A radical group calling themselves the “True Levellers” planted some vegetables in the common land on St. George’s Hill in Weybridge, England in hopes that they would soon spark a revolution against the landlords in April 1649. They became known as The Diggers by their supporters and opponents for seeking to spread an order of egalitarian agrarian communes.
They resisted the forced enclosure of common lands, where common land would be enclosed to be given to a private owner. They were powerfully motivated by Christian scripture as the Diggers were a Protestant movement. They believed that private property was a sin and violated the commandments against theft and murder. In one passage from their most famous pamphlet “The True Levellers Standard Advanced” they proclaimed,
So long as we, or any other, doth own the Earth to be the peculiar Interest of Lords and Landlords, and not common to others as well as them, we own the Curse, and holds the Creation under bondage; and so long as we or any other doth own Landlords and Tennants, for one to call the Land his, or another to hire it of him, or for one to give hire, and for another to work for hire; this is to dishonour the work of Creation; as if the righteous Creator should have respect to persons, and therefore made the Earth for some, and not for all … Those that Buy and Sell Land, and are landlords, have got it either by Oppression, or Murther, or Theft; and all landlords lives in the breach of the Seventh and Eighth Commandments, Thou shalt not steal, or kill.
In other words, to the Diggers, the Earth was created by God to provide enough for everyone to hold in common, not to be owned as property by one person for private gain, to be rented to others, or worked on by others for hire. So long as we maintain an order of private property, the Diggers thought, we are ignoring God’s plan (holding “the Creation under bondage”). Finally, all private property is based on exploitation and protected by violence, and therefore is in violation of God’s commandments.
This was the central crux of their political motivation, and was elaborated on further throughout their other pamphlets. In a later pamphlet called “A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England…” they said,
“We … the poor oppressed people in England, declare unto you, that call your selves lords of Manors, and Lords of the Land, That in regard the King of Righteousness, our Maker, hath inlightened our hearts so far, as to see, That the earth was not made purposely for you, to be Lords of it, and we to be your Slaves, Servants, and Beggers; but it was made to be a common Livelihood to all, without respect of persons.”
Meanwhile, the Diggers continued to work the common land on St. George’s Hill as a commune. The Lord of the Manor, recognizing the threat the example being set by the Diggers posed, ordered gangs to attack the Diggers and set fire to their houses. Eventually the Diggers were brought to court, where they were unable to speak in their own defense and found guilty and evicted from the land. The Diggers were committed to pacifism, seeing violence and war as a sin, and thus complied without resistance.
Today, all of St. George’s Hill is an exclusive private estate for the wealthy, and especially celebrities. The average home on St. George’s Hill costs almost $5 million (about £3 million GBP). Notable residents on St. George’s Hill have included John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Elton John and Kate Winslet. Residents of the estate can enjoy the private golf and tennis clubs on the Hill. That is, until the spirit of the Diggers returns.
In the 17th century following the Diggers’ defeat, Gerrard Winstanly, a founder of the Diggers, wrote the “Diggers’ Song,” a protest song celebrating their stand. The song would be performed later by folk artists Dick Gaughan and Billy Bragg.
Dick Gaughan’s version of Handful of Earth in 1981.
Billy Bragg’s version from Brewing Up with Billy Bragg in 1984.
To St. George’s Hill,
A ragged band they called the Diggers
Came to show the people’s will
They defied the landlords
They defied the laws
They were the dispossessed reclaiming what was theirs
We come in peace they said
To dig and sow
We come to work the lands in common
And to make the waste ground grow
This earth divided
We will make whole
So it will be
A common treasury for all
The sin of property
We do disdain
No man has any right to buy and sell
The earth for private gain
By theft and murder
They took the land
Mow everywhere the walls
Spring up at their command
They make the laws
To chain us well
The clergy dazzle us with heaven
Or they damn us into hell
We will not worship
The God they serve
The God of greed who feed the rich
While poor folk starve
We work we eat together
We need no swords
We will not bow to the masters
Or pay rent to the lords
Still we are free
Though we are poor
You Diggers all stand up for glory
Stand up now
From the men of property
The orders came
They sent the hired men and troopers
To wipe out the Diggers’ claim
Tear down their cottages
Destroy their corn
They were dispersed
But still the vision lingers on
You poor take courage
You rich take care
This earth was made a common treasury
For everyone to share
All things in common
All people one
We come in peace
The orders came to cut them down