Rewind: the man who took on the Royals and won freedom of Richmond Park

By The Editor

8th Feb 2021 | Local News

John Lewis - not that one, the other one who everyone entering Richmond Park should thank for their ability to do so (he's on Sheen Gate if you want to do so personally). In 1755, he came to Sheen Gate, and attempted to walk through.

This was an act of rebellion because Richmond Park's appointed ranger, Princess Amelia, had chosen to restrict entry to the park to people with carriages and special tickets - basically, her mates.

In doing this, Amelia was simply continuing the progressive exclusion of ordinary people from Richmond Park which kicked off with Charles I enclosing what was previously farmland, and common land with a wall so he could hunt. He was reluctantly compelled to provide ladderstiles.

In 1727 the Rangership of Richmond Park was given to the Prime Minister's son, Robert Walpole. Robert Walpole senior, however, made the decisions. He decided to put in place lodges at each of the gates and remove the ladderstiles.

This had the handy effect of shutting out the plebs who used the ladderstiles and restricting access to gentry in carriages. Richmond Park started to become a private playground for the wealthy, wheeled and well connected. Amelia simply formalised the system to ticket-only entry.

Enter John Lewis. In 1755, he took a friend with him as witness to Sheen Gate of Richmond Park and waited for a carriage to enter. He followed it in, and was challenged by the gatekeeper, Martha Gray. After an altercation, the gate was shut against him - exactly what he wanted.

It gave John Lewis the opportunity to bring an indictment on the grounds of forcible denial of access to Richmond Park, a case which ground on for three years, before the court found for Lewis. He had taken on Princess Amelia and won.

Lewis was asked to decide whether access for everyone to Richmond Park should be by gate or ladderstiles. He chose the latter, on the grounds that a gate could be bolted in the future. Peevishly, Amelia built ladderstiles with huge gaps between rungs as a revenge.

She wasn't learning. John Lewis went back to the courts with a complaint about the inaccessibility of the ladderstiles - and won again, the Judge declaring that "even old women may be able to get up". Amelia lost once more when carriages were allowed in without tickets.

John Lewis became a local celebrity, his portrait gracing many Richmond walls, an annuity organised him when in later years he fell on hard times, and later, this memorial on the very gate in Sheen where he was refused entry.

Amelia gave up the rangership, and went to live in Gunnersbury.

We hope you enjoyed this piece which is from a marvellous Twitter thread by Barnes resident Sarah Travers.

Credit to Max Lankester of conservation charity the Friends of Richmond Park for his research.


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