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date: 20 October 2019

Wilson, Sir Thomas Maryon, eighth baronetfree

(1800–1869)
  • F. M. L. Thompson

Wilson, Sir Thomas Maryon, eighth baronet (1800–1869), landowner and thwarted urban developer, was born on 14 April 1800 at Southend, Essex, the eldest of the six children of Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson, seventh baronet (d. 1821), and his wife, Elizabeth (d. 1818), daughter of Captain James Smith RN. He was educated at St John's College, Cambridge, and received his MA in 1822. The family hailed from Eastbourne, in the early seventeenth century, and the baronetcy was conferred on William Wilson, a royalist in the civil war, in 1660. The manor of Hampstead and the estate of 416 acres in Hampstead which went with it came to the Wilsons through the marriage of General Sir Thomas Spencer Wilson, sixth baronet, to Jane Weller, niece and heir of the Revd John Maryon, in 1767.

Public interest in Sir Thomas arose from his dealings with Hampstead, though his standing as a landowner with an estate of over 3000 acres derived from property in Kent and Sussex, reflected in his service as sheriff of Kent in 1828–9 and as colonel of the West Kent militia in the 1850s. His father, who 'was the owner of a private menagerie of wild animals, some of which were allowed to run loose about his house at Charlton' (GEC, Baronetage, 3.171), died in July 1821, his mother having died in 1818, and he inherited an estate unencumbered with dowagers but saddled with a settlement made by his father's will which made him into a life tenant without powers to grant building leases. This was not an uncommon situation among landowners, and was usually quite simply remedied at some cost, when circumstances required, by obtaining a private act of parliament. The young Sir Thomas made this difficult for himself when he continued in 1824 the vehement opposition, which his father had first mounted in 1820, to a bill promoted by the St John's Wood estate owner, Walpole Eyre, seeking powers to create what eventually became the Finchley Road. This opposition was on the grounds that the Maryon Wilsons wished to preserve the privacy and seclusion of their Hampstead estate, and that the proposed new road was simply a building estate developer's road thinly disguised as a public turnpike, and would lead to the intrusion of unwanted suburban housing.

In support of his objections the young Sir Thomas revealed that his father had added codicils to his will during his last illness in April 1821, empowering his son to grant building leases on his estates at Charlton and Woolwich, 'but upon his being asked if he would do the like as to the Hampstead Property, he said, no, and expressed his sentiments for leaving that as it was' (LMA, Maryon Wilson MSS). This line succeeded in putting off the new road for a few years, but at the third attempt by the Eyre party the Finchley Road Act was passed in 1826 and the road was opened in the 1830s. By posing as a principled opponent of the spread of suburban villadom in Hampstead, however, Sir Thomas had given a hostage to fortune which was to contribute to thwarting his schemes for the rest of his life.

Already by 1829 Sir Thomas was seeking a private estate act to give him power to grant ninety-nine year building leases on the Hampstead lands. Normally this would have been a routine matter, but in this instance Sir Thomas's honesty, or at least his frankness, were suspect; and, more importantly, part of his property, a block of 60 acres, lay alongside Hampstead Heath on its eastern side, separating the heath from Lord Mansfield's estate (later preserved as Parliament Hill Fields). A group of Hampstead village residents, who were also copyholders of the manor, got up a cry that the heath was in danger and that this was a bill to enclose the heath and build on it. The protest swayed parliamentary opinion (and The Times) so that, against all the precedents of private estate bill procedure, though it had been passed by the Lords it was thrown out by the Commons. The debate in the Commons was notable for the first public use of the 'lungs of the metropolis' argument for preserving open spaces. Sir Thomas was to spend much of the rest of his life in trying to obtain powers to grant building leases, or to sell building plots, on his Hampstead estate. Between 1829 and his death he promoted a dozen private estate bills, in slightly varying forms. All of them were rejected, usually at the hands either of Lord Mansfield, who did not wish the prospect from Kenwood to be sullied by rows of houses on Maryon Wilson land, or of some of the metropolitan MPs. Another unprecedented development came with the Leases and Sales of Settled Estates Act of 1856, which enabled landowners to go to chancery to alter the terms of wills and settlements rather than seek individual private acts; this included a special clause designed to exclude Sir Thomas from the operation of the act—small wonder that Sir Thomas became outstandingly rude, grumpy, and bad-tempered as he grew older.

One of Sir Thomas's problems was that he never married. If he had had a son who had reached the age of twenty-one the two jointly could have set aside the entail established by his father's will and thus gained control of the freehold. Sir Thomas died at 7 Bouverie Square, Folkestone on 5 May 1869, while accompanying the West Kent militia at their annual camp, and was buried at Charlton. He was succeeded by his brother, Sir John Maryon Wilson ninth baronet (1802–1876), born on 12 December 1802 at Lewisham. John Wilson settled in Essex where he inherited, on his father's death in 1821, a detached estate of 1500 acres, with a good house at Fitzjohns, Great Canfield, not far from Dunmow. He took the sensible step of marrying, on 22 December 1825, Charlotte Julia (d. 1895), daughter of George Wade of Dunmow, Essex, a solicitor. Wilson and his wife had six sons and three daughters. The eldest son, John Maryon Wilson (1828–1853) died in Kingston, Jamaica, while serving with the 33rd West India regiment, leaving an only daughter. The second son, Spencer Maryon Wilson (1829–1897), later tenth baronet [see below], had an ample lifespan for the purposes of breaking family settlements. Already by 1844 Sir Thomas was cheerfully referring to his brother John as the future duke of Hampstead, since when he inherited he was assured of more than enough sons to be certain of setting aside the restrictions of the 1821 will and going ahead with the building development of the Hampstead estate. As soon as he inherited Sir John joined with his son Spencer in breaking the restrictions, and at once started negotiations to sell his rights as lord of the manor of Hampstead to the Metropolitan Board of Works, which thus in 1871 acquired possession of the heath for £47,000 plus costs. This was hailed as a resounding triumph for the open spaces lobby and the Commons Preservation Society, founded in 1866 partly because Hampstead Heath was perceived as being in danger, and as evidence of the generosity and public-spirited character of Sir John in contrast to the selfishness and greed of his brother.

After 1869, however, there was no further need to try to pass estate acts or repeal the ‘Maryon Wilson’ clause in the 1856 act, for Sir John had ample legal powers to grant building leases or sell building plots, acting jointly with Spencer. Since East (Heath) Park, as the 60 acres of Maryon Wilson land on the east side of the legal heath was called by the estate, could now be developed with desirable villas, the preservation of the heath as a park had become an important Maryon Wilson concern, as it was the park which created much of the potential site value. It was therefore questionable whether it was necessary to pay Sir John anything for surrendering his rights as lord of the manor. What prevented East (Heath) Park becoming a building estate in the 1870s was first some fairly common father-and-son disagreements over money between Sir John and Spencer, with Sir John adamant that he was too old to start on speculative ventures that might even temporarily reduce his income; this meant that years went by without decisions on a development policy. Second, Spencer had his own pet scheme for starting the development of the family estate, which was to open it up with a grand boulevard (later Fitzjohn's Avenue), to attract the most expensive kind of villa. A start on the new road was made in 1875; the scheme absorbed all of the capital the Maryon Wilsons were prepared to tie up in urban ventures, and what is more it created a supply of land more than sufficient to meet the demand for top-quality building sites in Hampstead for very many years. Hence fifteen years after it had become technically possible for the Maryon Wilsons to cover East (Heath) Park with houses, nothing had in fact been done and it remained open country available for acquisition by the heath extension committee. Under the chairmanship of the first duke of Westminster, with the support of Baroness Burdett-Coutts and Octavia Hill, and with the organizational skills of George Shaw Lefevre, the committee ran an ultimately successful campaign from 1884 to 1889 to raise some £300,000 from public and private sources to purchase the East (Heath) Park from Sir Spencer (for £100,000), and the 200 acres of Parliament Hill Fields from Lord Mansfield (for £200,000). Sir John Maryon Wilson died on 11 May 1876 at Charlton House.

Sir Spencer Maryon Wilson tenth baronet (1829–1897), who was born on 4 December 1829 at Fitzjohn's, Great Canfield, Essex, was an officer in the Royal Navy from 1855 to 1870. He married Rose Emily (d. 1909), second daughter of the Revd Henry Sharpe Pocklington of Stebbing, Essex, on 29 July 1856, and they had completed their family of three sons and three daughters some years before he inherited the family estates. He had every reason to try to maximize his income from the property, and he did not forbear to develop the East (Heath) Park out of indifference to its building potential. Indeed, he played an active part in the planning of Netherhall and Maresfield Gardens, named after places on the family's Sussex estate, and of Canfield Gardens, named after one of their Essex villages, and of several other new residential roads, always pressing for development to go ahead with all possible speed. The tenth baronet died on 31 December 1897 at 6 Prince's Gardens, South Kensington.

The fact that the enlarged Hampstead Heath of the late nineteenth century, an area several times larger than the original manorial heath, survived as an open space owed much to the chances of family and testamentary history, and to the fact that Sir Thomas Wilson was unmarried; but contrary to the popular view at the time it owed very little either to the frustration of Sir Thomas's attempted villainy or to the supposed generosity of Sir John and Sir Spencer Wilson.

Sources

  • F. M. L. Thompson, Hampstead: building a borough, 1650–1964 (1974)
  • LMA, Maryon Wilson MSS, E/MW/III/38/15
  • Maryon Wilson Estate Bill, 1829, Parl. Arch.
  • Hoare v. Wilson[1866], Ch 273 [copy in Hampstead Public Library]
  • ‘Select committee to inquire into … open spaces in the metropolis’, Parl. papers (1865), 8.259, no. 178; 8.355, no. 390; 8.579, no. 390-I [reports 1–2]
  • The heath in danger (1862)
  • Maryon Wilson and Gurney Hoare (1862)
  • F. E. Baines, ed., Records of the manor, parish and borough of Hampstead, in the county of London, to December 31st, 1889 (1890)

Archives

  • LMA

Wealth at Death

under £12,000: probate, 3 Nov 1869, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

under £140,000—John Maryon Wilson: probate, 13 June 1876, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

£114,275 19s. 5d.—Spencer Maryon Wilson: probate, 6 June 1898, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

London Metropolitan Archives
(1801–)
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
Parliamentary Archives of the United Kingdom
G. E. Cokayne, , 6 vols. (1900–09)