Introduction to the Epping Hunt
Believe it or not, there was a time when country-folk from Buckhurst Hill, Loughton and Woodford found themselves inundated with Cockneys, but it was only for one day annually. That day was Easter Monday and the occasion was the Epping Hunt. It is more than a little ironic that an area nowadays considered the epicentre of ‘cockneyism’ (thanks to TV shows like TOWIE) should have once gaped and sniggered at the ‘Oh Gaw Blimey’ accents and godawful clothing worn by these town-dwelling visitors, who were exercising an ancient right granted to the City of London – allowing ordinary citizens one day’s hunting in Epping Forest.
The Essex Hunt, near Epping by Dean Wolstenhome (1757-1837)
Throughout the 1700s Easter Monday provided ordinary Londoners with three options for holiday entertainment. Firstly there was a fair at Greenwich Hill where there were organised picnics where excellent ginger bread and other delightful treats on offer, and you could enter the prestigious ‘rolling down the hill’ competition and win a prize. This tame sounding pastime was undoubtedly a rough and tumble affair taken seriously by the competitors. For those hedging their bets against inclement weather, a second option was Sadlers Wells, which offered performances of new musicals and pantomimes throughout the day[i].
But for sportsmen and spectators alike, there was nothing to beat the Epping Hunt, whose rituals embraced the entire community from the heart of London’s metropolis into the Essex countryside. First established during the reign of Henry III in 1226, the Epping Hunt was more than just a chase. It began with an early morning breakfast near the Tower of London, followed by a 10-mile procession from London, through Mile End, Stratford and Wanstead. Along the way new participants swelled its ranks until they all arrived at either the Roebuck or Bald Faced Stag Inns in Buckets Hill (nowadays Buckhurst Hill), where the stag was traditionally turned out. The finest carriages from London and the surrounding area occupied prime positions on the hill, attended upon by a myriad of food and drink vendors. Whilst the men saddled up and joined the hunt, the ladies had ample opportunity to display their fashionable attire – enjoying music, promenading and engaging in gossip.
At a typical Epping Hunt thousands of ordinary folk lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the noble elite, or manned stalls selling a variety of produce to the visiting hordes. This undoubtedly proved a massive boost to the local economy proving that it really was an occasion to remember.
Over these next four blogs I will examine the history and traditions of the Epping Hunt and add links between each blogs as and when they are posted:
- Origins and Establishment of Tradition (1226-1750) – Here I will look at how Epping Hunt was established as an aristocratic event under the patronage of the Lord Mayor of London, alongside the Lord Warden of Epping Forest.
- Gor‘ Blimey Mate!! (1750-1810) – By 1787 Epping Hunt was generally regarded as the ‘Cockney Hunt’ because its participants were increasingly drawn from London’s merchant classes. In this period there was the tremendous comedy value of watching a collection of badly-dressed city-folk chase about the forest in the fruitless pursuit of their goal. Not surprisingly the Epping Hunt became an object of public ridicule and by 1810 the consensus was that it would soon die a natural death – a relic of a bygone age.
- Wicked William’s Hunt (1813) – In 1813 William Long-Wellesley of Wanstead House hosted an extremely extravagant event, reckoned to be the most lavish ever – in an incredible attempt to restore tradition and quality to the Epping Hunt. I will look at the day in question plus the ramifications it had for the future of Wanstead House.
- A Fond Farewell (1820-1850s) – More than any one person Thomas Hood is responsible for restoring the Epping Hunt in a positive way for future generations to recall. His eponymous poem (1828) served as a gentle reminder of the mirth and pleasure to be had on such an occasion, whilst at the same time acknowledging its inevitable demise.
One of Rowlandson’s plates from Thomas Hood’s The Epping Hunt poem (1828)
The Epping Hunt might be best remembered by this quote taken from Hunting in the Olden Days by William Scarth Dixon, which was published in 1912:
It was one of the ironies of Fate that the Epping Hunt should be chiefly remembered [in caricature]…For the Epping Hunt was the common hunt of the City of London, and as such its rights were jealously guarded. It was the most important of those city hunts of which we have had so many in England…. So though the Epping Hunt outlived its usefulness… let us look kindly on those good city sportsmen of a bygone age. Let us remember that they helped to foster the general love and admiration of sport without which, I make bold to say, hunting would have been seriously curtailed in our day, if not abolished altogether.
[i] Perhaps the most enduringly popular Easter Monday performance at Sadlers Wells was in fact entitled The Epping Hunt – which was put on by popular demand for a great many years. So, whether you went in person or witnessed a hilarious reproduction at Sadlers Wells, the Epping Hunt was a pivotal component in the Easter calendar for Londoners.