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A sepia photo of an Edwardian gentleman standing in a huge stretch of 40 feet deep sand pit.

A brief glance at part of the history of Hampstead Heath shows that the continual interest of the public in the Heath was crucial in the campaign to secure it in 1871 ‘for ever as an open space’. That was, of course, a triumph, from which future generations have benefited enormously; however other actions of the public were not so beneficial for the Heath.

The right to dig

One of the rights which the public exercised over the part of the Heath that was common land of the Manor of Hampstead was the right to dig for sand and gravel. A map dated 1680 indicates the boundaries of the extent of that common land, which in effect covered what we know today as East Heath, Sandy Heath and West Heath. Despite land use changes elsewhere, these three areas remained generally as treeless heathland and acidic grassland, except for a plantation of ‘firs’ and avenues on Sandy Heath planted in the eighteenth century. Although the vegetation character was largely unchanged, certain parts of the heathland were severely modified through the impact of digging for Bagshot Sand and Gravel – which were valuable materials for the construction of roads and buildings.

The first known mention of digging on the Heath is in Gerard’s Herball (1597) in which a ‘Gravell Pit’ is described near the beacon which stood near what is now Whitestone Pond. In 1780 a dispute arose between the Lord of the Manor and the copyholders (tenants of the Manor with rights over the common land) over their right to dig for sand and gravel on the Common. The case, before the Court of the King’s Bench, was decided in favour of the copyholders “who will continue as usual to open pits and cut turf in defiance of him (the Lord of the Manor) and his agents”.

Devastation

During the 19th century, there was an increasing demand for the high quality Bagshot Sand, for use in building and iron foundry casts. In response to this demand, sand was dug from many parts on the upper parts of the Heath (from both sides of Spaniard’s Road) and from West Heath. Eight loads a day in 1814 rose to thirty loads a day in 1866. The Illustrated London News of September 1871 described the state of the Heath at the time that it was taken over by the Metropolitan Board of Works:

'The whole space on the summit of the hill, to the right and the left of the high road [Spaniard’s Road] …has been ruthlessly dug up for gravel and sand; leaving a dreary, desert prospect of hideous pits and shapeless heaps as far as the view extends over the hill itself, with a few miserable furze bushes here and there, a ragged tuft of dusty ling; but without one square yard of verdant turf for a baby to roll on. The very body of the earth had been cut away to an amazing depth, with the entire surface of those parts of the heath which formed the brow and crown of the hill. Holes are scooped out close to the high road thirty feet or forty feet deep …'

A radical programme of improvement

Faced with this devastation, some people urged the Metropolitan Board of Works to carry out a radical programme of ‘improvement’ by laying it out as a park. Fortunately, the Chairmen of the Parks Committee was cautious and described the Board’s policy as being “to repair the mischief which had been done by digging and removing sand and turf, to restore the herbage, fern, gorse, heather and broom, to plan judiciously, and generally endeavour to bring the heath back to the beautiful wild condition in which it was some years since”.

This, in part, is why in the 1871 Act specific limitations are placed on what can be done with the land. In particular, by section 14 of the Act the Board was expressly forbidden to “cut turf or dig gravel mould or soil for profit”, and it only had powers to drain, level and improve the land where required for “purposes of health and unrestricted exercise and recreation”.

The Heath as we see it today has been shaped by human intervention. Not all such intervention over the centuries has been for the good.

Published:
01 October 2015
Last Modified:
07 November 2019

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