The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Some Facts about Hampstead: Its Birds and Buildings.

by Mrs. Maxwell Y. Maxwell.
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 190-200

[Part I.]

A Lantern-slide Lecture to Children.

When the land still lay in lovely fields round Frognal there stood a row of elms, thirty-five in number, and in height I hardly can say, for they were as tall and stately, as inexpressibly gracious, as English elms know how to be.

The rooks had found this out many years before. Ever on the search for height in the question of trees, no matter what name they might bear, here they had built their nests, they and their ancestors in the old time before them.

Every spring they returned from their partial migration to the hazel-bushes of the English woods, where they had found sufficient shelter from the winter winds, and with a fine air of proprietorship they proceeded to inspect their summer residences.

The family mansions of these aristocratic people were solid constructions, they knew of nothing so fickle or flimsy as a new nest every year, a mode of life good enough for robins and sparrows, middle-class creatures of no pedigree.

My library window was in an upper part of the house, raised high from the ground, and with the help of a good opera glass, a fair amount of imagination, and unlimited patience, I saw many interesting things taking place among my opposite neighbours.

The first thing I observed was that these big black birds began the season with a thorough spring cleaning, and that, being unable to get the gentlemen members out of their way, the housekeepers--in order to prevent their criticising the situation--set them to help at the business.

They first turned out from their nests all the dry leaves and loose rubbish which had dropped in during the winter, next they repaired those parts of their houses which might have fallen to pieces; and among the materials which were brought home for this purpose one bird used a broken matchbox, which he wedged in between the twisted twigs of his wall. From an architectural point of view it might have looked patchy, but the restorations of old mansions frequently are, and perhaps also the bird had observed, as he flew about in South Hampstead, that a theological college built in beautiful grey Gothic had in the same way once suffered the addition of a new gate in the Byzantine architecture.

Another proceeding prepratory to settling down for the summer was, I am sorry to say, the persecution and banishment from the elm trees of any small birds, whatever their species, who had had the audacity to build there. The big black creatures were persons of quality, and they owed it to their rookly traditions to be as conservative as possible respecting class distinctions, as narrow-minded and as disagreeable as they could. And when, with a cheerful impudence a deputation of unabashed sparrows with a hope of arbitration would wait upon the president of the rook community, that uncompromising old gentleman promptly whisked his tail round in their faces in a manner which allowed no further hope on the subject. The president was indeed the last person in the world to be patronized by a sparrow, be he never so self-assured!

Although through their mistaken sense of dignity the rooks were led into selfish behaviour towards outsiders, I was pleased to see they retained a sense of kind action among themselves. Their president incessantly flying backwards and forwards from the rookery with food in his mouth made me suppose, one early spring-day, that the little ones were already hatched and that my friend was thus busy in feeding his family; but I discovered that these attentions were all for his lady, who was patiently sitting for three hopeful weeks on those bluey-green brown-spotted treasures, from the inside of which she was waiting to hear the feeble "tap-tap," and see the dear featherless little faces peer forth. One day our hero was refreshing slugs and grubs in his mouth for the prisoner, when he opened his beak to make a self-satisfied caw, and dropped his delicate market-wares into the lap of a nursemaid sitting in the field below. "No supper for me to-night," thought the poor bird in the nest, "it will be devoured by that horrid human-being before my very eyes!"

But the unappreciative nursemaid jumped up with a scream and flung the slugs far away on the grass, neither eating them herself nor giving them for food to her young.

The homes of these rooks were the last remaining trees on the Frognal estate, upon which there had once stood a house called Frognal Priory.

It was one of my earliest recollections as a child going over this picturesque, forsaken, old mansion of Elizabethan appearance, known as the "Haunted Court." It stood alone in the midst of a park, thickly shaded with trees; it had a massive porch in the ornamented Jacobean style, which was said to have been removed from an ancient Shropshire manor--the beauty of it brought many an artist there to paint. This decaying old house possessed a smell which for ancestral mouldiness, and general blood-creepiness, was in itself conclusive of the existence of--anything! In the twilight of the late June evenings we expected at every turn of the long corridors to meet a shadowy figure in Elizabethan ruff and a sword: of which, however, I had no fear, for my brother was ready with his hand on his sixpenny pistol, and a new box of caps in his pocket! The odour filled us with a delicious horror, and must have acted as a fortune to the woman who was the proprietress of the ghost as well as of the gingerbeer stall, with its apples withered and wrinkled as her old face.

This remarkable looking house was pulled down in 1876, and it is disappointing to find there is nothing historical connected with it, for it merely belonged to a pretentious and common-place man who, from his love of notoriety, made a show place of his private dwelling even during his residence there. The old woman who exhibited the house in ruin, having been there for a great number of years, was most unwilling to move when the "Haunted Court" was to be finally demolished, and the Lord of the Manor had to proceed to legal force to get her out before the roof should be pulled down over her head. Hampstead antiquarians do not verify the assertion which Memory Thompson made respecting his house, viz., that he built it on the site of an ancient Frognal Priory, still standing at the dissolution of the monasteries. We certainly see a little piece of very ancient wall in the garden. He said Cardinal Wolsey was wont to spend weeks of retirement in the original Priory. And if so, a secluded spot it would be! For Hampstead in Wolsey's time had not yet become the fashionable health-resort which the discovery of the Chalybeate Wells in Queen Anne's reign afterwards made it. It was, in the reign of Henry VIII., a mere hamlet, mainly the abode of washerwomen; the nobility and gentry in London city liked to have their linen laved and hung in the pure air of this homestead, which was the origin of the name Hampstead.

Although we may not feel quite sure that the "Prince Cardinal, that proud priest," as King Henry called him, ever stayed at the then village of washerwomen or not, we have no doubt at all that on the other side of the road stood a little house in which Dr. Johnson had lodging for the summer of 1746 and other seasons. It was afterwards much enlarged and became the Priory Lodge as it stands to-day. Dr. Johnson speaks of it as the "small house beyond the church": that would be in coming from the direction of the village where he had alighted from the coach. It was also described in his day as the last house in Frognal southward and which at that date would be true, but at present is not, and this must be the reason that the identity of the house has been recently doubted. When I was a little girl I can quite well remember how Frognal ran into West End Lane and had no termination of its own in Finchley Road as it has now; there was no continuation of the Frognal Road further South than the Priory Lodge. Fortunately this house stands empty, and the caretaker will show us round, and point out the rooms which formed the little house where the learned doctor says, "I wrote here two poems, one 'On the Vanity of human wishes' and the other 'London,'" which we know is in imitation of the tenth satire of Juvenal.

I presume he drank here his nineteen cups of tea at a sitting, as he distinguished himself at his friends' houses by this performance.

I must forgive you if you do not admire Dr. Johnson's face, for it must appear to you jowly and growly, and he certainly used to thunder very personal truths at people of whom he did not approve. But in the gruff irritable man, who suffered a life-long physical discomfort, there lay a great kindness of heart shown to many people, notably to his wife who is represented by biographers to have been a most annoying, ungrateful old lady, twenty years older than he. To her he was ever most considerate and indulgent, and though she had an empty frivolous mind he paid more attention to her opinion of every new work he produced than he did to the applause of the public. She came frequently to Hampstead to drink the waters, and participate in the gaieties, at the Pump Room. The great man, who was all brains and learning, loved the city and cared nothing for the country. He was too poor to keep another lodging in London for himself, and used to come out to our village every evening to see Mistress Johnson. When he could afford it he drove by the coach, and would manage to have an intelligent conversation with some traveller, for he believed in making good use of opportunities, and he once said, "One man could learn more in a journey by the Hampstead coach, than another would in making the grand tour of Europe." At other times he would set out from his beloved Fleet Street on foot, traversing "those fields behind Oxford Street" which Wordsworth mentions in the following century when he walked from London to Hampstead, to visit Joanna Baillie in her house on Windmill Hill; those fields were crossed by Sir Walter Scott when he came here for the same purpose. The high-road hither was so dangerous after dark that it was usual for a foot passenger to wait at the corner of Oxford Street until a sufficient number of other pedestrians had collected to justify the services of a watchman, as a safe conduct against highwaymen and footpads [robbers who preyed on pedestrians].

We have not time to relate all about Dr. Samuel Johnson now, but you remember it was the same Johnson who wrote the great dictionary. He was the son of a bookseller and read every book he could lay hands upon; he had such mental gifts that although he was the laziest boy in each of the schools that he went to, he managed to get ahead of everyone else in the shortest possible time. You will be more drawn to read, when you are older, Boswell's Life of Johnson, if you go now to see the rooms here which were occupied by this greatest literary man of the eighteenth century.

And this inducement applies to many notable men and women who have distinguished our neighbourhood. Grasp the fact of their having been real people who knew the same Heath which you yourselves daily enjoy; this will lead you to study their works; you will be proud to be, as it were, fellow-townsmen, or the town's descendants. You may feel a responsibility, to be inspired some day to maintain the reputation of our most exceptional neighbourhood; and if you keep your minds always at their highest and best, nobody can say that you will not yet produce literary or artistic work as perfect as that of John Keats, or of Constable! When the summer comes, go often and lie on the ground in some secluded spot on the Heath, and listen to what John Keats speaks of as "the silence of the flowers," let it teach you the exquisite secrets of nature as it taught there the "young English poet," eighty-five years ago.

Look long at the fir trees near that spot which are immortalized by Constable's brush. [Trees at Hampstead, 1829] When the poet Blake, who was also an artist, first saw this picture, he exclaimed, "This is not drawing, it is inspiration!"

Look at the sky when it is a deep blue, with flying white clouds, for Constable loved to represent them hurrying across so fast that one feels they will pass off the canvas! The wetness of his rainy sky was so real that his friend Fuseli would cry, "Give me an umbrella, I am going to see Constable's pictures!" And Charles Leslie, his biographer, once said of a sunny picture that he wished for a parasol! We must give a moment to this hot sunny picture because the subject of it is Hampstead Heath, and you can see it any day by going to the Constable Rooms in the Kensington Museum; you would find it is named in the catalogue merely, "A Heath." [The painting described is now called Hampstead Heath, with the House Called 'The Salt Box.']

Charles Leslie, who owned it for twenty-five years, thus described it: "The sky is the blue of an English summer day, with large but not threatening clouds of silvery whiteness. The distance of a deep blue; and the near trees and grass of the freshest green. These tints are balanced by a very little warm colour on a road and gravel pit in the foreground, a single house in the middle distance, and the scarlet jacket of a labourer. I know no picture," he adds, "in which the mid-day heat of summer is so admirably expressed." Leslie's Life of Constable is a book which you will some day find most delightful.

Remember, children, that Constable, looking with a pure soul at the things of nature as they existed, and as you yourselves may look at them, put down just what he saw, and by the simplicity of this true act he made eventually a revolution in landscape painting. Not easily, not all at once, and for many years with no appreciation from anybody in England; though the French, who take more quickly to new ideas, understood at once what a great thing this painter had performed; they bought his pictures, adopted his methods, and set up a Constable School. But in England, in the latter reigns of the Georges, and before John Ruskin had begun to teach, the public were not prepared to receive truth in simplicity. Art was insincere, elaborate, even bombastic--as also were theology, manners and many other things; landscapes were painted, not out of doors, but in studios, and were not likely therefore to be true to nature. The critics were enraged with Constable's works and said, "What is to become of conventional landscape painting if such pictures as these are to be admired?" Constable had committed a monstrous offence, he had told the truth in an artificial age! Let us hope that during our lives we shall have the honour of committing some such magnificent offence with equally good result, in one department of life or another.

You can find the grave of the great landscape painter in the Parish Churchyard, on the south side of the church, down the little steep path; he died at this house in Well Walk, 1837, having lived ten years in this village, and having frequently paid long visits here previous to that period. He wrote, "I came to live in Hampstead that the beauties of nature might be ever before me; I love every stile, and stump, and lane in the village, and as long as I can hold a brush I hope to be able to paint them." And this he did, for he was painting in good health on the last day of his life: he went out in the evening on a visit of benevolence to a poor artist, and returned to die unexpectedly in the night.

His pictures, "The Windmill," "The Valley Farm," and "The Cornfield," are supposed to be local subjects and are in the National Gallery. Mr. Leslie had in his possession twenty studies of skies painted by Constable in Hampstead, 1821, all of them having notes on the back recording the direction of the wind, the time of day, and other natural effects.

This little house was the first one in Hampstead which Constable occupied, and although this slide shows a very small part of it, I reproduced it because the door of the little house is so exactly like this picture of it still, that you cannot escape seeing it as you walk from the top of Frognal, or of Oak Hill Park, on your way to the White Stone Pond. Lower terrace is on the left side going up the hill. The little ones would like to hear a letter he wrote when he lived here, in which he speaks of "a prodigious bustle with the fowls, the black hen making a great to-do, the cock strutting about, and Billy (the cat) looking at them in great astonishment from the back kitchen window. A dear little robin was washing himself in the pigeon's dish; dipping himself all over, and making such a shaking and bobbing and bustle that it was really ridiculous."

We all know that amazingly cool way which creatures have of walking into each other's dishes; suppose, for instance, your own little brother came and took a seat in your soup plate, and splashed about in it like that! What a fuss there would be about the white tablecloth!

This great painter took the keenest joy in country life, and in everything else that was truly delightful. When he was very young the President of the Royal Academy said to him, when considering one of his pictures, "Young man, you must have loved nature very much to be able to paint like this!" Constable himself said not long before his sudden death, "No man who is arrogant was ever permitted to see nature in all her beauty," and he added solemnly, "remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth."

He meant, of course, children, that the beauties of creation are hidden from the eyes of the man or woman who has spent years in mere worldly ambition, in the more vulgar forms of pleasure, the eating of over-long dinners, the craze for too costly clothes, the absorbing pursuit of money to obtain these things. The eyesight of the soul becomes dim for the really beautiful. And it is not possible to say whether it can be restored; spectacles are not easily supplied for blindness brought on in that way.

Study the wonders and beauties of creation while you are young, the delight of it will lead you into a fairy-land of good angels who will carry you along high over the heads of lower dangers, you will not be stumbling over them, for you will barely be conscious of their existence.

On the North side of Church Row at the end close to the new burial ground it is thought that the Priory of St. John of Jerusalem stood, and that it was destroyed by a band of insurgents under Wat Tyler, the captain of the band being Jack Straw, the intended king of an English county--probably Middlesex. When the rioters were encamped on the Heath, this notable person had a hovel on the wayside which was known as his castle. This hut was replaced by a more dignified house, and in time transformed into the comfortable tavern bearing his name. Here Charles Dickens invited John Forster, after a long winter walk on the Heath, to join him at a "red hot chop for dinner." He used to stay for weeks at this inn, also at Tooley's Farm, North End.

Dickens certainly knew the Spaniard's Tavern, for it was from there he represented Mrs. Bardell being fetched away by the young man from Dodson and Fogg, and unsuspectingly conducted to the Fleet Prison. In chapter 45 of the Pickwick Papers, we read: "The party all walked forth in quest of a Hampstead stage, this was soon found, and in a couple of hours they arrived safely in the Spaniard's Tea Gardens."

At the Spaniard's Inn there once stood an old toll-gate which had formed the entrance to the Bishop of London's grounds extending from here to the other side of Highgate; he possessed during many generations a castle and estate there, but it was given up, the wood was bought by the first Earl of Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice, 1755, and added to his estate of Kenwood on the other side of the lane.

In the heart of Bishop's Wood is a small cottage belonging to the Lord Mansfield's old gamekeeper, and you find yourself in five minutes in the midst of a darkened copse where no one need try to persuade you that you stand within four miles of London! The existence of this wood may partly explain the wonderful wealth of birds in our neighbourhood.

I have heard, even outside in the Bishop's Avenue, a cuckoo, a thrush, a blackbird, a chaffinch, a bullfinch, and a woodpecker; and after dark the nightingale. Also I have seen gold-crested warblers--the smallest of the wren family--on the cedars, and water wagtails in the hedges near by. I know some boys who discovered crossbills dissecting the cones on the fir trees at the end of the Sandy Road, and I have been told that the heron and the nightjar have been seen on this spot; indeed that 113 various kinds of birds visit and reside on the Heath.

On the West Heath the woodcock may be found, and anyone may watch the moorhen on the Leg of Mutton Pond, where a kingfisher also appears. That lovely little pond which suffers from such an unromantic name! Small and silent it lies nestling between may trees, which are gorgeous in spring with white and pink blossoms, and the gorse full in flower beside it. And when you have grown quite quiet, in sympathy with the trees and all else around, out swims the moorhen from her nest in the reeds, and all the little moorchicks behind her, going on their first voyage of discovery round their Leg of Mutton world.

The titmice also abound in our neighbourhood; it is quite easy to cultivate a visiting acquaintance with the bluetits by hanging out a meat-bone from your window. The thrushes, here as everywhere, are tender on the subject of suet, when they cannot get snails; but when snails are in the market the thrushes will fly about for the largest flat stone they can find, and hammer their unhappy victims who have retired well within their houses, objecting to be made into dinners! I have had, too, the good fortune to see a hawk, it was poised in the air with wide-stretched wings ready to descend on a starling--something like Alice in Wonderland's bat--

      "Up above the world so high,
      Like a tea-tray in the sky."

Another interesting inn is the "Bull and Bush" at North End. Here Addison and his friends frequently came, and Hogarth would spend very long periods. Near the back of the inn, at Wildwood Farm, William Blake, artist and poet, spent his summers; and at Wildwood House, then called North End House, we have the associations of a great statesman.

It was during Lord Chatham's retirement, from 1766 to 1769, when he sought perfect seclusion owing to the diseased and melancholy state of his mind, that he shut himself up in one room at Wildwood, and refused to have even his meals attended, but caused them to be served through a little hole in the wall.

Lord Macaulay writes in his essay on William Pitt, first Earl of Chatham: "It was everywhere said, with delight and admiration, that in spite of the dislike of the court and aristocracy, this great commoner made himself the first man in England, and England the first country in the world." At any rate William Pitt, afterwards Earl of Chatham, was a very strong power; he became Prime Minister 1757, infusing his own fiery energy into every department of the government. He was the ablest Minister of War England ever had, he keenly discriminated in the choice of his officers, and inspired them with his own zeal and wisdom. He saw that the power of the French in Canada must be broken, and that the only way to break it was by decisive action. He planned a campaign to capture the French capital, and sent off his officers with orders to sail up the St. Lawrence river, on the left bank of which the city of Quebec towered high, an almost impregnable fortress.

With his penetrating judgment, Pitt had chosen the ablest officer in the English army, though that officer was only thirty years old; and he raised him to the rank of General for his purpose. Wolfe more than justified the choice, and by his masterly intelligence, secrecy, caution, and unparalleled heroism, captured Quebec in 1759, although unhappily he lost his life in doing so. He continued to command and to encourage his men long after he was wounded, and when he was lying on the field in his last moments he heard an officer say: "See, they run!" "Who runs?" enquired the dying man, raising himself from the ground. "The enemy, sir, they give way everywhere." "God be praised! I will die in peace," he said, and closed his eyes instantly in death. In the following year General Amherst, his successor in command, captured Montreal, thus sealing the fate of the French, who were compelled to evacuate permanently the whole of North America.

Thus through the able ministry of Lord Chatham we kept Canada; and, fifteen years later, we might also have retained the United States, if his wisdom and advice had been followed. The American colonists were willing to share with England in the payment of the war taxes, but they demanded that their contribution should be voted in their own Assemblies; which was a very reasonable request, and one which the Earl of Chatham would have granted. But King George, in his despotism and obstinacy, not only refused their request but also despatched soldiers to reduce the colonists to absolute submission. The Americans rebelled, the war began, and their Declaration of Independence proclaimed 4th July, 1776.

Typed by LovieWie, August, 2023; Proofread by LNL, August, 2023