What does the word ‘common’ imply? When we say that someone has ‘common sense’ we are being complimentary. But when we refer to something as ‘common or garden’ it’s a bit of a put-down. Back in the seventeenth century, during the Civil War, Parliamentary soldiers were fighting for the House of Commons, and succeeded in replacing the monarchy with a ‘Commonwealth’ – but they refused to be called ‘common soldiers’ which they regarded as an insult.
Despite these various and shifting meanings, there has been one consistent usage over the centuries: the use of ‘commons’ as a name for assets or resources accessible to all. Today, the term appears in the debate on climate change, where the Earth itself is coming to be understood as a common resource; and in the debate on the future of the internet which some regard as ‘digital commons’.
But the archetype of ‘commons’ is common land: land available to the rural poor. This was an intrinsic part of the medieval economy, and for much of its history Penge was just such a piece of common land. And it had an additional value because it was heavily wooded, and timber was a scarce resource.
Penge Common no longer exists. Instead, on the land which it once occupied, is the Penge that we know: houses and shops, roads and railways. This transformation was achieved, with due legal process and an Act of Parliament, in the early nineteenth century. Modern Penge only exists because Penge Common doesn’t.
Most of the people who lived on Penge Common before the nineteenth century, or had an interest in it, left no trace. But some did. Some of their stories survive in the archives. It’s an unrepresentative sample, skewed towards the rich and literate because they were the ones who produced the legal documents, contracts, accounts, letters and minutes which the archives hold. But even so, we are able to recover some sense of the past meanings of the place where modern Penge now sits.
I did a fair bit of archival research when working on my book, The Making of a London Suburb, about the history of Penge. But the story of the Common was only one chapter in that book, and there is lots more out there which I’ve never investigated.
So, over the next few months I will be burying myself in the archives, ferreting out scraps of material on Penge Common, and surfacing again to post progress reports here. And I hope to pull it all together in a public talk during the Penge Festival in June 2020.
As ever with research, I anticipate a heady mix of excitement, frustration, and more excitement. Excitement because I already have a whole lot of unanswered questions in mind; frustration because I know I won’t find answers to most of them; and then more excitement because failure to answer the first set of questions will inevitably throw up a second set.
One final comment. One of the most important archival sources is Bromley Historic Collections, accessed through the Local Studies section of Bromley Central Library. I have been a regular user over the past twenty years, and have benefitted from the presence of helpful, professional archivists and librarians. But for some months now they and their colleagues have been on strike in defence of the library service. The least I can do is repay their professionalism with a bit of solidarity. So Bromley’s archive is out of bounds until the dispute is settled.
Instead, early in the New Year, I’ll be heading for one of the other archives in the hope of shedding a bit of light on Penge’s lost common.