The Struggle for Wanstead Flats 1946-47

Saturday 3 December 2016

Local historian, Mark Gorman (Twitter: @Flatshistorian), celebrates a key date, and significant anniversary in the fight to keep Wanstead Flats the open space so many of us enjoy today.

Seventy years ago this month saw the climax of a local struggle with a very contemporary theme. On one side developers citing a desperate housing shortage, and planning the development of a large estate, on the other local campaigners, determined to defend their open spaces. But in this case the developers were local councils, and their opponents were the people of east London. The centre of the struggle was Wanstead Flats.

This was 1946, where wartime bombing raids had caused large-scale destruction across east London. The docks and industrial areas had been primary targets, and in West Ham alone 14,000 houses had been destroyed, worsening a pre-war housing crisis. Building had been almost at a standstill throughout the war, and many old and worn-out slums remained from before the war. 

Blitz damage in Eric Road, Forest Gate, 1940

Up to 1939 the open spaces of the Flats had drawn large numbers of East Enders annually, for fairs, circuses, football and other sports, providing the open space that they lacked near their own homes. During the war the Flats were pressed into use for military purposes. Anti-aircraft batteries and prisoner of war camps had been located there, and by 1945 large areas were covered by rusting barbed wire, bomb and rocket craters, the remains of gun emplacements and buildings. 

Much of the Flats had been dug up for allotments, or churned up by vehicles and military boots. In addition the local boroughs of East Ham and West Ham had claimed sections of the Flats for temporary “prefab” housing.

Meanwhile the British population had increased by over one million during the war, and this was followed by the post-war baby boom. The need for housing was immense; in January 1945 the government estimated 1,250,000 new houses were required.
Housing was the key issue of the July 1945 General Election. The Archbishop of York said he “could not imagine anything …more likely to cause bitterness among the men in the Services than to find when they came back that there was no possibility of the home to which they had looked forward so keenly”.

In the General Election campaign the Labour party promised 5 million houses in the shortest possible time, but after Labour’s election landslide the queues for homes seemed only to be getting longer.

This was the background against which in 1946 the County Borough of West Ham proposed to acquire a large tract of Wanstead Flats by Compulsory Purchase Order, to re-house local residents made homeless by wartime bombing. On the face of it, West Ham had a strong case for seeking to build housing on the Flats. 

It was expected that as evacuees returned, together with demobbed service personnel, housing pressures would reappear. West Ham Council was determined to provide adequate housing for the post-war population, and the open land of Epping Forest next door to boroughs which claimed serious housing shortages was an obvious target for development.

Despite the first warning voices raised against the potential damage to open spaces if councils started requisitioning land for housing, an editorial in the Stratford Express declared “as for ‘borrowing’ part for temporary houses pending the construction of permanent dwellings, there is far more to be said for than against the plan”. Bombed out residents “deserve all the consideration that can be shown them”.

However by early 1946 West Ham’s plans were viewed with increasing concern. The Walthamstow Guardian published a letter stating “that once temporary houses are erected on Wanstead Flats, the land will be lost to the public forever”. 

West Ham Council prefabs
 on Wanstead Flats c.1944

Longer term plans for development of the Flats also began to emerge. East Ham Council introduced a proposal to build two “modern” (senior) schools and a technical college at the eastern end. Then in April 1946 West Ham applied for 163 acres of the Flats to house up to 7,400 people. The new plans would mean that much of the central area would be covered with houses and shops.

West Ham Corporation received strong support from the newly-elected Labour Government, which was determined not to repeat the failure to provide decent housing after the end of the First World War. The Government even considered land nationalisation to prevent private landlords blocking housing development. 

There was a demand for action, and the Minister in charge of the housing programme, Aneurin Bevan, declared that landowners’ interests must be secondary to “the housing needs of the nation”. Referring to the specific case of Wanstead Flats Bevan declared “I regret very much that we have had 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”.

Bevan’s own sympathies were made even clearer when he added the “property owner, like the vulture, cannot desert the carrion…and insists on hanging on to the land”. In a radical policy departure, the government therefore proposed to give responsibility for housing to local authorities, who would become the driving force in the housing market. 

Campaign leaflet published by the
Wanstead Flats Defence Committee. 

However, the argument was far from over as far as local people were concerned. As the plans became known through the local press alarm grew; a letter to the Stratford Express expressed a characteristic viewpoint in declaring that Wanstead Flats was not being taken from a wealthy landowner ”but from the working man and his children”.  This was echoed by another describing Wanstead Flats as “a recreation ground of incalculable value to the people, particularly the youth of thickly populated districts of East London”.

A group of residents of Park Ward, on the Lakehouse and Aldersbrook Estates north of Wanstead Flats, became the core of the opposition. An organisation already existed on the estate, the Park Residents’ Society, which had begun life in 1945 as the War Damage Organisation, to help local people whose homes had been damaged by bombing.
Led by a hardworking secretary, Stanley Reed, a West Ham schoolteacher, a Defence Committee was formed, which launched a petition and held public meetings.  A Defence Committee was formed, which launched a petition and held public meetings, organised by its hard working secretary, Stanley Reed, a West Ham school teacher. Reed, also a keen film maker (in 1948 he made the excellent Neighbourhood 15, about the rebuilding of West Ham), was later to go to the British Film Insititute, becoming its Director in 1964.  There, he helped kick-start the careers of the likes of Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz, Jack Gold and Kevin Brownlow.

The Committee brought together local resistance, urging opposition in particular from the residents of both East and West Ham, since Stanley Reed correctly foresaw that “objections from Wanstead were certain to be represented by the West Ham politicos who initiated the scheme as arising from snobbish fears among the Wanstead well-to-do of working class penetration into their preserves”.

Stanley Reed, later in life, after
 he had become Director of
The British Film Institute

As the furore grew the debate became increasingly bitter.  A public meeting convened in Leyton by the Defence Committee drew 250 people in July 1946. Leah Manning, MP for Epping, told the meeting that, if all legal means failed, “we have pickets and bands of people to take up positions on the Flats and prevent the first step to build. I am prepared to spend as many nights as you like on the Flats”.

Leah Manning’s involvement in the protest campaign was particularly significant; as Epping’s first Labour MP, she might have been expected to be in favour of the building proposal. Indeed, in the following year she worked equally hard for housing development in Harlow New Town in face of a local protest campaign. In her autobiography she wrote “…at that time, the need for housing accommodation was desperate and urgent. The bombed-out in London were living in conditions of unparalleled squalor and over-crowding…”, and this she felt should override the need to preserve “the natural beauty of village country life”.

At another protest meeting a local Councillor raised an issue central to the protestors’ case when he said that powers were being claimed which infringed on public rights. If they were able to build on one part of Epping Forest it would be the beginning of the end for the whole forest. “Therefore”, he said “they were approaching the methods which Hitler adopted when he used the law to carry out his schemes, and when the law did not fit he made it fit”.

This was strong stuff; West Ham Council’s response was equally robust. The Chairman of West Ham’s Housing Committee wrote an open letter to the Stratford asking protestors to “look at the problem from the point of view of the thousands of homeless or badly housed men, women and children” for whom the scheme offered the “only practical prospect” of housing in the next two-three years.  To these people, she said, “the ‘Hands off the Flats party’ might appear as indifferent to their needs”.

Nor was the general public unanimously opposed to the scheme. A writer to the Stratford Express said that the Flats were “an eyesore”. Servicemen who had fought through the war deserved homes of their own, “not… to live with relatives”. Another correspondent to the Walthamstow Guardian wrote “blocks of luxury flats, trolley bus routes, public lavatories, riding school tracks, all add to the ‘amenities’, but…dwellings for the labouring class of East Ham or West Ham apparently cannot be allowed even under the sacredness of socialism”.

However the general feeling locally was strongly against the proposals. Even other local boroughs, whose support for a major housing scheme might have been expected, were highly critical of their neighbours’ action. The Leyton Town Clerk commented sarcastically “if West Ham want to build houses they might consider using a park of their own”. 

Cartoon in a local paper on the housing plans. 

By the summer of 1946 the controversy was at its height. The story made the national press, becoming a test case for the preservation of open spaces against housing needs, the Scotsman among others reporting support for the protest campaign from all over the country. As the Stratford Express put it – “There can be no compromise…the question is simple; is the …need for more housing so acute that such an irrevocable step has to be taken?”

A public inquiry was ordered by the Minister for Town and Country Planning, to hear West Ham Council’s application for a compulsory purchase order. Apart from the petition with 60,000 signatures presented by Leah Manning to parliament, the Council received 379 formal objections to their proposal. A formidable array of groups opposed the application, not only the City Corporation but also including Wanstead and Woodford Borough Council, the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society, the National Playing Fields Association, and Ilford Trades Council.  

The Inquiry got national coverage:
report from 
The Scotsman
December 1946

The inquiry opened on 3rd December 1946. Amidst catcalls and shouts the inquiry heard West Ham’s Town Clerk declaring this was a battle of “the haves and the have-nots”; he bitterly accused the protestors of prejudices against people from West Ham coming to live near them. West Ham Council knew that the scheme would be opposed, he said, “because the land was an open space and they knew the type of English mind which said that because a thing had been used for years for a certain purpose it was wrong to change it.”

West Ham acknowledged its falling population, but claimed that 80,000 people needed re-housing. Citing people in urgent need the Town Clerk went on to declare that Wanstead Flats was a large “flattish, bleakish and unattractive open space”. This statement brought more shouts of protest from the audience, which grew when he went on that “only a lunatic” would travel from the surrounding areas to play football on the Flats.

Objectors pointed out that West Ham’s plans were at odds with the government’s own Greater London Plan, which emphasised keeping as much open space as possible. In support of this evidence the tireless Stanley Reed, who had been given unpaid leave of absence by his employers – none other than West Ham Corporation - to attend the inquiry, presented the petition of 60,000 names.

The most effective testimony was, according to Stanley Reed, from a bus driver who “told a graphic tale of his dismal progress through Hackney, Homerton and Leyton to the point at which the houses ended and he and his bus emerged into the light and air of Wanstead Flats, with their trees, grass and grazing cattle: Sam Weller himself could not have done better”.

Leah Manning, Harlow’s Labour MP,
 threatened to lie down
 in front of the bulldozers

The Inspector duly reported back to the Minister for Town and Country Planning, whose verdict was given in April 1947, rejecting the application for housing. However the Ministry did not accept that Wanstead Flats was protected from compulsory purchase for building.  Acknowledging West Ham’s “very urgent housing problem” the Ministry stated that the Epping Forest Act “does not exempt this land from compulsory purchase”; the rationale for rejection was that shortage of labour and materials meant that West Ham would be limited to building on the land it already had. 

He continued, “it is most undesirable to permit building on the Wanstead Flats…it is not necessary to contemplate sacrifice of some of this open space for housing…”

Instead the Ministry proposed to make land available to West Ham in the outer country ring or beyond, where new towns were being started, under the Greater London Plan, which provided a blueprint for comprehensive redevelopment of the whole London area.  Indeed the Minister borrowed a key concept of the Plan in his judgment, talking of the Flats as “part of a well-established wedge of public open space extending into the densely built-up area of London”. 

The Council declared itself without the means to appeal, saying it would “loyally accept the decision”, and at once set about pressing the Minister to help them find alternative building land.

There were merits on both sides of the argument. A large number of east Londoners were in dire need of rehousing, and this was a priority both by the Government and wider public. However, it was equally clear that the Flats were for many east Londoners precious open land, especially for those for whom it was their only green space. Despite West Ham Council’s accusation that the campaign against the scheme was run by well-to-do middle classes against housing for workers, many protestors were from the very people the Council claimed to be helping. 

It was also realised that the outcome of the battle for the Flats would have far wider implications, for if housing needs were seen to take priority over open space on the Flats, other open land in or near areas of scarce housing would be vulnerable. An old story with very modern echoes.


  1. Wanstead Flats preservation. Great article. And so very glad there were those to fight to save the space. Green spaces make urban life livable with a connection that helps to ground us. L. Carmody

  2. I wonder if the recent move to introduce privately run paid parking at Alexandra Lake is the beginning of something more sinister; I noted that the Corporation's response to the 'public consultation' included a denial of Victoria's gifting of the land to the public in perpetuity


We welcome comments to all the items featured on this site. However, we reserve the right to omit offensive comments, and edit the length of comments, for reasons of space.