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The Fight for West End Green

West End Green sits in the centre of what was originally the village of West End. The open space was used by the villagers for as long as they could remember. But in 1871 John Culverhouse, a general contractor and developer who had worked for Sir John Maryon-Wilson the Lord of Hampstead Manor, was granted permission by the Manor Court to enclose the Green after paying about £650 for the land. Five years later he fenced the space using six-foot boards, but the locals promptly tore them down and burnt them. In 1881 Culverhouse offered to sell the Green to the Vestry (the local council) for £800. They approached the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW), the forerunner of the London County Council, for funding but the Board refused.

Then in June, the Vestry heard that the ‘Home for Incurable Children’ were negotiating for the purchase of the Green and were willing to sell part to the Vestry. Some Vestrymen said the title to the land was bad, but they nonetheless resolved to buy a portion at a cost not exceeding £200, to widen the roads. Two weeks later they received letters from Captain Notman of Chomley Lodge which overlooked the Green, and Mr. Ripley of Little Dene in Dennington Park Road, protesting about the proposal to build on the Green. The situation changed in October, when the Home for Incurables dropped out. The Vestry offered Culverhouse £500 for the entire space, but he wanted £850. 

A memorial signed by 49 residents of West End was sent to the Vestry, requesting that the Green should be bought and kept as an open space for ever. After a close vote of 17 to 15, the Vestry agreed to the £850 if the MBW paid half. So, it seemed that West End Green would stay with the public.

However, things in the history of West Hampstead are never that simple. In January 1882, a special Vestry meeting was called, after five Vestrymen demanded to rescind the offer of £850 and offer £500. A fierce debate followed and after an hour arguing, a vote was taken. It decided by 28 to 16 votes to offer only £500.

In February Culverhouse’s solicitors pressed for the full £850 which they said had been agreed and totally rejected the £500 offer. The Vestry ordered ‘the correspondence to lie on the table’ - that is, the matter was dropped. But Culverhouse was not deterred, if the Vestry would not buy the Green, he felt sure someone else would. That May he undertook to sell the land to Francis Thomas Fowle, a builder from Caxton Road Shepherds Bush. On the 26 June, Fowle had the Green boarded up and began to strip off the turf, to prepare for building.

At the beginning of July, a meeting of the locals was held in the schoolroom of Emmanuel Church (then in Mill Lane.) The crowd, which included several Vestrymen, were very excited, as everyone knew that the night before, the watchman’s hut on the Green had been burnt down. Gerald Finch, a Vestryman and barrister, took the chair and outlined the history of the Green, saying he was not sure what the legal rights to the space were. Thomas Potter junior who lived at The Elms, a large house opposite the Green, was the son of the owner of the local iron foundry at the end of West Cottages. He moved that the meeting should protest against the enclosure of the Green and do everything possible to obtain it for the public. 

Richard Pincham, another Vestryman and owner of the newly opened Railway Hotel in West End Lane, supported Potter and said that the Vestry had agreed to his suggestion to offer £850 to Culverhouse but then at the special meeting in January, Vestrymen had been whipped in from the whole of Hampstead to swamp the idea. He was angry that the improvements in the heart of Hampstead village were going to cost ratepayers £60,000 or £100,000, while the people of West Hampstead were only asking £850 for their little Green.

A public subscription to raise cash to buy the Green was opened, with Nathaniel Sherry (whose home also faced the Green) as the Hon. Secretary. Mr Price, Captain Notman’s solicitor, said he trusted no force would be used, ‘They were not in Ireland, and it was not worthy of Englishmen to set fire to a man’s hoarding.’ This produced laughter, applause, and shouts of ‘Down with it!’ Price said notes had been sent that day to the Vestry and MBW, asking for help to buy the Green. If they refused, the case would be fought in court and Captain Notman would help, not only with his influence but his purse.

The meeting ended and a large crowd met on the Green. It looked as though the hoardings would be torn down straight away but Mr. Sherry entreated the crowd to abstain from violence. There was a special force of police on duty, and the crowd dispersed without trouble. 

Several letters appeared in the Ham & High newspaper, urging the Vestry to put up the money to buy the Green. One from ‘G.T.’ of Upton Road, South Hampstead laid the chief blame on the Lord of the Manor, Sir John Maryon-Wilson for selling the rights to Culverhouse in the first place. The writer believed that the Green was one of the oldest in London.

The Burning

The local people could not be restrained for long and the climax came on the 17 July 1882. At half-past nine, on a wet Monday night, groups of men began to converge on the Green by various routes. About two hundred arrived, armed with axes, crowbars and a two gallon can of oil. The solitary policeman PC Richard Splaine 253 S Division (Hampstead), was taken completely by surprise and the boards were pulled down, chopped up, piled into the middle of the Green, covered with oil and set ablaze. Splaine acted pluckily and made a few arrests but was forced to release the men after taking their names and addresses. Policeman Longhurst 318 S came to his help but was unable to arrest anyone. 

The blaze was strong enough to defy the heavy rain and a crowd of about 2,000 people stood around, cheering. The flames lit up the sky and brought out the voluntary fire brigade and several steam engines, but they could not put out the fire. The flames also attracted Inspector Collis and a large body of police from Hampstead, who helped the firemen. The fire blazed on and it was midnight before the crowd began to disperse and go home. 

The magistrate court hearing

The eight men who were arrested appeared at Hampstead Police Court on the 2 August. Robert Williams, a mechanic with Thomas Potter and Sons who had given his name as ‘Thomas Potter’ was charged with destroying Francis Fowle’s fence, which was valued at £40. Captain Notman’s solicitor, acted for the ‘Committee of Residents of West Hampstead’. PC Splaine said that Williams was one of the 100-150 men who came from the road leading to Potter’s Foundry, and he had seen him carrying pieces of the fence towards the fire. 

Mr. Price said the ownership of the land was in dispute and he produced Elizabeth Hayward, aged 74; Hannah North, aged 67 and William Winyard senior, aged 52, who all gave evidence that they knew the Green from childhood as the village green. The prosecution tried to show it was a piece of waste land which had belonged to the Lord of the Manor, and it was used by outsiders.

The magistrates said it was not up to them to decide the rights of the Green, that the defendant believed he had been acting legally, and the case of excessive violence had not been proved. This applied to five of the defendants and Price persuaded the Court to award each of them seven shillings for the loss of a day’s work (this is worth about £36 today). However, the case of burning against William Winyard (junior), Edward Moore and James Dellar was held over to the following week.

At the next court meeting, Splaine said he saw Dellar carrying pieces of wood to the fire and the youth Moore had the oil can. Under cross-examination by Price, Splaine could not say if the can might have held water, although it smelt of oil. The magistrates gave the defendants the benefit of the doubt and dismissed the case. Dellar was ordered to pay the value of the plank (1 shilling) and fined 5s with 10s costs. Clearly, the magistrates were lenient, and the whole episode was seen as a victory for the locals.

 

Men and children on West End Green with the remains of the fence after the burning, July 1882

West End Green is saved!

At their next meeting, the Vestrymen heard that Fowle was willing to accept £1,050, the total price he said the property had cost him. In the end the Vestry agreed to offer £500, with the West End residents providing another £350 to make the offer £850, which they thought Fowle might accept. A letter to the Ham & High from Nathaniel Sherry said a fund had been started with promised donations from many local residents, among them £100 from Captain Notman and T. Potter & Sons £50, with smaller sums such as £3/3/- from Sherry himself.

The case against Fowle and Culverhouse was due to be heard in the High Court on the 23 August 1882. However, the hearing was adjourned to the next session and then, on the 25 November, Sherry wrote to the Ham & High, saying that Fowle and Culverhouse had not filed affidavits. It appears that the case never came to Court, for a year later in October 1883 Sherry wrote to the Vestry, saying the West End Green Defence Association had heard from Culverhouse that he was willing to sell the Green for £850 and would the Vestry contribute £650 towards this? Once again, the Vestry had a heated debate about how much to offer: some members saying offer nothing until Culverhouse’s ownership was proved, while the Kilburn Vestrymen pressed for £600. They finally agreed to offer £500 if the MBW paid half, which they did.

In April 1884 Mr. Price wrote to tell the Vestry that the West End Green Defence Association had completed an agreement with Culverhouse and Fowle of £850 for the Green. This was made up of £500 from the Vestry, including half from the MBW, and £350 paid by the locals, such as Captain Notman, and Thomas Potter and Sons etc.

It took another year until July 1885, before the deed of conveyance was finally given to the Vestry and West End Green was safely held for future use by the public.  

 

John Culverhouse (no date)

John Culverhouse was a very rich man when he died aged 79, in December 1894, at his home Burcott House, Lincoln Villas Willesden Lane. He left £25,753 (today worth about £3M) to his daughter Louisa Massey, the wife of Frederick Munsey, Waldeck House, Willesden Lane.

 

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