Plumstead Common is a fine green area near the Thames. But it was almost lost to us. LUCYA SZACHNOWSKI looks at its turbulent history.

IN SOME some parts of Plumstead Common, which stretches for more than a mile along high ground overlooking the Thames, it is easy to imagine you are in the countryside.

It is a designated conservation area in the heart of the city and its landscape ranges from wooded ravines to open grassland. Yet without the determination of residents past and present, Plumstead Common might now be little more than old pictures in history books.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Plumstead was a farming village with a population of just over 1,000.

An influx of workers at the Woolwich arsenal during the Crimean war together with the development of the railway trebled the area's population between 1851 and 1861.

More houses were needed and the common came under threat as the lords of the manor Queens College Oxford sold land to building speculators and allowed the military to exercise there.

In 1876, residents began to protest over the loss of their common land.

Although many people were involved in the conflict, it came to be seen as a battle between two men: John de Morgan, an Irish radical activist, and Edwin Hughes, a member of the local establishment who was on the District Board of Works and had property interests in the area.

Protestors accused him of stopping rights of way across the common.

In June 1876, De Morgan put up notices appealing for help: “Let me appeal to all lovers of justice to aid the Commoners of Plumstead in the battle they are fighting.

On Saturday the Commoners intend removing the illegally erected fences on the Common.

All Commoners should be present, bringing with them axes to chop down the posts and hammers to break down the wire fences.”

On Saturday, July 1, 1876, after a speech outside the arsenal, protesters marched up Burrage Road, Plumstead, and around the common.

They stopped to attack fences surrounding gravel pits.

The procession finished outside Hughes' house where residents staged a four-day demonstration.

Four months later, De Morgan and 11 others were brought to trial at Maidstone for riotous assembly and disturbing the public peace.

De Morgan was jailed for a month but after 17 days the Home Secretary released him.

He returned to Plumstead for a Bonfire Night celebration where 20,000 people watched an effigy of Hughes burn.

But the protests were successful and, in 1877, the Metropolitan Board bought the common and Bostal Heath.

In the 1970s, residents once again acted to protect the common.

The Plumstead Society convinced Greenwich Council Plumstead Common and its surrounding buildings should become a designated Conservation Area.

In 1991, Plumstead Common Environment group was formed, which has worked with the council to maintain the area.

History Briefs

HISTORY THIS WEEK: On July 16, 1439, kissing was outlawed to halt the spread of the Plague; on July 18, 1923, British women were given equal divorce rights to men and, on July 19, 1545, Henry VIII's Mary Rose sank.

BORN THIS WEEK: On July 18, 1811, novelist and poet W. M. Thackeray; on July 18, 1848, cricket legend W.G. Grace and on July 18, 1918, Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black president who was a prisoner for 27 years, was born.

DIED THIS WEEK: On July 21, 1796, Scottish poet Robert Burns; on July 18, 1817, novelist Jane Austen and on July 17, 1903, painter James Whistler.

VICTORIAN LETTERS: On Friday (July 20), the Lewisham Local History Society will focus on letters from a Victorian schoolboy, edited and presented by David Crane. The meeting is at 7.45pm at the Lewisham Methodist Church, in albion Way.

HERITAGE VISITS: Senior citizens can visit hundreds of English Heritage properties at half the normal admission price during July. Call 0870 333 1181 for details.

POP HISTORY: On July 16, 1966, Eric Clapton, Jack bruce and Ginger Baker formed Cream while the Kinks topped the charts with Sunny Afternoon. On July 18, 1953, Elvis Presley made his first record.