At this month’s meeting of the Wanstead Historical Society, historians Mark Gorman and Peter Williams will be explaining the various ways Wanstead Flats has been used for agriculture over the years
Farming, market gardening and horticulture in the area around Wanstead Flats has a long history, yet Wanstead Flats today shows few signs of a time when farms and fields made the area an important centre for food production.
Today, the allotments, which are dotted around Wanstead and Leytonstone, are the only reminder of this not very distant past. As those farms and fields gave way to housing, allotments became increasingly important to local people to help support themselves. During two world wars, supply shortages increased the significance of local food production and led to allotments springing up on Wanstead Flats itself. Not surprisingly, at the end of each of those wars, allotment holders made determined efforts to keep their green spaces, while the City of London Corporation, which has overall responsibility for the Flats, fought to return them to their former use for recreation and leisure.
But the story of the struggle to cultivate the Flats goes back much further. From the time of the Norman invasion in 1066 to the 1800s, this was an area of small villages and farms. Wanstead Flats was, as it is today, a large open space on the southern edge of Epping Forest, but then surrounded only by the villages of Leytonstone, Wanstead and Forest Gate, whose inhabitants used their ancient rights to graze their cattle and collect firewood. This led to frequent disputes with the local landowners, who regarded Wanstead Flats as their property.
Change was on the way, as by the early 1800s, London was making its presence felt. Market gardeners were involved in extensive potato cultivation for the London market. The Flats was also the destination for drovers bringing herds of cattle from all over Britain to fatten up their animals before taking them to Smithfield market. The Rabbits pub on Romford Road was a centre for agents and drivers doing deals for cows. Meanwhile, much of the topsoil of Wanstead Flats was being stripped off and sold to feed the growing demand for pot plants in Victorian London. The Flats was a place of intensive activity.
By the 1900s, the large-scale cattle drives were over, killed off by the arrival of the railways. Wanstead Flats, stripped of much of its loam and denuded of many trees, was in a sorry state, and the City of London Corporation, as managers of the Flats and the rest of Epping Forest, set about restoring the area. In this they were helped throughout the next 100 years by the presence of small herds of cattle grazed by farmers from Waltham Cross.
Wanstead Flats is no longer the setting for struggles over food production, but the important role it played in feeding both London and the locality deserves to be remembered.
Mark and Peter’s talk will take place at Wanstead Library on 7 February from 8pm (visitors: £3).
Call 07949 026 212