History of Banstead Commons Conservators
In the 1800’s Banstead was a typical, small English village with churches, inns, wells and a forge surrounded by several areas of common land. When the Banstead and Epsom Downs railway was established and built across part of these commons, for the better regulation of railways and the conveyance of troops, a sum of £16,000 was paid as compensation for the commoners’ loss of rights. This was a large sum of money in those days, it is no wonder that it was accepted by the commoners with little thought.
Around this time, Sir John William Cradock Hartopp, a wily Yorkshire baronet, saw Banstead Commons, a Metropolitan Common, as possible house-building land and hence potential profit. In order to realise this profit Sir John conceived a new approach, after having purchased the land, some 1682 acres, with the intention of inclosing, but he set out to acquire the commoners’ rights by purchase and hence extinguish them. He acted cautiously to avoid revealing his intentions. Some of the commoners, who no longer exercised their rights, readily sold them but as time passed and word of Sir John’s interest leaked, the price demanded rose steadily so that by mid 1876 he had spent over £17,500 on acquiring commoners’ rights.
Whether he was financially pressed or just felt over-confident is not known, but he commenced building cottages on Banstead Downs and started stripping top soil, turf and gravel from Banstead Heath. The residents were appalled and towards the end of 1876 many of the remaining commoners banded together to bring a joint action against Sir John in the Court of Chancery: the few commoners remaining were probably the better off of the commoners.
Court action is always expensive and it was indeed fortunate that the Corporation of the City of London resolved, in 1877, to take such steps as necessary for securing the preservation of Banstead Commons for the benefit of the people and contributed a large sum to the commoners’ cause. Little did those starting out realise that it would take some 13 years to conclude the Action – and all the time the development and stripping continued. Topsoil from Blue Ball Green was used at The Oval Cricket Ground and the massive London County Asylum at Freedown was completed in 1877, a monumental edifice that scarred the landscape from miles around.
The Plaintiff’s progress in the Courts had been minimal, but the pressure was having effect, Sir John’s solicitor, who was also his business partner in the venture, absconded with all their funds. Sir John was bankrupt, the Commons which were heavily mortgaged in expectation of profits, were seized by his creditors, and he took no further part in the action.
The Commoners were suddenly faced with new adversaries who continued building and stripping the Commons. They applied to the court and were able to show that insufficient land was left for them to exercise their existing grazing rights. Judgement was given in favour of the commoners in April, 1889. The appeal was heard and the Action, which had first commenced on 8th January, 1877, was resolved in December 1889 in their favour. Further litigation continued until in June 1893 The Metropolitan Commons (Banstead) Supplemental Act 1893 was confirmed which established a scheme for the local management and regulation of the Banstead Commons. The Act laid the basic ground rules, stipulated the legal duties and responsibilities of the Conservators, which still prevail today, and also appointed the first eight Banstead Commons Conservators.
Although a success for the Commoners the 1893 Act was still a bit of a compromise, the Commons were preserved but there was no provision for funding the works necessary to comply with the duties imposed on the Conservators by the Act. The Act decreed that subsequent Conservators be appointed in the following manner: two appointed by the owners of the soil and six elected by the vestry of the Parish of Banstead, each for a three-year term of office.
The first meeting of the Conservators was held on the 7th July, 1893 and one of their first tasks was to frame Byelaws to regulate the Commons; these were enacted in April 1894 and are essentially unchanged to this day. On several occasions the Conservators have reviewed the need for updating them but each time it appears that the existing Byelaws are more comprehensive than their modern equivalents.
In the twentieth century, the local authority acquired most of the land and these days all eight Conservators are appointed/elected by Reigate and Banstead Borough Council after consultation with the Council’s Executive although the Conservators still manage the Commons independently from the Council.
Until 2006, the only way land could be removed from the Commons was by compulsory purchase order by the Highway Authority, an area of replacement land contiguous with the existing common and of at least equivalent area and value (as common land) had to be provided in exchange. Since the 2006 Commons Act, land can be removed from the Commons for other reasons but only with governmental approval, the land replacement clause still applies.
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