Three Acres and a Cow

History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again. (Maya Angelou)

Despite the tedium of history lessons at school, I have come to love real history, particularly when presented in an accessible way. Even so I was not sure that I wanted to spend a recent Sunday evening learning about the history of land rights in England (mostly)…. how wrong I was!

The evening entertainment on 13 September at the International Permaculture Convergence was Three Acres and a Cow, which is described on their website as

Part TED talk, part history lecture, part folk club sing-a-long, part poetry slam, part storytelling session

Now, I have to confess, that a ‘folk club sing-along’ is not high on my list of things I want to do, BUT I had heard good things about this performance and so, wrapped up well (but not quite well enough) against the cold (it was being held in a big top) I decided to give it a go…

A cow!

A cow!

I don’t think I can really do justice to the performance of Robin Grey, Rachel Rose Reid and Naomi Wilkins. They ran through the history of  land rights and protest with humour and insight in a couple of hours, starting with the Norman Conquest (it seems that we have William the Conqueror to blame for taking the land away from the people in the first place), to the land enclosures between 1285 and 1640 (blame the sheep), via the English Civil War (1642-1651) including the Diggers who employed direct action to occupy land, the 1700-1850 Parliamentary Enclosures and the Industrial Revolution, progressing to the 1915 Glasgow rent strikes and the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932 (which inspired Ewan Maccoll’s song The Manchester Rambler).

I would not have believed that a history lesson could get a standing ovation, but it did… plus we all learned a lot. If you want to know more, I highly recommend the Three Acres and a Cow website along with their associated Wiki. From this you can learn about the history of land rights in England, but if you get I chance, go and see the group performing live. Sadly there isn’t a film of the performance, but you can hear a few of the songs on the relevant page of their website, including the title song Three Acres and a Cow. If you live in the UK you may also be interested to discover, on the songs page, the anthem of the Liberal Party (more details here).

And the title? Well, well, according to Wikipedia:

Three acres and a cow was a slogan used by British land reform campaigners of the 1880s… It refers to an ideal land holding for every citizen

All this has rather piqued my interest and I think I’m going to do some more reading around the subject… and, possibly, demand my three acres and a cow, it seems only fair.

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  1. Go for it! According to the Welsh Government’s section on the Rights of Common, ( you should also be able to access around 175,000 hectares of common land for grazing purposes. Of course, you may find the National Trust a bit grumpy if you walk your cow through one of their properties to access the grazing….

  2. My love for history was awakened when I was thirteen by my college history teacher who was an immigrant Englishman with a wide knowledge and such enthusiasm for his subject that it rubbed off on his students. I taught history with as much vim and vigour as I could as a result of his influence. Not for us the stuffy old renderings of wars and dates and shifting political alliances. For us it was biographies, poetry and music and social changes; stories of people and communities and ways of life that were lost for better or worse…… He taught me that knowing the past gave us a firmer foothold in the present and a respect for what had gone before. Researching the family tree was also a part of that process. History is wonderful! So glad you were inspired!

  3. So much I want to comment on in this post, seconding Pauline. Often I use the example of the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s. So often its history is told from the perspective of arrows on maps showing the movement of battles. This is undoubtedly a part of the story. But there was social upheaval; there were families in need of assistance because their household head went to war and was paid infrequently; there was the idea that freed slaves should get “40 acres and a mule” or education in a trade; there was the very physical evidence, visible from an airplane into the late 1980s, of Sherman’s march through Georgia–a swath of forest a different color of green; and of course, the great migration of African Americans to the north (where they were met with much the same racism, if not the legally enforced sort); the Civil rights movement; and discussions we have on race to this very day. History is alive. It informs our present. I am so sorry that so many teachers can’t show that to their students. Thanks for an enlightening post. William the Conquerer. Who knew?

    • From the age of 13 to 14 I was forced to study American history and I came away thinking that it was the dullest subject ever. Later in my life I discovered through reading and visiting the country, that the US has a fascinating history that had been completely obscured to me. As an adult I have heard the Declaration of Independence read from the balcony of the Old State House in Boston, where I’ve also walked the Freedom Trail, I’ve learned about the link between Mason and Dixon and the Transit of Venus, I’ve seem a real-live stage coach in the Concord Museum, I’ve handled a piece of wood from the original cottonwood trees planted my Pa Ingalls in South Dakota… I could go on, but you get the picture. History is amazing and I’m devastated that I nearly had a love for it educated out of me!

  4. Many, many years ago I taught Maths and Science and soon realised that if I was feeling low or lazy I could make any subject boring. Equally if I put my mind to it I could make it fun and interesting. But it cost me effort and creativity and then, often, some practical effort – teaching fractions with the aid of a chocolate cake meant late night baking, algebra as mind reading meant writing a lot of apparantly complicated equations that were actually easy to resolve….

    I wish I had been able to get to the convergence but thank you for telling us about it and providing links; I will certainly be clicking on them later today. Like you I did not find school history inspiring but I am fascinated by people and the lives ordinary folk lead in the past.

    • I hope you can make it to the UK convergence next year.
      Having recently given up teaching ecology, I find myself with a house full of props – everything from a knitted Loch Ness Monster to a box of cuisenaire rods! I used to get bored doing talk and chalk, so all my classes involved creative activities… I was teaching adults rather than in school, so I could be as creative as I liked, but I cannot count the hours I spent making things to use.

  5. It sounds as though you had a thoroughly enlightening and entertaining evening. History can be quite interesting as it needs to be absorbed and learned from so as not to repeat itself. Had it ever been presented in such an interesting fashion, I may have absorbed a bit as well. People have been trying to take land away from one another since the beginning of our time. I would love three acres and a cow.

    • The UK is such a small country that land is power… which I guess is exactly why William the Conqueror took it away from the people! It is a real issue now – land is so expensive that people who want to support themselves on the land can only do so if they have lots of money – a sad situation.

  6. My academic focus was the rhetoric of protest and, specifically, the ways folk music has been used to communicate about and advance social change. So, the presentation you describe sounds totally fascinating to me! I sure wish the schools would find such ways to bring history alive for young people!

    • It really was brilliant – history at school was all about rich men and I felt no connection to it, this was about real people and presented in a completely accessible way. Sadly, our national curriculum in the UK seems to ignore relevant history like this and teachers are forced to train children to pass standard tests rather than engage with learning creatively. So sad.

  7. Correct. It seems only fair. I would claim my 3 acres smack square in the middle of the Sandringham estate. I am quite sure that your ancient relatives would have had property there and if you get no satisfaction from your letterbombing campaign to the queen, just stroll that cow right into the grounds and set up a tent of occupation.

    • … hang on while I consult a soil map to find the best spot…

      • On second thoughts…I am now thinking that the Tower of London, where the crown jewels are kept might be a better bet…or maybe the reserve bank? All viable 3 acre options and if you got a really good scale map, you might be able to kill a few big birds with one stone in the centre of London 😉

        • I wonder what area the Natural History museum covers…?

          • Not entirely sure. If I was in the U.K. I would make an express trip to the capitol to have a look-see with my trusty tape measure Ms Snail BUT…alas…I am not. That leaves me trawling for info with my old mate Chromy “G” and we think we might have cracked it. You are going to have to take over on the detective work as you are university educated (and probably wear glasses that can see the incremental size on this image) and sleuthing is part of your vernacular. Here’s a most interesting link I just found. Wish I had known about the plant frescos/tiles on the roof when we visited back in 2005 but thems the breaks. Check out the image of the plans. Thar be measurements on the sides. Not acres methinks but perhaps yards? I leave it in your capable hands Ms Snail 🙂


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