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Burgh House celebrates four decades since it was saved by the community

PUBLISHED: 14:23 05 September 2019

Lord David Pitt and Princess Helena Moutafian cut the ribbon on Burgh House, after volunteers saved it from being sold. Picture: Burgh House

Lord David Pitt and Princess Helena Moutafian cut the ribbon on Burgh House, after volunteers saved it from being sold. Picture: Burgh House

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Burgh House is a throwback. Then again, it's supposed to be.

Burgh House. Picture: Michael Maurer/Burgh HouseBurgh House. Picture: Michael Maurer/Burgh House

Stepping through the doors in New End Square is walking into a former militia headquarters, council office, and home to the Hampstead doctor.

On Sunday it celebrated 40 years since the community, including the former Ham&High editor Gerry Isaaman, raised £50,000 to save it.

Hundreds turned out as a "1970s-style" summer fete was held, including a tombola, face painting, part games and live music.

"It was lovely," said Burgh House's director Mark Francis. "It was an event for the grassroots and the old days, getting back into the community. It was amazing to see a lot of local families funding out about the house for the first time."

Burgh House in 1979 when it was saved by donations. Picture: Burgh HouseBurgh House in 1979 when it was saved by donations. Picture: Burgh House

It was all in aid of the house which sprung up as a result of Hampstead's past as a spa village. One of its first occupants was Dr William Gibbons and his wife Elizabeth. He was the main doctor in the village as Hampstead became a popular destination for people who wanted to relax in the series of spas and ponds, near where the Wells Tavern now sits.

"It was very much in the centre of things," said Mark. "Its heyday was the 1720 when he was living there. He created the spa and made it famous. He really put Hampstead on the map, and Burgh House was in the centre of all that."

The house went on to become the headquarters for the Royal East Middlesex Militia and later was the home of Rudyard Kipling's daughter Elsie Bambridge and her husband Captain George.

However peril faced the home when it was transferred to Hampstead Borough Council and its successor, Camden Council.

Burgh House staff play with a child at their 40th anniversary event on September 1. Picture: Burgh HouseBurgh House staff play with a child at their 40th anniversary event on September 1. Picture: Burgh House

The Hampstead authority had set in motion plans to use it as a community space, for events, parties and meetings. Yet when Camden took it over in 1974, it was clear that they didn't want to keep the house on.

"They had inherited a grade 1 listed building that was in a sorry state. Their attitude was 'we don't want to deal with that'," said Mark.

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The house had dry rot and Camden Council had damaged some of the interior of the building, including its fireplaces.

A drawing of Burgh House's gates by Fred Adcock. Picture: Burgh HouseA drawing of Burgh House's gates by Fred Adcock. Picture: Burgh House

"The community decided they would not let Camden sell it off. It was back when a real kind of grassroots community was in Hampstead," he added.

David Sullivan QC was one of those to start up the Save Burgh House group, along with Gerry, Peggy Jay, Christopher Wade, Dr Michael Black, Kit Ikin and Peter Wallis. Collectively they became known as the Magnificent Seven.

A banner was hung from the King William IV pub to the community centre, and signatures were collected in a show of support.

After a flurry of donations, including from actress Dame Judi Dench, the group raised £50,000. There are still some remnants of the campaign left at the house.

Mark said: "We've still got the banner and we have things like minutes from the meetings. Because the attendees are all friends and knew each other, it doesn't say who was there - but I can tell you what sandwiches were served!

"It was Hampstead being outraged. It had opened to the public in 1949 and people had funerals, weddings and birthdays there. They felt a connection with the house, and that's why people donated."

However the journey wasn't over. When campaigners got the keys, the real work began. "It wasn't just splashing a bit of cash on it, it's only really about 40 years on that everything has been finally sorted," he said.

Today Mark is hoping that it will stay as a "open, safe place" for people in Hampstead to enjoy. He is approaching his eighth anniversary at the helm. The charity is entirely self-funded and receives no government funding. Since it was saved 40 years ago it has paid a peppercorn rent to Camden Council.

Mark said: "The thing about Burgh House is the age of it. It's one of the first buildings in Hampstead, it has always been here, and because it was sat so high up on the hill, everybody knew it.

"To me it's a privilege - being in charge of a building like this. There's never enough cash or money but someone will remind you of why you are doing it and why Burgh House is special. I am continually reminded of how important it is to people.

"People aren't feeling as safe or as welcome as they used to be. People can come here for company. In this political climate, and you're going to need more spaces like this."

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