LONDON'S CONNECTION WITH THE FOREST TOPOGRAPHICALLY AND HISTORICALLY CONSIDERED
I loved the forest walks and beechen woods
Where pleasant Stockdale showed me far away
Wild Enfield Chase and pleasant Edmonton.
While giant London, known to all the world,
Was nothing but a guess among the trees,
Though only half a day from where we stood.
Such is ambition! only great at home
And hardly known to quiet and repose.
THUS John Clare, a one-time Epping Forest poet, contrasts the present home of the civilised race – a vast city, with the abode of man's savage progenitors – the recesses of the primeval forest. The spirit of devotion for the woods, which breathes through the simple expression of the poet, is akin to "that hereditary spell of forests," which Robert Louis Stevenson describes as acting "on the mind of man who still remembers and salutes the ancient refuge of his race."
Such a refuge once was London. Indeed she makes her first claim on history as a mere stockade in the woods – the Llyndin of the ancient Britons. Her wood and fen and heath, with the sweet country which once surrounded her, have disappeared, while a part only of the Essex Forest remains to recall the once great forest of the East Saxon Kingdom, which had Lundentune for its port and ecclesiastical centre.
The forest, however, has maintained its connection with the metropolis; it is essentially London's forest to-day, and will ever be an integral part of her future, holding as it does a unique place among the forests of England and of the Empire.
It is London's own; bought by her corporation, preserved and managed by them; visited by thousands and ten thousands of her toilers and visitors, her recreation ground for all time, acquired by the sums raised by the Grain Metage upon all corn imported into London, a tax, insignificant in itself – merely three-quarters of a farthing in the hundredweight – yet producing the wealth from which the corporation were enabled to set aside over a quarter of a million of money for its purchase.
The forest lies at London's door, skirting the north-eastern suburbs in the county of Essex. Its nearest point, measured from the Stock Exchange, but five miles away; its farthest extremity less than twenty. Viewed on the map, its boundary line is both irregular and erratic; yet discounting outlying fragments, the main body preserves a curve from Manor Park to Epping – an elongated crescent twenty miles from horn to horn, with a breadth, measured due east and west at its widest part, of two miles, dwindling in places to a few score of yards – an eloquent reminder of past encroachments.
Six thousand acres of the once royal forest of Waltham remain in the Epping section with about eight hundred acres rescued of late years in the Hainault section to form London's Arcadia in the east.
Epping Forest is not a London County Council park, whose natural features are preserved with metalled roads and gravelled paths to make easy the way of recreators. It is what it claims to be – a forest; a strip of wild woodland, whose paths, but trodden tracks, lose themselves in a maze of wanderings, now amid the groves, now through heath and bracken fern, now through the moist beds of tiny rivulets, to discover pool and pond.
Both hill and dale are clothed with pollarded hornbeam, centuries old. Upon the dry uplands flourish the beech, the finest trees of the forest.
The oaks are in a minority; giant trees but few; the oldest, the decaying Fairmead Oak, round whose mighty base have thronged thousands of sporting Londoners in the days of the famous Easter hunt. Rugged old crab-apple trees – favourites with the deer for their sour fruit – are here in goodly numbers. Blackthorn affords dense impenetrable brushwood, and a sanctuary for the birds. Beautiful young birches – not seen here by Londoners of bygone days – are rapidly converting former unsightly clearances for cultivation into groves of fairy-like beauty; while a growing feature of the forest is the holly – that sturdy defender of sapling beech and oak, which is quite indifferent to the smoke blown into the forest from the metropolis.
The forest has few flowers, for the city flower-vendor has taken heavy toll of its floral beauties in the past, and well-nigh stripped it of flowering plants. The hawthorn and the willow, the gorse and the broom, unite with the wild rose and the honeysuckle to provide floral treasures for multitudes of poor children who, through the agency of the Fresh Air Fund or School Treat, are enabled to visit and enjoy their woodland heritage.
The half-day's journey which separated the ambitious city from "the forest walks and beechen woods" beloved of the poet Clare, is now reduced to one of little more than half an hour. From the high ground amid the woods, the eye instinctively turns to where
"The city lies beneath its drift of smoke,"
or sees at night
"In heaven the light of London flaring like a dreary dawn,"
as Tennyson wrote, when living in the forest at High Beach.
The growth of the suburbs, and the consequent increase of smoke, render the panorama yearly less distinct, though as an element in the scene, the wreaths of smoke above the countless chimneys produce an effect sometimes weird, often pleasing, never wholly unpicturesque. The hills of Kent show blue beyond the Thames, while the boom of artillery from Woolwich, the hooting of the steamers on the river, and the shrill scream of locomotives reach the ear with their message of unceasing activity – an activity so strangely alien to the pulsing life of the woods that the listener, who but an hour previous had perhaps revolted against the sordid struggle in office, shop, or factory, hears as in a dream, and with brief forgetfulness of the cares of business enters without a jarring thought into the rest and quietude that here awaits him.
In the forest to-day King Demos reigns supreme, and the former tyrannical restrictions by the kings of England are forgotten by those who enter it at will and wander where once to tread would have been a trespass. Attracted to-day, as the city's population justly may be to what is their own, the forest, so near to London, has always had an interest for her citizens, especially her civic officers.
Two at least of the forest villages were, in the Middle Ages, the birthplace of city magnates: Hugh of Waltham became Common Clerk of the City of London in 1312; Hamo de Chigwell filled several times the office of Lord Mayor. Many of London's mayors and rich city merchants have had their homes within the forest bounds. Some have been connected with the government of the forest. Sir Thomas Cooke, the mayor in 1462, who lived at Gidea Hall, near Romford, was appointed custodian of the forest round Havering. He was knighted at the coronation of Edward the Fourth's queen, and permitted to enclose a piece of forest for a park. Suspected of adherence to the House of Lancaster, Cooke was charged with treason, and imprisoned, being released only on payment of £8,000 to the king and £800 to the queen. Sir Crispe Gascoyne, an ancestor of the late Earl of Salisbury, the mayor in 1761, who lies buried at Barking, was elected a verderer, and was energetic in dealing with unauthorised enclosures in Hainault Forest, and Sir Thomas White, on retiring from the mayoralty, was appointed verderer by the commission in 1877. He was buried in the cemetery acquired by the corporation at Aldersbrook.
Beside the foregoing, many mayors and aldermen and others retired to end their days in Essex, and lie buried within the forest churches. Walthamstow claimed Sir George Monnox, the lord mayor in 1543, and Sir Gerard Conyers, the mayor in 1737. The former was heavily fined for refusing to accept the mayoralty a second time. He founded the Monnox Grammar Schools and the almshouses which stand beside the church. West Ham Church received the bodies of Sir Thomas Foote, the mayor in 1650, who died in 1688 at the great age of ninety-six, and Sir James Smyth, the mayor in 1684. At Barking were buried Sir Robert Beachcroft in 1721, Sir Richard Hopkins in 1735, and Sir Crispe Gascoyne, mentioned above.
Whittington, the mayor of famed romance, figures, according to the following account, in the dramatic incident of the arrest of the Duke of Gloucester at Fleshy. Richard the king, so runs the story, commanded Richard the mayor on that occasion to prepare horse, and accompany him into his forest of Essex, presumably, to give colour to the visit there, as a simple inspection of his deer, but in reality to take the duke unawares, who, when welcoming the cavalcade to his castle, was arrested in the presence of Whittington. A full account of Gloucester's arrest is given in the following chapter.
The mayor and aldermen of the City of London were in the past great sportsmen. From very early times until the beginning of the nineteenth century, the city maintained its own huntsmen and hounds. The Master of Hounds was a civic officer known as the "Common Hunt" – an abridged form possibly of Commonalty's Huntsman. He was a gentleman who – to quote from Riley's Memorials of London – received "yearly from the commonalty his vesture fees and rewards, together with all and singular the appurtenances and advantages in any way pertaining to the office aforesaid" as fully as previous holders, who in the reign of Richard the Second "had the fees of the stations at the crosses in Cheape."
Mr. Common Hunt had assistant huntsmen, both horse and foot, the latter being sometimes described as the mayor's "young men," and his office obliged him to provide the best possible sport for the mayor and commonalty of the city. So important a feature of ancient civic life were the huntsmen, that many mayors made reference to them in their pageants, and it is recorded by Stowe that when the Lord Mayor in 1432 rode .out of London to welcome King Henry the Sixth home from France, his three huntsmen accompanied him "on great coursers," and were gorgeously attired "in entire suits of red all bespangled with silver."
It is interesting at the present day to imagine a meet of the city hounds in the Lincoln's Inn Fields, or at May Fair, and to picture them in their kennels in the fields of Finsbury. Houndsditch, the old dyke on the outside of the city wall that ran from the Bishop's Gate to the eastern Old Gate (Aldgate) is believed to derive its name from the presence there of hounds.
That the citizens had enjoyed in early Norman, and possibly in Saxon, times the privilege of hunting in the country round London is evidenced from the wording of the charter of Henry the First. By granting the London citizens the right "to have their huntings and to hunt as best and most fully as their ancestors," Henry recognised and sanctioned an existing custom. The hunting-ground mentioned in the charter is Middlesex, Surrey, and the Chiltern country; FitzStephen adds, "and in Kent as far as the river Cray." The charters of succeeding kings are modelled on the lines of Henry's charter, and in none of them is the forest of Essex included.
And yet throughout the centuries there are notices of civic hunts in Essex, and the corporation of London claimed before the Royal Commissioners in 1863, to possess certain ancient rights of hunting in the forest of Essex. The commissioners in their final report stated that the entries in the corporation's Records, of "hunting at Havering and other places in the forest of Waltham would seem to be exceptional, and may well have been on invitation of the crown to hunt there," and since, for want of further evidence, the corporation did not press their claim, the right of the citizens to hunt in the forest of Essex has never been satisfactorily determined.
The Easter Chase, known a century ago as the "Epping Hunt," which was the delight of the Londoners for generations, is treated fully in another part of this work. It took place within the bounds of the forest, only after the kings of England had ceased to jealously guard the most esteemed of all their hunting-grounds – the forest of Waltham.
The tyrannical jealousy of the Plantagenet monarchs in matters forestal sufficiently explains the absence of any charter to the citizens of London to hunt in the royal forest of Essex, and serves to emphasise the favour bestowed upon them when, through gratitude or otherwise, the king expressly commanded the mayor and civic officers to join him in hunting in his forest. The following is a case in point.
When Edward the Fourth wished to recover the town of Berwick, he appealed to the citizens of London for five thousand marks to support his campaign against the Scots. They loyally responded, and Edward showed his appreciation by a royal invitation to the lord mayor, aldermen, and certain commoners, to attend him in his forest of Waltham.
A pleasant hunting match was arranged, and many red and fallow deer were killed for their disport, while a sumptuous repast was made ready within a pleasant arbour, built of green boughs. Here the king graciously waived the ceremony of commencing the feast, commanding instead that his guests be served first. The king's officers served the company with many "deintie dysshes and of dyverse wynes good plentye," while during the meal the Lord Chamberlain and others repeatedly cheered the assembled Londoners, who finally departed with every mark of royal favour, carrying away a goodly quantity of venison.
In the following month, the August of 1481, the king's bounty extended to the ladies of London. "The mayoresse and her systers, aldermennes wyfes," were presented with two harts and six bucks, and a tun of wine to drink with the venison. Whereupon they named a day, and made a feast in the old Draper's Hall, to which a great company of citizens were invited.
Twenty years previous, however, to this pleasing state of unanimity, the mayor and the legal officials of London visited Essex in company with their huntsman for the express purpose of maintaining their right to hunt there. The story as recorded among the archives of the city runs thus :-
In the April of the year 1460, the mayor, the recorder, one of the sheriffs, the common pleader, and seven other citizens "assigned together with a convenient band of men, and the Common Hunt of the city, to hunt and chase according to the custom and liberties of the city hitherto approved and used within the lands of the abbot and convent of Stratford, near the abbey there, and in all other places of the neighbourhood, etc., in preservation of the liberties aforesaid, etc., inasmuch as, according to recent information given to the mayor and aldermen, the aforesaid abbot had by divers threats forbidden the Common Hunt of the city under peril to presume to hunt in any of his lands there in any way, etc., contrary to the force, form, and effect of the liberties, etc."
Following this decision is the sequel. The record is somewhat mutilated, but sufficient of it remains to form a readable conclusion. From it can be inferred that a visit to Stratford was made, and that "a certain John Danyell of West Ham," a tenant of the abbot, determined to prevent the hunt, and assaulted the city's huntsman. An explanation of Danyell's conduct was evidently demanded from the abbot, for "he appeared in person before the mayor and aldermen," and recognising that the action of Danyell was "contrary to the liberties and franchises" of the city, stated that his tenant had acted "against his will, knowledge, and authority," which left Danyell no other alternative but to confess "that he was a delinquent therein" and to submit himself.
Now, though in those far-off days the citizens of London evidently proved their right to hunt in Essex, round Stratford, they did not thereby establish a right to hunt in the royal forest. The Abbey of Stratford and the little village of West Ham lay to the right of the king's highway, going from Bow Bridge towards Romford, and the highway had been declared the boundary of the king's forest by the perambulation of 1301. The "lands of the abbot and convent of Stratford near the abbey" and "the other places of the neighbourhood," claimed as a hunting-ground by the mayor and his supporters at the time of the above occurrence, had been disafforested, therefore, for upwards of a century and a half.
How, when, and through whom, the city obtained the right "to hunt and chase according to the custom and liberties of the city" in the neighbourhood of Stratford, it is impossible to say at present, and it is instructive to note that a presentment was made in 1495 at one of the forest courts, to the effect that the "Comyn Hunt" of the city, with his son-in-law and another man, had hunted in the purlieus of the forest and slain two harts; an offence against the forest laws because they were not "purlieu men," that is, owners of lands on the outskirts of the forest.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, no change in the city's relations with the forest can be discovered. The mayor, aldermen, and officers of the City of London who hunted at Havering in the reign of Queen Elizabeth did so, without doubt, by the gracious invitation of the sovereign, since Havering was the site of the royal palace, and the forest for miles around was crown demesne. In the reign of Queen Anne, however, the seizure of the city's foot huntsman while hunting in the forest furnishes an incident of interest.
In the records of the corporation, under date February 12, 1705, the Lord Mayor announced at his court that "his foot huntsman is committed to the custody of a constable in Essex by John Wroth, Esq., of her Majesty's Justices of the Peace for the same county, for hunting the city's hounds in the fforest there." The mayor stated that he had requested the man's discharge, but had been informed that his huntsman would be detained until it was decided "whether he be liable to serve the queen according to the present Act for Recruiting Her Majesty's Land Forces; " in which dilemma it was decided that Mr. Common Hunt should visit Mr. Wroth and endeavour to bail out his subordinate, a commission he successfully executed.
A week later, the court debated the question of "several persons that were lately committed or bound over" by the above Justice to appear at the next Quarter Sessions "for hunting with the city's hounds in Waltham forest," and full information of the circumstances was requested that the court might know what steps to take in the matter. Therefore, the following week, three persons were called in, and testified "that one John Balme, pretending himself, as they thought, to be a constable, because he produced no warrant or staff, seized the Common Hunt's foot huntsman in the field, and carried him before the said Mr. Justice Wroth," who disbelieved their word that the prisoner was one of the city's huntsmen, declaring that the man "was a seaman by his face," and informed them that he intended "to try the city's right of hunting, and that he would bind them over to answer as aforesaid, for unlawfully hunting in the said fforest."
The court decided, on the evidence, to bring an action against the Essex constable for assault, and directed their witnesses to appear at the sessions, and placed the prosecution of the constable in the hands of the city's solicitor.
It is very greatly to be regretted that the result of this action is quite unknown. The Records of the Corporation contain no further reference to it, and the Session Books and Process Books of Indictments of that period are known to have been burnt or otherwise destroyed. It would be interesting to determine whether the corporation successfully met the charge of unlawful hunting. If John Wroth, the justice of the peace, who questioned their right in the forest was identical – as seems likely – with John Wroth the ranger at that time, it is curious that he should not have recognised their claim, if such existed, and so far, the claim of the city to hunt in the forest has not been discovered on any of the forest rolls which record such claims.
The licences which were granted to individual citizens in the eighteenth century were similar to the following: "Ing. Roudeau of Spital Fields, merchant, to hunt, hawk, course, sett, shoot, and fish within the forest at all seasonable times from and after the first day of September to the twenty-fifth of March following yearly, and at no other time. With one or two persons in his company and no more, and to kill and carry away in and from the forest and the limits thereof, all manner of beast or fowl of forest (red and fallow deer only excepted), he always acquainting the keeper of the walk when he intends so to hunt, etc., provided always that he do use the liberty so given him with the moderation that is fitting."
Though of a non-sporting character, the gathering known as the Fairlop Fair connected the forest of Essex with the workers of London for the greater part of the last two centuries.
Early in the eighteenth century there frequently reposed under the shade of a venerable oak in Hainault Forest a certain pump maker of the parish of St. John's, Wapping. Daniel Day – Good Day as he was called – like many another London merchant, had acquired land on the confines of the ancient forest for a country residence. On the first Friday in July of each year he regaled his employees, beneath the spreading branches of his favourite tree, with a feast of beans and bacon.
Day's beanfeast became so popular among the block and pump makers of Wapping that not only did others join in the festivity, but the meeting attracted to the spot vendors of various wares, who erected booths about the tree, and established an annual fair which flourished long after its originator was dead. The giant oak sheltered Day in death as in life, for, faithful to his wishes, his friends buried him in a coffin made from the wood of a fallen limb. One account states that the limb was specially lopped for the purpose, and that the loppers were prosecuted for their trespass, but managed to clear themselves under the plea that they had made a "fair lop" which had not injured the forest monarch. From that circumstance popular belief ascribes the origin of the name Fairlop. Another attempt to explain the name is found in an old song which runs:-
To Hainault Forest Queen Anne she did ride
And beheld the beautiful oak by her side.
And after viewing it from the bottom to top
She said to her court, "It is a fair lop."
The Fairlop Oak was a giant of thirty-six feet in girth, with massive limbs, originally seventeen in number, but in the days of the famous fair but eleven, which cast a shade over an acre of ground. In the year 1805, through the carelessness of some picnickers, the tree caught fire, and the flames ate into the trunk and caused much damage. The injuries were dressed with a special preparation, and the following notice appealed to the chivalry of true forest lovers:-
"All good foresters are requested not to hurt this old tree, a plaster having been applied to its wounds."
The fierce gales of February 1820 rendered abortive all efforts to preserve the aged invalid. It stood – a wreck of its former great self, with its memories of Saxon and Norman times, and the centuries when London's lord mayor and civic officers had swept past it in the chase on Fairlop Plain – until the fiat went forth in 1851 from the Office of Woods and Forests, that the trees of Hainault were to be stubbed up. The old tree, with all its younger brethren, was therefore ruthlessly dragged from the soil. From its wood was made the pulpit and reading desk of St. Pancras Church, London, and also, it is believed, the pulpit in Wanstead Old Church.
With the destruction of Hainault Forest the Fairlop Fair came to an end. The spectacle of a long boat, mounted on coach wheels and gaily masted, with a crew of pseudo-sailors, which for years was driven annually through the forest, appeared to the uninitiated to have no connection with the one-time beanfeast. It was, however, a generous attempt on the part of a few to keep the name of Daniel Day still green in the memory of the dwellers of Wapping.
When Day died in 1767, his body was conveyed down the Thames from Wapping to Barking – where he lies buried – and was attended by six journeymen pump and block makers, who received each a white leather apron and a guinea for his service. The arrangement was by request, and grew out of the circumstance that Day in his journeys between Wapping and Fairlop had experienced mishaps from his horse, his mule, and finally from a chaise, and mistrusted land conveyances.
The Wappingites who left the East End of London on fair day and travelled by the Woodford Road to Loughton, thence to Fairlop and home by Ilford, were the survivors of a once interesting gathering of jovial Londoners in the Essex forest.