Hampstead has over 1000 years of recorded history, and has been the home of many celebrated artists, actors, writers and public figures. As you wander down Hampstead's pretty streets, you'll spot many blue signs that signify the building was home to someone noteworthy. Burgh House Trust has provided us with a great overview of the fascinating history of the area.
The earliest known inhabitants of the Hampstead area were Mesolithic forest hunters who settled here in about 7000BC. The Hendon and District Archaeology Society (HADAS) excavated their campsites on the West Heath between 1976 and 1981. A barrow on Parliament Hill suggests that there was a Bronze Age settlement on this desirable hilltop. Little evidence remains of the Roman occupation, only the straight line of Kilburn High Road, which is built on the Roman Watling Street. Roman pottery was dug up near the Hampstead Wells in 1774.
The recorded history of Hampstead begins with the Anglo-Saxon charters and grants. A document in the British Library records the grant of Hampstead by King Ethelred the Unready in 986 AD to the monastery of St. Peter’s at Westminster.
The story continues in the Doomsday Book of 1086. This showed that Hamestede (meaning homestead) was centered on a small farm, which was valued at fifty shillings.
In the Middle Ages two windmills and a chapel (later a parish church) appeared on Hampstead hill. A small priory was also built in nearby Kilburn.
With the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, the priory was closed and soon after the Manor was transferred from the Abbey into lay hands. Hampstead remained a rural community until the end of the seventeenth century.
In 1698, “Six acres of waste land” on Hampstead Heath “lying and being about certain medical waters called the Wells” were granted at a yearly rent of five shillings (25p) to trustees of the Wells. The condition was that they apply it “for the sole use benefit and the poor of the parish of Hampstead”. The medicinal value of the chalybeate waters (water impregnated with iron) began to be advertised by the Trustees from 1700.
A Long Room was erected on the south side of Well Walk. This compromised a Pump Room where the chalybeate water could be drunk and an Assembly Room for dancing, concerts and other forms of entertainment. Nearby was a tavern and various raffling shops.
Although Hampstead Wells was initially successful, its distance from London, competition with other London spas and entertainment, and problems with rowdy behaviour, caused its popularity to decline. The Long Room was closed and was used for other purposes. It was demolished in 1882. The waters could still be drunk as the fountain; basin and fittings were removed from the Pump Room and installed in a building next to the Wells Tavern. In the 1730’s a new Long Room and Ballroom were built in Well Walk adjacent to Burgh House. Attempts were made through higher priced tickets for balls, concerts and other events to attract a more discerning clientele than the previous long room. Many of them were local residents rather than visitors. The Second Long Room closed down at the end of the 18th century Hampstead’s days as a spa were over, but the Wells period had encouraged substantial development in Hampstead and established its reputation as a healthy and attractive place to stay.
During the 19th century Hampstead expanded rapidly. The arrival of the North London Line (today’s Silverlink) in 1860 brought day-trippers to enjoy the Heath. The estates around Gayton and Willoughby Roads, Oakhill Park, Reddington Road and Fitzjohn’s Avenue were developed in the 1870s and 1880s. Fitzjohn’s Avenue was only linked to the High Street in 1886-7. These works also cleared away the slums of central Hampstead. By 1891 the population of Hampstead was about 68,000 - more than double that of 1871. New amenities included new churches, chapels, schools, a bigger workhouse, police and fire stations, a cemetery, water supply and sewage system. Hampstead also contained a fever hospital, a TB hospital (Mount Vernon) and homes for the orphan daughters of Crimean War servicemen. At the same time the administration of the parish improved. From 1855 the Vestry was reorganised into a properly elected Town Council. In 1885, Hampstead was made a Parliamentary Borough. In 1888 it became part of London.
1900: Hampstead became a Metropolitan Borough and formed its first borough council. Sir Henry Harben was elected its first mayor.
1907: Opening of the Hampstead tube line by Lloyd George. University College School (formerly situated in Gower Street) was moved to a new imposing building in Frognal. Edward VII opened it.
1914-18: During World War 1, the workhouse in New End was turned into a military hospital.
1921: Keats House Rescued from demolition (opened 1925).
1919-39: Between the Wars art groups flourished – in Downshire Hill in 1920’s with Stanley Spencer, and around the Mall Studios (Belsize Park) in 1930’s with Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth.
1930’s: a number of controversial modernist homes were built. Amongst these were the Isokon Flats in Lawn Road designed by Wells Coates (1934) and 2 Willow Road designed and lived in by Erno Goldfinger. (Opened to the public by the National Trust in 1996).
1934: Sir Gerald du Maurier opened The Everyman cinema.
1939-45 World War II brought periods of heavy bombing. Hampstead and Belsize Park tube stations were used as air-raid shelters.
1945-48: After the War, rebuilding was slow. The New End Area was particularly badly damaged and in 1948, Hampstead’s 1st post-war Council Blocks, The Wells House flats were built on the site of Weatheral House, adjacent to Burgh House.
1962: Hampstead Theatre opened.
1964: Swiss Cottage Library and Baths opened by the Queen.
1974: The Royal Free Hospital built in Pond Street and opened by the Queen in 1978.
1979: Burgh House and the Hampstead Museum opened.
1980-1990’s: Growth of luxury flats and houses being developed on the fringes of Hampstead as well as many public buildings being re-developed as luxury housing.
1990’s: The turn of the century has led to appeals to restore impressive 19th century buildings.