About the time when the Archway Road was built, Brewhouse Wood became known as Gravel Pit Wood. 'The area from which the gravel was extracted is at the north-west corner of the present Highgate Wood, and can be readily distinguished by the unevenness of the ground and by the wavy hair grass Deschampsia flexuosa growing on the acid soil of the site.'
Lord Mansfield leased the wood in 1842 and 'there is some evidence to show that the Gravel Pit Wood at least was not coppiced after about 1840. The effect of this neglect over the following forty years was to allow a dense undergrowth to develop, which probably resembled parts of Queen's Woods today.' 1 However, changes to the nature of the wood were soon to come.
The Acts of Parliament
The 1855 Metropolitan Management Act gave the Corporation of London powers to levy a tax on all the grain entering the City of London for sale, for the preservation of open spaces in the neighbourhood of London. This was an old way of raising money; the rebuilding of London after the Fire in 1666 had been paid for by a tax on coal. Gradually the City became responsible for various open spaces, churchyards and parks as a result of this tax.
The 1878 (Open Spaces) Act extended this power, giving the Corporation the right to acquire and manage certain open spaces within twenty-five miles of the centre of London and keep them open for the use of the public. The Corporation could dig gravel sand loam and turf therein for the management of the properties,but could not sell them, thus excluding the mining companies from the public lands. They had the right to build lodges and other suitable buildings for the use of their employees and the public and to create cricket pitches etc. for the use of people of local parishes. The 1878 Epping Forest Act gave the Corporation similar powers over that area as well.
In the 1880s the Church Commissioners planned to develop Gravel Pit Wood (now called Highgate Wood) by building rows of houses as they had done in other parts of the Borough. It was their property and they had the legal right to do so, but the public outcry was so great that the Commissioners decided to build a road instead through Bishop's Wood (Bishop's Avenue) and to give Highgate Wood to the public. They asked the City of London to accept and maintain the Wood as an open space.
In1886 the Highgate and Kilburn Open Spaces Act was passed enabling the Church Commissioners to transfer some of their lands to the Corporation as permanent open spaces for the use of the public. The wording shows that, while generous, the Commissioners were not entirely altruistic in giving the land to the public. They recognised that permanent open spaces near to their own existing housing estates, or ones to be built in the future, would make the houses more attractive and more valuable. Just as Victorian builders knew that a good church near their new estate would help to sell the houses, the Church Commissioners saw the advantage of local open spaces.