The view from the top of Richmond Hill is one of the most famous in greater London. From a shady tree-lined road, a balcony called the Terrace underlines the scene. Below, the River Thames gently meanders through a patchwork of open land. Left of the river are Petersham Meadows, one of the few places in the capital where cattle still graze. On the opposite bank, the low-lying Middlesex plains meet the high-flying planes of Heathrow. In the middle of the scene, Glover’s Island sits in the river like a cherry on a cake.
In summer the area becomes a carpet of greenery, in autumn the trees a blaze of reds and oranges. Even on a grey morning, dog walkers pause and cyclists stop to take photos on their phones. People have been drawn here for generations, including artists Sir Joshua Reynolds and JMW Turner. The view is justly famous for its beauty. And for being the only one in Britain specifically protected by an Act of Parliament. A plaque on the Terrace records the people and groups who helped to preserve ‘the rural tranquillity of this celebrated view’.
The story behind it, however, is far from tranquil. By the 1890s, Richmond Hill was a very desirable place to live. Besides the view, the area offered a calming retreat and easy escape from a rapidly industrialised London. Some local landowners hoped to profit. The grounds of Marble Hill House, one of several Georgian villas beside the river, almost became a housing estate. Glover’s Island was put on sale twice. The owner, Thames waterman Joseph Glover, caused a scandal when he suggested advertisers could put a giant billboard on it.
The ongoing threat of development led in 1902 to the ‘Richmond, Ham and Petersham Open Spaces (Preservation of View) Act’. As the name suggests, the Act sought to protect the view from Richmond Hill. It was proposed by Lord Dysart, whose estate included Ham Fields, 200 acres near Petersham Meadows.
Ham Fields was Common Land and under ancient ‘Lammas’ rights locals could use them for farming. Lord Dysart wanted to stop this to preserve the land’s value. But abolishing Common Land was illegal. Instead, Ham Fields was included in the Open Spaces Act. If Parliament passed it, Ham Fields would no longer be Common Land. The farming rights would end.
Hansard recorded Parliament’s opposition to the Act. One MP argued the title ‘Open Spaces Act’ was ‘absolutely misleading’ and suggested it was a private enclosure to preserve Dysart’s estate. By abolishing Common Land, the Act would also break the law. Anxieties about development, however, meant that it passed. As such, when we admire the view from Richmond Hill today, we also see a green space protected by grey areas.
This was published in the July 2019 edition of Geographical magazine
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