The Forest in the Twentieth century

The early years of the 20th century saw the end of nearly 200 years of ownership by the Houblon family, the purchase of the Forest by Edward North Buxton and subsequent donation to the National Trust. The Forest opened as a National Trust property in 1924. There was some felling of trees and coppicing continued but perhaps greater damage was done by poor maintenance of coppice fences. Controversial plans were proposed in 1955 to replant some areas with oak and larch.

The end of the Houblon era

At the turn of the century, the Forest was owned by George Bramston Eyre. He had inherited the property in 1891, on the death of his uncle, John Archer Houblon, and subsequently changed his surname from Eyre to Archer Houblon.  He was succeeded by his son Henry (Major H.L. Houblon)), in 1913. 

Hallingbury Place was let to tenants, in particular Mr and Mrs Lockett Agnew, from 1910 to 1923. 

Following the death of Mrs Lockett Agnew, the whole of the Hallingbury Park estate, including Hatfield Forest, was put up for sale by auction.  The Forest (as part of a lot including Hallingbury Park) was purchased by Thomas Place, from Northallerton, Yorkshire.  His prime interest was the timber, rather than the house, and plans were made to start felling.

The Forest is bequeathed to the National Trust

Edward North Buxton and his family intervened, to purchase the main area of the Forest.  This was then bequeathed to the National Trust  and subsequently opened to the public, in May 1924, by Lord Ullswater, vice-president of the National Trust. 

The "great felling" of 1924 

The interim owner, Thomas Place, moved quickly after his purchase of the Forest in Oct 1923, to let out a contract for the felling of large trees.  Fortunately, this was mostly limited to large standard oaks, plus a small number of the pollarded trees.  This was probably no more than catching up on reduced level of timber felling of the previous hundred years, rather than complete destruction as many large oaks, elms and beeches were left untouched. 

Early years of National Trust management 

In 1924, the National Trust was mainly interested in land, and providing open access to this, rather then houses, owning about 30,000 acres, including Blakeney Point and Wicken Fen, with only a limited number of small buildings. It had limited resources and expertise, with only about 2000 members.

The Forest was managed by a local committee, including Theresa Buxton, sister of Edward North Buxton. For over thirty years, this committee was content to follow the policies of the Houblons, rather than develop any new Trust strategy, but with public access.   

Coppicing continued on a regular but declining basis, with some preference been given to the lesser practice of thinning and removal of underwood. Grazing was maintained, often at quite a high level. Coppice fences were not reinstated, allowing cattle to enter all the coppices and eat any regrowth. This probably had a greater impact on the Forest than the felling of 1924. Scrub increased in the Plains and in the areas where trees had been felled. 

Deer and rabbits were now seen as a nuisance and in a 6 week period in 1937, 1100 rabbits were snared. The committee even considered eliminating the deer herds, but fortunately this was not acted on. 


Visitors in the early days were poorly supervised. They arrived in cars and on motor bikes and were allowed to roam freely, causing damage to the rides, spoiling the grazing and creating large areas of mud. 

In line with the terms of Edward North Buxton's bequest, the Forest was used by local Souts and Guides for their summer camps. The army was allowed to carry out manoeuvres in 1937. 

Stane Street Halt

In 1923, a new request stop, Stane Street Halt, was added to the Bishops Stortford to Braintree branch line running along the northern boundary of the Forest, at the north east corner, by Takeley Hill Gate. The low rise platform has recently been restored by the Friends of the Flitch Way. This would have allowed easier access to the Forest, in the era before car ownership became more widespread.

Further donations of land 

Woodside Green, as well as the smaller Wright's Green and Mott's Green in Little Hallingbury, were given to the Trust by Major Archer Houblon in 1935. 

Wall Wood, to the east of Woodside Green, was presented to the Trust in 1946 by the Essex and Puckeridge Hunts.  The Wood had been given to them by Gerald Stacey, in memory of his uncle, Frank Stacey, a member of the local management committee from 1928 until his death in 1932, during which time he oversaw works in the forest.

This brought together the remaining parts of the Forest, thus helping to preserve and protect this unique and ancient forest. 

The Forest during World War II

Areas within Elgins Coppice were used for storage of ammunitions, for use at nearby airfields.  The remains of temporary shelters can still be seen sticking up through the leaf mould.  Access to the site was by a gate opposite St Johns Church, a little further on from the present entrance.  The road within Elgins Coppice was constructed during this period, as a service road.

The great dispute of 1955 

In 1955, the Trust decided that some replanting was needed. Not having sufficient funds to do this, they proposed leasing part of the Forest to the Forestry Commission, to make a plantation of larch and oak. This caused great alarm in certain circles, as the Commission was better known for replacing ancient woodland with conifers. 

The Trust was divided on the proposal, with local opposition led by Anthony Buxton, son of Edward. Anthony had succeeded his aunt, Theresa, on the local management committee and publicly resigned over the issue. In addition to local opposition, support was received from many groups, including the Ramblers Association, Youth Hostel Association and the Womens' Institute. 

The proposal was eventually withdrawn only to appear four years later, in a modified form. The Trust negotiated an "Approved Woodlands Scheme" with the Forestry Commission, for some 50 acres of coppices to be grubbed out and replanted with oak, beech and conifers. The Trust would retain control, and would receive funding from the Commission for managing the wood.  The outcome can be seen in Emblem's Coppice and sections of  Spittlemore Coppice, Collins Coppice and Wall Wood.   

The Shell House Buildings

In 1924, the Shell House was at the front end of a longer building extending away from the lake.  This building was a cottage, providing accomodation for the custodian of the lakeside area. 

This buidling was demolished and replaced, in two stages, by single storey wings on either side of the Shell House whilst a two story extensuin was buily behind the Shell house and the roof line extended backwards.  These new buildings were designed in 1928 by the respected restoration architect, A. R. Powys, a former secretary of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, in the style of a medieval almshouse, with three distinctive chimney breasts dominating the roof line of each wing.

The right hand side wing  was built first, as the Fishermans Shelter, shortly after the design was made.  It is furnished with heavy duty oak seating and tables, in the Arts and Crafts style, and contains a plaque commerating the doantion of the Forest to the National Trust by Edward North Buxton.

The left hand side wing was built at a later date, using mellow bricks, and originally formed a three bedroom cottage, with a ground floor and first floor room behind the Shell House.  The three bedrooms have since been converted into a single space which is now the Education Room.  The ground floor room is now the Discovery Room.

The Decoy Lake

The height of the dam forming the lake was raised in 1979, causing the arm of the lake suggested by Capability Brown to be cut off from the main body of water.  This became known as the Decoy Lake.  In addtion, an area behind the north eastern bank was excavated, extending the area of the Decoy lake and creating a new and much larger island, eclipsing the original Brownian island at the further end.