Hampstead’s origins (up to 1800)
In 1086, when the manor of Hampstead was surveyed for the Domesday Book, the area comprised one farm and a few scattered houses surrounded by fields. Even by 1800 Hampstead was still a small rural village surrounded by countryside. What was it like?
When the manor of Hampstead (some 2,000 acres and roughly the area of the ancient parish) was described in the Domesday Book in 1086 the place comprised only about 15 families (less than 100 people) and a few scattered houses on the upper slopes of the ridge rising from London. The village was bounded by the Heath on the east, woodland to the north-east, and surrounded by fields, meadows and woods on the west facing slopes of the hill which fell towards Kilburn. This essentially agrarian population grew slowly, taking until 1312 to increase to about 45 families (some 200 – 250 people), and would have fallen sharply in 1348/9 when the Black Death hit Hampstead.
Over the next 200 years the local economy appears to have been fairly static, and the population probably did not grow very much either. In 1549 the adult population was 147, so the total is unlikely to have exceeded 200. From the numbers of recorded deaths it is estimated that the population grew to about 300 in 1600, about 500 in 1620 and about 700 in 1640. Although the plague visited Hampstead four times between 1600 and 1665 the population continued to grow, perhaps as people escaped worse conditions in London. By 1665 the total was 850 and by 1700 it had risen to 1800 – probably about 350 families.
By 1700 the village was still mainly confined to an area around the present High Street and Heath Street, although the town had begun to descend Haverstock Hill towards Belsize. The growing population was often accommodated in larger houses, built at the expense of the original cottages. The old village west of the High Street, which became an area of crowded yards, and the low-lying area at New End remained poor areas.
The growth of London led to a significant increase in farm prices, which began to benefit the village economy. At the same time, the Hampstead wells became fashionable towards the end of the 17th century, and these attracted a wealthier kind of resident in the area around the newly fashionable wells as well as other pleasure grounds. Improvements began, with a new water fountain (1707) and a brewery (1720) in the High Street, the rebuilding of the parish church in 1745-7, and the development of mansions in the “open country” of Frognal at about the same period. By the 1740s the resident population of Hampstead had risen to 600 families (almost 3,000 people), with summer visitors in addition.
During the late 18th century some of the larger houses were divided or tenemented as their owners moved into newer areas of settlement at Upper Terrace, Frognal, and North End. By 1795 there were 686 houses within the parish, and probably some 4,000 people.
Hampstead’s reputation as a literary and artistic centre began in the early 18th century, as writers and artists were attracted by its clean air and rural tranquillity. Later, at the time of the romantic movement, the wild beauty of the Heath became the chief attraction, along with the relatively cheap lodgings available. There were other, more staid and celebrated people like George Romney, Joanna Baillie, and the publishers Longman, but it was Constable and Leigh Hunt and his circle who established Hampstead’s reputation as an intellectual centre (Victoria County Histories).
By 1795 the town was still to the north-east, east and south-east of the parish church, the manor farm to the west. According to Kennedy:
“(The town) extended along the High Street in a broken line of old-fashioned, red tiled houses standing out irregularly against the sky, and with a picturesque gable here and there. Many of the houses had large gardens behind them, or crowded alleys into which you dived through a square passage boarded overhead. Outside the gardens and orchards of the town were solitary red-brick mansions … and shady lanes winding through lofty, moss-stained walls.”
This page was last updated on April 26th, 2012.