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Last updated:22 April 2015

Gerrard Winstanley and the English Diggers

The Diggers were groups of agrarian communists who flourished in England and were led by Gerrard Winstanley and William Everard and lasted just under one year, between 1649 and 1650. Although this is considerably earlier than the focus of the Library collection, many items we hold hark back to the story of the Diggers - from selections of Winstanley's writings to present day recordings and songsheets by people like Chumbawamba ('The diggers' song) and Leon Rosselson ('The world turned upside down').

Cover of a reprint of The true levellers standard advancedThe Diggers were also known as True Levellers but the leaders of the Levellers themselves denounced this. Having come into personal contact with the Levellers, Winstanley for the first time had become aware of the social and economic problems of the period. A combination of Pride's Purge, the disastrous harvest of 1648 and Winstanley's views on private property being a source of social conflict led him start his digging campaign in April 1649. Since, as a small trader, he had been ruined by the Civil War he wrote 'The New Law of Righteousness', which has been described as a communist manifesto written in the dialect of its day and was credited, by George Woodcock, with having an understanding of social problems in advance of any social thinker before William Godwin 150 years later.

It was after 'the word of God' came to him in a trance telling him 'to publish it abroad' that Winstanley started his digging campaign at St. George's Hill in Surrey. This verse is from one of Winstanley's writings, namely 'The Digger Song', and the many verses virtually encompass the whole cause.

With spades and hoes and plowes, stand up now, stand up now
With spades and hoes and plowes, stand up now,
Your freedom to uphold, seeing Cavaliers are bold
To kill you if they could, and rights from you to hold
Stand up now, Diggers all.

Each day their number increased, digging the waste land and planting vegetables. Winstanley imagined that his venture would be an example to others and spread across the country.  He dreamed that everyone would till the earth without an issue of ownership and the whole earth would be a 'common treasury for every man'.

His optimism of about 5000 followers though was not to be realised despite them being promised an Cover of The Digger Movement 1649equal share in the venture. They met with much local opposition of the wealthy farmers to the point that houses they had erected while waiting for the vegetables to grow were burnt down and their tools destroyed. Following the attacks in June 1649 by several infantry men under a Captain Stravie where a boy was seriously injured and a house burned, Winstanley wrote to Fairfax maintaining that it was 'an undeniable equity that the Common People ought to dig and plough and dwell upon the Commons without hiring them or paying rent to any'.  However the plea met with no response. Two days later the Diggers were brutally beaten as they resisted a further attack, and a horse was seriously wounded.

A month later Winstanley and fellow Diggers were arrested on a charge of trespassing on the land of Member of Parliament, Mr Drake, the Lord of the Manor at St. George's Hill. Not being able to plead their own case, one was imprisoned for three days and all were fined heavily. Winstanley was arrested a second time in August on the same charge and fined again.

Cover of The Wisdom of Winstanley the DiggerAttacks and arrests continued throughout the rest of 1649 while local people were urged to refuse any help of lodging or food. The Diggers were denounced as 'Royalists, atheists, libertines and polygamists'.  Several Diggers tried promoting the scheme in neighbouring counties, especially in areas that had experienced recent conflict over enclosure, but were arrested at Wellingborough. However the poor began to dig on the common land there and some farmers offered seed and groups in Kent and Gloucestershire began to dig until the appointed Council of State again intervened.

The Diggers' venture came to an end when Parson Platt, who had continued to persecute them, burned their houses, belongings and threatened death if they resumed activities and a 24-hour vigil was kept as a prevention. Therefore Winstanley's attempt to introduce communism into England ceased.

The Diggers, advocating the communal cultivation of common land to return the earth to its original Flyer for the first Wigan Diggers Festival, 2011purpose, reached out to the rural poor, cottagers and landless labourers. Their strategy did not include violence or damage to the property of the rich but their ambition was that by example the rich would be persuaded to shed some of their wealth. Unlike the Levellers who numbered thousands, the Diggers never developed a mass following probably due to the amount of harassment they encountered and their actual impact was minimal and it is 'perhaps more in the realm of the history of ideas that their lasting significance is to be measured'. While Winstanley failed to build a New Jerusalem, 'his career as a radical pamphleteer was not futile'. One of Winstanley's main principles was that a just government must be run on impartial laws for the good of the working people.

 

Resources about the Diggers in the library collection

Leonard Hamilton (ed). Gerrard Winstanley: selections from his works (1944) - Shelfmark: P32

Gerrard Winstanley, The law of freedom, and other writings (1973) - Shelfmark: J15

Lewis H Berens, The Digger movement in the days of the Commonwealth: as revealed in the writings of Gerrard Winstanley, the Digger, mystic and nationalist, communist and social reformer (1906) - Shelfmark: D50

David W Petegorsky, Left-wing democracy in the English Civil War: a study of the social philosophy of Gerrard Winstanley (1940) - Shelfmark: E08

Fenner Brockway, Britain's first socialists: the Levellers, Agitators and Diggers of the English Revolution (1980) - Shelfmark: I40

Leslie SA Jones, The Digger movement 1649 (1986) - Shelfmark: Jubilee Group Box 3

The following books also contain chapters on the Diggers

J Morrison Davidson, Concerning four precursors of Henry George and the single tax as also the land gospel according to Winstanley "The Digger" (no date) - Shelfmark: D04

Joseph Clayton, Leaders of the people: studies in democratic history (1910) - Shelfmark: A32

Carl Heath, Social and religious heretics in five centuries (1936) - Shelfmark: J42