The act of parliament that saved Hampstead Heath

People enjoy the warm weather on Hampstead Heath.

People enjoy the warm weather on Hampstead Heath. - Credit: Matthew Baker/PA

“The open spaces of London are one of its glories. They are the lungs of London: they provide the city and its citizens with breathing space.

"Their number and extent distinguish London from other major capital cities. And of all of London's open spaces, Hampstead Heath is the greatest.”

So ruled Mr Justice Stanley Burnton in 2005 in a legal case in the High Court involving swimming on the Heath.

The year 2021 marks the 150th anniversary (the sesquicentenary) of the passing of the Hampstead Heath Act of 1871, the act of parliament that saved the Heath - in its natural state, neither built upon nor enclosed -  for the nation.  

Given that, at the time of its being taken into public ownership, there were other commons around London being likewise preserved as public spaces (eg Wimbledon, Clapham and Blackheath), why is it that Hampstead has become the most famous?

The answer is that, of all the efforts to save these commons from private development, by far the greatest collective effort was directed at Hampstead.

The process to protected the Heath took several public campaigns backed by national newspapers, parliamentary and court proceedings, large amounts of money, and a titanic fight with the Heath's penultimate private owner, Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson Bt, Lord of the Manor of Hampstead.  

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In the second quarter of the 19th century London was growing ever faster as a conurbation, the privately owned green space on its outskirts being sold off for housing.  

The largely unregulated development of this kind and on this scale brought with it dangers to public health, and loss of amenity and open space.

So it was that public welfare campaigners, conservationists, politicians and newspapers came together to call for the saving and protection of the diminishing number of the capital's open spaces.  

Some owners of these open spaces were sympathetic to the idea of preservation and cooperated to make their land public, but the Lord of the Manor of Hampstead was not one of them.

He regarded the claims of “commons” rights over his land with contempt, declaring that his freeholder’s rights entitled him to do as he wished with his own land, which he intended to turn for profit by developing on it a large (and rather grand) housing estate, the East Park Estate.

A peculiarity of his father's will meant that, to obtain this development power, he needed a private act of parliament which he repeatedly sought and failed to get.  

His unsuccessful attempts - and his rudeness to, and intransigence before, the parliamentary committees scrutinising his private bills - simply galvanised the public campaign against him.

The campaign succeeded shortly after he died in circumstances where his son agreed to sell a piece of the Hampstead manorial lands to the Metropolitan Board of Works for £45,000.

The future status of the Heath and the powers of the board to manage and expand it were enshrined in a so-called “local” parliamentary bill, which passed into law on June 29, 1871.

The famous “Chubb map” shows the Heath as it stood in 1928 with its many additions, but the original 240-acre piece acquired by the board in 1868 is shown in light blue, extending from South End Green in the south to the Leg of Mutton Pond in the west, encircling the Vale of Health in the centre, and going across Spaniards Road to include Sandy Heath in the north. 

The "Chubb map" of Hampstead Heath from 1928.

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

If you want to see what the Heath would have looked like had it been given over to housing, you need go no further than the nearby Finchley Road. That road was built following a private act of parliament of 1825 which, as a result, enabled the owners of the lands adjoining the Manor of Hampstead, Colonel Eyre and Eton College, to build the compact terraced housing you see in the streets off the road today.

The extraordinary story of how the Heath was saved has recently been definitively retold by a former vice-president of my society, Helen Lawrence, in her book "How Hampstead Heath was saved - a story of people power". The book, now in its second reprint, is available from local bookshops and the Camden History Society, and I commend it to you.

  • Marc Hutchinson is chair of The Heath & Hampstead Society.

READ MORE: 'Hampstead Heath has been a godsend in 2020'