Today (December 20) in London History – Hampstead

December 20, 1698. Key moment in Hampstead’s history. This Today in London’s History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.


And counting.

And here’s another one that’s effectively another flower in my personal bouquet.

I’ve been a London Walks guide for 43 years now. That makes me the doyen of London guides. Doyen. Fancy word. Means nobody’s been doing this longer than I have. At last count I could guide 58 different London Walks. And my favourite one of all is Old Hampstead – Village and Heath. And what do you know. It’s December 20th – the goal with this series was to create a Today in London History podcast for every day of the year – all 365 of them – and I’m almost there – we cross the finish line on December 25th – and pounding down the home stretch I’m suddenly getting this slew of London history subjects and tableaux that are deeply personal to me and my relationship to London. Yesterday it was Dickens. Who is after all the reason I came to London, the reason I’m in London. Today, December 20th, it’s my favourite part of London, my favourite London Walk of all. Hampstead. And indeed a favourite moment on that much-loved walk.

It’s December 20th, 1698. We stand right where it happened. On Well Walk. Hampstead brimmeth over here with its goodness, its riches. Just a few yards away is what I describe as the fifth of our six viewing platforms. Viewing platforms from which we can see all the way across the Thames River Valley, the bowl of hills nestles in. Can see – a good five miles in the distance – the dome of St. Paul’s. And twenty-some miles beyond it the southeastern rim of that bowl of hills. It’s a really good spot to stop and gaze and marvel at.

And speaking of views, just a few yards back this way from our viewing platform is 40 Well Walk. John Constable’s house. Writing to his friend John Fisher, Constable said, “This house is to my wife’s heart’s content; it is situated on an eminence… and our little drawing-room commands a view unsurpassed in Europe, from Westminster Abbey to Gravesend.  The dome of St. Paul’s in the air seems to realise Michael Angelo’s words on seeing the Pantheon: ‘I will build such a thing in the sky.’  We see the woods and lofty grounds of the East Saxons to the northeast.   …I have painted one of my best pictures here.”

Our vantage point as Hampstead walkers commands a view of that drawing room. We can look into and look through it to the windows that Constable and his beloved wife Maria stood at, and imagine them taking survey of a view unsurpassed in Europe, from Gravesend to Westminster Abbey. Well, we get a bit of that view when we walk the twenty paces or so to our viewing platform and espy St Paul’s Cathedral. 

Then there’s Gainsborough Gardens. Number 89 Gainsborough Gardens to be precise. The home of John Le Carre, the master of the spy novel and creator of George Smiley.

And that barely scratches the biographical surface of what’s right to hand – of who’s right to hand – in that delightful little corner of Hampstead.

And that’s not forgetting the monument cum well. There’s the plaque affixed to it that reads, “Chaleybeate Well”. Fancy word, it means “iron bearing.” And then beneath said plaque, an inscription that reads: “In December of 1698 the Gainsborough Family gave this well, together with six acres of land, for the use and benefit of the poor of Hampstead.”

And right there Hampstead’s past pivots to meet the present. Hampstead is – by my lights at any rate – the most desirable neighbourhood in London. Maybe the most desirable neighbourhood in the world. It has more millionaires than any other neighbourhood in London. That’s not to say it’s the wealthiest residential district in London – that would be Kensington. But all that says is that Kensington’s millionaires are richer than Hampstead’s. Astonishingly, Hampstead’s written history tracks back to 986. Yes, well over a thousand years. But what we needs must keep in mind is that for most of its history Hampstead was a place for poor people, Tudor laundresses and peasants feeding a few pigs and scratching a living out of worthless land – waste ground it was called. That was Hampstead for 700 years. Seventy per cent of its history. And then the Gainsboroughs made over that chalybeate well and six acres of land – let’s be honest, six swampy acres – “for the use and benefit of the poor of Hampstead.” They didn’t directly give it to the poor. Not that the poor would have wanted it. They never do give it to them directly. Correction, the rich have been known to give it to the poor, but in another sense. How does She was poor but she was honest – you know, that old Billy Bennet music hall song – how does it go?  

It’s the same the whole world over

It’s the poor what gets the blame

It’s the rich what gets the pleasure

Ain’t it all a bloomin’ shame?

Anyway, that’s what happened. The bequest of the well and those six swampy acres was put in the trusteeship of the rich. And that date – December 20th, 1698 – is really the pivot point in Hampstead’s history. Well, one of its pivot points. I think the most important point in Hampstead’s history is the saving of Hampstead Heath, and in particular the saving of the Northern Heights. But that’s another story. From our date – December 20th, 1698 and that bequest from the Gainsborough family – modern Hampstead begins to roll out, begins to come our way. That well became the centrepiece of a mini Bath: there was a pump room, a long room, a ball room, an assembly room and it was all located right there in Well Walk. Today, the only physical trace we have is the old fountain-cum-monument but you can do some good guiding detective work there. You’ve got names like Well Road and Flask Walk and Well Walk and Flask Passage. They bear witness. As does the house with the inscription over its door, “here stood the pump room.”

All of that’s pretty good. But it’s possible to supercharge that trace evidence. I do it on the walk. I draw forth – love putting it that way – a reproduction of a finely detailed, 300-year-old sketch of the pump room and assembly room. I say, “you want to know what it looked like, here it is. Feast your eyes.”

And then I add, “and while you’re at it, look at the house that stood right next to the pump room and assembly room – and now slowly raise your eyes from the drawing and look at the house that’s directly across from you. There it is. The very house in the drawing. The same house. Over there, in the flesh as it were, in 2022. And here it is, in this drawing, sometime before 1725. That’s a fun moment. And for purposes of that walk it’s a launch pad moment. Because over the course of the next 80 yards or so we see a lot of early 18th century houses, one of them with a hidden date – 1736 as it happens – that’s impossible to spot unless you know exactly where to look. But is oh so satisfying to see once it does finally come into focus. Come into focus with a little bit of help – quite a bit of help, actually – from your guide.

Anything else? Well – well, so to speak – maybe this little bit of piquancy. The water in the chalybeate well is now considered unfit for drinking. 

And for a Today in London recommendation.

Step this way, Burgh House. A fine Queen Anne House – it was built in 1703 – it was for a time occupied by the physician to the Hampstead Wells. Its private owners included the son-in-law of Rudyard Kipling. The great writer often visited his daughter here. And probably wept inwardly, outwardly, inconsolably at what he’d done to her brother, his son. But that’s another story.

Today Burgh House is owned by the Council. It’s a bit of a community centre, it houses the Hampstead Museum, there are concerts and poetry readings, you can have your wedding reception here. It’s a good place. Oh, and it has a very fine cafe. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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