Russell Kenny and Paul Hayes have devised a series of self-guided history walks around the Wanstead area, which can be followed on a phone or from a printable guide. In the third of a series of articles championing these tours through time, we look at Wanstead Flats
Most of the Walks Past Wanstead series of free, self-guided history walks start on Wanstead Flats. The Flats offer splendid views of London to the west, a range of wildlife habitats, an array of bird life on its lakes, and a lengthy and fascinating history. It’s this history that we look at in this article.
The Flats were cleared of woodland by the Abbots of Stratford in the 12th century to be used as pasture for sheep. Wool exports were the main source of national wealth and the large religious houses maintained huge flocks. Poor soil makes grazing the most productive use of the Flats, and gradually, sheep were replaced by cattle.
Commoners of Epping Forest have the right to graze cattle on the Flats, and drovers taking cattle to market at Smithfield also used the Flats to fatten them up before sale. Competition from railways ended droving in the 1840s, but local farmers continued to use the Flats as summer pasture until the BSE crisis of the 1990s.
By the mid-19th century, the Flats had become the eastern boundary of London. As the closest green space to the densely populated boroughs of West Ham and East Ham, the Flats became a favoured place for recreation. Funfairs attracted large crowds on bank holiday weekends and more sedate recreational activities took place through the year. Near Forest Gate, a bandstand and lake attracted families on summer Sundays. Nearby was an avenue of trees adopted by young people to parade up and down in their Sunday best, providing opportunities for courtship. The Jubilee pond was originally the home of the Forest Gate Model Yacht Club with regular competitions attracting large groups of participants and spectators.
The Flats also provided space for people to gather to advance political and moral causes. In the mid-19th century, evangelical preachers attracted large crowds. Chartists demanded votes for working men, and by the end of the century, Suffragettes were demanding votes for women. Political movements sought to mobilise support through meetings on the Flats. This was starkly represented in the 1930s by competition between the Communists and Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.
Wanstead Flats’ traditional role as a place of assembly and recreation for East Londoners is the fundamental reason for the continued existence of Epping Forest as green space. The piecemeal development of common land by neighbouring landowners threatened this, leading to an organised campaign to resist encroachment. Following violent confrontations on the Flats, the City of London Corporation used the commoners rights they held, as owners of the City of London Cemetery, to persuade Parliament to pass the 1878 Epping Forest Act. This placed the whole of the Forest under their protection for the benefit of the community, the same basis on which it is managed today.
World War II saw the Flats pressed into service. Anti-aircraft guns and barrage balloons defended London against bombing. Prisoner of War camps were built, initially for Italian soldiers captured in North Africa, and subsequently for Germans captured after D-Day. Allied troops assembled on the flats in 1944 before embarking for France. Allotments were established as part of the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign. In 1943, an estate of prefabs was built opposite the Golden Fleece pub to house bombed-out families. An attempt in the 1950s to replace this with a larger, permanent council estate was successfully resisted, and the site returned to grass in keeping with the 1878 Act.