The History of Wanstead Park

Wanstead House, by Richard Westall (1765-1836). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
Wanstead House, by Richard Westall (1765-1836). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Like many other settlements, Wanstead first emerged into the light of history in the eleventh century, with the Domesday Survey, compiled on the orders of William I in 1086.

St. Paul held Wanesteda, now Ralph son of Brien [holds it] of the Bishop for one manor and one hide. Then [i. e. in the time of Edward the Confessor] one plough in demesne ; now one and a half. Always [i. e. then and now] two ploughs of the men, and three villeins. Then seven bordars ; now eight. Then two serfs ; now none. Wood for 300 pigs. Now one mill. Always one salt-pan. And it is worth 40s.

- (Domesday Book, vol.2, fo.9b.)

The manor passed through various hands. A full account of its complex ownership history may be seen on British History Online, but little is documented about occupation or land use in Wanstead during the mediaeval period, and even the location of the manorial buildings is not certainly known.

The key moment in the park's history was its enclosure around 1509, a few years after its purchase by Henry VII. The later mediaeval Wanstead Hall was considered to be of a sufficient size to serve as a royal hunting lodge, but by 1549 was reported to be "in great ruin". The estate was acquired around that time by Richard, Lord Rich, who turned the hunting park into a fine country seat. It was he who built the first Wanstead House, reportedly the largest in Essex at the time. In 1578 Wanstead was bought by Elizabeth's great minister Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. After Dudley's death, subsequent owners included Charles Blount, Earl of Devonshire; George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham; and Sir Henry Mildmay, the regicide.

At length, Wanstead Park was acquired by the Child (later Tylney) family, who leased the estate in 1667 and owned it outright from 1673. It is they who shaped the park as we now know it.

Sir Josiah Child, Governor of the East India Company, seems to have done little to the house, but spent prodigious sums on the gardens. His son Richard, ennobled first as Viscount Castlemaine and later as Earl Tylney of Castlemaine, replaced Lord Rich's house with an immense Palladian mansion. Richard Child also re-cast the gardens in two major phases of work, the second of which involved the creation of an extensive lake system, much of which survives today. Child and his successors employed the most eminent designers of their time to create what became one of England's most celebrated and influential landscaped gardens.

The extravagance of the last resident owners led to the demolition of Wanstead House in the 1820s. After decades of uncertainty, despoliation and neglect, a large part of the park was ultimately purchased by the Corporation of the City of London in 1882 and dedicated to the public. Other parts were transformed into a golf course or sold for development.

Our history pages aim to give an overview of the estate, buildings and gardens of Wanstead Park, and the people associated with them. They also tell the story of the park's rebirth as a public open space, the impact of suburbanisation and war, and the questions over its future.

SERIES 1: THE OWNERS OF WANSTEAD PARK 

SERIES 2: THE LAKE SYSTEM OF WANSTEAD PARK

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