In 1630, a 21 year old textile trader moved to London. He did well at first, but as a result of the abuse of power by the both the King and Parliament and then the outbreak of the English Civil War which started twelve years later, he saw his business ruined and in 1643 he became bankrupt.
His father-in-law helped him move to Cobham in Surrey, where he initially worked as a cowherd.
However, by the time of the defeat of the Royalist side and King Charles execution in early 1649, he and a group of others in a similar situation had got together to represent the voice of the common people, and especially that of the propertyless poor.
The man’s name was GERRARD WINSTANLEY.
He soon became the key spokesperson of the group which the people living at the time referred to as ‘THE DIGGERS’, but who were also known as the ‘True Levellers’ as distinct from another group led by John Lilburne, Richard Overton and William Walwyn known as ‘The Levellers’ who while seeking equality before the law, and an extension of the right to vote for most men, did not support the abolition of private property and common ownership of the land.
The Diggers ‘nickname’ came from their belief that the land should be available to every person to dig and sow, so that everyone, rich or poor, could live, grow and eat by the sweat of their own brows, as according to them “The earth was made to be a common treasury for all.”
THE DIGGERS also advocated absolute human equality including equality between men and women which in the 1600s was a very radical idea indeed.
WHAT DID THE DIGGERS DO?
Instead of simply voicing their opinion through the books and other papers GERRARD WINSTANLEY wrote, he and THE DIGGERS, who consisted of mainly poor families that had no land of their own (as land was only owned by the rich) decided to take direct action by taking over common land that belonged to no one, and which was not in use, and started to farm it, so as to allow everyone who worked the land to eat.
At first this went well, but unsurprisingly the ideas of THE DIGGERS were considered extremely dangerous by those with a vested interest in the preservation of privilege, property and power.
As more of these communities appeared rich land owners and the corrupt government sent soldiers (see drawing from the time depicting this below) to beat them, destroy their homes and crops and drive them off the land they were occupying.
SO WHY HAVE A DIGGERS’ FESTIVAL IN WIGAN?
Well, the simple answer to that is that GERRARD WINSTANLEY was born and raised in Wigan. It is also, from the earlier action of Wigan Clay and Coal ‘Diggers’ who established their right to dig up local common land for clay and coal, it is suggested by some Winstanley scholars, that he drew his inspiration for his own actions in 1649.
As well as being able to find out more about the life, ideas, and actions of this great Wiganer, we want to celebrate him and THE DIGGERS’ movement with a festival of live music, poetry, film, great beer, and most of all a re-born sense of community spirit amongst ordinary people everywhere.
A FINAL NOTE
Historically GERRARD WINSTANLEY and THE DIGGERS movement was, and is, one of the most important parts of the English ‘Revolution’ of 1649.
This is recognized globally with GERRARD WINSTANLEY amongst those listed on a monument dedicated to ‘The great Socialist thinkers’ in Moscow, Russia.
We think Wigan should be proud to be the home of such an important historical figure, especially as he was the voice for so many ordinary people at the time.
“For freedom is the man that will turn the word upside down, no wonder he hath enemies”
Here’s a clip from the 1975 film ‘Winstanley’ by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo. Pity about the anything but Wigan, and pretty ‘posh’ Southern accent, as well as mispronunciation of the man’s name (which should be pronounced Winstan-ley not Win-stanley) by Winstanley actor Miles Halliwell.
Gerrard Winstanley & The Diggers “One of the great stories of British history!” Michael Wood BBC’s The Great British Story: A People’s History: The Age of Revolution. Well worth a watch, starting at 41.32