Wanstead Flats was historically part of the Forest of Essex, part of the Bailiwick of Becontree and later of Leyton "Walk", as was Wanstead Park to the north east. Sometimes called the Heath, and later the Lower Forest, often referred to as a "waste", the nature of the area - apparently wild and marshy - seems to have presented a less attractive area than adjacent lands that surrounded it. The Lower Forest extended as far south as the present day Romford Road in Manor Park, which is acknowledged to be the route of a Roman Road from London to Colchester.
It seems that although this was part of a royal forest, it was less favoured by the nobility and this encouraged local people to turn out their cattle, sheep, horses and pigs to graze upon the unenclosed land. Even so, as with the forest to the north, increasingly even the Heath became threatened with enclosure by the more powerful landowners. In the mid 1800s the Crown had destroyed Hainault Forest and was selling its forest rights to the lords of manors. Cann Hall and Wanstead manor were sold in 1856. In 1851-2, Long-Wellesley (Lord Mornington) had a legal battle with the tenants of Cann Hall and other commoners before enclosing 34 acres of the Flats. It seems that although other areas of the forest had and were being enclosed, the threat to Wanstead Flats aroused particularly high levels of anger among people, even over a considerable area of of east London.
In 1871 Henry Wellesley, Earl Cowley, attempted to enclose another piece of the Flats. An advertisement with the headlines "Save The Forest" encouraged working men to "Attend by Thousands" an open air meeting on Wanstead Flats on Saturday, July 8th 1871 to "Protest against the Enclosures". The meeting took place, but not initially on Wanstead Flats, where the Essex Volunteers were undertaking a review. The meeting was transferred to the grounds of West Ham Hall, a large house (once Hamfrith House) that stood on the site now occupied by Woodgrange School in Sebert Road. The force of feeling was so high that the meeting was adjourned to Wanstead Flats after all, with some thousands of people making their way there.
It was the fact that the Corporation of London had bought (in 1854) 200 acres of farmland at Aldersbrook for the provision of the City of London Cemetery that eventually gave rise to the passing of the Epping Forest Act. In 1876 the City of London had bought Cann Hall waste; in 1877 the Epping Forest Commission had reported that 250 acres of open space - most being on Wanstead Flats - remained in the manor of Wanstead, and 73 acres in Cann Hall manor, all on the Flats.
As owners of land adjacent to the forest, this gave the Corporation right of pasturage, and after legal proceedings lasting several years and the City of London having purchased the Forest from 19 manor owners for a little over a quarter of a million pounds, the Act of 1878 was passed leading to the preservation of Epping Forest and its continued use by ordinary people. This meant that the Park and the Flats were preserved, as well as other areas such as Bush Wood, George Green and the Eagle Pond. In 1880 the City of London bought 184 acres of Wanstead Park from Lord Cowley, which too became part of Epping Forest.
Copses and Ponds
There is a small pond by Lake House Road know as the Cat and Dog Pond, presumably because it only exists when it has been raining 'cats and dogs', and it is said that the hollow at the junction of Aldersbrook Road and Centre Road was dug as a lake but was not completed. It is certainly not a bomb crater - it can be seen on an early photograph showing Centre Road and the junction of Lake House Road. Other ponds can also be seen in old maps or photographs. Before any of the above mentioned ponds were dug, maps show an apparent pond to the south west of the present 1953 plantation on the Aldersbrook Section. There is also a pond named as Brick Field Pond in the brickfields area shown on a map of 1885. On the Fairground Section an aerial photograph of 1929 shows clearly a pond to the east of the Model Yacht Pond. This was known as "Bloodworm Pond" - presumably because that's where bait for angling in the larger pond was obtained.
Apart from grazing mentioned earlier, the flats has seen a number of other uses through its history -
George III (1760-1820) held a mass review of his troops on Wanstead Flats and military use continued from time to time.
During the 2nd World War, parts of the flats were used in June 1944 as a transit camp for troops preparing for the D-day invasion. Huts used for accommodation of troops (including Americans) were situated near Aldersbrook Road in the vicinity of Aldersbrook Farm. There was a P.O.W. camp situated on the Fairground Section of the flats which spread from near the Model Yacht Pond to Centre Road, which was closed to through traffic to act as an access to the camp. The last of the goal-posts erected by P.O.W.s remained near to Centre Road until about the middle of the 1990s (see photo).
There were anti-aircraft defences including a gun-site near Herongate Road, and the foundations of associated military establishments - Nissen Huts* - (including, it is said, a telephone/communications centre) can still be found within Long Wood (photo). Other anti-aircraft defences on the flats were barrage balloons, colloquially known as "pigs". These were still used even up to the 1950's, presumably to allow for parachute-training. To prevent planes from landing, ditches with associated banks were dug all over the flats.
* A tunnel-shaped hut made of corrugated iron with a cement floor, invented by Lt.-Col. Peter Norman Nissen (1871-1930).
Threats of more permanent development for Wanstead Flats continued even after the Epping Forest Act was passed. In 1907 a concert hall was proposed to be built on the Forest Gate side of the flats (Stratford Express 13/4/1907), but it is probably housing that has posed the greatest threat.
After the war, both East Ham and West Ham councils tried to gain some of the flats for buildings, but these were strongly opposed, particularly by the residents of the Aldersbrook estate. However, with the acute shortage of housing in the area after the war, temporary estates of pre-fabricated homes (prefabs) were erected. People were moving into these in 1946, and a typical rent was 18/- (about 90p) a week. Because of the layout, the streets were called "banjos". The largest "village" of these consisted of some 350 homes; these lay south of Alexandra Lake (known then as "the Sandhills", as now) and were accessed from Capel Road. The names of the roads were those WW2 military generals. These continued to be used until the beginning of the 1960's and were usually appreciated and well kept by those who lived in them and admired by those who visited. Another group of prefabs was situated on Manor Park Flats adjacent to Forest View Road. These continued to be used slightly later, and indeed some of the fruit and ornamental trees associated with the garden plots are still in existence. The gardens were of sufficient size that some people grew flowers and vegetables, and even kept chickens and rabbits.
In 1957 the first moves were made in Parliament to have the prefabs removed and Wanstead Flats returned to its pre-war state, complete with playing-fields. The land had been authorised to be used as temporary housing under the Defence of the Realm Act, and as this was no longer in force, the prefabs had to go. The site of the plot by Capel Road was reinstated as playing fields (mainly football pitches); that on the Manor Park section of the Flats reverted to rough grassland.
Fairs, Circuses, Sports and Events
At the end of the 18th century an annual cattle market was held on the flats in March and April. An Easter Fair was held on the Flats in the late 19th century, and although this has not been continuous, there are still fairs held on the flats to this day. These traditionally take place three times a year as the Spring Fair, the Whitsun Fair and the Summer Fair. Circuses also are held on the same site between Dames Road and Centre Road. As well as local school's sports days, from time to time fetes or festivals are held. One such festival took place in July 2000 when an Asian Mela* was held adjacent to Capel Road. Thousands of people attended, together with hundreds of cars, and although the festival itself was a thoroughly enjoyable event, there was much distress caused to local residents - many of whom campaigned vehemently that nothing of that size should take place again!
* A Hindu religious fair and festival.
Large areas of the Flats have for long been used for sports activities. A map of about 1904 shows many cricket pitches, primarily by Aldersbrook Road on the site of the present changing rooms, and on both sides of Centre Road, more towards the south. Nowadays football is predominant, but there have been Rugby pitches marked out as well as sites for other ball-games. This has led to some permanent buildings and enclosures being established on the Flats. There is a groundsman's house and changing rooms - as well as a car park - by Capel Road. Across the same section of the Flats, by Aldersbrook Road, are two houses - one a keeper's and the other a groundsman's - plus changing rooms and car park. By Harrow Road is another house, changing rooms and car park. The car parks mentioned, it should be said, are usually used only for the provision of games on the Flats. There is an annual Horse-riding event that takes place on the Manor Park Section, which thus receives a mowing which - apart from the playing fields - the rest of the Flats doesn't.
An aerial photograph of 1929 shows tennis courts within the half-circle of trees that comprise part of Sidney Road Copse. Although not fenced off from the rest of the Flats - at least not nowadays - it is not part of Epping Forest, and presumably belongs to the London Borough of Newham.
There are three car parks for visitors to the Wanstead Flats, open during daylight hours. They are off Aldersbrook Road by Alexandra Lake, on the east side of Centre Road, and off Lake House Road near Jubilee Pond. The latter also gives access to the site used for the fairs and circuses. The car park by Centre Road gives access to an area that is kept mowed for the provision of model-aircraft flying - for long a popular activity.
A more substantial intrusion onto the Flats is a children's playground by Dames Road. There is some move (in 2005) for the provision of another such to provide for the Aldersbrook Estate area. This would presumably be just to the west of the petrol station on Aldersbrook Road, in a position where, until 2004, there was a brick-built, wooden roofed bus shelter, unfortunately frequently vandalised by local youths.
Other structures have been established on the Flats and have now been removed:
A bandstand, surrounded by railings, was erected at the turn of the 19/20th centuries by the Corporation of West Ham near Angel Pond. It was demolished in 1957. (photo).
Another bandstand stood on Manor Park Flats, its position may be marked by the remains of a tree circle. (photo)
The tree circle just mentioned later surrounded a concrete building which was the entrance to an underground Local Government Command Centre (London Borough of Newham). The fence has been removed, the above-ground entrance dismantled and the below-ground structure presumably has been filled in. (photo).
There was a toilet building in the small wood at the north side of Alexandra Lake; and another, underground, toilet near the junction of Lake House and Dames Road. These have now been removed, a bramble patch marks the former whereas the latter is presumably still present beneath a now tree-covered mound.