180 years ago: The Flats on Fire

This month 180 years ago a huge fire consumed a large area of Wanstead Flats. Approximately one tenth of the total 335 acres of grassland was set ablaze – the cause believed to be a discarded tobacco pipe.

June was marked by some spectacular cloudscapes and sunsets. This was the view across Wanstead Flats from Centre Road looking toward Ilford on the 21st

Looking east over Wanstead Flats from Centre Road. Long Wellesley sold off a lot of the peat on the Flats to local nurseries

At first the fire was ignored – locals thought the blaze would burn itself out or that rain would damp it down. However, it continued to grow. The Bucks Herald, on August 15th 1835, reported that in a period of three weeks the Flats had become “one mass of fire” and that in many places the blaze had descended to a depth of two feet from the surface of the peaty surroundings.

Locals, in an age where the Fire Brigade was still 30 years away from being formed, sought to put out the flames themselves. A number of horse-drawn watering carts belonging to the Essex Turnpike Trust were commandeered to carry water from a pond to extinguish the flames. For the best part of nine days residents tried in vain to defeat the fire.

Mr Speering, the deputy of the Lord of the Manor, the hapless Mr Long Wellesley, was summoned to convey the desperate circumstances to the government of the day – to try and appeal for help to defeat the blaze. Some 70 men, miners and “sappers” from Woolwich, duly arrived to dig a trench 5ft wide and six to eight inches deep around the perimeter of the blaze, but it was not before much damage was done to the land that locals depended to feed their cattle and horses.

Looking at the statistics of that summer the temperature and rainfall looks fairly average – ruling out a dry spell being the catalyst of the inferno. It was suggested at the time that the fire was exacerbated by neglect of the land – the blame therefore lying ultimately at the door of Long Wellesley.

The slow reaction time by the government of the day prompted the following poem to be published in the Leeds Times:

WANSTEAD FLATS ON FIRE

Go, ring the alarm bell, call the Crier.

And warn the neighbours the Flats are on fire.

Not Wanstead Flats; no, duller far,

And dryer, the Flats I speak of, are,

Made, like old timber that hath the rot,

Old rages, old shavings, and what not,

To crackle and blaze with vast elation

I a brief but furious conflagaration;

But enough – what need of further words? – 

The Flats are on fire in the House of Lords!!

There’s Winchelsea “flaring up”, like a rocket,

With lush-light Clumber, low in his socket;

There’s Strangford blazing like red-hot steel, And Lyndhurst ignited from head to heel;

Cumberland makes that sort of show,

He’ll make one day in the – – -,

Whiz! goes Law, tied fast to the Duke,

Like a squib to a pedagogue’s peruque;

Wicklow and Buckingham, blessed pair!

Flash, like the Lesser and Greater Bear; – 

In short, their Lordship’s, like Dido’s pyre,

Are all just now one mass of fire!

‘Tis a sad – a terrible case no doubt;

What shall we do? Shall we put them out?

No, let them blaze away, while we

Look on with undissembled glee,

And laugh to think, like rational folk,

How soon their fire will end in smoke!

Cold front clearance over Wanstead Flats on 28th. The day saw three potent cold fronts with steep temperature falls. <5mm hail in the last and thunder heard in Woodford Green

Cold front clearance over Wanstead Flats on February 28th. The day saw three potent cold fronts with steep temperature falls. <5mm hail in the last and thunder heard in Woodford Green

Though officially the House of Commons held the reins of legislature the House of Lords still held great influence, as Lord Wellington noted that year: “The House of Lords still constitutionally possesses great power over the legislation of the country”.

The current custodians of our local parklands, City of London Corporation, would do well to take note from this story. While they are taking action in improving the care of the land it is obvious from the comments I hear while walking around the Flats and Wanstead Park that much more needs to be done.

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