Updated on 16 March 2021
As the English Civil War Period drew to a close, the Diggers emerged claiming the earth was a common treasury.
Whenever war occurs a food shortage is never far behind and during the civil war the price of a potato was sky high.
Between the clashing of blades and the firing of muskets, in April 1649, a small commutiny calling themselves the True Levellers came together.
The True Levellers were led by Gerrard Winstanley (1609 – 1676), a merchant based in London whose business went bankrupt during the war. He declared:
“True freedom lies where a man receives his nourishment and preservation, and that is in the use of the earth.”Gerrard Winstanley
They were levelling the soil of the land and society with it.
They called themselves True Levellers to distinguish them from the existing Levellers led by ‘Freeborn’ John Lilburne and his supporters. For the True Levellers, their aim was making the natural earth equal to all through common ownership. By contrast, the Levellers supported property rights of the individual and not common ownership.
The community began planting vegtables on St George”s Hill in Surrey, not far from South London. The vegetables were planted in common ground, meaning that this ground was open for public use and therefore no crime was being committed. Subsequently, they were given the nickname Diggers and it stuck.
However, in these revolutionary times as well as vegtables, the Diggers wanted to also plant the seed of an idea in the mind of the people.
The seed of an idea was that people up and down the country could tear down the enclosures which seperated public from private land and grow vegtables wherever they wanted
A Radical Upheaval Of The Social Order
To spread their message, in 1649, Winstanley and a group of 14 others published a pamphlet entitled, True Leveller Standard Advance.
The pamphlet encouraged the local population to come and work for them, promising meat and drink for all.
By now, the True Levellers were perceived as dissenters and the name Diggers began to be used by those for and against the widening movement.
The spades of Diggers were now breaking soil in several nearby sites to St George’s Hill and the local landowners were getting scared.
These local landowners paid gangs to attack the Diggers, vandalize their property and in general terrorize them. They also took legal action against certain Diggers and had them imprisoned.
However, the community of Diggers stood firm for a while, but eventually the army was brought-in to end them.
Wanting peaceful revolution and not more bloody warfare the Diggers disbanded without violence. Winstanely’s vision was over and he found himself later joining the Quakers.
Although their history may have been brief their legacy is long. Repeatedly many movements have been formed through the years that have sought social equality from the soil of the earth upwards.
These movements digging today have their roots with the first spades of the Diggers over 350 ago.
The annual Wigan Diggers’ Festival celebrates the life and ideas of Wigan born Gerrard Winstanley and the 17th Century Diggers’ movement.