17. The Willingale Axes

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.

The Essex Field Club were presented with two relics by the Willingale family, the EFC online archive gives a summary of the history of these items as follows:

In conclusion, I would remind my hearers that our Club possesses two direct relics of the Willingale family in its Forest Museum, namely, a lopper’s axe, which was presented to that museum by John Willingale, and a billhook, formerly belonging to Samuel Willingale, both of which tools were employed in lopping trees on the Forest in the old days before the lopping rights were extinguished. (8)


Mr. Cole also exhibited a Bill-hook which had been used for at least 100 years as a tool in asserting the lopping rights on the Forest at Loughton on the 11th day of November in each year. The hook was formerly owned by Robert Higgins, of Baldwin’s Hill, Loughton, uncle to Thomas Willingale ; later it came into the possession of Thomas Willingale, and from him descended to Samuel Willingale, who had now presented it to the Club. (81)

In the summer of 2002 the author photographed a billhook at Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge at Chingford, an Axe head was also kept with the billhook, although for some reason the author did not photograph this item. Both these items were kept at the Lodge although they were not on public display, however the staff at the Lodge confirmed these were the ‘Willingale Axes’.

The photograph of the Billhook was published on the WFS website and the author subsequently found a letter from the Superintendent of the Forest to The Epping Forest Guardian confirming this was the ’Willingale Axe’ and hoping that it would be on display in a suitable context shortly. (101)

In the process of producing this document, the author returned to the lodge in 2010 but none of the staff at the lodge knew anything about the Axe.

In 2012 a new Interpretation Centre, called The View, opened in the former stable block next to the Hunting Lodge. Upon visiting the Interpretation Centre the author noted that two axes were part of the display. One of the axes, a billhook, looks remarkably like the one which was photographed in 2002.

Unfortunately upon enquiring again with the Corporation of London, the owners of The View and Hunting Lodge, they were unable to positively confirm the provenance of the axe. In the hundred years since the axes were donated to the Essex Field Club and then passed on to the Corporation, records have become muddled. Although this is most likely the Willingale Axe, the Corporation are unwilling to positively identify it as such.  (82)

A photo of the assumed Willingale billhook was placed on the ehive.com website by the Corporation in the hope that it would be positively identified. In July 2013 a Bob Burgess who has researched billhooks extensively identified the ‘Willingale billhook’ as one made by a William Swift of Seal in Kent. William was still making billhooks in 1911, which contradicts the assertion made by the EFC that the billhook was over 100 years old. (113)

In 1978 a billhook appears to have been part of a display called the ‘Willingale Collection’ part of ‘A Keeper’s Tale’ by Fred Speakman, an exhibition in Loughton Library. Unfortunately the photos the author has of this exhibition are not clear enough to identify the axe, but it raises the hope there are other images of the billhook and Axe in existence that may yet help in ascertaining the provenance of these items. (114)

 (Black and white photos courtesy of Sophie Lillington, Forest Centres Officer, Epping Forest at City of London, Colour photo is authors)


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