West Hampstead history

by Dick Weindling and Marianne Colloms

The name ‘West Hampstead’ didn’t exist until the 1880s: before then, the area was known as West End. The census shows a gradual increase in West End from 212 residents in 1801 to 563 people in 1871. Not much had changed in the intervening years: the few mansions were still occupied by wealthy tenants, workers’ cottages and tenements clustered round the Green with the local farmhouse, the Old Black Lion beerhouse and Cock & Hoop pub nearby. The Cock and Hoop was pulled down and Alexandra Mansions built on its site in 1902. Another small group of cottages stood near Fortune Green. Many residents worked on the land or as servants for the gentry. In later years some had jobs in Potter’s Iron Foundry, (on the site of Welbeck Mansions).

West End Fair

Until it was suppressed in 1820, the daily routine of life in West End was disrupted every summer by hundreds of Londoners who came for the amusements on offer at West End fair. This three-day event started in a small way with toy and gingerbread sellers, but it spread from the Green into fields nearby, attracting many professional showmen. In 1819 a riot occurred, when a mob of about 200 men rampaged through the Fair, robbing and beating anyone they met. Ten people were brought to trial: three young men were hanged and the others were deported to Botany Bay. Little trouble was reported the following year but 1820 proved to be the last time the Fair was held.

Rapid development in the 1880s and 1890s swept away the large houses and the streets were laid out in today’s pattern. A local estate agent in Kilburn claimed that he coined the name ‘West Hampstead’, for one of the local railway stations. Public amenities such as street lighting, gas and electricity were provided and much of the frontage to West End Lane was developed as shops.

Three stations

West End Station, now West Hampstead, National Rail station was the first to open, in 1871. West Hampstead Station, now the Jubilee Line, followed in July 1879 and West End Lane Station, now the London Overground Line, opened in 1888. Horse buses ran along the Lane and nearby Finchley Road.

Open spaces

House building took up all the available land, leaving just two open spaces, West End Green and Fortune Green. The residents fought hard to save them both. In 1882, when a builder put boards all around West End Green, 200 men tore down the hoarding and set it on fire. Eventually the local Vestry (the equivalent of the Council), bought the land in 1885 and ten years later they also acquired Fortune Green as an open space, following more local protests when it too was threatened by developers.

In 1952, the architectural historian Sir Niklaus Pevsner wrote that West Hampstead was only worth visiting in search of Victorian churches: ‘The houses and streets require no notice’. Opinions change and today this Victorian suburb is considered a vibrant and attractive place to live.

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