Search

How Hampstead Heath was saved from the threat of development

15:46 12 May 2014

Hampstead Heath: Parliament Hill in 1906. Picture: Terry Turner

Hampstead Heath: Parliament Hill in 1906. Picture: Terry Turner

Terry Turner

Heath and Hampstead Society vice-president Helen Marcus reveals the fascinating history of how Hampstead Heath was saved from development ahead of a talk at St Stephen’s, Rosslyn Hill, on Thursday

Heath and Hampstead Society vice-president Helen Marcus. Picture: Polly HancockHeath and Hampstead Society vice-president Helen Marcus. Picture: Polly Hancock

It is an extraordinary thing to find a piece of apparently wild countryside so close to the centre of a great city like London.

How did it happen? Certainly not by accident. It was saved by the people of Hampstead, who fought the Lord of the Manor for 40 years to save the Heath from the threat of development.

When they began their battle in 1829, London had scarcely begun its sprawl into the outer suburbs and it would have been unthinkable to spend public money on anything so frivolous as creating a public park or open space.

By 1871, 40 years later, when the people of Hampstead finally got their Act of Parliament, opinions had been changed and a real movement had been established.

A group of remarkable people joined the campaign and went on to be at the heart of what became the new conservation movement.

It has been dubbed one of the first great conservation battles of modern times.

The historian FML Thompson called the battle “one of the hottest metropolitan potatoes of the century” and Sir Walter Besant described it as a “guerrilla war”.

The campaigners set up the Commons Preservation Society in 1865, now the Open Spaces Society, Britain’s oldest national conservation body, and Octavia Hill and Sir Robert Hunter, who went on to found the National Trust, were also involved.

The campaign changed opinion and encouraged others to take action. Public opinion was moved towards protection of open spaces, especially in urban areas that we take for granted today.

The Heath was known and loved by practically every artist you can think of. Keats, Leigh Hunt, Constable, Coleridge, Dickens, George Romney, Wilkie Collins, Galsworthy, and countless others, who celebrated the scenery and views of the Heath in their work, eulogising its charms in literature, song and innumerable paintings.

It provided training grounds in the Napoleonic Wars and an RAF intelligence base in the Second World War.

Following the Hampstead Heath Act, other major London Commons were saved; Wimbledon, Wandsworth, Clapham and Blackheath.

But, of all of them, the story of Hampstead Heath is the most extraordinary, involving legal stratagems of every kind, in and out of parliament, character assassination, vitriolic national press campaigns, perjury and wholesale misinformation... and even quite public attempts at blackmail.

And it did not stop in 1871. In each generation, Hampstead people continued to look for opportunities to add land to the Heath so that it is now three times its original size; and in the 1890s they set up their own society (today’s Heath & Hampstead Society) to keep watch on the local authorities to stop them interfering with its “natural” look.

I will tell this remarkable story, with readings, pictures, poetry and even some songs, evoking the lives and times of the extraordinary cast of Victorian characters, who battled it out for 40 years through parliament, the courts and the press at a talk at St Stephen’s in Rosslyn Hill on Thursday (May 15).

Come and hear how it all happened and why it still matters today.

Tickets are £5, or £8 to include wine and nibbles.

Latest News Stories

Yesterday, 17:37
Archway Underground Station (Picture: Commons/Sunil Prasannan)

A 15-year-old who was stabbed in broad daylight outside Archway Underground Station this morning managed to travel to East Finchley before being taken to hospital, police said.

Yesterday, 14:23
Jonsson threw up in the back of a taxi and then refused to pay the cleaning bill. Picture: Jonathan Brady

An interior designer who was sick in the back of a taxi and yelled racist abuse at the driver when he asked him to pay the cleaning bill has been fined.

Yesterday, 16:56
Members of The Highgate Bowl Action Group which includes members of The Highgate Society, Highgate Neighbourhood Forum, Highgate Village Business Association, Conservation Area Advisory Committee and the Harington Scheme, outside the former site of the Highgate Garden Centre.

A developer has bid to turn an office at a former garden centre into a home without planning permission on a stretch of beloved open land known as Highgate Bowl.

Yesterday, 16:26
Flamenco dancing will take place at Haverstock School. Picture: PA

A school is hosting a showcase of flamenco dancing to raise money for victims of the Nepalese earthquake.

Most read news

Property Newsletter Sign-up

Get the latest North London property news and features straight to your inbox with our monthly newsletter

I am also happy to receive other emails...
Fields marked with a * are mandatory
Email Marketing by e-shot

Competitions

Good times with Greenall's!

Good times with Greenall’s, a Great British gin sponsors Great British racing.

Escape to the picturesque sights of Cornwall

Summer is finally here, and what is the number one holiday location in the UK during the warmer months? Cornwall, of course!

Digital Edition

Image
Read the Hampstead & Highgate Express e-edition today E-edition
Family Notices 24


Our trusted business finder