The great Fairlop Oak and the ancient Forest of Hainault which surrounded it have both been swept away by the ravages of time. But during the Regency, the massive oak stood tall in the large remnant of the primordial forest in which it had grown for centuries. Traditional events took place beneath the spreading branches of the old oak right though the Regency. Since it was only about twelve miles out from London, either the forest or the oak might make an interesting setting for a scene or two in a Regency novel when a country setting within reasonable proximity to the metropolis is required.
This week, the story of the primeval Forest of Hainault . . .
Though it initially comprised at least 17,000 acres, Hainault Forest was only a section of the huge ancient Forest of Essex, which had covered nearly all of that county for centuries. Hainault Forest was a royal forest which was therefore subject to "forest law" which dated back to the reign of King Canute (1017-1035). It was a royal hunting ground, the use of which was reserved for the sole pleasure of the king. The forest was kept stocked with game which were supervised and managed by officers of the king. Over the centuries, the name of the forest has been given as Hyneholt, Hineholt, Inholt, Henholt, and Heynault. By 1720, it was most usually known as Hainault. It has been suggested by some scholars that the source of the name is Hainault, Germany, the birthplace of Queen Philippa, wife of King Edward III. However, the name appeared in royal records well before the reign of Edward III in the aforementioned variations, all of which are believed to be versions of the Saxon term "Héan holt," meaning the high wood. That would seem to be the more likely source of the name, which devolved to the more familiar Hainault in the early eighteenth century, when Saxon memories and knowledge had long since faded away.
Hainault Forest was used by English kings and queens as a favorite hunting ground for centuries. However, despite its royal designation, certain considerations were granted to those who lived on the perimeter of the forest. Common people who were willing to pay a small fee were allowed to pasture their horses, cattle, and sheep in the forest. Typically, the grazing fee was assessed based on the financial means of the commoner who sought pasturage. Only those native to a place had the right to rent pasturage in the forest. Each village or town had a local reeve who managed the grazing rights assigned to its citizens. They verified that those requesting pasture rights were born in the village, collected the fees and kept records of all transactions, should there ever be any questions from the authorities. The option to pasture animals in the forest for a fee was still available to common folk living near the Hainault Forest during the Regency. By that time, the pasturing fee averaged two to three pounds a year for a horse or cow and one to two pounds for a sheep. Pigs and geese were allowed to graze for free. These fees were still based on the financial means of the animals’ owners.
Once the reeve in each village had collected and recorded the annual fee to pasture an animal in Hainault Forest, it was also their responsibility to mark any cattle among the animals, meaning horses and horned stock. Sheep, pigs and geese were not marked. Since grazing animals were allowed to roam free in the forest, the reeve branded the cattle with a special symbol to show that the fee had been paid and the animals were legally allowed to graze in the forest. Traditionally, "marking" was done each quarter day, for which notice was given in the local churches on the preceding Sunday. Those who had paid the annual fee to pasture their horses and cows in the forest would bring them to the appointed place in their village each quarter day in which their year began. The reeves in each parish used a distinctive U-shaped trefoil crown over a letter to mark to those animals for which they had collected grazing fees. Reeves from the parish of Dagenham marked authorized animals from their parish with a trefoil crown over the letter L. Reeves from Barking parish marked their animals with a trefoil crown over the letter K. However, in medieval times, reeves in Barking had used a symbol called the "crooked billet," as they thought, a bent stick of wood, to mark cattle. However, some scholars believe that it was a heraldic symbol, the chevron, which was not recognized as such by the common folk. Any unmarked cattle found grazing in the forest were impounded by the reeve and were lost to their owners. Any one caught attempting to counterfeit a mark on a horse or cow in order to pasture them in the forest would have faced severe penalties. However, all domestic animals had to be kept out of the forest during "fence," the forbidden month. This was the period which began fifteen days before and ended fifteen days after 6 July, the old Midsummer’s Day. This was the rutting period of the fallow deer, and even though they were no longer hunted by the king in the early nineteenth century, their primary period of reproduction was still protected.
Hainault Forest was bounded by the parishes of Barking and Dagenham. Each parish on the edge of the forest had a number of assignments which could be made to the most needy in the community which allowed them the right to lop wood for fuel, at no charge. The woodwards or woodmen were responsible for caring for the trees of the forest and monitoring the lopping by locals. Anyone caught trying to take wood for any use other than fuel would be arrested and imprisoned. Authorized loppers were only allowed to take wood between Martinmas (11 November) and Candlemas (2 February). Those with lopping privileges were required to remove any wood they chopped that same day. Wood could not be stockpiled in the forest for later retrieval. The point of granting lopping rights was for those in need of fuel to clear out dead, damaged and deformed branches so that they were able to freely heat their homes while keeping the forest healthy at the same time. The right of lopping wood for fuel in the Hainault Forests was still given to a set number of needy families in each surrounding parish throughout the Regency. By then, it had also become the custom that any widow of a man who had had lopping rights was entitled to one load of wood every year on Easter Monday. If the widow did not have the means by which to cart her wood out of the forest, she was to be provided with eight shillings in compensation.
The trees which flourished in this ancient British forest were mostly great oaks and hornbeams. However, other species of trees also grew among them, including ash, beech, and hawthorn, as well as brush such as broom, heather and golden furze. Because Hainault was a royal forest, it was illegal to cut trees there for timber without royal permission. And, for the most part, English monarchs allowed logging in their forests only for the building of ships for the Royal Navy, also known as the "wooden walls" of Britain. English oak, particularly that which grew in the southeastern part of the country, such as Essex county, was ideal for ship-building. The mild climate meant the trees grew slowly, and the more slowly an oak tree grows, the stronger will be the wood it produces. In the more open areas of the forest, there were many large oak trees which grew straight and tall since they got plenty of sunshine. Such trees did very well for the masts and the planks needed for the decks and sides of a ship. But the ships of the Navy also had need of oak trees which were bent and twisted as they struggled for access to sunlight. Something a vast number of oak trees were forced to do in the old-growth forest of Hainault. These bent and twisted trunks and branches could be used to make the curved ribs of the hull, known as "futtocks," and the supports for the decks, known as the "knees." For example, it is known that nearly all of the timber which went into the building of HMS Temeraire at the end of the eighteenth century came from Hainault Forest. When she came to the aid of HMS Victory, which was under heavy fire during the Battle of Trafalgar, she became known as The Fighting Temeraire. She remained a British warship through the Regency and was not decommissioned and broken up until 1838.
Hainault Forest was renowned for its natural beauty. Many people enjoyed walking, riding or driving through the forest to enjoy the pleasures provided by nature. In the spring and summer, a vast array of flowering plants, shrubs and trees were in bloom throughout the forest. Seen in the dappled sunlight which filtered down through the canopy of trees above, it must have been a lovely sight. However, during the Regency, a time when people were fascinated by the picturesque, it was also considered quite the thing to experience the forest during a storm. Despite the potential danger, devotees of the picturesque would have found it especially thrilling to have been in the forest during a thunderstorm, with all its accompanying wind, rain, dark clouds, booming thunder and flashes of lighting.
In addition to those animals which could legally graze in the forest, there were also a number of different wild animals which inhabited the wood. Through the eighteenth century, a stag was released in Hainault Forest every Easter Monday for a stag hunt which was popular with hunting gentlemen in the vicinity of London, but that practice was discontinued in 1807. Fallow deer, the descendants of those hunted by earlier monarchs, still roamed the forest during the years of the Regency. The wolves and wild cats of old were gone by the early nineteenth century, but foxes, martin and badgers still thrived there. The Essex County Hunt periodically hunted foxes in Hainault Forest, with the permission of the Crown, through the first half of the nineteenth century. Rabbits, hares, squirrels and other small animals also made their home in the forest, along with a host of bird species. Another, more dangerous, form of wildlife had made its home in the deeper parts of the Hainault Forest through much of the eighteenth century; highwaymen, including the infamous Dick Turpin. However, by the early nineteenth century, persistent and successful hunting for that particular form of wildlife had driven them from the forest for good.
However, Hainault Forest was not devoid of human inhabitants even after the highwaymen had been eradicated. There were at least two inns within the forest during the Regency. The best known was The Crooked Billet, probably named for the ancient mark put on cattle authorized to graze in the forest which graced its sign. It seems likely that it was this inn which gave its name to Billet Hatch, one of the four gates into the forest, on the southwest side. The Billet Hatch was the gate by which most visitors from London would enter Hainault Forest. The Crooked Billet inn sat on a rise, and therefore commanded a 360 degree view of a beautiful landscape which was popular with visitors to the area. The contemporary guidebook, Picturesque Rides and Walks, reports that at this little inn " . . . every reasonable accommodation may be had for small parties; . . . " though advises that large parties would have to make their own arrangements. Another inn which was located inside the forest was called The Harrow. Scholars believe that this name is based on an error of understanding by the common people of the object on this inn’s sign. It was probably the portcullis crowned, which Henry VII and succeeding Tudor monarchs used as an heraldic badge. However, in later centuries, as the knowledge of heraldry faded in the public mind, most people would have thought that object looked more like a plough, which became appropriate since The Harrow seems to have been frequented by many local farmers and agricultural workers.
At another forest gate, Aldbury Hatch, was on the western side of the forest. Situated near Aldbury Hatch was a large and elegant manor house which had been built in 1730 by Colonel Martin Bladen, Comptroller of the Mint and a Commissioner of the Board of Trade. The Middleton family had acquired the estate through marriage in the mid-eighteenth century, and Middletons were still in residence there during the Regency. The southern gate, known as Marks Hatch, was entered via Whalebone Lane, and was part of the great Marks estate, which included a large fifteenth-century manor surrounded by a moat. This building was demolished during or just after the Regency. The remaining gate, at the north edge of the forest was Colleyreaux Hatch. Near the center of the forest stood an Elizabethan house which was known as Chappell Hainault. It had been nearly abandoned by the Regency and was inhabited only by a caretaker. Surrounded by moss-covered, crumbling walls set with great rusting iron gates which were beginning to slip from their hinges, it must have been the quintessential picture of a haunted house. There were a couple of similar old and crumbling houses still standing, or partially standing, in different parts of the forest. With permission from the Crown, there were a few well-maintained and inhabited gentlemen’s estates, villas and hunting lodges scattered throughout the forest by the early nineteenth century. It is estimated that there were between 150 and 175 people who lived in the forest in the Regency, with well more than that living along its edges.
Hainault Forest was located about twelve miles northwest of London, and during the Regency, the route believed to be the most scenic was to take the Lea Bridge Road, though that was a little longer. A slightly shorter route was to travel along the Shoreditch Road, though Hackney and Clapton. It would shave almost two miles off the trip, but it was much less scenic. One could also travel to Hainault Forest by stagecoach. There were stages which left from either The Three Nuns in Whitechapel or the Saracen’s Head in Aldgate. Both of these stage lines offered morning and evening departure times to their destination, Forest Hill, which seems to have been near The Crooked Billet Inn.
Beginning in 1839, the numbers of deer in the forest had been significantly reduced by the steady poaching of the navvies building the nearby Eastern Counties Railway. By the end of the next decade, the fences surrounding the forest had fallen into disrepair, which enabled the deer which remained to wander out and help themselves to the tasty crops planted by farmers beyond the boundaries of the forest. The great oaks of the forest ceased to be needed in the building of ships for the navy as the age of the steamship and the ironclad came into its own. After repeated complaints about deer predation from farmers and other land-holders along the edges of the forest, in 1850, Parliament passed an Act by which the government disafforested Hainault Forest. The term "disafforest" meant that the forest was no longer a royal forest or the property of the Crown. Sadly, disafforestation soon also resulted in the deforestation of Hainault Forest. The few remaining deer were removed from the forest and taken to Windsor. Vast swathes of ancient old-growth trees were cut down and the land converted to farming and eventually also housing. Fortunately, there were a few people deeply concerned by the loss of so much of England’s ancient woodland that a small part of the forest was preserved in the early twentieth century and is now open to the public.
Next week, the story of the great Fairlop Oak which stood within the Forest of Hainault.