The fight to save Hampstead Heath was one of the first great conservation battles of modern times
It began in 1829 when the Lord of the Manor of Hampstead, Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson, began making plans to build on Hampstead Heath. The inhabitants of Hampstead – always a ‘militant lot’ according to historian Kit Ikin - were outraged. And they decided to fight him tooth and nail, in and out of Parliament, every step of the way.
By 1866 they had set up a Hampstead Heath Protection Fund Committee, the Society’s forerunner, to raise money to try to buy the land, and continue the battle through the courts. The campaign to stop him only coming to an end with the death of Sir Thomas in 1869.
Their victory was sealed by an Act of Parliament in 1871 which protected 200 acres of the Heath as an open space for the people of London. It was placed under the guardianship of the Metropolitan Board of Works, with the assurance that: ‘The Board shall at all times preserve, as far as may be, the natural aspect and state of the Heath’. Their aim to keep the land for ever ‘unenclosed and unbuilt’ was achieved.
But to their dismay, in the 1890s a new battle loomed. The newly formed London County Council replaced the Metropolitan Board and decided, in its wisdom, that the Heath needed ‘tidying up’. It began to ‘parkify’ it with indiscriminate tree planting along Spaniards Road, trimming of the wild gorse and hedgerows, and turning footpaths into roads.
The campaigners who had fought to save it for its famous wild and natural beauty galvanised themselves again. The outcry against this LCC vandalism struck a chord the length and breadth of the country. In 1896 a Petition was got up, signed by an extraordinary array of distinguished artists, architects, and leaders of the newly emerging conservation movement, including Octavia Hill, Sir John Millais and Norman Shaw. The national press from The Times, to newspapers as far afield as the Liverpool Mercury, The Birmingham Post and the Pontefract Advertiser joined in.
At a public meeting in April 1897 the old Hampstead Heath Protection Fund Committee was resurrected as the Hampstead Heath Protection Society – the first Civic Society in London. Rather appropriately, its first chairman was a Mr. Lake, and its secretary a Miss Field.
Three years later, a report in the Hampstead and Highgate Express of 1900 tells us "there were 120 lunatics in asylums chargeable to this parish....It is said that some of the worst cases come from Hampstead. The extra vitality of the Heath may account for it". Charged with this extra vitality, members of the Society have for over 100 years fought to preserve the character and beauty of the Heath and Hampstead.
The Society has been prominent in the various campaigns to add land to the Heath whenever the opportunity has arisen, and the Heath has grown from its original 200 acres in 1871 to over 800 today. We are rightly proud of the Society’s achievements, but remain acutely aware that the battle for its preservation is unending.
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