The retreats of Epping Forest

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, Epping Forest has been a refuge for local people who have found peace amongst the beautiful scenery we are lucky enough to have on our doorstep. As lockdown eased, thousands of visitors came each day from further afield to enjoy the forest’s famous beauty spots including High Beech, Connaught Water and Loughton Brook.

Has the forest ever been this busy before, or brought such wellbeing benefits to so many? You may be surprised to learn that the answer is, emphatically, yes!

In Victorian times Epping Forest was spared the fate of nearby Hainault Forest, which was largely cut down during six fateful weeks in 1851. This loss spurred on a hard-fought campaign by local people to save Epping Forest, culminating in the passing of the Epping Forest Act in 1878, to protect the forest in perpetuity. Four years later Queen Victoria dedicated Epping Forest in a special ceremony, “for the enjoyment of my people forever.”

Within a short time, the number of visitors to Epping Forest had soared and forest retreats sprung up throughout the forest to provide affordable food, drink and shelter for the throngs of visitors. The earliest retreat was set up by John Riggs at Brook Road, Buckhurst Hill; followed by two more in Theydon Bois and High Beech, which were run by various members of the Riggs family. These were vast establishments, with Riggs Retreat in High Beech boasting that it could feed four hundred visitors afternoon tea in one sitting.

With the recent extension of railway lines to Loughton in 1856, and to Chingford by 1873, the forest was accessible as a day trip to many people living on the Eastern side of London. Tradesmen also used their horse carts to bring day trippers out to the forest from the East End on Sundays, often decorating the carts with brightly coloured ribbons for the trip.

Throughout the summer months, many thousands of visitors would make the trip to the forest each day, and it became known as the “Cockney Paradise”. As well as family trips out, some retreats specialised in Sunday School outings; and the Shaftesbury Retreat in Loughton provided annual days out to some of the East End’s poorest children, supported by the Ragged School Union and Lord Shaftesbury’s Society. This became a much-anticipated event for the children concerned, many of whom spent the year looking forward to their brief annual holiday from the slums to the fresh air and freedom of the forest, and the huge, tasty pies they were given for lunch.

By the early 20th century there were many privately run retreats spanning the forest villages, with small settlements like High Beech and Theydon Bois each having more than one enormous retreat.  Competition between the different venues was fierce. Each retreat tried to tempt customers in with their own unique offer: At Theydon Bois donkey rides, helter-skelters, swings, a galloping horse roundabout and a hokey pokey stall were on offer. The Princes Road retreat in Buckhurst Hill more humbly advertised “free pure drinking … cricket sets, skipping ropes lent free of charge.”

Gray’s Retreat in Theydon Bois provided a generous sounding children’s tea of bread and butter, fruit cake, lemon cake, a jam sandwich, watercress and good tea for just 9 pennies. If you stayed for dinner, for a penny and a half more you could purchase meat, fruit, custard and still lemonade. And Rigg’s Retreat in High Beech had a unique selling point – a balcony at the front constructed around a large beech tree!

Two world wars and the Great Depression reduced visitor numbers to the retreats, but the steady rise of the motor car was perhaps the main reason for their final demise. Motorists were less likely to make long forest visits and stay for a meal, and as the popularity of the retreats diminished, prices went up, making it harder for other families to afford to visit. One of the original forest retreats remains in the forest today: Butler’s Retreat in Chingford. This has continued to serve visitors refreshments throughout much of the current pandemic, though perhaps in lower numbers than a hundred years ago.

Four talented young people review the latest exhibition at Epping Forest District Museum

As part of the Bronze Arts Award program currently running at Epping Forest District Museum, young people have visited and reviewed the latest exhibition ‘The Boys: Holocaust Survivors in the Epping Forest District.

Below are four insightful reflections on the exhibition.

Review One – by Harry Hyett

The exhibition that I have been to is ‘The Boys: Holocaust Survivors in the Epping Forest District’. I was expecting there to be a lot of artefacts in glass boxes, however there were paintings, tapestries, quotes on the wall, video and audio devices and more. It wasn’t how I imagined it as there was so much information packed in the small room.

The first thing I heard when I entered the room was classical piano music which made it feel old. I saw the railway cart and German writing on it and stepped in and felt cold which instantly felt like it was war.

My eye was drawn to the boy’s poster reminding me what it was about. It made me think about the Holocaust and it is very well thought out as it immediately sets out the scene and reminds you what the exhibition is about.

At the start it is very black and dark, like the horrors of the Holocaust which it is telling you about, but after the liberation it turns green. I think they did this as green makes me think of new beginnings like a new leaf sprouting.

The choice of objects is very well picked as they have an emotional story behind them – not just an old object!

The choice of pictures is good, and they tell the story quite well as the pictures of the Holocaust are not placed as you walk in, they are placed in chronological order. Another reason why the choice of pictures is very good is because as you imagine what it is like. Reading the text, you look up at the pictures and see the Holocaust then imagine what it was like and really connect on an emotional level, so yes, they are effective.

The large text on the wall gives an effect that it is very important and clear.

The film is high up on the wall and is near the pictures and naturally draws attention to them as people love to look at screens. It is also high up for practical reasons: if it were low down people would crowd around blocking the view.

I think the TV interview is good as you do not have to sit down and wait for it to go to the start you can pick to watch from any point. It does make a difference as you can see what the survivors look like more clearly and it symbolises the start of a new age. It is clear who is talking as it says the names of them. The volume could be a bit louder, so people do not crowd, but no other improvements otherwise.

The audio stand is very effective as you can choose which ones to listen to as it says what they are about. It is not much different as there are only a few pictures shown but other than that you are just listening to experiences. I prefer the audio as you can sit down, and it is not always replaying. You can rewind to number one or two and if you are listening for a while you can sit.

I think the paintings are very good as they give the effect that they are trapped like in the camps. They add a lot to the exhibition as they give a different material – the Holocaust is not just shown as artefacts in boxes.

The quilts are very good as there are lots of things to look at, each personal, and a story behind them. They are different to the paintings as there are many to look at, with lots of emotional stories, where the painting has just been painted with one story. There is a big community behind the narratives of the quilts. It is very good as it concludes the exhibition with all of the Loughton boys and a part of their own story which is what the exhibition is all about and what you go home thinking about – the Loughton boys.

The exhibition is accessible to everyone because there is a lift for wheelchair users or anyone else who needs it, it is free so anyone can come and it is a walk in so you do not need to book, so you can come in when it suits you .

I think this exhibition is of hope and despair. I think it is both for the first half of the exhibition it talks about the horrors of the Holocaust then it turns green after the liberation, a new beginning, so hope.

The quality of the exhibition is very good as there is so much information in a small room, and it is not just odd objects in glass boxes. The history is displayed in all kinds of ways.

It could be even better if:  there were seating near the screens but not too close blocking the view, if the television was a little louder so everyone did not crowd around it, the audio wire was a little longer, and there were not parts of the exhibition outside. There were parts I did not notice at first on the left when you are standing outside. Finally, the information about the railway wagon should be on the board on the right by the entrance, as I could not tell what the outside was meant to be at first –  but I think I could not find more things to improve even if I tried. It was a high-quality exhibition and I enjoyed it a lot.

Review Two – By Dilly Roth

I went to see ‘The Boys: Holocaust Survivors in the Epping Forest District’ exhibition at Epping Forest District Museum in Waltham Abbey.

I was expecting a lot of pictures and information. That was mostly what it was like, but there were a lot of artefacts, and a lot of them had upsetting or heart-warming back stories. There were also some video and sound interviews which were very interesting.

The first thing I heard as I entered was fast classical piano music which was calming and seemed like it was near to when the Holocaust started.

The things that my eyes were drawn to and that I liked best were the paintings by one of the Holocaust survivors. The pictures made me feel intrigued.

I noticed the curator had added barbed wire at the bottom of each panel and throughout the information panels he slowly changed the black background to green and the barbed wire to a green line as a symbol of peace.  I felt this was very effective as it slowly shows harmony.

This exhibition showed creativity by turning the entrance into a railway carriage.

What I learnt from the exhibition was that mostly Jewish men survived the Holocaust as men were made to work and women were sent straight to gas chambers.

I think the exhibition was very assessable as it is free and has a lift and stairs, so it does not exclude anyone.

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The quality of the content was amazing and extremely creative. If I had to change anything about the exhibition, I would add chairs to sit on.

Review Three – by Cameron Martin

The exhibition I attended was called ‘The Boys: Holocaust survivors in the Epping Forest District’.

I had expected it to be full of glass cases each containing a few items with an information board underneath with a little bit of information on the items, but, as I found out when I visited the exhibition, I was wrong.

The very first thing I heard as I entered the exhibition was fast classical piano music that gave an old feel to the exhibition.

The front of the exhibition was designed to look like an old railway cart that was used to transport the Boys about to the camps and to the airports when they were liberated. The cart was made of a reddish-brown wood and rusty metal adding to the old feel of the exhibition.

The very first thing I saw as I walked in was the same photo as on the poster telling me I am in the right place. It was a photo of the Boys. I noticed that at the start there was barbed wire at the bottom of the information board that gives a solemn feel to the start.

I realised that all the items had stories behind them. One that particularly jumped out at me was a homemade toothbrush as it struck me as absurd that the prisoners were not even provided with toothbrushes.

I think the photos on the walls were effective to show that only a few people survived (only 715 survivors were sent to Britain of the thousands captured).

At the end of the exhibition there were four quilts made by the families of the Boys. I think the quilts are effective to show almost the dawn of a new era in that they were very colourful and cheery and positive.

All in all, I think this is a great exhibit and though very small I think it is full of information. I think it is also very easily accessible as there is a lift, lots of space and you can walk-in without having to book. On the other hand, there could be more chairs.

Review Four – By Aiden Philpott

I visited an exhibition called ‘The Boys: Holocaust survivors in the Epping Forest District’ at the Epping Forest District Museum.

The first thing I heard when I approached was fast, classical piano music, which linked to one of the Holocaust survivors.

Before I entered, I noticed that the wall resembled a cart in which people would have been transported to the concentration camps. I also noticed a photograph of the Boys at the Holocaust Hostel in Loughton. These transported me back to the WWII – era and afterwards.

I also noticed that the curator has chosen to have the black walls and boards which gradually turned into a brighter colour. In addition, at first, at the bottom of the boards there were silhouettes of barbed wire, which reminded me of a prison. This gradually turned into green layers, symbolising the end of WWII and improving situations.

Despite its small size, the exhibition is very detailed and full of information, with few objects but ones that were extremely important. My eye was drawn to a German map of Europe which showed where each of the concentration camps were. This was very effective and horrified me because I had no idea how many camps there were.

The quotes on the wall were very noticeable as they were much larger than the other text.

The two films stand out more than the pictures and one of them has been placed quite high up on the wall to make it even more noticeable.

The exhibition is very assessable as there is a lot of space, it is free, you can just turn up and it is COVID – safe.

At the end of the exhibition, there was a contrast between the dull, cramped paintings and the colourful, fun quilts, all of which were created by the holocaust survivors and/or their families. This was my favourite part of the exhibition as it showed both the despair and the hope of the Holocaust survivors.

Overall, the exhibition is extremely effective. However, I only noticed the signs explaining the piano music and the walls resembling a railway cart just as I was leaving. In my opinion, to make the exhibition even better, these signs could be moved closer to the entrance, so they are more noticeable.

I would definitely recommend this exhibition to everyone; you do not need any prior knowledge of WWII and its aftermath to be fascinated by this.

Epping Forest Creative Network

Two years ago, Epping Forest District Museum received funding from the Arts Council and Royal Opera House Bridge to set up a Creative Network for the district.  Networks have been set up elsewhere as a way of bringing together schools and creative partners to open new opportunities for young people and partnership working by raising awareness of what is available on the doorstep.

The Epping Forest Creative Network quickly took shape thanks to active partners such as Copped Hall Trust, the Epping Team Ministry, Loughton Youth Radio, Lopping Hall Gallery, local schools and the Epping Forest Schools Partnership Trust.

Our first project was the 2020 Creativity Challenge, which encouraged young people to explore different creative activities at home while also raising awareness of all the creative places in the district.

We have also just held a Wildlife Photography competition for Trust schools with guest judge, wildlife photographer Peter Warne from the Copped Hall Trust, making the final selection of some fantastic entries that will feature in a special calendar.

We are always interested in hearing from any schools or creative and cultural organisations in the district who might be interested in getting involved.  Independent artists and musicians are also welcome as we look to connect people and places together to inspire great new learning opportunities.

For more information or to get in touch please email efcreativenetwork@outlook.com

Windmills, hermits and milk maids: Local life in the eighteen century

Epping Forest District Museum has a huge collection of old photographs and pictures. These can be a great way to learn about how our local area looked in the past, and how people lived. We’ve been finding out about life in the 1830s, when London-based artist James-Paul Andre visited this area. He created an album of watercolour sketches in Chigwell and the villages and countryside nearby.

This was a time when the industrial revolution was creating massive changes in the way many people lived, and London was rapidly expanding; but before the railways had reached this part of the country and before the advent of the motor car. This area was on the cusp of changes which would have a profound effect people’s way of life, and Andre’s album is a fascinating portrayal of rural life here nearly two hundred years ago.

Let’s have a look inside the album… Imagine a time when Chigwell was dominated by a huge, dark-wooden windmill on the hill, overlooking fields and rolling open countryside. It is striking how far you can see into the distance in many of the sketches, with the views open due to the lack of buildings. One image shows an adolescent boy trying to herd a nonchalant group of cows.

The High Road in Chigwell is much easier to recognise, with the familiar outline of St Mary’s Church and the historic buildings of Chigwell School pretty much unchanged in two hundred years. A view of Pudding Lane near Chigwell Row also shows a familiar wood-framed farmhouse, surrounded by fields and trees much as it is today. But the man and lady talking in the lane outside are unmistakably of the rural eighteenth century: The lady carries a basket and is wearing a wide bonnet and full skirt, while the man sports breeches, stockings, a waistcoat and a low top hat. He also appears to be holding a pitchfork, used for hay making and throwing straw.

In another scene of rural life a milkmaid is shown walking down a tree-lined lane in Chigwell in the early morning moonlight, a wooden yoke across her shoulders with a milk pail suspended from each side. The picture creates an idyllic image, but the reality of life for a lowly milk maid at this time was likely very tough. Perhaps the modern world we live in, with a free, decent education for all; running water and sanitation; and much higher standards of housing would have appealed to this young woman more than the rural life portrayed?

A number of sketches feature Hainault Forest, showing gently rolling hills with a delightful patchwork of forest, meadows and meandering streams. There is even a sketch of the Hermitage, a ramshackle structure deep in the forest where a hermit famously lived for decades. It is poignant to think that within twenty years of Andre’s sketches, much of Hainault Forest had been erased from the map.

When painting these watercolours, it is likely that Andre knew he was capturing a way of life about to change forever. Perhaps he came here to make these sketches for exactly that reason. But although many of his pictures have a romantic quality which creates rather an idealised view of life, it is wonderful to have a record of the landscapes and way of life in the district two hundred years ago, before life for most people changed forever.

St. Thomas Beckett at the British Museum and the link to Waltham Abbey

Our Museum, Heritage and Culture Specialist, Tony O’Connor looks at the link to Waltham Abbey in our latest blog.

The British Museum is currently holding a fantastic exhibition Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint, which is on until 22nd August 2021. The exhibition brings together a stunning range of material to celebrate Becket’s life and his veneration as a saint, following his murder in Canterbury Cathedral on the 29th December 1170.

The murder had important consequences for Waltham Abbey, which is often overshadowed by the church’s links to king Harold and king Henry VIII.

To atone for his role in the murder, King Henry II agreed to build and endow a number of new monasteries and it is from this that the Becket link with Waltham Abbey developed as Waltham Abbey was to be the main beneficiary of this royal project.

Work began in 1177 with the replacement of the existing clergy (a college of priests –established by Harold Godwinson in 1060) with a monastic order of Augustinian Canons.  Up to 1184 expansion of the church was paid for by the king with grants totalling £1,427 (about £2 million in today’s money), while this represents a large sum for the time, it also reflects that the king was fulfilling his vow on the cheap, with as little cost to his treasury as possible. His annual income and expenditure on other things was many times greater.

The great church established by Henry II was three times the size of the church that exists today. Henry also added new lands and rents to the church with the manors of Epping and Sewardstone adding these to 17 other manors Waltham Abbey controlled.

Church reconstruction image (WAHS)

 Parts of the west end of the church are dated to this period and the cloistral passage in the Abbey gardens is the only part of the fabric still standing with its vaulting intact.

In 1188 a charter of William de Vere, the bishop of Hereford mentions a chapel within the abbey precinct in the honour of God, the virgin Mary and the most blessed martyr and bishop Thomas. Excavation of the Becket chapel were undertaken by the Waltham Abbey Historical Society in 1979 and 2003, the finds including painted window glass.

Painted glass from the cloister (EFDM)

The museum also holds other important artefacts from the great church including the Priors Bible dating to about 1200, decorative stonework, which supported the ceiling of the church, statuary and even part of the lead pipe, which brought a fresh water supply to the monastery from Wormley in Hertfordshire some 3 miles away. A plan showing the route of the piped supply, dated to 1250 survives in a document in the British Library.

The Waltham Abbey Bible (EFDM)

A Series of Fortunate Coincidences – The Loughton Boys from a Curator’s Perspective

A Series of Fortunate Coincidences – The Loughton Boys from a Curator’s Perspective

Ellis Spicer, University of Kent

I often call where I am today helping with curating the exhibition ‘a series of fortunate coincidences’, because that’s really how it manifested. References in the Martin Gilbert book on the Boys from Windermere and after to Loughton, reflections in interviews with survivors who were there all happened by chance rather than design and led me down this path. I was doing my PhD on Holocaust survivor communities in Britain at the University of Kent, I grew up in Epping Forest and went to King Harold School, I used to be an Epping Forest Youth Councillor and volunteer at the museum. I wasn’t expecting all of those spheres of my life to come together in a series of fortunate (or what I’ve come to think of as amazing) coincidences.

And at an event in the Houses of Parliament in 2018 for the Epping Forest Youth Council, which I was part of 2009-2011, I ran into Tony O’Connor, one of the museum’s staff members and shared my fascinating discovery about the history of Holocaust survivors in the UK and the history of the Epping Forest District. His reaction was gobsmacked, he mentioned how the museum were looking to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War and this could be a perfect way to showcase a little-known aspect of our area’s history.

The process happened fairly quickly and an exhibition was due to open in May 2020 at Epping Forest District Museum. Research was compiled, ideas exchanged and excitement was high. But then Covid happened. And in many ways we reflect on that disruption with an air of gratitude despite all of the horrors unfolding in the world during the pandemic. So many more avenues we could explore, so many more exciting projects to do the exhibition justice and tell such an important story the best way we could.

The research process for an exhibition has been very similar to the research process for my PhD. I started out knowing what I wanted to research and the individuals/groups I needed to reach out to, and I started there with interviews with three of the four surviving Loughton boys living in the UK: Ben Helfgott, Harry Spiro and Janek Goldberger. From there, I delved into the archives of the ’45 Aid Society Journal and the Central British Fund and expanded my networks for information, looking at archived oral history and testimony for those Loughton boys no longer with us and objects from the Jewish Museum and Imperial War Museum to potentially loan.

The biggest learning curve for this former King Harold student under the tutelage of Mr Rumsey turned PhD student at Kent turned curator is the designing stage. I have learned so much more about how to communicate research, how to engage with people and how to make things look appealing. We academics often lose sight of the everyday in our research, and this exhibition has connected me back to the day-to-day life of the stories I’m privileged to tell.

It’s always been important to me to never stop learning, and this exhibition reflects this next step for me in order to meet that goal. I credit my connection to the District, it’s schools, teachers, the museum and passionate local individuals for bringing me to this point. I want to end with the many fascinating stories of our local history waiting to be discovered, and to urge all of the passionate historians out there to capture these stories and record them where possible.

The Boys: Holocaust Survivors in the Epping Forest District is open now at Epping Forest District Museum. For more information on the opening hours of the museum and how we are managing our covid safe environment please visit https://www.eppingforestdc.gov.uk/museum/

Learning about The Boys: Holocaust Survivors in the Epping Forest District

The museum reopened on the 17 May 2021 with a special exhibition on The Boys, the young survivors of the Holocaust who came to stay at Holmehurst, a house on the borders of Loughton and Buckhurst Hill from December 1945 to January 1947.

These young people were Polish Jews and had survived the Holocaust.  Most of them were the only member of their family to survive.

This subject is challenging to teach but is also an important piece of local history.  If we focus on the stories of these young people before and after the Holocaust – what their lives were like before the war, and they went on to achieve – there are many important lessons to engage pupils.

One useful resource is the book After the War by Tom Palmer, focussing on the arrival of the Boys in Windermere, in the Lake District, to begin their recovery before they were transferred in small groups to other hostels such as Loughton.  Tom worked with the Lake District Holocaust Project and UCL Centre for Holocaust Education to research and write this story and create learning resources.  The story is a powerful and sensitive introduction to this topic.  We are fortunate that Tom has offered to write a short story to accompany our exhibition; His Name is Ben will explore the story of Ben Helfgott, one of the Boys who came to Loughton and went on to become an Olympic weightlifter.

We have also worked with the Jewish Music Institute and Essex Music Services to create a resource for a music lesson, exploring a traditional Jewish song.  This aims to engage pupils with Jewish life and culture in Poland before the Second World War, providing a context for thinking about the families the young people came from, and what their childhood was like, before the war changed everything.

We hope that these will become part of a permanent resource, alongside a new Holocaust Memorial planned for the district, and help young people learn about this important piece of history, and its relevance to the local area.

History Days at the museum

We are looking forward to running our new series of history days for schools once the museum reopens! These days focus on learning about history through fun, hands-on activities. Children love exploring the museum, some of which is housed in a fascinating sixteenth century Tudor house, and they often get special access to historic local objects which are not currently on public display during their visit.

The history days are based on topics from the National Curriculum, and each one comprises of three exciting sessions…

Pupils might be Discovering the toys local girl Ellen Buxton played with 100 years ago, using images from her beautiful diary and real old toys from the museum’s collection; or getting hands-on with ancient artefacts to investigate how life changed during the Stone Age.

They could be Exploring behind the scenes in the museum, with a chance to see some of our Roman treasures which are not on public display; or finding out about life in Victorian times using local artefacts from the museum’s stores.

And they might be Creating a clay pot inspired by techniques used in the Neolithic period; or creating a print in the style of local artist Walter Spradbery, to take home.

Whatever they are learning about, the children can expect a warm welcome at the museum and a stimulating and memorable day. We can’t wait to welcome schools back!

If you would like to book a history day for your school group, please contact Catherine Hammond on 07548 145669 or email chammond@eppingforestdc.gov.uk.