Story of 'people power' saving Hampstead Heath scoops prize

Hampstead Heath has inspired countless poets over the centuries

The Heath has been saved from development by campaigners such as The Heath and Hampstead Society - Credit: André Langlois

A history of how campaigners preserved Hampstead Heath has won an award for the Camden History Society.

Helen Marcus' How Hampstead Heath Was Saved: A Story of People Power was published in 2019 and scooped Best Book in the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society awards.

Helen, who was born in Hampstead, grew up in West Heath Drive and lived for years in Greenaway Gardens, said: "I started it because it struck me that no one had ever written a history of the Heath and Hampstead Society. History books about Hampstead scarcely mentioned the society, which is outrageous, without them things would be very different."

The 80-year-old, who was a society member for 25 years including serving as Vice President and Chairman, adds: "We'd sit on the High Street to sign up members and this whole younger generation had no idea about this wonderful society. I wanted to retell these stories of how hard people fought so they could enjoy what they have now."

Helen Lawrence. Picture: Polly Hancock

Helen Marcus whose book on Hampstead Heath has won an award for the Camden History Society - Credit: Archant

Digging into the archives, Helen recalls numerous threats to the Heath going back to Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson, the 19th century lord of the manor who wanted to build on it. Local residents set up a Hampstead Heath Protection Fund to fight a legal battle to buy the land – achieving an act of Parliament in 1871 to protect 200 acres for the people of London.

"The archives are fascinating, I found details that no-one had ever looked at, including the great and the good who ganged up to fight Wilson," she said. 

And when there was a bid to tidy up and "parkify" The Heath, London's first civic society, the Hampstead Heath Protection Society was formed in 1897. Marcus and other stalwarts continued their fight in the 80s and 90s. There were "all sorts of battles" including marching around with a coffin to protest a parking scheme, and securing the Heath's future in 1984 when the Greater London Council was abolished.

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"No one had thought what to do with all the open space run by the GLC and there were ill thought out proposals to divide the Heath between Barnet, Camden and St Pancras which fell down because two of them didn't want it."

The issue was even debated in Parliament before the Heath was taken over by the City of London Corporation.

"Many of the battles are about building on the Heath. They wanted to grab a bit of Heath for the schools on Parliament Hill and that was opposed. It's the principle. You are the guardians not the owners and if you start nibbling away bits, what next?"

The latest could be the half acre granted to Harry Hallowes under squatters' rights, which was sold off by the two charities he left it to.

"It's part of the Kenwood Estate, under a covenant which the Hampstead community campaigned for in 1925, but vigilance is still called for. People will try to grab bits which they know perfectly well are part of the Heath. It's disrespectful of what the Heath stands for - people's health and happiness. If there's one thing we've learned in the pandemic it's how vital green space is to people's mental and physical wellbeing."