Just as the war-time government had found Wanstead Flats useful for their purpose (see here), so those responsible for post-war reconstruction saw great possibilities in using the common to help rebuild the country.
But strong resistance from a local 'Wanstead Flats Defence' committee, and others, helped save the area as the common land, wild life preserve, it is today.
This blog is greatly indebted, yet again, to the Leyton and Leytonstone Historical Society's efforts for much of its content. Their 2008 booklet, Homes for Heroes or Space to Breathe (for details see footnote)tells a gripping tale.
Epping Forest, of which the Flats are the southernmost extremity, has a recorded history as a royal hunting ground, and later common grazing area, stretching back to the middle ages.
|Donkeys on Wanstead Flats, Whitsun Fair, 1900|
|Wanstead Flats fair, 1895|
|Advert for 1892 Easter|
fair at Wanstead Flats
Sketch by 'Pip' "All the fun of the fair,
at Wanstead Flats" 1894
|Crowds watching boats at model yacht pond, 1908|
Bandstand at Wanstead Flats, c1925
|Whitsun Fair, 1900|
The councils had negotiated with the Corporation of London to build temporary "hutments" on the Flats, as accommodation for the bombed-out, blitz victims. The conditions were that the accommodation was to be temporary (two years, in the first instant) and constructed of short life materials (asbestos, as it happens!).
|Wanstead Flats fair, 1907|
Housing and space for accommodation, 'fit for heroes', were major political and social issues at this time. Unlike today, when there is an obvious housing shortage and crisis, the reconstruction, Labour, government then sought to address it by direct and interventionist action.
With this as a back drop, West Ham, council in 1946 proposed acquiring 163 acres of the Flats (see map), via a Compulsory Purchase Order, for new housing. This was on the land already partially occupied by the 102 pre-fabs that had already been built as temporary accommodation, and it was envisaged would provide housing for 7,400 people.
|Map published by Wanstead Flats|
Defence Committee, 1946
These development proposals received strong support from the Labour government and NHS founder, Aneurin Bevan, in particular, as they sought to help reconstruct the infrastructure of the country. Referring specifically to the Flats, and the CPO proposals, Bevan declared "I regret very much that we have to do it, but the people of East Ham must have shelter. The Commoners of Epping Forest must surrender to the overwhelming needs of the people of East Ham."
Wanstead Flats prefabs, 1946
The conflict of views, locally, led to the establishment of a public inquiry at Stratford Town Hall in 1946, which was to last for four days; to which a petition with 60,000 signatures opposed to the plans and 346 formal objections were put. The opposition was formidable, including from the Corporation of London (City council), Wanstead and Woodford council, The National Playing Fields Association, Ilford Trades Council and the Footpaths Preservation Society.
The inquiry verdict was delivered in April 1947, and rejected the housing proposals. West Ham council accepted it gracefully and committed itself to help the Corporation of London fulfil its obligations to develop Wanstead Flats "as a public opens space, along modern lines".
By this latter phrase, they wished to develop the facilities there, by building sports facilities, including a gymnasium, running track, golf course and swimming pool, as well as developing an outdoor theatre.
These proposals came to nothing, but the City was stung into action over its generation-long neglect. It responded by embarking on a major restoration programme, of clearing war-time debris and tree planting on the Flats, to enable local people to continue to find solace in this peaceful haven.
Footnote: Homes for Heroes or Space to Breathe, by Mark Gorman was published by Leyton and Leytonstone Historical Society in 2008 and can be obtained from their website. We thank them for it and recommend it to you.