BOB HALL: Age-old battle to keep the Heath free for all

AS you will know from previous remarks in this column, Part I of the Strategic Management Plan for the Heath is now available for discussion. Please ask for the document (or a summary) for review either via the website,, or by tele

AS you will know from previous remarks in this column, Part I of the Strategic Management Plan for the Heath is now available for discussion. Please ask for the document (or a summary) for review either via the website,, or by telephoning 020 8348 9908. We want to ensure that Part I, when adopted in final form this July, will have had the benefit of as much examination as possible.

The background paper dealing with the history of the Heath (very briefly outlined in Section 6.1 of Part I), prepared by the History Working Group and Land Use Consultants, gives a fascinating account of the centuries-old involvement of the public, and in particular the public pressure in the 19th century to preserve the area as open space.

With the History Group's consent, reference is here made to some of their paper.

From medieval times, part of what is now Hampstead Heath was common land. Starting from the late 17th Century, the waters at Hampstead were used as a supply for London. In the 18th century, the health-giving qualities of the iron-rich springs became sought-after and Hampstead developed as a spa, with visitors "taking the waters".

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Increasingly the Heath was used as a place of recreation. In 1734, Dr John Soame referred to the Heath's "free and wholesome air without the noisome smell of stinking fogs ... too common in large cities".

In 1781 the courts found in favour of the copyholders in a dispute with the Lord of the Manor over their right to dig sand and gravel. In 1829, an article in The Sun described the Heath as being an escape from "the close, pent-up and smoky streets of the metropolis".

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So when the great 19th century battle to secure the future of the Heath commenced, history seemed to be on the side of the public.

Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson inherited Hampstead Manor from his father in 1821, but by the terms of the will he was specifically prevented from selling any of the land or granting building leases. Sir Thomas attempted to change the terms by presenting 15 private bills to Parliament between 1829 and 1866, designed to enable him to develop parts of the Heath.

He might well have succeeded with his first Private Estate Bill if he had not included a clause which would have empowered him to grant building leases on any part of land "enclosed from the Heath itself". It was this attempt to establish his right to enclose common land which created a powerful body of opposition comprising the copyholders, influential residents and the Press.

Thwarted, Sir Thomas resolved to exercise his right to develop part of the Manor himself. Plans were drawn up for a 'park' of 28 villas and work started with the building of an access road from Spaniards Road near Whitestone Pond, which cut off the old route from Spaniard's Inn to the Vale of Health. Some surviving old trees mark this route.

He established a brick works near the Vale of Health, bricks from which were used to build the viaduct (over the new viaduct pond) and the smaller foot bridge nearby.

Foundations for the first villa were laid and various preliminary works carried out. However, Sir Thomas found that he could not afford to continue to build and he was prevented from selling or leasing. The work stopped.

Sir Thomas died in 1869. In 1871 his heir sold East Heath, Sandy Heath and West Heath (about 220 acres in total) to the Metropolitan Board of Works. This arrangement was confirmed by the Hampstead Heath Act in 1871 which provided that 'the Board shall forever keep the Heath open, unenclosed and unbuilt on' and that 'the Board shall at all times preserve, as far as may be, the natural aspect and state of the Heath, and to that end shall protect the turf, gorse, heather, timber and other trees, shrubs and brushwood'.

Over the years, further land has been acquired by the successive holders of the Heath. The City of London became guardian of the Heath in 1989. It is a responsibility that the City takes very seriously.

Bob Hall is Chairman of

the Hampstead Heath

Management Committee

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