Wanstead Flats had had a long and varied history. Since its incorporation into Epping Forest in 1878 it has been a much valued open space for the people of East London.
Football pitches predominate during the winter, but the Flats are also used by walkers, runners, horse and bike riders, model plane enthusiasts and many families who come to enjoy this large green “lung” surrounded by dense housing. A fair is held on the Flats over Bank Holidays, a tradition going back probably hundreds of years. The Flats are also home to a wide variety of fauna and flora, and parts are designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest. In the recent past (until the late 1990s) herds of cattle wandered the Flats during the summer.
The project recorded over 20 oral histories. Local people’s stories and experiences of living around Wanstead flats, two exhibitions “Save the Flats” and “Sports and Recreation on the Flats”, provided local history talks and has produced a Walking Tour Guide and podcast.
For more information on Wanstead Flats please visit: www.wansteadwildlife.org.uk/
The exhibition “Save the Flats” highlights the campaign to stop development on Wanstead Flats immediately after the Second World War. The exhibition was at Newham Local Studies Library (Stratford Library) until February 2008.
The exhibition is part of a wider project “Field of Dreams” which is looking at the history of Wanstead Flats and which is working with local schools and community groups. If your group would like to receive more details and/or become involved please contact Eastside.
An illustrated talk to accompany the exhibition is also available.
Saving the Flats: The Wanstead Flats campaign of 1946
The campaign against the attempted enclosure of Wanstead Flats by Henry Wellesley, Earl Cowley in 1871 and its eventual inclusion within the Epping Forest Act of 1878 is well documented. Less well known is another campaign 75 years later against the compulsory purchase of around half of Wanstead Flats for housing development immediately after the Second World War. This article will highlight this hidden history that had a profound impact on both Wanstead Flats and the social geography of West Ham County Borough.
Like many post Second World War stories it starts during the 1930s. Wanstead Flats immediately to the north of Forest Gate was a popular destination for local people. Organised events such as the fairs, bands and music hall performance at the bandstand, boating and fishing on the lakes and sport such as football and cricket, drew people from a wide area. Many people also appreciated an open space to escape the crowded housing and industrial development of West Ham and wider East London. Indeed, Wanstead Flats has been recognised as a vital green space or “wedge” by the London County Council (LCC) in 1935 and the City of London as Conservator of Epping Forest organised a conference held at the Guildhall in 1939 to develop proposals for its improvements.
Any development was postponed by the outbreak of war in September 1939 and Wanstead Flats itself hosted a variety of civilian and military uses during the Second World War. These included allotments, anti-aircraft gun batteries, barrage balloons and bomb shelters. The bandstand was to be a collection point for salvaged wood from bomb damaged buildings and surplus food grown on the allotments. Later, parts of the Flats were closed off for use as a troop assembly point before and during the invasion of France in 1944. The area was also used as a German Prisoner of War camp. By 1945, using emergency wartime powers 102 “hutments” were already housing West Ham residents on the area north of Capel Road and East Ham borough authorities proposed temporary housing between Manor Park and Aldersbrook.
The Second World War had a serious impact on the housing stock within West Ham which had been severely damaged during World War Two. The Royal Docks and associated industry had been primary targets (Target A), for the Luftwaffe air raids. During the London Blitz of 1940-41 thousands of high explosive and incendiary bombs had fallen on the area. Later, 68 V1 flying bombs and 33 V2 rockets hitting the area added to the destruction. In total 14,000 houses were destroyed and many more were damaged within West Ham. By 1945 23 % of West Ham was designated as severely war damaged and was described as an area of “rubble strewn gaps and patched houses.”
Although the population of West Ham had continued to decline from a high of around 320,000 people in the mid 1920s around 50,000 people were expected to return from evacuation or military service at the end of the war. By 1946 West Ham council had over 10,000 people awaiting homes. Many homeless people were crowded into unsuitable housing or living in temporary “Rest Centres”, often in local schools which were returning to educational use. Some people resorted to squatting. West Ham council reported squatters in former military huts on Wanstead Flats during the “Squatting Summer” of 1946. Other people were forced to live outside of the area splitting up families and friends. Diaries of the period record the despair and strain of overcrowding. People scoured the small ads in newspapers and shop windows for rooms to let and Daltons Weekly became required reading for home hunters.
Development on Wanstead Flats had already received the support of Aneurin Bevan, Minister of Heath in the newly elected Labour Government. Bevan, the leftwing MP for Ebbw Vale, was acutely aware that housing would be a defining issue for the government. He had pledged to build 200,000 houses a years. Although as Minster of Health, Bevan was ultimately responsible for housing policy, responsibility for delivery was divided between the Ministries of Health, Works and Town and Country Planning. The housing itself would actually be built by local authorities. Even with this unwieldy division, wags opined that Bevan had “Half a Nye on housing”, Bevan was determined to provide new housing quickly for the war weary population and was frustrated with any delays.
In January 1946, speaking in a debate in the House of Commons about the emergency housing situation in East Ham he declared:
“The people must have shelter… The Commoners of Epping Forest must surrender to the overwhelming needs of the people.”
The 1944 Town and Country Planning Act introduced by the wartime coalition government led by Winston Churchill had given local authorities sweeping powers to deal with “blitz and blight” through reconstruction and redevelopment. To alleviate the housing situation West Ham council was determined to quickly provide better housing for the post-war population. It had already launched the “Homes Now” campaign to pressure the government over delays in providing finance and materials for housing.
In March 1946 the decision was made by West Ham council to make an application under the Town and Country Planning Act to compulsory purchase 163 acres of Wanstead Flats between Capel and Aldersbrook roads, the majority of which lay outside of the borough boundaries. This land would be used for the building of homes to house around 7000 people. West Ham council noted that the London County Council (LCC) had already made applications for land in Chingford and Chigwell for housing outside of its boundaries. West Ham council were influenced by the idea of self contained cottage estates located away from heavy industry. There had been a move of population from the more heavily damaged areas in the south to the north of West Ham and the open land of Wanstead Flats was an obvious target for development
The West Ham proposals were opposed by the City of London Forest through the Epping Forest Committee, Sir Frank Alexander as Lord Mayor of London wrote personally to Bevan criticising the proposals which were also opposed by the all neighbouring local councils.
A spirited local campaign was organised with Stanley Reed, a West Ham schoolteacher and Lakehouse Estate resident, acting as secretary of the Wanstead Flats Defence Committee. This organised a broad based coalition of over 160 organisations including trade union branches, religious groups, political parties and sports organisations who came together to oppose the proposals. The committee organised public meetings, house canvassing, letter writing campaigns and lobbied local politicians
The campaign also cut across party political allegiance with Leah Manning the Labour MP for Epping being a vocal opponent of the proposed developments and presenting Parliament with a 60,000 signature petition against the plans. Mrs. Manning spoke at many meetings against the proposals and attacked the plans during a Parliamentary debate as “vandalism.”
Alicia Reed, the wife of Stanley Reed who was interviewed in 2007 about the campaign remembers:
“Leah Manning [MP]… said she was going to sit down in front of the bulldozers and was very outspoken”.
Lewis Silkin, Minister for Town and Country Planning, and a former Chair of Planning for the LCC, established a public inquiry into the compulsory purchase. This opened on the 2nd December 1946 at West Ham Town Hall, Stratford (now the Old Town Hall). It lasted 4 days and at times was punctuated by acrimonious exchanges. Amid catcalls from the public gallery the West Ham Town Clerk described the inquiry as a battle between “haves and have-nots.” This was followed by cries of “shame!” when Wanstead Flats was described as an “unattractive open space.”
Following the inquiry (the deliberations taking place during the coldest winter of the twentieth century, locally Alexandra Lake froze) the decision was made in April 1947 to reject the application. However Silken did accept that the compulsory purchase was not “ultra vires” (beyond the power) and the 1878 Epping Forest Act did not exempt the land from an attempt to compulsory purchase it.
West Ham Council went on to embark on a comprehensive redevelopment programme across the borough which Stanley Reed documented in his film “Neighbourhood 15”. Mr. Reed was elected onto Wanstead and Woodford council as an independent councillor for Park Ward and later went on to become the director of the British Film Institute. He later wrote that:
“My part in the saving of Wanstead Flats is the single achievement of my life of which I am unreservedly proud.” West Ham and East Ham councils jointly prepared proposals for development in the Pitsea and Laindon areas of Essex, although ultimately the development was undertaken by the Basildon Development Corporation.
The proposals by East Ham council for permanent development for schools by on Manor Park Triangle were eventually rejected following a public inquiry in the early 1950s
For Wanstead Flats, the City of London established a joint committee with West Ham, East Ham, Wanstead and Woodford and Leyton councils to look at development of Wanstead Flats on modern lines which produced some proposals which were implemented during the 1950s and is still widely used today.
This episode in the history of the area highlights the tension that existed and still exists today between preservation and development. Certainly, Wanstead Flats was a designated open space and was described as such in the Abercrombie’s Plan for London. However it is also true that West Ham was attempting to follow guidance to separate housing from industrial development. Illustrations by courtesy of Newham Archives and Local Studies Library.
An illustrated talk and exhibition is also available that was produced as part of a Eastside Community Heritage project “Field of Dreams” funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. An event to debate the housing proposals of 1946 will be held as part of the Leytonstone Festival.