Hounslow Heath was originally part of the Forest of Middlesex, extending as far west as Heathrow, and south to Bushy Park and Hampton.
The heath was created in the 13th century, when a stretch of royal forest between Hounslow and Staines, sometime known as the Warren of Staines, or the Forest of Staines, was cut down.
The public open space now known as Hounslow Heath, which covers 200 acres (80 ha), is all that remains of the historic Heath, which once covered 4,293 acres (1,600 ha).
Before 1545 Hounslow Heath extended into the ‘fields, parishes, and hamlets’ of Isleworth, Brentford, Heston, Hounslow, Twickenham, Teddington, Hampton, Hanworth, Feltham, Bedfont, Cranford, Harlington, Harmondsworth, and Stanwell. All of which parishes ‘intercommoned’ (shared rights of access and use of resources, grazing land etc) on the heath.
In Saxon times it was free to hunt there, but after the Norman Conquest, severe restrictions were introduced. King William I brought in Forest Laws to save the game and the trees for the rich (as with other crown forests) and ban the plebs from hunting. Special courts were convened to try poachers, leading to bitter struggles. Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest curtailed some of these laws in 1217, and in 1227, much forest was declared freeland. Many poor folk built houses on the land at this time. But later in the century the Forest Laws were renewed.
Open wastes and heaths and common land were vital resources: places to graze animals, gather foodstuffs and wood, and hunt small game. Depriving people of access was a matter of life and death. John Norden described Hounslow Heath as ‘a very lardge grounde which yeldeth comfort to one small companye of people who without theayde ther ys could hardly relieve themselves
And surely great woe is pronounced agaynst such as dyminishe the Comons of the Poore.’
The Heath supported an abundance of wildlife: deer, wild cattle, wild boar, wolves, foxes, hares, partridge and other wildfowl.
Although Henry VIII still hunted here in the 16th century, over 1700 hectares was common land.
Resistance began here in the early days of the long bitter process of enclosure that gradually shut working people out from free access to much of the land. There was some form of unspecified trouble when gates were set on Hounslow Heath when an act was passed to enclose Hounslow Heath, 1545-6, though the enclosure was said to be largely ineffective.
The land comprising the Heath was divided administratively in 1545-6, being split between the 14 parishes named above.
Some inclosures on the edge of the common south of Whitton seem to have been made at this time, though they may not have been maintained later. Three warrens, two on the edge of the heath and one by the river, had also been planted, possibly quite recently. Much of the land around the open fields and to the east of Whitton may have been inclosed during the later Middle Ages, and in the next century and a half most of the remainder was inclosed piecemeal and converted to market-gardens and orchards or to pleasure-grounds for the big houses which were being built around the village. Enclosure proceeded at a relatively slow rate on the Heath, tough, compared to other areas – partly as the soil was of poor quality and couldn’t support intensive agriculture as other landscapes
In 1583 one John Newdigate was accused of acquiring a parcel of land ‘lately enclosed from the Common called Hounsloe Heath’.
Hounslow Heath’s proximity to other areas of Middlesex with traditions of rural rebellion/anti-enclosure action is notable. The lands of the king’s brother saw enclosure fences torn down in Isleworth as early as 1264. Heston experienced rioting in the Peasants Revolt, and there would be incidents in 1830 during the ‘Swing’ wave of rural revolt there, as well as in Hounslow and Lampton. Harmondsworth Moor (the arena for a two-century long war between the landowner – in this case the church – and tenants through the middle ages), and Osterley Park – where there was an anti-enclosure riot in 1576 – are within a few miles of the Heath. Ideas, inspiration, the flame of action, often spark from one neighbourhood to another, and individuals or groups often nip over to support and join in with rebellious activities the next valley over.
The English Civil War brought new pressures to Hounslow Heath. An increase in poverty, trade disruption, caused food shortages and need for land use changes… Many large landlords ended up on the wrong side in the war, and fled the country after 1646, so their land was confiscated and going spare… But there were contradictory urges on the parliamentary side. If the parliamentary leaders and generals represented a victorious puritan class, often proto-capitalist interests in many cases, who encouraged enclosure and agricultural improvement (as well as being keen to acquire the estates of dispossessed royalists – see the 1659 troubles at Enfield), many of the poorer classes who has enlisted against the king were enraged by enclosures and the dislocation that rural upheaval had crated in the country. Many soldiers became radicalised, started to demand more access/land of their own. The political struggle led to an upsurge in radical ideas which led to questioning of traditional assumptions about social relations and land use…
In many areas enclosure had been a major bone of discontent before the Civil War, and the outbreak of hostilities provide opportunity to reverse some of the changes that had taken place. In 1641, royal grounds enclosed on Hounslow Heath were attacked and entered by irate peasants. The House of Lords ordered a special enquiry and ordered a search ‘in and about the several Towns and Hamlets adjoining near. Hounslow Heath) for all such tumultuous Persons as have, in a very riotous Manner, endeavoured the disquieting of the said Possession, by pulling down the pales of the said inclosures… ‘
Around 1650, the ‘Diggers’ were said to have tried to establish a colony on the Heath – radical communists who believed in occupying land to work in common for need, rejecting the idea than lords owned the land at all. Again – proximity to other areas where such radical ideas were flourishing is possibly key. it’s only a few miles to Hounslow from Iver, Buckinghamshire, where a group had published the Digger-like ‘A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire’ in 1648, and the True Levellers’ original commune at St George’s Hill was not so far away either. The Heath was classic ‘Digger’ country: open Heath land, lots of poor, squatters, a precarious population.
Like many open spaces and woodlands on London’s edge, or within a few hours travel, Hounslow Heath became home to the marginal, the rebellious and the dodgy.
Around 1697-8, during a brief peace between the many European wars of the time, bands of demobbed soldiers turned marauders – since many squaddies would still be owed army wages after war ended, often years in arrears, or had spent it in credit while still in uniform. One such large band roamed Hounslow Heath, masked up, collectively robbing rich folk ambushed on their way to Windsor Castle to see the King. Among those who lost their horses, money, jewellery or simply their credibility to defend themselves, were Lord Ossulston, the Duke of St. Albans, and his brother the Duke of Northumberland. Military patrols were established on all local main roads…
But the heath remained a popular spot to ambush travellers and relieve them of their possessions through the eighteenth century (generally considered the classic era of the highwayman).
William Snowd and Joseph Wells were indicted for stealing seven shillings from Robert Hull as he was travelling over Hounslow Heath in December 1739. Bull had been travelling on the Hillingdon Coach as the two highwaymen struck. One of the prosecution witnesses claimed that Snowd and Wells had carried out at least two earlier robberies on the heath before the Hillingdon Coach arrived.
In 1751 the Bishop of Hereford was passing over Hounslow Heath when his coach was attacked by two mounted highwaymen. They robbed the bishop and the party which was accompanying him and made their getaway across the heath towards the Staines Road, presumably to lose themselves on Staines Moor. In 1774 Horace Walpole wrote that: “Our roads are so infested with highwaymen, that it is dangerous stirring out almost by day. Lady Hertford was attacked on Hounslow Heath at three in the afternoon. Dr Elliot was shot at three days ago without having resisted”.
In the 18th Century, the heath was a major stopping-off/storage/rendesvous point for smugglers bringing stuff into London from the west, much like Croydon and Stockwell in South London, and Epping Forest in the east.
The eighteenth century also saw a revival of struggles over enclosure on and around the Heath.
Some insight into the importance of the various parts of the heath in the subsistence and livelihoods of local people can be gained from mid-century accounts.
In 1744 it was reported that the commoners of the village of Stanwell made a lot of use of the common fields, lammas meadows and pasture rights on Hounslow Heath. They kept ‘…mares and foals, cows and calves, hogs and geese without stint, some of them doing without any work at all’. At neighbouring Staines the inhabitants relied heavily on the customary pasture rights of Staines Moor. John Newman, a Stanwell Farmer and ex-Staines parishioner recorded the rights of Staines inhabitants in 1756, possibly when those rights of common pasture were being disputed.
In 1766/7 Stanwell locals defeated landowners – who included the local vicar, the Lord of the Manor – in an attempt to enclose Hounslow Heath. Opposition came mainly from the owners/occupiers of local cottages, defending traditional common rights, supported by other parishes with some interests on the heath. The enclosure bill was defeated in Parliament, on 3rd March 1767, leading to a joyous parade of the opponents, who had marched to Westminster. The victorious villagers paraded along Pall Mall, before they went home… “On Tuesday evening a great number of farmers were observed going along Pall Mall with cockades in their hats; on enquiring the reason, it appeared they all lived in or near the parish of Stanwell in the county of Middlesex, and they were returning to their wives and families, to carry them the agreeable news of a bill being rejected for inclosing the said common, which, if carried into execution, might have been the ruin of a great number of families.” (Annual Register, 1767).
Local resistance to enclosure may have been beginning to link into a wider radical or at least reformist politics, namely the pressure for political reform, expressed often in support for populist agitators like John Wilkes.Two prominent signatories of the petition against the Stanwell Enclosure Bill of 1767 were to be notable Wilkite supporters in the Middlesex elections of 1768-69, a campaign that was centred on the hustings in Brentford, only a short distance from Hounslow. These were John Bullock Esq. and George Richard Carter Esq., both substantial property owners in the parish’. Longtime resident of Brentford, John Horne Took, sometime Vicar of St Laurence’s church, Brentford High Street, had persuaded John Wilkes, who he met in Paris during the latter’s exile, to stand for election for Middlesex. Tooke also opposed local enclosure acts, possibly the same 1767 Stanwell Bill. [Tooke later supported American colonists in run up to War of Independence (for which he was jailed), and was a founder member of London Corresponding Society, acquitted in the LCS treason trial of 1794.]
Although the Stanwell struggle was successful for a couple of decades, this was not to last. In 1788/9, much of Hounslow Heath was enclosed. 500 acres of the Heath were enclosed by the Stanwell Enclosure act in 1789. Maybe the opposition was less organised, or the enclosers more determined, or planned their strategy better.
In 1793 the first Middlesex reporter to the Board of Agriculture described commoners on Hounslow Heath and Enfield Chase as people ‘who seem to live on air, without either labour or any obvious advantage from the common’. A curious assertion, given the accounts of how much use the commoners did use the open space quoted above. It can be read as both a claim that the Heath was under-used and would be more productive if enclosed and ‘improved’, but also a moral judgment in the residents, suggesting they are idle and living too easy, off the fat of the land. The 1790s Board of Agriculture surveys covered the country nationally, being carried out by various ‘reporters’. Who they were is a good question – enclosers, their allies, employees, friends? There was a widespread assumption from the ruling elites and from the agricultural establishment that enclosure, ‘improvement’, more intensive agriculture and exploitation of land was not just a matter of profit for landowners, but a moral question. Leaving land idle, under-used, or wild, was an offence, almost a waste of the riches God had given humanity.
Enclosure often caused bitterness and resentment between parishes, and led to great care being taken over borders and boundaries. As resources shrank and became scarcer, some people got more narky as to ‘outsiders’ grazing cattle, for instance. While this may seem mean, it’s worth looking at the Ham Vestry attempts to control and regulate use of common land, which show a long term approach to making sure locals got a fair share and no-one over-exploited the collective resources. They took the view that limiting access to known locals helped ensure that all got at least some use out of the shared space.
Enclosure caused a tightening up of boundaries on Hounslow Heath, which had long given shared common pasture to several west Middlesex parishes. In November 1793 the Harmondsworth vestry ordered the cattle drivers who were appointed at the manor court ‘… to pay due care and attention… ‘ to the problem of Stanwell cattle coming into the parish via Hounslow Heath and grazing on the Harmondsworth waste and commons. This follows earlier orders to impound stray Stanwell cattle in July 1789. This resolution comes only six weeks after the Stanwell enclosure act in May 1789; prior to this time intercommoning on Hounslow Heath had caused no complaint between the two parishes.
Other struggles were continuing on open space that had previously been accounted part of the Heath before it was divided between parishes. An attempt to enclose land at East Bedfont in 1801 was defeated. Opposition to enclosures at Hanworth and Harlington continued into the 19th century.
Enclosures in the area were causing hardship, however. At Cranford in 1815 Samuel Hampstead, a farm servant, complained that due to the recent enclosure of land at Isleworth, Twickenham and Heston, he had been reduced to buying fuel for the first time in forty years, as the best part of Hounslow Heath for digging fuel was now enclosed. Although wholesale enclosure at Cranford and Harlington seems to have fallen through in 1802, it was enclosed by act in 1818.
1818 was the year much of the remainder of open heath at Hounslow was enclosed, under an 1813 Act of Parliament, sponsored by the major landowners meeting in Isleworth.
A portion of the heath was to be sold to the government as a military review ground, for use by the Army,
who had long carried out manoeuvres, training (including the development of pioneering mapping and surveying techniques) on the Heath, bought a chunk of the land to keep it for their purposes. Ironically, that land that remains open today in Hounslow, where most of the surrounding land was enclosed.
“Hounslow Heath,” wrote William Cobbett in 1830, “… is a sample of all that is bad in soil and villainous in look. Yet this is now enclosed, and what they call ‘cultivated’. Here is a fresh robbery of villages, hamlets and farm and labourers’ buildings and abodes!” Sand and gravel mining began in the mid-19th century, wreaking further damage on the natural habitat.
By 1867 this area was leased to a Mr Brewer who was preserving a rabbit population for game shooting.
But the enclosure did not end the bitterness of local people, or the resistance to the land theft. People had long traditions of hunting for small game, as we have seen they went back to the thirteenth century. Enclosing the land turned this into poaching. Mr Brewer had employed a gamekeeper to combat these ‘poachers’; the keeper was accused of using abusive language against people using a right of way across the heath. For this the keeper was legally censured and fined. lt was also found that the lease was bad in law as the tenant of the holding was in fact charged with the task of destroying rabbits and not employed to preserve them.
The court’s decision, not to fully back up the party claiming private property rights, saw the word spread that the land in question was open to all. The findings of the court led to “… a portion of the public – the majority not of the most respectable class – determined to cross the heath, fearless of opposition, because of the findings of Saturday last. At twelve o’clock they entered and past over the heath in large numbers, and on Monday (the next day) hundreds of people of all sorts again took possession, and made a complete battue, hunting down the rabbits and killing them by the aid of various weapons some of them of the wildest description”.
This access to the heath, and a supply of fresh meat in the form of rabbits, was short lived as keepers came under strict orders to prevent further trespass. Those who continued were indicted although poaching probably continued after this incident in much the sane way as before.
In 1872 the caretaker of Hounslow Heath was badly beaten by three local inhabitants when he challenged their right to walk on the heath. The three claimed they had simply ‘raised the question’, that is to say to protest against any perceived illegal encroachment through a supposed trespass which could then be tried in law. Two of the men were sentenced to 18 months and the third 6 months hard labour.
Illegal poaching continued on the Heath into the 1970s.
Gravel extraction continued until about 1976, and the resulting craters were filled with domestic refuse. A regeneration programme has subsequently restored around 200 acres of heathland, with gorse, broom and rushes. In 1991 the majority of the site was designated a statutory local nature reserve. A municipal golf course was laid out on the heath’s western edge – this closed in 2016.
The space that remains called Hounslow Heath today is a tiny remnant of what was was an immense stretch of open land (see the map earlier). What is left is very lovely, a wild space with a small but beautiful nature reserve, well worth visiting – but you can imagine what a wander of the old Heath would have been like…
Since the 1940s, Heathrow Airport has gradually been swallowing up more and more of the old, larger pre-16th century Hounslow Heath. Continued expansion for a new runway threatens to eat up the villages of Sipson, Harmondsworth, Longford; despite fierce opposition from local residents, and from environmental campaigners at Grow Heathrow. Covid might have temporarily put a spoke in that, but for how long?
And at nearby Isleworth, locals are still not taking the theft of space lying down: allotment tenants are still fighting the attempt by the aristocratic Duke of Northumberland to destroy their allotments to build flats… Keeping up the old traditions of fighting to keep some land out of the hands of the wealthy! Support their campaign
Modern day enclosures continue… But do does resistance…