[Tony Allen, Chair of The Chislehurst Society (left) with John Hayhow, Chair of Chislehurst Commons. Photograph by Adam Swaine.]
PRIVATELY OWNED SINCE MEDIAEVAL TIMES, CHISLEHURST COMMONS HAVE THIS MONTH BEEN SOLD INTO CHARITABLE OWNERSHIP IN ORDER TO SAFEGUARD THEIR FUTURE FOR THE BENEFIT AND ENJOYMENT OF THE COMMUNITY.
The 180 acres of common land in and around Chislehurst in the London Borough of Bromley have passed through generations of monarchs and landed aristocracy since the 10th century.
The open green spaces and ponds are managed and maintained by registered charity Chislehurst Commons, but its resources are insufficient to buy freehold land and its governing legislation prevents it from doing so.
When the opportunity arose to acquire the commons in their entirety after more than 1,000 years of private ownership, The Chislehurst Society – another local charity – stepped in and bought the freehold on behalf of the community.
What are the commons?
The woodlands, grasslands, heathlands and ponds that make up Chislehurst Commons give the area its rural charm. The diverse habitats are home to rare species of plants as well as birds, reptiles, amphibians and small mammals.
Strictly speaking there are two commons – Chislehurst and St Paul’s Cray – although they are now managed together as one entity.
History of the commons
The first recorded owner of Chislehurst Manor and its commons, in 974, was King Eadgar. With some interesting complications along the way (for a while the commons belonged to a hospice at the Great St Bernard Pass in Switzerland), the land passed through successive monarchs until the time of Henry VIII.
It was then sold to the Walsinghams, an influential family at the Tudor Courts. Their most famous son, Sir Francis, is often referred to as Queen Elizabeth I’s ‘Spymaster’.
In the late 17th Century, the Walsinghams sold the land to Richard Bettenson, whose most famous descendant is Thomas Townshend, the first Viscount Sydney; the man after whom Sydney, Australia is named.
The commons embody the ancient ‘right to roam’ and have been fiercely protected by local residents for centuries. History records various moments when the people of Chislehurst had to stand up to the Lord of the Manor to maintain their rights as ‘commoners’ and prevent enclosure. Prominent residents lobbied for an Act of Parliament that was passed in 1888 to guarantee both protection of the land and a public right to use it.
The Act – still in force today – also established a local body to preserve and maintain the land. This body, now known as Chislehurst Commons, is a charity run by a voluntary Board of Trustees and employs two full-time Keepers to maintain the 180 acres.
New Lord of the Manor
The commons have remained privately owned by Viscount Sydney’s surviving descendants, who earlier this year expressed an interest in selling the freehold. Chislehurst Commons did not have the resources to buy it and the 1888 Act prevents it from doing so. It therefore turned to The Chislehurst Society, also a registered charity, in order to secure the long-term future of the commons.
The freeholder of the commons carries the title ‘Lord of the Manor’. Since 1975, the title has been held by Family Trusts on behalf of the Marsham-Townshend family.
The trusts made the decision to sell as they are not involved in the day to day running of the commons, nor are they obliged to finance it. As none of the family lives locally, it was their wish that ownership should be transferred to a local entity better placed to act in the interests of Chislehurst.
John Hayhow, Chairman of Chislehurst Commons, says:
“When it became clear that the commons were available to buy, The Chislehurst Society was our obvious choice of partner. Its whole ethos is the enhancement of Chislehurst and preservation of the commons is integral to that. We are extremely fortunate that the purchase is financially viable for the Society, a charity that we have worked alongside for many years in the best interests of the community.”
What is the significance?
Purchase of the commons is historically significant because for the first time in history the land is now owned by a charitable entity representative of the people of Chislehurst. The Society’s main purpose is the preservation and protection of local amenities.
Whilst The Chislehurst Society is now ‘Lord of the Manor’, Chislehurst Commons retains its day to day responsibility for managing the green spaces and will continue its invaluable work.
The commons will still play host to annual events such as the Open Air Cinema, The Big Draw and The Chislehurst Chase. These events are organised by volunteers to bring the community together and to help raise funds for upkeep of the commons.
Tony Allen, Chairman of The Chislehurst Society, says:
“We are a widely supported membership organisation and the generosity of Chislehurst residents, past and present, has enabled us to make this important acquisition. The commons are the very essence of Chislehurst and I am delighted that we have been able to use our funds to secure the freehold for the benefit of residents. The Chislehurst Society is wholly committed to the preservation of the commons for future generations.”
Upkeep of the common land costs £100k a year. Chislehurst Commons receives a third of its funding from the London Borough of Bromley, raising the rest from small grants and donations from residents. The Trustees and Keepers are assisted by volunteers who contribute over 2,000 hours a year to help conserve the commons.
The purchase of the freehold is an exciting development for both Chislehurst Commons and The Chislehurst Society. The two charities now look forward to working together to enhance and protect the commons for the benefit and enjoyment of residents and visitors, now and in the future.
NOTES TO EDITORS
- Common land is the term used for areas of a private estate that commoners have traditional rights over as part of the feudal system. This includes unlimited access rights to pedestrians.
- Chislehurst Commons comprises 180 acres of woods, grassland, heathland and several ponds in and around Chislehurst in the London Borough of Bromley.
- The key source for the history of Chislehurst and its commons is The History of Chislehurst (1899) Webb et al. This includes records of various disputes between commoners and the landowner.
- Chislehurst Commons is the working title of a body established by an Act of Parliament passed in 1888. Prominent Chislehurst residents, funded by some £800 of local donations, formed a preservation society that achieved the passage of the Metropolitan Commons (Chislehurst and St Paul’s Cray) Supplemental Act. Under its terms, responsibility for management and maintenance of the commons resides in perpetuity with a voluntary Board of Trustees, now known as Chislehurst Commons (registered charity no. 1028121).
- The Chislehurst Society is a registered charity established in 1934. Its charitable objectives are to promote high standards of planning and architecture in Chislehurst, to educate the public in the geography, history, natural history and architecture of Chislehurst, and to secure the preservation, protection, development and improvement of features of historic, environmental or public interest in Chislehurst. It has over 4,000 members. Membership of The Chislehurst Society is by annual subscription and is open to all residents. The charity is managed by an executive committee and operates a network of road stewards covering the whole of BR7.
- Chislehurst is very proud of its rich cultural heritage. As well as the commons, the area is known for its caves (where the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin performed in the 60s), a golf club that was once home to Napoleon, a near unique cockpit and the historic visit by Queen Elizabeth I in 1597 to knight Sir Thomas Walsingham (as depicted in the village sign).
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