A legal battle for public access to green spaces pitched common people against the power of 19th century privilege (From East London and West Essex Guardian Series)
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A legal battle for public access to green spaces pitched common people against the power of 19th century privilege
Almost 200 years have passed since residents living in Wanstead won a landmark legal case to keep their treasured park open to the public. Melanie Attlesey found out more and spoke to the historian who researched the pivotal case.
Wanstead Park was first recorded in the Doomsday Book and it was for centuries used as a site of recreation by common folk.
But notorious bad-boy and publicity-seeker of the period William Long-Wellesley banned public entry, locking the gates to the park in 1813.
However, he failed to predict the strength of anger this would provoke among the community.
Known as Wicked William of Wanstead, he wanted the park exclusively for his own use, believing ordinary folk walking through his grounds undermined his status.
But protestors gained the support of some influential people and took Long-Wellesley to court in one of the first cases of its kind, pitching the common man against a member of the landed gentry.
A total of 32 people stood to give evidence against him on March 12, 1813.
Historian Greg Roberts, 50, of Buckingham Road, South Woodford, has researched the legal battle for his master’s degree at Queen Mary University.
He discovered a carriage driver from the Red Lion pub in Ilford stood to declare the park his favoured destination when taking clients for pleasure rides.
A magistrate also recalled playing in the park since the age of four, while a Whitechapel undertaker said he liked to divert his funeral corteges around the park to just give the dead ‘a final turn around the parish’.
The judge surprised everyone by choosing public enjoyment over privacy for the privileged and found in favour of the community.
But an Act of Parliament passed in 1818, while Long-Wellesley was an MP, enabled him to once again lock the gates.
On the landowner's death in 1857, a challenge was again launched to open the park to the public.
The Corporation of London, which still owns the park, purchased the land and it was once again given to the community.
Mr Roberts said: "We take it for granted that we have parks open to the public, but back in those days rich people thought the public weren’t entitled to anything.
"What these people did was unique. They challenged William Long-Wellesley in the courts, proving they weren’t just a rabble and could unite to protect something they loved.
"William was a powerful bloke and a chav of the time. He married one of the richest women in the country. He lost her house, her estate and all that was left was the land, and he even tried to get rid of that.
"The people of Wanstead eventually profited from him being such a nasty man."
Mr Roberts will give a talk on the legal battle, entitled Wanstead Park 1813: Privacy versus public enjoyment, at Wanstead Library in Spratt Hall Road on February 21 at 8pm.