Updated: Sep 8, 2022
I wanted to share with you a story of one of London’s greatest open spaces, Hampstead Heath.
This is one of the most famous, dare I say iconic, open spaces in the capital where Londoners have come to enjoy the fresh air and great views for well over 200 years. However, it was nearly lost!
In 1821 the Heath is owned by Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson. Sir Thomas carries on with his father’s wish to keep the land clear for animal grazing, the drying of laundry, and visits for Londoners. In fact, the elder Sir Thomas wanted the land ‘kept rural.’
Once the younger Sir Thomas comes to realise the value of the land to development, he changes his mind; from 1826 he strives to get the land developed for residential housing and to make money in the process. Now, he is up against huge opposition thanks to several factors including: he would have to break his father’s will; he has no
spouse or heir; Londoners want access to open spaces for recreation; local people want the land ‘kept rural’ as the elder Sir Thomas desired. If he wanted to build then he had to go to Parliament to approve an Act, in other words Sir Thomas had to have Parliament pass a new law to allow him to do that.
Were Sir Thomas to have owned any other portion of open land in London then, as the landowner he could have built on the land, although not strictly legal. Strictly speaking the Lord of the Manor would have to set out his case with the copyholders of the land (those living on or near it and using it to graze their animals) and all would have to agree to any development. But, crucially, Londoners from the East End, to local Hampstead residents, to members of the aristocracy had been using the
Heath for recreation for at least a hundred years. So, the opposition was already firmly entrenched when Sir Thomas had his great idea to develop the land and make money. He presented his Bill to Parliament to develop the farmland only and not the heath. Again, he made an error and included in the Bill provisions to re-draw the boundaries and this was a step too far.
Sir Thomas struggles for over 40 years and each time he is defeated. He becomes a British bogeyman and is lampooned in the press as ‘the greedy Lord’.
At one point he agrees to build on his own farmland with his own money; no Act of Parliament is needed to do that. But he runs out of money and very little is built. The struggle continues right up to his death. Hardly anyone mourns his passing. His brother inherits the land and, in 1872, the Heath is declared public property and is saved for future generations of Londoners.
Now, if you’re visiting in person then you may notice on the signs that the land appears to be managed by the Corporation of the City of London. You probably won’t be surprised to know that we are miles away from the City. So how did the Corporation of the City of London come to manage this land? In 1986 Margaret Thatcher, as Prime Minister, abolished the Greater London Council which had been managing the land. This abolition created a managerial vacuum, and the Corporation was invited to manage the land here. It made quite a bit of sense as they were the most experienced managers available (Epping Forest and Highgate Wood were already managed by them). They also had more money than the local Camden Borough Council so it was a good resolution. In hindsight this was a great decision, and the Corporation has been far better at managing and improving the land than anyone had been before. They are also far more responsive to the needs of local residents as well.
If you haven’t had a chance to visit Hampstead Heath then please make a plan to do that. There are wonderful views, cafes and even public swimming ponds for single sex and mixed bathing.