, made c. 1430, by turning their beasts into his cornfields. (fn. 72) Now, on 3 December, they assembled under arms, the mayor and citizens directing, and threw down William Bristow's hedges and dykes, felled his trees, destroyed swans' nests, and threatened his mills on the Sherbourne. They then marched back to Coventry, led by the city waits, piping and singing. The townspeople were the more incensed against Bristow because the inclosed land had previously been used yearly for 'shooting, running, dancing, bowling alleys, and other sports' at their pleasure. (fn. 73)

In further riots on St. Nicholas's day (6 Dec.) 1469 the gardens outside Greyfriars Gate, once more, and other closes belonging to various persons were forcibly thrown open, while the prior's pastures of Broad Oak Waste and Whitmore were also invaded. The city was afterwards compelled to make restitution to the prior, (fn. 74) but continued to resist Bristow in a protracted lawsuit. (fn. 75)

The election of Saunders's son Laurence to the office of chamberlain in 1480 provoked another crisis. Over a period of fifteen years Saunders constituted himself a kind of 'people's tribune' and a vigorous defender of commoners' rights. During the summer of 1480 the chamberlains attempted to drive sheep off the commons as non-commonable animals, distraining in the process on 400 of Bristow's sheep, 300 of the prior's, 180 of Robert Bevis's, and 40 of William Deister's. They were not supported by the leet, which was dominated by the mayor and a strong-minded recorder, Henry Butler, and a quarrel ensued in the course of which the chamberlains were imprisoned and fined. By way of reply Saunders accused the recorder of complicity with Prior Deram and Bristow in depriving the townspeople of their due pasture rights, and drew up a list of encroachments which he submitted personally to the Prince of Wales at Ludlow. The dispute which was thus begun lasted at least until 1496 when Saunders is lost sight of in the Fleet prison, to which he had been committed at the instance of the mayor and council. (fn. 76) Meanwhile, at Lammas 1481, Bristow again withheld the common of his fields at Whitley, contrary to a decision given by arbitrators in 1473. There was another riot, similar to that of 1469, but this time there was no official connivance, and two of the rioters were afterwards imprisoned by the prince at Ludlow. (fn. 77) There were repeated tumults on Lammas day in succeeding years, and in 1495 the leet accordingly fixed the number of those accompanying the chamberlains on their ridings at 'two or three from each ward'. In practice from four to seven representatives were selected to ride in each case, making a total of 54. (fn. 78) Despite these precautions certain closes belonging to St. John's Hospital and lying outside Spon Bar were forcibly entered and used for common in October 1495. (fn. 79) The townspeople also continued to break into the disputed fields at Whitley from time to time until 1509, when the then owner of Whitley finally accepted the city's claim. (fn. 80)

The process of inclosure was accelerated during the earlier 16th century, and in the two years 1538 and 1541 the leet gave permission for more than 90 fields and crofts to be held in severalty, at a total rent of £33. The largest tracts affected lay west of Coventry, beyond Spon Bar and on either side of the Allesley road, but other new closes were widely distributed throughout the former Lammas and Michaelmas lands. The two most important inclosures, judging by value, were those of Whoberleys with part of 'the two great fields next to Ashow', possibly the former common fields of Ashow, and the Crabtree Fields, lying outside Greyfriars Gate. Baron's Field and Miry Field south of the city were also affected. (fn. 81)

It seems probable that in many cases the leet acts of 1538 and 1541 merely confirmed earlier agreements, and as early as 1511 representatives of the wards recommended that certain fields should be kept several for the city's profit 'so long as the commons be thus content'. (fn. 82) The inclosures that followed were explained and excused as resulting from a dearth of grain, (fn. 83) and in 1522 new tenants were ordered to plough and sow 'all or half' their holdings or forfeit their leases. (fn. 84) In 1525, however, on 'Ill Lammas day', there was a serious and general riot in which the townspeople, with the sanction of the mayor, Nicholas Heynes, broke open many of the closes. As a sequel the mayor was deposed and more than 40 rioters were imprisoned. (fn. 85)

The adherence of the mayor and the leet to the anti-inclosure party was not an infrequent phenomenon, and former leet decisions were sometimes reversed quite swiftly. Thus the Michaelmas leet of 1525 ordered that all recently inclosed commons should be thrown open again, (fn. 86) while in 1534 the mayor, Roger Palmer, protested that, while the dearth had ended, more ground than ever had been sown, so that the citizens' pasture and recreation was seriously and wrongfully diminished 'without which they could not well live and maintain their occupations and menial servants'; inclosures were therefore to be strictly limited to those licensed by the mayor and common council. (fn. 87)

In proposing the new inclosures of 1538 the leet pointed out that while most inhabitants made no use of the common pastures, all would benefit from the renting of such lands by the city; (fn. 88) in 1544 it was decreed that those who leased common lands worth more than 10s. would forfeit their personal allowance of common pasture, (fn. 89) while the stint of the remaining pasture was fixed at three beasts in 1538. (fn. 90) It remained at this level for three centuries. (fn. 91) In 1543 sheep were declared to be non-commonable once more. (fn. 92) The 'popular' party appears to have again secured the dominant interest in 1548. The leet then decided to throw open all closes of half-year pasture, (fn. 93) and the following year forbade butchers and others to keep sheep on the common. (fn. 94) That even this decision was not final is evident from the fact that in 1557 the common council found it necessary to take note of commons lately ploughed and sown, (fn. 95) while in January 1564 the rents received from ploughed lands amounted to £4 18s. 10d. (fn. 96) In 1596 there were 'seditious speeches' about the sowing of rye on the commons. (fn. 97)

In the meantime the citizens had acquired new pasture rights in Cheylesmore Park. This estate of several hundred acres (fn. 98) was first leased to the city by the Earl of Warwick in 1549, with the reservation that the new owners should allow pasture to 80 cows and 30 geldings belonging to 'poor inhabitants' at a charge of 1d. for a cow and 2d. for a horse. The lease was confirmed as a grant in fee farm in 1568, the corporation covenanting to maintain the same rights of pasture as before. (fn. 99) In 1577 the stint in the park was fixed at two beasts for each inhabitant, (fn. 100) but subsequently the corporation, 'finding that the park would maintain a far greater stock of cattle', allowed every freeman to pasture the usual stint of cattle from May Day to Lammas, at 4d. a week for a horse and 2d. for a cow. (fn. 101) The new pastures served, therefore, to relieve pressure on the wastes. The acquisition of the manor of Cheylesmore also brought to the corporation the lordship of the wastes at Stoke Aldermoor. (fn. 102)

Yet another period of dispute over the use of the commons was inaugurated by a riot of 1628 in which 'the poor people' broke open a close at Whitley that had originally been set aside to maintain the pageants, then discontinued for a generation. (fn. 103) Once again a contemporary grievance was the ploughing of Lammas lands. The council forbade this practice in 1627, but allowed it again in 1630 under certain conditions: a quarter of the common lands was to be ploughed at a time, for summer corn, for three successive years, and then left under grass for nine. (fn. 104) These regulations appear to have been ineffectual, for in 1633 it was found necessary to re-enact the threeyear restriction, (fn. 105) and in 1635 to assert the sole right of the mayor and council to license ploughing. (fn. 106) The following year the chamberlains were ordered to break an inclosure at Gosford Green and drive cattle in. (fn. 107)

The experiment in the cultivation of the commons was nevertheless continued, with caution. In 1638 ploughing was prohibited between Lammas and Candlemas, (fn. 108) and in 1640 ploughing of Lammas lands was entirely forbidden for two years; (fn. 109) it had been found to lead to a shortage of hay and straw. (fn. 110) A contemporary petition of the freemen to Parliament speaks of twelve years of riots and states that flax had been sown on the Lammas lands when it was found impossible to get the harvest in by 1 August. (fn. 111) Licences to plough Lammas lands continued to be issued, however, and Thistle Field, Conduit Meadow, (fn. 112) and lands at Whoberley were ploughed in 1647. (fn. 113) In 1661 some people were fined for ploughing the commons without a licence; (fn. 114) the Restoration appears to have been signalized by a reaction against the encroachers that may reflect the discomfiture of the town's leading citizens. (fn. 115) Coventry's zeal for Parliament during the Civil War was, however, indirectly responsible for the temporary loss of commoning rights in Cheylesmore Park.

In 1661 the cavalier, Robert Townsend, obtained a provisional lease of the manor of Cheylesmore from Charles II, the condition being that he should find some way of disposing of the city's claim. On entry he denied the Coventry citizens their pasture and began to make inclosures in the park which they accordingly attacked. Through Townsend's influence in Whitehall the mayor and several aldermen were brought before the Privy Council in London to account for the disturbance and were threatened with personal prosecution and the loss of the city's charter. They therefore agreed, in 1666, to Townsend's 'quiet enjoyment' of the property during the term of his lease, (fn. 116) but there was a further riot directed against his 'new inclosures' in 1668, (fn. 117) and the chamberlains were accompanied by 600 or 700 horse at the Lammas riding of 1669. (fn. 118) Townsend had meanwhile been forced in 1666, 'for the better quieting the inhabitants', to allow them pasturage in the Little Park, of which he had been granted a separate Crown lease in 1662, and his son, Anthony, was also compelled to assign to them his lease of the Little Park in 1687. (fn. 119)

The discomfiture of Stuart partisans at the Revolution of 1688 provided an opportunity for a violent demonstration of the city's claim to the whole park, in which Anthony Townsend had been making further inclosures since the Crown lease had been renewed to him in 1686. (fn. 120) In January 1689 'with a great rabble of dissolute people' the burgesses destroyed Townsend's fences and ditches and drove him from his home, and in March were stocking the park with their own cattle. (fn. 121) Towards the end of the following year Townsend agreed to allow pasturage at the old rate of 4d. for a horse and 2d. for a cow throughout the entire park except for a small area which he reserved to his own use, (fn. 122) but a further agreement about the park was apparently drawn up in 1695 (fn. 123) by which he assumed the right to re-enter. However, in riots of September 1696 a mob armed with staves and clubs again broke into the park on several successive days 'making great and terrible shouts and cries' and throwing down inclosures (fn. 124) and the mayor and aldermen had to suppress fresh riots in 1699. (fn. 125) The corporation did not finally secure an assignment of the Crown lease of the Great Park until 1705. (fn. 126) The park appears to have been enjoyed by the citizens from that date to 1787, when the Prince of Wales granted a 31-year lease to Francis Seymour-Conway, styled Viscount Beauchamp, later Marquess of Hertford (d. 1822), who was thus able to gratify a personal feud with the inhabitants. Lord Beauchamp's agents almost immediately cut down an avenue of ornamental trees planted by Thomas Potter, mayor in 1622, and otherwise destroyed the amenities of the park. Pasturing fees were also raised - in the case of horses from 10s. to 21s. for the season. In 1795 the tenant, William Preest, divided the park into gardens and inclosed fields, reserving a ley for pasturing the townspeople's cattle. In 1819 the estate was sold to the Marquess of Hertford and the remaining common pasture was inclosed for private use. (fn. 127)

Though there is little evidence for disputes over the common lands in the 18th century, encroachments were gradually made on the pastures and some were inclosed and others illegally ploughed. (fn. 128) In 1790 the freemen formed a 'graziers' society' to protect their rights, (fn. 129) and about 1810 a freemen's committee was appointed and a fund raised to contest the encroachments. At the same time, however, it first began to be mooted that the freemen's privileges should be commuted for a yearly payment. (fn. 130) In 1811 the corporation proceeded against William Raby and others for breaking into a meadow at the bottom of First Charterhouse Leys, 'under pretence of its being Lammas land'. (fn. 131) These events marked the beginning of a fresh period of social struggle over the use of the Lammas and Michaelmas lands. It is probable that at no time since the 16th century at the latest had more than a few of the inhabitants or even of the freemen made full use of their pasture rights. During the four years 1823-7 the chamberlains marked an average of fewer than 800 beasts for pasture yearly. (fn. 132) Nevertheless, for many years the graziers' or cow-keepers' party was able to hold back inclosure by an appeal to popular sentiment. New 'tribunes' in the Laurence Saunders tradition - first Gerard Rawes and then Thomas Payne - arose, and any inclosure proposal was likely to result in a mass-meeting of protest on Barr's Hill or Windmill Fields. (fn. 133) As late as 1844 a crowd estimated at 2,000, 'after a contest with the police', pulled down a wall with which a Whitley miller had inclosed what they declared was common land. (fn. 134)

The freemen's resistance was to have serious effects on the development of Coventry. In a letter to the corporation of 1843 the secretary of the Health of Towns Commission stressed the unnatural check to the ordered growth of the town resulting from its encircling belt of commons. New building was, at this date, crowded within the old town to the detriment of public health. (fn. 135) At the same time the conditions of tenure hindered the development of market-gardening to feed the new population adequately.

Several inroads on the common lands were, in fact, sanctioned by Act of Parliament during the earlier 19th century. Thus in 1828-9 Lammas land was taken by the Holyhead Road Commissioners for the improvement of the Holyhead turnpike or coach road, (fn. 136) and c. 1834 land assessed at £1,652 was acquired by the London and Birmingham Railway Company for its new line. (fn. 137) In 1844 about 18 acres between Whitley Common and the park were set aside for use as a cemetery, (fn. 138) and in 1847 other land including two Lammas closes by Holyhead Road and Spon Street was conveyed to the London and North Western Railway Company. (fn. 139)

Such arrangements affected only a few acres in all. The proposal for a general inclosure was revived in 1836, when the city council appointed a committee to negotiate on the subject with the proprietors of the Lammas and Michaelmas lands and a committee of the freemen. (fn. 140) In 1850 there were about 60 proprietors, the largest being the trustees of Sir Thomas White's Charity. (fn. 141) Six proprietors, including the corporation, owned between them more than half the lands. (fn. 142) There were about 3,000 freemen with pasture rights, (fn. 143) but only about a tenth of them kept any animals, and the practice of 'fathering', or fraudulently pasturing, others' cattle on the common land had grown to a serious abuse. (fn. 144) In 1857 the freemen petitioned that chamberlains should be again appointed to check such abuses, (fn. 145) for the office had apparently lapsed.

During an enquiry into some city charities in 1854 it was stated that the freemen's right of common was 'not necessary for honest and legitimate purposes', while, on the other hand, the value of the land affected by pasture rights was seriously reduced. (fn. 146) Ten years before, an inclosing Bill had been introduced by the Coventry members, supported by the corporation and a majority of the freemen, but it was opposed and dropped. Eventually, in 1857, the necessary two-thirds majority of the freemen agreed to an inclosure, provided compensation was paid in land, (fn. 147) and commissioners were appointed. On Lammas day 1858 Thomas Payne led the traditional procession to break down the fences for the last time. The last 'riot' occurred in January 1859, when the cow-keepers hindered the inclosure commissioners' work by pulling up the stakes and filling in the trenches marking out new allotments. (fn. 148)

The half-year pasture was inclosed by an award of 1860, the freemen receiving a compensation estate of 272 acres in several parcels, the largest of which lay between Coventry and Radford. (fn. 149) This estate was subsequently let at various times as grazing and garden ground, and later for building, on 99-year leases. By 1908 about 700 leasehold houses and several large factories had been built on it and by 1959 about three-quarters of the land had been sold or leased for building and the proceeds invested in stock by the freemen's trustees. Between 1917 and 1919 the War Office requisitioned various parts of the estate to build houses for munition workers. There were War Office estates near Radford Common and Whitley Common, each of about 9 acres. The main portion of the freemen's estate, 133 acres south of Radford, was acquired by the corporation in 1921 (fn. 150) for a planned corporation housing project, begun four years later. (fn. 151)

An attempt was made in 1866 to upset the 1860 award. It was argued by a 'citizens' committee' that the common rights were vested not in the freemen, but in the corporation, and indirectly, therefore, in all citizens. Although this attempt was unsuccessful, in a second inclosure of 1875, affecting about 40 acres of wastes and commons, the allotment for pasture rights was shared between the freemen and the corporation. (fn. 152) The freemen's portion had all been sold by 1894 and the money largely invested in a new estate. (fn. 153) The 1875 award extinguished pasture rights on Greyfriars Green for a yearly £4 paid to the freemen's trustees by the corporation, which undertook to develop the green as a public garden.

The remaining wastes or commons continued to be used for pasturing, and the 'city pinner' was still imposing fines for commoning offences in 1897. (fn. 154) The chief tracts concerned were Whitley Common (98 a.), Hearsall Common (95 a.), (fn. 155) and Stivichall Common (c. 60 a.). (fn. 156) The area of waste was progressively reduced, largely owing to the growing demand for recreation grounds. The freemen's rights of pasture at Stivichall were extinguished in 1881, the corporation undertaking to build a road to part of the freemen's estate in compensation. (fn. 157) In 1921 the common was added to the new War Memorial Park at Stivichall. (fn. 158) Arrangements made for the management of Stoke Common in 1886 specifically reserved to the inhabitants the privilege of playing cricket and other games there, although grazing was still allowed. (fn. 159) In 1841 the common land in Stoke covered 75 acres. (fn. 160) In 1927 it comprised Stoke Green (16¼ a.), Stoke Heath (30¾ a.), and Stoke Hill (11½ a.), a total of 58½ acres. (fn. 161) From 1886 to 1927 the pasture and general administration of Stoke Common was vested in a body of conservators. (fn. 162) The first significant attack on the surviving Coventry pastures came in 1916, when a warworkers' housing estate of more than 800 houses was built on Stoke Heath. (fn. 163) Gosford Green (20½ a.) was reserved for recreational purposes by the corporation in 1914, in return for a yearly payment of £20 to the freemen's trustees created at the 1860 inclosure. (fn. 164) The remaining wastes within the city, Whitley Common, Hearsall Common, Barras Heath (9¼ a.), and Radford Common (4½ a.) were similarly transformed into recreation grounds by the Coventry Corporation Act of 1927, which thus extinguished the last vestige of the traditional commoning rights within the boundaries. As compensation the freemen received £100 yearly, half of which was paid to their trustees under the 1860 inclosure, and half to those appointed at the 1875 inclosure. (fn. 165) By 1954, 21 acres of Hearsall Common had been developed for sports pitches, and 33½ acres of Whitley Common as a playing field. (fn. 166)

The Coventry Extension Act of 1931 brought Keresley Common (3 a.) and Sowe Common (36½ a.) within the boundaries. (fn. 167) In 1907 grazing on Sowe Common was regulated by the Foleshill Urban District Council, which was approved as the managing authority. (fn. 168) In 1931 the responsibilities of the U.D.C. were taken over by Coventry corporation, (fn. 169) and by the Coventry Corporation Act of 1958 Sowe, with Keresley, was placed on the same footing as the other commons that had been regulated in 1927. (fn. 170)

In 1960 there were five boards of freemen's trustees administering as many funds, created by the award of compensation at the various inclosures. (fn. 171) These were the Freemen's Seniority Fund, the Cemetery Fund, the 1860 Inclosure Estate, the 1875 Inclosure Estate, and the Butcher Freemen's Fund. Although individual members served on more than one board, the boards remained legally distinct and separate bodies. (fn. 172)

The compensation moneys paid to the freemen by the Holyhead Road Commissioners in 1828-9 and by the London and Birmingham Railway Company in 1834 were used in 1843 to found a freemen's pension fund (the Freemen's Seniority Fund) administered by an elected committee of freemen. The capital then in hand amounted to £2,476. Further sums were awarded to the freemen in respect of inclosures from time to time, of which the largest was paid by the London and North Western Railway Company in connexion with the building of the Nuneaton railway, c. 1847. On this occasion the trustees received £4,554. Pensions of 4s. or 6s. a week were paid to the most aged and infirm freemen, selected according to their seniority as freemen. (fn. 173) There were 29 such pensioners in 1869. (fn. 174) In 1956 interest received amounted to more than £300. (fn. 175) In 1961 and 1962, when about £400 was available for distribution, some £360 was paid out in weekly sums of 10s. apiece to 21 senior freemen. (fn. 176)

The Cemetery Fund originated in the laying-out of the new cemetery on Whitley Common in 1844 when the freemen were awarded £890 in herbage rights. Although most of this compensation was absorbed by costs, about £375 was ultimately received by the trustees and invested. (fn. 177) In 1956 the fund yielded about £5 yearly. (fn. 178) In 1908 it was customary to dispose of the income triennially, normally by adding it to the income of the Seniority Fund. (fn. 179)

The freemen's estate created by the inclosure of 1860 was administered by a body of trustees who by 1933 disposed of an income of more than £4,100. In 1957 income from rents and stock amounted to £8,816. The freemen's income from this source was from the first applied in a similar manner to that of the Freemen's Seniority Fund, excepting that freemen's widows were also granted small pensions of varying amounts. A hundred and eighteen freemen benefited in 1869, and nine freemen's widows. In the course of 1933 there were 431 pensioners, of whom 47 were widows, and during 1957, 555, of whom 90 were widows. (fn. 180) In 1964, out of an income totalling £14,958, senior freemen received £9,779 in weekly payments, and freemen's widows over £2,300. (fn. 181)

A further group of freemen's trustees was appointed after the inclosure of 1875, to administer the second freemen's estate created by the award. In 1925 the trustee received an income of £901, the greater part comprising rents from the Coundon House estate. During the year 62 freemen each received pensions of 4s. out of this revenue. The gross income in 1957 was £828, and 82 pensioners benefited. (fn. 182) In 1964 from the income of £837 a total of £771 was paid out in sums of 10s. and 7s. 6d. a week. (fn. 183)

The Butcher Freemen's Fund arose from the inclosure award of 1860. By this award 1¾ a. in Holy Trinity parish, to the east of the Coventry-Nuneaton road, was allotted to the butcher freemen in lieu of their special rights of common. In 1869 this land was sold for £606, which was invested in stock. There were then said to be 70 freemen butchers. In 1928 14s. each was distributed to 40 freemen butchers in respect of two years' income at £19 12s. 4d. yearly. (fn. 184) In 1963 the yearly income amounted to about £17. (fn. 185)


  • 1. This section was completed in 1960, with some minor additions later.
  • 2. V.C.H. Warws. ii. 157n.; Warws. (1817), 313.
  • 3. White, Dir. Warws. (1850), 484.
  • 4. C.L., copy of Cov. Inclosure Award, 1860.
  • 5. White, Dir. Warws. (1850), and see below.
  • 6. See V.C.H. City of York, 498 sqq.
  • 7. R. H. Hilton, 'Social Structure of Rural Warws. in the Middle Ages', Dugdale Soc. Occasional Papers, no. 9; see also P.N. Warws. (E.P.N.S.), pp. xiii-xvi, and R. H. Kinvig, 'Birm. District in Domesday Times', Birm. and Its Regional Setting (Brit. Assoc., 1950), 120 sqq.
  • 8. See pp. 6, 41-42.
  • 9. C.L., copies of inclosure awards and maps.
  • 10. For the location of these and other wastes see C. and J. Greenwood, Map of Warws. (1822). See also pp. 53, 108, 206 and, for Exhall, V.C.H. Warws. iii. 89.
  • 11. T. A. Blyth, Stoke, 278.
  • 12. C.L., copies of inclosure awards and maps.
  • 13. Leet Bk. 45 sqq.
  • 14. See pp. 19-20, 203.
  • 15. First Rep. Com. Municipal Corps. Eng. and Wales, App. III, H.C. 116, p. 1808 (1835), xxv.
  • 16. Char. Com. file 70222. See section on mills, p. 190 sqq., s.v. Alderford Mill (in the Hole), Bisseley (Charterhouse) Mill, Dilcock's (Hammerton's) Mill. One mill in the Hole cannot be identified. Wilton's Mill might be Whitley Mill.
  • 17. A. 14(a), 18.
  • 18. A. 14(b), 238.
  • 19. Poole, Cov. 316.
  • 20. Leet Bk. 735.
  • 21. Ibid. 769.
  • 22. C.L., G. C. Pegg, Authentic Acct. of Lammas and Mich. Lands (Cov. Standard office, 1856); A. 14(b), 200.
  • 23. C.L., L. Fox, 'Study of Hist. of Freedom of City of Cov.' (TS.), 129 sqq.
  • 24. For the 'Great Circuit', and the 'Little Circuit' followed by the Lammas riders, see Pegg, Authentic Acct. of Lammas and Mich. Lands.
  • 25. First Rep. Com. Municipal Corps., App. III, 1799.
  • 26. Leet Bk. 565.
  • 27. Dugdale, Warws. 151.
  • 28. Leet Bk. 333-4.
  • 29. First Rep. Com. Municipal Corps, App. III, 1799.
  • 30. A. 14(a), 29, 48.
  • 31. See pp. 8, 48, 89.
  • 32. V.C.H. Warws. i. 310. See p. 256.
  • 33. Warws. Ft. of Fines, i, p. 35.
  • 34. Ibid. 122.
  • 35. C.R.O., Cal. Gregory-Hood deeds, no. 20b.
  • 36. See p. 89.
  • 37. Cal. Pat. 1247-58, 659.
  • 38. Ibid. 1272-81, 199.
  • 39. Cal. Chart. R. 1341-1417, 107.
  • 40. Leet Bk. 444.
  • 41. M. D. Harris, Story of Cov. 67.
  • 42. Leet Bk. 444.
  • 43. Ibid. 46.
  • 44. Ibid. 46, 350 n. 4.
  • 45. Ibid. 456.
  • 46. Ibid. 445.
  • 47. Cal. Inq. Misc. iii, p. 394; Cal. Pat. 1377-81, 303. These merely give the dates of two enquiries into the riot, begun in 1376 and 1378. In neither case does the commission give the actual year of the riots.
  • 48. Discourse of the Common Weal, ed. Eliz. Lamond, 153; see also B.M. Harl. MS. 6388, f. 10; W. G. Fretton, Earlier Mayors of Cov., 5; this may refer to a distinct and separate riot.
  • 49. Rolls of Warws. and Cov. Sessions of Peace (Dugdale Soc. xvi), 86.
  • 50. Leet Bk. 191.
  • 51. Leet Bk. 3-4.
  • 52. Ibid. 19.
  • 53. Ibid. 33, 38.
  • 54. This was for all the guild and chantry property purchased: Acts of P.C. 1547-50, 193; Cal. Pat. 1550-3, 337-43; Reg. of Holy Trinity Guild, Cov. (Dugdale Soc. xiii), p. xxv and n.
  • 55. See p. 156.
  • 56. M. D. Harris, Story of Cov. 184.
  • 57. Leet Bk. 28.
  • 58. Ibid. 100.
  • 59. Ibid. 340.
  • 60. Ibid. 348.
  • 61. Ibid. 13.
  • 62. Ibid. 115.
  • 63. Ibid. 350, and see above. See also Leet Bk. 375.
  • 64. Leet Bk. 440, 510.
  • 65. Harris, Story of Cov. 171 sqq.
  • 66. See p. 87.
  • 67. Harris, Story of Cov. 174.
  • 68. Ibid. 92.
  • 69. Leet Bk. 45 sqq.
  • 70. Ibid. 445-6, 455-6.
  • 71. Ibid. 348.
  • 72. Harris, Story of Cov. 171.
  • 73. M. D. Harris, Life in an Old Eng. Town, 210-11.
  • 74. Leet Bk. 350.
  • 75. Ibid. 376, 489.
  • 76. M. D. Harris, 'Laurence Saunders, Citizen of Cov.' E.H.R. ix. 633-9, and see Harris, Story of Cov. 187 sqq.; Leet Bk. 430-40, 510, 556, 576, 580.
  • 77. Leet Bk. 489, 504.
  • 78. Ibid. 565-6.
  • 79. Ibid. 570.
  • 80. Ibid. 626.
  • 81. Ibid. 729 sqq., 760 sqq.
  • 82. Ibid. 633.
  • 83. Ibid. 719.
  • 84. Ibid. 679.
  • 85. Harris, Story of Cov. 160-1.
  • 86. Leet Bk. 692.
  • 87. Ibid. 719.
  • 88. Ibid. 729 sqq.
  • 89. Ibid. 769.
  • 90. Ibid. 735.
  • 91. See above.
  • 92. Leet Bk. 769.
  • 93. Ibid. 788-9.
  • 94. Ibid. 792.
  • 95. A. 14(a), unnumbered loose pp. between pp. 8 and 17.
  • 96. Ibid. 48.
  • 97. Ibid. 238.
  • 98. See p. 19.
  • 99. B.M. Add. MS. 27379, ff. 29v-31v; see also p. 19. The covenant to allow pasturage continued to be included in leases to the corpn. in the 17th cent. made after the manor and park had been recovered by the Duchy of Cornwall in 1609: B.M. Add. MS. 27379, f. 36; E 317/ Warws./11 rot. 10.
  • 100. A. 14(a), 138.
  • 101. B.M. Add. MS. 27379, ff. 31v-32.
  • 102. A. 14(a), 163.
  • 103. V.C.H. Warws. ii. 157.
  • 104. A. 3(b), 136-7.
  • 105. Ibid. 147.
  • 106. Ibid. 154
  • 107. A. 14(a), 663.
  • 108. A. 3(b), 161.
  • 109. Ibid. 167.
  • 110. Ibid. 147.
  • 111. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1640-1, 371.
  • 112. A. 14(b), 61.
  • 113. Ibid. 62.
  • 114. Ibid. 141
  • 115. A. 3(b), 222, where the enactment against ploughing after Lammas and Mich. is reiterated.
  • 116. B.M. Add. MS. 27379, ff. 32-33v, 39v; P.C. 2/58/414; P.C. 2/59/53; M. Beloff, Public Order and Popular Disturbances, 1660-1714, 76.
  • 117. Cal. S.R. Dom. 1667-8, 435.
  • 118. Ibid. 1668-9, 438.
  • 119. A. 14(b), 147, 169, 171, 172, 173, 334, 340; Cal. Treas. Bks. 1660-7, 365; 1685-9, 705, 706.
  • 120. See A. 14(b), 384, 385, 398; Cal. Treas. Bks. 1685-9, 705-6; B.M. Add. MS. 27379, f. 34.
  • 121. Beloff, Public Order, 76-77.
  • 122. A. 14(b), 397; cf. Poole, Cov. 18.
  • 123. A. 14(b), 444, 445, 446.
  • 124. B.M. Add. MS. 27379, ff. 23v-28, 35v.
  • 125. A. 14(c), 55.
  • 126. Ibid. 136.
  • 127. C.L., C. Nowell, 'Reader MSS. in Gulson Libr.' (cuttings from Cov. Herald), f. 58.
  • 128. Warws. (1817), 314.
  • 129. C.L., L. Fox, 'Hist. Freedom Cov.' 138.
  • 130. Warws. (1817), 314.
  • 131. A. 14(l), 5 Feb. 1811.
  • 132. C.L., Nowell, 'Reader MSS.'
  • 133. C.L., G. C. Pegg, Authentic Rec. of Principal Facts, Dates of Meetings, and Other Proc. connected with Inclosure of Lammas and Mich. Lands (Cov. Standard office, 1859).
  • 134. C.L., cutting from Cov. Standard, 1908, on freemen's lands.
  • 135. A. 14(t), 204, 206.
  • 136. Poole, Cov. 314.
  • 137. Ibid.; Char. Com. file 70222.
  • 138. Act for enabling Mayor, Aldermen, and Burgesses of Cov. to make certain improvements, 7 & 8 Vic., c. 76 (local and personal Act); Poole, Cov. 333.
  • 139. A. 14(t), 447, 449, and see Poole, Cov. 315.
  • 140. A. 14(s), 89.
  • 141. Char. Com. file 70222.
  • 142. C.L., Pegg, Authentic Rec. of Facts, Meetings, and Other Proc.
  • 143. Char. Com. file 70222.
  • 144. White, Dir. Warws. (1850), 484.
  • 145. A. 14(s), 89.
  • 146. Char. Com. file 70222.
  • 147. Smith, Cov. 137-43.
  • 148. C.L., Pegg, Authentic Rec. of Facts, Meetings, and Other Proc.
  • 149. Smith, Cov. 137-43; C.L., copy of Cov. Inclosure Award, 1860.
  • 150. Char. Com., Unrep. Vol. 159, p. 32; Char. Com. files.
  • 151. Smith, Cov. 165.
  • 152. Ibid. 143-4; C.L., copy of Cov. Inclosure Award, 1875.
  • 153. Char. Com., Unrep. Vol. 159, p. 36.
  • 154. M. D. Harris, Life in an Old Eng. Town, 108n.
  • 155. Poole, Cov. 354. The figures are for c. 1869.
  • 156. Mun. Handbk. (1954-5), 126. The common was probably considerably larger in the 19th cent.
  • 157. Commons Regulation (Crosby Garrett [Westmld.] and Stivichall) Provisional Orders Confirmation Act, 1882, 45 Vic., c. 27 (local Act).
  • 158. City of Cov. Official Guide [1930], 22.
  • 159. Commons Regulation (Stoke) Provisional Order Confirmation Act, 1886, 49 Vic., c. 15 (local Act).
  • 160. Kelly's Dir. Warws. (1936), 82; T. A. Blyth, Stoke, 130-1, 145.
  • 161. Mun. Handbk. (1954-5), 125-6.
  • 162. Commons Regulation (Stoke) Provisional Order Confirmation Act, 1886; Cov. Corpn. Act, 1927, 17 & 18 Geo. V, c. 90 (local Act).
  • 163. Smith, Cov. 165.
  • 164. Commons Regulation (Gosford Green) Provisional Order Confirmation Act, 1914, 4 & 5 Geo. V, c. 53 (local Act).
  • 165. Cov. Corpn. Act, 1927; cf. Mun. Handbk. (1954-5), 125-6.
  • 166. Mun. Handbk. (1954-5), 125-6.
  • 167. Cov. Extension Act, 1931, 21 & 22 Geo. V, c. 56 (local Act); Rep. Royal Com. Common Land, App. IV [Cmnd. 462], p. 220, H.C. (1958).
  • 168. Sowe Common Scheme of Foleshill U.D.C., 15 May 1907 (approved by Bd. of Agric. and Fisheries, 8 June 1907).
  • 169. Cov. Extension Act, 1931.
  • 170. Cov. Corpn. Act, 1958, 6 & 7 Eliz. II, c. 36.
  • 171. Ex inf. the secretary, Freemen's Trustees under Inclosure Award of 1860.
  • 172. Char. Com. file 103741.
  • 173. Based on Char. Com. files.
  • 174. Poole, Cov. 316.
  • 175. L. W. Jones and K. B. Turner, Estate of Freemen of Cov. (1957).
  • 176. Char. Com. file 229234.
  • 177. C.L., cutting from Cov. Standard, 1908, on Freemen's Seniority Fund.
  • 178. Jones and Turner, Estate of Freemen.
  • 179. C.L., cutting from Cov. Standard, 1908.
  • 180. Based on Char. Com. files.
  • 181. Char. Com. files 229237, 229238.
  • 182. Based on Char. Com. files.
  • 183. Char. Com. files 229237, 229238.
  • 184. Based on Char. Com. files.
  • 185. Char. Com. file 218007.