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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.

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