Hampstead in the 20th Century


Population growth continued into the 20th century, but this was also a period of rapid social and economic change. Two World Wars left their scars on the town, but an increasing trend away from single family dwellings to purpose built and converted apartments, as well as increasing car ownership and changing patterns of retail business, probably had a more significant impact on the character of Hampstead. 


New urban facilities

By 1900, when the new Hampstead Borough Council replaced the Vestry as the local government unit, Hampstead was a quiet, slightly inaccessible town of some 82,000 people, with 13,800 domestic servants and 126 shopkeepers but limited public facilities. That changed over the next 10 years, with the opening of a new town hall in Haverstock Hill in 1905, and the arrival of the Hampstead Tube (the Underground railway) at Belsize Park and Hampstead in 1907 (and University College School in Frognal in the same year).

These changes meant that the ‘village’ became inextricably linked with the capital, and significant housing and commercial development followed. The numbers of dwellings in Hampstead rose from 9,517 in 1891 to 11,976 in 1911; and continued with the development of Telegraph Hill in 1913. In turn, they brought about wider social and economic innovation – affecting public administration, as well as changes to services like schools and hospitals.

Two World Wars

The First World War brought a pause in this rate of growth, but neither it nor the succeeding recession and unemployment could stop the momentum for change. Between the two World Wars Hampstead became more closely integrated into metropolitan London. In 1920 the old drill hall was turned into the Everyman Theatre, and was an important venue until conversion into a cinema in 1933. Keats House and Kenwood House were bought for the public in 1925.

High demand for housing led to an increase in property prices which, in turn, created pressure for flat developments and the sub-division of Victorian houses. This particularly affected Chalk Farm and Belsize Park in the 1930s. An influx of European refugees in the 1930s and 1940s increased population numbers and changed the character of the town again – artists, musicians, scientists, architects – creating a café society and musical evenings.

Before the start of the Second World War the population of Hampstead was over 90,000. But by 1941 this had dropped to 58,000 because of military service and evacuation. Notwithstanding that the borough did not have any military targets worth attacking, there were 572 air raids in Hampstead, causing over 1,100 casualties (including over 200 deaths) and damaging over 13,500 houses (of which 2,400 were completely or substantially destroyed) – a significant proportion of the total.

Changing household patterns

In the post-war period Hampstead’s good transport links with central London and pleasant atmosphere attracted new arrivals in the capital. The trend towards multiple occupation of housing accelerated, and the transient nature of the population increased – by 1951 a third were moving in or out each year. In 1955 Hampstead had the highest suicide rate in the country, probably caused by the loneliness of its single bedsit residents. By 1961, half of the borough’s housing was in unfurnished, privately rented accommodation, and the population of single young women was as high as in 1931 (when domestic service was common).

In the mid 1950s it was estimated that 69 per cent of Hampstead’s buildings had been put up between 1870 and 1916, compared with 20 per cent before 1870 and only 11 per cent after 1916.

However, the attractions of Hampstead and the high demand for housing led to speculators buying up properties from the mid 1950s and selling them to the better off. Starting in the town and the more attractive areas to the north, Victorian houses were rehabilitated through the 1960s and 1970s and came to be occupied again by middle-class families. By 1971 Hampstead’s population had risen to nearly 90,000. But by the end of the 1970s the contrast between west and east remained: with council flats and large families, often of recent immigrant origin, in the west, and conservation areas with young and prosperous inhabitants in the east. By the late 1980s property in most of Hampstead was expensive.

Post war Hampstead

In the years after the war investment in public housing (1950s at Park Hill/ Upper Park and 1960s at Branch Hill)) and new civic facilities at Swiss Cottage (1960s) changed the landscape locally, as did the new Royal Free Hospital (1974). However, growing car ownership (1960s and 1970s) and increasing commercial rents, leading to the changing face of high street shopping, had perhaps a more widespread impact and many local shops began to disappear. More positively, the rescue of Burgh House (1979), and securing the future of the Heath when the GLC was abolished (1986), were major triumphs in preserving the open and intellectual character of Hampstead.


This page was last updated on April 26th, 2012.


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