Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Diggers - England's Early 'Commune'

by Deborah Swift

The Diggers were the first group of people to try and live in what we would nowadays call a ‘commune.’ Led by Gerrard Winstanley, the movement began in Cobham in England in 1649, but rapidly spread to other parishes in the southern area of England.

Scene from a film about Winstanley's life 'Winstanley'

The Diggers were one of a number of alternative factions that sprang up during the English Civil War which was a period of intense social and religious conflict. In the country, many of the gentry shut up their houses during the war and fled to London, leaving their servants and staff with no employment. Some turned to the warring factions of the army, but others, outraged at seeing the land left uncultivated and falling to ruin, began to question the ownership of the land. The situation was made worse by the fact that woodlands were felled to build blockades, and bands of undisciplined soldiers would plunder and steal foodstuffs, leaving country people with no stores, no winter fuel, and the prospect of fields with crops left to rot.

Gerrard Winstanley was the author of a number of religious tracts, and wanted to revivify the ideal of community life. The Diggers advocated equality for all, even equality between men and women, which was viewed as a radical idea in the seventeenth century. Their ideas also included the sharing of all goods and property, the replacement of money with bartering, and the ability to worship freely in whatever way one chose.

Winstanley's words on a modern banner

The name ‘The Diggers’ came from Winstanley’s belief that the earth was made to be ‘a common treasury for all’, and that all should be able to dig it, and provide themselves with what was necessary for human survival – food, warmth and shelter. The Diggers made several unsuccessful attempts to build houses in different locations, but were suppressed by the land-owning classes and dispersed by force, and the communities wiped out. Their most famous colony was on St Georges Hill.

Although the Diggers were a short-lived movement, their ideas had a far-reaching effect, sowing the seeds of communal living and self-sufficiency for future generations.

Shadow on the Highway (about highwaywoman Lady Katherine Fanshawe and her maid Abigail) includes several characters who are Diggers. I thought that the teen of the 1640's would be attracted by their ideals and their vision of a new future different from the one their parents had.

Shadow on the Highway is out now published by Endeavour Press
(ebook and paperback)

If you want to know more about the Diggers, the film 'Winstanley' (old but good) is available to watch on Youtube, or for the more academically inclined I recommend 'Brave Community' by John Gurney.


  1. I will certainly look for the "Winstanley" film. It is good to learn of this desperate and brave group, who in their efforts made a way for latter communes such as the American group "Fruitlands", in Harvard Massachusetts, founded by Bronson Alcott (Louisa May's ardent and oftimes misguided father). Thank you, Deborah.

  2. Interesting to learn this was the beginning of communes.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.