Image: Still from the film Winstanley, 1975.
In April 1649, Gerrard Winstanley and a rag-tag band calling themselves ‘Diggers’ set up camp on St George’s Hill in Surrey, and made history.
There is a widespread misconception that the Diggers had chosen to cultivate common land. In fact, St George’s Hill was probably Crown Land – which, following the execution of Charles I, had become of uncertain ownership. The Diggers were one amongst various millennarian cults of the post-monarchy era who were convinced that with the death of the king, a new era had dawned.
For Winstanley, that new era heralded the end of private property and a chance to throw off the ‘Norman yoke’ of elite landownership that had enslaved the common people of England since 1066. “The earth is a common treasury for all”, he proclaimed, “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”.
Unfortunately, the country’s new masters didn’t quite see it that way. The Diggers’ social experiment in communal living came to a bitter end after they were attacked by local farmers and then evicted by General Fairfax’s army. The Crown Lands were auctioned off by Parliament to fund Cromwell’s murderous war in Ireland.
The land was acquired, or possibly enclosed alongside adjoining common land, in 1804 by the ‘Grand Old’ Duke of York. During the Victorian period it came into the possession of the Egerton family, nobility who held the title of the Earls of Ellesmere.
In 1911, St George’s Hill was bought by the Surrey builder and developer Walter George Tarrant. Even The Spectator, hardly a bastion of radicalism, bemoaned its development: “It was inevitable, no doubt, that St. George’s Hill should be sold sooner or later, and those who regret it most will be the first to appreciate the liberality and kindliness which for so many years have given free access to walks among pines and rhododendrons”.
Tarrant immediately set to work cutting down the pines and rhododendrons that covered his 950-acre development site. In 1913, some 250 acres of St George’s Hill was landscaped into a golf course. The golf club’s website still proudly displays a photo of the trees felled to make way for its manicured lawns.
But Tarrant knew that golf alone wouldn’t make him rich: around it, he began building luxury homes for London’s wealthiest. The two maps below show how St George’s Hill developed rapidly from a wooded wilderness to a hillside studded with mansions:
In the 1960s, the Beatles bought a house at St George’s Hill, and the area acquired over the years a cachet that attracted ever-more celebrities, footballers, actors and wealthy businesspeople. Dubbed ‘Britain’s Beverly Hills’, the area today has become a gated community for the rich. Estate agents Knight Frank say that there are currently 428 luxury properties on St George’s Hill. A glance at any prospectus for the mansions on sale confirms that it is viewed as an exclusive, gilded bolt-hole. The residents’ association mandates that every house must have at least one acre of land attached to it, proving once again that old adage: socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor.
In recent years, there has been an influx of money from overseas. The Telegraph reported in 2013 that St George’s Hill has seen a “wave of Russian plutocrats… The biggest buyers of property are those who made their money on the far side of the Urals and cannot afford or do not fancy the gazillion-pound mega mansions in Kensington.” Indeed, in 2012, a Russian businessman, Alexander Perepilichnyy, was found dead outside the house he was renting in St George’s Hill for £12,500 a month, in mysterious circumstances that are currently the subject of an inquest and which sparked headlines at the time about a possible Litvinenko-style poisoning by the Russian state.
As St George’s Hill’s residents have become ever-wealthier, so the use of offshore tax havens have increased to hide their wealth and identities. Data obtained by Private Eye from the Land Registry shows at least 72 homes on St George’s Hill are currently registered offshore in tax havens. 37 are registered in the British Virgin Islands, 17 in the Channel Islands, 11 in the Isle of Man, 3 in Switzerland, 1 in Panama, and 1 in Anguilla (with 2 of uncertain country registration). The Price Paid data for these 72 properties shows them to have a staggering collective value of £282 million. I’ve mapped them below, together with the rest of the land parcels that make up St George’s Hill.
Sources: Offshore properties – Private Eye FOI response from the Land Registry 2015; Golf course – OS Greenspace dataset, OGL licence 2017; rest of land parcels – INSPIRE Index polygons, © Crown Copyright OS & Land Registry, reproduced here for media reporting reasons; I will remove this layer if asked by OS.
The ultimate owners of most of these properties remains mysterious, shrouded in the secrecy brought by the use of offshore jurisdictions. But for a tantalising few, it’s possible to look behind the curtain:
The Coach House, bought for £5.4m in 2008, is registered in the name of Coach House Estates Ltd in the British Virgin Islands. It appears in the Panama Papers, which reveals that its main beneficiary is HH Shaikh Hamad Bin Mohammed Al Sharqi, the ruler of the Emirate of Fujairah in UAE. Intriguingly, the Coach House was the property being rented in 2012 by the aforementioned Russian businessman Perepilichnyy before he died.
‘Jadica’, a house at St George’s Hill acquired for £3m in 2009 by Iron Bridge Investment Ltd, registered in Guernsey, looks to be the property of Mr Eduard Shifrin, a Ukrainian businessman. The address appears in the Panama Papers, together with the link to Shifrin, whose wealth in 2009 was estimated at $1.3billion. Shifrin grew rich from Ukraine’s privatised steel industry (hence, perhaps, the name of his property management firm) and has a stake in Trump Tower Toronto.
The Panamanian company that owns the mansion known as ‘Squirrel’s Wood’, Beltran Management SA, has a director, Dianeth M. De Ospino, whose name appears in the Panama Papers. She and another of its directors, José Eugenio Silva Ritter, work for a Panama law firm that has been implicated (here, here & here) in moneylaundering charges laid at the former President of Peru, Alejandro Toledo – a lawsuit that has links to the vast ‘Operation Car Wash’ corruption scandal sweeping Latin America. Whether there are any concrete links between such scandals and the money used to buy this property in St George’s Hill is, of course, unknown.
The Land Is Ours
Though the recent history of the land at St George’s Hill has mostly been one of enclosure, privatisation and offshoring, there has been some pushback. In 1995, a group of protestors led by environmental activist George Monbiot formed The Land Is Ours (TLIO) and squatted on St George’s Hill. In 1999 they returned again for the 350th anniversary of the Diggers’ occupation of the site, and erected a memorial stone to their honour. TLIO was part of a wave of land rights activism in the 1990s following the roads protests, Reclaim the Streets, and pioneering books on land ownership by Marion Shoard, Andy Wightman and others. This article on TLIO’s action, and George’s recollections of it, capture some of the hopefulness and radical ambitions of that time. Or check out this video of it:
St George’s Hill is the birthplace of the Diggers, England’s first real movement for land redistribution. Yet today it is the epitome of privatised property, a gated community of billionaires whose wealth is locked up in tax havens, avoiding both social interaction and social responsibility. Where a rich forest once grew, vulgar mansions now sprout. Where poor peasants once tried to grow food for hungry mouths, rich businessmen now idly play games of golf: a microcosm of a country in which golf courses take up ten times more land than allotments. The Land Is Ours had the right idea: it’s time for a new land rights movement to challenge the privatisation and offshoring of our land, and return the spirit of the Diggers to England.