A capital ground for sport

Centre Road, Wanstead Flats, 1910. ©Vestry HouseCentre Road, Wanstead Flats, 1910. ©Vestry House

Local historians Mark Gorman and Peter Williams take a look back at over 150 years of sport, leisure and entertainment on Wanstead Flats.

The 1878 Epping Forest Act was a watershed moment, not only in our local but also national history. The Act was the first declaration of a right for the general public to use an open space for recreation and enjoyment, and marked the end of decades of fierce struggles between landlords wanting to enclose and develop forest lands and those determined to keep them open. The Act ensured forest lands would remain open to the public, and gave responsibility for management to the City of London.

Throughout the 19th century, Epping Forest was often called 'the people's playground', and the southern end of the forest, being closest to London, became a well-known venue for sports and other leisure activities, both legal and illicit. Foot races and boxing were particularly popular, attracting large crowds to places such as Wanstead Flats, and large stakes were gambled on results, beyond the reach of the recently-formed Metropolitan Police. Fairs and circuses were regular events, and Wanstead Flats' Easter fair was a great meeting place for all the showmen of England before they went their separate ways for the summer season. The fairs attracted east Londoners in their thousands, offering a variety of attractions, from a trip through the Channel Tunnel (nearly a century before the actual tunnel opened) in "a real train" to the more dubious pleasures of "Paris by Night".

Epping Forest also played an important part in the development of football, which started life as an organised sport in the 1860s. One of the earliest clubs playing to formal rules was Forest FC, founded in 1859 by boys from Forest School, and in its early years, playing on land owned by the Earl of Mornington at Snaresbrook. In the next two decades, football was transformed into the country's dominant sport, and east London teams came out to the forest to play local clubs on Wanstead Flats. The popularity of football grew ever greater, and by the 1930s thousands of players and spectators were thronging to watch matches on the fringes of Epping Forest.

The open spaces of the forest also attracted a variety of other activities; some, such as model yacht racing on the forest ponds and model aeroplane flying, were innocent pastimes. Others were more nefarious, and one report of 1901 described Wanstead Flats as "a place of abominations by day and night".

In the early days of its management, the City of London tried to make the southern forest a far more park-like place than it is today, planting avenues of trees and placing benches by ornamental lakes. One avenue on Wanstead Flats became known as the 'monkey parade', referring to the habit of teenagers wanting to see and be seen in their Sunday best on an evening stroll under the trees.

These wide and varied uses of the unique open spaces of Epping Forest mean that the popularity of this east Londoners' playground continues to this day.

Mark and Peter will be talking about the history of Wanstead Flats at a Leyton and Leytonstone Historical Society event on 17 May from 7.45pm at St John's Church hall, Leytonstone High Road. For more information, call 020 8558 5491


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