Thursday, 30 June 2016

Occupy! Historical geographies of property, protest and the commons, 1500–1850


Explores historical geographies of property, protest and the commons.
Examines occupation of common land as a way of subverting private property rights.
Investigates three moments in the making of property in land between 1500 and 1850.
Interrogates the relations between past and contemporary protest.


This paper examines issues surrounding protest, trespass and occupation – brought to the fore as a result both of recent social movements including the global Occupy movement and of emerging critical discourses about so-called ‘new enclosures’ – through a historical lens. Wary of histories of property and protest that rely heavily on the notion of the ‘closing of the commons’, the authors present a different story about the solidification of property rights, the securitisation of space and the gradual emergence of the legal framework through which protest is now disciplined. They do so via an exploration of three episodes in the making of property in land and three associated moments of resistance, each enacted via the physical occupation of common land. The first examines strategies for opposing enclosure in early sixteenth century England; the second the Diggers' reimagining of property and the commons in the mid seventeenth century; and the third analyses the challenge to property rights offered by squatting and small-scale encroachments in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. These episodes also serve to detail some of the foundational ways in which the securitisation of space, and the attendant legal framework used to discipline protest, emerged. In so doing, the paper begins to rethink the relations between past and contemporary protest, considering how a more nuanced account of the history of common rights, enclosure and property relations might nevertheless leave space for new solidarities which have the potential to challenge the exercise of arbitrary power.


  • Property;
  • Commons;
  • Enclosure;
  • Protest;
  • Land;
  • Occupation
Corresponding author.
Briony McDonagh is a historical and cultural geographer at the University of Hull, where she was also until recently AHRC Early Career Fellow. She has published widely on the historical geographies of enclosure, protest, property and the law, on women's histories and on the history of the English rural landscape.
Carl Griffin is a historical geographer of eighteenth- and nineteenth century Britain and Ireland and author of The Rural War: Captain Swing and the Politics of Protest (2012) and Protest, Politics and Work in Rural England, 1700–1850 (2014). He is chair of the Historical Geography Research Group, and co-editor of Rural History.