Last week’s article was about the ancient Forest of Hainault. Within that forest stood an enormous oak tree which was centuries old by the Regency and had become an important local landmark. Known as the Fairlop Oak, annual events had taken place beneath its spreading branches for at least a century. In addition, any number of impromptu events happened there on the spur of the moment throughout the Regency. And yet, even before the Coronation of George IV could take place, the Fairlop Oak had been swept away and all that now remains is its name.
This week, the story of the venerable Fairlop Oak . . .
Hainault Forest was an old-growth forest, and the Fairlop Oak was one of the oldest trees in that forest. By the Regency, foresters and other tree experts estimated its age to be at least 500 years, or, as the locals said, it could be " . . . traced half-way up the Christian era." The name Fairlop seems to have derived from the fact that some of the branches of this oak were lopped, or trimmed, from time to time, by those who had the right to gather firewood in the forest. Thus, it was lopped fairly, that is honestly, by legal right. In the seventeenth century, the Fairlop Oak was know to have at least seventeen great spreading boughs, some with a girth of as much as twelve feet, though the number of branches had been reduced to eleven by the turn of the nineteenth century.
The Fairlop Oak was one of the largest, if not the largest, tree in Hainault Forest. This description of its size, with measurements believed to have been made by the landscape artist, William Gilpin, was given in 1813: "The stem of this vegetable wonder, which is rough and fluted, measures at three feet from the ground, about 36 feet in girth: the boughs extend about 300 feet in circumference, . . . " The Fairlop Oak was also remarkable for the manner in which its great branches spread. Unlike the horizontal spread of most oak trees, the Fairlop’s boughs reached up at an angle, rather like the branches of a beech tree. The long, leafy boughs of this "vegetable wonder" shaded such a wide swath of the forest floor, nearly a full acre, that it stood by itself in a sweeping grass-covered meadow, in majestic solitude.
Often called the Monarch of the Forest, the Fairlop Oak is said to have been admired by another monarch, Queen Anne. The lyrics of an old song about the oak say that when Queen Anne rode through the Hainault Forest and saw the oak for the first time, she thought it so beautiful and majestic that she wished her court was held at Fairlop. Though there are no records of any royal court ever being held beneath the spreading boughs of the Fairlop Oak, that idyllic grassy meadow was certainly the site of any number of events down through the centuries. In particular, one man’s picnic for his friends and tenants grew into an annual fair which was held at the base of the great Fairlop Oak for nearly two centuries.
From the end of the seventeenth century, there lived in Wapping a man called Daniel Day, who was a successful engine, pump and block maker. In a seafaring nation such as England, there was a high demand for these naval supplies and Day’s business prospered. Day was a man of simple tastes, but he was also a kind and philanthropic man who did much to help the members of his parish and his profession. By the early eighteenth century he had come to be known as "Good Day." Sometime before 1720, Day inherited a tract of land in Essex County which was located near Hainault Forest. He rented the property to several tenants and most of his leases ran annually, from Midsummer Day (24 June). Not being a greedy or selfish landlord, Mr. Day did not demand the payment of rent from his tenant’s exactly on Midsummer Day. Rather, he traveled to his property the first week of July to visit his tenants and collect the rents.
At some point, Daniel Day had discovered the Fairlop Oak and he quickly came to consider that part of Hainault Forest his favorite place. He began to invite his tenants to join him for a picnic feast of beans and bacon on the grassy meadow beneath the Fairlop Oak. When his friends and colleagues heard of this event, they thought it very wild and romantic. It soon became Day’s habit to invite his friends and members of his profession to join him and his tenants each July for this rural repast. By about 1725, the date for this event had become established as the first Friday of July, and it had become known as the Fairlop Fair. Mr. Day still came every year, and generously provided large helpings of beans and bacon to his tenants and the common folk who lived in the area, all of whom relished the treat of this simple, but tasty meal. Before the decade was out, suttlers began setting up stalls near the oak in which they offered an increasing range of other foods and beverages to the large crowds who came to the Fairlop Oak the first Friday of July.
Daniel Day continued to attend the Fairlop Fair every July, right up to his death in October of 1767, at the age of eighty-four. A few years before his passing, one of the great boughs of the Fairlop Oak was brought down in a storm. Day acquired the huge branch and contracted with a local carpenter to fashion his coffin from it. For many years, Day had walked to and from the Fairlop Fair. But later in his life, he purchased a horse. One year, as he traveled home from the fair, Day was thrown from his horse and injured. He vowed never to ride a horse again and acquired a large and sturdy mule. However, a few years later, the mule stumbled and Day was thrown into a muddy mire. He swore never again to mount another four-legged creature and took to travelling in a post-chaise. But even that conveyance was not without danger and he was travelling in one when it had an accident, again causing him some injury. He therefore directed in his will that his remains were to be transported to his place of burial over water, as he was certain that if his coffin was carried in a hearse, he would be awakened during the journey by yet another accident.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, the Fairlop Fair was attended not only by those who lived in the vicinity of Hainault Forest. It was drawing many people from London, particularly those who worked in the pump and block making trades of Wapping and the East End. Vast crowds traveled to the Fairlop Oak every year on the first Friday of July, by any conveyance available. Partly to honor their work in one of the ship-building trades, and partly to honor Mr. Day’s idiosyncrasy with regard to travel, some of these fair-goers came by horse-drawn boat. The first boat had been a simple canoe hewn from a large fir tree and covered with a canvas awning which was set on the undercarriage of a coach and drawn by a team of horses.
But by the 1780s, the block-makers and many of the watermen of London went together to have a new "boat" built, which included a pair of masts and was rigged like a brig. This vehicle could carry twenty men, in addition to a small band of musicians, and was gaily decorated with colored flags and streamers. The large boat was set on a wheeled undercarriage and was drawn by six horses who were also gaily caparisoned in brightly colored ribbons. In 1795, the watermen loaned this rolling boat to a Lieutenant Dundee, an impressment agent for the Royal Navy. The watermen thought the gaily decorated boat would help to attract sailors to willingly enlist in the Royal Navy and thereby reduce impressment. The block-makers were furious at the watermen when they learned of the loan, and immediately set about building their own, even larger boat. This new boat had three masts with full ship’s rigging. It boasted two full-size gilt anchors and a figurehead carved in the image of Daniel Day. It could carry thirty-six men as well as few musicians on its broad deck. It was even more colorfully decorated with streamers and flags and pulled by a team of six horses equally beribboned in bright colors.
Before the eighteenth century drew to a close, the watermen and the block-makers each traveled to the Fairlop Fair in their respective rolling boats. They left London in a procession early on the Friday morning of fair day, and crowds came from all over the city to line the route to Hainault Forest, both to watch the boats leave the city and enjoy the music played by the bands on board. Many vehicles, riders and even pedestrians followed in the wake of these two rolling boats as the crowds wended their way to the Fairlop Fair. This parade of rolling boats and its many followers increased in size as more and more people joined in the journey along the route to the Hainault Forest. Once this grand parade reached the Fairlop Oak, the rolling boats circled the area twice, then pulled off to one side as the passengers disembarked and joined the other fair-goers. It must be noted that on the journey back to London, these boats were known to make stops at a number of public houses along the route, so that most of the passengers were fully foxed before they returned to the metropolis.
As the new century dawned, the Fairlop Fair was one of the most popular fairs in all of southeastern England. In addition to the many suttler’s stalls selling all manner of food and drink, including fresh fruits, puddings, pies and gingerbread, that quintessential English fair food. Lemonade was on offer in a number of the stalls, along with tea and coffee. Stronger libations could also be had by those who wanted them. There were also many stalls set up by itinerant tradesmen who were drawn to the fair by the large crowds to whom they could sell their wares, including silk laces and ribbons, pins, thimbles, scissors, knives, combs and toys, as well as chap-books and sheet music. A particularly popular item was a pocket handkerchief on which was printed an engraving of a beautiful watercolor of the Fairlop Fair which was painted by S. H. Grimm, in 1774. Hundreds of those handkerchiefs were sold as souvenirs at the fair every year for decades. It must be noted that these fair stalls were all required to be erected within the circumference of the boughs of the great oak, none were allowed beyond the reach of its longest branches. Many entertainments were available at the fair, including puppet-shows, jugglers, tumblers and sword-swallowers, not to mention exhibition of various wild beasts. The Fairlop Fair had become a place of rustic enjoyment for many from London, as well as a congenial meeting place for farmers and other agrarian yeoman of the county. It was even frequented by many among the gentry as an opportunity to experience simple rural pleasures.
With the revival in the interest in archery in the latter decades of the eighteenth century, a number of toxophilite societies were founded around Britain. One of the oldest, largest and most active of those societies, the Hainault Foresters, held their meetings under the great Fairlop Oak. The meadow near the venerable oak was also the venue for their popular archery competitions, which drew many spectators. Some records suggest that the Hainault Foresters members adopted a uniform of green and buff garments and half-boots for their meetings and archery competitions. Though it does not appear that ladies were allowed full membership in the Hainault Foresters, they did attend at least some meetings and competitions as guests, and they, too, attended those events in half-boots, decked out in green and buff. At least a couple of times a year, the members of the society and their lady guests, all dressed in their smart uniforms, marched in procession around the Fairlop Oak, while accompanied by musicians, with all the " . . . quality, pride, pomp, and circumstance, of glorious archery."
In addition to archery, another sport which was often enjoyed under the Fairlop Oak, from the eighteenth century right through the Regency, was cricket. Though there are no records that any organized cricket teams played there, quite a number of amateur cricketers used the grassy meadow beneath the boughs of the oak as a cricket pitch. Groups might come out to the oak just for a game, while others came in larger groups of both players and spectators, to enjoy an open air picnic and a game of cricket. The meadow which surrounded the Fairlop Oak was so large that more than one game of cricket could easily be played in the area at the same time, should multiple groups arrive on the same day.
However, the fair and sports were not the only reasons people came to the Fairlop Oak through the early decades of the nineteenth century. Many people from Essex County, and even from London, made day trips to the Fairlop Oak just to enjoy the beauty of the ancient tree and the Hainault Forrest in which it stood. Some brought along provisions for a picnic on the grassy meadow beneath the oak, while others came simply to enjoy the picturesque views of nature. Should visitors to the oak fail to provide themselves with food and drink, they would not have to go without. The Crooked Billet public house, which stood near Billet Hatch, the southwest entrance to the forest, was just over a mile south of the Fairlop Oak. Another public house, The Maypole, was about a mile and a half from the oak, to the northwest, on the road to the village of Chigwell.
Initially, the fair and the other events which took place beneath the Fairlop Oak did no real harm to the great tree. But that changed over the years. As with many extremely old trees, the trunk rose above the level of the soil, exposing the very large roots at its base. As the tree and the large roots continued to rise, depressions or hollows in the soil between the roots were created. Some of the visitors to the oak saw those hollows as the ideal place to lay a fire to cook a meal while they enjoyed the forest. But the heat and smoke so close to the tree began to damage the bark of the trunk and some of the lower branches. In 1791, William Forsythe, King George III’s gardener, was hired to care for the Fairlop Oak. He was paid six pence to apply his special curative "plaister" to the tree once the dead and decaying wood had been cut away. It is believed the ingredients for this special poultice were cow dung, wood ash, old ceiling lime, river sand and burnt bones. After the poultice was applied, a sign was hung on the tree which read: "All good foresters are requested not to hurt this old tree, a plaister having lately been applied to his wounds." For a time, this treatment stabilized the old tree, but in 1800, it was fenced around with a close paling of about five feet high, which gave greater protection to the trunk and the lower branches.
Sadly, even the five-foot paling was not enough to fully protect the aging Fairlop Oak. On 25 June 1805, a thoughtless group of visitors kindled a fire near the base of the tree to cook a meal. They did not fully extinguish their campfire before wandering off to explore the forest, and the old oak caught fire. The fire was not discovered for nearly two hours, at which time, residents of the area rushed to the oak carrying buckets of water to put out the fire. The tree was saved, but was badly damaged. The flames ate into the trunk, leaving a cavity large enough to shelter a cow or horse and at least three of its remaining boughs were lost completely while others were significantly shortened. Despite the damage to the old tree, the Fairlop Fair took place that July as it always had, and continued to do so right through the Regency. Then, in February of 1820, just mere weeks after the death of King George III and the official end of the Regency, a fiercely powerful gale toppled the ancient Fairlop Oak.
The Fairlop Fair continued for another eighty years after the fall of the old oak, though not at the same location. The grassy meadow which had carpeted the acre of land under the old tree was largely torn up when the tree was pulled out by its roots during the gale. Therefore, the fair was moved closer to The Maypole public house. The festivities continued there until the turn of the twentieth century, when all but a scrap of the great Hainault Forest was swept away. And so, the Fairlop Fair, which was more than eighty years old when the Regency began, survived for nearly two centuries from the years when Daniel Day shared beans and bacon with his tenants under the great Fairlop Oak.
Though the tree no longer stands, there are many bits of the Fairlop Oak still extant today. The wood of the fallen tree was acquired by Mr. Seabrooke, at the time, the builder of St. Pancras Church in London. Both of the pulpits for that church were made from the remains of the Fairlop Oak, and they are still in place. The remaining pieces of wood which were not used for the pulpits were used to make a host of other, smaller items, including tea caddies, a pedestal table, and a number of small boxes. Beyond that selection of oaken objects, the only other thing that survives of the Fairlop Oak is its name. In particular, the London Tube station, Fairlop, and the boat house near the lake at Fairlop Waters. The boat house is actually located very near to the site where the venerable oak once stood.
The great oak also has a virtual existence, since the Hainault Forest web site has a page devoted to the history of the Fairlop Oak. On that page you can see images of the tree made over the course of its history, and some of the objects which were made from the wood of the old tree. That same site has a page devoted to the Fairlop Fair. There, you can see images of the fair, the rolling boat which took the block-makers to the fair, and the ship’s figurehead of Daniel Day. Also on that page can be seen the watercolor painted by S. H. Grimm in 1774 which was printed on all those souvenir pocket handkerchiefs.
Though the ancient Hainault Forest and the great Fairlop Oak have been swept away, they were both still in existence during the Regency. Both were only about twelve miles from London, making them easy day trips for a country outing in a Regency story. The Hainault Forest had many people dwelling around its perimeter, as well as several gentlemen’s estates within the bounds of the forest. Thus, the great forest could also serve as the main setting for a Regency romance, but within easy distance to London. There was more than one coach which traveled between the Billet Hatch and two of the main London coaching houses, making it fairly simple for characters to travel between the two. And one must not forget the venerable Fairlop Oak and the popular fair which took place every July beneath is boughs. What fun might the hero and heroine of a Regency romance have when they attend the Fairlop Fair. Perhaps they will make an early start so they can watch the gaily decorated rolling boats which set out from London on fair day filled with block-makers and watermen. Perhaps the young brother of the heroine has heard of the magnificent rolling boats and slips away from his home to see the sight, or might he even stow away on one of those boats? Will it be the hero who finds him, or maybe the villain? A proficient lady archer might be a guest at one of the competitions sponsored by the Hainault Foresters. Will she anger the hero when she bests him, or might it be that her skill attracts his attention? Even though the Hainault Forest and the Fairlop Oak have slipped away into the mists of time, they can be recalled with the stroke of a pen by a Regency Author as a setting for an upcoming story.