85,000 acres of land marks the history behind one lopper who helped save Epping Forest from destruction.

In Loughton an ancient right, which allowed residents to go into the forest and lop the branches higher than six feet from the ground, existed.

Thomas Willingale, a labourer and lopper from Loughton, was dependent on wood cut from the trees in the forest between midnight on November 11 and April 23.

So much so that every year at midnight on the first evening of the right he went into the forest, for he firmly believed that if no one started lopping at the appointed hour, the rights would be lost forever.

This annual privilege, which was supposedly granted by Queen Elizabeth I, soon faced attack from the lords of the manor.

Around 1860 the forest was becoming gradually enclosed and the lords were keen to stop the commoners from practicing their lopping rights.

The story goes that William Whitaker Maitland, the Lord of the manor of Loughton, tried to bring this ancient custom to an end by inviting the loppers to a supper at the Kings Head in High Road, Loughton.

Whitaker hoped that by midnight the loppers would all be too drunk to go into the forest and exercise their rights, which would then be lost.

Realising the plan Willingale stayed sober and left the Kings Head at 11:30.

He walked out on to Staples Hill and on the stroke of midnight he lopped off a branch before returning to the pub with the bough.

Dr Chris Pond, chairman of the Loughton Historical Society, said: “I have to admit, I believe the story is nothing but a picturesque legend.

“There is no doubt that Thomas Willingale played an important factor when it came to faving the forest.

“But this story, I think, is a legend believed by the town.

“Some people to this day would swear it was true if you asked them but there is just no evidence.”

In 1865 Maitland took Willingale to Epping Magistrates court and accused him of injuring forest trees, but the case was dismissed.

However in 1866 his son and two nephews were found guilty of the same charge and spent seven days in Ilford prison.

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

Cllr Pond said: “Willingale was one of the people who would have suffered by abolition so it is no surprise that he took action.”

In 1870, the 71-year-old lopper died shortly before the case was resolved.

After a demurer was found in favour of Willingale, the Corporation of London was persuaded to take on the land.

Successful legal proceedings by the Corporation against the enclosures began August 1871.

The Epping Forest Act was passed in 1878.

This Act put to an end the deforestation, the crown rights of vert and venison, the Forest courts and all other restrictions and ancient customs, and secured the Corporation of London as Conservators of the forest.

Following the loss of their lopping rights, the commoners were compensated in the sum of £7,000.

A trust of local worthies used £3,236 of a £7,000 compensation sum to build Lopping Hall in High Road Loughton, which still stands today.

The rest of the money was distributed to the affected loppers.

A sculpture of the time, which is a lasting reminder of the loppers’ importance in the battle to preserve the forest, still stands above a door on Lopping Hall.

Cllr Pond added: “Of the £7,000 compensation given for the abolition of the lopping rights, so was given to five or six families who actively lopped in the forest.

“The rest of the money was given to open Lopping Hall.

“The trust was then created and they have ran the hall right up to this date.

“People who actively lopped were given the privilege to use the facilities, such as Loughton’s first library, for free.

“There is no doubt that Willingale played a large and important role in protecting Epping Forest.

“Without him it probably would not be as we know it now.”