May 16

942, 1758

But first, two events that I shall not be writing about, at least not on this page:

Today in 1836, Edgar Allen Poe married his 13 year old cousin, Virginia Clemm... click here

And today in 1920, Joan of Arc was canonized... click here


Sa’adiah Ga’on. Sa’adiah ben Joseph to be precise, the Ga’on of Sura, the greatest scholar of Babylon in the period following the writing of the Talmud; the man who calculated the Jewish calendar in the form and to the dates that are still adhered to; who wrote, in Arabic, what was not a prayer book and yet is regarded as the fundamental prayer-book, the “Sepher ha-Emunot ve ha-Da’ot - The Book of Beliefs and Opinions"; who passionately contested the views of the Kara’ites, those intellectual anarchists who would have been at home in the contemporary Reform and Liberal & Progressive movements - this should be understood as a compliment, not a criticism; I happen to sympathise with them: they rejected Rabbinic authority, asserting that every individual had the right, even the obligation, to form his or her own interpretation of the Scriptures through fastidious scholarship. Informed choice, in today's secular terminology. Sa'adiah just as passionately disagreed.

The polemical war between Sa’adiah and the followers of Anan ben David, the innovator of the Kara’ite “heresy”, has no equal in Jewish history; in every other Jewish argument, from family Friday night to Hillel versus Shammai and Chasid versus Mitnaged, right and wrong are always less important than the joy and mutual education implicit in the act of arguing. But Sa’adiah and the Kara’ites really meant it, with vehemence, with personal detestation, with the wholehearted conviction that the other would destroy Judaism for ever. What an appalling waste of energy!

And what a shame that Sa’adiah, who died today in 942, aged 60, should be better remembered for this, and for an even sillier dispute that ended in the court of the Caliph, with David ben Zakkai of Pumbedita, over, over nothing really, or power, which in the end is the same thing; but this, rather than for his glorious piyyutim - religious poetry - his profound halachic commentaries, his Hebrew grammar, and especially the “Tafsir”, his translation of the Tanach into Arabic.


“The law condemns the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common,
But lets the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.”

From “The Complete Works of Anonymous”, volume 5-16/1758/2017; copyright permission granted, but I can’t tell you by whom)

Also published in The Tickler Magazine 1921
(for the full lyric, and variations, click here)

Richmond, in south London, is privileged at many levels, being located at one of the choicest points of the River Thames, which presumably is why the Tudor royals selected it for their weekend palace; but also for having a village green that Thomas Lord cannot have known about, or he would surely have built the first cricket ground right there and not behind Baker Street. Kew Gardens is just a towpath away, the gorgeous villages of Ham and Petersham are on the other side, the terraced gardens all the way along Hill Street are stupendous, and then that most especial privilege, the vastness of Richmond Common - note the word "common": common land, there for all the people to roam freely as and when they wish - to which I shall return shortly (unless someone prevents me); but the hill is very steep, and I am getting old, and need a moment's rest.

Where better to do that than one of Richmond's other privileged positions, that of having not one but two public libraries, the Lending Library adjacent to the gorgeous theatre on the Little Green, and another where Hill Street meets the river, in the old Town Hall, alongside a museum and a small art gallery, displaying (the day I went there anyway) the book-covers of Penguin Orange's principal jacket-designer back in the 40s, 50s... Charles Mozley. I take my rest in the back room of the reference library, set up for quiet study with a hundred power points for recharging computers while simultaneously recharging the spirit and the mind; a trying-to-be-grand room in the house-hall tradition of the English Public School, with cheap real wood and fake Roman pillars, but splendid, truly splendid. Overlooking the river too, so you can stare into space when the mind goes blank and claim you are studying Nature, or gaze at the paintings in the room (one looks like Mr Pickwick, the other like Mr Micawber, but I imagine they are probably Aldermen).

An hour's restful work and I am ready to go walking on Richmond Common, but can't resist popping upstairs to the museum first, just to see; and there, almost as I enter, is the same man who I mistook for Mr Pickwick. He turns out to be one John Lewis, no connection with the department store, a brewer by trade, 17th century, and he - I do love these coincidences - the man who won back the right for commoners to walk on Richmond Common.

Won back I wrote. Won back I meant. 'Tis a story worthy of a 3-part TV mini-series.

The Serengeti of  East Sheen, in the heart of London

Richmond New Park had been common land for centuries, until Charles I enclosed it as his hunting ground in 1637, and built an eight-mile wall around it; though he did allow people to cross the Park when he wasn't using it. But in 1727 George II conferred the Rangership of the Park on Robert Walpole junior, the son of Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole, who hunted there most weekends, staying at Old Lodge, using it much as Chequers Court is used today. How nice! The king hunted with him on Wednesdays, and built New Lodge for himself (now the home of the Royal Ballet School). And Sir Robert added gates, with keepers' lodges, and removed the ladder stiles because, obviously, they were no longer needed. "Respectable persons" might still be admitted in the daytime, and carriages, if they had purchased tickets - so that Walpole had not only converted it into private land, but was even making money out of tourism. How very nice! Common people, by dint of that name, could not be classed as "respectable", and were unlikely anyway to have the wherewithal to hire a carriage.

And then came Princess Amelia, the second daughter of George II, who really liked what her father and Sir Robert had done to the place, and pouted, and said "please daddy" in the way the spoiled-brat rich are trained by governesses and finishing schools to do, and daddy couldn't resist, and so Princess Amelia was appointed Ranger.

Amelia was appointed in February 1749, with the proviso that she must wait for Sir Robert's death before she could take possession. And being a considerate man, Sir Robert duly did so on April Fool's Day 1751, allowing Amelia to go there in her favourite sedan chair, "with six chairmen, to be relieved in their turns, a coach and six horses attending to carry the chairmen when not on their service" - actually that was an account of a three-day trip to Brighton when she was 16, but it gives us a flavour of her Darlingship, and so it won't surprise you to learn that Amelia immediately closed all the gates to all the people, save only her personal invitees, and of course those with carriages and a ticket, though she only issued tickets to her friends. (Lord Brooke, who lived at Petersham, was denied one on the grounds that, having denied one to the Lord Chancellor, she could hardly issue one to him).

Which brings us, at last, to Rosa Parkes, to Nat Turner, to Ned Ludd, to that noble but foolhardy human confraternity and consorority who simply refuse to be passively complicitous in tyranny and despotism, and who make a stand, or sometimes stay in her seat, or, if they are black and play football in the NFL, go down on one knee like a soul expecting to be knighted for so doing. And good on all of them. And good on John Lewis when his turn soon came. But not quite yet. Others arose from the bent knee of genuflection before him.

The rising against the expropriation of Richmond Common took place, as was only right and proper, on Ascension Day. 1751 the year. May 16th, just six weeks after Amelia took office. It was the date of the traditional ceremony of the "Beating of the Parish Bounds", led by a Richmond clergyman, name sadly unremembered. Or not led in fact, because permission to enter the Park was denied, until protest persuaded the bad lady to be a good lady after all, and let them in. But trouble was a-brewing. A splendid cartoon published later that year shows three of Amelia's men astride the wall, while a group of disrespectables of the common sort are clambering through a breach in it, though no suggestion that they were irresponsible for said breach. The walls were not always kept in a very good state of repair; a report by the Deputy Ranger three years later noted that it was actually in very poor condition, as were the roads, and the drainage. Maybe the clergyman's party just took advantage of a natural hole. No one was ever prosecuted for causing the damage.

Now that one Rosa Parkes had refused to give up her seat, others were encouraged to do the same, or similar - so it would be for the crowds in Tiananmen Square, on the march to Washington DC, for the schoolchildren in Soweto, in Tahrir Square, in Bourguiba Avenue... and soon enough Princess Amelia was under siege behind her breached walls. She used legal means (in addition to the aforementioned techniques which daddy still found irresistible) to enforce the closure. Those on the outside who tried to do the same were unsuccessful. Petitions that were probably used as kindling, on a Wednesday evening, when there were dead deer to barbecue and something inflammable was needed to start the brazier. Memorials were issued - formal memoranda and public addresses - rather more inflammatory than inflammable, but equally unsuccessful. Press notices. Pamphlets. But still no success. The edition of the Post Boy for July 28th 1752, for instance, contained a memorial to the Princess "from the proprietors of estates in the parishes adjoining the Park, praying for rights of roads and highways, stiles or ladders at the gates, gravel for high roads in the neighbourhood, water and watercourses, furze and underwood, and doors in the wall for parish officers to perambulate the bounds." No use. No use at all. Richmond Common was now private land, a gated community of one (plus friends). "No entry" was engraved in deer's blood on the walls.

But if you believe in justice, if you believe in law, why protest when you can go to court? When "a group of gentlemen" requested admission to the Park from Deborah Burgess, one of the gatekeepers, and were refused, they did precisely that - and lost. Later the same year (1754), a man named Symonds brought a suit against the Deputy Ranger, a Mr or perhaps a Mrs Shaw, and raised over a thousand pounds from local residents to pay the costs, and called no less than twenty-seven witnesses to give evidence that right of way for vehicles and pedestrians was inscribed in law and was sometimes carried out, but utterly discriminatorily, by Princess Amelia. But they were outnumbered by the thirty-seven on the other side, and those were not hoi poloi, nor urban peasants, nor proles, but nobles like Lord Palmerston. Case dismissed.

Step up John Lewis, the Steve Biko of Richmond Common, the Mahatma Ghandhi of East Sheen. John Lewis (1713-1792) was a Richmond resident who owned a brewery near the Thames, close to where the Terrace Gardens are now. There is no record of his having attended the 1754 trial, but he would obviously have known about it, and his choice of action was probably a response to its failure. Victory, he concluded, could only be achieved if a wrong could be demonstrated in court, which even a Lord Palmerston or a royal princess could not evade. Passive resistance, of a most active sort. On a date in 1755 which sadly is not recorded in the annals, Lewis took a friend with him to Sheen Gate and waited until a carriage approached - you can see why I used the Rosa Parkes analogy. The driver of the carriage produced a ticket, and showed it to the gatekeeper, whose name was Martha Gray; Ms Gray duly permitted said carriage to cross the segregation-wall separating the elect from the commoners. But closing a gate takes time, only a few seconds, but long enough for two men standing there to take a few steps forward, and technically to cross the Mandelbaum Gate, right there at Checkpoint Charlie. 

An account of what transpired next was written by Gilbert Wakefield, brother of Thomas Wakefield, the minister at Richmond Parish Church:-

Martha Gray: Where is your ticket?
John Lewis: What occasion for a ticket? Anyone may pass through here. ­
Martha Gray: No - not without a ticket. ­
John Lewis: Yes, they may; and I will. ­
Martha Gray: You shan't. ­
John Lewis: I will. ­

Hardly Shakespeare or George Bernard Shaw, not how Bertolt Brecht would have written it, or even David Edgar, but it appears to have the virtue of historical accuracy, for whatever that might be worth.

And as a significant lesson to all future rebels, to all who would overthrow tyranny, of whatever form, in whatever context, it would prove to be worth everything, because Martha Gray pushed Lewis, who then allowed the gate to be shut against him. On the basis of this forcible denial of access by the gatekeeper, Lewis obtained an indictment, and the case of Rex v Gray was born - and the irony of it being Rex, the King, against Gray, the princess' gatekeeper, is one too delicious not to point out, because, though it was the unfortunate gatekeeper who was named in the proceedings, the true defendant was Princess Amelia.

Things might even have gone well for the plaintiff, when the case was heard at the Summer Assizes of August 1757. Alas, some hotheads, some over-zealous anarchists no doubt, some disloyal traitors, rebels and revolutionaries, had published a little booklet, a mere pamphlet really, but the defense produced it in court, and demonstrated that sentences like “the right of the people to a free passage through Richmond Park was a privilege they always enjoyed until the late Sir Robert Walpole audaciously divested them of it" was self-evidently not just an attack on a man no longer on Earth to defend himself, but an attack on Parliamentary Democracy and the Constitutional Monarchy itself. Why else would they publish it anonymously? Why else would they entitle a minor local non-event as a "Tract in the National Interest"?

Lord Chief Justice Mansfield halted the trial and ordered police to hunt down those concerned with writing, publishing and distributing the libelous pamphlet. Lewis and a man named Thomas Shepheard (presumably Lewis' companion at the occasion of the great trespass, though this too is sadly not recorded in the archives), were questioned the next day, Lewis swearing an affidavit that denied any role in printing or publishing or distributing said pamphlet, noting, rather wisely, that he even disapproved of it, because the matter was sub judice and this was obviously intended to have undue influence on the minds of witnesses or the Jury. While the publishers and distributors were being charged for their seditious publication, Mansfield took Lewis' affidavit at face value (though he didn''t actually believe a word of it), and ordered the trial to be resumed at the next Assizes, at Kingston, on April 3rd 1758.

When those Assizes found in his favour, Lewis was invited to suggest the physical changes that would best make access open, the options being a gate in the wall or a step-ladder to climb over it - no suggestion of simply removing the entire wall, but then, as Lewis explained in respect to the door, it would have to be kept closed when not in use, if only to prevent the escape of deer; while a closed door would give the impression that access was not freely available after all. He also suggested, perhaps out of a corner of his mouth, that, who could predict, but perhaps, in time, the existence of a door might lead some security-minded soul to think a bolt could be useful as well. The erection of ladder stiles was agreed, and on May 12th 1758 ladder stiles and gates were duly fixed to both Sheen Gate and Ham Gate. These were formally opened to the public, today, May 16th, when a "vast concourse of people from all the neighbouring villages climbed over the ladder stiles into the Park". Seven years to the day after the Ascension Day uprising.

You would think that Princess Amelia would recognise defeat when it was scrambling over her front lawn in daily hordes of hoi poloi and urban peasantry. But no. Within months Lewis was back in court, complaining that "they have left such a space between the steps of the ladder that children and old men are unable to get up it". To which, according to Gilbert Wakefield, the Judge replied that "I have observed it myself; and I desire, Mr Lewis, that you would see it so constructed that not only children and old men, but old women too, may be able to get up."

But first old men have to get up Hill Street, and by the time I had finished at the museum, and gone back for one last look at the portrait - I had seen the name of the artist, T. Stewart, but had missed the fact that he was a pupil of Sir Joshua Reynolds - it was already 4pm, and 4pm in late November is already dark, and darkness, and the chill air threatening rain, is most definitely a bolt on a closed gate to the Common. I took the bus back to the station, but have promised myself a return next spring, to see the deer especially, provided no appeal in the interim prevents me.

My thanks to the anonymous author of the Richmond Museum website from whom I have gleaned most of the historical detail in this essay:

You can find David Prashker at:

Copyright © 2017 David Prashker
All rights reserved
The Argaman Press

No comments:

Post a Comment