If you’re able to wander to some public land, open a tinnie, spark a fat one and wonder, ‘Why me?’ you may have reason to be grateful to the people of Plumstead.
1000 of them were roused by Victorian eco-warrior John De Morgan to riot in defence of Plumstead Common, leading to legislation to protect it and other common land for the public to mess about on, in perpetuity.
Throughout the 19th century, our beloved Parliament enacted several Inclosure Acts (sic) allowing the transfer of common land to private landowners. So nearly seven million acres went from the public to the wealthy. A commission was set up to ensure the poor weren’t forgotten, so when a proposal to ‘enclose’ a further 6,900 acres was made, they ensured that a full three acres were made available to the public and a further six acres were reserved for allotments for the poor. See, we’ve always been in it together.
At that time Plumstead Common was owned by Queen’s College, Oxford, but tenants had the right to graze their livestock, take turf to burn and generally bugger around on it. Some of the better offs had been chipping away at the Common though, reducing it by a third with the cunning use of fences. They’d simply move their fence to where they wanted their threshold to begin. Commoners could complain to the local magistrate, Edwin Hughes, but he was busy moving his fence.
The final straw came when the college sought to build a luxury housing development on the common and permanently lease the rest of the land to the army, cutting the public out completely.
The commoners went batshit crazy. De Morgan gave a stirring speech to the crowd of men, women and children gathered outside the Old Mill Beerhouse. They tore down fences, fought police and set fires during three days of fierce rioting.
Parliament had been debating the injustices of the Inclosure Acts for years but the Plumstead Riots saw them act immediately – two years later. The Plumstead Common Act 1878 saved nearly 100 acres for the public, permanently, a benchmark for the protection of public space and a milestone for dreamers.
Plumstead High Street
Time hasn’t been so kind to Plumstead High Street, a tired strip, busier with cars than people. Only one pub remains, though two of those converted have kept their original bars, so you can have a pint with your Chinese, or, erm, ice cream.
The Volunteer is the last survivor. Despite my personal motto: ‘Never Volunteer’, I went in. The landlady introduced herself, shook my hand and talked to me about boxing like we were old friends. They should ban headshots, she told me. ‘In for the skill, not for the kill,’ she said, as I floated like a bee, stung like a butterfly and had another half.
The Plumstead Radical Club hosts a darts league, pool league and table tennis teams, but is at its most radical every Thursday when they have Thirstday – £2 a pint day, the best day of all. The Rad, the Belfry and the The Gurkha Club fill the gaps left by five closed pubs.
With the largest Nepali population in London, Plumstead has several Nepali restaurants, but the best and most authentic is D’Namaste, a tiny eatery near the station. Their momos (dumplings) are fantastic and great value at £4.50. If it was in Shoreditch, it would be packed with hipsters, all with dumplings in their beards.
Other local favourites include Punjabi Dhaba, another unpretentious restaurant with a homemade feel – and the pop-up Plumstead Pantry on the Common, showing signs that this disregarded suburb might be turning a corner, if gluten-free offerings suggest any kind of junction.
Rioters escaped the fuzz by running into the numerous pubs dotted around the Common. The pubs were known collectively as the Plumstead Common Idlers: The Star that never shone; The Ship that never sailed; The Mill that never grinds; The Woodman that never felled a tree and the Who’d ’a’ Thought It. Four of them remain, but The Woodman has become a Punjabi restaurant, possibly the next best thing to a pub.
The Ship is painted a repellant pink colour, which doesn’t reflect the tone inside at all. There were no fewer than nine TV screens for Sky Sports, yet when we went in everyone was watching Top Gear. Actually watching it. In a pub. The music stopped and the room fell silent when the Raider asked: ‘Mind if we watch the tennis?’ But the old boys soon cheered up once they saw Ana Ivanovic was playing.
No cask ales meant we had to leave Ana behind and cross the Common to the Old Mill, where the rioters were first whipped up. The remains of the windmill are Grade II listed, so, like the Common, unchangeable. Andy, the manager (if that’s what he is), is rightly proud of their six ales and ‘96-acre front garden’, especially as someone else has to mow the lawn. The joshing regulars and well-kept cellar made it the Idler of the day, if you don’t count the Raider, busy tanning his feet on the Common after a couple of Hop Stuff APAs.
To get to the last of the open Idlers we had to pass the now defeated Woodman with our sad faces on. We continued on the Common into the slade, a valley formed in the Ice Age in a time before pubs, or hope. Covered in scrub heathland vegetation, it’s delightfully wild and the perfect spot to take the herb and turn those frowns upside down.
The Who’d ’a’ Thought It is another lager and sports pub, but with an excellent use of apostrophes. In common with most of the pubs we went to in Plumstead, an initial surliness was followed by a melting geniality, like I imagine it might with a Scandinavian hostess.
Sadly, another Idler and former dressing room of Woolwich Arsenal FC, the Star Inn, was closed for conversion during our wander from a pub in a timewarp. So, out go the gas fires and the smell of your uncle’s affliction and in comes pub grub, a comedy club and the 21st century. (Update:The Star is now open.)
So what happened to the chief protagonists in the Plumstead Riots, I almost hear you ask? The remarkable Irishman, John De Morgan, took part in a dozen campaigns in England to protect common land for the people. After pressure from Edwin Hughes, he was thrown in jail for his part in Plumstead’s uprising. 20,000 people protested his sentence. What was supposed to be a march turned into a party with music and burning effigies of Hughes. You don’t mess with the Plumsteadians.
Released after 17 days, de Morgan failed in an attempt to join mainstream politics and moved to New York where he wrote dime novels and science fiction, as if he hadn’t done enough already.
Edwin Hughes and wealthy local builder, William Tongue, were particular targets for the rioters, having claimed parts of the common for themselves. Tongue brought in scabs when bricklayers and carpenters went on strike for more pay while Hughes prosecuted the strikers for being absent from work, which was illegal at the time. Deserters like us would have been shot at the stake if we’d been alive then.
Hughes went on to become the local MP and leader of the Conservative Party. And a Knight of the Realm. But despite being a Grade A Cunt, he couldn’t stop the people of Plumstead having their way and preserving the Common for deserters, drinkers, dreamers and dabblers.
In perpe-fucking-tuity. Amen.
Update July 2016:
The Star is no longer smelly, having been taken over and refurbed, rather smartly. The lovely old bar has been retained though and now serves Hop Stuff ales and decent pub food.
One serious omission from this post is the Lord Herbert, beloved of locals, and off the radar for everyone else.