|An overview of the historic legal battle
which prevented Epping Forest's demise
The Destruction of the forest East of
the River Roding
During 1851 the 'Office of Woods and Forests', endorsed by the House of Commons, recommended the complete destruction of the woodlands of Hainault to the east of the River Roding for use mainly as arable land. This was during a drive to increase the value of the Crown's land by making 'waste land' cultivatable. Often, this land was no longer required due to the decline in venison hunting by royalty. Within six weeks, a period of time short enough to prevent effective public protest, steam ploughs anchored in the rich earth had ripped out the roots of the entire forest, including the famous ancient 'Fairlop Oak'. Today, Hainault & Chigwell Forest is only about 800 acres and was opened to the public in 1905. The area is comprised of previously private woods and some replanted forest at 'Fox-burrows Farm' by the London County Council in the earlier part of the 1900's.
Epping Forest Under Threat
Once a Royal Forest, used by since the Normans as hunting ground ("the Kings right of vert and venison"), the 'Forest of Essex', latterly 'Waltham Forest' and now 'Epping Forest' narrowly missed the fate befallen by so many beautiful woodlands in the squeeze of population, indstry and nature. Epping Forest's manorial, sporting and soil rights were not owned by the Crown as Hainault had been, although it did posses forestal rights. However, Commissioners for the Crown offered the forestal rights for sale at £5 an acre which effectively gave 18 local lords of manors the right to 'enclose' areas of the forest for their private usage. By 1870, half of the forest's 6000 acres were surrounded by fences and development had begun in many parts.
Eventually, public opinion was aroused and the feeling that open spaces should be protected began to prevail. Beginning in 1863, a legal contest was brought by bodies such as 'The Commons Preservation Society', founded to protect open spaces, successfully managed to pursuade the The House of Commons that Epping Forest was being rapidly destroyed. The Commons recommended that the Crown's forestal rights should be enforced, if not sold already. In 1865, another committee argued that, despite the extensive enclosures, commoners' rights still existed on those forest lands and that the enclosures prejudiced them.
The enclosures were widely despised and the first of many recorded acts of resistance in this time was in 1866 by a labourer named Thomas Willingale. Willingale asserted his right to continue lopping trees, as had his ancestors, in Loughton Manor; despite a ring fence erected by the local lord preventing it. Willingale was convicted of theft, but The Commons Preservation Society, spearheaded by the brothers Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton and Sir Edward North Buxton (who engaged in direct action and was later appointed Verderer), supported his case and the publicity generated from legal actions in support of the practice further generated public interest. Willingale died before the case was concluded.
It was not an easy battle, however, as the lords of the manor were confident of their right to enclosure. A Bill introduced in parliament would have given the public access to only 600 acres with an option to 400 more, leaving the remaining 5000 acres in absolute control of the manorial owners. It was only through the strong resolve of the Society that this compromise was not accepted and the Bill was dropped. A Royal Commission was appointed to establish the rights of the forest and terms for it's future keeping.
The 'Forest Fund Committee' gained support of the Corporation of London, which owned 200 acres of land which included Wanstead cemetary. This ownership gave them commoner status and rights, meaning that they were able to take up the public's cause in the courts. Arguments on both sides raged and in 1871 a law suit that had taken three years to prepare was brought against the lords of the manors. The Corporation argued that the forest was without boundaries ('intercommonage' allowing grazing rights in all parts of the forest) and the lords argued that each manor was separate and therefore if commoners local to each manor could be 'satisfied', the right to enclose was inherent and this had no bearing on rights in other manors.
The Forest Saved
In November 1874, the Master of the Rolls upheld the Corporation of London's action in a judgement which was thorough enough to be beyond dispute. The rights were judged to be of such antiquity that even if the majority of commoners agreed to relinquish their rights, a single opposing view would veto the decision. The enclosures were proved illegal, no appeal was brought and the forest was secured for the public. In 1878 the 'Epping Forest Act' was passed and the Corporation were appointed as Conservators of the 5542 acre forest. Ownership of the deer was granted to them and the commoners rights were preserved. Compensation was given to the lords of the manors and where property had been built, an agreed curtailage was allowed to be retained at a price.
Queen Victoria visited in May 1882 and, at a massive event at High Beech, formally declared the 'People's Forest' open. Massive crowds visited in the summer, mainly from the East End of London. In the following years, as many as 100,000 people used Chingford Station in a single day in an attempt to reach London's oasis of tranquility (by now with funfairs, large refreshment 'Retreats' and
Commoner's rights still prevail, however the death knoll was effectively sounded for cattle grazing in the forest when new restrictions regarding the age that they could be taken to market was enforced after the recent BSE scares.
The costs of maintaining Epping Forest to the Corp. of London
- 1971 £100,000
- 1980 £500,000