Stelling Minnis: A rural relic and monument to continual class struggle in Kent

If you glance at a map of the East Kent Downs you will notice several settlements with the suffix Minnis. The name probably stems from the Saxon word (Ge)maennes, and refers to areas of open heathland that once played a key role in the medieval rural economy, providing spaces for landless peasants to graze their animals, forage and collect firewood.

Over the centuries, the minnises were gradually “enclosed” by the lords of manor who owned them and vital access to the commons was cut off. This process was accelerated as the rural population grew and demand for land increased, and the privatization drive was eventually legalized by a series of parliamentary acts of enclosure. By the mid-19th century, nearly all common land in Kent had been parcelled up for private property owners.

However, one minnis still survives with some rights of common access intact, Stelling Minnis, located about ten kilometres south of Canterbury, just off the old Roman road of Stone Street. The other minnises nearby exist only as place names.

Regular grazing on Stelling Minnis ended in the 1950s and much of the grassland was subsequently taken over by shrubs and trees. Only a few patches of the former heath and acid grassland remain but native-breed sheep have now been reintroduced to manage the pasture and help maintain the rare plant and insect life there, such as western gorse (Ulex gallii) which is still abundant.

The common just north of Stelling Minnis village studded with western gorse.

It is important that this last remaining minnis be preserved, not only as a nature reserve but as a monument to the centuries-long struggle of the working poor in England to retain their ancient rights to the land, and earn an independent living, against the ever-growing power of private property and capital.

The right of access to common land, and more generally the corruption and abuse of power of local landowners, was a significant grievance in the 1381 Peasants Revolt and in Jack Cade’s Rebellion of 1450, both of which originated in Kent. But the issue really came to head in the mid-17th century when a group of social and political activists known as the Diggers urged the poor to take back control of common land from rich and indolent property owners.

The 1640s was a desperate time for England’s poor. Suffering from the devastation of the Civil War and a series of poor harvests, people were forced to take matters into their own hands. On April 1, 1649, a group of men held a symbolic dig on St Georges Hill, on the outskirts of Windsor Great Forest. This was merely the best-known of many actions taken by the Diggers or True Levellers as they called themselves. They were inspired by the radical ideas of Gerrard Winstanley, a prolific pamphleteer who argued that social injustice and wealth inequality in England could be mitigated and ultimately eradicated by allowing peasants to communally cultivate common land. Winstanley reminded England’s lords of the manor that their property holdings were derived from land seizures following the Norman Conquest of 1066 and that reparations were owed to the common people of England:

The power of enclosing land and owning property was brought into the creation by your ancestors by the sword; which first did murder their fellow creatures, men, and after plunder or steal away their land, and left this land successively to you, their children. And therefore, though you did not kill or thieve, yet you hold that cursed thing in your hand by the power of the sword; and so you justify the wicked deeds of your fathers, and that sin of your fathers shall be visited upon the head of you and your children to the third and fourth generation, and longer too, till your bloody and thieving power be rooted out of the land.

Digger communities were established across southern and central England, including Kent, prompting a backlash from the landowning class, especially after the Diggers added a demand for confiscated church, crown and royalists’ land to be turned over to the poor. It is no coincidence that one of the most ardent opponents of the working class during the Civil War was not from the Royalist camp but that representative of private land owners Oliver Cromwell.

Enclosure meant that the rural poor had no option but to sell their labour to landowners in order to earn a living. This in turn meant that when landowners found cheaper methods of production, rural labour was no longer needed.

The introduction of threshing machines after the Napoleonic War, for example, left many farm labourers destitute, and led to widespread protests across Kent, starting on the night of August 28, 1830, with the destruction of a threshing machine in the village of Lower Hardres, just up the road from Stelling Minnis. The protests were known as the Swing Riots after the threatening letters sent to landowners signed “Swing,” an example of which is quoted by Hobsbawm and Rude in their seminal book on the protests.

Sir, This is to acquaint you that if your threshing machines are not destroyed by you directly we shall commence our labours. Signed on behalf of the whole… Swing

Many local magistrates, understanding the plight of the rural poor, were initially sympathetic to the protests but hundreds of protesters were eventually imprisoned or deported to Australia.

Today, the villages of Kent Downs seem peaceful, even idyllic, but beneath the surface tensions between landowners and rural labour still simmer. However, it is not the English working class who are exploited now. Prior to Brexit, most farm work was carried out by seasonal labourers from eastern Europe, now many come from as far away as central Asia, and often have to sign onerous contracts with labour export companies just to get a place on the farm.

Rural landowners may complain that they cannot earn a living but the power imbalance between them and the precariat they employ remains as wide as ever.

Recommended reading:

Dan Tuson, The Kent Downs, The History Press, 2011.

Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution, Penguin Books, 1971.

Gerrard Winstanley, The True Levellers Standard Advanced: Or, The State of Community Opened, and Presented to the Sons of Men, 1649.

Juliet Barker, 1381: The Year of the Peasants’ Revolt, Harvard University Press, 2014.

Eric. J Hobsbawm and George F. E Rudé, Captain Swing, London: Phoenix Press, 2001.

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