Common cause

Ambresburg_Banks_in_Epping_Forrest_in_London,_August_2013_(1)Waltham Forest residents can count themselves among the luckiest in London to have acres of woodland on their doorstep  in the form of Epping Forest.

It seems amazing that within our dense, built-up city, there is such a large and wild green space in which to escape from urban  life. It could have been a very different story had Victorian plans to privatise the forest and develop the land been successful.

Epping  Forest  in the 1860s and 1870s was a battleground between landowner  and commoner. Their tussles in the courts, in Parliament and amongst the trees decided the way we use the Forest today. Archaeological evidence puts the first  human  settlement in Epping Forest  about  10,000  years ago in Mesolithic times.

It was the scene of Queen Boadicea’s last stand against the Roman armies. Many hundreds of years later, the Forest was where the highwayman Dick Turpin plied his trade.

Through   all of  Epping  Forest’s history,  the woodland  has been a resource for common people. Under the Charter  of the Forest  of 1217, Epping Forest was designated a royal forest.  Like  so many  other woodlands, it was reserved as royal hunting grounds.

However, the charter also provided rights, privileges and protection to commoners. The Crown owned the land but, so long as the common man or woman did nothing to harm or hinder the game, for instance putting up fences too high for a deer to jump over, they were guaranteed use of the forest.

Yet, by the 1800s, the status of Epping Forest as common woodland was under threat. Queen Victoria was not interested in hunting and the Crown began to view the forests as ‘waste land’ ripe for cultivation to help feed  the rapidly  expanding  urban population fuelled by the industrial revolution.

Between 1790 and 1850 roughly a third of open space in Epping Forest was fenced off – a process known as ‘enclosure’. Then, in 1860, the Crown sold the forestal rights to the local lords of the manor. The new owners put up more fences  to  prevent trespassing on their property.

This swift loss of common  land sparked  a  huge outcry.  What  the Crown, the landowners, and the local authorities had not taken into account was  the more modern use of  the forest. Every Sunday, freed from the shackles of work, thousands  of east Londoners flocked to Epping Forest. They came from as far away as the  Isle of Dogs, often making the journey on foot.

Epping Forest was their recreation space. Just as for us today, it was a place of pleasure, a place of peace in which to escape the noise and the grime of the city.  Local  people were not prepared to relinquish their right to the Forest without a fight.

The enclosures in Epping Forest were not isolated incidents. Across London common land was being sold off and closed up to ordinary people. In response a Commons Preservation Society (CPS) was formed in 1865. It led successful opposition  to attempts to enclose Wimbledon Common and to turn Hampstead Heath  over to gravel extraction.

The CPS threw its weight behind the campaign to save Epping Forest and east Londoners formed their own local committee in 1866. Large public meetings were attended by thousands of protestors.  The Woodford  Times reported the speakers remarking on their  rights as commoners  to the Forest since ‘time immemorial’. One speech  reflected the feelings of injustice and double  standards by quoting the poem:

‘The law locks up the man or woman Who steals the goose off the common But leaves the greater villain loose

Who steals the common from the goose.’

National newspapers joined local media in support of the campaign. The Daily Telegraph called for ‘the East-end [to] stand to its guns’ and The Daily News raged  against ‘the recreation ground of thousands of smoke dried toilers’ being taken away to ‘make rich men richer’.

Pressure   was  also  brought to bear  in Parliament.  In  1871 the Epping Forest Act created a Royal Commission   to  investigate   the problem of   the  forest.   At   the same  time the City   of  London Corporation  also began to take an active  interest,  commencing legal proceedings in defence of common rights throughout  the whole forest.

For some  of the Epping Forest campaigners, the legal challenges and Royal Commission moved too slowly. George Burley, an industrialist from Milwall, was one  of   the most outspoken in calling for action on the ground:

‘It was not only the rich that had rights – the poor had rights also and if the rich put up fences where they had no right to do so, the poor would be justified in pulling them down again.’

Which is exactly what they did.

With  peaceful    but   purposeful demonstrations,  hundreds   of  east Londoners took matters into their own hands; pulling down the fences.

The direct action led by Burley and  others proved   the  public opposition to the enclosures was too strong for the authorities to let them stand.  In  1878 the City  of London Corporation were appointed Conservators  of the Forest with a duty to keep the woodlands open to the public  as recreation  space.

All enclosures of the previous 20 years were declared  illegal and opened  up once more. What was once a royal playground  was now legally reserved for the pleasure of the urban worker as the Epping Forest we enjoy today.

By Daniel Shannon-Hughes