Wanstead Flats at War

FA00128© RAF Museum

To mark Local and Community History Month in May, the Friends of St Gabriel’s are organising an event to explore the wartime history of Aldersbrook. Georgina Brewis reports. Image shows Wanstead Flats during a German air raid, painted in 1916 by JH Bull

As part of ongoing fundraising aimed at fully restoring St Gabriel’s Church hall in time for the centenary of its 1927 opening, we’ve turned to history to help local residents understand the significance of the church hall as a community and social space that is worth preserving for another 100 years.

We were thrilled when over 200 people attended our Who Do We Think We Are? event in November 2023. Local PhD student Jane Skelding used census data to explore the social history of the Aldersbrook and Lake House estates. The event sparked the idea of creating an Aldersbrook and Lake House heritage scheme, which we will tell you more about in a future issue. At that event, the Friends of St Gabriel’s also received an offer from trainee archivist Becky Darnill to catalogue and arrange the church archive, which had been sadly neglected, a project that has now been completed. Becky explains: “The most interesting things I’ve found are letters from the 1910s discussing the funding and building of the new church and records of early social clubs and societies. In the 1970s, there was even a competition for an Aldersbrook summer queen. The documents show how the church has been at the heart of the Aldersbrook community since the Edwardian era.”

For our next event, local historians Mark Gorman and Peter Williams of Leyton and Leytonstone Historical Society will give an illustrated talk about Wanstead Flats and Aldersbrook at war. I asked Mark and Peter what we can expect from the talk: “Wanstead Flats has been used for military purposes for well over 200 years. In the 19th century, local volunteer regiments put on large-scale mock battles, sometimes in front of the King! In the 20th century, the two world wars saw large-scale installations on the Flats, and our talk will guide you through this militarisation.”

Mark and Peter will also discuss the prisoner of war camps that housed several hundred Italians and Germans in huts and tents during the 1940s. They will bring along small artefacts associated with the wartime Flats. 

If you know where to look, you can still see various traces of the military activity on the Flats, from anti-aircraft rocket systems and a gas decontamination building to a later Cold War bunker. Unfortunately, as a consequence of this military presence, the residential areas of Aldersbrook and Lake House suffered considerable bomb damage in WWII.

After the war, East Ham and West Ham councils were allowed to erect some prefabricated houses on parts of the Flats as temporary accommodation, but further development was strongly resisted by local people. This activism helped preserve the Flats as an important public open space.

The Wanstead Flats at War event will take place at St Gabriel’s Church on 11 May from 4pm (tickets: £5; talk starts at 5pm). Visit wnstd.com/flatsatwar