Dastardly-Do By The Charlton Cad

Odd, isn’t it, what you end up reading when you’re sick. As I started to get better, I found myself reading a history of Hampstead, mainly because I didn’t have to move off the poorly-sofa to pick up the book. I discovered that the North-South divide of London is nothing new.

Mention the name Maryon Wilson to someone from Charlton and they’ll probably smile as they think of a nice piece of open parkland, available to all to wander and play. Say the same name to anyone from Hampstead and a dastardly villain of the twirling moustache variety pops into their head…

Actually, once I started reading further about London’s first great preservationist war, I began to realise that the good burghers of Charlton didn’t have much to thank the Maryon Wilsons for either, until well after the sandpits there had been exhausted and the family had no further need for the land they so generously gave to the people.

They inherited Charlton House in 1767 through the Maryon side – and the fact that they chose South East London over their other giant chunk of land – er, Hampstead – is somehow satisfying – inexplicably so, of course, given their less than charming nature. They owned all of Hanging Wood (some of which is now Maryon and Maryon Wilson Parks) and much of the surrounding land; what they didn’t own they took anyway.

The family, headed by the darkest individual of them all, the eighth baronet Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson (boo, hiss) enclosed the ancient village green in front of their gaff and called it their front garden. The centuries-old Horn Fair was booted out to a field near Fairfield Grove until they finally got rid of it altogether in 1874.

But if the fairgoers of Charlton thought themselves hard done-by, the Hampstead people were spitting tacks. Hampstead Heath, just part of the enormous North London estate he owned as absentee Lord of the Manor, was, in Thomas Maryon Wilson’s avaricious eyes, just another bit of land upon which he could build a whole slew of new housing.

All he needed to do was get himself an Act of Parliament – a mere formality at the time – landowners everywhere were getting Acts granted willy-nilly in the early to mid 19thC.

Where Maryon Wilson went wrong though, was in not doing his homework and working out that several MPs lived within spitting distance of the Heath. They might not have cared about the grazing rights of the peasants but they certainly didn’t want a sink estate on their doorstep. The Heath Protection Committee was formed, and over the years, every single one of Maryon Wilson’s applications was rejected.

The eighth baronet wasn’t going to take that lying down. He decided to go underground (pretty much literally) and use guerilla tactics. He started digging, and selling off ‘Heath Sand’ to anyone who would buy, deliberately undermining its beauty (though now they’ve healed over, the pits make rather pretty ‘dells.’) He tore up all the native gorse bushes and planted ornamental trees ready to line, eventually, his streets of houses (ever wondered where ‘Willow Tree Road’ comes from..?)

A protest meeting was held in 1856, one of the fiercest, apparently, ever. I keep reading that the curses hurled at Maryon Wilson were ‘bloodcurdling’ at the meeting but I can’t find any examples, which is a shame. I’d have enjoyed them hugely. I daresay the words ‘bounder’ and ‘cad’ were two of them but maybe you folks can supply me with some more splendid Victorian insults to savour.

I guess the lesson learned is never to try to take posh people on their own ground. Maryon Wilson perpetually failed in his applications and in 1870, when he died, his son gave in and sold the heath to the Metropolitan Board of works – at full face value, of course.

Of course the board was too mean to rectify the damage done to the heath, their only concession to regeneration was to give the groundsmen gorse seed to scatter as they walked around. The willows are rather loved these days.

His brother, Sir John Maryon Wilson, btw, didn’t have to rely on Acts of Parliament to build on his bit of the estate, which is why Finchley Road looks like it does today.

But back to Charlton.

It seems that later generations of Maryon Wilsons were pretty fed up with the whole landowning business and once one piece of land (the sandpits) was given to the people in 1891, it was only a few decades later that they sold Charlton House itself to the council and gave the rest of Hanging Wood to public parkland.

I have no idea what became of the family. I can find virtually nothing about them anywhere, and certainly no pictures, though just-for-random, here is a rather ugly settee, and here a slightly less ugly table that they once owned.

The really odd thing I discovered about the panto-villainous Sir Thomas is that he is, apparently, the subject of the first poem in English by an Icelander living in Iceland.

The Dream, by one Larus Sigurdsson, is a 170-line, cod-medieval-Gothic fantasy praising, alongside Sir Joseph Banks, the rather less-likely hero-figure of Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson – who, presumably, made some sort of trip to Iceland and impressed the poet with his grandeur.

“The living love him and the dead esteem
Poverty blesses him in every clime
To aid the poor, ’tis business of his mind
That always is to God and virtue join’d
Thus has the nature (to uncertain aim)
But good and noble grace’d with Wilson’s name.

Andrew Wawn, the author of The Vikings and the Victorians, tells us that, at that moment “the narrator wakes from his dream and, perhaps not a moment too soon, the poem comes to an end.”

And so should this post. Nurse, my medication, please…

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