Book marks 150 years since pioneering Wanstead Flats protest

Mark Gorman

Mark Gorman has written Saving the People’s Forest - Credit: KJ Martin for Newham Heritage Month

A Forest Gate historian has published a book describing how a protest on Wanstead Flats a century and a half ago helped rescue London’s open public spaces.

Next month marks the 150th anniversary of a demonstration against the enclosure of Epping Forest, part of a campaign that renowned ecologist Oliver Rackham dubbed “the origin of the modern British environmental movement”.

Saving the People’s Forest by local historian Mark Gorman tells the story of the campaign, emphasising the overlooked contribution of working-class Londoners. 

It chronicles a period near the end of the 19th century, as London’s expansion swallowed up once-remote villages and commonly-held land like Epping Forest became battlegrounds in a fight between landowning developers and ordinary folk.

The issue came to a head on July 8, 1871, when thousands of people gathered at Wanstead Flats to protest its illegal enclosure by a local landowner.

1871 poster about the Wanstead Flats protest

A poster from 1871 about the Wanstead Flats protest - Credit: Submitted by Mark Gorman


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While the event began with polite speeches, by the end of the day the enclosure fences had been turned into matchwood by irate locals.

Wanstead Flats where a makeshift morgue is being built. Picture: Liz Whitworth

Thousands of people gathered at Wanstead Flats - Credit: Archant

The groundswell of popular defiance led to successive governments introducing legislation – such as the Epping Forest Act 1878 – to challenge landowners’ rights to enclose land, contributing to the birth of the "right to roam" in the UK.

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Mark's book disrupts the traditional portrayal of the campaign as having been fought principally by members of London’s upper-middle class, drawing on digitised newspaper archives to demonstrate the organisation and determination of working-class campaigners in east London.

The 71-year-old said: “We think of Victorians as being all very straightforward and straightlaced, [but they were] not a bit of it.”

He said political meetings in this era could be “incredibly rowdy” and would often end in “what they liked to call ‘tumultuous scenes’.”

According to Mark, the protest helped cement the idea that the public had the right to access open spaces.

He said: “The Epping Forest Act in 1878 was the first time that Parliament had actually said the general public has a right to roam, [although] they didn’t use that phrase until later.”

He added that he could see parallels with campaigns to protect public space in London today, and added: “In some ways, nothing has changed in terms of the ways that open spaces are still threatened.”
 

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