Protecting hampstead heath
Efforts to preserve Heath began in earnest in 1829, around the time a writer from Gray’s Inn stressed the need to protect one of the few remaining ‘lungs of the metropolis’ for all classes to escape from the noise and dirt of London. It had become popular with poets, painters, writers and the public for its views and for walking from around 1800. Before that, the land was mostly valued for its natural resources. Its popularity as an escape from the city was cemented in 1860 with the opening of Hampstead Junction railway - now the Overground route north from Camden Road, passing through Kentish Town West, Gospel Oak and Hampstead Heath station - which made the Heath accessible to thousands of poorer families who lived too far away to walk, especially London’s ‘Eastenders’. By then it hosted fairs, donkey rides and inns. The writer William Howitt complained in 1869 that Sunday evening revellers heading home down Haverstock Hill could be heard all the way to Highgate, on the other side of the Heath.
The Heath’s future as a public open space was uncertain for decades. The Lord of the Manor Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson, who had inherited most of the Heath’s lands from his father in 1821, wanted to develop parts of it. He couldn’t because of his father’s will, which prevented him from granting leases of over 21 years. He fought several legal battles hoping to gain powers to build and to grant 99-year building leases, starting with his Private Estate Bill, which would have established his right to enclose common land. Happily, he faced powerful opposition from locals, campaigns in the press and, as the Heath became more popular, in parliament from MPs who’s constituents were using the Heath. Unusually for the time, Sir Thomas’s property rights were overridden in the name of public interest – and perhaps because building where he intended, in East Heath Park, would have hemmed in the Heath and threatened the views of Lord Mansfield at Kenwood, and other Hampstead gentry. Thwarted, he tried to build a ‘park’ of 28 villas himself and he had the Viaduct built in in the 1840s. It was supposed to be the entrance to his planned estate, but he ran out of money. The planned estate, shown below, was never built but the Viaduct still stands today.
By the 1860s, common spaces across London were under threat, and Sir Thomas was still the biggest risk for the Heath. In 1861 he began to commercialise the Heath, selling the sand along Spaniard’s Road and filling East Park with brickfields. A Hampstead Heath Protection Fund was established by Gurney Hoare, to pay for legal action against Sir Thomas. In the end, concerns about the loss of public space and pressure by the Commons Preservation Society (which included several Hampstead campaigners) resulted in the Metropolitan Commons Act in 1866, which granted new preservation powers to the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW). When Sir Thomas died in 1869, his brother and heir Sir John sold East Heath, Sandy (North West) Heath and West Heath to the MBW for a ‘stiff but not extortionate’ price.
The Heath’s acquisition as a public open space was confirmed with the Hampstead Heath Act in 1871, which stated that ‘the Board shall forever keep the Heath open, unenclosed and unbuilt on’ and that ‘the Board shall at all times preserve, as far as may be, the natural aspect and state of the Heath, and to that end shall protect the turf, gorse, heather, timber and other trees, shrubs and brushwood thereon’. It came just in time for the Bank Holidays Act, 1871, which granted workers four public days rest and which made Hampstead Heath’s fairs more popular than ever.
The sale did not, however, include East Park, Parliament Hill and its adjacent land, much of which was owned by the Kenwood Estate. The preservationists were concerned about the remaining possibility for buildings to hem in East Heath, as demonstrated by the construction of South Hill Park between the lower Hampstead ponds and Parliament Hill Fields in 1878. That land had belonged to South End Farm, owned by the dean and chapter of Westminster. Thankfully, Sir Thomas’s Maryon Wilson decedents concentrated their building efforts away from the Heath, in the area around Fitzjohn’s Avenue, and the Heath’s defenders continued to fight for its expansion.
The land in public ownership expanded under the Hampstead Heath Enlargement Act of 1886 to include East Park, Parliament Hill and its Fields, and part of Lord Mansfield’s Kenwood estate, passing into public hands in 1889. Kenwood House itself was purchased for the public in 1928, by the 1st Earl of Iveagh, and opened by George V ‘for all time for the use and enjoyment of the public’. The Heath Extension, to the north west, was acquired in 1907, and several there were a few other smaller additions along the way. Meanwhile, the unprotected open country to the north and west was built on, and the ring of buildings around the whole Heath was completed in the early 20th century.
There were too many heroes involved in the preservation of Hampstead Heath to name them all, but notable people included the philanthropist Baroness Burdett-Coutts, the Duke of Westminster, head of the Commons Preservation Society George Shaw-Lefevre, and social reformer Octavia Hill who fought for the poor and was a founder of the National Trust. The Heath Extension was secured thanks to Henrietta Barnett (later Dame Henrietta), who formed the Hampstead Heath Extension Committee in 1903, alongise George Shaw-Lefevre and others. They, and others, spent years negotiating, fundraising and fighting to protect this space. Back then, preserving heritage and protecting open space for the public was seen as an act of rebellion against the ruling – and land owning – classes, at a time when the right to vote was linked to land ownership and a man’s right to do what he liked with his own property was seen as paramount. Happily, the Heath’s local defenders also succeeded in resisting plans to make it ‘prim or park-like’, leaving us the woody, meadowy, wild escape we enjoy today.