Wanstead Flats

Wanstead Flats - History and other aspects

 

History

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

Towards the end of the 19th century as a response to efforts by the Epping Forest Committee to break up what was perceived as a monotonous area of grassland, a number of small woods and copses were planted, and trees were also planted to line roadsides and in the form of avenues. . These were to act as amenities, and the creation also provided employment to numbers of unemployed men from East and West Ham. The copses and small wooded area were planted with a variety of tree species - some certainly not native. In some cases the copses are circular and surrounded by a dry ditch. For a review of the tree species present, click here.

A number of lakes or ponds were dug in the same period and for the same reason. The Angel Pond at the corner of Capel Road and Woodford Road was named after Mr Lewis Angell, the first borough engineer of West Ham, who was responsible for the construction of the pond during the winter of 1893-94. Postcards of the early 1900s show boats on the pond. The Model Yacht Pond (now Jubilee Pond) by Dames Road is shown on O.S. maps of 1894-96, though it was subsequently enlarged; it had stone banks and was used for model boating. The largest of the lakes is Alexandra Lake by Aldersbrook Road. It has primarily been used as an aesthetic amenity and for fishing. Its position is marked on the 1894-96 map by trees surrounding an enclosure with buildings - slightly smaller but similar in shape to Aldersbrook Farm to the north-west.

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 the bait for angling in the larger pond was got!

Apart from grazing mentioned earlier, the flats has seen a number of other uses through its history -


Industry

There was a brick-field near present-day Aldersbrook Road in operation from about 1830 to 1890. On an O.S. map of 1863-7 the Brick Field is shown covering a similar area to that now occupied by football fields, with clay pit and clay mills marked, although a pond is shown on the site on a map of 1885.

Military

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).


Housing

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.

For details of other structures that may be found on Wanstead Flats click here

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Wanstead Flats - an overview

The area known locally as 'The Flats' is the southern-most portion of Epping Forest and a welcome intrusion into the suburbs of east London. Heavily built-up areas, primarily of housing, lie immediately to the south and west, though to the north-west it is connected by way of Bush Wood to Leyton Flats and so to more northerly reaches of the Forest. To the east, the City of London Cemetery, the Alders Brook, the River Roading and then Ilford Golf Course, serve to separate the Flats from Ilford.

Roads and houses almost completely surround Wanstead Flats. To the east a low wall and high railing separate it from the City of London Cemetery, and in the north-west it adjoins Bush Wood. Three roads actually cross the Flats, effectively dividing it into four sections. The greater part of the whole area of some 135 hectares is flat, open grassland on the river gravel of the Taplow Terrace, which overlays the London Clay. Though historically part of a royal forest, the nature of the area encouraged people to turn out cattle and other animals to graze upon this unenclosed land. This practice was eventually recognised and granted as the 'right of common pasture'. Certain landowners and occupiers still have this right, granted them as part of The Epping Forest Act of 1878, and cattle grazed freely until 1996 when the BSE crisis forced their removal. It is probable that continued grazing on this and similar areas of the Forest helped to maintain the open aspect which they have today. (See "Cattle on Wanstead Flats")

Wanstead FlatsWanstead FlatsMuch of the land is liable to a degree of flooding after heavy rain, but also to considerable and quite rapid drying-out in periods of low rainfall. Drainage from the grassland should help to maintain usually three permanent open waters, although in recent years these ponds have been prone to severe lack of water at times. The largest of the waters, with two islands to its credit, is Alexandra Lake. Its local name the Sandhills Pond may be attributed to the sandy nature of the low gravel mounds by its banks. The next in size is Jubilee Pond, which until 2002 was known as the Model Yacht Pond or Dames Road Pond. Until renovation in 2002 this had stone banks, and, as its name implied, was in the past used for model boating. Lack of repair and a water supply meant that for many years the pond was often dry. The smallest water is the round pond by Capel Road, Angell's Pond. This was named after Mr Lewis Angell, the first borough engineer of West Ham, who was responsible for the construction of the pond during the winter of 1893-94. The spelling soon became corrupted, as early postcards show. This circular muddy hollow, which can dry out almost completely in hot weather, has also been known as the Bandstand Pond from the bandstand that used to lie just to the east. The only other semi-permanent pond is that by Lake House Road, known as the Cat and Dog Pond presumably because it only exists when it has been raining 'cats and dogs'. There are some drainage ditches, but few hold water for much time. In the late 1990's a new drainage ditch was created running in a somewhat serpentine fashion from the playing fields opposite Tylney Road in Forest Gate to the south-west corner of Alexandra Lake. This was to help drain the playing fields of the surface-water that can occur after heavy rain. Although some important rough grassland habitat was disturbed in its creation (even some heather was destroyed), there is rarely if ever any water in it. Similarly, a drain was installed to take water from Aldersbrook Road near Wanstead Park Avenue - much prone to flooding after heavy rain - into Alexandra Lake. Even so, owing to lack of maintenance, the road has subsequently been seen to flood across to the shops opposite - even though the lake may at times suffer from a shortage of water (see here). The only running water used to be a year-round spring that was the source of one of the 'marshy' areas dominated by rushes that exist in some of the more poorly drained parts of the Flats. The spring, however, is no more. It is assumed that road works and or pipe-laying by Centre Road has disrupted the supply. During a period of lake creation at the turn of the 19th/20th Century (when, for example, Alexandra Lake was created as part of a job creation scheme for the unemployed) it is said that the hollow at the junction of Aldersbrook Road and Centre Road was dug. It was supposed to have been a lake, but was not completed.

Scattered over the area are some thickets of gorse and broom, as well as a number of small woods and copses. Most of these were planted towards the end of the 19th century as a response to efforts by the Epping Forest Committee to break up what was perceived as a monotonous area of grassland. Together with the many trees lining the roadsides and some avenues, they do add greatly to the diversity of tree species to be found. Older than these is an avenue of trees in the NW portion of the Flats, running from close to Ferndale Road in Leytonstone to Bush Wood. This is known as Evelyn's Avenue, planted by John Evelyn (Author of "Sylva, or a discourse of Forest-trees") on the instructions of Sir Josiah Child after he had purchased the estate. It formed one of a number of such avenues radiating from Wanstead House. Originally consisting of sweet-chestnuts and forming one of the main approaches to Wanstead House, it is remarkable that so much of this is still visible after 300 years.

Nearly all the perimeter of Wanstead Flats has a ditch, often with a bank, to prohibit vehicular access. The only vehicles normally allowed are service vehicles and bicycles. Horses may be taken onto the Flats and are supposed to keep to bridle paths marked by posts. There is considerable pedestrian traffic because of the large number of people living nearby and the availability of the area for activities such as the flying of model aircraft and kites, bird watching, botanizing and the exercising of people and dogs; this must have some effect on the ecology of the area. Fishing in Alexandra Lake is no longer undertaken and model boating in the old Model Yacht Pond ceased when the pond no longer retained water.

From the times when Wanstead Flats was used to assemble cattle from the long cattle droves, through to the end of local cattle grazing in 1996, through those years when the Flats was regarded as an inhospitable and wild place to the early 20th century when it was a popular recreation area, through the wartime when gun emplacements and prisoners of war were held here to post war pre-fab housing and increasing sports facilities - the Flats have had many uses. They have also had many abuses - some already mentioned - and threats. The use of the Flats for housing is an issue that re-occurs from time to time - most recently when housing was permitted for a time post-war. Pipe lines have had to be laid - a gas pipe from the vicinity of Angell's Pond to near Park Road, Aldersbrook, and in 2008 a water-desalination pipe-line from Beckton to Woodford, which crosses Wanstead Flats almost from end to end, east to west. In the summer of 2008 a cycle-route was proposed, traversing parts of the Flats including from near Angell's Pond to Capel Road Changing Rooms and then diagonally across to Aldersbrook Road. Like the proposal a few years ago to provide evening sports facilities by Aldersbrook Road, the suggestion even included lighting. From the mid 1800's people have vehemently opposed numerous proposals to radically change the Flats. It is important that these issues are monitored and oppositions to unwelcome changes are made - not just for the people that appreciate Wanstead Flats, but for the vast amount of wildlife that lives there - including a once-healthy population of a rare London bird - the skylark. Unfortunatley, in more recent years (ie prior to 2020), this population has severely depleted.

 


The preceeding was taken from an article published in 1981  (FERRIS, P.R. 1981. The Flora of Southern Epping Forest. Part 2: Wanstead Flats and Bush Wood. Lond. Nat . 60: 6-19). It has been updated and changed to some extent for reproduction here to provide an overview of the Flats. A map and descriptions of the plants and birds to be found are available. (see menu left and below)

For a review of the plants that have been found on Wanstead Flats, click here

For a review of the birds that may be seen on Wanstead Flats, click here

For more information on the history of Wanstead Flats, click here

For a map of Wanstead Flats, click here

 

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Lakehouse Lake Project

Background notes to the Jubilee pond (June 2004)

The ‘Jubilee Pond’ is to be found at the South end of the Borough of Leytonstone, on Wanstead Flats, bounded by Lakehouse and Dames roads. It started life in 1907 as a ‘Model Boat Pond’. It was re-developed as a wildlife pond in July/August 2002. The official re-opening of the pond took place on 12th July 2003.

 

Water Source

Water is provided via a borehole which goes down to the chalk layer. This guarantees water level is maintained through summer. The actual water pipe is to be found at the car park end and when working ripples on the water surface can be seen. Water depth varies from 1cm - 1.3 meters.

 

The Islands 

There are three. Starting from the car park end first is Pigeon Island, so called because during the building and very early days, hundreds of pigeons used this particular place as a roosting site. As a result there was a noticeable spectacular plant growth in the first year. The other islands have now somewhat caught up. Next is the Centre (or Middle) Island. There is now strong plant growth here. Finally is the South Island which strangely is still more grassy and for some reason shows less growth.

Note the Anti-Goose rails around all islands. Their purpose is to stop Canada Geese nesting on the islands yet allowing ducks to do so.

 

Peninsular

Besides the water surface the largest feature of the pond is a peninsular just beyond Pigeon island. At present it is flat and has scant grass coverage, so the most interesting part is the Peninsular Bay which was intended and planted as a reed bed. Unfortunately due to the depredations of the Canada Geese flock the whole lot was eaten. If more are to be planted protection will be needed from the geese.

 

Special Features

There is a dipping area at the South side of the pond. A protective rail stops dippers wandering out into the deep water. There is a bank at the side which has a profusion of plant growth and recently the area has been planted with mature iris and reeds which are flourishing. The Canada Geese (as yet) will not go into this area probably due to the rail and bank which stops sight lines. Our pond wardens have also found this to he one of the most bio-diverse areas of the pond. Maybe this will change with time as the pond evolves.

Another noticeable and perhaps surprising feature is the amount and extent of shallow banks from the shore. This was a deliberate part of the design. This type of pond has now disappeared over most if not all of the South East so it is hoped that this unique environment will lead to the re-introduction of special types of flora and fauna. There is also a Green Barrier situated by the Flats side of the pond to separate the area from the Fair and Fair-goers, whom in the past parked all around the old pond. This is a low mound planted with heathers and gorse.

 

{This article taken from an update release by the Lakehouse Lake Project in 2004 (courtesy Lakehouse Lake Group)}