The environmentalist class

Words: Thomas Banbury


How we view a spot of natural beauty has more to do with class and politics than we might first think. Often, a purely emotional response to the landscape is limited to those who don’t have a working relationship with nature – while farming, fishing, and forestry communities have to balance the economic role of the environment in their lives with their own cultural ideas about its value.

Emotional responses in large part shape government ecological policy: the Forestry Commission’s website states ‘it is our duty to look after [the forests], just like they take care of us.’ These issues were at the heart of disagreements over changes in the landscape more than 250 years ago, when the burgeoning Industrial Revolution in England increased the demand for land and raw materials. We might think that environmentalism and movements for conservation were products of 19th century Romanticism, but there has been a tradition of resisting ecological change in England since the 1500s. 

Anyone who studied the Tudors at school will probably be familiar with the enclosure movement and the problems it caused. Most villages in England had areas of common land where the villagers were entitled to keep their animals for all or part of the year and often to collect firewood and animal fodder free of charge. Enclosure allowed landowners to construct fences around these commons, depriving the locals of spaces to keep livestock, and letting the wealthy keep private flocks of sheep in order to cash in on the lucrative English wool trade. 

Deprived of their common rights, villagers lost out on any extra food or income from their livestock and the materials they would have collected. As is the case now, the people most at risk from major environmental changes were the least able to resist them, being already economically and politically vulnerable. Many communities had no choice but to accept the new arrangements, although some made strenuous efforts to preserve their rights.

Despite this resistance, enclosure continued well up to the early 19th century. In their early petitions, the common people were most concerned with protecting their access to the land; protecting the landscape from dramatic changes like deforestation or the draining of fens was usually incidental to their aims. 

But some enclosure attempts from the 1750s onwards were met with objections which emphasised ideas of the beauty of the environment. These concerns were not raised by the farmers and villagers whose common rights were threatened, but by the local gentry and aristocracy who had a very different relationship to the land under threat.

The enclosure of Needwood Forest in 1801 neatly demonstrates the differences between these two experiences. Needwood Forest no longer exists, except on maps, in place names, and as a few disconnected areas of woodland in southern Staffordshire. Before deforestation, it covered almost nine and a half thousand acres of steep and rugged countryside, and had been a place for the commoners to keep livestock and collect wood since at least the 13th century. It was managed by the Duchy of Lancaster, the monarch’s private estates. 

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the forest had a reputation for its beautiful landscapes and rural charm. The local magistrate Francis Mundy published a poem entitled ‘Needwood Forest’, which celebrated the scenery of the forest and its history. Thomas Gisborne, a priest who lived at Yoxall in the middle of the forest, composed a book of poems in 1794 called Walks in a Forest, describing Needwood’s changes through the seasons. Both works were praised by important literary figures in Stafford and Lichfield such as Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin, and the poet and critic Anna Seward.

The Duchy employees who managed the forest had a different view of how the natural world should look, which emphasised productivity and profitability. The same variety of scenery and the wild character of the forest which had been praised by poets made it unattractive and unprofitable to the government officers. According to a plan prepared by these officers in 1778, the forest was a disorganised ‘waste’.  

Although early enclosing of common land was often done in order to profit from the wool industry and new cash crops, by the 18th-century, enclosure was used to meet the demands of new industries in the Midlands. Needwood was located between several early industrial centres such as Stafford, Derby, and Birmingham. The Duchy officers hoped that clearing the forest would create huge areas of farmland that could support the growing populations of these towns. The timber could also be burned to produce charcoal – essential fuel for metalwork.  

Writers like Mundy picked up on this connection between industrialisation and enclosure in their writings. One of the major supporters of the second (unsuccessful) anti-enclosure movement in 1800 was Mary Leigh, the sister of Lord Leigh of Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire. In one of the first letters written to her about Needwood her lawyer Joseph Hill commented that ‘the enclosing of Needwood Forest would no doubt be a heart-breaking event, as much so as a canal through Stoneleigh would be to yourself’. Hill links the emotional impact of deforestation to the dramatic changes in the landscape brought by the canals that carried raw materials and finished products between the manufacturing centres of the Midlands and the North West. 

Writings by the local elites (who usually had their primary estates in other parts of the country) contrast with the defence of the forest prepared by the common rights holders who actually lived there. A petition written in 1801 to the House of Commons by the ‘Cottagers having Rights of Common’ made no mention of natural beauty or poetry, instead emphasising the economic impact of deforestation and enclosure. The lack of compensation and the loss of livestock, they argued, would mean that many cottagers would have to rely on Parish Rates, the already-stretched welfare system administered at the county level. 

The disconnect between these two narratives of environmental change becomes clearer when we look at the role that many of these gentry poets and aristocratic supporters had in environmental destruction elsewhere. Darwin, Leigh, and other defenders of Needwood all profited from the opening of mines, the building of canals, and deforestation in other areas of the Midlands which they did not consider appealing enough to be worth preserving – what the literary historian Sharon Setzer calls the idea of ‘sacrificial ecologies’. These changes in the landscape were acceptable to them because they were out of sight, away from their estates. While at first it may seem that opposition to the Needwood enclosure had broad support across social groups, there were actually two distinct visions of nature at work: one which focussed on the economic role of the forest in the livelihoods of the villagers and farmers, and one which emphasised aesthetic values of natural beauty.

A disconnect in narrative can still be seen in the contemporary environmental debate. Indigenous rights groups, whose livelihoods and homes often depend on these environments, and who have been campaigning against deforestation and ecological degradation for decades, have broadly been displaced by newer organisations like Extinction Rebellion. XR has been criticised, most significantly in an open letter penned by BIPOC environmentalist group The Wretched of the Earth in 2019, for being too rooted in white, middle-class, urban culture and promoting the protest tactic of mass arrest, which is often far more dangerous and consequential for already marginalized groups. 

The appearance of the so-called Red Brigade has also raised eyebrows amongst veteran environmental activists. These mute red-robed figures with ashen face paint have been part of protests in London, Cornwall and New York, and founder Doug Francisco links their appearance and ‘meditative dances’ to ‘different archetypes or classical Greek characters’. Differences in ethnic, social and cultural background (or in this case, familiarity with Ancient Greek theatre) are clearly still informing the methods and motivations of ecological protest, and it’s not too much of a stretch to connect Francis Mundy’s poetry – replete with classical references – and the practically-oriented petitions of the Needwood farmers to the protests staged by the Red Brigade and The Wretched of the Earth. 

How people find value in nature that makes it worth preserving has a great deal to do with social status, now as much in the 18th century. Groups that are more connected with the cultivation of certain landscapes or depend on agriculture and ecological practices more exclusively also tend to be politically disenfranchised: removed from urban centres of power, and often without the means to devote time to the political process. The methods used in the 18th century to defend their ecologies, while including traditional methods such as petitions, also included more transgressive measures like destroying hedges and fences. The defence of Needwood by the literary elites in the area reflected their ideas of the ideal landscape; visually pleasing and historically valuable, but removed from the practical concerns of the people who lived and worked on the land. 

The case of Needwood Forest shows the need to think critically about our view of the environment, and to embrace different perspectives on what is best for the natural world. The environment was never politically neutral: we must reflect on how our own social and economic backgrounds inform how we think about conservation, preservation, and development.                 

learn more

  • BOOK: Speaking for Nature – Sylvia Bowerbank
  • PODCAST: In Our Time – BBC (episode: ‘The Enclosures of the 18th Century‘)
  • ARTICLE: ”Pond’Rous Engines’ In ‘Outraged Groves’: The Environmental Argument of Anna Seward’s ‘Colebrook Dale” – European Romantic Review, 18/1 (2007)

Thomas Banbury is a postgraduate student from Warwickshire, researching environmental and intellectual history in medieval and early modern Europe and East Asia at Durham University. Follow him on Twitter.