There is a strip of forest land just north of St John’s church at Buckhurst Hill, known as The Wilderness. This was the name of a house which stood within this patch of forest.

It was the home of artist Walter Spradbery and a tablet in the woods explains: “The Wilderness. To this house I brought my beloved wife Dorothy in 1929. In this garden music, drama, dance and art under her guidance gave grace and beauty in service to love, charity and humanity.”

The life of Walter Spradbery as art artist and teacher, a life-long pacifist, and creator of many posters of rural scenes for London Transport, has been well documented but his wife is not so well known today.

Epping Forest Guardian: Walter Spradbery (1889 -1969). Image: by kind permission of Rima BallWalter Spradbery (1889 -1969). Image: by kind permission of Rima Ball

Dorothy d’Orsay was several years younger than her husband, but had already made her mark in the musical world when she gave up her career as a singer to take on that of a mother. She had a wonderful contralto voice, coupled with a gift for interpreting the roles she performed. In opera she preferred Verdi and Mozart, but often her talent was used on the concert platform and she sang in the first Proms under Sir Henry Wood. Dorothy was one of the first women to sing on the ‘wireless’ when it was at Savoy Hill, although her powerful voice was a challenge to the technicians of the time.

Epping Forest Guardian: Dorothy D’Orsay (1898 – 1952). Image: by kind permission of Rima BallDorothy D’Orsay (1898 – 1952). Image: by kind permission of Rima Ball

During the Second World War Dorothy started The Wilderness Opera Group and Orchestra to perform rare operas in the open-air theatre which they made in their garden at The Wilderness. Their studio was used to rehearse the 50-piece orchestra and to act out the scenes, or the floor was cleared so that Walter could paint the scenery and backcloths he had designed for the productions. The house would be full as the first performance drew nearer, with people trying on costumes in the bedrooms, the orchestra rehearsing in the studio, and soloists running through their parts in the study or on the porch.

By this time the Spradbery’s two children were old enough to help paint the scenery, and their daughter Rima well remembers being made tea lady on rehearsal days. Providing tea and biscuits for more than 50 people two or three times a week during the war-time rationing was no easy task, but friends were very generous and brought along tea and sugar, and coupons to help out. The productions must have been very much appreciated by the audiences who could escape from the reality of bombing to the peaceful woodland theatre. Here the colourful costumes and wonderful music, complemented by birdsong from the forest must have lifted many hearts in sore need of such enchantment.

Epping Forest Guardian: Dido and Aeneas. Image: by kind permission of Rima BallDido and Aeneas. Image: by kind permission of Rima Ball

Dorothy was a marvellous conductor and did not usually sing in the operas herself, preferring to direct and conduct from the orchestra stand under the trees. She liked the English composers and produced some of their works at the Wilderness. One of her favourite operas was Dido and Aeneas which needed small cherubs, so children from a local drama school were enlisted to help with the performance.

It was also during the Second World War that Dorothy’s talented brother-in-law Dick Williams started to use the Wilderness theatre to stage plays performed by students from the Greenleaf Road Educational Settlement, including some promising youngsters like Michael Fishlock and Dennis Quilley. Some readers may remember he continued this in the grounds of his cottage at Curtis Mill Green.

Epping Forest Guardian: Memorial tablet in the WildernessMemorial tablet in the Wilderness

Dorothy d’Orsay died in 1952, leaving Walter heartbroken. Their house had received some war damage which had been made good, but the encroaching woodland started to cause problems, with tree roots undermining the foundations of the building. Walter was loath to sell the house, fearing that a block of flats would be built on the site, but happily an agreement was made whereby the land was bought and added to Epping Forest in compensation for land lost from the forest in a road improvement scheme.

  • Georgina Green has been involved with local history in Redbridge, Waltham Forest and the Epping Forest area for 40 years and is the author of several local history books. She was elected a fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 2021.