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Today, 29 June, is the 150th anniversary of the Hampstead Heath Act 1871, which empowered the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) to purchase the Heath for the people. Now the Heath belongs to the City of London Corporation and is managed for the benefit of the public.
We are proud to have played a major part in saving Hampstead Heath and in the achievement of the Hampstead Heath Act.
The formation of the society is inextricably linked to the rescue of Hampstead Heath.
The society was formed as the Commons Preservation Society (CPS) in 1865, and the battle to save Hampstead Heath was its first major campaign. The society was founded by George Shaw Lefevre, later Lord Eversley, a barrister and Liberal MP for Reading. He was involved in the Select Committee, established by Parliament in response to the threats to London commons, to ‘inquire into the best means of preserving for the use of the public the Forests, Commons and Open Spaces in the neighbourhood of London’.
The committee recommended strengthening the law to prevent further enclosures of London commons. Many landowners fought this, not least Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson, owner of much of Hampstead Heath. Maryon Wilson had for many years planned to build on the heath and adjoining land and had been opposed by local residents and Parliament.
In response to the landowners’ reaction to the committee report, Shaw Lefevre, with the Hampstead Heath campaigners, formed the CPS to keep the commons open and unenclosed. Its founding members included Philip Le Breton, John Gurney Hoar, Octavia Hill, Robert Hutton and John Stuart Mill.
Over many years the CPS fought legal battles with Maryon Wilson and provided expert advice and representation to Hampstead’s residents. When Maryon Wilson died in 1869 matters had not been resolved. Fortunately, his brother John, who inherited the land, was more public spirited and agreed to the sale of 200 acres to the MBW.
The Hampstead Heath Act was passed on 29 June 1871 empowering the MBW to purchase the land. After negotiations the purchase was achieved, and it was the start of a new era for the heath. Since then, the protected area of the heath has grown to over 800 acres.
Says Kate Ashbrook, our general secretary: ‘Had the CPS not fought the legal battles on behalf of the commoners, there would probably be no Hampstead Heath left today. It is the most magnificent stretch of green space, now ably cared for by the City of London Corporation under the watchful eye of the Heath and Hampstead Society. We are proud of our achievement here, and in helping to save countless other commons across England and Wales.
‘The Act declared that “It would be of great advantage to the inhabitants of the Metropolis if the Heath were always kept uninclosed and unbuilt on, its natural aspect and state being, as far as may be, preserved.” So far it has largely succeeded in its aims.’