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