In 1649, a small group of men and women dug the strip of common land that was - and still is - called St. George's Hill. They were spurred on by the words of their leader, Gerrard Winstanley, who preached that all men had an equal right to use and benefit from the land. His ideas were radical, rebellious, and utterly profound.
Yet, the Diggers' full story is one which is tied up in the turmoil, controversy and bloodshed of the English Civil War. It was played out across our entire Borough, and, although the men at the time didn't know it, would take its place in history as a prominent landmark - still achieving an international impact hundreds of years later.
In partnership with Royal Holloway, University of London's Citizens Project, Elmbridge Museum has redeveloped the current Surrey Diggers Trail. The long struggle faced by Winstanley and his followers is revealed from start to finish in the five short videos on this page, which use animations, maps, and historic objects in Elmbridge Museum's collection, to truly bring this fascinating story to life.
- War and Winstanley: Origins of the Diggers
- The Diggers at St George's Hill
- St Mary's Church, Protests and Prison
- Big Trouble on Little Heath
- The Significance and Legacy of the Diggers
Find each video, along with the address of each stop on the trail, below.
The Elmbridge Diggers trail, with each of the five stops marked out. The accompanying videos follow the numbers in ascending order.
1. War and Winstanley: Origins of the Diggers
Location: 2a High Street, Cobham
Our story begins in the rural village of Cobham, where a man named Gerrard Winstanley and his wife Susan arrived in 1643.
Arriving disgruntled and embittered, and buried under a mountain of debt, Winstanley was far from happy in his new ‘country life’ at the site of Cobham Cemetery. As the Civil War raged on, Winstanley himself began to rage. He was angry at the injustices committed all around him by those in power. Add terrible harvests and the execution of King Charles I into the mix in 1649, and a perfect storm began to brew.
The scene in England was now set for dissent – and Winstanley’s radical ideas took centre stage.
Video 1 - War and Winstanley: Origins of the Diggers
2. The Diggers at St George's Hill
Location: Redhill Road / Byfleet Road Junction, Weybridge
On Sunday 1st April 1649, a small collection of men and women gathered at St. George’s Hill, called to action by their leader, Gerrard Winstanley.
They started to dig, plant crops and set up a camp site where they all lived equally – without permission from the local lord of the manor. Their simple act of defiance was, quite literally, ground breaking.
It was this action which stirred up the wrath of the local and national government – and the vicious campaign to remove the Diggers from their commune commenced.
Video 2 - The Diggers at St George's Hill
3. St Mary's Church, Protests and Prison
Location: St Mary's Church, Church Street, Walton-on-Thames
Our story now moves to St Mary’s Church, which still stands today in Walton.
It may come as a surprise that, at one time, this beautiful place of worship acted as a makeshift prison. Winstanley and other Digger leaders were taken from St George’s Hill to St Mary’s Church and beaten up by ‘a rude multitude’. Eventually, they were locked up there as their long-awaited trial loomed. The charges against them were of causing riot, and the place they were to be tried was Kingston.
Although they did not know it, the July 1649 trial marked the start of the end for the Diggers.
Video 3 - St Mary's Church, Protests and Prison
4. Big Trouble on Little Heath
Location: Littleheath Lane / Knipp Hill Road Junction, Cobham
What happened to the Diggers after they were driven off St George’s Hill? And how did the rebellious movement finally end? We now return to a quiet corner of Cobham known as Little Heath.
After being forced back to Cobham, Winstanley Diggers successfully cultivated land and harvested winter crops at Little Heath. But this triumph was not to last. From August 1649, opponents regularly gathered at the White Lion Inn, in the centre of Cobham, to work out a violent strategy to drive the Diggers away for good. Tensions culminated in a ferocious fire – in 1650, Cobham’s local lord led one final fatal attack of the Diggers’ camp, the dramatic finale to nearly a year of violence and hostility.
Little did they know that the Diggers' legacy was to live on to the present day.
Video 4 - Big Trouble on Little Heath
5. The Significance and Legacy of the Diggers
Location: CObbetts Hill / Brooklands Road Junction, Weybridge
The Diggers never fully recovered from the final raid on Little Heath.
New attempts to establish communes in other counties also failed. But, hundreds of years on, their beliefs were to provide the very foundation for a variety of anti-Capitalist thought, such as Marxism and Communism. As for their leader, Winstanley went back to his 'country life' in Cobham. Yet the man who eventually became a respected member of the community and an overseer of the Poor is now commemorated around the world for the movement he started back in 1649.
Although contemporaries viewed them as a dismal failure, the influence of this small group of labourers is permanently commemorated on a stone at Cobbetts Hill, put up in 1999 to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the beginning of the Diggers’ movement.
Video 5 - The Significance and Legacy of the Diggers
Learn More: radical groups in the civil war
The emerging political landscape of the mid-1600s was a melting-pot of radical ideas and new beliefs, and it was not just the Diggers who came to the fore during the English Civil War. In this short video, Professor Justin Champion outlines the spectrum of ideals and main motivators of three of the most notable of these groups - the Diggers, Levellers and Ranters.
The English Civil War: Who were the Diggers, Levellers and Ranters?