In the centuries-long saga of how private landowners, and later local government, tried to ‘develop’ the heath – only to be frustrated each time by those who were determined that it should remain open ground – one name stands out. That of the Maryon Wilson family and especially the villain of the piece, Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson (1800– 1869).
The Maryon Wilsons’ Hampstead lands were only a relatively small part of their estates and the family saw them primarily as a potential source of income. But their neighbours were not so keen. By the time that Sir Thomas came into his property at the tender age of 20 there had already been a number of standoffs, all of which had resulted in defeat for the the Maryon Wilsons. However, once Sir Thomas took over the reins things really ramped up.
(For a detailed and fascinating account of all of the Maryon Wilsons’ efforts to colonise the heath, see Helen Lawrence’s How Hampstead Heath was Saved – and with thanks to her for the following details.)
By 1840, Sir Thomas had already had four development attempts frustrated by the efforts of his neighbours, the most recent headed up by Lord Mansfield at Kenwood. But he was not a man to accept defeat lying down and in the early 1840s he devised a new scheme he believed had more chance of success.
His new plan was to create a road up through east side of what we now know as the heath along which he would build 28 large villas, similar to those already developed in Regent’s Park. And on this occasion local opposition was split between those who still wanted to keep every stretch of open ground as just that and local tradesmen who thought that new villas would increase trade for the village.
Work therefore started on the road in 1844. The intention was to bridge the swampy valley running from east to west with a viaduct and and to create an ornamental pool below.
The work was, however, beset with problems and excavations repeatedly collapsed. None the less Sir Thomas ploughed on – and indeed staged and an ‘extravagant ceremony’ in 1845 to celebrate the laying of the foundation stone. The viaduct road and the ornamental pond got themselves built and Sir Thomas proceeded, to the disgust of Charles Dickens among others, to plant several thousand trees to create an ornamental park to surround his villas.
However, that was as far as he got. A few courses of bricks were laid for the first villa, at which point, somewhat uncharacteristically, Sir Thomas seems to have given up. Maybe, as Helen Lawrence suggests, even he realised that he had been over ambitious and that the development was beyond his resources.
I will not attempt to chart all the further twists and turns of fortunes before Sir Thomas’ East Heath lands finally became part of Hampstead heath ‘proper’ – they are all meticulously logged in Helen Lawrence’s book.
Suffice it to say that Sir Thomas’ lasting legacy to the heath is this rather fine broad road, leading across an equally fine viaduct over a delightful large ornamental pool – but, coming from – and going – nowhere!
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