A vacant and useless tract
The history of Hounslow Heath is one shared between the London Boroughs of Richmond upon Thames and Hounslow. It once formed part of the 23,000-acre Great Forest of Middlesex that was largely cleared of its trees by the 13th century. The Roman Staines Road from London eventually spawned the hamlet of Hundeslawe or Hundeslowe, which gives the name Hounslow to an entire west London borough. Thomas Milne’s Land Use Map of 1800 shows the Heath then divided in half by what is today the Hanworth Road. The western half described as Isleworth Parish now largely comprises the Hounslow Heath Nature Reserve in Hounslow Borough and Twickenham Parish forming the eastern half contains the mostly urbanised ward of Heathfield.
Past historical reporting of Hounslow Heath both sides of the Hanworth Road municipal divide has remained determinedly parochial, despite the fact that since Anglo-Saxon times the whole was united in a single entity known as The Isleworth Hundred. A Hundred was an administrative term referring to the largest division of a shire or county split into hides, or the amount of land required to support a peasant family. Or again, an area able to provide the Lord of the Manor with 100 fighting men.
The Isleworth Hundred was sub-divided into three parishes: Isleworth, Heston and Twickenham, each with its own villages and outlying hamlets. Whitton, for example, was an endship of Twickenham. Hounslow was a small settlement with one half of the village in Heston parish and the other in Isleworth. It was hereabouts that the barons rested enroute to Runnymede and King John at the time of Magna Carta. It also became a popular stopover point for both sides during the Civil War and later represented the focal point of King James II’s failed ambition to redress a monarchy that was eventually superseded by Parliament.
After 1818 The War Department acquired 300 acres of Hounslow Heath in Isleworth parish for use as a military training ground, which it continued to do so until the 1960s. In 1910 the army expanded operations as an aerodrome used to train fledgling pilots. In 1919 the airfield became the first British aerodrome with customs facilities, hosting the British Empire’s first scheduled daily international commercial flights until 1920 when business shifted to Croydon. By this time, a huge swathe of heathland was lost to the construction of the Feltham railway marshalling yard.
The volatile gunpowder works that dominated Twickenham parish’s half of the Heath ceased trading in 1928 when the land was sold for housing development. Today, strips of open land either side of the River Crane survive in the form of the Crane Park corridor created by Twickenham Borough Council in 1935. With the cutting of the A316 Great Chertsey Road at the same time, almost all Whitton Land had become a housing estate within 10 years.
In the 1950s the new political ward of Heathfield was created wherein Heathfield Recreation Ground and Crane Park represent the only surviving fragments of Hounslow Heath as public open ground. Hospital Bridge is the only reference to The King’s Hospital designed by Sir Christopher Wren as part of the permanent buildings attaching James II’s great encampments on Hounslow Heath.
The Camp on Hounslow Heath: Where James II built the army that cost him his crown. By Ed Harris.
Published by The Borough of Twickenham Local History Society. ISBN 978 1911 145073