Wanstead House and the Parklands - a history

Wanstead HouseWanstead House

Ordnance Survey maps show the site of a Roman Villa in present day Wanstead Park. Excavations took place in 1985 to look for indications of this, using electric probes. The results seem to indicate a Roman presence here from the 1st to the 5th century AD, but did not clearly indicate a specific site or villa.

The name Wanstead is probably of Saxon origin - indicating a possible continuity of settlement here since Roman times - and is accepted by the English Place-names Society as derived from Wen - a hill or mound, and Stead - a place.

The sometimes stated information that in Saxon times Alfric granted the manor of Wanstead to the monks of the abbey church of Westminster is unsubstantiated. However, the location was evidently a prized site this side of London. In 1086 it was held for the Bishop of London by Ralph son of Brian. Wanstead was densely wooded at this time, laying within the Forest of Essex. It was part of the forest bailiwick of Becontree during the middle ages and later of the Leyton "Walk". The manor passed in many successions between Church, Crown and nobility.

Originally called Wanstead Hall, the house was probably quite a small building up until the 14th century, but by 1499 it was large enough to serve as a royal hunting-lodge. Henry VII and Henry VIII both hunted in the manor; it was during the latter's reign that Wanstead Park was inclosed, shortly before 1512, and it is probable that this involved the clearing of some of the wooded area. At about this time Aldersbrook became a separate, neighbouring, manor.

Wanstead remained a Royal manor for a number of years, passing into the temporary possession of one royal favourite after another as keepers. Sir John Heron was keeper of the estate until his death in 1521; he also held lands in Aldersbrook and is reputed that he brought herons to the area. A heronry is shown on Lincoln Island on an OS map of 1919.

Lord Richard Rich, High Chancellor of England, was keeper of the manor in 1543, and In 1549 Edward VI granted him the lordship of the manor of Wanstead and the Park. In 1577 Rich's son Robert sold it to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who bought the manor of Stonehall in Ilford at the same time.

Again a succession of owners kept the manor of Wanstead (and of Stonehall). In 1619 Sir Henry Mildmay was in possesion; when he joined the Parliamentary side in the Civil War he fell out of the King's favour and forfeited the estate. Charles II granted the estates to his brother, James, Duke of York, who sold it in about 1662 to Sir Robert Brooke.

In 1673-4 the manor was purchased by Sir Josiah Child, Governor of the East India Company. He spent much time and money in developing the estate in the elaborate fashion of the time. When John Evelyn, the diarist and author of "Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest Trees" (1664), visited Wanstead in March, 1683 he wrote: "I went to see Sir Josiah Child's prodigious cost in planting walnut trees about his seate, and making fish ponds many miles in circuit in Epping Forest, in a barren place." The ponds that are mentioned, although somewhat altered, are those we have at the present day - a chain of ponds descending from the Shoulder of Mutton Pond, through Heronry Pond, Perch Pond, the Dell and into the Ornamental Waters.

Sir Josiah Child died in 1699, and was succeeded by his son - also Sir Josiah Child - who leased Wanstead and Stonehall to his half-brother, Sir Richard Child. On Sir Josiah's death in 1704, Richard succeeded to his title and estates.

In 1715, Sir Richard Child, later Earl Tylney, commissioned Colen Campbell, the Scottish Architect, to design a grand mansion in the Palladian style to replace the older one on the estate. This building was designed to rival such palaces as Bleinham. When built it covered an area of two hundred and sixty feet by seventy feet. The main front had a portico with six Corinthian columns. With the grounds further enhanced with the advice of George London - one of the most famous gardeners of his day - it would have also rivalled Versailles.

The extensive fruit and vegetable gardens lying to the south-east of where the Great House stood have all gone, these parts of the estate grounds are now the links of the Wanstead Golf Club. Two Walnut trees, the larger 40 feet high and 7 feet 6 inches in girth, standing on the east side of the Shoulder of Mutton Pond, were probably descendants of those planted by Sir Josiah Child, but they finally died in the 1980's. Thickets of Rhododendron mark the time when part of the Park was laid out as "a shrubbery," traversed by the winding paths shown in Rocque's map.

Sir Richard Child later took the surname of Tylney, and on his death in 1750 was succeeded by his son John Tylney. The second Earl Tylney continued the plantings, although it is probable that by this time there would have been a softening of the formality of the grounds and a more natural look would have evolved.

John (Earl Tylney) had no descendants and so passed his estates to his sister's son, Sir James Long - who also took the name of Tylney. Sir James died in 1805 without issue, and the estate was passed to John's daughter Catherine Tylney-Long.

In 1812, although much of the garden's old formality has gone, the estate was considered one of the greatest houses in England. Catherine Tylney Long was - apart from royalty - the richest woman in England. In 1812 she married William Wellesley-Pole - 4th Earl of Mornington and nephew of the Duke of Wellington. He took the surname Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley. His extravagant lifestyle ruined Catherine; the house and grounds were sold and the house was demolished in 1823-4. Catherine died in 1825. However, the estate was not broken up, and in 1840 Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley still owned some 1400 acres in the parishes of Wanstead, Woodford, Leyton, Little Ilford and Barking. The manor of Wanstead was inherited by his son, William, who left it in trust to his father's cousin Henry Wellesley, Earl Cowley.

In 1880, Earl Cowley sold 184 acres of Wanstead Park to the Corporation of London for preservation as part of Epping Forest, and his family sold the rest in 1920 to Wanstead Sports Grounds Ltd.

The site of the house is now part of Wanstead golf course, and very little remains in the whole area of structures relating to the house or the grounds. Wanstead Park itself still retains some of the layout of the grounds of Wanstead House. In 1992 a Management Plan was initiated to try to re-establish something of the formality of the grounds of a "Great House". Few remaining aspects of the old grounds still remain. Apart from the lake system, the most evident are the building known as the Temple, another known as the Grotto and some mounts (artificial mounds). Less obvious, perhaps, is a group of islands known as the Fortifications (see below), an amphitheatre, an ornamental canal (see below) and remains of some avenues of trees.

The Fortifications are situated on the Ornamental Waters to the south-east of Lincoln Island. They consist of eight small islands grouped around a central island on which duck-shooting guns were stored. The bridges by which they were once connected are no longer there. They are somewhat overgrown and make a sanctuary for water-birds.

The ornamental canal is situated in the eastern edge of the Ornamental Waters and provided a continuation of the view from Wanstead House down the Glade and across the Roding. It is noted by Eric S. Wood F.S.A. (Collins Field Guide to Archaeology, Third Edition 1972) as being a "magnificent canal". (photo)

Outside of Wanstead Park, two impressive gate posts remain as part of the original entrance gates to Wanstead House. These stand either side of Overton Drive at its junction with Blake Hall Road. Further east along Overton Drive to the south lies the links of Wanstead Golf Course, within the grounds of which was the site of the house itself. Clearly visible from the road through the fence is the ornamental lake known as The Basin, which stood in front of Wanstead House. The golf club house constitutes part of the 18th century stable-court. It is built of brick and weather-boarded timber.

An impressive avenue of sweet-chestnuts across Wanstead Flats and through Bush Wood would have provided one of the routes from London to Wanstead House, originally crossing the Basin by a causeway and the lake subsequently being enlarged so that the approach would be around the lake. This tree avenue - Evelyn's Avenue - is still quite visible in places.

A chronicled History of Wanstead Park is available in local bookshops. This is "Wanstead Park - A Chronicle" by Alan Cornish, M.Sc. originally published by the Friends of Wanstead Parklands in 1982 and updated and republished by Wanstead Parklands Community Project in 2006.