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A drawing of Queen Victoria's procession through Epping Forest, when she entrusted the Forest to the people forever.

Epping Forest has a rich history spanning thousands of years, with a tangible human history running from 700BC to present day, including many stories and taking into account many great figures of British history along the way.

When you're done reading, plan a day out with us on our visitor pages.

Prehistory

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    Ambresbury Banks' Iron Age Camp

    Ambresbury Banks

Prehistory

Analysis of pollen found in bog samples tells us that there has been continuous tree cover in Epping Forest for well over 3,000 years, though the make-up of the woodlands has changed.

Animals such as deer, wild boar, bear and beaver would have once roamed the Forest.

The earliest evidence for human activity comes from finds of worked flints recovered from several locations, including near High Beach. Some of these flints are now in the museum collection.

However, it was not until the Iron Age that the more tangible earthworks of Ambresbury Banks and Loughton Camp were constructed. Both are believed to date to around 500 BC and were used as animal folds in times of attack or as look-out posts and boundary markers between neighbouring tribes. We think they were in use until after the Roman invasion in 43 AD.

The Roman period

The Roman period

During the Roman period, two main roads crossed the southern part of the Forest, not far from a building in Wanstead Park, while a Roman tile kiln has been found in the north of the Forest.

Other roads and tracks were established in the Forest, such as the Stump Road through Lower Forest in the north.

Fragments of mosaics and pieces of painted wall plaster thought to be from the lost Roman building are now on display at The Temple in Wanstead Park.

The medieval hunting Forest

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    Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge in modern Chingford.
    ​​Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge, built in 1543 on the orders of Henry VIII.

The medieval hunting Forest

There is little surviving evidence from the medieval period except the management of the Forest itself, which dates back to at least the twelfth century when Forest Law was introduced to safeguard the King’s right to hunt game in the Forest. The role of the Verderers, who still help to look after the Forest today, dates to this period.

The rights of Commoners to collect wood for fuel, graze cattle and allow pigs to forage in the Forest were also protected; the tradition of cattle grazing has continued to the present day.

Epping Forest itself is a remnant of the once extensive Forest of Essex, also encompassing Waltham Forest and Hainault Forest, which was finally enclosed (or fenced in) in the nineteenth century.

There were three known Tudor hunt standings in the Forest, including the great standing constructed for Henry VIII in 1543 which survives today as Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge, a Grade II* Listed Building. Another, the Little Standing, has been incorporated into Warren House, whereas the third standing at Fairmead was demolished in the late nineteenth century.

Other hunt standings are believed to have existed in Wanstead Park and near Knighton Wood.

Seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

Seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

Parts of the Forest were enclosed as parkland with large houses, which evolved from medieval manor houses.

The most significant of these are Wanstead Park, dating from the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth century, and the eighteenth-century Copped Hall.

Three of the landscapes in Epping Forest were designed by Humphry Repton, the famous landscape architect: Wanstead Park, Higham’s Park and the grounds around Warren House.​

The Victorian Forest

The Victorian Forest

Many changes were made to the Forest in the nineteenth century.

When the train line arrived in Loughton and then Chingford, Epping Forest was opened up to the whole East End. Thousands of Londoners would come to Chingford Plain on a sunny weekend for games, donkey rides and gypsy fortune telling. Outings were organised by pubs, workhouses, churches and workplaces.

The ‘retreats’  that sprung up in Epping Forest during this period provided non-alcoholic refreshments from the 1860s to the 1940s, a reaction to the beer tents and booths elsewhere in the Forest.

Butler’s Retreat, a mid-nineteenth century barn converted to a tearoom, is the last of these retreats and still serves refreshments today.

A wide variety of recreational pursuits continue in the Forest, and the infrastructure supporting sports such as golf and cricket are among the oldest in the country.

In 1824, an obelisk was erected on Pole Hill, as the highest visible point from Greenwich, to mark the meridian.

How Epping Forest was saved

How Epping Forest was saved

The City of London Corporation’s role in the battle to save Epping Forest from destruction is a complex story which saw one of London’s most important landscapes saved for future generations.

Epping Forest as a Royal Forest

As part of the Royal Forest of Essex, Epping Forest was one of sixty forests across England where Forest Law gave the Crown the right to hunt game across largely privately owned land.  Hunting across forest landscapes was an important demonstration of Royal and aristocratic power and a necessary practice for war.  Forest Laws recognised the earlier tradition of shared ‘common’ rights for forest dwellers to graze livestock and to cut firewood and turf.

Changing Royal interests and the rise of a professional army during the Georgian period saw Royal participation in hunting and the power of Forest Law dramatically decline. Parliamentary scrutiny of Royal finances following the Restoration saw the Royal Forest hunting rights across private land, known as Forestal Rights, begin to be sold.  In 1851, the Crown Lands, including Epping Forest’s Forestal rights, were transferred to Government Commissioners charged with increasing revenue for the Exchequer.

The threat of enclosure

Between 1760 and 1870, the ‘enclosure movement’ saw seven million acres of English countryside change from shared common land to more profitable private enclosed land, with many commoners losing their traditional rights.  In Royal Forests, the release of the Crown’s Forestal Rights spurred landowners to enclose Forest Land and evict their commoners. At Epping Forest, London’s continued growth saw opportunities to release land for development rather than agricultural improvement.

From 1817, a series of Parliamentary Bills unsuccessfully pressed for the disafforestation of Epping Forest.  In 1851, following the sale of Forestal Rights, 3,000 acres of nearby Hainault Forest, another fragment of the Forest of Essex, was felled within six weeks. Six years later, the Commissioners sold half of the Royal Forestal Rights at Epping Forest, encouraging the illegal enclosure of some 4,000 acres of Epping Forest by 1865.

The campaign to save Epping Forest

The loss of Hainault Forest and the sale of Epping’s Forestal Rights created a broad coalition of different interests who fought to save the Forest.   The Forest’s remaining judicial officer, Verderer Palmer, promoted to Government the Forest’s 500 years of use by Londoners for recreational benefit.  Both political radicals and nonconformist religious groups emphasised the importance of the Forest for freedom of assembly and worship.  Social Reformers with the newly formed Commons Preservation Society fought to retain places like Epping for their beauty and public amenity and as a necessary refuge from a growing and polluted Metropolis. 

Commoners also fought to save their rights and livelihoods. Thomas Willingale of Loughton was the most famous of those championing the common right of lopping to cut new growth from trees for fuel. With the financial backing of local landowner and brewery heir, Sir Fowell Buxton, Willingale filed a lawsuit against the Lord of the Manor of Loughton, for enclosing over 1,300 acres of Forest to sell for development.

John T Bedford, a member of the City of London Corporation, recognised that the City was the only body with sufficient resources to save Epping Forest, and persuaded the City to become involved through a Commission of Inquiry in 1871.  Owning the City of London Cemetery in Aldersbrook meant that the City was a commoner, enabling the City Solicitor, Sir Thomas Nelson and the Commons Preservation Society’s solicitor, Robert Hunter to make a breakthrough in stopping the enclosures using a single lawsuit, based on the rights of intercommonage - the right to graze animals throughout the Forest. This meant that one case could be brought against all the lords of the manors and on 10 November 1874 the enclosures were declared illegal.

In addition to lawsuits, there were also more practical demonstrations against the enclosures taking place.  Antonio Brady MP, of the Epping Forest Fund, made fiery addresses to crowds on Wanstead Flats resulting in removal of new fences.  Similarly, local industrialist George Burney, a leading member of the Epping Forest Preservation Society, was a notable local objector who paid to remove fences in 1874 and defended a subsequent court case for his actions.

Between 1874 and 1878, the City of London purchased the remaining unenclosed land, some 5,531 acres, paying compensation to the manors for loss of enclosures and to commoners for the necessary loss of some rights.  The Crown agreed to relinquish their remaining Forestal rights and in 1878 the Epping Forest Act was passed, establishing the City of London as the Conservators of Epping Forest.

On 6 May 1882 Queen Victoria was invited to open the Forest to the public. At the opening the address from the Lord Mayor of London celebrated the substitution of royal privilege for popular right, with the Forest being dedicated to the enjoyment of the people for ever.  The Queen acknowledged the address, declaring ‘it gives me the greatest satisfaction to dedicate this beautiful Forest to the use and enjoyment of my people for all time.’  Both the address and the dedication led to Epping Forest receiving the unique and popular accolade ‘the People’s Forest’.

Epping Forest in the twentieth century

Epping Forest in the twentieth century

Epping Forest was changed forever by the two world wars in the first half of the century.

Bomb craters created many of the lakes and ponds you can find and visit in the Forest.

As part of the country’s Second World War defences, anti-aircraft guns were installed, air raid shelters erected and anti-tank trenches dug at various sites in Epping Forest.

Second World War barrage balloon tethers can still be seen on Wanstead Flats. These would have supported wires to prevent enemy aircraft from flying too low. Baskets were also hung from the balloons, from which soldiers could practice parachute jumping.

On Wanstead Flats, there was a camp for troops at Aldersbrook and a prisoner of war camp not far from Jubilee Pond. The prisoners even erected goal posts and played football on the flats – just as players do now!

The golf courses were affected by the war too. There is some evidence that they were ploughed up to grow food - ridge and furrow shapes are still visible if you look closely enough!

The present

The present

Today, the City of London continues to support Epping Forest as a charitable trust, which is increasingly seeking additional sources of funding to maintain its stewardship of the Forest and protect it for future generations.  The pressures of development and the needs of increasing population growth in London that faced Parliament in the 1870s remains an ever-present challenge for the Forest.

The Forest's long history has shaped its environment and usage today. You can find out more about the museum collection and archive that document the Forest's history or come to one of our heritage events.


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