This true tale of endurance, injustice and corruption, refused my prose to tell its story – so it made me write a poem instead to try and bring its message home.
‘Twas November time as midnight struck
and ale was supped in the forest at Staples Hill.
Three Loughton men – Willingales all – began their winter lop,
for the custom was long in the making to gather the boughs
of this firewood crop, and assert their annual rights to this Epping
From St. Martin’s Day to that of George, so Royal Charter decreed,
all the parish people could take their common woodland need.
‘Twas their hard won right for long cold winter nights
and the warmth that their bodies would plead.
By two of the clock, the custom had been skilfully pledged.
Only boughs above the head,
seven feet it is said by ancient charter rules,
lay stacked in the sleds bound for Loughton.
But there was a difference in this year of 1866.
A clergyman’s fancy to call the forest his own had led him
to enclose the woodland, and fences had grown where fences
had no rights, so the sledges had left them broken and mown.
So it was this clergyman clad in his duplicitous skin
of Lord of the Manor of Loughton, shouting ‘Malicious Trespass’
to Willingale, his sons included – ‘you’ve flouted my
rule, my patience is thin, my Bench will deal seriously
with your misdemeanours and malicious sin.’
His complicit cronies – of Lady Justice deluded –
had long ripped away their blindfolds in arrogant disdain,
their prejudicial gaze incensed by honest labourers bereft
yet threatening their days for forest theft and personal gain.
Two months hard labour was their wicked revenge for
actions justly clad in ancient custom’s robes.
Common right garments stitched by time immemorial,
unable to avenge such greedy corrosion
were torn from the back of all in Loughton.
More so for Thomas Willingale and sons.
Their cottage abode was snatched away as in
prison they lay cold and feverish across harsh winter days.
Outcries of anguish reverberated in the frozen air,
no thawing of injustice even near,
its icy grip squeezing all who cried foul
for this clergyman called Maitland had made his solemn vow
to steal and degrade all his parishioners lives,
for it was of no consequence for him and his profiteers
how his parishioners survived.
The cell’s damp horrors took one young Willingale to his eternity,
his brother and father left to mourn in perpetuity,
thrown out to a homeless winter on this new bleak January.
But with an inner strength Thomas held his head high
his resilience clearly to deny Maitland such blatant thievery,
but how to arrest the oppressing tide
of this clergyman’s greedy acquiescence to felonious trickery?
It was stage left from whence the allies came,
bearing the same indignation towards Maitland’s claim.
The Commons Society had strength of name and
embraced Thomas Willingale for all his anguish and pain
and now the odds had been re-stacked,
it was Willingale versus Maitland in the courts they would back.
Four long years, the thrust and parry of legal swords clashed.
Loughton’s figurehead Willingale stood it all –
but outcast from honest work, he suffered distress from
imposed conditions of labouring idleness
which was never dispatched from his thoughts.
Society funds of a mere one pound a week
was something and nothing to cherish.
Whereas Maitland’s men baited their trap
with five hundred pounds to see the suit perish
and Willingale’s resolve fade to nought.
He turned his face from this preposterous bribe
So stalwart was his renown,
but death had decided, time need be sought
to journey to his son.
The suit now aborted, death’s dagger carefully thwarted
Maitland’s plans to trample common rights.
Epping Forest was safe till time gave the place for a
new protagonist supported.
The legacy they gained was at Willingale’s pain but
his sacrifice was amply rewarded.
His ethereal spirit and defiant lead would
now for ever be recorded as
The Man Who Saved Epping Forest.
Truly a task never courted but fate
awarded it to Thomas Willingale
a lopper of Loughton at rest.
A POEM WRITTEN WITH GRATITUDE TO THE MEMORY OF THOMAS WILLINGALE (1799-1870) A ‘LOPPER’ OF LOUGHTON WHO FOUGHT FOR THE RIGHTS OF THE PEOPLE TO ASSERT THEIR COLLECTIVE COMMON HERITAGE OF THEIR WOODLAND CROP FROM LONDON’S MAGNIFICENT EPPING FOREST AGAINST THE TYRANNY AND GREED OF THE LORD OF THE MANOR, THE LOCAL CLERGYMAN, J. W. MAITLAND. (© DAVID KIDD-HEWITT)