Aldersbrook Farm

Thursday 25 April 2024

Mark Gorman (@Flatshistorian) continues his series on farms that occupied the lands of pre-suburban Forest Gate. In this episode he traces the history of Aldersbrook Farm, the last survivor of those farms - into the lifetimes of some of our readers - and the part it played in the saving of Epping Forest.

The first farm

Aldersbrook was the only true working farm to be located on Wanstead Flats as we know them today.  The farm actually existed at two locations on or near Wanstead Flats over a period of nearly 400 years from the reign of Henry VIII to the mid twentieth century. The first Aldersbrook Farm was granted by Henry VIII as part of Aldersbrook manor to a courtier named Anthony Knevet. The farm was built near the Aldersbrook manor house, and both house and farm overlooked a lake known as “the Great Pond”, which then consisted of 20-30 acres, probably of land enclosed from the forest.  The site of the Great Pond is now in the City of London Cemetery, just to the east of the crematorium building.

Aldersbrook House and the original farm on the Chapman & Andre map of Essex 1777. It was then owned by Edward Hulse, who sold the estate in 1786 to Earl Tylney of Wanstead House

The farm made full use of the nearby “waste” (uncultivated land) of Epping Forest, which was part of the large common of Wanstead Flats. The owners of Aldersbrook House kept large numbers of rabbits in warrens on the Flats, and employed “warreners” (who probably lived at the farm) to look after them.

The rabbit warrens were the subject of local disputes over many years. In 1670 Roger Tupper was ordered before the traditional Forest Court charged with encroaching into Epping Forest land to enlarge his burrows, and the land was confiscated. In the early 18th century a complaint was made to the local Justices that John Heybourne, another occupant of Aldersbrook Farm, had dug holes across the footpath from Little Ilford to Wanstead Park (probably today’s Rabbits Road) lightly covered with turf to trap the unwary. The Justices ordered the immediate re-opening of the pathway.

The estate which had been bought in 1693 by John Lethieullier was inherited by his son Smart in 1740. He closed the rabbit warrens, settled a long-running boundary dispute with his neighbour Earl Tylney of Wanstead House, fenced off the land and turned it over to agriculture. In 1786 Smart Lethieullier’s niece and her husband Edward Hulse sold the estate again, to Sir James Tylney Long of Wanstead House. The house was pulled down and the site used for pasture. The extensive gardens were ploughed for crops. By the early 1800s the tenant, Thomas Skinner had oxen, cows, sheep, pigs, draft horses, and was growing wheat, oats, barley, rye and potatoes. It had become typical of the local farms producing for the London market.

The City of London Cemetery today. The location of the original Aldersbrook Farm was just east of the New Crematorium

Skinner was succeeded as tenant of Aldersbrook Farm by Samuel Winmill, whose son, also Samuel, took it over in 1810. By this time the farm consisted of 270 acres, with another 20 acres pasture in Wanstead Park. The younger Samuel also farmed land on the other side of Wanstead Flats in Forest Gate.

Here in 1809 he was involved in a legal dispute with another local farmer named Elliker (?) Boulcott over Boulcott’s enclosure of Epping Forest land on the edge of Wanstead Flats. Winmill broke down the fences, claiming they interfered with his cattle pasture. He lost the court case, and this defeat opened the way for many other enclosures in Epping Forest until the judgement was overturned in the 1870s.

The first Aldersbrook Farm, now buried under the City of London Cemetery. (LB of Newham Archive).

Winmill left Aldersbrook Farm in 1845 after refusing to pay an increased rent during hard times for farming. He was succeeded by Isaac Lake, member of a well-known Essex farming family, who paid a rent of £475 a year (c. £28,000 today) for the 150 acre farm. During Lake’s tenancy the first skirmish over the enclosure of Wanstead Flats was fought, when in 1852 Lake on the instructions of his landlord Viscount Wellesley (son of the notorious William Wellesley-Pole, whose profligacy had left the estate in significant debt) had acquired part of the land back from the estate’s mortgagees, He set about increasing its income and enclosed for farmland 34 acres of the Flats west of the farm and north of Aldersbrook Road (this is now part of the Aldersbrook estate).

Coming as it did when other parts of Epping Forest were being enclosed, local opposition was immediate and vociferous. The news that Wellesley’s advisors were proposing the enclosure of the whole of the Flats as a cattle market and abattoirs intensified the protest. The immediate issue was that enclosing part of the Flats restricted the land available to local commoners to graze their cattle, an ancient right of Epping Forest. The land enclosed was historically part of the forest waste, common grazing land from time immemorial. It was also said to be some of the best cattle pasture on Wanstead Flats. 

Surveyor’s map showing the site of the proposed cattle market on Wanstead Flats to the north of Forest Gate and alongside the road to Wanstead (now Centre Road)

A group of local residents meeting at the City of London Tavern in Bishopsgate Street therefore decided to nominate someone with commoners’ rights on Wanstead Flats “to throw down the fence”, thus provoking a court case to test the legality of the enclosure. On 6th May 1852 Richard Plaxton, tenant of Cann Hall Farm, removed 4 feet (1.2 metres) of fencing, filled in the ditch, and drove his cattle and horses onto the contested land. Plaxton had been involved in an earlier case where he had claimed that common grazing on Wanstead Flats was insufficient, and when sued for trespass by Isaac Lake he again argued that enclosures were leaving too little grazing ground for local commoners. 

The City of London Tavern

Lake’s counsel argued that the owner of the forest waste, Lord Wellesley, had agreed to the enclosure, and enough land had been left for commoners’ cattle. The jury found for Lake, but awarded minimal damages of 40/- (£2-00), suggesting that they thought Plaxton and the other protestors had a good case for opposing enclosures.

The second farm

In 1853 the Mornington estate sold 120 acres of land, including Aldersbrook Farm, to the City of London for their new cemetery. The farm’s equipment was auctioned off in June 1854 and the farm was relocated onto an enclosure on Wanstead Flats, adjacent to the land enclosed by Isaac Lake the year before. The corporation agreed to pay £18,000 for the land, with an additional £2,500 for the construction of a farmhouse and buildings at the new site. This must have seemed like a good piece of business for the Mornington estate, but it was a sale that they had cause to regret nearly 20 years later.

The new Aldersbrook Farm was constructed about 1860 by Chamberlayne Hickman Lake, a son of Isaac Lake, who had died in 1854. Hickman Lake was also the tenant of Cann Hall Farm and his brothers farmed elsewhere in the area. It consisted of an eight-room farmhouse, stables, cowhouses and a cart-shed, a granary and a garden behind the buildings, all surrounded by trees. 

Like Cann Hall Farm the new Aldersbrook appears to have been built on the lines of a “model farm”, with buildings grouped around a yard enabling easy access between them for greater efficiency. In the summer of 1871 the agents of Lake’s landlord Lord Cowley, lord of Wanstead manor (and heir of the Mornington estate) fenced off more land north of the new Aldersbrook Farm, an act which triggered huge protests and eventually the campaign to preserve Epping Forest. 

Aldersbrook Farm on the 1894 25-inch Ordnance Survey, showing the characteristic layout of a “model farm”. By this time villas had been built on a site next to the farm.

By the Epping Forest Act (1878) both the land enclosed in 1852 and the further enclosure of 1871 were returned to the forest. Four years later the City of London corporation exchanged this land together with a cash payment of £8,000 for the 183-acre Wanstead Park. Earl Cowley’s estate later sold the land they had re-acquired for building what became the Aldersbrook estate. Shortly after this the Cowley estate sold another 45 acres (part of which had been Aldersbrook Farm) to the Wanstead Board of Health and a road was built from Aldersbrook Road to give access. Originally called Cook’s Road, today this is Empress Avenue.

Chamberlayne Hickman Lake remained at Aldersbrook Farm until at least the late 1880s, but by then change was coming. Lake himself was retired, and may have been running a Christian mission from Aldersbrook Farm (see notes on Cann Hall Farm). Farming was dying out locally, and housing development was about to start opposite the farm on the Aldersbrook estate (the land enclosed in 1852 and 1871).  In 1900 the farm was advertised to let, described as “suitable for carmen [goods carriers] and cowkeepers, or for business or warehouse purposes”. It seems to have proved hard to let, for the same advertisement reappeared six months later.  

Advert for cowman at Aldersbrook Farm 1890. Essex Newsman 01 02 1890

By 1907 there was a riding school at the farm, and two years later it was listed in Kelly’s Directory as kennels, occupied by William Cosburn, a shopkeeper and cab proprietor. The farm had a piggery, and it was still possible to keep a herd of cows which could be grazed on Wanstead Flats. Fresh milk was available from a small shop at the farm until the years after the First World War. In the 1911 census William Cosburn was still living at Aldersbrook Farm, but now described himself as a stonemason.

Aldersbrook Farm as a garage and petrol station in 1953

Times changed further over the next twenty years, and in 1929 Mrs Maria Cosburn (presumably William’s widow) was described in Kelly’s Directory as a shopkeeper and “proprietress of the Aldersbrook Motor Garage”. The farm continued its existence as a garage and filling station until in 1963 the farmhouse and building were demolished to make way for the Esso station which occupies the site today. 

The farm wall photographed in 2010

Traces of the farm remain. The small library building in Park Road opposite the filling station is said to be housed in what had been the farm’s dairy. The filling station and neighbouring small estate are surrounded by a brick wall which was built to surround the farm buildings in the 1860s.

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