Today in London radical history, 1865: Thomas Willingale asserts common rights in Epping Forest

November 11th – long before Armistice Day, this was a date associated with the asserting of common rights…

Known as Martinmas, this date was for many centuries see as the start of winter proper. As with many old feast days, customs and traditions became associated with this day.

One custom that evolved for November 11th was linked with the right in some places to ‘lop’ wood for use as fuel over the winter. ‘Commoners’ were entitled to cur branches seven feet from the ground every winter, a right that lasted from November 11th till April 23rd.

In 1865, one man’s actions on November 11th in defence of common rights was to begin a series of events which preserved Epping Forest as an open space for all…

Epping Forest is London’s largest open space; though now split into several separate areas, and criss-crossed by many roads, it was once a huge wood running from Essex down close to London’s eastern edge. Enjoyed today by 1000s of walkers, mountain bikers, mushroom pickers, picnickers, occasional wild campers… presumably the odd dogger or two…

… However, but for two hundred years of resistance to attempts by landowners to fence off and develop parts of the wood, Epping Forest would be a lot smaller – or would not exist at all.

The name Epping Forest is first recorded in the 17th century; prior to this the area was considered part of the larger Waltham Forest (which gives its name to the present-day London Borough of Waltham Forest, which covers part of the modern forest).

The forest is thought to have been given legal status as a royal forest by king Henry II in the 12th century. This status allowed commoners to use the forest to gather wood and foodstuffs, and to graze livestock and turn out pigs for ‘mast’… However, only the king was allowed to hunt there. “Forest” in the historical sense of a royal forest meant ‘an area of land reserved for royal hunting’, where the forest laws applied, and did not imply that it was all necessarily wooded. The royal forests were set aside by successive kings for their exclusive use; or at least for them to exercise the right to grant any access and use. Separate laws applied in the royal forests to protect game for hunting and trees and undergrowth which facilitated the chase. At one time most of the county of Essex was effectively a royal forest.

Half of Epping Forest was enclosed by the local landowners between 1851 and I871, for development; mainly as housing. This took place illegally but not without the knowledge – or tacit approval – of the Government. What remained was eventually opened to the public in 1878, when the old Royal Forest became the People’s Forest. This came about through successive waves of resistance to the enclosures. The opening up of the woods to all was sparked specifically by the actions of Thomas Willingale in November 1865.

Struggles in Epping Forest were old as the forest…

There were battles here over grazing rights, between locals of Waltham and the powerful Abbots of Waltham Abbey, went on for years. In 1229, men of Waltham killed some of the Abbot’s mares grazing on marshes and drive some off the land. In 1230 they demanded his grazing animals be removed, from land supposed to be reserved for the townsfolk’s cattle. When he ordered them off they again drove off his livestock and beat some of his servants.

Demand for wood made mass treefelling lucrative; but the Forest Laws in fact set maintenance of a forest’s environment to ensure good hunting at odds with the exploitation of the forest for wood, which led to conflicts between local landowners or users, and sometimes involving the crown or others with an interest in preservation of a suitable space for game.

Around 1572 one Bernard Whetstone, who had inherited the Manor of Woodford, was granted a license to fence off a quarter of the woodland in his manor, which led to rioting. The Whetstone family re-appear regularly as antagonists in enclosure disputes. 50 years later, now Sir Bernard and an MP, he provoked rioting again, after he ordered the felling of fifty trees in ‘Rowden’s Grove’, Woodford. Sir Bernard was the sitting Verderer, a court official charged with judging cases to do with Forest Law, and seems to have sued this position to pursue his own agendas (how unusual!). Whether his motivation for felling much of the Grove was financial, (it’s possible he sold the timber, the bark alone amounting to 12 cartloads fetching £20, a princely sum), but the curt over which he presided had ruled that the Grove should be felled in the interests of deer management. However, Robert Hillary claimed Rowden’s Grove as part of his copyhold, and launched litigation; he and his relatives and friends were also accused of starting an ‘affray’ with Sir Bernard’s son (also confusingly called Bernard!) at midnight on 13 May 1622.

Exploitation of the forest by landowners was sometimes so blatantly destructive, higher authorities were occasionally forced to take an interest. In the 1580s a Royal ‘Commission to survey’ was appointed to look into possible offences against the Forest Laws by Robert Wroth. Wroth had bought ‘Moncke Wood’, felling a great part of it, and sold the wood, but it seems he cut down more trees than he had said he would, leaving a ‘greate spoyle and waste’.

Grants to enclose land in the Forest had been made by licence from early times. These enclosures are shown on old maps; but before 1850 only about six hundred acres had been enclosed in more than two hundred years. When the right to enclose was granted, only low fences were permitted, so that the deer should not be denied pasture. In the first year of the eighteenth century another Sir Bernard Whetstone, lord of the manor of Woodford, was sued for making illegal fences, and in defending himself complained that the deer did so much damage that the landowners were forced ‘to give over ploughing and sowing their arable land, of which the greater part of the demesne of his manor consisted’. He was still obliged to pay compensation, in wheat and oats, to the King’s household for the land enclosed; ‘though not a foot of the demesne had been ploughed for the last ten years, by reason of the number of deer, which would utterly destroy the corn; and the cessation of ploughing caused the increase of deer, by reason that the barren and dry fallows were converted into sweet and fresh green pastures to layer and feed the cattle.’

Epping Forest sheltered poachers, highwaymen, smugglers, rebels, gypsies, squatters, marauders, for centuries. Rumours of these ne’er-do-wells combined partly genuine reality and partly a continuation of ancient the distrust of forests and those who hid in them… In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, the Forest housed a number of ‘Maroon Villages’  (a name was taken from the Carribean, from the underground/rebel West Indian villages of fugitive slaves, & sometimes native americans and white renegades) – unlawful communities in the commons & woodlands, refuges for runaways, ex-slaves, ex-servants, and also, by repute, political radicals from the defeated movements of the English revolution,eg the Fifth Monarchy men, ranters, leveller and digger groups. In 1666 rumours spread of an alleged Fifth monarchist conspiracy in the Chase and Epping Forest.Writing to his friend Francis Manley, in 1666, Henry Eyton could not resist mentioning his fears regarding

“… restless enemy amongst us … I mean the whole fanatic party, the head of which serpent lies in and near London especially upon the confines of Essex and Hertfordshire … taking either side of the Ware river from Edmonton down to Ware and particularly those retired places of Epping Forest and Enfield Chase … About the road near Theobalds there is a crew of them lie concealed … that should there be the least commotion in London we should find to our cost that they would be too ready to second it.”

The fugitive communities were said to behind to many of the ‘Blacks’ – poachers and deerstealers, who waged war on keepers and helped themselves to the game in theory reserved for their ‘betters’. In the early 18th century, the Lord Chief Justice signed a warrant to clear the Forest of these squatter villages.

Pubs and taverns on the edge of the forest were also viewed with suspicion by authority, seen as the hangouts of the various ne’er-do-wells listed above, and venues for plotting of nefarious actions as well as for the disposal of loot (‘half an ‘aunch of vension, mate? Fell off the back of a cart…’)

Romany travellers were also well known in the Forest, and the centuries-old fear, hatred and discrimination against them operated here as elsewhere – continuing today…

The Map of Waltham Forest c.1641 shows Woodford Wood, Knighton Wood and ‘Munkom Wood’ to the north of the parish of Woodford; but during the 18th century much of Monkham Grove was felled, as this was a legally enclosed, coppiced wood. Woodford Wood remained intact until the 1830s. The Epping and Ongar Highway Trust cut their new road to Epping through the forest in 1830-4, and in 1832 the parish vestry authorised a new road through the forest to Chingford (now Whitehall Road). This was built as a means of providing work for local men who might otherwise have been sent to the workhouse. This was conveniently arranged through the fact that local Overseer of the Poor at that time, Richard Hallett, was also Surveyor of Highways. Once the road had been constructed houses were soon built beside it on land taken from the forest.

Up until the 19th century the Forest Laws had ensured that land was not enclosed without proper payment to the Crown. Unfortunately, the chief officer or Lord Warden of Epping Forest was a position held by Earl Tylney of Wanstead House. When William Long Wellesley took over this role, he openly flouted the system and allowed small enclosures. Indeed he was in favour of the complete abolition of the Forest system, which would have enabled him to build freely on much of his own manorial lands in Wanstead and Woodford. The Crown needed to enforce the Forest Laws to obtain the revenue from enclosures, but with its chief officer only concerned about his own best interests, the system rapidly declined.

Attempts had been made to enclose Knighton Wood as early as 1572, but although the lord of the manor had been licensed to fence part of the woodland, his action led to riots and the fences were thrown down. In 1826 Thomas Russell sold ‘the freehold estate known as Knighton Wood’ and the documentation traces previous owners back to 1712. In the early 1830s Richard Hallett (the overseer of the plots & surveyor of highways mentioned previously) bought Knighton wood and contested the limitations put on him as owner by the Forest Laws. This legal wrangle lasted 12 years and was eventually settled by a compromise. In the early 1850s Hallett built Knighton Villa and, eventually, quite a number of other houses here.

In 1863 Knighton Villa was bought by Edward North Buxton who extended the house for his large family. He, however, along with his brother, Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton of Warlies at Upshire, and their cousin, Andrew Johnston of The Firs at Woodford, were leading members of the Commons Preservation Society. This was formed in 1865 to help in the fight to preserve open spaces like Berkhamsted Common and Hampstead Heath. It was the determination of the members of that society, combined with the might of the City of London Corporation, which eventually led to the saving of Epping Forest. Another influential figure from Woodford Wells, Henry Ford Barclay of Monkhams, was also involved as one of the Commissions appointed by the Crown to consider the whole problem and put forward a practical solution.

The vast mass of documentation collected by the Commission provides a wealth of information about the forest in the 1870s. At Woodford Wells most of the wood had been cleared and what had not been covered by houses and gardens was grassland or rough grazing. There was considerable controversy when Diedrich Schwinge of Hanover House (at the junction of the High Road and Whitehall Road) tried to enclose the land in front of his house, much as many of his neighbours were doing. In his case the land was known as “Roundings Green” and was regarded as part of the village green in front of the Horse and Well.

With the passing of the legislation which preserved Epping Forest, all land not actually enclosed as house or garden was purchased by the City of London Corporation and put back into Epping Forest. The ancient Woodford Wood had been destroyed and the forest land here today is largely grassland, scrub or secondary woodland.

Thomas Willingale

The events that eventually sparked the defeat of enclosures in the Forest began in Baldwin’s Hill, now part of Loughton. Squatter communities displaced from Woodford by the expansion of middle class homes there began to settle Baldwin’s Hill in the mid-18th century. A number of the inhabitants were romany. These marginalised folk and their descendants were involved in the anti-enclosure struggles in the Forest over several decades.

In the 1820s, a man named Whetstone (presumably relative of the enclosing lord of Woodford, see above) & his servant John Rigby had a contract to fell trees around Loughton, but reckoned without local opposition. There were several riots sparked by protests against treefelling; 300 people were involved in one. Especially troublesome were 13 local women who “beat Rigby’s workmen and took from them their axes… and detained them.”

By the 1860s, as in many parts of London and it’s suburbs, pressure for land for building was immense, and the profits to be had from clearing and developing land were very tempting to the local landowners.

Local people had long had the customary right of lopping timber for winter fuel, and the poor inhabitants of Baldwin’s Hill were keen beneficiaries of this custom. November 11th, known as Martinmas, was the traditional day for start of winter proper; since the calendar was altered in 1752, lopping rights kicked in this day every year, having previously been set for November 1st on All Saints Day.

Locals celebrating the opening of lopping rights at Staples Hill

By local tradition, someone had to actually observe the custom on the 11th, for the right to click in. Martinmas was marked at Staples Hill in Loughton with an annual bonfire and pissup; by the mid-19th century, the night started with getting wazzed in the Kings Head in Loughton and launching lopping rights at midnight. Branches could not be cut below 7 feet off the ground (allowing the deer to munch on the lower limbs), so stepladders were de rigeur. Any wood cut was strictly for your own use, not to be flogged.

Thomas Willingale lived at Baldwin’s Hill, so may have been a squatter, ex-squatter or descendant of squatters… His family had apparently been foremost proponents of the ancient customary right of cutting wood for years over several years: it’s worth noting that in many areas one or more families were sometimes seen as archivists of particular rights or customs, having evolved the responsibility for remembering the rules and parameters of what was due and taken on the role of prime defender of old rights. In any case Tom Willingale took on this role. By local accounts, he had been active in asserting lopping rights for several years. As early as 1828 he was fined for lopping in the Forest Court for cutting down an entire tree on land directly owned by the lord of the manor (usually exempted from lopping rights). There’s no doubt he stretched the rules of what was traditionally allowed by common right, since he blatantly sold wood from his year in Whitaker’s Way that was obviously lopped under customary right (ie not meant to be sold). In 1859, the story goes, the Lord of manor of Loughton, William Maitland, (who had enclosed much land at Woodford) attempted to get local men pissed on November 11th in a local pub, in the hope they’d forget to go lopping at midnight (thus debarring them from lopping all winter), but canny Tom Willingale had a few drinks on Maitland, then went out anyway and cut off a branch, returning to the pub to present it to Maitland’s agent, “Bulldog’ Richardson. Burn.

In 1865, William Maitland’s son and heir, the Reverend John Whitaker Maitland, Rector of St John’s Church Loughton, enclosed 1300 acres of Epping Forest, with the intention of selling this on for building or agriculture. Maitland felt all previous common rights had been extinguished; he bought out some of the locals with traditional common rights, and sold off bits of land to others, who began to build fences themselves. Maitland announced he would prosecute anyone ‘trespassing’ on the enclosed land.

Stout fences were put up, and Maitland started felling trees in Forest, planning to sell off the land for development or horticulture.

Determined to uphold the tradition, on November 11th 1865, with his two sons, Willingale broke down Maitland’s new fence & started cutting wood. He and his sons were arrested and hauled up in Waltham Abbey court, in front of the local magistrate – one John Whitaker Maitland! Yes, as was usual then, local lords of the manor and landowners were often the chief instrument of law and order in the district. Handy when your tenants are rebelling… While the initial case was dismissed, Willingale and his relatives continued to assert lopping rights. Convicted of malicious trespass, Willingale’s son Samuel and two of Tom’s nephews, Alfred Willingale and William Higgins, were jailed in Ilford jail after refusing to pay 2s.6d. fines for ‘damage’ to trees. Tom himself was fined.

Alfred Willingale

The case led to much discontent in East London. Local opponents of enclosure, backed by the Commons Preservation Society, launched a legal case in 1866 with Willingale, claiming that Loughton was within the royal forest, for which Elizabeth I had granted lopping rights, and seeking an injunction to prevent Maitland chopping down more trees. The local Epping Forest anti-enclosure society held its meetings in the Crown Inn at Loughton. Attempts were made by Maitland to buy Willingale off, but when they failed, Maitland bought Willingale’s cottage and evicted him. Willingale was also deprived of work & housing by the local establishment, who backed the landowner.

Willingdale also took out a case against Maitland, over the loss, during the enclosures, of his house at Baldwin’s Hill, together with the land he had acquired by the traditional forest squatter’s rolling fence method (gradually and almost imperceptibly extending the fence outward over time!) over his 27 years there. Maitland had offered him rehousing, but Willingale stuck it out for his rebuilt cottage. But he died about 1870 with the case unresolved.

Samuel Willingale

The legal case was however was taken up by the Corporation of London, at the behest of the Commons Preservation Society. The Society’s investigations had led to the discovery of a web of old rights of common; on the basis of which the Corporation opted to sue 19 lords of various Essex manors who had enclosed parts of the Forest. In 1874, the Master of the Rolls ruled for the Corporation and the Society, ordering the enclosers to take down existing fences and not erect any more. 1000s of acres of land were opened for public access. The Corporation of London went on to buy the land & manage it for public recreation, as it still does today.

The Willingales still managed to cock one final snook at Maitland. When the Corporation took over the Forest in 1878, it ruled that the enclosure fences Maitland had put up were to be removed at his expense. However, Thomas’s son William Willingale happily volunteered to carry this task out, spending four days riding round tearing the fences round, in alliance with another opponent of the enclosures, George Burney.

The outrage over the enclosures partly gained massive publicity throughout East London, partly because the wider Forest was well known to many Londoners having long been a traditional destination for East Enders to journey out for jollities picnics and pissups.

Thomas Willingale is commemorated in Loughton by the street name Willingale Road, the Thomas Willingale School, and formerly had a pub named after him in Chingford (renamed “The Station House” in 2006). The Lopping Hall in Loughton was paid for out of compensation money for extinguishment of the lopping rights. It contains a carved hornbeam memorial tablet to Willingale and its north entrance includes a terracotta pediment illustrating loppers at work in the forest. There is a blue plaque on the wall of St John’s Churchyard, where Willingale is buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. There is no known likeness of Willingale. Those extant in the town are of his son, also Thomas.

 

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