This is an extract from Thomas Willingale, Lopping Rights and the saving of Epping Forest my research into the Willingale family’s involvement in the saving of Epping Forest.
Another Willingale descendant, Walter Bullen, who this time actually is a direct descendant, being a great-grandson of Thomas Willingale, gives some more detail to the background to events. He states:
“On the 11th November 1859 an agent for the Lord of the Manor named Richardson (also called The Bulldog) ordered a dinner at the King’s Head, Loughton and invited all the loppers. The wine flowed freely and all got drunk, all except old Thomas Willingale who had been warned by a lawyer, Mr Buxton, not to touch any drink. Tom took his axe with him, went to Staples Road, lopped the bough and returned to the King’s Head on the stroke of midnight, thereby saving the lopping rights.” (19)
I would suggest at the very least this date may be confused. If these events occurred in 1859, i.e. some years before Maitland started the enclosures, why would Thomas be known to Buxton, who has yet to become one of the leading members of the Commons Preservation Society? Remember this occurred some years before Thomas came to public attention through the court cases of 1865 & 1866 and long before the main enclosure of the forest in Loughton.
Other versions of this supposed supper also made print, ‘The Victoria History of the County of Essex ’ (2) states
“It is significant that it is from the 1860’s that there comes the story that Thomas Willingale saved the lopping rights in Loughton in a manner similar to that described in the tract. [ie Maynards book ref (37)] Willingale is supposed to have been one of the loppers who were entertained by the Lord of the Manor to a supper on 11 November 1860. As midnight approached he ‘rose up hastily from the table, shouldered his axe, called to his fellows and went out to lop as usual’, thus ‘defeating the lawyers’. There is good evidence that he did something of this kind, in the belief that the continued existence of the lopping rights depended upon his action.”
Sir William Addison’s book ‘Epping Forest, Figures in a Landscape’ describes events thus “[…] especially of how the old man himself had kept himself sober and at 11.30 had left the other guests and walked out onto Staples Hill, where he lopped off a branch at midnight, carried it back to the King’s Head, and flourished it triumphantly before the eyes of the stupefied company.” (22) Addison states that it was J W Hayes, who produced his ‘Notes and Extracts’ recording the history of the forest & lopping in 1933, who played a major part in publicising this story.
Hayes obtained the story from interviews with Alfred Willingale and William Willingale, another of Thomas the Lopper’s sons. William recounted that as a boy of about 9 years his father related several times the story of the supper and the axe, William thought this event took place around 1860. (9)
Hayes version of events is the same as Maynard’s, except for the insertion of Thomas Willingale’s name:
“the same scheme was tried at Loughton but without success, and although many accepted of the supper there given, and old man [Thomas Willingale] gave the signal when he with others at once proceeded to the forest and duly secured charter” (9) (37)
Other versions give the date of this event as 1866, with the villagers again being tipped off by Sir Thomas Buxton. In this version Thomas Willingale is said to have returned to the King’s Head where the villagers were being entertained, brandishing a freshly cut bough before the furious landowners. (13)
Interestingly two other people, Mr E Linder & Mr P Thompson, who interviewed and had contact with the Willingales in the process of producing histories of the forest, and neither of these men mention any supper. (8) (57)
Lord Eversley mentioned the historic attempt to deprive the Loppers of their lopping rights, in a letter to The Times, (41) “[…] and the story goes that, many years ago, the then Lord of the Manor, wishing to put an end to it, invited all the parishioners to a great feast on the 11th of November, and so plied them with drink, that none might be sober enough to perform the accustomed ceremony. Fortunately, however, one man kept himself sober, and at midnight stole from the feast and made a descent upon the forest, and from that time the people have never neglected to perform the same duty” but as you can see does not mention that any Willingales were involved or that the event happened in the context of the current enclosures.
Addison goes on to quote a Fred Brand, a collector of local history material found in Essex newspapers and journals, which he complied and indexed in a work called ‘An Essex Index’, who firmly dismissed this story as a complete fabrication. Addison sates that Brand knew ’all parties personally’ and had served the rector as church warden & organist for many years. (22) Brand gives a compelling rebuttal of these events in his limited edition book ‘Items of Interest No 7 – Epping Forest’
“What evidence is their to support this fantastic story? Here are extracts from letters received by me from two well known Essex Historians and writers on matters connected with this county:
Mr Percy Thompson of Loughton writes on 18/08/1937:
‘No I know of no documentary evidence of the supposed supper, which may be only another of several legends which have sprung up about the fight for the lopping rights.’
Mr Stephen Barnes of Woodford, writes on November 10th 1937:
‘I have been searching all the forest evidences I have available […] and cannot find a single reference to the fantastic, drunken, lopping story in any
responsible work, or by any other responsible writer. A pretty (?) fairy tale and nothing more.’
It is notable that Mr Fisher makes no mention of the supper when dealing with the lopping question.
In Pigots Directory for 1839 (Loughton) it is stated “In 1831 the parish contained 1,269 inhabitants, of these 23 are described as gentry & clergy, whilst 41 are names of shop keepers and traders, leaving roughly 1,200 inhabitants, not mentioned in the directory. Of these it is I think fair to assume at least 100 were householders.
Now every householder claimed the right to lop trees in the forest. Thus a gathering to include ALL the loppers would at the very least number 100 people. The task of the wicked Lord of the Fairy Tale was not a light one.
Amongst the 100 there might have been some who were not given to alcoholic indulgence, others might not have received an invite, or refused to accept if they had. The success of the conspiracy depends upon all these loppers being present at the supper.
To accept the story one must suppose that a man in the position of a country gentleman, Lord of the Manor in a well known town not far from the metropolis, would have entered upon such a highly questionable undertaking with so little hope of success. Is it at all likely, assuming such a man to have had the initial, almost criminal intent, that he would have risked his reputation on such a venture?” (57)
This book goes on to state that nothing can be found in the local press from 1791 onwards recounting such an event.
Further commentary on the Kings Head saga can be found in the Essex Review. Hayes writes a history of ‘The Old Parish of Epping’ in the 1933 edition which contains a couple of paragraphs on events including :
Time went merrily and the clock’s hands pointed to 11.30pm. Another half hour and the legal rights would cease forever. Most of the representative loppers were too intoxicated to observe the passage of time. The overlords were congratulating themselves on the apparent success of their plot, when suddenly one of the loppers, Willingale by name, whose descendants are still proud of the action, rose up hastily from the table, shouldered his axe, called to his fellows and went out to lop as usual. (46)
This is rebutted in the 1934 edition by the editor of The Review:
A discredited story of Lopping at Loughton. In the Essex review (XLII, 168 Oct 1933), in an article by the Rev J W Hayes on ‘The Old Parish of Epping’, a story ‘well known in Loughton’ was given reference to an alleged attempt by certain ‘overlords of the manor’ to frustrate the lopping rights of the public at Loughton. The story was that it was the custom to go out ‘on a certain night of the year and do some lopping’, the ‘legal aspect’ being that if this was not done openly before midnight the public of that parish lost the right of lopping timber for their fires during the winter. A great supper was prepared by the ‘overlords’ on that ‘special night’ and by 11.30 ‘most of the representative loppers were too intoxicated to notice the passage of time’. The plan looked like succeeding when one of the loppers, named Willingale, ‘rose up hastily from the table, shouldered his axe, called to his fellows and went out to lop as usual,’ thus saving the rights and ‘defeating the lawyers’. Several correspondents inform us that there is not a scrap of evidence to prove this story, which has long been discredited as an invention. Can any reader produce any definite information to show that this ‘supper’ ever took place? – ED (47)
Later in 1934 Hayes writes in a long letter in reply to this rebuttal, but offers no new information, however we also hear from two Willingale descendants thus:
Letter from William Willingale. In reply to your inquiry as to the supper given to the loppers at the old King’s Head on the night of 11th November, 1860, I am the son of the Thomas Willingale who distinguished himself on that occasion by leaving the supper and with his axe cutting a bough in the forest and returning with it to show those assembled there that he thus preserved the loppers rights. Twas his axe that is now preserved in the Forest Museum as a memento.
This letter is written by a friend at my dictation, as my hands are feeble, although my intellect is as strong as ever, and if anyone wishes to know more about the supper, let them interview me here.
The Cottage, Baldwin’s Hill, Loughton (47)
A niece of the elder Tom Willingale writes to us from Loughton stating that she feels sure that the supper did take place in Loughton. She adds : “I lived part time with Grandmother, and she was always talking about the loppers’ dibber or supper, and how Grandfather went out and cut the bough at 12 o’clock on the 11th November and by doing this saved the loppers’ rights’ (47)
Further correspondence then ensues:
Loughton Loppers’ Supper. Your correspondent, the Rev J W Hayes, has failed to produce any documentary evidence in support of his accusation that a supper was given by the lord of the manor of Loughton with the express purpose of robbing the loppers of their right. I beg to submit that the so-called evidence adduced in your last issue is entirely insufficient to establish the suggested conspiracy.
Fred J Brand (47)
Loppers’ Supper at Loughton.- I did not think that the subject of ‘the Loppers Supper’ would come up again after the evidence from living persons given in a former issue, but your correspondent, Mr Brand, writes that I failed to produce any ‘documentary’ evidence of the incident. This is quite wrong, but besides what I wrote formerly I now adduce not merely ‘documentary’ but actual historical evidence of the incident, eg on page 45 of John Maynard’s Concise History, issued in 1860. After referring to the supper of 1641 at quite another parish (when the loppers ‘by cunning and artifice’ were deprived of their rights), he writes thus, p.46 : ‘The same scheme was tried at Loughton, but without success, and although many accepted of the supper there given [Loughton] an old man gave the signal when he with others at once proceeded to the forest and duly secured their charter’. This historical evidence by one on the spot, as it were, at Theydon Bois, satisfies me, and ought to satisfy any reasonable person. The incident is now closed as far as I am concerned.
[Rev.] J W Hayes, Loughton (48)
Loppers’ Supper at Loughton. – I refuse to accept as documentary evidence to support a gross conspiracy by a Lord of a Manor, an opinion expressed by a decidedly biased writer, unsupported by any confirmatory proof. A mere opinion so expressed cannot be considered as documentary evidence, no court of law would admit it as such. To establish such a charge surely it would be necessary to give the date of the supper, where it was held, and above all, to explain why the dupes of the drunk remained silent.
Fred I Brand, Illford.(48)
Despite the testimony from William Willingale, and other Willingale family members, I feel Hayes is mistaken in his belief the supper took place. He quotes Maynard as proof, but whilst Maynard gives a date for the loss of rights at Waltham Abbey, and states the loss at Epping was ‘almost within the memory of man’ no date, actual or implied, is given for the supper at Loughton. Lord Eversley’s statement implies the supper was not contemporary with the Willingale’s lopping, whilst the book ‘Lays and legends of the forest of Essex’ (see foot of page) puts these events as occurring during the reign of King Charles.
A more recent variation of this story appears on a display in The View, the new forest interpretation centre next to the Queen Elizabeth Hunting Lodge in Rangers Road, Chingford. This states: According to legend, landowner Revd John Whittaker Maitland came up with a cunning plan to terminate commoners’ rights. He waited for the lopping celebration at the Kings Head pub, Loughton, then quietly locked the doors and windows to prevent people leaving to lop at the appointed hour. Not to be outsmarted, the villagers had left some companions outside who smashed in the doors so everyone could reach the woods at Staples Hill in time. And their lopping rights continued for another year.
In Lays and Legends of the Forest of Essex, by Edward Hardingham, J. Haslam, London, 1907, the earlier attempt to deprive the Loppers of Loughton of their rights seems to have been a violent affair:
Loughton is a storehouse of good stories. One that often goes round still, is how the sturdy village folk frustrated the evil intentions of a generous minded Lord of the Manor of King Charles’s time.
It seems that a brother lord of Waltham, by giving a grand supper and ‘drunk’, as the forest folk still call it, to the loppers on the night of the eleventh of November – the night when at midnight, according to the royal charter, lopping must commence or the privilege be lost – contrived to make everybody so drunk that no lopping was attempted, and the right was lost
But he of Loughton had no such good fortune. He provided the supper, a right bountiful one, and his tables were well furnished with guests – everybody came indeed – and the consumption of good things was great. But the knowing ones of the party had their axes with them, hidden away under their smocks; and as midnight drew near, these knowing ones rose up and made for the door. But the door was shut! Yet more it was fast barred and bolted! Splinters and chips were soon almost as plentiful as the execrations of the lord and his friends, held back in their seats by the remainder of the guests, could only look on and curse lustily and loudly, while the gorged but thankful ones smote down door and bar and rushed out whooping and yelling, to hack away merrily as of yore, at the stroke of twelve.