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A view over Bird Sanctuary Pond, the water in the foreground with grass and trees beyond.

It may be obvious why, today Hampstead Heath is such an attraction. As countryside in the city, close to the centre of London, it provides an ideal opportunity 'to get away from it all for a while'. It is a haven in a densely populated part of the UK. Yet, why did the Heath become so popular over the centuries as a place to visit, when London was considerably less developed than it is today? Part of the answer is water.

The London Conduit Act 1544

The London Conduit Act, 1544, empowered the City of London to make use of “dyvers great and plentiful sprynges at Hampstead Heath” and gave the City general powers to collect water from springs within five miles of the City. Although it is not known when the ponds on the Heath were first made, by 1692 some of the Hampstead Ponds had been formed and were leased to a partnership called the Hampstead Water Company.

At about the same time, the Water Company leased a farm located at Millefieldes (which is the origin of the name of today’s Millfield Lane) and made the first three of the Highgate Ponds. A map prepared by John Rocque in 1745/6 (“An exact Survey of the Cities of London, Westminster and Southwark and the country near 10 miles around”) shows two Hampstead Ponds and a string of seven Highgate Ponds. However, these reservoirs provided insufficient water and by 1762 there were four Hampstead Ponds and, in 1777, the Vale of Health Pond was created.

By the late 18th century the bogs and swampy valleys of the Heath had been largely transformed into open ponds and the ‘malarial swamp’ known as Hatchett’s Bottom had been drained, later to become the salubrious hamlet renamed the Vale of Health.

'Taking the water'

The Hampstead waters were a valuable supply for London. In addition, the health giving qualities of the iron-rich springs became sought after and from the early 18th century Hampstead developed as a fashionable spa. Visitors came to “take the water” and increasingly began to use the Heath as a place of recreation. John Soame in his 1734 work “Hampstead wells; or directions for the drinking of these waters” observed that visitors came to enjoy “the free and wholesome air without the noisesome smell of stinking fogs [...] too common in large cities”. He also mentioned the Heath’s popularity with the Apothecaries Company which “found a great variety of curious and useful plants near and around Hampstead”.

Not surprisingly, with the increasing number of people coming to Hampstead and the Heath for recreation (including horse racing on West Heath) several eating and drinking places became established or grew in size to meet growing demand: Jack Straw’s Castle, Mother Huff’s (a tavern on the site of the Elms), Spaniard’s Inn and the Bull and Bush at North End.

A place of chosen resort

A leading article in the Sun in June 1829 noted that the Heath had become an extremely popular open space “looked on by the majority of respectable London tradesmen and their families as a place of chosen resort, whenever their leisure enabled them to turn their backs on the close, pent-up and smoky streets of the metropolis”. By 1865 it was estimated that some 50,000 people gathered on the Heath on a fine Easter or Whitsun holiday, attracted also by the fairs which had become a regular feature of East Heath. In 1872, the Illustrated London News published a report on Hampstead Heath on Whit Monday. The fair had spread from South End Green to Spaniard’s Road and the whole area was a “congregation of working class Londoners, everywhere swarming in multitudinous clusters …”

By the 1880’s it was estimated that 100,000 people came to the Heath on a fine bank holiday. By 1910 the estimate was 300,000. Undoubtedly, the arrival of the railways from the 1860’s increased ease of access
to the Heath. William Howett reported in 1869 (“The Northern Heights of London”) that trains brought people by the thousand from the East End to enjoy “the northern heights”. Today, the working estimate generally used of the number of visits to the Heath each year is 8 to 10 million.

01 October 2015
Last Modified:
30 August 2019