Today (September 22) in London History – A Man for All Seasons

Sir Arthur Crosfield – the man who saved the Northern Heights of Hampstead Heath – died on this day in 1938. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

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London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

There’s a moment – every Sunday morning – when I’m almost giddy with happiness. It’s usually round about 11.30 am. I’m on my Hampstead Walk. We’ve just walked across a battlefield. It doesn’t compute for my walkers that I call it a battlefield. And then I show them those old old photographs of what it looked like in the 1860s and they get it at once. So we’ve walked across the battlefield and there we are on the roof of London. I call it the Skybox. It’s the most spectacular panoramic in all of London. The whole kit and caboodle is spread out before us. I mean for heaven’s sakes, we can see  way in the distance – they look like slender grey pencils bisecting the horizon – we can see the cable towers of the QE2 bridge, the Dartford Bridge, the most downstream of the Thames bridges. It’s way down in Kent. Maybe 25 miles from where we’re standing. Much nearer we can see the new Arsenal stadium in Highbury. We can the Olympic Park – its iconic buildings – in Stratford, far into the east end of London. We can see Docklands aka Manhattan on Thames. We can see the Gherkin of course. And of course, up there, looking afar, we’re looking across the emerald waves of green of that miracle, Hampstead  Heath. Joy. Elation. Happiness. Call it what you will, it’s what I get a burst of every Sunday morning, taking survey of all that, up there on the roof of London. 

But there’s also – off in the wings of my mind – always, there’s nothing I can do about it – it comes unbidden – a tempering sad thought. Standing there, rejoicing, taking it all in, I will suddenly hear, I visualise it, a plaintive note. I’m simultaneously in southeastern France. Beside the Geneva to Ventimiglia railway line.

It’s today, September 22nd, 1938. A 73-year-old man has fallen out of the window of the speeding express. He’s alive. But he’s suffered terrible, fatal injuries. He’ll be dead in a few minutes.

His name is Arthur Crosfield. The elation – the surge of delight and happiness we feel whenever we’re up there, up on the roof of London – that’s Arthur Crosfield’s gift to us. I’m not given to anything like religious sentiments or practices – but I always murmur something like, ‘Thank you so much Arthur Crosfield, Rest in Peace. You were one special man.’

So who was he, this unsung hero, who made a difference to London that’s almost beyond measure.

He was from Warrington, in northwest England. His family was very wealthy. They owned a hugely successful soapery. His grandfather had started the business. By the time it came down to grandson Arthur he was one of the wealthiest men in England. He was known as “the soap king.” He came to London. Yes, another personal note here. He bought a grand Georgian house in Highgate. Bought it from Mary’s great grandfather. Bought it and greatly added to it. Changed the name to Witanhurst. It’s a great old name. It’s Anglo-Saxon. “hurst” means wooded hill. Witan means “a parliament”. A parliament on the wooded hill.

And some house it was – and is. It’s the second largest house in London. The largest is Buckingham Palace.

365 windows. One window for each day of the year. An 11-acre site. 40,000 square feet. 65 rooms. 25 bedrooms. 12 bathrooms. A seventy-foot-long ballroom. A library. A gym. A sauna. A glass rotunda. Four tennis courts. Well, you get the idea.

Sitting pretty it was when Arthur Crosfield bought it in 1913.

And then a storm cloud. A serious storm cloud. The Earl of Mansfield decided he was going to his holdings in London: Kenwood House and its grounds. The famed northern heights of Hampstead.

The battle to save Hampstead Heath from the developers had already gone on for nearly 80 years. Three large tracts – running to hundreds of acres – had already been saved. But if the Northern Heights fell to the developers in a very real sense all of that tremendous work and effort would have been for nought. The first Earl of Mansfield had done what he needed to do – bought Parliament Hill Fields, for example – to protect the view from Kenwood and the Northern Heights down to London and beyond. Come the 20th century the needle swung round 180 degrees. The critically important thing was to save the northern heights, save those green ramparts, save the view up to them. Arthur Crosfield was the Sir Lancelot who led the fight, made the miracle happen. Miracles by definition are things that are not supposed to happen. This one did happen. And it was Arthur Crosfield who made it happen. Now I think I’ll keep my powder dry about the specifics of how he did it. But the word’s not too strong, it really was a kind of miracle – two miracles, really – that he performed. You want the full story, come up with me to the northern heights – to the roof of London – on my Hampstead walk one Sunday morning.

Since this is the anniversary of Sir Arthur Crosfield’s death – yes, he was knighted in 1929 – maybe a word more about what happened that day. The inquest verdict was: Accidental death. He fell out of the window. I wonder. 

Lady Crosfield said her husband suffered from insomnia and giddiness. They’d been to Geneva to see a specialist. They were on their way to Cannes. They had a house there. They travelled in two communicating sleepers. Lady Crosfield said she saw her husband about 7.45 am. He had had a much better night and was very cheerful. About 45 minutes from Cannes the porter called out that her husband had fallen out of the window. Sir Arthur was always fond of fresh air and liked open windows. He had gone into the corridor to let the maid pack his things and was at the window. Lady Crosfield said she last saw her husband about three or four minutes before the accident. He had not looked so well for some time. 

Well, who’s to say. I do know that not long before Sir Arthur had made a disastrous investment and lost a great deal of his fortune. 

And I’ve long had a sixth sense that the marriage wasn’t perhaps the happiest pairing. 

Well, who’s to say. And in any case, that’s not where I want us to bid farewell to Sir Arthur Crosfield. No, far better to see and say the good. This was a man for all seasons. He wasn’t just wealthy. Wasn’t just a philanthropist. He was also an MP. A musician. He composed music. He was a fine sportsman. In the 1890s he was one of the finest amateur billiard players in England. 

But it was as a golfer that he gained his greatest triumph. He won the French Open Amateur Championship in 1905. 

I said that was his greatest triumph. No, his greatest triumph was saving the last fragment of the great Middlesex Forest. Saving the Northern Heights of Hampstead Heath. And Kenwood. Londoners on out to the crack of doom will be indebted to him for that achievement.

I thought we might end by letting Arthur Crosfield himself have the last say about the Northern Heights. I was thrilled to find this. It’s part of a letter he wrote to the Times in 1934. I think it likely that no one has set eyes on this for 88 years.

Here’s what the man who saved the Northern Heights summed them up.

“The tide of bricks and mortar has swept past these metropolitan highlands and now extends miles to the north of them. But here inside London is an unspoilt tract of countryside which would be reckoned a beautiful example of English scenery if it were scores of miles away from London. Ought disfigurement of any part of it to be permitted?”

Amen. And so eloquent. One notes in passing that in addition to everything else, the man could write. Rest in Peace Sir Arthur Crosfield. One of my heroes.

And a Today in London recommendation. Maybe start in South Hampstead. Have a coffee and bun at one of their fine sidewalk cafes. Then make your way round the corner to Keats House. Then on to the Heath. The No. 1 Pond to see the swans. And then across the Heath – across that unspoilt tract of countryside to the Northern Heights and Kenwood. London mornings – or afternoons – don’t come any better than that.

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. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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