SOMEWHERE in the grounds of St John’s Church in Loughton lies the body of Thomas Willingale.

Few people would recognise his name now, but without his actions it is doubtful if Epping Forest as we know it today would exist.

Willingale was a lopper from Loughton, who depended on wood cut from the trees in the forest to survive.

In 1860 those rights were under threat from a local landlord, the Reverend John Maitland, who had begun the process of enclosing the forest to build on.

Loppers had the right to chop branches in the forest, but to retain that right they had to lop a bough before midnight on November 11 every year.

The story goes that Maitland invited all of Loughton’s loppers to the King’s Head pub in an effort to get them drunk and trick them into missing the deadline for lopping wood.

Willingale, however, stayed sober and, with five minutes to go before the deadline, ran to the forest and returned to the pub with a bough which he presented to Maitland.

Dr Chris Pond is chairman of the Loughton Historical Society.

He said: “I must admit, I’m rather doubtful about the story.

But it’s a nice idea, and one thing is certain - Willingale was an incredibly important figure.”

What is not in doubt is that Willingale continued to defy Maitland’s efforts to enclose the forest and, along with his family, kept chopping wood.

This infuriated Maitland who took Willingale to court in 1865. The case failed but the landowner did succeed in having Willigale’s brothers imprisoned.

In response Willingale set up the Commons Preservation Society, and bankrolled by Liberal landowners, launched his own court action to prevent Maitland from enclosing the land.

Dr Pond explained: “It became a burning issue in legal and government circles.

“Willingale’s action was a seminal event in the history of world conservation.

“Doing anything like this was unheard of at the time.”

Willingale died in 1870, but his actions had mobilised working men, who began to organise large meetings on Wanstead Flats to protest about the enclosure of the forest.

In 1878, 80 men travelled by omnibuses from south London, smashing landowners fences in Wanstead, Buckhurst Hill, Loughton and High Beech.

The tide of opinion was turning firmly against the developers and, later that year, the 1878 Epping Forest Act was enacted on behalf of the Corporation of London guaranteeing that the forest remain unenclosed, undeveloped and open to the public.

But there was a final twist, as Dr Pond explained: “The irony was that the corporation also prevented the lopping of trees.

“They paid £6,000 to build Lopping Hall in Loughton by way of compensation and gave a small cash donation to all the families affected.

A sculpture of loppers above a door on Lopping Hall can still be seen today. It stands as a lasting reminder of their importance in the battle to preserve Epping Forest.

As Dr Pond says: “If the loppers had not stopped Maitland, the whole forest would have been enclosed before the City of London Corporation even became involved.”