How the battle for Hampstead Heath inspired the National Trust

Highgate, as seen from Hampstead Heath

Highgate, as seen from Hampstead Heath - Credit: André Langlois

Living in the capital can often be grimy and grey, but Hampstead Heath has long been a great escape for Londoners.

Release from the city's tension, the abundance of space, enormity of sky, and fresh perspective of looking down on the city from Parliament Hill are all benefits envisioned by indomitable Victorian campaigner Octavia Hill.

Born in 1838, the social reformer's philosophy of "open spaces for all" led her to campaign to preserve north London's green spots in Hampstead, Highgate and Swiss Cottage. Armed with a belief in the "life-enhancing virtues of pure earth, clean air and blue sky", she went on to co-found The National Trust 127 years ago on January 12, 1895.

Octavia Hill

Octavia Hill the redoubtable Victorian campaigner for better housing and access to open spaces - Credit: Supplied

London in the 19th century was the largest city in the world and a miserable place to be poor. In 1848, an estimated 30,000 children lived alone, filthy and starving on the streets. Hill was not alone in her desire to improve their living conditions, but her focus on access to open space was unique. She believed it offered space to fortify the body through exercise, lift the spirits through the beauty of the landscape, and even moral improvement from struggling against steep hills and bracing winds.

But she did not think that any old patch of grass could provide these advantages. She championed a rugged English beauty – think rolling hills and wild heathland – over Italianate fountains and geometric hedge designs. This patriotic desire to preserve the spirit of the English landscape can be seen in Hampstead Heath’s distinctive wildness, which sets it apart from its more manicured cousins of Primrose Hill and Regent’s Park.

Hampstead Heath. Picture: Ken Mears

Hampstead Heath. Picture: Ken Mears - Credit: Ken Mears

Friends with Hampstead Garden Suburb founder Henrietta Barnett, she campaigned for better housing for poor and unskilled labourers becoming a landlord to 3,000 tenants from small beginnings in Marylebone, with profits reinvested in improvements. She believed that poor urban workers should have access to open spaces nearby – "places where the long summer evenings or the Saturday afternoon may be enjoyed without effort or expense".

North London at the time was relatively rural, but the arrival of the railways meant speculators were increasingly eyeing up land for development. Hill's attempt at preserving north London's "green belt" – she coined the term – came in 1875 when builders set their sights on Swiss Cottage Fields. The campaign to buy and preserve them was ultimately unsuccessful but she had better luck as part of pressure group the Commons Preservation Society.

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The society campaigned for the Heath to be protected under law, culminating in the 1871 Hampstead Heath Act which states it would be "of great advantage to the inhabitants of the Metropolis if the Heath were always kept unenclosed and unbuilt on, it’s natural aspect and state being as far as may be preserved".

The society also helped with the mammoth task of raising the funds to purchase the land from private owners. By 1895 Hill and two fellow society members Robert Hunter and Hardwicke Rawnsley, were ready to take their ideas national.

Fenton House and Garden, London. Fenton House was built in 1686 and is filled with world-class decor

Fenton House and Garden, in Hampstead is one of the properties run by the National Trust which was co-founded by Marylebone campaigner Octavia Hill - Credit: National Trust images/Arnhel de Serra

By the time Hill died at her home in Marylebone in 1912 the trust had acquired nature reserves, castles, historic buildings, coastal cliffs, and a swathe of the Lake District. Its philosophy of preserving enclaves of "unspoilt" Britain against a tide of urgent need for affordable housing continues to fuel a debate between preservation, conservation and modernisation.

During the pandemic, access to parks and open land once again become a vital issue for Londoners who were grateful to campaigners past and present for fighting to keep these public spaces open for all.