Hampstead Heath History
The modern Hampstead Heath is normally considered to be the entire open space of nearly 800 acres, most of it added to the original Heath, bordering Hampstead town, the administration of which passed from the L.C.C. to the G.L.C. and thence to The Corporation of London.
It stretches from Highgate Road across northwestern St. Pancras and the northern part of Hampstead, and at two points reaches well beyond the Hendon boundary.
Less than half of the area lies within Hampstead, as is recognized by the restricted use of the name Hampstead Heath on many maps. (to see historical maps of The Heath, CLICK HERE)
The first part of The Heath to be taken into public ownership, the kernel of the existing open space, was itself smaller than the waste of the medieval manor of Hampstead.
The origins of the lands added on the east side of The Heath, Parliament Hill, Parliament Hill Fields, and Kenwood, belong to the history of St. Pancras; those of the north-westerly additions, the Golders Hill Estate and Hampstead Heath Extension, to that of Hendon.
In 1680, when Charles the second was on the throne, Hampstead was a very small town and The Heath belonged to The Lord of The Manor.
At that time, East Heath stretched down to what was then known as Pond Street and only ONE of the Ponds then existed...the lower one, now filled up.
There was a track across The Heath, from Well Walk to Erton Road, known as "The Road".
The Elms was then Mother Hough's Tea Shop and North End was simply known as the north end of The Heath.
An hostelry called "Ye Green Man" stood where The Manor Hospital now stands and "ye crose between Hamsted and Hendon" was close to where the statue is at the entrance to Golders Hill Park, today.
On the high ground to the west of The North End Way cutting Jackson, a highway man, had been hanged in 1674.
His body was left there hanging in chains and in 1680, "ye
Gibbet" was visible right across West Heath, it being moorland then...with no houses and no trees, (as mentioned elsewhere in this article)
The Heath was built on principally around the spa area of Well Walk and the higher ground .
Fenton House, in Hampstead Grove, was described as being ON The Heath in early deeds.
During the fashionable era of Wells Walk, there was a race course on West Heath, an egg-shaped course of about a mile, running parallel to West Heath Road, then passing just to the south of the Leg Of Mutton Pond and to The Hill Garden, along the present track to the car park at Heath Brow and the round to The West Heath Road, again.
There was a windmill on Windmill Hill, (mentioned in a 1680 survey), another at New Grove House, near Fenton House, and another on Parliament Hill, then known as Traitors' Hill.
Much of Hampstead town was built on encroachments or inclosures from The Heath, which lay to its north and east.
In 1703 c. , supporting more than 50 houses, were noted as having been taken, leaving c. 313 acres. as 'remains of The Heath unimproved'.
The deductions noted took no account of many established copyholds which probably represented inroads made much earlier.
By the time that encroachments ceased on its purchase by the M.B.W. in 1871, The Heath had been further reduced to c. 220 acres.
Hampstead had spread north of New End and west of Heath Street in the early 18th century.
Other losses had been to outlying settlements described above, notably Hatch's Bottom (later The Vale of Health) and Littleworth (later Heath Brow), or to private residences such as the Firs near the Spaniards Inn and Heath Lodge in North End Road (later North End Way).
The practice of permitting inclosures in return for annual payments to the lord without the homage's consent was a grievance in 1806.
The Heath in 1871, although divided by nothing more than roads or tracks consisted of sections with well established local names.
East Heath lay east and north-east of the town, around the Vale of Health, and south-east of Spaniard's Road.
It formed an irregular strip, being separated from the St. Pancras boundary by c. 60 acres of manorial freehold known as East Park and by part of Lord Mansfield's Elms estate.
North or Sandy Heath filled most of the triangle between Spaniard's and North End roads, and West Heath most of that between North End Road and West Heath Road; together they covered c. 150 acres.
The description of Upper Heath, as opposed to Lower Heath, was sometimes given to the high ground of Sandy and East Heaths and possibly of West Heath.
The physical appearance of The Heath was chiefly due to the fact that its summit was a sandy ridge, running from Highgate to Hampstead, resting on a belt of sandy clay, which protruded at the edges and was underlain by water-resistant London Clay.
Rainwater penetrated the sand only to be forced out by the clay, creating a landscape much of which was easily dried out but which had many springs and, partly as a result of man-made excavations, swampy hollows.
Although there had been a Mesolithic settlement and some Neolithic cultivation of West Heath, the medieval Heath was left mainly as rough moorland, in contrast to the demesne farmland south and west of Hampstead town.
Divided from St. Pancras by Whitebirch wood, which the lord cleared in the 17th century for farmland which became East Park, The Heath was of value to the commoners for their grazing, gathering, and digging rights.
It was first recorded as 'a certain heath' in 1312, when it supplied brushwood normally worth 2s. a year, and was called Hampstead Heath in 1543, when its springs were to supply London, and in 1545, when hunting and hawking were forbidden over a wide area in order to preserve game for the king.
It was also known as Hampstead Heath to the herbalist John Gerard (1545-1612), who in 1597 described plants which he had found there, some native to marshes and others to 'dry mountains which are hungry and barren'.
Such a varied habitat within easy reach of London attracted many later plant hunters: Gerard's editor Thomas Johnson (d. 1644) described an expedition made in 1629 and the Apothecaries' Company in 1734 was said to have seldom failed to come for its spring 'herbarizing feast'.
Changes were effected over the centuries by tree felling and later by planting, which included John Turner's firs near the Spaniard's inn from the 1730s and controversial municipal attempts at improvement from the late 19th century.
Other changes, which came to appear natural, resulted from exploitation of the water resources and of the soil.
For all its springs, The Heath until the end of the 17th century had no large ponds.
Nothing was done under the Act of 1543 for London's water until the lord mayoralty of Sir John Hart, 1589-90, whom Gerard accompanied to view the springs and who 'attempted' some unspecified works.