Mark Gorman examines the campaign to preserve Epping Forest

150 years ago, on 8th July 1871, thousands of people gathered in Epping Forest to mount a protest. A campaign was in full swing – a campaign that renowned ecologist Oliver Rackham has dubbed “the origin of the modern British environmental movement.”

This campaign, to preserve Epping Forest and other commons for public use in the face of unchecked housing development across London, had its watershed moment that day. The crowd gathered to protest the illegal enclosure of Wanstead Flats, at the southern end of the forest, by a local landowner. But the demonstration started a popular campaign which contributed significantly to a change in the law - the Epping Forest Act of 1878 – which was the first legal declaration of the public’s right to use an open space in Britain for leisure.

The story of the demonstration, set within the wider context of the campaign to preserve the London commons, is told in a new book by local historian and environmentalist Mark Gorman. Saving the People’s Forest: Open spaces, enclosure and popular protest in mid-Victorian London sheds new light on the dynamics of the campaign, focussing not on the metropolitan upper middle class players most often credited with its success, but instead on the proletarian grass roots movement whose popular protests would steer the campaign towards its successful conclusion.

The broader campaign – and indeed the 8th July demonstration – drew on a deep well of historical injustice to motivate and impassion its participants. The ‘Norman Yoke’ – a belief that England’s birthright had been plundered by oppressive feudalism for centuries – served as a powerful motif for the preservation movement. Even the popular mythology of Robin Hood was invoked to arouse in the working-class protestors a mood of defiance against the authorities.

The demonstration on Wanstead Flats that day began with polite speeches and proposals but ended with the destruction of the enclosure fences. The sheer number and determination of the crowd defined the day, creating a groundswell of protest that pressured successive governments into legal reforms which challenged landowners’ rights to enclose land and exclude the public. This and other campaigns described in the book contributed significantly to the birth of what has become the modern-day “right to roam”.