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The Anniversary Of Saving Epping Forest

July 8, 2021
by the gentle author

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Mark Gorman, author of Saving the People’s Forest: open spaces, enclosure and popular protest in Victorian London celebrates the anniversary of the decisive battle to save Epping Forest as public open space which took place on Wanstead Flats.


One hundred and fifty years ago today, on 8th July 1871, thousands gathered on Wanstead Flats, the southern boundary of Epping Forest. They were there to protest against the fencing-off of a large section of the Flats by Lord Cowley, the Lord of Wanstead Manor and a major landowner in the forest.

Cowley’s action was just another in a series of enclosures of Epping Forest as local landowners sought to cash in on the rising value of land near London. Commerce and industry were driving a huge expansion of the city and villages like Walthamstow and Leytonstone were being transformed into bustling suburbs. London’s population, which had been just over one million in 1800, reached seven million by the eve of the Great War.

This unprecedented growth proved a mixed blessing for Londoners. The new suburbs provided affordable housing for many better-off workers but it was not just the affluent middle classes who were new residents of the growing outer London districts. Many who lived in the inner east London parishes also aspired to houses with gardens and the arrival of the railways made living at a distance from work a possibility.

At the same time, London’s spread was swallowing up the green spaces which for centuries people been able to enjoy. One after another urban commons were eaten away by housing and industrial development. By the mid-nineteenth century, even the once-remote Epping Forest was under threat. For East Enders “the People’s Forest” was their time-honoured playground. Summer weekends and holidays saw thousands take the roads eastward to the forest. Wanstead Flats, just north of the village of Forest Gate, was the closest part of the forest, with a railway station that opened in the eighteen-forties giving direct access from inner London.

The enclosures were a direct threat to this freedom to roam and not something Londoners accepted easily. On a wet February night in 1866, a meeting in Mile End formed a local branch of the Commons Preservation Society. While the committee was made up of prominent businessmen and politicians, the core group were all local political radicals, veterans of campaigns calling for the right to vote for the working class.

In the face of enormous odds, at a time of economic crisis, the campaigners mobilised local support for efforts to save the forest from development. A series of meetings across east London and in the forest promoted the cause. Workers at Truman, Hanbury & Buxton, local schoolchildren and many other East Enders raised funds. Nevertheless, as the enclosures continued, outrage was increasing and it was clear that direct action was required.

In the summer of 1871, the enclosures of Wanstead Flats proved to be a watershed. East Londoners gained a powerful ally in the City of London Corporation which, sensing the public mood, sided with the popular cause. Using their position as Epping Forest commoners, with the right to graze cattle across the forest, they warned Lord Cowley against infringing this right with his fences.

The City’s motives were mixed. At a time when they were being widely criticised as self-interested and unaccountable, this was a calculated effort to burnish their image. Yet it was also an act of altruism whose motivation was summed up by J T Bedford, the City’s leading campaigner for Epping Forest. By helping to save the forest, he said, ‘they would get the whole population with them. It would extend their influence, and it would be a gracious thing to do for the East End of London’.

While the City of London threatened legal action, campaigners called a mass demonstration on Wanstead Flats for July 1871. In the week before, public meetings were held in Hackney, Mile End, Stratford and Shoreditch. Though distant from the forest, these meetings were packed by those determined to defend their open space at all costs. “Shoreditch to the Rescue!” was the clarion call advertising the meeting there.

On 8th July, thousands descended on Wanstead Flats. By this stage, the gentleman leaders were increasingly nervous about the box they had opened and posters appeared warning against damaging the cause by destroying the fences. The formal meeting was moved off the Flats to the grounds of a local house. This was not to the crowd’s liking and, amidst a storm of booing, the wagon on which the speakers stood was manhandled onto the Flats.

A police presence seemed enough to keep order and, after polite speeches and appeals not to break the law, the leaders left. But hours later a single fence rail was broken and, within minutes, a huge crowd was laying waste to hundreds of yards of fencing. The police were hastily recalled, made one arrest  – Henry Rennie, a Bethnal Green cabinet-maker – and fended off the crowd’s efforts to free him.

The press condemned the destruction of the fences, though some pointed out that the action grew out of frustration at the failure of the government to protect open spaces from rapacious landowners. Indeed, within a month parliament had enacted the first of a series of Acts to protect the forest.

Parliamentary and legal action was played out amidst vociferous public protest. A new campaigning group, the Forest Fund, organised petitions, lobbied MPs and held public meetings to keep the “Epping Forest Question” alive. The Fund’s annual meetings, often held in Shoreditch Town Hall, “the finest public building east of Temple Bar” were opportunities to highlight the campaign locally.

Local radicals continued to play a key role. In particular, Shoreditch vestrymen (forerunners of local councillors) were prominent vocally at meetings and in organising petitions. They helped create a groundswell of protest which could not be ignored. One local politician who did so, the Tower Hamlets MP Acton Ayrton, was heavily defeated in the 1874 General Election, blamed for his inaction over Epping Forest.

Finally in 1878, the last of the Epping Forest Acts was passed and it was revolutionary. It was the first legal declaration of the right of the public at large to use an open space for leisure. This had implications not just for Epping Forest but for all threatened open spaces across the country. It is hard to argue with the conclusion of the great ecologist and historian Oliver Rackham that “the modern conservation movement began with the campaign for Epping Forest”.

Yet the role played by ordinary Londoners in this campaign has been forgotten or ignored by history. The focus has been on the efforts of elite campaigners to save open spaces such as Epping Forest, which tells only part of the story. It misses out the grass-roots activism of working class people whose protests played a decisive role in the defence of their green spaces.

The sheer number and determination of the crowd on Wanstead Flats one hundred and fifty years ago created a groundswell of protest that pressured government into challenging landowners’ rights to enclose land and exclude the public. This and other campaigns contributed significantly to what has become our modern-day “right to roam.” 

The story of one hundred and fifty years ago is also today’s story, as struggles for open spaces continue, all too often against the very public bodies who should be their guardians. Indeed a warning from history is contained in a leaflet issued by a successful 1946 campaign against an attempt to build housing on Wanstead Flats by a local council. “Once done” it said, “it can never be undone, and history will condemn the folly of those who allowed it to happen”.

Leytonstone c1870 (courtesy Walthamstow Vestry House Museum)

Poster for the 1871 demonstration (courtesy Newham Heritage Service)

From The Leisure Hour, 1860

City of London warning against enclosures (courtesy Newham Heritage Service)

Police on Wanstead Flats, July 1871 (courtesy Essex Field Club)

Poster warning against fence destruction, July 1871 (courtesy Essex Field Club)

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14 Responses leave one →
  1. Herry Lawford permalink
    July 8, 2021

    Absolutely riveting, and a valuable history lesson for today. Thank you.

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    July 8, 2021

    Yes – an inspiring story that shows that grassroots protests really can be effective!

    The pandemic has also made us all realise just how important green spaces are, both for our physical and mental health.

    It would have been a tremendous loss if the forest had been built over. Spookily enough I am working in Epping tomorrow and so I will look at the magnificent trees with new eyes, and remember and thank our campaigning forebears.

  3. July 8, 2021

    Absolutely fascinating, thank you GA.

  4. Bernie permalink
    July 8, 2021

    How amazing that no hint of this mini-revolution ever reached me in distant Stoke Newington (1933-1959 approx)!

    How beneficial that it should be brought back to the surface today!

  5. Libby Hall permalink
    July 8, 2021

    What a marvellous article. Inspirational!

  6. paul loften permalink
    July 8, 2021

    What a story ! Sadly long forgotten by layers of time . Mark Gorman evokes this most important fight which still affects us today at a time when there few people around who can remind us all that all the benefits we have in our life were not given from above but fought for tooth and nail by previous generations . Nothing was given and everything was taken by the upper classes . Its only when people stood up for themselves and fought back that we are allowed to have the small pleasures that we enjoy today

  7. July 8, 2021

    Interesting that the poet John Clare felt the impending doom of the ‘act of enclosure’ all around him and highlighted this in his work. Also, Clare spent many years of his life as a resident of an asylum situated in Epping Forest from which he eventually escaped and undertook his ‘long walk out of Essex’.

  8. Penny Gardner permalink
    July 8, 2021

    How very interesting .I had no idea .
    Born and bred in Enfield ,Epping Forest was a childhood treat (and also considered to be the dumping ground for bodies from London crime.)
    I’m so glad they stopped old Lord Whatsit from cutting it down .

  9. Ann V permalink
    July 8, 2021

    Yes, a valuable history lesson for today, as sadly we see history repeating itself for greed. However, thankfully protest and campaigning can work.

  10. July 8, 2021

    Such a wonderful victory. I am reminded of what the people of my own northern town tried to do. They did not succeed initially but today people can walk across Winter Hill freely.
    (Explored in this article)

    Power to the people, indeed.

  11. July 9, 2021

    Great to read this tale about a place that remains very close to my heart. Also to to have evidence to show my children that grew up pond dipping and and den making amonst the Hornbeams and funghi that demonstrations can result in success. Time to revisit the Vestrey museum to find out more and to see the posters/pics.

    I don’t remember a reference to this fight included within in the blooming brilliant exhibition – Posters of Protest and Revolution at the William Morris Gallery which was a few years ago. Time for one on the Forest. Wonder if the great activist, unionist, feminist, orator and author Eleanor Marx did her bit to rouse the Working Men (and women) into protest. Maybe her affections/energies were tied to Hampstead Heath instead.

  12. July 9, 2021

    Wonder what those working men would think today about the boutique hotel that will gut the Whitechapel Foundry. Despite being sympathetically attached at the back. Civilisation hey, an illusion.

  13. Barry Jones permalink
    July 9, 2021

    Enjoyed the article. Very well told. Thanks for posting it and making available such a crucial story in the shaping of East London today. The Corporation of London has celebrated with a spate of parking meters and parking restrictions.

  14. Walter Braun permalink
    July 12, 2021

    Perhaps a good opportunity to remind the Lords that one can only genuinely own what one has produced – land is always only ever borrowed…

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