The true story of the fight to preserve Epping Forest

Scenes along one of the walks for visitors to Epping Forest

Scenes along one of the walks for visitors to Epping Forest - Credit: Archant

For thousands of years, the land where Ilford can now be found was woodland belonging to the ancient Forest of Essex.

The name Essex comes from “East Seaxe”, meaning “the kingdom of the east Saxons”.

Dated as early as 527AD, Essex originally extended much further west and included London, Middlesex and part of Hertfordshire – it was one of the seven main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

Over the years, most of the area of forestland was cut down - mainly to become farmland – and a large part of it was used to build houses, commercial buildings and roads.

Around 400 years ago, the parts of the nearby regions of this forest were known as the Forest of Waltham, and extended from the River Lea at Bow Bridge, along the main road past Forest Gate and through Ilford to Whalebone Lane in Chadwell Heath – a distance of slightly more than seven miles.

It was some 60,000 acres in area, 10 times the size of today’s Epping Forest.

Epping Forest was only preserved as the result of hard work and lobbying by a number of private citizens who found themselves alarmed at the amount of privately-owned forestland being sold off.

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That was happening because, in the 19th century, the rapid development of London was sending the value of land skyrocketing.

In fact, it was a poor villager from Loughton named Thomas Willingale who threw himself into battle to try and preserve the last acres of Epping Forest.

He sought the support of the City of London Corporation, which in 1854 had purchased the Manor of Aldersbrook to convert it into a cemetery.

In 1871 a Royal Commission was set up and its final report six years later eventually led to the 1878 Epping Forest Act.

The Act came into force on May 6 1882 and saw the remnants of Epping Forest declared free for the people once more.

A special celebration to mark that achievemnet was held in Chingford and attended by none other than Queen Victoria.

Sadly, attempts to preserve Hainault Forest in much the same way would come up against even costlier obstacles and would eventually fail.