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A little piece of America.

To my certain knowledge there are now two small pieces of land within Great Britain that are in effect American territory. For a short while there was nearly a third.

The first and most prominent of the small enclaves that are the USA in England is the ground occupied by The Embassy of the United States of America at number 24 Grosvenor Square, in London. Once you enter this building you effectively enter the United States and fall under U.S. jurisdiction, as is the case with most embassies of recognised states.

The Second Little bit of America is more unlikely. It takes the form of one acre of rather damp grassland on the bank of the River Thames at Runnymede near Egham in Surrey. If the location sounds familiar to you, it is at the same spot, or at least the main contender in conjecture, where King John was coerced by his Barons to add his seal to the big charter, or Magna Carta. In theory at least, this spot is where the idea of a written down list of rights was first exercised, and from that, it is usually extrapolated, that the rule of law was begun. As a rather important spot, it isn’t really surprising that, from that day in 1215 until the present, the British have used it for grazing their cows, until one day in 1957, the eighteenth of July to be precise, when the American Bar Association decided to erect a memorial. There it still stands, with the inscription ‘To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of Freedom Under Law’, much to the delight of all the American Lawyers and cows that come to read it. I wonder how many of them realise when they tramp through the long grass to see the other memorial, located a short distance away, that they are back in the U.S.A. That single acre was given to America to honour the memory of President John F Kennedy, and the second memorial is to him.

The third small piece of America, that nearly was, is less well known, unless you are familiar with the history of Hastings in Sussex. Unlike the two previous locations, this bid to become American was led by the people, and as may be expected was halted in its tracks by the state. It began the year 1236 when a huge gale reshaped the coastline of Southern Britain, the excellent harbour of Hastings was completely lost, replaced by a vast bank of shingle that filled the harbour mouth. This shingle became inhabited as the town slowly recovered from its disastrous change of fortune. The land had appeared, as if by magic, from the sea, it belonged to no-one, especially none of the feudal landowners, and therefore its inhabitants paid no rent, rates or taxes. By the 1800’s the seafaring economy of Hastings had been replaced by that of a more genteel resort. The area of shingle became increasingly isolated as a ramshackle shantytown of ad-hock buildings made from upturned ships. The custom of sawing ships in half that had been caught smuggling and then dumping them on the shingle, provided excellent buildings and materials. Records show that the community living in this settlement was considerable, over 1000 people carried on trades as diverse as merchants, plumbers, confectioners, carpenters, millers, bakers, brewers, shipwrights, postman, publican, butchers, corn factor, cabinet makers, wheelwrights, rope makers and grocers. Lodging houses and pig keeping were major industries; there were warehouses, limekilns, a sawing house, stonemasons, a slaughterhouse and butchers also a gin palace, and a school, but no church.

Of course it was only a matter of time before the need to find land for the affluent middle classes began to put pressure on this untidy, unregulated and uncontrollable enclave. The corporation of Hastings attempted to impose official control on the area, in response, the inhabitants of the land, did a surprising thing, they hoisted the American flag and claimed that the land was America. To this day the area is known as ‘America ground’.

In the early 1800’s it was discovered that no title deeds existed for the America ground that would enable the sale of property. As if it were inconceivable that unowned land should exist, an inquisition was set up by The Crown, which deliberated whether ownership could be justified by the town's Elizabethan Charter, or Lord Chichester, holder to the castle lands granted to his family under James the 1st.
In 1827 the inhabitants were offered a settlement consisting of a seven year lease by the Crown, who in the words of the commissioners would have "succeeded in acquiring on the behalf of the Crown, the disputed possession, at the end of seven years, a very valuable Estate, from which no profit or income has hitherto been derived by the Crown."
The offer was rejected by the inhabitants, who collectively evacuated the land, took their houses with them, and moved a few miles along the coast.

Sources
Embassy - http://www.usembassy.org.uk
Runnymede - http://www.egham.co.uk/info/jfk.html
America ground - http://www.1066.net/america/history.htm

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