Thomas Willingale and the saving of Epping Forest

In Loughton an ancient custom existed, whereby the inhabitants had a right to go into the forest and lop the branches from trees above 6 feet from the ground, between midnight on the 11th November and 23rd April each year. It was originally believe this right came from a charter issued by Queen Elizabeth I, although its exact origin has been lost in the midst of time.

Our story here concerns one Thomas Willingale, of Loughton, an illiterate labourer and woodcutter, who jealously guarded this right. So much so that every year at midnight on 11th November he went into the Forest, for he firmly believed that if no one started lopping at the appointed hour, the rights would be lost forever.

Around 1860 the lords of the manor were gradually enclosing the Forest and were keen to stop the commoners from practicing their lopping rights. One story goes that William Whitaker Maitland, the Lord of the manor of Loughton, tried to bring this ancient custom to an end by inviting the loppers to a supper at the Kings Head. He was hoping that by midnight they would all be too drunk to go into the forest and exercise their rights, which would thus be lost. However, Thomas Willingale realised treachery was afoot, he left the Kings Head at 11:30, walked out on to Staples Hill and on the stroke of midnight he lopped off a branch before returning triumphantly to the Kings Head, with the aforementioned branch. There is little actual proof such an event occurred, although many Willingales testified to this event actually occurring.

The Thomas Willingale Pub

The Thomas Willingale Pub

What is known for fact is that in 1865 Thomas Willingale was summoned before the Epping magistrates for injuring forest trees, but the case was dismissed. However in 1866 his son Samuel, and two nephews, Alfred Willingale and William Higgins, were found guilty of the same charge and fined 2s 6d each, with 11s for costs and damages. They refused to pay the fine (although funds were available) and instead spent 7 days in Ilford jail.

These actual events have been misreported by a number of people, including Lord Eversely and the Buxtons, prominent members of the Commons Preservation Society, who wrote a number of books on the saving of the forest. This misreporting has continued to the present day, with many articles stating Thomas himself was imprisoned, and that one of the 3 cousins who were jailed died as a result of his incarceration. There is circumstantial evidence to suggest a nephew, William Higgins did suffer as a result of the imprisonment; he died at the early age of 28, some 4 years after being released and Thomas Willingale in his letter to the local paper in December 1866 states his son Samuel was taken ill. The most inaccurate account of events I’ve found is ‘Searching for Hornbeam’ by Chris Howkins and Nick Sampson, which attributes the saving of Epping Forest to ‘John Willingale, a local fuel merchant, and his two sons’!

Following the imprisonment of his son and nephews, Thomas was persuaded by the Commons Preservation Society to initiate proceedings against the Rev. John Whitaker Maitland, who continued with enclosing the forest, building roads and the setting out of housing plots, after his fathers death. The CPS helped fund the court case, even going as far as paying an income to Thomas Willingale, as the publicity surrounding the case had made it hard for him to find employment. Unfortunately Thomas died before the case was brought to a conclusion, although a demurer was found in favour of Thomas.

Lopping Hall, former main entrance

Lopping Hall, former main entrance

Eventually the Corporation of London was persuaded to take on the landowners and ‘secure for the People, for the purposes of public health and recreation’ the remainder of the Forest of Epping. Legal proceedings by the Corporation against the enclosures began August 1871, resulting in the Master of the Rolls finding in favour of the Corporation in 1874. Following this victory, Parliament passed the Epping Forest Act in 1878, this put to an end the deforestation, the crown rights of vert and venison, the Forest courts and practically all other restrictions and ancient customs, and secured the Corporation of London as Conservators of the forest.

With the loss of their Lopping rights, the commoners were compensated in the sum of £7,000, with £1,300 being distributed to the Loppers, each receiving the sum of £3 and 11s, the balance being allocated to the construction and upkeep of Lopping Hall in Loughton.

Despite Rev. John Whitaker Maitland being the subject of the initial court case surrounding the saving of Epping Forest, with his illegal enclosures, he was actually one of the guests at the laying of the foundation stone at Lopping Hall in 1883.