Hunting for Hunt: poets in Hampstead

I MUST CONFESS THAT I knew nothing about Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) until I became interested in the history of Hampstead in North London. What triggered my interest in Hunt was seeing a house named Vale Lodge in a part of Hampstead called The Vale of Health. Vale Lodge, a late Georgian (early 19th century, pre-1831) house modernised in the 20th century, is difficult to see from the lane by which it stands because it is surrounded by a high wall.

Vale Lodge

People, who have lived in Vale Lodge include the writer Edgar Wallace (1875-1932); the Russian-born industrialist Sir Leon Bagrit (1902-1979); and the banker Sir Paul Chambers (1904-1981). One source (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1379083) mentions that Vale Lodge was:

“… home of Edgar Wallace, writer, and probably also the residence of Leigh Hunt, poet.”

Well, that got me interested because I had read that Leigh Hunt lived in the Vale of Health from 1816 onwards for a few years.

Hunt, a radical, was a critic, essayist, and poet. He was a co-founder and/or collaborator of several periodicals including “The Examiner”, “The Reflector”, “The Indicator”, and “The Companion”. In about 1812/13, Hunt and his two brothers, also involved with “The Examiner”, were imprisoned for libelling the Prince Regent (the future King George IV). Whilst incarcerated in the Surrey County Jail, Hunt was visited by his eminent friends including:

“…Lord Byron, Thomas Moore, Lord Henry Brougham, and Charles Lamb … When Jeremy Bentham called on him, he found Hunt playing battledore.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leigh_Hunt).

On his release from prison in 1815, Leigh:

“… went to live in the Vale where he stayed until 1819, returning again for a brief period in 1820-1.” (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp71-73)

Hunt’s home in the Vale of Health not only inspired him to write some poetry extolling the virtues of Hampstead, but also attracted several of his contemporaries who were notable literary figures. These included the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), Bryan Waller Procter (1787-1874) and John Keats (1795-1821) as well as the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846) and the essayist William Hazlitt (1778-1830). When I was studying at University College, I read some of Hazlitt’s essays. Some words he wrote about the fear of death made a great impression on me:

“Perhaps the best cure for the fear of death is to reflect that life has a beginning as well as an end. There was a time when we were not: this gives us no concern – why then should it trouble us that a time will come when we shall cease to be? I have no wish to have been alive a hundred years ago, or in the reign of Queen Anne: why should I regret and lay it so much to heart that I shall not be alive a hundred years hence, in the reign of I cannot tell whom?” (from “Table Talk”, published in 1821).

The poet Keats, who had slept in Leigh Hunt’s home in the Vale of Health, took a great liking to Hampstead and settled there in 1817. He lived in Wentworth House, which was later renamed ‘Keats House’. The house was built in about 1815 (https://keatsfoundation.com/keats-house-hampstead/) and divided in two as is common with modern semi-detached houses. One half was occupied by Charles Armitage Brown (1787-1842), a poet and friend of Leigh Hunt and the other half by Charles Wentworth Dilke (1789–1864), a literary associate of Hunt and a visitor to his home in the Vale of Health. Keats became Brown’s lodger. Keats had first visited the house when the poet and playwright John Hamilton Reynolds (1784-1852), who was part of Leigh Hunt’s circle of friends, introduced him to Dilke, Brown’s friend and neighbour.

While living in Hampstead, Keats wrote much poetry including “Ode to a Nightingale” (and other “Odes”), “Isabella”, Hyperion”, “St Agnes”, “La Belle dame sans Merci”, and began working on “Endymion”.  It has been suggested that Keat’s poem “I Stood Tiptoe Upon a Little Hill” was inspired by his experience of Hampstead (www.hamhigh.co.uk/lifestyle/heritage/rare-keats-handwritten-poem-inspired-by-hampstead-heath-goes-up-3438636). Another of his works, “Dedication. To Leigh Hunt esq” relates directly to his friend Hunt (words: www.bartleby.com/126/1.html). His poem “Sleep and Poetry”, according to Leigh Hunt (http://spenserians.cath.vt.edu/TextRecord.php?textsid=36069):

“… originated in sleeping in a room adorned with busts and pictures … ‘On Sleep and Poetry,’ was occasioned by his sleeping in one of the cottages in the Vale of Health, the first one that fronts the valley, beginning from the same quarter.”

The house was that of Leigh Hunt (https://www.bartleby.com/126/1000.html#31).

There is no doubt that many now famous literary and artistic people congregated around Leigh Hunt while he has living in the Vale of Health, but there appears to be some uncertainty as where exactly he resided. One suggestion, already mentioned, is Vale Lodge. However, a 19th century writer, William Howitt, wrote of Hunt’s residence in his “The Northern Heights of London” (published in 1869):

“The house, which he occupied … was pulled down to make way for the great hotel just mentioned.”

The site of the hotel, which has also been pulled down, is now occupied by a block of flats called Spencer House. If that is the case, then Vale Lodge can be remembered for at least one literary figure, Edgar Wallace, if not also Leigh Hunt.

A hotbed of demoralisation and crime in north London

A WINDING LANE leads from Hampstead’s East Heath Road into the picturesque Vale of Health. I wrote about this isolated, small settlement surrounded by Hampstead Heath in the summer of 2017 (https://hampsteadadam.travellerspoint.com/2/) and have not revisited the place until today, the 2nd of January 2021. Little appears to have changed since then, but I have learnt a little more about the place.

As for its name, the place was not always as healthy as its name suggests. I wrote:

The land on which the Vale is situated is mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086 AD). It was then owned by the Abbots and monks of Westminster. By the 18th century this swampland in the middle of the part of the Heath, then known as part of ‘Gangmoor’, was inhabited by impoverished people and was malarial. In the 1770s, the area was known as ‘Hatches’ or ‘Hatchett’s’ Bottom, because Samuel Hatch, a harness-maker, had owned a cottage there before 1770. This unsavoury hollow was described in about 1817 as a “stagnate bottom, a pit in the heath” by the sculptor Joseph Nolleken’s wife (see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp71-73). It was a vale, but not a healthy one.”

However, by 1801 when the land had been drained and property developers began building houses in the area, it gained the salubrious-sounding name by which it is known today.

Apart from the famous Indian artistic genius Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), who stayed in the Vale in 1912, the settlement was home to many other well-known people including the author Compton Mackenzie; the barrister Alfred Harmsworth; DH Lawrence; the philosopher Cyril Joad; and Stella Gibbons. Earlier notable residents included the law reformer Sir Samuel Romilly (1757-1818); the poet and essayist James Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), who entertained leading literary figures such as Hazlitt, Keats, Lord Byron and Shelley in his house in the Vale; the publisher Charles Knight (1791-1873); and, also, a Prince Eszterhazy.

During the 19th century, not only were the literati and wealthy attracted to the Vale but also it was a popular place for hoards of trippers, whose names never made it into the annals of history. The author of “The Northern Heights of London” published in 1869, William Howitt (1792-1879), describes these pleasure-seekers and what they did in some detail. He wrote that:

“This Vale of Health used, till of late years, to present a sight at once picturesque and pleasant. In front of a row of cottages, and under the shade of willows, were set out long tables for tea, where many hundreds, at a trifling cost, partook of a homely and exhilarating refreshment. There families could take their own tea and bread and butter, and have water boiled for them, and table accommodation found for them, for a few pence…”

And then, everything changed for the worse according to the puritanical-sounding Howitt:

“Recent times have seen Sunday dissipation reasserting itself, by the erection of a monster public house with a lofty tower and flag, to attract the attention of Sunday strollers on the Heath. Of all places, this raised its Tower of Babel in that formerly quiet and favourite spot, the Vale of Health … that taps and gin palaces on a Titan scale should be licensed, where people resort ostensibly for fresh air, relaxation, and exercise, is the certain mode of turning all such advantages into popular curses and converting the very bosom of nature into a hotbed of demoralisation and crime…”

This demoniacal-sounding establishment is marked as ‘Suburban & Hampstead Heath Hotel’ on a map surveyed a year before Howitt’s book was published. On a map surveyed in 1912, it is marked simply as ‘Hotel’. Just a few houses away southwest of it, another building is marked ‘Hall’, to which I will refer shortly. According to both maps, the hotel stood where today there is a twentieth century block of flats called Spencer House. Opposite this edifice, there is a caravan park, which has been in the possession of the Abbotts family for over 160 years. Since the late 19th century, this patch of land has been fairground land. About ten members of the family live on the site in caravans, and other travelling fair workers can camp there free of charge. In exchange, members of the Abbott family, who operate travelling fairs, are allowed camp for nothing on other fairground owners’ sites when they travel around the country.

Returning to the building that upset Howitt, “A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 9” (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp71-73) notes:

“… the Suburban hotel (also called the Vale of Health tavern) with towers and battlements and accommodation for 2,000 was built in 1863 …”

This source also notes another establishment, which was being built whilst Howitt was writing or just about to publish. This was the ‘Hampstead Heath Hotel’, which was built in 1868. This stood between two groups of ‘villas’, that is between 1-6 Heath Villas and 7-12 Heath Villas. It was the building marked as ‘Hall’ on the 1912 map. It is now occupied by a mid-twentieth century block of flats, smaller than Spencer House, named ‘Athenaeum’.

The Hampstead Heath Hotel closed in 1877, when it passed into the ownership of Henry Braun. His great grandson, Frances Francis wrote (www.francisfrith.com/uk/hampstead/vale-of-health-hotel_memory-7431):

“My great grandfather Henry Braun owned the Vale of Health Hotel … overlooking the lake, from 1877 until the early 1900’s. The hotel was used as an Anglo German club called the Athenaeum and by 1908 had 1200 members – 500 English, 700 German, including many political radicals. The hotel became a factory during World War I and then remained derelict for some years. The hotel was eventually pulled down in 1958, when I was 15 and I remember with sadness watching ‘luxury’ flats being erected in its place.”

The club closed in 1914 and then became used as a factory until it was demolished and replaced by the present building in 1958.

According to the County History to which I have already referred, The Athenaeum club’s larger neighbour, the hostelry that Howitt detested was:

“The large Vale of Health tavern, originally intended as a hotel and sanatorium, was sold in 1876, became associated with the fair, was let as flats, and c. 1900 became a hotel again on a smaller scale, with the upper rooms let as studios … Spencer House (flats) replaced the Vale of Health hotel in 1964.”

Howitt would have been even more dismayed to have learnt that there was a third hotel built in the Vale of Health in the 1880s. It stood next to the Athenaeum on the site now occupied by Byron Villas. It was at number 1 Byron Villas that the writer DH Lawrence lived in 1915.

Today, Howitt would most probably be happier with the Vale of Health than he was in 1869. The hotels have gone, and there is not even the tiniest of stalls where refreshments may be obtained. He might disapprove of the parked cars and the caravan site opposite Spencer House, but there would be hardly anything that he could find to decry.  By the edge of its large pond, one of the sources of the River Fleet, the Vale of Health remains a quiet oasis in the heart of north London.

Some men of history

HIST 1

 

My interest in history began when I was about six years old. I could read well by that age. My parents gave me a book called “Looking at History”. It was a simply written thoroughly informative book with many line drawings illustrating everyday life in the British Isles from earliest times to the twentieth century. The book, published in 1955, was one of my treasures. I loved leafing through it. It was created by the historian RJ Unstead (1915-88). This book kindled my life-long interest in history.  One birthday, my parents gave me another book by Unstead, “People in History: Caractacus to Alexander Fleming”. Published in 1959, it contains a series of simple but informative biographies of important British historical personalities.” This was another book that I read over and over again.

hist 1a

In 1960, I entered The Hall School, a prestigious educational establishment in London’s Swiss Cottage area. This school’s main aim was to educate boys sufficiently well so that they could enter the best private secondary schools. To enter these schools, an examination called ‘Common Entrance’ had to be passed with high marks. One of the papers in this test was history. At The Hall, history was taught with only one goal: passing the Common Entrance. Year after year, our history teachers guided us from Julius Caesar’s arrival in Kent to the end of Queen Victoria’s reign. What seemed to be important was knowing the dates of events rather than the significance of these happenings. History was reduced to monotonous chronology.

hist 00

Things did not improve when I entered my secondary school Highgate (founded 1565). History was compulsory in the first year. It was taught by a well-known historian AW Palmer, who has published many books. For some unaccountable reason we had to study the history of the USA. Palmer managed to make it both incomprehensible and uninteresting. This was one of the many reasons that I gave up history in favour of the school’s alternative to it: physics. In fairness to Palmer, his “A Dictionary of Modern History, 1789-1945” (published in 1964) fascinated me. It covered a period of history that was poorly covered at The Hall and had fascinated me from an early age. I believe that my interest in what Palmer termed as “Modern History” began when I was about twelve. It was then I began looking at the adults’ section of Golders Green’s public library and discovered books about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.

HIST 2

Gwyneth Klappholtz, who was married to Kurt – one of my father’s colleagues at the London School of Economics, taught history at a state school. I used to visit the Klappholtz home regularly in my teens. Gwyneth picked up on my interest in history and recommended me an author whom I feel can write history superbly. The historian Alistair Horne (1925-2017) has written over twenty-six books. I have read several of those. My favourite is “The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune 1870-71” (published 1967, during the time when I used to visit the Klappholz family regularly). Horne writes history as if he were a really good novelist, yet everything he wrote was based on solid, reliable historical research. His books are a joy to read. This is something that the other writers of history, whom I am about to mention, share: an ability to present, often complicated historical situations, in a clear, easily readable form.

hist 3

At about the time I discovered Horne, I found an exciting book amongst my father’s library of mostly erudite books on economics. It was called “The Golden Trade of the Moors”. Written by Edward William Bovill (1892-1966), it describes how the Moors crossed the Sahara with salt to exchange for gold in sub-Saharan Africa, where salt was scarce, and worth its weight in gold. Although I enjoyed this book, I have not read anything else by this author.

hist 4

My PhD supervisor, a medical doctor and physiologist, introduced me to another very readable historian, the American William Hickling Prescott (1796-1859). This remarkable historian had very poor eyesight. Often, whist he was doing historical research an assistant was required to read documents and other literature to him. He had a phenomenally good memory, which must have been a great help if he had to perform most of his research through the eyes of another. He wrote mainly about aspects of Spanish and Spanish-American history.

hist 000

Christopher Hibbert (1924-2008) is another very readable historian. He has written over fifty books, many of which are historical biographies. I have particularly enjoyed his accounts of the lives of King George III and his son King George IV.  Like the other historians I have been describing he combines erudition with literary skill. In 1983, he edited the magisterial, splendid “The London Encylopaedia” with Ben Weinreb.

hist 5

About four years ago just before my first trip to Sicily, I read “The Sicilian Vespers.” This deals with a complex series of events leading up to a revolt of the Sicilians against their French occupiers in 1282. Although the author Steven Runciman (1903-2000) does not make the story appear simple, he skilfully navigates the reader through the complicated intertwining strands of history leading up to the event. Some decades before visiting city, I read Runciman’s “The Fall of Constantinople 1453”, another captivating but historically accurate account of an important turning point in the history of Europe.

hist 6

In October 2018, I made another visit to Sicily, mainly Palermo. That city and nearby Cefalu contain buildings erected while the Normans occupied Sicily. They took over the island several years before invading Britain. The Normans in Sicily built fine churches and palaces. Often these buildings contain elements of Arabic architecture. I was intrigued and wanted to know more. The leading account of the Normans in Sicily (and southern Italy) was written by the prolific John Julius Norwich (1929-2018). Although he claimed to be no expert on the subject, his two-volume history of the Normans in Sicily is both scholarly and very readable. As with the works of the other authors mentioned, reading this history is both informative and pleasurable. In addition, Norwich injects humour at appropriate places. I am looking forward to reading other books by him including his highly-rated history of Venice.