Flat-out protection?

Flats-degraded-1910Looking south-west across Wanstead Flats at Centre Road in the early 1900s. Picture courtesy of Vestry House Museum

There have been numerous plans to ‘improve’ Wanstead Flats throughout history. Here, local historian Mark Gorman discusses seven such attempts

Wanstead Flats, as the southern boundary of Epping Forest, is protected by parliament. The 1878 Epping Forest Act was revolutionary in the history of open space in Britain – the first time a right was recognised for the people to use an open space for recreation and enjoyment. The Act also prevents any building anywhere in the forest. So, Wanstead Flats has been safe from the developers? Not completely!

In 1851, Lord Mornington, the local landowner, offered to rebuild Smithfield meat market on the Flats – for a price. At that time, cattle were still driven to market overland and the Flats was used for fattening cows. Plans were drawn up for stalls, abbatoirs and railway yards. A report to the landowner said this was the ideal spot as it was “not a fashionable area.”

In 1864, a brickworks was set up on the Flats to meet the growing demand for construction materials as the area grew. Lord Cowley had inherited the Wanstead estate from his cousin and was continuing the family tradition of determined exploitation. Despite local complaints about the pollution, the brickworks remained on the Flats until the early 1880s. It’s still possible to see remains of the old workings to the east of Centre Road.

In 1199, the Abbots of Stratford were granted the right to graze sheep on the Flats. The grazing of cattle and sheep continued up until the 1996 BSE crisis

By 1871, Cowley had another plan. He started to put up fences to prevent people getting onto large parts of the Flats. House building was starting in Forest Gate and he saw his chance to turn the Flats into a large estate. A huge demonstration was called and the fences were flattened. This was a major step in the campaign to save Epping Forest.

But the Epping Forest Act didn’t put off the developers. In 1907, plans appeared in a local newspaper to develop “the ragged end of the Flats.” These included the construction of a concert hall on the corner of Capel Road and Centre Road, complete with tram tracks. An avenue was proposed from the hall to the gates of Wanstead Park. Fortunately, it never happened.

Between 1941 and 1946, the Flats hosted prisoners of war from Italy, and after D-Day, Germans too. The camps, on Capel Road and west of Centre Road, were said to be surrounded by flimsy wire, but no PoWs tried to escape. Activities such as visits to Upton Park to see West Ham, and to local council meetings to learn about democracy, may have tempted some to make a getaway.

Prefabs were built along the southern edge of the Flats to re-house homeless families after WWII. The last prefabs were only removed from the Flats in 1962

As the last German prisoners were leaving in 1946, West Ham Council came up with a plan to build a housing estate for 7,000 people on the Flats. Both West Ham and East Ham councils had built temporary housing for bombed-out East Londoners, and parts of the Flats were covered by small housing developments. West Ham argued the land was needed to replace the houses lost in the Blitz, even though a Greater London Plan had been drawn up for housing further out in Essex. Invoking memories of 1871, a massive campaign was organised, including a petition signed by 60,000. After a public inquiry, the plan was turned down.

And finally… In 2012, buildings did appear on the Flats when the Metropolitan Police sited their Olympics briefing centre next to Jubilee Pond. Again, a local campaign was mounted, but despite petitions to parliament, the briefing centre came… and went. Its legacy was funding, which helped to pay for repairs to Jubilee Pond, which had previously been rescued from dereliction by the efforts of the local community.

So, it couldn’t happen again. Or could it? Watch this space!

Mark Gorman and fellow historian Peter Williams are the authors of Wanstead Flats: A Short Illustrated History. Priced £10, the book is available from The Newham Bookshop in Upton Park, Stone Mini Market in Leytonstone and Number 8 The Emporium in Forest Gate. Email markrgorman2@aol.com