Tally Ho! A Brief History of the Epping Hunt
A Fond Farewell – (Courtesy of Thomas Hood)
Epping, for butter justly famed, And Pork in sausage popp’d;
Where winter time, or summer time, A Pig’s flesh is always chopp’d
But famous more, as annals tell, Because of Easter Chase,
There ev’ry year ‘twixt dog and deer, There is a gallant race
Extract from ‘The Epping Hunt’ (1829)
As we have seen the Epping Hunt had long-since lost its reputation by the turn of the nineteenth century. By that time it was a regular victim of satire, described as a farce, worthy of scorn and derision. Whilst a lot of what was written about the Easter Monday Common Hunt was true, it should be noted that a sizeable element of snobbery motivated these attacks. It became de rigeur to pigeon-hole hard-working Londoners enjoying a day out as uncouth ‘cockney clowns’ unaware of their own ineptness and stupidity. This could be linked with a wider censorship of popular sports such as football and boxing, which were prevented from developing alongside acceptable aristocratic pastimes like horseracing and cricket. Organisations such as the Society for the Suppression of Vice openly advocated banning of working-class sports on Sundays, which was the only day available to most working-class people. Hence mass-participation events naturally suffered on the altar of religious zeal. Because of this the rules of football were not formally written down until the 1860s – a half century after cricket and horseracing.
Returning from the Epping Hunt (1822) – Yet more ‘cockney’ stereotyping
The so-called ‘march of morality’ began to kick in as the 1820s progressed , with even the middle and lower orders beginning to shift away from the frolicsome bawdiness of public sports, such as described in Pierce Egan’s popular classic Life In London (1820). In this thrust for greater decorum and respectability, Epping Hunt’s occasional reappearance was increasingly considered an embarrassing throwback. It lingered on sporadically until 1853 after which the landlord of the Roebuck – said to have become so ashamed of the company turning up at his establishment – put an end to the Epping Hunt forever.
Why then, does the Epping Hunt merit a fond farewell? And how has it passed into Essex folklore cleansed of the ill-will and disgust that followed it to the grave? Quite simply, I believe it has recovered in reputation thanks to the brilliance of poet Thomas Hood (1799-1845).
The Epping Hunt’s Facesaver? – Thomas Hood (1799-1845)
In his poem The Epping Hunt published in 1829 (and reproduced in full here) Hood makes no attempt to deny the charges brought against the Hunt. Like generations of critics before him, Hood lays bare the ridiculousness of town-dwellers coming into the countryside in pursuit of the stag. But Hood has changed the emphasis from hostility to whimsy, and his descriptions are not only gentle but also affectionate. With the help of 6 sketches from Thomas Rowlandson, The Epping Hunt was a national sensation, cementing Hood’s reputation as a comic poet, and repositioning the Epping Hunt as a tradition to be cherished. Hood’s style of writing represented a movement away from the savageness of Georgian satirical caricature, whereupon kinder representations of life such as nostalgia began to enter the nation’s conscience. So, thanks to Hood, the Epping Hunt achieved a decent eulogy for future generations.
Hood’s comic verse is perfectly represented here by Rowlandson, as we see the hapless John Huggins being hunted by the deer
But how did Thomas Hood come to write about Epping Forest? We can only surmise that he was a visitor in the late 1820s following his marriage to Jane Reynolds. The newlyweds lived in Islington between 1826 and 1832, so it would not have been difficult for Hood to have made the annual pilgrimage to Buckhurst Hill to see what the fuss was about. In fact the 1826 Hunt was quite widely reported – though not in a positive way. The Everyday Book recorded that the event failed to start until 2-30pm because the stag was sent on a tour of all the local pubs, where it was shown to 3000 or so hunt-followers at 3 pence a view, presumably so they could get first-hand knowledge of what a stag looked like. It didn’t do much good for the stag was lost almost immediately after being set loose. The report summed up by saying if you are looking for a hunt…
For want of a better, this must do
Perhaps Thomas Hood’s love for Wanstead began with his poem about the Epping Hunt. For in 1832 Hood took up residence at Lake House in Wanstead Park – where he lived for three years. Hood rented the property from none other than ‘Wicked’ William Long-Wellesley – and despite regularly defaulting on his rent managed to enjoy cordial relations with his notorious landlord. Hood’s only novel Tylney Hall (1834) is a thinly veiled homage to Wanstead House and Park. But attempting to cash in on Wicked William’s story was an unwise move because it raised expectations that Tylney Hall would reveal the truth about Wanstead House, and satisfy public curiosity as to why it was demolished. – This lead to criticism and affected sales, forcing Hood to add a note in the preface explaining that ‘Tylney Hall’ alluded to the topography of Wanstead Park, but not its disreputable owner.
Incidentally Tylney Hall is a very important early Victorian novel, well worth reading not least for its descriptions of Wanstead Park. Rather surprisingly several characters in the book are West Indian, their presence revealing that this part of London was already multicultural in the 1830s. I have covered this in a separate blog.
Thomas Hood lived at Lake House in Wanstead Park (1832-35)
As we draw a close to this brief history of the Epping Hunt, it is important to remember the role played by the ‘Common Hunt’ in the lives of Londoners and the people of Essex for over 600 years. Though it lingered on for far too long as a spectacle, Epping’s Hunt must be remembered as one of the earliest and enduring events available to the people on perhaps their most important public holiday. Therefore the festive spirit generated by celebrating the Epping Hunt can be seen to have moved on to other leisure activities, such as cycling and day-trips to Epping Forest, which became increasingly popular as the Victorian age of steam took hold.
As this 1899 print shows, deer hunting in Epping Forest carried on regardless – for the privileged few.
I recommend the Gerald Massey website for an excellent biography of Thomas Hood.
For information about the history of Wanstead Park there is a very good ongoing series of articles written by Richard Arnopp available via Wanstead Village Directory
Thank you for joining me on this brief excursion into Epping Forest’s past. You can find out a lot more about this ancient forest by visiting the following sites:
The City of London’s informative guide to what’s on in Epping Forest : cityoflondon.gov.uk/epping
Essex Record Office is a tremendous resource for researching all aspects of Essex history: essex.gov.uk/ero
The Friends of Wanstead Park – wansteadpark.org.uk
Finally, the best place for Wanstead related news is Wansteadium