Find out the full story on why we purchased the commons and what it means for Chislehurst.
PRIVATELY OWNED SINCE MEDIEVAL TIMES, CHISLEHURST COMMONS HAVE THIS MONTH BEEN BOUGHT BY THE CHISLEHURST SOCIETY IN ORDER TO SAFEGUARD THEIR FUTURE FOR THE BENEFIT AND ENJOYMENT OF THE COMMUNITY.
The 180 acres of common land in and around Chislehurst in the London Borough of Bromley have passed through generations of monarchs and
landed aristocracy since the 10th century.
The open green spaces and ponds are managed and maintained by registered charity Chislehurst
Commons, but its resources are insufficient to buy freehold land and its governing legislation
prevents it from doing so.
When the opportunity arose to acquire the commons in their entirety after more than 1,000 years of private ownership, The Chislehurst Society
stepped in and bought the freehold on behalf of the community.
What are the commons?
The woodlands, grasslands, heathlands and ponds that make up Chislehurst Commons give the area its rural charm. The diverse habitats are home to rare species of plants as well as birds, reptiles, amphibians and small mammals.
Strictly speaking there are two commons – Chislehurst and St Paul’s Cray – although they are now managed together as one entity.
History of the commons
The first recorded owner of Chislehurst Manor and its commons, in 974, was King Eadgar. With some interesting complications along the way (for a while the commons belonged to a hospice at the Great St Bernard Pass in Switzerland), the land passed through successive monarchs until the time of Henry VIII.
It was then sold to the Walsinghams, an influential family at the Tudor Courts. Their most famous son, Sir Francis, is often referred to as Queen Elizabeth I’s ‘Spymaster’.
In the late 17th Century, the Walsinghams sold the land to Richard Bettenson, whose most famous descendant is Thomas Townshend, the first Viscount Sydney; the man after whom Sydney, Australia is named.
The commons embody the ancient ‘right to roam’ and have been fiercely protected by local residents for centuries. History records various moments when the people of Chislehurst had to stand up to the Lord of the Manor to maintain their rights as ‘commoners’ and prevent enclosure. Prominent residents lobbied for an Act of Parliament that was passed in 1888 to guarantee both protection of the land and a public right to use it.
The Act – still in force today – also established a local body to preserve and maintain the land. This body, now known as Chislehurst Commons, is a charity run by a voluntary Board of Trustees and employs two full-time Keepers to maintain the 180 acres.
New Lord of the Manor
The commons have remained privately owned by Viscount Sydney’s surviving descendants, who earlier this year expressed an interest in selling the freehold. Chislehurst Commons did not have the resources to buy it and the 1888 Act prevents it from doing so. It therefore turned to The Chislehurst Society, also a registered charity, in order to secure the long-term future of the commons.
The freeholder of the commons carries the title ‘Lord of the Manor’. Since 1975, the title has been held by Family Trusts on behalf of the Marsham-Townshend family.
The trusts made the decision to sell as they are not involved in the day to day running of the commons, nor are they obliged to finance it. As none of the family lives locally, it was their wish that ownership should be transferred to a local entity better placed to act in the interests of Chislehurst.
John Hayhow, Chairman of Chislehurst Commons, says:
“When it became clear that the commons were available to buy, The Chislehurst Society was our obvious choice of partner. Its whole ethos is the enhancement of Chislehurst and preservation of the commons is integral to that. We are extremely fortunate that the purchase is financially viable for the Society, a charity that we have worked alongside for many years in the best interests of the community.”
What is the significance?
Purchase of the commons is historically significant because for the first time in history the land is now owned by a charitable entity representative of the people of Chislehurst. The Society’s main purpose is the preservation and protection of local amenities.
Whilst The Chislehurst Society is now ‘Lord of the Manor’, Chislehurst Commons retains its day to day responsibility for managing the green spaces and will continue its invaluable work.
The commons will still play host to annual events such as the Open Air Cinema, The Big Draw and The Chislehurst Chase. These events are organised by volunteers to bring the community together and to help raise funds for upkeep of the commons.
Tony Allen, Chairman of The Chislehurst Society, says:
“We are a widely supported membership organisation and the generosity of Chislehurst residents, past and present, has enabled us to make this important acquisition. The commons are the very essence of Chislehurst and I am delighted that we have been able to use our funds to secure the freehold for the benefit of residents. The Chislehurst Society is wholly committed to the preservation of the commons for future generations.”
Upkeep of the common land costs £100k a year. Chislehurst Commons receives a third of its funding from the London Borough of Bromley, raising the rest from small grants and donations from residents. The Trustees and Keepers are assisted by volunteers who contribute over 2,000 hours a year to help conserve the commons.
The purchase of the freehold is an exciting development for both Chislehurst Commons and The Chislehurst Society. The two charities now look forward to working together to enhance and protect the commons for the benefit and enjoyment of residents and visitors, now and in the future.
Frequently Asked Questions
How did this come about?
- In 2016 John Hayhow, the chair of the Trustees of Chislehurst Commons, became aware that there was a possibility that the Commons might be put up for sale
- After discussion with his colleagues, John indicated that the Trustees might be interested in purchasing, and negotiated a price and terms
- It soon became clear that the Commons Trustees could not, without significant delay, purchase the commons themselves
- John then engaged in discussions with the Chislehurst Society.
Was anyone else bidding?
- The sale has not been made public, and we are not aware of any other bidder
- We would expect that if the sale had been made public there would have been wide interest
Why did Chislehurst Society agree to buy it?
- We wanted to ensure that the commons were acquired by someone who would hold them for the benefit of the residents of Chislehurst
- Protecting and preserving the commons, such an integral part of Chislehurst, is clearly part of our charitable purposes
- We understood the need for speed and certainty to ensure that the land was not offered for sale more generally
- We are fortunate that we had sufficient funds to enable a quick purchase
Could we have found another body, like the National Trust, to acquire the commons?
- We did consider The National Trust option, but believe that this would have taken significant time, and we may not have been able to exercise local governance
- We considered other possible owners, but reached the same conclusion.
How much have we paid for it?
- We paid £150,000, plus costs of £10,000. This works out at less than £1,000 per acre; we believe this is good value
- We undertook due diligence, including verifying the title to all the land involved, and receiving professional confirmation that we were not paying more than market value
- This amount has come from the Society’s reserves, built up over the years; there has been no need to borrow to finance the purchase
- Making this investment will not prevent us from continuing to provide grants to appropriate local groups and activities
What do we get for our money?
- Chislehurst now has certainty over the future ownership of our beautiful commons
- The Society will benefit from any income arising from new easements and wayleaves
- The title and rights of the Lord of the Manor now vest in the Society
- We have not acquired any rights over the Trustees of Chislehurst Commons
- We have not taken on any financial obligations for the upkeep of the Commons, nor any liabilities of the previous owners
- There is no additional cost of ownership, except that we have taken out, at minimal annual cost, an appropriate amount of public liability insurance
Will there be any changes to access to the commons or their use?
- The responsibility of the Trustees of Chislehurst Commons is unchanged; they are responsible for the upkeep and management of the commons under the terms of the Metropolitan Commons (Chislehurst and St Pauls Cray) Supplemental Act 1888
- The Society has no ‘plans’ for the management of the commons, since we will have no rights in this respect; the change in ownership will have no impact on public access or use of the commons
- The protected use of such areas as the Cricket Ground, St Nicholas School, etc., will not be affected by the purchase
What about the future?
- We will work together with the Trustees of Chislehurst Commons on issues where the LOM consent is required e.g. utility works on the commons, regularising any current uncertainties as to rights of access, etc.
- It is likely that over time, with a better relationship between the LOM and the Trustees, management of the commons will be easier
- Of course we will continue to consider any request from the Trustees of Chislehurst Commons for our support, financial or otherwise, as we have in the past
- The Chislehurst Society acquired the land and titles to ensure speed and certainty. We will now work with the Trustees of Chislehurst Commons and others to consider alternatives for the long term ownership and governance arrangements for the commons