Digging-up local histories: The Wigan Diggers’ Festival

By Penny Rivlin

In line with the primary objectives of the project, we are thinking about the different ways in which digging as heritage is mobilized in the present moment in the UK.  We are exploring the connections between the symbolic and embodied/community enactments of digging as forms of civic participation at both the grassroots local level, and the ways in which these politics of digging are expressed and disseminated across social media platforms. In conditions of land and resource scarcity, neoliberal individualism and self-responsibilization, we are asking what kinds of cultural values are invoked through the appropriation of heritage cultures and politics, and the transformative possibilities – as well as the tensions and ambivalences – of digging for heterogeneous UK citizens and communities.

In the past few weeks the Cultural Values of Digging team have been digging up local histories through participant observation at the Wigan Diggers’ Festival in Wigan, North Manchester on Saturday, 7th September.  The first Diggers’ festival, in September, 2011, attended by Farida, involved a small-scale collective of ‘heritage diggers’ and supporters who marched through Wigan to Mesnes Field – an open land site subject to proposed development.  The central motif of the festival was to commemorate and celebrate the radical political agency of Wigan born Gerrard Winstanley (1609-76), leader of the 17th century Diggers movement, and it is worth pausing for a moment to consider Winstanley’s legacy.

Also known as the ‘True Levellers’, the Diggers constituted a community of what Winstanley termed ‘the common people of England’: a poor, property-less majority increasingly dispossessed of common or ‘waste’ land due to enclosures (a process now framed as privatization).  As John Gurney (2013) observes, Winstanley’s overarching aim focused on the ‘establishment of community’ via the sharing of the commons as a route to social equality and freedom.  Winstanley’s discursive conjunction of community and commons is exemplified in his radical call that:

[the] earth must be set free from intanglements of Lords and Landlords, and that it shall become a common Treasury to all, as it was first made and given to the sonnes of men (1649, cited in Gurney, 2013: 47).

In 1649, Winstanley and his supporters mobilized to action by digging in to an area of common land at George Hill (now St George’s Hill) in Surrey. Establishing a small commune, the Diggers’ cultivation of the land and their lived experience of Winstanley’s ethos – ‘working together and eating together’ – faced considerable, often violent opposition, resulting in their eventual eviction after just eighteen months. It is in this historical context that the Wigan Diggers’ Festival march to Mesnes Field can be situated.  Accompanied by local photographers, the Diggers’ performed a symbolic re-enactment of the 17th century Diggers’ occupation of the commons.  Wearing wide-brimmed cloth hats and performing public recitals of extracts from Winstanley’s writings, the Wigan Diggers’ dug in to the common ‘Treasury’ of Mesnes Field.

The subsequent festivals’ of 2011/12 have significantly expanded in response to growing local interest and sponsorship, local authority support, and an online presence (http://wigandiggersfestival.org/). However, the festival’s practice of drawing on history as heritage as a means of addressing issues of land ownership and usage and other conditions of resource scarcity in the present moment of austerity remains central to its organization and dissemination. As one of the festival organisers, Stephen Hall asserts, the primary aim of the festival is to ‘remind people of the significance of Winstanley and the Diggers and his relevance to present day politics … we want to encourage a re-born sense of community spirit amongst ordinary people everywhere’ (quoted in Hyland, 2012).  There are clear resonances here with Crouch and Parker’s (2003: 396) observation that contemporary uses of history as heritage work to ‘undermine current structures and practices and promote alternatives’.  From the perspective of the project, the festival presents interesting challenges to current structures and practices. First, through its re-visioning the 17th century diggers act of re-claiming the commons via a symbolic performance of digging, the festival harnesses digging as heritage as a political tool. Second, in capturing the re-enactment on film for dissemination on the festival website, it harnesses the transformative potential of a digital ‘commons’ to access a wider community.

Following their attendance at the recent Festival, Erinma and Andy have shared their observations and Festival stories with the rest of the team, which generated a rich and fruitful discussion.  Based on their insights; our engagement with the Gerrard Winstanley and 17th century diggers focused literature; and our content analysis of the Wigan Diggers’/Festival digital platforms, we are in the process of finalizing the methodological routes through which a range of heritage-oriented voices can be accessed and documented.  Erinma and Andy will be sharing their insights as Festival observers in future posts – please check back!

References

Crouch, D. and Parker, G. (2003) ‘Digging-up’ Utopia? Space, practice and land use heritage, Geoforum, 34(3): 395-408.

Gurney, J. (2013) Gerrard Winstanley: The Diggers Life and Legacy. London: Pluto Press.

Hyland, B. (2012) Wigan stakes its claim to be the home of Socialism, The Northerner Blog, The Guardian. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/the-northerner/2012/aug/31/unite-labour. Accessed 22/09/2013.

The Wigan Diggers Festival (no date) http://wigandiggersfestival.org/). Accessed 22/09/2013.

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