About the Friends of Hounslow Heath

Find out all about Hounslow Heath!

This section of the website will tell you a little bit about the Heath and its history and geography. It's still under construction so please check back regularly! For more about the Heath's environment, and about its community, please see the relevant sections of the site.


Introduction

There are many significant facts and figures to be had from the Internet concerning Hounslow Heath's history. They include re-enacted battles and murderous tales and hangings.

Latterly the Heath was known as the original site on the Aerodrome known as London's FIRST AIRPORT. This was short lived and destined to move to Croydon, before finally returning to the area to become HEATHROW AIRPORT - the world's busiest passenger airport, we all know today!

Since the Second World War the Heath has been used for gravel extraction across the whole site and latterly as landfill in general. Restoration began when the site was no longer useful.

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The History of Hounslow Heath

Hounslow Heath is one of London's largest nature reserves. The last surviving remnant of a once-huge heath that covered most of south-west Middlesex, the heath boasts a rich and colourful heritage, including a period as an army mustering and training ground, a notorious haunt of highwaymen and the venue for one of the world's first commercial airports. Today, the heath is managed for wildlife and supports several rare or declining plant and animal species.

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The Highwaymen of Hounslow Heath

Unknown to many visitors to the Heath today, for more than 200 years Hounslow Heath was the most dangerous place in Britain. Between the 17th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, the Heath occupied perhaps 25 square miles, with no one certain where its boundaries lay. What's more, few cared: it was a tract of country to be crossed as quickly as possible. Hounslow wasn't large at the time, but it was an important coaching centre. The Bath Road and the Exeter Road passed through the Heath, carrying wealthy visitors to West Country resorts and courtiers to Windsor. These travellers provided rich picking for the danger that lurked along the lonely roads: highwaymen.

The first highwaymen - the word was first used in 1617 - were Royalist officers who 'took to the road' when they were outlawed under the Commonwealth. They were, as officers, familiar with the relatively new-fangled technology of pistols, which gave them an advantage over their victims, usually armed only with swords.

Highwayman became popular heroes, perhaps because, Robin Hood-like, they concentrated their villainies on the wealthy. The Dukes of Northumberland and St Albans were both held up on Hounslow Heath during the 17th century; it's likely few grieved except the Dukes themselves. One highly audacious highwayman went so far as to paste notices on the doors of rich Londoners, informing them that they should not venture forth without less than a watch and 10 guineas!

The most famous highwayman to have frequented Hounslow Heath include Philip Twysden, who was consecrated as Bishop of Raphoe in 1747. He spent most of his time as Bishop spending his family fortune in London, which eventually ran out; he was shot dead in an act of stagecoach robbery, though it was given out that he had actually died of 'an inflammation'.

Other highwaymen, like Robin Hood, returned money to needy victims. Other made a point of releasing women and children, including the children of the Prince of Wales, who were held up in Hounslow in 1741. Some accounts of robberies refer to the perpetrators as 'gentlemen'.

Some went so far as to consider being robbed by a highwayman as something of an honour. Horace Walpole, the famed art historian, antiquarian and politician, was accidentally wounded by James Maclaine, half of the famed pair Plunkett and Maclaine, while attempting to rob him. Walpole bore the robber no grudge, even writing to tell him so! In June 1750, Maclaine held up Lord Eglington, taking 50 guineas and his lordship's blunderbuss.

One of the most famous highwaymen, Dick Turpin, is credited with having stayed in most old pubs in the Hounslow area; in reality he mostly confined his activities to Essex, North London and Yorkshire. Possibly the most gallant of the highwaymen to ply his trade on the Heath was French-born Claude Duval; reportedly, he danced with a beautiful victim on Hounslow Heath and let her wealthy husband go for 100.

Few highwaymen urvived beyond their early twenties, betrayed for rewards, or by their own recklessness. Most ended up on Tyburn Tree, where felons were hanged. When they were dead, their bodies were hung in gibbets at the scenes of their crimes, intended as a lesson to others. The gibbets on Hounslow Heath were so plentiful that they came to be regarded as landmarks, and were even featured on maps in the 18th century.

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A squirrel forages in Hounslow Heath The landscape of Hounslow Heath