Case Studies - Commons - England

Case study: Thornham Commons, Norfolk, England – (2) Commoners’ Meeting


Type of institution for collective action

Commoners’ meeting

Name/description institution


Thornham Commoners’ Meeting







Name of city or specified area


Thornham Civil Parish

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

Thornham Common (CL 41) and Thornham Low Common (CL 56) 

Patron Saint of this institution



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

Today, the major registered common land units in Thornham consist of:


Thornham Common: 225 ha

Thornham Low Common: 74 ha


Defining the area of common lands in Thornham at any given time is complicated by an unstable coastline and by changes in land use and ownership.  A process of enclosure in the late eighteenth century redistributed common land and rights, and some areas, such as Thornham Ling common, were lost at this time.

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, an enclosure act of 1794 and subsequent award of 1797 are in existence.

Description of Act of foundation


The act of foundation was an act of parliamentary enclosure, followed by a written award which put the terms of the act into practice.

Year of termination of institution


Late twentieth century.

Year of termination: estimated or confirmed?

Estimated: a gradual lapse in annual meetings.

Act regarding termination present?

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

Description Act of termination

Lapse in annual meetings.


Reason for termination?

Not confirmed, but probably related to 1) concentration of rights in fewer hands and 2) disuse of pasture rights as grazing became less important.

Recognized by local government?

The enclosure act and award would probably have given this body greater legal weight than a purely voluntary association, but the need for government recognition does not seem to have arisen. 

Concise history of institution


Thornham lies on the north Norfolk coast: a distinctive landscape of salt and fresh marshes, with high cultural and conservation value.  The surviving commons of the Norfolk coast represent a remnant of those which existed before the eighteenth century, when the bulk of the commonable arable lands were enclosed, leaving only marshes and small vestigial pockets of inland pasture.  Here, common rights were seen as existing primarily to support landless cottagers and the poor, in contrast to upland common pastures where it was typically land holders who held rights.  A wide range of common rights have been associated with the commons over time, from grazing of livestock and taking of wild fowl and gorse (Ulex europeanus), to the collection of coastal resources such as seaweed, samphire (Salicornia europaea), fish, shellfish and bait.  Today, pasture rights are rarely exercised, and it is the non-grazing resources which continue to carry value.


Institution: Commoners’ Meeting

From the medieval period until the late eighteenth century, the commons of Thornham were regulated by Thornham manor court (Thornham Case Study 1).  However, an enclosure act of 1794 and award of 1797 enabled large areas of land to be enclosed and the saltmarsh commons converted into stinted pasture.  The award of 1797 set out a new system of management, instructing stint-holders to hold an annual meeting in the porch of Thornham church for the election and direction of three common reeves.  Reeves were given the task of regulating the common and impounding stray animals; they could also buy a bull, and undertake drainage and land improvements.  The award also stated that the reeves were to keep a rule book for the common, though no trace of this volume has been found.  Common rights owners had to pay an annual fee to the reeves, at a rate agreed by the majority of owners.


In addition to this founding document, Thornham benefits from the survival of a minute book, covering the period 1924-1951.  It is not known whether this was a first attempt to record annual meetings or whether previous volumes have been lost.  Between 1924-51, the meeting generally consisted of between 3 and 6 people, and was usually chaired by the major rights-owner (also the lord of the manor).  The system of appointing reeves continued until the last entry of 1951, though their number had reduced from three to two.  Meeting business ranged from livestock management to ongoing maintenance issues, such as rubbish dumped on the common and the repair of gates, drains and roads.  The minute book also records the impact of requisitioning of an area of the common by the Royal Air Force during the Second World War.


Annual meetings faded in the late twentieth century, and grazing rights are now rarely exercised.  Common land matters are generally referred to the parish council.

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

Special events: 1794 act and 1797 award; requisitioning by RAF in Second World War.

Highs: active meetings, 1924-51.

Lows: declining meetings in late twentieth century.

Problems: problematic period of registration under the Commons Registration Act 1965. 


Numbers of members (specified)

The enclosure award created 49 stints (common rights), naming some 35 people as recipients of these rights.  Evidence is lacking to show how many eligible stint-holders attended meetings immediately after 1797, but it is known that over time, the lord of the manor purchased the majority of stints.  In the period 1924-51, covered by the Thornham minute book, the number of people attending annual meetings varied between three and six people.  

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

Membership was open to anyone with stints on the common.

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

Must be a stint holder.

Specific reasons regarding banning members from the institution?

Any common right owner who failed to pay a fee to the reeve within 14 days of the demand would be barred from the common and have their animals driven off. 

Advantages of membership?

Participation in management decisions and voting rights.

Obligations of members?

Payment of annual fees to cover reeves’ wages and maintenance issues.

Literature on case study

  • Birtles, S., ‘The impact of commons registration: a Norfolk study’, Landscape History, 20 (1998), pp. 83-97. 
  • Birtles, S., ‘A green space beyond self-interest: the evolution of common land in Norfolk, c. 750-2003’, Unpublished Doctoral Thesis, University of East Anglia, 2003. 
  • 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).
  • Williamson, T., England’s Landscape: East Anglia (London, 2006).

Sources on case study

See for examples:

  • Norfolk Record Office
    • Thornham enclosure act, 1794 (copy) (Bett 14/6/79 Hogge Deeds G2; G4)
    • Thornham enclosure award and map, 1797 (PC 9/1-2)
    • Thornham Common minute book, 1924-1951 (H. Bett, 14/6/79/28)
  • Norfolk County Council
    • Common land register, CL 49
    • Common land register, CL 56

Links to further information on case study:

See Contested Common Land website:

Case study description provided by:

Dr. Angus Winchester, Lancaster University

Dr. Eleanor Straughton




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