A History of the County of Essex: Volume 4, Ongar Hundred. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1956.
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LOUGHTON AND THE PRESERVATION OF EPPING FOREST
The history of Epping Forest, including the events which led up to its preservation in the 19th century, has been told by W. R. Fisher in his Forest of Essex. (fn. 1) Minor inclosures from the forest had been going on in Loughton and other forest parishes from early times. (fn. 2) In 1666 Sir Henry Wroth, lord of the manor of Chigwell, applied to the Crown for licence to inclose 1,500 acres of the wastes of the manors of Chigwell and Loughton, but this was refused. (fn. 3) Wholesale inclosure does not appear to have been suggested again until the 19th century, and then the Crown took the initiative.
In 1817 the Commissioners of Woods and Forests presented to Parliament a Bill to disafforest the whole forest, to extinguish the rights of common and to vest part of the forest in the Crown. (fn. 4) Anthony Hamilton, Rector of Loughton 1805-51, was one of the few supporters of this proposal, which was withdrawn after strong opposition. The commissioners, however, were still determined to inclose the forest. They connived at illegal inclosures and pressed private land-owners to purchase the forest rights of the Crown. Hainault Forest was disafforested in 1851 and was inclosed soon after. (fn. 5) In 1857 the commissioners invited W. W. Maitland, lord of the manor of Loughton, to purchase the Crown's rights over 1,377 acres of uninclosed waste within his manor. He agreed to pay £5,468 and the conveyance was made in 1858-60. (fn. 6) These facts were never disputed during the evidence before the Epping Forest Commission in 1873, and they are important because they show that the first move towards the inclosure of this substantial part of the forest was made not by the lord of the manor but by the Crown. Inclosure appears to have been considered locally during the lifetime of W. W. Maitland, and in 1859 a proposal to the Inclosure Commissioners was discussed. (fn. 7) Soon after this Maitland died and no further action appears to have been taken until 1864, when his son the Revd. J. W. Maitland decided to inclose the forest. (fn. 8) According to the steward of the manor, W. C. Metcalfe, Maitland was moved to this action 'at the instance of some of the principal freeholders and copyholders'. (fn. 9)
Maitland and his larger tenants stood to gain financially by the inclosure of more than 1,000 acres of forest. On the other hand those who desired inclosure argued that the close proximity of the forest had had some bad social effects on Loughton in the past. In the 18th century the forest was the haunt of highwaymen, among them the notorious Dick Turpin (1706- 39) who is said to have roasted an old woman over a fire at Traps Hill Farm in order to make her reveal where her money was hidden. (fn. 10) As a defence against such attacks many of the houses in Loughton contained 'Turpin traps', consisting of wooden flaps which were let down over the head of the staircase and kept there by a pole placed against the ceiling so that they could not be raised from below. As late as 1891 there were those still living who had seen Turpin traps in some of the houses. (fn. 11) It was not suggested in the 1860's that highwaymen were still a serious menace, but the forest still harboured some unwelcome characters, including gipsies. (fn. 12) The supporters of inclosure also believed that the poorer people of Loughton were tempted to idleness and crime by the custom of 'lopping' for firewood in the forest during the winter months. The views of the inclosures were summed up by a writer in 1861: 'inclosures, however, seem to be commencing in the neighbourhood, which will probably check these irregular and to a certain extent demoralizing tendencies.' (fn. 13) As a final argument it was asserted that part of the forest was stunted and of poor quality. (fn. 14)
It was with these views that Maitland proceeded to inclose the forest within the manor of Loughton. He owned the forest rights formerly held by the Crown and there were ancient precedents in the court rolls of the manor for the inclosure of forest waste. (fn. 15) His principal tenants welcomed inclosure. In 1864 they agreed that the lord should have two-thirds of the inclosed land and the commoners one-third. (fn. 16) Grants of land or money were subsequently made to a number of tenants of the manor in order to extinguish their common rights. Maitland then inclosed some 1,000 acres of forest, started to drive roads through it and sold some plots for building and other purposes. (fn. 17)
The opposition to these inclosures will always be associated with the Willingale family. The story has, however, gathered some accretions of legend and the whole truth is difficult to determine. The inhabitants of Loughton had an ancient right of lopping wood from the forest from 12 November each year until 23 April following. (fn. 18) They seem to have thought it necessary for the preservation of their rights that lopping should begin as the clock struck midnight on 11-12 November. They met in the woods for the purposes, usually at Staples Hill, and celebrated with a bonfire and beerdrinking. (fn. 19) The other forest parishes had also possessed lopping rights. (fn. 20) At Theydon Bois there was a lopping custom similar to that at Loughton. At Waltham Abbey and Sewardstone the lopping rights had been converted into fuel assignments attached to certain tenements in those manors. (fn. 21) A polemical tract published in 1860, at the beginning of the inclosure controversy, claimed that the people of Waltham Abbey had been deprived of their ancient lopping rights by means of a 'general drunk and supper', on 11 November 1641 '... which was a snare' and caused them to forget and so to lose those rights. (fn. 22) The writer of the tract stated that the same scheme was tried without success at Loughton: 'although many accepted the supper there given, an old man gave the signal, when he with others at once proceeded to the forest and duly secured their charter.' (fn. 23) These stories may have some value as traditions explaining the different arrangements as to lopping at Loughton and Waltham Abbey. Their publication in 1860 must have increased the suspicion of the cottagers of Loughton that their rights were in danger. It is significant that it is from the 1860's that there comes the story that Thomas Willingale saved the lopping rights in Loughton in a manner similar to that described in the tract. (fn. 24) Willingale is supposed to have been one of the loppers who were entertained by the lord of the manor to a supper on 11 November 1860. As midnight approached he 'rose up hastily from the table, shouldered his axe, called to his fellows and went out to lop as usual', thus 'defeating the lawyers'. There is good evidence that he did something of this kind, in the belief that the continued existence of the lopping rights depended upon his action. But he has a more serious claim to fame as one of the preservers of Epping Forest.
In December 1865 Thomas Willingale (c. 1793- 1870), a woodman by trade, was summoned by J. W. Maitland before the Epping bench for injuring forest trees in Loughton. (fn. 25) The case was dismissed. In March 1866 Thomas's son Samuel Willingale (1840- 1911) with Samuel's cousins Alfred Willingale (1843- 1934) and William Higgins (1842-70) were summoned at Waltham Abbey for a similar offence, and fined. All three refused to pay the fines and took the option of seven days' imprisonment. (fn. 26) In October 1866 old Thomas Willingale filed a suit in Chancery against J. W. Maitland and others in support of the lopping rights. (fn. 27) He was advised and financed by the newly formed Commons Preservation Society, of which the leading spirit was E. N. Buxton (1840-1924). (fn. 28) The case was never brought to a final hearing and lapsed on Willingale's death in 1870. Soon after this the first Epping Forest Act (fn. 29) set up a Royal Commission to investigate the whole problem of the forest, and about the same time the City of London started legal proceedings in defence of common rights throughout the forest. (fn. 30) In 1875 the Epping Forest Commissioners made their preliminary report. They found that inclosures made within the 20 years before 1871 were illegal, since they contravened the rights of the commoners living in the forest parishes, and in some cases also the rights of the Crown. (fn. 31) In their final report (1877) the commissioners specifically recognized the lopping rights of the inhabitants of Loughton. (fn. 32) Meanwhile, in 1876 the City of London had purchased from J. W. Maitland the soil and the forest rights formerly held by the Crown in 992 acres of the open waste of the manor of Loughton. (fn. 33) This was the whole area inclosed in the 1860's within Loughton parish except for land actually built upon. In their final report the Forest Commissioners recommended that all the illegal inclosures should be retained by their occupants on payment of rent charges, but there was strong opposition to this proposal, led by George Burney, owner of a small estate in Loughton. (fn. 34) The objectors removed the fences of some of the inclosures and were largely responsible for causing the government to disregard the recommendation that the inclosures should remain.
The forest question was finally settled by the Epping Forest Act of 1878. (fn. 35) This Act appointed the Corporation of the City of London to be Conservators of the Forest, with the duty of keeping the forest as an open space for public recreation. All illegally inclosed lands, except those actually built on, were to be thrown open. The owners of waste lands not thrown open were to pay for the quieting of their titles. The Conservators were to buy up the lopping rights of Loughton.
The forest was thus saved. The City of London paid £7,000 for the extinction of the lopping rights and with this money the Lopping Hall was built. (fn. 36) The lord of the manor and his principal tenants contended to the last that the inclosures of 1851-71 were beneficial to the parish by providing a larger rateable area and more work for the poor, and they continued to deny the existence of the lopping rights. (fn. 37) In the end, however, it was J. W. Maitland himself who performed the official opening of the Lopping Hall in 1884. (fn. 38) Though he has sometimes been severely criticized for his advocacy of inclosure he is in general a figure who commands respect. (fn. 39) He was a faithful priest and zealous public servant, prominent on the Epping Board of Guardians and the Rural District Council and first Chairman of the Loughton Urban District Council. (fn. 40) As for old Thomas Willingale it has been pointed out that he himself made illegal inclosures within the manor; but his general character appears to have been good. (fn. 41)