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A Morning View Across The Viaduct Pond

If the Bub is about family history and sense of place; and the Iron Hole is about revealing the many layers of history associated our old narrow boat Eileen, then Viaduct Posts will be my first venture into a local notebook – one based on research closer to home.

They won’t be about the Heath in it’s totality, that’d currently be too big a project, instead I’m thinking of exploring a palimpsest of heath-ness – the Viaduct that incongruously crosses it.

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Sighting a Viaduct will explore my relationship to the Heath.

My first question when staring across at the viaduct this morning was: Why on earth anyone would go to the time and expense of constructing such a fine viaduct on what is effectively open heathland?

The answer of course is a mid-Victorian tale of avarice, pique, speculative greed and overarching egos.

Hampstead had become a fashionable spa in the early 18thC. but mainly a resort for those wealthy enough to escape the City in the Summer; however by the beginning of the 19thC. Hampstead was rapidly acquiring a resident population of those same City grandees and other gentry who now preferred to live in Hampstead full-time, rather than in the increasing filth, gloom and squalor of the booming City.

London’s expansion was the perfect opportunity for landlords to sell or lease their lands, including common land, to developers at huge profit; amongst them was Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson, absentee Lord of the Manor, and resident in Kent. However, he was impeded in realising the value of his Hampstead estate in three critical respects a). the clauses in his father’s will prevented him from both leasing land to others for more than 21 years and from selling any part of the estate; b). he lacked the capital to develop the estate himself; c). he had a number of articulate and influential residents in opposition to his schemes.

This didn’t prevent Sir Thomas trying to breach the terms of his father’s will; exploiting the mineral wealth of the Heath by excavating the Bagshot Sands on a scale never seen before, and in a fit of pique wilfully changing the character of the Heath by planting exotic trees to the fury of the Heath-loving local gentry.

In 1844 Sir Thomas decided to begin developing his Hampstead estate from his own pocket. He planned an prestigious estate of 28 villas, christening it East Park, which he began developing without consultation. The plans for East Park show a drive down the centre of the estate, with lines of sumptuous villas, each with two acres of land, on either side.

The most ambitious part of the proposed development was a show-stopping piece of architecture to carry the East Park drive across the marshy ground which forms part of the headwaters of various streams and rivers than rise out of the Heath and flow towards the Thames.

Sir Thomas had the ground drained to form an ornamental pond, and commissioned a viaduct to be built from bricks dug and fired on site with sandstone pillars at either end.

The project did not go well, and the foundation excavations collapsed repeatedly before ‘Wilson’s Folly’ as it was then known, was built.

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The Viaduct by Louis Walter 1860 shows the anomaly of ‘Wilson’s Folly’ standing in splendid isolation on the open heath. An expensive means of carrying cattle across marshy ground.

It’s construction exhausted Sir Thomas’ resources, and frustrated that he couldn’t receive the sanction of Parliament to proceeded with his planned developments, he began a 10 year policy of despoliation. Principally he agreed to the Midland Railway (at that point pushing towards their new terminus at St. Pancras) removing in excess of 30 cartloads of sand from the Sandy Heath daily, severely damaging the local ecology. He also agreed to a 21 year lease of the lands beneath the viaduct pond to John Culverhouse, a local builder, for use as brick fields exploiting the Claygate Bed, a mixture of sand and clay.

Sir Thomas died before his despoliation could be challenged in the courts and in 1871 his brother Sir John agreed to sell the manorial rights over 220 acres of Hampstead common land to the Metropolitan Board of Works.

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Hampstead from the Viaduct, David Murray 1897

In 1886, with the lease on the brick fields close to expiring, there was a real danger that the East Park estate might finally be developed, had it not been for the interventions of three of the founding figures of the conservation movement – George Shaw-Lefevre, Robert Hunter and Octavia Hill (the latter two being co-founders of the National Trust). Their interventions plus problems in accessing the proposed East Park development through other estates, finally prompted both the Maryon Wilson and Earl Mansfield estates to agree to selling their remaining interest in the East Park section of the Heath, increasing its overall size to 481 acres.

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An 1880’s view of the Viaduct across what remained of the stepped brickfields cut into the hillside…

And so begins the story of the Viaduct on the Heath…

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