Tributes to Christopher Wade, Hampstead historian who has died at the age of 95


- Credit: Nigel Sutton

Former Ham and High editor and current Burgh House Trust chairman Matthew Lewin pays tribute to man he describes as “one of the priceless treasures of Hampstead”

Christopher Wade with new edition of " Streets of Belsize"2009

Christopher Wade with new edition of " Streets of Belsize"2009 - Credit: Nigel Sutton

Christoper Wade, the eminent local historian who was one of the great champions of Hampstead and one of the “magnificent seven” who saved Burgh House, died on Monday. He was 95 years old.

And it is likely that his amazingly comprehensive and cross referenced card index, together with his other Hampstead treasures, will soon be given a new home – in the Hampstead Museum at Burgh House which he and his wife, Diana, founded in 1979.

Hardly a week went by in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s when Christopher was not quoted in the Ham & High or simply provided reporters with background information. Whenever anyone needed to know anything about Hampstead, the cry would go up: “Ask Christopher Wade!”.

Once, having hurt his back he was confined to bed. He later wrote: “Lying bored in bed and longing for some mind-grabbing, pain-relieving project, I asked Diana to search the shops for an up to date history of Hampstead. She returned to report that there was no such thing.”

Three of founding members of Burgh House Trust pictured in 1999 David Sullivan,the late Peggy Jay &

Three of founding members of Burgh House Trust pictured in 1999 David Sullivan,the late Peggy Jay & Christopher Wade - Credit: Nigel Sutton

The rest was history, He knew where every famous person had lived, and the history of their streets and houses. His card index revealed, too, where all the artists, musicians and writers had lived and worked, complete with relevant dates.

“His skills as a researcher developed to the point when he could answer just about any question about Hampstead known by man and woman,” his daughter, Joanna, wrote this week.

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And it was knowledge that he shared with the world by publishing, in 1972, The Streets of Hampstead – which was much revised and is still in print. That was followed by The Streets of Belsize, The Streets of West Hampstead and even Buried in Hampstead, which listed the last resting places of local celebrities and politicians.

Many other publications were to follow, including Constable’s Hampstead and, For the Poor of Hampstead, Forever, a history of the Hampstead Wells and Campden Trust.

In the foreword to that history, the then chairman of the trust wrote: “Chistopher probably knows more about the history of Hampstead than anyone alive today.”

He was born in Bradford in 1921 and at the age of seven he was packed off to a boarding school in Margate and later to Shrewsbury School – not a happy experience, he later told his own children, Joanna and Harry.

He was much happier at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read modern languages and became fluent in French and German.

During the war he was a Flight Lieutenant in the RAF. His poor eyesight meant that he couldn’t fly, so he was sent to Sierra Leone to look after an airstrip. But at the end of the year he was in Brussels where he chased around gathering important papers and debriefing German airmen.

Then he joined the BBC and rose to become head of the television script unit where he developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of actors, directors and writers.

He was proud to have helped to develop the careers of the likes of Dennis Potter and Jack Rosenthal.

It was here that he met Diana, his secretary at the BBC, who he married and lured to Hampstead in 1956 with a promise of finding her “a house on a hill”.

They bought a house in Willoughby Road, where he lived for nearly 60 years until his death. Sadly, Diana died suddenly in 1991 at the very young age of 61.

He had jumped at the opportunity of taking early retirement from the BBC in 1975 – happy to escape the growing tensions in the organisation between the advocates of high culture and those who pressed for a more popularist approach. And from then on he devoted his time to local history.

Then in 1978, the news broke that Camden was planning to sell off Burgh House, and he was one of the heroes, with Peggy Jay and others, who set out determinedly to save the magnificent Grade 1 listed Queen Anne house in New End Square.

A big public campaign led the following year to the establishment of the Burgh House Trust, under the then chairmanship of David Sullivan QC.

Then he and Diana founded the museum on the first floor, and became joint honorary curators, initially with little more than some documents and photocopies, but later to have many impressive exhibits.

Asked once by the Ham & High whether there was a collective noun for curators, he thought long and hard and finally telephoned his response. “It should be a ‘curiosity’ of curators,” he said.

He was for many years an active member of the Trust and the Camden History Society, but when his eyesight, and particularly his hearing, deteriorated, he withdrew from meetings but continued to work as a steward at the House and to take a close interest in its work.

With enormous generosity he funded the acquisition of many paintings, artifacts and documents, many of which have been exhibited in important Burgh House exhibitions.

“The immense popularity of the museum today pays tribute to the hard work and foresight of Christopher Wade,” said Martin Humphery, former chairman of the Heath and Hampstead Society.

Christopher used to hold lively Wednesday morning sessions at Burgh House when residents and would-be house buyers could come and ask about any aspect of Hampstead history, its houses and streets.

More recently he became frail and was confined to a wheelchair. Five weeks ago he had a fall and was admitted to the Royal Free where, unfortunately, pneumonia took hold.

“As a father he was hugely supportive,” his daughter Joanna told the Ham & High this week. “He believed that we should all be empowered to do whatever we decided to do.”

In my view, Christopher was one of the priceless treasures of Hampstead. He not only played a vital part in saving this magnificent house, but also started the museum and went on to mentor the professional curators who followed him in that post.

“We will miss him, and his sage advice, without measure.”

Christopher will be buried at a private family service next week, but there will be a public gathering at Burgh House in October to celebrate his remarkable life and contribution to the area.

The family has asked that instead of any flowers people should make donations to the Burgh House Trust.