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 Its Buildings.

by Mrs. Maxwell Y. Maxwell
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 311

A Lantern-slide Lecture to Children.

Part III.

(Continued from page 285.)

This is how we must imagine the village of Hampstead in Coleridge's time. Picturesque cottages, houses, and gardens lay scattered on the side of a steep hill, and were completely divided from London by country pastures, or by gentlemen's houses at long distances apart, with parks or large grounds surrounding them.

There were for instance, at that time, only two houses on the south side of Hamstead Hill; and visitors coming from London would walk past the peaceful Chalcot Farm House (which was the ancestor of Chalk Farm Station), up the lonely country road of Haverstock Hill, and past the entrance to the Belsize manor with its many acres of park land. These extended as far as the grounds of Vane House, of which one wing remains to-day, and is attached to the Soldiers' Daughters Home. It was here that Sir Harry Vane used to receive the poet Milton, and Oliver Cromwell with his son-in-law General Ireton, Pym, Hampden and Fairfax, with others of his political party. And it was also from this beautiful home that the "gentle Sir Harry," as Colonel Hutchinson's wife called him, was carried away by order of Charles II., to lay his head on the block at the Tower of London, 1662.

Vane House was afterwards occupied by Dr. Butler Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral and Bishop of Durham, who is known to us through his theological work, familiarly named Butler's Anthology. He used to walk on the Heath, from whence he could look down upon St. Paul's and the city of London; sorrowfully, no doubt, for he was a man of pure heart and life, and he grieved for the hopeless state of Society in his day. He died at Bath where he had gone for his health, in 1752.

Two hundred and eighty acres of ground formed the ancient manor of Belassis or Belsize, a sub-manor of Hampstead.

The Bellassis Avenue of elm trees, which ran from the high road to the house, is in part still standing as Belsize Avenue; it extended originally as far as St. Peter's Church, for this was the site of the old mansion, and the Avenue was the carriage-drive from the high road to the front entrance of the big house.

There are traditions of this ancient manor nearly a century before the Conquest; and we have it on authentic record that in the reign of Edward II., the Crown made a grant of it to the monks of Westminster, on condition that they should say daily mass for the soul of the Earl of Lancaster--a grandson of Henry III. Thus the name of our very modern-looking Lancaster Road (Belsize Park) is one of the most ancient authentic memories in the neighbourhood. There was in the old Parish Church a tablet erected to Armigal Wade, the lessee of this Belsize House, for which he paid a rental in money, also ten loads of hay and of oats, to the Dean and Chapter at Westminster; he died here 1568. His son, Sir William Wade, knighted by James I., died here in 1623, and left a widow who managed to get the lease renewed at £19, 2s. 10d. a year, exclusive of the hay and oats. Her son, by a former marriage, was Lord Wotton, and she made him the inheritor of the lease. In Pepys's diary, August 17th, 1668, we read: "I went to Hampstead and to Belsize, and saw Lord Wotton's house and garden, which is wonderful fine. The garden is the most noble that ever I saw, such rare orange and lemon trees." In the reign of Charles II. the house, originally Elizabethan, was entirely rebuilt. In 1683 it came into the possession of the Earls of Chesterfield, the first of whom was half-brother to Lord Wotton, and it remained with them for a hundred years. And finally the old mansion, with its large grounds and park was converted into a house of public entertainment, in which capacity it remained for more than twenty-five years, one of the amusements connected with it being the hunting of wild deer in the park.

During the reigns of George I. and II., therefore Belsize House was a place of somewhat similar resort to those of Vauxhall and Ranelagh. In 1721 the St. James' Journal reports that the "Prince and Princess of Wales dined at Belsize, and a wild deer was killed in the park; there were between three and four hundred coaches from London on that occasion." Gambling, riots, and amusements of an unrefined nature brought this place into bad favour with the neighbouring residents, who petitioned to have it closed. A satire was published, commencing with this doggerel:--

      "The house which is a nuisance to the land
      Doth near a park and handsome garden stand,
      Fronting the road, betwixt a range of trees,
      Which is perfumed with a Hampstead breeze."

After a lapse of time the manor regained its former respectability, for we find it tenanted by the Right Hon. Spencer Perceval, Prime Minister of England, who was assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons, and whose portrait hangs in our National Gallery.

The mansion was pulled down in 1852, and the park, which formed a stretch of green country outside our village towards the south, began to disappear being cut up into roads, and the houses in Belsize Park began to be built.

The high stone walls which had anciently divided the park from the Forest of St. John, or St. John's Wood, were pulled down, and the materials used to form new roads on the estate. That the land still belonged to the Dean and Chapter of Westminster is evident from the fact of the selection of the names of two of its Deans, i.e., Buckland Crescent and Stanley Gardens.

The country on the south-west of the village remained for twenty years longer in its natural condition. The Conduit Fields, thus named owing to a clear spring of water which was bought at one time for a penny a pail, remained in a state of pasture-land until 1872, when they became transformed into Fitzjohn's Avenue. At the top of the Avenue is a house called Conduit Lodge, and the outer wall marks the spot of the spring, a drinking fountain being placed there for a memorial below which is seen part of the old well.

When I was a very small child our garden opened on to these meadows through Belsize Lane, where we used to tumble in the hay, and catch fascinating tadpoles in the pond. There was a stile at the end of each field, every field rising higher until it culminated in a mass of tall trees, with the green copper spire of the church which looked as if it had fallen down into the square brick tower, standing up on the top of the hill.

The original church being decayed was pulled down in 1745, and after two years was replaced by the present edifice. The houses on the north side of Church Row were built in James II.'s reign, and those on the south side in the reign of Queen Anne.

Inside the church the very high pews of dark oak still remained, the walls were plain white-washed and the windows had no coloured glass; indeed the interior of the building in those days presented such a different appearance that were it not for that unmistakable steeple I should be inclined to doubt the church's identity.

If we walk up the narrow lane north of the church we come to the original Catholic Settlement hidden away in a really Old Hampstead corner called Holly Place, where the chapel stands in the midst, with the Presbytery on its right hand and the small orphanage of St. Vincent and a Franciscan convent and school on its left; all these being established in the old row of dwelling houses. Immediately inside the chapel is a recumbent carved figure in stone of the Abbe Morel who came in 1796, as a political French refugee, to this "secluded sweet village near London," where he found two hundred of his disturbed fellow-countrymen, and devoted the rest of his life to their spiritual needs; at first saying mass in a stable-loft on the Rosslyn estate, and in 1816, building the chapel and priest's house adjoining. Close to the tomb is a glass door through which you can see into the sacristy, and there hangs an oil-painting showing the gentle benevolent face of this venerable man. Here he ministered and was at last laid to rest at the age of fourscore and six. Having been born in Normandy, 1766, he came to Hampstead when he was thirty years old, after which he worked for fifty-six years in this same English parish where he made himself loved and revered.

In those Conduit fields which are now Fitzjohn's Avenue, Byron, Leigh Hunt, and Shelley used to meet and to ramble together; and I have read that, once believing themselves to be alone, Shelley recited from a tragedy of Shakespeare with dramatic action, when an old woman approached and enquired if the gentleman felt ill. Poet though he was, Shelley saw his opportunity, increased his gesticulations the more, and the poor woman flew off, wringing her hands and crying that a lunatic was loose in the Conduit Fields.

In seems as if Shelley had a predilection for old ladies, for I find also the following tale about him:--

"In the Hampstead coach, when their only companion was a precise and unimaginative old lady, Shelley abruptly exclaimed--from Shakespeare's 'Richard II.'--'Come brothers, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings!' Leigh Hunt said that the old lady looked upon the floor of the coach and expected them to take their seats there immediately."

As the Hampstead stage travelled down Haverstock Hill these poets would see--but not if they were seated on the floor--the little house in which Sir Richard Steele had lived more than a hundred years before.

Steele wrote in 1712, "I am in a solitary place between London and Hampstead." The cottage had previously been inhabited by Sir Charles Sedley, another literary man and play-writer, who had lately died there. It stood opposite the coaching inn "The Load of Hay," where in years previous to the Reformation, the priest from Westminster refreshed his horse on his weekly journey to say mass in St. Mary's--our present St. John's, or Parish Church--which was then only a chapel served by the monks of Westminster.

In this cottage opposite the "Load of Hay," Sir Richard Steele, author, essayist, genial wit, and humourist, who was one of the first promoters of the periodical press in England, used to write his articles for the Spectator and the Guardian. But the loneliness of the spot was not chosen entirely for the sake of his literary work; it was also a hiding-place for him to avoid his creditors, debt in the eighteenth century being a criminal offence punishably by imprisonment.

Other literary men of the day, Sir Richard Steele's friends, used to dismount from the coach at this inn, call at the cottage, and take Steele up to the East Heath to the much-frequented "Flask" tavern where so many lively things went on, and where during the summer months the meetings of the Kit-Kat Club from London took place. Under the ancient mulberry tree which still stands in the garden, these gentlemen in their wigs, their cocked hats, knee-breeches and shoe-buckles, would sit sipping their ale, and converse in the most racy and learned fashion of the day; conspicuous among them being Addison, the first editor of The Spectator; the poet Pope; Dr. Arbuthnot, the witty physician to Queen Anne; and Dean Swift, author of Gulliver's Travels. Steele's cottage was afterwards occupied by Gay, the friend of Pope and Dean Swift, and it continued to stand until 1867, its position being now indicated by the road bearing Steele's name.

When we think of the difference between the Haverstock Hill of Steele's day and of ours, it makes us wonder how the birds bore these changes, and what became of them when their old dwellings were demolished.

The starlings can get good out of evil, for they build in the chimneys of the new houses; and the sparrows are very content to tuck themselves in with hay and wool and what they can find, under the eaves of the roofs; while a robin will outdo them all in matters of resource and invention, he gets much fun out of life, for he never sticks at tradition, and does not stop to wonder what other birds say about him.

The swifts will of course find their shelter in a church steeple, for whether the trees are cut down or left standing they prefer to squeeze into the corners in the brickwork of the belfry, being far too impatient to build themselves nests--even mud nests like their cousins the martins. The swifts are too averse to domestic life even to stay at home teaching their young ones to fly, but leave them to find out the way by themselves, while they carry out their own programme. And that is to wheel round and round with their friends far, far up above the top of the tallest trees and church steeples, to dart about in the air after invisible flies, to whistle and shriek in their exhilarating al fresco existence, and to fly at a rate outstripping an express on the G.N. Railway. And they keep up all this for sixteen hours in the day without alighting to rest until they return to the church-tower at nine o'clock in the evening, the latest of all birds to bed.

But the changes taking place in the neighbourhood were a much more serious affair with the rooks, and totally opposed to the conservative blood which had flowed in their veins for so many hundreds of years. They had been spending another winter in the woods, and in the spring of 1893 returned, with the same happy confidence as in previous years, to the elms on the Frognal estate. I said returned to the elms! But, alas! where were they? What indeed had happened was more than even these members of the nobility could understand! Reputed wise among themselves, and in their own estimation the very essence of all learning, their black lordships were nevertheless on the present occasion completely dumbfounded! The same field? Most assuredly, for the leader of their flock had never been known to misguide them, and with unerring instinct, to which was added a long patience in his official position, he had led them back over the heath, over the top of the steeple which had looked on for many generations at the flight of birds and of time, and down to the same old spot. Thither they flew through air so fresh, so invigorating and so divinely pure, that, birds as they were, they must have known it was a thing of God's own creating. The higher flew the birds, the purer came the air from above, until it seemed the breath of the Great Presence on High.

At last the confident creatures perched--president, leader and all--at the same height as they had been wont above the ground, but on the tops of hideous leafless atrocities, placed there by man and called scaffolding-poles! There stood the birds staring at each other, completely aghast at the loss of their homes, while below them lay a yawning chasm of half-built houses, stones, bricks, and timber.

What a bad half-hour was spent by the leader of those rooks! Flapping, pecking, hustling, all but bringing him to an untimely death, did they set on that innocent bird whom they suspected of having played false to them in their flight. But their old homes were unmistakeably gone; and the realization of this brought them to see that they had done their good pioneer an act of most cruel injustice; the president therefore moved that a public apology should be presented to the leader, and a deputation of able speakers was appointed, who sought out the poor ruffled creature and conferred upon him a magnanimous pardon for a fault he had never committed. This they expressed in terms of great condescension, owing to the consciousness of being themselves the offenders.

By this time the sun was slanting its rays across the old rookery field that evening the flock had assembled peacefully together, in the presence of the elm trees whose trunks still lay on the ground, they bade farewell to their long beloved home.

The natural beauty in Hampstead disappears and the young generation have not that heritage left to them; but there remains for us all a moral and mental heritage in the memory of the great who have lived here before us. The village has been transformed into a most monstrous suburb, and we wring our hands to see the devastations going on still; but with all this we have many advantages in our generation which were unknown to the more picturesque age. We live in a better governed city, "with sweeter manners, purer laws." There is not a child in this room who does not go to a far better school, and is more carefully considered and more healthily cared for, than poor hyper-sensitive little John Keats, who had no kindergarten teacher to make a personal study of his character, and who on one occasion was crouching in grief under his schoolmaster's desk for several days without anyone finding him.

Now, I know the little ones are wondering where those rooks built their new nests. Well, they soon discovered that the churchyard trees were the only ones which do not get cut down and replaced by houses. But I will tell you about their new homes another time. You have sat like Carlyle's "passive buckets and been pumped into" long enough, and must now go home to your tea.

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