The earliest known use of the name Finchley Common refers to refugees escaping from plague in London who encamped on the common in 1603.
The size of Finchley Common was estimated at anything between 500 and 1600 acres but at inclosure in 1816 it consisted of some 900 acres. Until Hornsey park was fenced off in the 13th century, Finchley Wood was indistinguishable from it and the division between the two long remained confused.
Herbage rights existed in Finchley Wood by 1410 and in 1504 it was described as ’a common called Finchley Wood’. Felling and removing timber, however, was forbidden as on the demesne estates. During the 16th century there was a direct conflict between the pasture rights of the inhabitants and the timber rights of the lord.
In 1533 Finchley men asserted their traditional right to ’cooltes’ for swine in Finchley wood, which they said had been destroyed by the bishop’s woodward, who had also taken away their hedging bills. In 1562 they defended their claim to common of pasture ’from time immemorial’ against the lord’s proposal to divide and separate a quarter of his woods. Judgement was given for the bishop, in accordance with the Act of 1543 for the preservation of woods. Possibly Great Colefall (later Coldfall) was the quarter so enclosed: when it was leased in 1645 with the other demesne woods it was called ’the wood in Finchley Common’. The inhabitants of Hornsey were within their rights under the Act of 1543 in claiming common within Great Coldfall, but it was treated as demesne rather than common in 1815.
Conflict also arose during the 16th century between the parishes bordering the common. In the mid 16th century the right of tenants from Friern Barnet
to intercommon was refused, Robert Sanny and others being amerced for pasturing sheep. Presentments of Friern Barnet
people were frequent in the early 17th century and fines of £5 and £10 were respectively imposed in 1648 and 1650. The two parishes went to court in the 1690s and, although the outcome is not known, presentments of Friern Barnet
tenants ceased after that time. The inclosure award of 1816, largely instigated by John Bacon of Friern Barnet
, did not allot any of the common to Friern Barnet
parish but made allotments to copyholders of Friern Barnet
manor and a large one to Bacon himself.
A survey of 1647 upheld the joint rights of the freeholders, copyholders, and leaseholders of Finchley and Hornsey to all commons and wastes within their two parishes. An incloser of waste at Muswell Hill in 1671 was ordered by the Finchley court to open it because Finchley tenants had rights there. A Hornsey man was presented in 1688 for sheep on Finchley common but his offence lay in overstocking and not, as in the case of Friern Barnet
offenders, in merely keeping animals there.
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.