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William Starr (c1609-1661)

The Diggers began as a movement shortly after the execution of King Charles I in 1649. They believed that common land was for everyone and, although they called themselves the True Levellers, they became known as the Diggers as their method was to take over the common land, digging and manuring it, so that they could grow food and offer it to anyone who helped. In Surrey the movement was led by Gerrard Winstanley who in 1649 took over some land at St George’s Hill.


He had written that:


The work we are going about is this, to dig up George's Hill and the waste grounds thereabouts, and sow corn, and to eat our bread together by the sweat of our brows. And the first reason is this, that we may work in righteousness, and lay the foundation of making the earth a common treasury for all, both rich and poor, that everyone that is born in the land may be fed by the earth his mother that brought him forth, according to the reason that rules in the creation


Unsurprisingly the landowners were worried about what this might lead to and one of them, Francis Drake, took out an injunction against the Diggers. Winstanley only mentioned two others in his writings: John Taylor and William Starr. On 11th June 1640 both these men had led a protest during which four Diggers were beaten up by a crowd of men dressed as women. Following this Winstanley wrote a pamphlet, printed in London, called A declaration of the bloudie and unchristian acting of William Star and John Taylor of Walton with divers men in womens apparell, in opposition to those that dig upon George-hill in Surrey, in which he said that Starr and others had acquired their land by ‘murder, violence and theft’.


Gerrard Winstanley

He described the incident thus:

‘Upon the 11 day of June 1649, foure men only being fitting and preparing the ground for a winter season, upon that Common called George-hill, there came to them William Starr of Walton and John Taylor, two freeholders, being on horseback, having at their heels some men in womens apparel on foot, with everyone a staffe or club, and as soon as they came to the differs, would not speak like men but as bruit beats that have no understanding, they fell furiously upon them, beating and striking those foure naked men, beating them to the ground, breaking their heads, and sore bruising their bodies, whereof one is so sore bruised, that it is feared he will not escape with his life.’


William Starr was a landowner at Painshill, near St George’s Hill, so was greatly affected by the Diggers’ actions. In addition, there may have been a personal motive for his antagonism: the Starrs and Bickerstaffes had a long standing dispute and Henry Bickerstaffe was a leading Digger. Henry’s father, Robert Bickerstaffe, had fought William’s father, James Starr, over boundaries and rights of way, for decades. In addition to a number of lawsuits in the Kingston courts, there had also been physical confrontation. Starr accused Bickerstaffe of blocking footpaths and impounding cattle and as once set upon by Bickerstaffe and his men. In November 1619, Starr tried to stop Bickerstaffe carrying wood across his (Starr’s) land. Bickerstaffe’s men attacked Starr, knocking him to the ground so that ‘he colde not rise againe till he was holpe upp’. James’ son, William, witnessed all this as a ten year-old, describing the incident in court two years later, when he said that John Stephens alias Annis, one of the servants, was beating his father:


'with his fists lyenge upon the ground and Stephens uppermost and after that Stephens was upp this deponent sawe two stones in Stephens his hand'.

Whether William was influenced by this memory thirty years later is speculation, but hearing an ancestor's words across more than four hundred years is exciting. What they describe is horrible, of course, and there is some relief that, whereas William could have been a haemophiliac, his father could not have been. 


The violent response of William and other landowners meant that the Diggers had been driven off the land by the summer of 1649, but this short lived movement still inspires others today.

(Although there are a number of books referring to the Diggers, nearly all he information above comes from my copy of Brave Community by John Gurney or Winstanley and the Diggers by Andrew Bradstock.)

Possible haemophiliac descendants of William Starr

William (5%) himself lived until he was about 52. The violence during th above incident suggests that he wasn't a haemophiliac.

Of his children:

William (1645-57):    died young and had no descendants

Elizabeth (1648-  ):   alive in 1661

Alice (1651-1707):     qv

James (1653-1677): died aged 24 and had no descendants. He left a will which mentions his mother and sisters, Alice and Mary. He is described as being 'weak and ill in body but very well in mind'.

                                 This is standard legal speak but possibly significant in a 24 year-old.

Margaret (3%):        (1659 - pre 1661)

Mary (3%):                married Francis FREELAND in 1679.

Both males died young, but not as babies, suggesting further research was sensible.

(More later)

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