Finchley Common was an area of land in between Finchley, Friern Barnet and Muswell Hill, which had been Finchley Wood and was under the authority of the Bishop of London. By the 15th century the people of Finchley claimed the right to collect wood and graze their animals in and around the wood. In the 16th century the Bishop had much of the wood cleared, and it became an open, uncultivated area called a common.
The earliest known use of the name Finchley Common refers to refugees escaping from plague in London who encamped on the common in 1603. There are pieces of open ground in Haringey and Barnet which are still associated with Finchley Common: Coppetts Wood, Coldfall Wood, and the Glebe Land (better known locally as the Rough Lots). Finchley Common's size varied but it was certainly greater than 1,240 acres at its peak.
Finchley Common is most famous for the highwaymen of the 18th century. These were robbers who attacked travellers at night along the Great North Road. A few were from Finchley chancing their luck, but most were from London's criminal underworld.
Before the 1790s merchants often had to carry large sums of money in gold as the smallest bank note was for ten pounds (a vast sum in those days). This made the largely uninhabited common a very dangerous place. In 1774 Sir Gilbert Elliott, Earl of Minto, wrote to his wife that he would not "trust my throat on Finchley Common in the dark".
Highwaymen who were caught were hanged at Tyburn. Sometimes their corpses were put in chains on a gibbet on Finchley Common. This was done to deter other highwaymen. The gibbet was used from the 1670s to the 1790s and was located where Bedford Road meets the High Road in East Finchley.
However, the gibbet was not very effective as a deterrent. Travellers protected themselves with guns and swords, and occasionally managed to scare these thieves off. It was the introduction of a mounted police force patrolling the road between Highgate and Whetstone in 1805 that finally ended the reign of the highwaymen.
Between the 1660s and 1820s the common was often used as a military encampment. General Monck mustered his army there in 1660 during the Restoration.
An Act of Parliament for the enclosure of the common was passed in 1811, and the land was divided into fields and awarded to local people in 1816. 15 acres were set aside as Fuel Land, to be rented out to local farmers and the money used as a winter dole of fuel to the poor. The Fuel Lands have been used as allotments since 1890.
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