Case Studies - Commons - England

Case study: Eskdale Common, Cumbria, England – (2) Commoners’ Committee


Type of institution for collective action

Commoners’ committee

Name/description institution


Eskdale Commoners’ Committee







Name of city or specified area


Eskdale Civil Parish

Further specification location (e.g. borough, street etc.)

Eskdale Common (CL 58)

Patron Saint of this institution



Amount of area and boundaries (for institutions related to landed property)

Common land area: approx 3,071.5 ha. 


Note that this is the current area: the original area of commons in the manor was reduced over time through small enclosures made by individual farms, and by a substantial enclosure made at Wasdalehead in 1808.

Foundation/start of institution, date or year


Foundation year: is this year the confirmed year of founding or is this the year this institution is first mentioned?

Confirmed year.

Foundation act present?


Yes, the founding constitution present.

Description of Act of foundation


A written constitution.

Year of termination of institution


The committee appears to have faded by 1955.

Year of termination: estimated or confirmed?


Act regarding termination present?

There was not a specifc act of termination; see above.

Description Act of termination

See above.


Reason for termination?

Not specified, but possibly due to a lack of grass-roots commitment and authority.

Recognized by local government?

This was voluntary association without legal power.

Concise history of institution


This extensive upland common lies in the English Lake District, supporting a traditional pastoral farming system and a landscape of high conservation value.  Manorial lordship was vested in the earls of Northumberland and their successors, the Wyndham family, from 1398 until 1979, when ownership of the common was transferred to The National Trust.  Historically, the common provided local commoners with a wide range of resources, including pasture for livestock, peat for fuel, and bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) for thatching, animal bedding and potash; today, the focus is primarily on pasture for sheep.  From the medieval period management of the common was carried out by the local manor court (Eskdale Case Study 1); this was followed in 1945 by a short-lived commoners’ committee (Eskdale Case Study 2, i.e. this study); and in 1967 by a more successful commoners’ association, which continues to manage the common today (Eskdale Case Study 3).


Institution: Commoners’ Committee

Documentary evidence of the management of Eskdale common is scarce in the period after the last surviving manor court verdict of 1859.  It appears that the demise of the manor court was followed by a long period without a collective management institution: quite how the common was regulated during this period is therefore unclear.  In the early 1940s, Eskdale Parish Council agreed that a new commons management institution was necessary, prompted by confusion over rights, trespasses by graziers without common rights, and questions over public footpaths.  


The founding of the new commoners’ committee was largely driven by the clerk to Eskdale Parish Council, the Reverend H. H. Symonds, who was also an influential and sometimes controversial campaigner for landscape preservation in the Lake District: he was an officer of the Friends of the Lake District and involved in national bodies such as The Ramblers’ Association and the Standing Committee for National Parks.  Symonds undertook much of the preparatory work of founding the new commoners’ committee, corresponding with the lord of the manor, drafting the constitution, and becoming the committee’s first secretary.


According to the constitution, the committee was expected to oversee the condition of walls, fences and gates; proper use of heafs (areas of grazing for specific flocks); stocking dates when animals should be taken on or off the common; illegal exercise of grazing rights and other rights by non-commoners; encroachments; and to uphold the customs of the common.  However, this committee appears to have suffered a collapse by the late 1950s: evidence given to the Royal Commission on Common Land 1955-8 suggested that the committee had fallen into disuse after the secretary had moved away.  This would seem to point to a lack of wider grassroots support for the institution.  

Special events? Highs and lows? Specific problems or problematic periods?

There is a lack of documentary evidence to show how the committee operated.


Numbers of members (specified)

Not possible to ascertain with certainty: a voluntary association.

Membership attainable for every one, regardless of social class or family background?

Voluntary association open to all common rights holders.

Specific conditions for obtaining membership? (Entrance fee, special tests etc.)

Not specified in constitution.

Specific reasons regarding banning members from the institution?

Not specified.

Advantages of membership?

Participation in decision-making.

Obligations of members?

Not specified.

Literature on case study

  • Rodgers, C. P., E. A. Straughton, A. J. L. Winchester and M. Pieraccini, Contested Common Land: Environmental Governance Past and Present (London, forthcoming in 2010).
  • Straughton, E. A., Common Grazing in the Northern English Uplands (Lampeter, 2008).
  • Winchester, A.  J. L., The Harvest of the Hills (Edinburgh, 2000).

Sources on case study

Eskdale Parish Council Minute Book 1895-1963 (Cumbria Record Office, YSPC 7/2); Eskdale Commoners’ Committee Constitution, 1945, and related correspondence (Cumbria Record Office, WDSO/117/B/vi/6/4); The Ramblers’ Association, Save Our Commons: Evidence Submitted to the Royal Commission on Common Land by The Ramblers’ Association (undated, circa 1956). See also common land register for CL58, held by Cumbria County Council.

Links to further information on case study:

See Contested Common Land website:

Case study descritpion provided by

Dr. Angus Winchester, Lancaster University

Dr. Eleanor Straughton


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