(P.12) "The Great North Wood"

by L.S.C. Neville; The London Wildlife Trust, Southwark Group 1987. - Extract.

In 1606, while Alleyn carefully extended his estate by buying out smaller landowners, James 1 was approached by a member of his Household from Lewisham called Henry Newport. He requested the enclosure of Westwood. There was an outcry and following a confused report from a badly attended Commission of Inquiry in 1607 the matter was dropped. However, during the next six years Newport and his friends held 'secret inquisitions' to determine how they could claim the land. In 1614 they felt confident enough to approach the king again; this time easily obtaining a lease for the bulk of Westwood for a term of 60 years. Opposition was quickly organised and in October a court was held to inquire into the matter. There seems little doubt that the residents of Lewisham were not given a fair hearing. The jury ignored their complaints and found against them. Newport and his friends, realising that possession is ninetenths of the law, began rather ambitiously to fence around this large common of over 500 acres. This was during the winter and the residents became fearful at the prospect of not being able to collect firewood. Abraham Colfe, the vicar of Lewisham, organised fund-raising for the protest and led a march of 100 parishioners to Tottenham High Cross. There he presented a petition to the king who passed it to the Privy Council saying he did not want to be bothered by it.

The residents fears were confirmed when Newport's hired men attacked women gathering wood. Tempers frayed and a riot took place. The vicar and his friends trying to establish a case against Newport were horrified at the violent turn of events. Indeed in April 1615 it occurred to the Privy Council that things might have got a little out of hand. They told the Justices of the Peace for the area to punish any offenders while they sorted out what to do. By June the Lewisham residents found that no action was being taken by the J.P.s even though cattle were found slaughtered in Westwood and the skins of dead sheep were hung provocatively from bushes for all to see. Colfe discovered that he was being portrayed as an instigator of rebellion against the king, the protesters as rich individuals who could not suffer from enclosure. In July another court could not resolve the matter as the lessees demanded excessive compensation for giving up their holding. But they had pushed their luck too far and by October it had become obvious to the Privy Council that the residents were justified in their complaints. The well-researched arguments of Colfe, combined with the neglect of the J.P.s, provided a way out of this embarrassing situation. An independent jury agreed that Westwood was an ancient common with all the attendant customal rights. As Colfe wrote with relief 'they passed [a verdict] in the behalfe of the poore inhabitants' although common rights extended to many more.

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