Hampstead Heath at 150: 'Always under threat, always being saved'

The City viewed from the top of Parliament Hill, Hampstead Heath

The view from Parliament Hill has been preserved by many over the generations - Credit: Polly Hancock

The "rural illusion" of Hampstead Heath has endured for 150 years.

The Heath was an escape from the much-noted smoke and smog of Victorian London, and as early as the 1830s saw battles beginning in the fight to preserve it.

Hampstead Heath - what is, and what might have been. A cartoon by Ken Pyne

Hampstead Heath - what is, and what might have been. A cartoon by Ken Pyne - Credit: Ken Pyne

It took 40 years, until the 1871 Act of Parliament, that we are celebrating this week, to give it protections that we now take for granted. 

The Act was the culmination of a growing social movement led by activists, including early residents of Hampstead village. The Metropolitan Board of Works had just bought the Heath from the Maryon Wilson family, and the Act safeguarded its future.

A steady stream of notables including Octavia Hill,  George Shaw-Lefevre, William Morris and the then-Duke of Westminster and dating back to the early part of the 19th century, have all been involved in protecting the Heath. 

And their early associations grew into bodies like the Heath and Hampstead Society.

The "Chubb map" of Hampstead Heath from 1928.

The "Chubb map" of Hampstead Heath from 1928. - Credit: Courtesy of Ordnance Survey

As Helen Lawrence's book How Hampstead Heath Was Saved: A Story of People Power explains, these individuals undertook substantial work to prevent Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson, in particular, building on the Heath, which he was eyeing up for villas and townhouses. 

And in the years following the Act, parts of what we now know as the Heath continued to need saving. Through the 1880s, Octavia Hill was among those instrumental in adding the Heath Extension and Parliament Hill Fields to the Heath. 

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Helen, who was chair of the Heath and Hampstead Society for many years under her married name of Helen Marcus, said: "What's been clear in the past year is how important all of our green spaces are to people. They are always under threat, and too often there seem to be too many people who don't understand or don't care. This has always been the case!

"The Heath is always under threat, and we always have to work to save it."

A 19th century map of the Heath by Rogers Field.

A 19th century map of the Heath by Rogers Field - Credit: Heath and Hampstead Society

John Beyer, who leads the Heath and Hampstead Society's Heath sub-committee, said: "When these people started saying people needed open spaces, it was all about saying 'there's more to life than work'.

"And it strikes me, that hasn't changed at all. Maybe the work that people do has changed and maybe they work indoors more, but there's still such a need for open spaces."

The 20th century, of course, did not see an end to the threats to the Heath. At Kenwood, it wasn't until the early 1920s that Lord Iveagh bought the house and gifted it to the people, and that the Kenwood Preservation Council purchased much of the surrounding land. 

Later, in the 1970s and 1980s, the dissolution of the Greater London Council put the Heath under further threat. Helen remembers how the Heath and Hampstead Society had to campaign to urge the City of London Corporation to step in, rather than see the Heath split and controlled by the neighbouring London boroughs.

She said: "Back then the government had no comprehension of the harm that could be done to the Heath. We had to really persuade the City to step in."

One of the great benefits of the CoLC's stewardship since 1989, she said, had been its frequent opposition to development in the environs of the Heath. 

"Of course, people were just as hot about preventing building on the Heath in the 19th century," she added.

More recently, issues such as the CoLC's Ponds Project - derided as a "complete fiasco" by some as it took place during the mid-part of the last decade - have divided the community, as have decisions to mandate an entry fee to swim in the bathing ponds. 

Clearly, our community has always felt strongly about the Heath, and will continue to do so.

Much of this history is now on show in an exhibition located at the South End Green entrance to the Heath. This runs from June 23 until August 8.

Anne Fairweather, who chairs the City of London Corporation's Hampstead Heath management committee, said: "We are celebrating the work that was done to protect the Heath 150 years ago, to enable it to be enjoyed by us all today and future generations.

“Through this exhibition we really want to highlight the significance of the 1871 Act and provide an opportunity for people to learn about the rich history of the Heath.

“For centuries it has been used by people enjoying a wide range of pursuits, and the Hampstead Heath Act 1871 effectively protected the open space forever."