History of Hampstead

Prehistoric Hampstead

Early Hampstead history

Hampstead Wells

Victorian Hampstead

Hampstead in the early twentieth century

Hampstead during the First World War, 1914-18

Hampstead art scene, 1919-40

Hampstead architecture, 1920-33

Impact of the Second World War on Hampstead, 1939-49

Hampstead from 1950 to 1979

Hampstead since 1980 

Prehistoric Hampstead

The earliest known inhabitants of the Hampstead area were Mesolithic forest hunters who settled here in about 7000 BC. The Hendon and District Archaeology Society 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 hill top. Little evidence remains of the Roman occupation, only the straight line of Kilburn High Road, which is built on top of the Roman Watling Street. Roman pottery was dug up near the Hampstead Wells in 1774.

Early Hampstead history

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 Doomsday Book of 1086 describes Hamstede (meaning 'homestead') as centred on a small farm, which was valued at 50 shillings. 

In the Middle Ages, two windmills and a chapel (later a parish church) appeared on Hampstead Hill and a small priory was built in Kilburn. With the dissolution of the monasteries by King Henry VIII, the priory was closed and soon after the Manor was transferred from the Abbey into lay hands. Hampstead remained a peaceful rural community until the end of the seventeenth century.

Hampstead Wells

In 1698, 'six acres of heath ground, part of Hampstead Heath, lying about and encompassing the well of medicinal waters' were granted at a yearly rent of five shillings (25p) to trustees of Hampstead Wells, on the condition that all rents, profits and improvements 'be made for the sole use and benefit of the poor of the parish of Hampstead'. The medicinal value of Hampstead’s chalybeate waters (water impregnated with iron) began to be advertised by the trustees in 1700.

The long room was erected on the south side of Well Walk. This was comprised of a pump room where the chalybeate water could be drunk and an assembly room for dancing, concerts and other forms of entertainment. A tavern and various raffling shops were situated nearby.

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 down and the building was used for other purposes, before being demolished in 1882. The waters could still be drunk at the fountain, but the basin and fittings were removed from the pump room and installed in a building next to the Wells Tavern. 

In the 1730s, a new long room and ballroom were built in Well Walk, adjacent to Burgh House. Attempts were made – through subscriptions and 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. 

When the second long room closed down at the end of the eighteenth century, Hampstead's days as a spa were officially over. However, during this period, Hampstead had undergone substantial development and established its reputation as a healthy and attractive area.

Victorian Hampstead

In the nineteenth century, Hampstead grew exponentially as roads and railway lines made previously secluded areas suddenly accessible. The arrival of the North London Line (now known as Silverlink) in 1860 brought crowds of day trippers to Hampstead Heath. 

In the 1870s and 1880s, the estates around Gayton Road, Willoughby Road, Oak Hill Park, Redington Road and Fitzjohns Avenue were developed. Further development came in 1886 and 1887, when Fitzjohns Avenue was connected to Hampstead High Street and the slums and alleys of central Hampstead were removed. 

Between 1871 and 1891, the population of Hampstead doubled in size to approximately 68,000. This substantial growth led to the building of more amenities, including new churches, chapels and schools, as well as new police and fire stations, a cemetery, sewage system and a larger workhouse. Around the same time, Hampstead Small Pox Hospital and Mount Vernon Hospital for Tuberculosis, as well as homes for the orphan daughters of Crimean War servicemen, opened in Hampstead.

During this period, the administration of the parish also improved. From 1855, the Vestry was reorganised into an elected town council and, in 1878, Hampstead Town Hall was built on Haverstock Hill. In 1885, Hampstead was made a parliamentary borough and, in 1888, it became part of London.

Painter Patrick Lewis Forbes (1860-1939) first came to Hampstead in 1892, when he moved into 18 Gayton Road with his new wife, Sarah Mildred Leckie. For the next 28 years, the couple moved periodically between various properties in Hampstead, before leaving the area completely in 1920. Forbes created many beautiful watercolour paintings of Hampstead streets and monuments, including a painting of St John’s Church on Downshire Hill in 1894.

Hampstead in the early twentieth century

In 1900, Hampstead became a metropolitan borough and formed its first borough council. Sir Henry Harben was elected as the borough’s first mayor.

In 1907, Hampstead Underground Station opened on the new Charing Cross, Euston & Hampstead Railway (which later became part of the current Northern Line). This enabled people to commute easily from Hampstead into Central London, making it a popular place to live and a popular visitor attraction.

In the same year, University College School moved from Gower Street – where it had been since its founding in 1830 – to three buildings in Hampstead, where it remains to this day. The new buildings were officially opened by King Edward VII.

Hampstead during the First World War, 1914-18

During the First World War, the Hampstead Union Workhouse and Infirmary in New End was used as a military hospital for wounded and shell-shocked soldiers. In 1922, the buildings were handed back to the Hampstead Guardians, who restored and updated the facilities and renamed it the New End Hospital.

Hampstead Heath was used for training exercises by various local battalions throughout the war. These included the Hampstead Howitzers (183rd Royal Field Artillery), the Hampstead Heavies (138th Heavy Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery) and the London Regiment (Queen Victoria's Rifles).

In 1915, anti-aircraft guns were placed in the grounds of Kenwood House and around Whitestone Pond following the aerial bombardment of England that had recently begun. To counter food shortages, allotments were created on the Heath, as well as on plots of land near the Vale of Health and Gospel Oak.

Many soldiers from Hampstead who died during the war were buried on the battlefield, but there were six soldiers who, having been transported home before they died, were buried in the graveyard at St John's Church on Downshire Hill in Hampstead. One of these soldiers was Geoffrey Craig Rose, who lived at 23 Daleham Gardens in Hampstead between 1911 and August 1914, when he joined the army. Wounded in action at Messines Ridge in Flanders in December 1914, Rose was transported home and taken to St George's Hospital in London where, in February 1915, he died.

Hampstead art scene, 1919-40

Between the wars, Hampstead and the surrounding area was home to many significant twentieth-century artists.

In the 1920s, artists including Stanley Spencer (1891-1959), Christopher R. W. Nevinson (1889-1946) and John Nash (1893-1977) gathered at the Carlines' family home at 47 Downshire Hill in Hampstead to discuss the arts and their work. Spencer met his future wife, fellow artist Hilda Carline (1889-1950), at the house.

From the late 1920s onwards, Parkhill Road in Belsize Park became the centre for another group of British artists; led by sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1903-75) who, in 1928, moved to 7 Mall Studios with her artist husband John Skeaping (1901-80). After Skeaping moved out in 1932, the painter Ben Nicholson (1894-1982), Hepworth’s soon-to-be second husband, moved in and the pair remained there until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, at which point they moved with their children to Cornwall.

In 1929, sculptor Henry Moore (1898-1986) and his wife Irina moved into the neighbouring studio, 11a Parkhill Road. In 1939, they moved into Hepworth’s vacated studio, but had to leave the following year when it was hit by a bomb, which destroyed the artwork housed there.

In 1938, the Dutch abstract painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) moved from Paris to London to escape the war, taking a room at 60 Parkhill Road, on Nicholson’s suggestion. Mondrian lived there until 1940, when he moved to New York, where he remained until his death in 1944.

Hampstead architecture, 1920-33

In 1920, Keats House was threatened with demolition to make way for a row of flats. The Memorial Committee was founded and, in 1921, it successfully raised enough money to buy and repair the house. The following year, the Committee donated the house to Hampstead Borough Council. In 1925, Keats House opened to the public as a museum.

In 1931, Jack (1899-1992) and Molly Pritchard (1900-85) founded the Isokon firm with the intent to design buildings and furniture in a modernist style. In 1933, they hired architect Wells Coates (1895-1958) to design and build the Lawn Road Flats (commonly known as the Isokon Building) on Lawn Road in Hampstead. The flats themselves featured space-saving furniture and fittings. Famous residents included novelist Agatha Christie (1890-1976) and Walter Gropius (1883-1969), the founder of the Bauhaus School, as well as various other architects, artists and supporters of the modernist architecture movement. In 1972, Lawn Road Flats was sold to Camden Council and later acquired by the Notting Hill Housing Trust. It became a Grade I-listed building in 1974.

In 1939, architect Ernö Goldfinger (1902-87) designed a row of three terraced houses on Willow Road in a modernist style. A number of cottages were demolished to allow for the construction of these houses, making Goldfinger unpopular with many local residents. Goldfinger lived in 2 Willow Road (the largest of the three houses) with his wife, Ursula, and their children from 1939 until his death in 1987. Goldfinger decorated his house in a modernist style with furniture he designed himself and an impressive collection of modern art. 2 Willow Road was acquired by the National Trust in 1992 and has been open to the public ever since.

In 1933, actor Gerald du Maurier (1873-1934) officially opened the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead. The first programme included Le MillionTurbulent Timber, a Disney cartoon and Paramount News. In 2000, entrepreneur Daniel Borch purchased the cinema when it was threatened with closure and founded the Everyman Cinemas Group.

Impact of the Second World War on Hampstead, 1939-49

In 1938, the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, moved to 20 Maresfield Gardens with his family to escape Nazi-occupied Austria. It remained the family home until Anna Freud, Freud’s youngest daughter, died in 1982. It opened to the public as a museum in 1986.

Throughout the Second World War, there were periods of heavy bombing in Hampstead. The Hampstead and Belsize Park Underground Stations were used as air-raid shelters. Between 1940 and 1945, there were 1,134 casualties, over 200 of which were fatal.

After 1945, Hampstead began to rebuild and repair the damage caused by the war. The New End area was particularly badly damaged and, in 1948, a block of flats known as Wells House was built on the site of Weatherall House, adjacent to Burgh House.

Hampstead from 1950 to 1979

In 1955, Ruth Ellis (1926-55) shot and killed her lover, David Blakely, outside the Magdala pub on South Hill Park. She gave herself in to the police and was hanged shortly after at Holloway Prison. Ellis was the last woman to be executed in Britain.

The High Hill Bookshop opened at 6-7 Hampstead High Street in 1957. It was known for its emphasis on Hampstead history and local connections. The bookshop was also the site of the High Hill Press, which published local history books. Much of the bookshop’s local clientele considered it a Hampstead institution. After the bookshop closed in 1988, the owner, Ian Norrie, kindly gave the newly-opened Burgh House & Hampstead Museum the large model of a penguin that had been autographed by various writers and artists at the Penguin Books’ silver jubilee party that took place in the High Hill Bookshop in 1960. The High Hill Penguin remains Hampstead Museum's most popular resident to this day. (And unlike most penguins, it also tweets!)

In 1959, Hampstead Theatre (known at the time as 'The Hampstead Theatre Club') opened at Moreland Hall on Holly Bush Vale. It was founded by the British theatre director James Roose-Evans (b. 1927). In 1962, the Theatre relocated to a small studio in Swiss Cottage, where it stayed until 2003, when it moved to a new, purpose-built building nearby. The theatre has helped many up-and-coming playwrights develop their careers over the years, including Mike Leigh (b. 1943), Brian Friel (b. 1929) and Abi Morgan (b. 1968).

In 1965, the metropolitan boroughs of Hampstead, St. Pancras and Holborn merged into the London Borough of Camden. The new Borough was named after the first Earl of Camden, Charles Pratt, who started the development of Camden Town in 1791.

In 1974, the Royal Free Hospital moved from Grays Inn Road in Central London (where it had been, in various incarnations, since 1828) to its current location on Pond Street in Hampstead. The new building was erected on the site of the old Hampstead General Hospital. It was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1978.

In 1979, Burgh House & Hampstead Museum opened to the public as a community centre for arts and culture and a museum of local history.

Hampstead since 1980

In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a growth in luxury flats and houses being developed on the fringes of Hampstead, as well as many previously public buildings being redeveloped and sold off as luxury housing. 

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, many appeals were made to restore some local nineteenth-century buildings, including, St John’s on Downshire Hill, which is once again used as a church; and St Stephen’s Church on Rosslyn Hill and Hampstead Town Hall on Haverstock Hill, which are both now used as community centres. Hampstead Town Hall was officially opened to the public by Prince Charles in 2000.