Woodcut from a Diggers document by William Everard.

The Diggers were an English group of Protestant agrarian communists,[1][2] begun by Gerrard Winstanley as True Levellers in 1649, who became known as Diggers due to their activities.

Their original name came from their belief in economic equality based upon a specific passage in the Book of Acts.[3][4] The Diggers tried (by "levelling" real property) to reform the existing social order with an agrarian lifestyle based on their ideas for the creation of small egalitarian rural communities. They were one of a number of nonconformist dissenting groups that emerged around this time.


Historical background

The year 1649 was a time of great social unrest in England. The Parliamentarians had won the First English Civil War but failed to negotiate a constitutional settlement with the defeated King Charles I. When members of Parliament and the Grandees in the New Model Army were faced with Charles' perceived duplicity, they tried and executed him.

Government through the King's Privy Council was replaced with a new body called the Council of State, which due to fundamental disagreements within a weakened Parliament was dominated by the Army. Many people were active in politics, suggesting alternative forms of government to replace the old order. Royalists wished to place King Charles II on the throne; men like Oliver Cromwell wished to govern with a plutocratic Parliament voted in by an electorate based on property, similar to that which was enfranchised before the civil war; agitators called Levellers, influenced by the writings of John Lilburne, wanted parliamentary government based on an electorate of every male head of a household; Fifth Monarchy Men advocated a theocracy; and the Diggers, led by Winstanley, advocated a more radical solution.


Gerrard Winstanley and 14 others published a pamphlet[2] in which they called themselves the True Levellers to distinguish their ideas from those of the Levellers. Once they put their idea into practice and started to cultivate common land, they became known as "Diggers" by both opponents and supporters. The Diggers' beliefs were informed by the Winstanley's writings which envisioned an ecological interrelationship between humans and nature, acknowledging the inherent connections between people and their surroundings. Winstanley declared that "true freedom lies where a man receives his nourishment and preservation, and that is in the use of the earth".[5]

An undercurrent of political thought which has run through English society for many generations and resurfaced from time to time (for example, the Peasants' Revolt in 1381) was present in some of the political factions of the 17th century, including those who formed the Diggers, and held the common belief that England had become subjugated by the "Norman Yoke." This legend offered an explanation that at one time a golden Era had existed in England before the Norman Conquest in 1066. From the conquest on, the Diggers argued, the "common people of England" had been robbed of their birthrights and exploited by a foreign ruling class.


St. George's Hill, Weybridge, Surrey

The Council of State received a letter in April 1649 reporting that several individuals had begun to plant vegetables in common land on Saint George's Hill, Weybridge near Cobham, Surrey at a time when food prices reached an all-time high. Sanders reported that they had invited "all to come in and help them, and promise them meat, drink, and clothes." They intended to pull down all enclosures and cause the local populace to come and work with them. They claimed that their number would be several thousand within ten days. "It is feared they have some design in hand." In the same month, the Diggers issued their most famous pamphlet and manifesto, called "The True Levellers Standard Advanced".[2]

At the behest of the local landowners, the commander of the New Model Army, Sir Thomas Fairfax, duly arrived with his troops and interviewed Winstanley and another prominent member of the Diggers, William Everard. Everard suspected that the Diggers were in serious trouble and soon left the group. Fairfax, meanwhile, having concluded that Diggers were doing no harm, advised the local landowners to use the courts.

Winstanley remained and continued to write about the treatment they received. The harassment from the Lord of the Manor, Francis Drake (not the famous Francis Drake, who had died more than 50 years before), was both deliberate and systematic: he organised gangs in an attack on the Diggers, including numerous beatings and an arsonous attack on one of the communal houses. Following a court case, in which the Diggers were forbidden to speak in their own defence, they were found guilty of being Ranters, a radical sect associated with liberal sexuality (though in fact Winstanley had reprimanded Ranter Laurence Clarkson for his sexual practices).[6][7] Having lost the court case, if they had not left the land, then the army could have been used to enforce the law and evict them; so they abandoned St George's Hill in August 1649, much to the relief of the local freeholders.

Little Heath near Cobham, Surrey

Some of the evicted Diggers moved a short distance to Little Heath. 11 acres (4.5 ha) were cultivated, six houses built, winter crops harvested, and several pamphlets published. After initially expressing some sympathy for them, the local lord of the manor of Cobham, Parson John Platt, became their chief enemy. He used his power to stop local people helping them and he organised attacks on the Diggers and their property. By April 1650, Platt and other local landowners succeeded in driving the Diggers from Little Heath.

Wellingborough, Northamptonshire

There was another community of Diggers close to Wellingborough in Northamptonshire. In 1650, the community published a declaration which started:

A Declaration of the Grounds and Reasons why we the Poor Inhabitants of the Town of Wellingborrow, in the County of Northampton, have begun and give consent to dig up, manure and sow Corn upon the Common, and waste ground, called Bareshanke belonging to the Inhabitants of Wellinborrow, by those that have Subscribed and hundreds more that give Consent....[8]

This colony was probably founded as a result of contact with the Surrey Diggers. In late March 1650, four emissaries from the Surrey colony were arrested in Buckinghamshire bearing a letter signed by the Surrey Diggers including Gerrard Winstanley and Robert Coster inciting people to start Digger colonies and to provide money for the Surrey Diggers. According to the newspaper A Perfect Diurnall the emissaries had travelled a circuit through the counties of Surrey, Middlesex, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Huntingdonshire and Northamptonshire before being apprehended.[9]

On April 15, 1650, the Council of State ordered Mr Pentlow, a justice of the peace for Northamptonshire to proceed against 'the Levellers in those parts' and to have them tried at the next Quarter Session.[10] The Iver Diggers recorded that, nine of the Wellingborough Diggers were arrested and imprisoned in Northampton jail and although no charges could be proved against them the justice refused to release them.

Captain William Thompson, the leader of the failed "Banbury mutiny," was killed in a skirmish close to the community by soldiers loyal to Oliver Cromwell in May 1649.

Iver, Buckinghamshire

Another colony of Diggers connected to the Surrey and Wellingborough colony was set up in Iver, Buckinghamshire about 14 miles (23 km) from the Surrey Diggers colony at St George's Hill (see Keith Thomas, 'Another Digger Broadside' Past and Present No.42, (1969) pp. 57–68). The Iver Diggers "Declaration of the grounds and Reasons, why we the poor Inhabitants of the Parrish of Iver in Buckinghamshire ..."[11] revealed that there were further Digger colonies in Barnet in Hertfordshire, Enfield in Middlesex, Dunstable in Bedfordshire, Bosworth in Gloucestershire and a further colony in Nottinghamshire. It also revealed that after the failure of the Surrey colony, the Diggers had left their children to be cared for by parish funds.

End of the movement

The Digger colonies, consisting in all of only about 100–200 people throughout England, were finished by 1651. The collapse of the movement was due to the efforts of local landowners backed by the Council of State to crush the Digger colonies whenever they arose.

Influence on 20th century

During the mid- and late 1960s, the San Francisco Diggers (who took their name from the original English Diggers) opened stores which simply gave away their stock; provided free food, medical care, transport and temporary housing; they also organized free music concerts and works of political art. Some of their happenings included the Death of Money Parade, Intersection Game, Invisible Circus, and Death of Hippie/Birth of Free.

The Diggers were a radical community-action group of community activists and Improv actors operating from 1966–68, based in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco. Their politics were such that they have sometimes been categorized as "left-wing". More precisely, they were "community anarchists" who blended a desire for freedom with a consciousness of the community in which they lived. They were closely associated with and shared a number of members with a guerilla theater group named the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Like the English Diggers, they envisioned a society free from private property, and all forms of buying and selling. Actor Peter Coyote was a founding member of the Diggers.


  • Truth Lifting up its Head above Scandals (1649, Dedication dated October 16, 1648), Gerrard Winstanley
  • The New Law Of Righteousness (January 26, 1649), Gerrard Winstanley
  • The True Levellers Standard A D V A N C E D: or, The State of Community opened, and Presented to the Sons of Men William Everard, John Palmer, John South, John Courton. William Taylor, Christopher Clifford, John Barker. Gerrard Winstanley, Richard Goodgroome, Thomas Starre, William Hoggrill, Robert Sawyer, Thomas Eder, Henry Bickerstaffe, John Taylor, &c. (April 20, 1649)
  • A DECLARATION FROM THE Poor oppressed People OF ENGLAND, DIRECTED To all that call themselves, or are called Lords of Manors, through this NATION... Gerrard Winstanley, John Coulton, John Palmer, Thomas Star ,Samuel Webb, John Hayman, Thomas Edcer, William Hogrill, Daniel Weeden, Richard Wheeler, Nathaniel Yates, William Clifford, John Harrison, Thomas Hayden, James Hall. James Manley, Thomas Barnard, John South, Robert Sayer, Christopher Clifford, John Beechee, William Coomes, Christopher Boncher, Richard Taylor, Urian Worthington, Nathaniel Holcombe, Giles Childe (senior), John Webb, Thomas Yarwel, William Bonnington. John Ash, Ralph Ayer, John Pra, John Wilkinson, Anthony Spire, Thomas East, Allen Brown, Edward Parret, Richard Gray, John Mordy, John Bachilor, William Childe, William Hatham, Edward Wicher, William Tench.(June 1, 1649).
  • A LETTER TO The Lord Fairfax, AND His Councell of War, WITH Divers Questions to the Lawyers, and Ministers: Proving it an undeniable Equity, That the common People ought to dig, plow, plant and dwell upon the Commons, with-out hiring them, or paying Rent to any. On the behalf of those who have begun to dig upon George-Hill in Surrey. Gerrard Winstanly (June 9, 1649)
  • A Declaration of The bloudie and unchristian acting of William Star and John Taylor of Walton (June 22, 1649), Gerrard Winstanley
  • An Appeal To the House of Commons; desiring their answer: whether the common-people shall have the quiet enjoyment of the commons and waste land; ... (July 11, 1649), Gerrard Winstanley, John Barker, and Thomas Star
  • A Watch-Word to the City of London, and the Armie (August 26, 1649), Gerrard Winstanley
  • To His Excellency the Lord Fairfax and the Counsell of Warre the Brotherly Request of those that are called Diggers sheweth (December 1649), John Heyman, An. Wrenn, Hen. Barton, Jon Coulton (in the behalf of others called the Diggers), Robert Cosler, John Plamer, Jacob Heard (in The Clarke Papers volume 2, [1894])
  • To My Lord Generall and his Councell of Warr (December 8, 1649), Gerrard Winstanley (in The Clarke Papers volume 2, [1894])
  • The Diggers Song (circa 1649,1650) (in The Clarke Papers volume 2, [1894]), attributed to Gerrard Winstanley by the historian C. H. Firth, the editor of The Clarke Papers.
  • The Declaration and Standard Of the Levellers of England, delivered in a speech to His Excellency the Lord Gen. Fairfax, on Friday last at White-Hall ..., William Everard
  • Several Pieces gathered into one volume (1650, Preface dated December 20, 1649), A second edition of five of Gerrard Winstanley's works printed for Giles Calvert, the printer for nealy all the Diggers writings.[12]
  • A New-yeers Gift FOR THE PARLIAMENT AND ARMIE: SHEWING, What the KINGLY Power is; And that the CAUSE of those They call DIGGERS (January 1, 1650), Gerrard Winstanley
  • Englands Spirit Unfoulded or an incouragement to take the Engagement ... (Ca. February or March, 1650), Jerrard [sic] Winstanley.
  • A Vindication of Those Whose Endeavors is Only to Make the Earth a Common Treasury, Called Diggers (March 4, 1650), Gerrard Winstanley
  • Fire in the Bush (March 19, 1650), Gerrard Winstanley
  • An appeale to all Englishmen, to judge between bondage and freedome, sent from those that began to digge upon George Hill in Surrey; but now are carrying on, that publick work upon the little heath in the parish of Cobham..., (March 26, 1650), Jerard [sic] Winstanley [and 24 others]
  • A Letter taken at Wellingborough (March, 1650), probably written by Gerrard Winstanley.[13]
  • An Humble Request, to the Ministers of both Universities, and to all Lawyers in every Inns-a-court (April 9, 1650), Gerrard Winstanley
  • Letter to Lady Eleanor Davies (December 4, 1650), Gerrard Winstanley
  • The Law Of Freedom in a Platform, or True Magistracy Restored (1652), Gerrard Winstanley

Influence on literature and popular culture

  • In 1966 a faction of the San Francisco Mime Troupe formed a Diggers group in the hippie community in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. A strongly anti-establishment group, they handed out free food in Golden Gate Park[14]
  • "The World Turned Upside Down" by Leon Rosselson, 1975, a song about the Diggers and their activities on St. George's Hill in 1649; this song was performed by Billy Bragg on his Between the Wars EP, 1985; by Dick Gaughan on Handful of Earth, 1981; by Chumbawumba on the b-side of their single "Timebomb," 1993; by Attila the Stockbroker with Barnstormer on The Siege of Shoreham, 1996; by Clandestine, a Houston-based Celtic group, on their To Anybody At All album, 1999; by the Fagans, an Australian folk group, on their album, Turning Fine, 2002; and by Seattle Celt-rock band Coventry on the album Red Hair and Black Leather, 2005.
  • Winstanley, a fictionalized 1975 film portrait of the Diggers, directed by Kevin Brownlow, was based upon the novel Comrade Jacob by David Caute.
  • Rev Hammer's Freeborn John (The Story of John Lilburne—The Leader of the Levellers) (Cooking Vinyl CD, London, 1997), is a recent example of confusion between the Levellers and True Levellers.
  • As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann, Harcourt, 2001 (ISBN 0-15-601226-X) deals in part with the founding and destruction of a fictional Digger colony at Page Common near London.
  • Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is strongly influenced by Winstanley's writings, including the idea of the Republic of Heaven.
  • Caryl Churchill's 1976 play Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, named after the Digger pamphlet and set in the English Civil War, charts the rise and fall of the Diggers and other radical ideas from the 1640s.
  • Jonathon Kemp's 2010 play The Digger's Daughter tells the tale of the Diggers and quotes much of Winstanley's teaching directly.


  • Campbell (2009). The Britannica Guide to Political Science and Social Movements That Changed the Modern World. The Rosen Publishing Group, 2009. pp. 127–129. ISBN 1615300627. 
  • Laurence, Ann (February, 1980). "Two Ranter Poems". The Review of English Studies 31 (121): 56–59. 
  • Vann, Richard T. (January - March, 1965). "The Later Life of Gerrard Winstanley". Journal of the History of Ideas 26 (1): 133–136. 

Further reading

  • Berens, Lewis Henry.
  • The Digger Movement in the Days of the Commonwealth at Project Gutenberg
  • Hill, Christopher (1972). "Levellers and True Levellers". The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. London: Temple Smith. ISBN 0-85117-025-0. 
  • Petegorsky, David W. (1995) [1940]. Left-wing Democracy in the English Civil War: Gerrard Winstanley and the Digger Movement. Stroud: Alan Sutton. ISBN 0-7509-1053-4. 
  • Johannes Agnoli. Subversive Theorie (Subversive Theory)


  1. ^ Campbell 2009, p. 129.
  2. ^ a b c E.g. "That we may work in righteousness, and lay the Foundation of making the Earth a Common Treasury for All, both Rich and Poor, That every one that is born in the Land, may be fed by the Earth his Mother that brought him forth, according to the Reason that rules in the Creation. Not Inclosing any part into any particular hand, but all as one man, working together, and feeding together as Sons of one Father, members of one Family; not one Lording over another, but all looking upon each other, as equals in the Creation;" in The True Levellers Standard A D V A N C E D: or, The State of Community opened, and Presented to the Sons of Men
  3. ^ Acts 4:32, Today's English Version: "The group of believers was one in mind and heart. No one said that any of his belongings was his own, but they all shared with one another everything they had."
  4. ^ The "The True Levellers Standard A D V A N C E D" specifically mentions Acts 4.32
  5. ^ Grant, Neil. Hamlyn Children's History of Britain: From the Stone Age to the Present Day, 2nd Rev edition (Dean, 1992), p.144
  6. ^ Laurence 1980, p. 57.
  7. ^ Vann 1965, p. 133.
  8. ^ A Declaration by the Diggers of Wellingborough - 1650
  9. ^ Keith Thomas, 'Another Digger Broadside' Past and Present No.42, (1969) pp. 57–6.)
  10. ^ Calendar of State Papers, Domestic, 1650 (London, 1876) p. 106.
  11. ^ A Declaration of the Grounds and Reasons (Iver) from Hopton, Andrew, ed. Digger Tracts, 1649-50. London: Aporia, 1989. (transcribed by Clifford Stetner)
  12. ^ Loewenstein, David (2001). Representing revolution in Milton and his contemporaries: religion, politics, and polemics in radical Puritanism (illustrated ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 315. ISBN 0521770327. 
  13. ^ Winstanley, Gerrard (2009). The complete works of Gerrard Winstanley. 2. Oxford University Press. p. 430. ISBN 0199576068. 
  14. ^ Miles, Barry (2003). Hippie. Sterling Press. p. 106. ISBN 1-4027-1442-4. 

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