Saving Hampstead Heath one expansion at a time:​ A fighting history

A 19th century map of the Heath by Rogers Field.

A 19th century map of the Heath by Rogers Field - Credit: Heath and Hampstead Society

Hampstead Heath looms large, both in north London and in the consciousness of this newspaper.

The cover of the Heath and Hampstead Society's first every annual report. Picture: Heath and Hampste

The cover of the Heath and Hampstead Society's first every annual report. Picture: Heath and Hampstead Society - Credit: Archant

The broad strokes of its history are well known.

After decades of opposition to the Lord of the Manor of Hampstead Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson's plans to build on the Heath, it was preserved for the public by an Act of Parliament in 1871. Then, over the next century, land around the original Heath was slowly added - with campaigners such as the Heath and Hampstead Society (H&HS) often playing a central role.

Now the society's former chair - Helen Lawrence, who was involved with the H&HS for many years under her married name Helen Marcus - has written a new history of the Heath and the battles to save it, and she hoped she has managed to draw the many stories together at last.

Helen's research examines the first fights had with Sir Thomas, the role of society bigwigs like Octavia Hill and the Duke of Westminster, and how the H&HS incessantly kept the Heath's managers on their toes.

Helen Lawrence. Picture: Polly Hancock

Helen Lawrence. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

Speaking at the book's launch, Helen said: "Piecing it all together has been a bit like a whodunnit, each new bit of information leading to another search for new clues in the archives."

Thomas Barratt's history was a start, she said, but it needed updating - there was just more to tell.

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"Barratt, of course, covered almost everything but surprisingly he rather skips over the details of that original 40-year campaign to save the Heath!

"And of course his book stops in 1912 - even before Kenwood was saved."

Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson. Picture: Sotheby's / Helen Lawrence

Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson. Picture: Sotheby's / Helen Lawrence - Credit: Archant

Saving the Heath all began in the 1830s, Helen explained, and that 40-year campaign culminated in the 1871 Act of Parliament.

In between: parliamentary debates, battles in the Court of Chancery, and the beginnings of a national conservation movement.

Helen said: "There was a huge movement building up to serve the community. Important people like Octavia Hill, George Shaw-Lefevre, William Morris and the Duke of Westminster were involved."

Helen said the campaign to protect the Heath from development took on a wider importance nationally.

She said: "The campaign was not unique and did not happen in isolation but because of its fame Hampstead Heath was emblematic. There is scarcely a parliamentary debate on open space in the 19th century in which it is not mentioned.

"The campaign played a leading role in the growth of the whole movement to conserve open spaces and the rights of recreation."

Helen said these "formidable people" went on to be at the heart of the new conservation movement and the Heath was always central.

"This important strand of the story has hardly been touched on before," she said.

"Henrietta Barnett is well known but how many people are aware that Octavia Hill, one of the founders of the National Trust, was also deeply involved?

In the book, Helen considers whether Sir Thomas was unfairly maligned - she thinks not.

She told the Ham&High: "If you look at the records, he was obviously obsessed with money!

"Every time he was talking to people it was always about what profit he could make from the Heath - it would have been considered in such bad taste in those days."

Helen was also fascinated by one notable omission from the Heath's history - that of noted Hampstead-lover and literary figure Leigh Hunt.

She said: "If he loved Hampstead Heath so much, why is he never mentioned?

"I found it strange but a little digging helped: he had simply left Hampstead by that time, and it interested me that that was the case.

"He had been hard up and had to move."

The battling spirit of the H&HS was also something under-reported in the history books,

"No one has ever bothered to write about the Heath and Hampstead Society." Helen said.

"The Duke of Westminster was an early patron - he had been involved in saving Parliament Hill. It was one of the first civic societies, and integral in every expansion of the Heath after the 19th century."

Published by the Camden History Society with the support of the Heath and Hampstead Society, How Hampstead Heath Was Saved: A Story of People Power by Helen Lawrence will be available from the History Society's website (, It is also being sold in Daunt Books.