Festival marks the work of local man Gerrard Winstanley and his ‘Diggers’, whose fight for common ownership of land can be traced to radicals in Lancashire
On Saturday week, 8 September, the second Diggers Festival will take place in Wigan. Stephen Hall, one of the organisers, explains its significance to the town and his own enthusiasm:
It came about because I noticed the Gerrard Winstanley House in the town centre, and, after some research, discovered that Gerrard Winstanley was born here.
Winstanley was the inspirational leader of the 17th century Diggers movement, whose members were also known as the ‘True Levellers’. They were one of the first egalitarian political movements to represent the poor and those without property, and also argued for the equality of men and women.
Winstanley’s politics were driven by his own experiences. In 1630, aged 21 years old, he moved to London. He did well at first, but as a result of the abuse of power by both the King and Parliament and then the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642 , Winstanley saw his business ruined and in 1643 became bankrupt. His father-in-law helped him move to Cobham in Surrey, where he initially worked as a cowherd.
By the time of the defeat of the Royalist side and King Charles’ execution in January 1649, Winstanley 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. Their name ‘Diggers’ 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, for according to them:
The earth was made to be a common treasury for all.
In 1649 Winstanley and the Diggers, who consisted of mainly poor families that had no land of their own, decided on direct action by taking over common land at St George’s Hill in Surrey. It belonged to no one, and was not in use, so they started to farm it, to allow everyone who worked the land to eat. The government and wealthy landowners reacted by attacking the Diggers, destroying their homes and crops and eventually driving them from their land the following year.
Stephen Hall believes that Winstanley’s work in 1649 was inspired by the successes of Wigan clay and coal diggers “who established their right to dig up common land to protect their livelihoods.” He feels that this gives Wigan a claim to be “the home of socialism” and that Winstanley’s views are as relevant today as they were in 1649, particularly given the economic situation.
The Festival is organised by local groups, including trade unions such as Unite, the Labour Party, as well as the local Folk Group and the Wigan Historical Society. It has broad based support across the north-west and Stephen hopes it can be built as a northern alternative to the Tolpuddle festival. They have also made contacts with other Diggers groups in Wellingborough and Northamptonshire more widely.
On the day there will be a wide range of activities which aim to celebrate the life and ideas of Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers movement. As well as an exhibition detailing Winstanley’s life, an actor John Graham Davies will play the Diggers’ leader in a symbolic, part theatrical ‘Digging re-enactment’ and tree-planting ceremony. The film Winstanley, made in 1975 by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, will be shown.
The aim of the Festival is to raise local awareness of Winstanley and his political views, hence a town centre Diggers’ Parade and a mass singsong. This will be led by the Liverpool Socialist Singers who will perform the Diggers Song, said to have been written by Winstanley, as well as Leon Rosselson‘s anthem to the Diggers A World Turned Upside Down.
There will over thirty community and political stalls, as well as food stalls such as the OccuPie, a Wigan beer tent with two locally-brewed special commemorative ales; the Prospect ‘Diggers 1649 Ale’ and Allgates ‘Gerrard Winstanley Ale’.
Throughout the day there will music, poetry and monologues taking place on two stages. At the Wigan Life Centre there will be an audio visual presentation and discussion on Gerrard Winstanley and the 17th century Diggers’ (True Leveller) movement.
Stephen hopes that the Festival will:
remind people of the significance of Winstanley and the Diggers and his relevance to present day politics. It is not about ramming politics down peoples’ throats but we want to encourage a re-born sense of community spirit amongst ordinary people everywhere.