Town Improvement Scheme – 1870s and 1880s

As Hampstead grew it drew in not only well-off individuals but also those engaged in providing support services to them. But the provision of accommodation for such people was inadequate and created public health problems. Over time, areas of the town decayed into overcrowded slums until, in the 1880s, a decision was taken by the Vestry to redevelop the centre of the town by demolishing the old slum buildings and creating the streetscape that we see today. Even so, views to the south and west of the church were still over fields and streams.

The problem

In 1851 the population of Hampstead was just under 12,000, at a density of 5 per acre. However, it increased rapidly from then onwards – by 69% between 1861-71, by 41% between 1871-1881, and by 51% between 1881-91. This increase was the result both of people being attracted to London from elsewhere in the country and the effect of people moving out of the centre to more congenial suburbs. (For comparison, in the same three decades the population of St Pancras grew by 11%, 7% and then fell by 1%.)

This growth placed extraordinary pressures on all urban services – from housing to water and sanitation, employment, transport and retailing. As a result, slum areas grew in size and poverty increased. (In 1868 and 1869, for example, there were over 140 men, women and children living in the Heath Street workhouse, and another 180-200 on out-door relief. )

The cholera epidemic in the 1840s led to complaints about the crowded alleys and courts of the town centre which were seen as health hazards (see notes on Public Health). As the population grew, fears of epidemics also increased. A decision was made, therefore, to redevelop the town centre and to widen the High Street to enable a number of new urban services to be provided.

Map of Hampstead Town Centre, 1872

© Stanford’s Maps

The proposed Scheme

Up until the mid 19th century the High Street narrowed just above Perrin’s Court to the same width as Holly Hill, and there was no connection between the top of Field Place (which eventually became Fitzjohn’s Avenue) and the High Street/ Heath Street. The area west of the High Street/ Holly Hill and up to Church Row was a warren of narrow, winding and unsavoury courts and alleys, and decaying slum tenement buildings.

The scheme provided for the demolition of property on the western side of the High Street from above number 72, and included the alteration of Perrin’s Court at the High Street end. At the same time buildings were demolished to make way for the lower extension of Heath Street, including the eastern end of Church Row, Yorkshire Grey Place and Bradley’s Buildings. (The present Holly Bush Vale is the site of the original yard at Bradley’s Buildings.) Although Perrins Court and Church Lane (now Perrins Lane) were retained, much of the property in-between the High Street and lower Heath Street – including Oriel House and Crockett’s Court – was demolished.

Yorkshire Grey Yard

from Vestry minute book

Oriel House

from Wade’s book

In their place the Vestry erected several new buildings to give the town a more imposing “presence”. Gardnor Mansions was built at the junction of Church Row and the new Heath Street. Along the lower part of Heath Street were the Express Dairies building, the Three Horseshoes public house, and the Drill Hall for the Hampstead Rifle Volunteers (this subsequently became the Everyman Theatre and is now the Everyman Cinema). At the junction of Heath Street and High Street a new fire station was built, and along the High Street new shops were erected which now are home to Waterstone’s bookshop and Starbucks Coffee Shop, among others. Many of the original residents were re-housed in the Wells Buildings – built in 1876 by the Wells Charity in the new Oriel Place/ Court.

Hampstead Fire Station, 1905 (built 1871)

© Mary Evans Picture Library

(ref 10535282 and 10536110)

Note Sainsbury the grocer’s shop in the LH corner of Lower Heath Street

An immediate benefit

These improvements had an immediate effect. A minor outbreak of Scarlet Fever in 1889 affected the residents of Wells Buildings. A report to the Vestry concluded that, although the building contained 86 children, the fever was confined to only 8 cases. This was attributed to “the excellent sanitary arrangements of these buildings, together with the attention paid to ventilation and the free circulation of air.”

The involvement of the Vestry explains why much of the area is owned by Camden Council today.

Questions for discussion

1 Can you trace the boundaries of the area that was redeveloped? What buildings or landmarks can you still see that are mentioned? How has the area changed again since this time? And what do you think of recent changes?

2 What do you think the area looked like before the improvements took place? Can you write a story or draw a picture of life in the alleys and tenements? (Use the Matthews, Sinton and Kippen family stories to help you.)

3 How do you think the Improvement Scheme changed life in Hampstead – for children, for poor working people, and for richer middle class families? What were the good things, and what was not so good? (Use the Notes on Public Health to help you.)

The Streets of Hampstead by Christopher Wade, Camden History Society (2000) – see: Route 5 – The Main Roads


This page was last updated on August 29th, 2013.

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