Now called Queen's Wood
Between 1860 and 1880 the centre was torn out of the City of London to build sewers, railways and new roads. Houses were demolished without regard for the tenants who had to find whatever accommodation they could elsewhere. Managers went to livo in Kensington and St. John's Wood, while the poorest crowded into the rookeries like Seven Dials and Lisson Grove. For those between, the clerks and skilled workmen, speculative builders put up row after row of terraced villas and Mr Pooter moved into Holloway. The people of Muswell Hill watched houses creep across the fields of Finsbury Park, up Crouch Hill and down the other side, so that by 1880, Crouch End was being developed and there seemed no way to stem the flow. Ten years later the large estates of Muswell Hill were being sold. Upton Farm was sold and the Ecclesiastical Commissioners wanted to develop Churchyard Bottom Wood, now called Queen's Wood. The story would have made an Ibsen play. Two groups of honest, highly motivated people fighting for what they each thought was right. The Ecclesiastical Commissioners on the one hand and the Committee of the Hornsey Charities on the other, both believed they were doing their best for other people, and the public rose against them both in indignation
At that time Muswell Hill Road was a country road, with Southwood Hall at one end and Upton Farm at the other. By 1894, Onslow Gardens was built, Connaught Gardens marked out, and builders were poised to develop the Woodlands estate. Cut out of Churchyard Bottom Wood was a group of tumble-down cottages, on a triangular site. An undated map, held by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners shows six Wasteland Cottages with an opening between them - not a road, not metalled, but a way through to the strawberry beds behind. Further along was another gap which led to footpaths through the wood. These two openings were to be the basis of the plan. The same two gaps and the cleared ground, which was the strawberry field, can be seen in the 1894 map below. They are shown as 'Muswell Hill Cottages' and, quite in passing, Peter Sellers was to live on the same site much later on. To develop the wood as a housing estate, the Commissioners needed to drive two roads through from Muswell Hill Road and build houses along them. The Muswell Hill Road frontage alone would not have provided room for enough houses to make the venture worthwhile.
The land and cottages had been given much earlier as almshouses to house old people and were held on their behalf by the Trustees of the Hornsey Charity Commissioners. By the 1890s the cottages were tumble-down, in need of major repair. Public-spirited, wishing to do the best for their old tenants, the Trustees could not improve them since they had no money. Some years before the Ecclesiastical Commissioners had planned to develop Gravel Pit Wood (now Highgate Wood) as a housing estate, but this had met such opposition that they backed down. Instead, in 1886, they gave all 69 acres woodland to the public. At the same time they offered to sell Churchyard Bottom Wood to Hornsey Urban District Council for £25,000, but this was too much for Hornsey to raise on its own. The Council said that people living outside Hornsey also enjoyed the wood and other authorities should help, but no help was given. In the end the offer fell into abeyance.
It seems probable that these three pairs of cottages
The Ecclesiastical Commissioners wanted to raise money for its church work in Britain and abroad. They considered that they had been given the land to be used for the propogation of religion and if this meant selling off land or woods, it was a lesser evil than restricting the work of the church. They had given Gravel Pit Wood to the public: in its place they would develop Churchyard Bottom Wood.
The Trustees of the Hornsey Charities wanted to produce an income to help their poor people, so they made an offer to the Commissioners. Their triangular piece of land was too awkwardly shaped to be developed economically, but if the Commissioners would grant them some more land to make it into a square site, they would build twenty-five neat villas. These would bring in ground rents of £225 per annum, which could be used to relieve the poverty of Hornsey people. In return they would permit the Commissioners to cut two roads through their land so that the Commissioners could develop the woods.
When this offer became known people immediately reacted with alarm.
On the 16th December 1893 Mr Carvell Williams MP asked in the House of Commons, if the Ecclesiastical Commissioners had consented to sell a strip of land to the Hornsey Charities Trustees on condition that an existing road be widened to 40 feet, whether this was a preliminary to a building scheme and if the House of Parliament would have an opportunity to express an opinion.
Two days later The Star published an article worthy of any modern tabloid.
By the time this was printed, the question had been asked and the answer was either untrue, or devious. Other papers took up the story. The Times, in a long report, said that the Comnussioners were not prepared to give an undertaking that Parliament, or any other public body, should have an opportunity of considering any scheme for building on the site of the wood.
The situation simmered for eighteen months until the Ecclesiastical Commissioners were forced to open an enquiry, which began at Highgate on 31 May 1895, chaired by an Assistant Ecclesiastical Commissioner. The Inquiry produced a flurry of newspaper letters of which this was the most important.
It was a shot right across the bows of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. Their own religious leaders and the District Council, all up in arms saying in effect that the church was too rich and should be charitable, not greedy. The inclusion of the two clergymen was a shrewd move. Remember to that this was still in the height of the Darwin controversy. Darwin had split belief in the teachings of the Church and many people would have resented the power of the Church from that point of view alone. The Church was not so secure as it pretended to be.
This expressed the opinions of many people. In fact, the Gravel Pit Wood, which the writer calls the 'Upper Wood', had not been purchased, but given to the district by the Ecclesiastical Commission, a point they were to reiterate time and again over the years, but most people ignored it. The Commission was not going to give away a second wood whatever anyone said, and held this position to the end.
Reading his letter one senses hysteria very near the surface. Why did he think the Commissioners wanted to build a road? Why should they spend all that money if not to build houses? He never seemed to realise that for an acre of land the the whole wood would be lost. But he had been with the problem for a long time. He was the person to whom the Commissioners had made the offer of sale for £25,000 years before and it is his name which is honoured in a plaque on Crouch End Clock Tower for saving the wood, but his trust in the Ecclesiastical Commissioners seems naive. It is sad that at the Inquiry he was to be cast as the devil.
The Inquiry Continued
The adjourned opened in Highgate on 15 June 1895. Expecting a large gathering, the Council Chamber had been changed completely. The usual tables had been removed and the room filled with chairs. By half past seven the room was crowded, with people jostling for seats.
Mr Murray, the Commissioner, said the Inquiry was really a simple one. Hornsey Parochial Charities wished to purchase a piece of land adjoining their charity property at the back. The question was whether the Charity Commission, which controlled all charities, had enough power to stop them. The Church Commissioners were prepared to sell the land at very favourable terms and the income of the Charity would be very considerable increased.
Against this there were three classes of objection.
The original Trust was for the purpose of providing cottages for the Poor, but the trustees were proposing to build villas which would be too expensive for the Poor. However, it was within the power of the Trustees to vary the terms of the Trust, so they could build villas if they thought that the Poor would benefit in the end. The poor people themselves might object, but liberal provisions had already been promised for them. The third objection related to the aesthetic and public side of the question. He took it from what he had read that the Charity Commission ought to interfere to prevent the Ecclesiastical Commissioners from exercising their own discretion in dealing with their own property.
Numerous other people spoke and the Comnussioner summed up by saying that he took it that the prevailing opinion was in favour of retaining the cottages but the meeting should draw no conclusions from what he had said (Groans).
Others said that the Trustees of the Charity had failed in their duties by letting the the cottages fall into disrepair.
Mr H.R.Williams, the Trustee who had written to the paper earlier, said that he had it on the best authority that the Church Commissioners would make no roads whatever and they would not be benefitted one iota by the actions of the Charity Commissioners. Others were far less trusting and the meeting closed after nearly three hours.
Hornsey & Finsbury Park Journal & North Islington Standard report, 15 June 1895).
Paying for it was indeed the problem as Churchyard Bottom Wood became the subject of intense local and national debate. A joint committee was formed to raise money to save the wood. On 20 November 1896, C.F.Cory-Wright, Hon Treasurer, wrote to The Standard, a daily paper at that time, appealing for help. He reminded everyone of the danger of losing the wood and said it could only be saved by buying it. The Church Commissioners would sell for £25,000 and an extra (5,000 would be required for fencing and drainage, making a total of £30,000. This was too much for Hornsey Council to raise but they had already voted £10,000 towards the total. The woods were of inestimable value to all of North London so he appealed to public bodies and private people to raise the remaining £20,000. He warned that the present offer from the Church Commissioners was open only to the end of 1898. After that the builders would move in.
The appeal was warmly welcomed by the press. A Private Bill was rushed through Parliament and the Highgate Woods Preservation Act, 1897, became law. The Conunittee now had the right to advertise for contributions towards buying the Wood and preserving it.
In a fairly short time almost all the money was raised, but the last few thousand proved very difficult to raise and the Commissioners' deadline was a matter of weeks away. Mr Cory-Wright wrote pleading for more time but was granted a mere three months and then only if interest at 4 per cent was paid for the extra period on the full sum. In the end the London County Council, which had originally offered £2,500, made this up to £5,000 and the total was reached, but it was a close-run thing.
The Council decided to re-name the Wood as 'Queen's Woods’ in honour of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee and Hornsey put on a fine display of bunting when the Duchess of Albany formally declared the Wood open 'for the free use of the public for ever'.
While the campaign to save Churchyard Bottom Wood was run and directed by local people who felt passionately about this particular piece of woodland, they called on the help and experience of a vast network of people, some of whom had worked together on similar campaigns for over thirty years. The Committee issued an appeal, printed on very good quality paper and bearing some famous names.
The questions of open space and public health were major subjects of the Victorian vision.
The Open Spaces Movement
Octavia Hill, the great housing reformer, who had begun with three old houses in Marylebone, bought for her by Jolm Ruskin, had quickly become an expert on housing poor people in the healthiest conditions possible. Her way was to buy leases and then knock down some of the crowded houses in order to bring light and air to the rest, believing that fresh air and sunlight were the the only way poor people could be saved from 'putrid fever. She had learnt this as a child from her grandfather, Southwood Smith, who developed his theories at the Fever Hospital at King's Cross.
He had built the first Industrial Dwellings for poor people and had proved statistically that good air and decent drainage saved lives. Gibson Gardens, in Northwold Road, is a direct outcome of Southwood Smith's ideas. More Information on Gibson Gardens
The Importance of Open Air
Open spaces and the opportunity to breathe clean air, were essential for people living in one or two crowded rooms. Octavia Hill took her charges from the Lisson Grove slums, up Fitzjohn's Avenue to Hampstead Heath. She so loved the Fitzjohn's Avenue fields that she tried to buy them as a public park. They were to cost £10,000 and within three August weeks £8,500 had been raised. It needed only the end of the summer holidays and the return from holiday of sympathetic friends and the further £1,500 would have been raised, but the owners suddenly withdrew their offer. Despite all pleading, the fields were covered with large houses.
From this developed the campaign to save Parliament Hill, the next open space northwards from Lisson Grove, buying up fields in the path of the builders to make a permanent cordon sanitalre against the advancing bricks. The Parliament Hill Fields campaign was so successful that the Hampstead Heath Bill was passed and there was money over from the appeal. From this money and the impetus towards open spaces, was to develop the National Trust. Octavia Hill had been interested in protecting areas like Church Bottom Wood for years, so she was a natural ally in the fight to save the Wood.
The Commons Preservation Society also, was familiar with this kind of agitation and money collection. They had torn down fencing when lords of the manor had enclosed pieces of common land, leading both legal and illegal battles against the arrogant privatization of land traditionally free. Robert Hunter, their Honorary Solicitor from 1868, was always concerned with securing open spaces, large or small, for the public. He, now Sir Robert Hunter, became the Chairman of the Church Bottom Appeal. The Chairman of the Commons Preservation Society was Mr Shaw-Lefevre MP (later Lord Eversley) who played a big part in this and other campaigns in the House of Commons. Octavia Hill had been involved in their work from about 1875.
At the same time Octavia Hill was campaigning for a Burials Bill.
City churchyards had become so full and such a serious a hazard to health, by contaminating wells from which people drew their drinking water, that City burials were no longer permitted. Instead, cemetries were created on the outskirts of town. Abney Park Cemetary was one of these. There was then a movement to remove the headstones to the edges of the old town cemetries, re-inter the bodies elsewhere and turn the cemetries into gardens and open spaces, instead of building on them. This land in the centre of London was very valuable and speculators were avid to obtain it: Even the Quakers had built over one of their cemetries and threatened to do so again by building over Bunhill Fields. Octavia Hill had a network of allies in a dozen fields, so her help to save the Church Bottom Wood must have been invaluable.
The Metropolitan Gardens Society, set up in 1882, had laid out about two hundred small gardens in city centres by 1890. They later handed them over to the Local Authorities, so their support for the Churchyard Bottom Wood Appeal was assured from the start.
The Kyrle Society is forgotten now, but in its day had great influence on Town Planning and Open Space legislation. The Society had been set up about 1875 for 'the Diffusion of Beauty', to bring colour and interest into the lives of people living in dull, drab surroundings. Bright colour to walls and decoration, good singing, open spaces, Nature, Literature and Art. All these fell within the Society's remit. There was a Decorative Branch, for whom William Morris lectured; a Musical Branch to promote choirs and Happy Evenings for people in local school buildings; and a Literature Branch. The Society appealed regularly by letters in The Times, to 'the richer classes' for books and periodicals to be distributed to boys' and girls' clubs, almshouses and elsewhere. However the Open Spaces Committee was the most active. The very name 'Kyrle' came from Pope's The Man of Ross, the philanthropist who gave his birthplace to the people as a public park.