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The Review - BOOKS
Published: 8 March 2007

Christopher Wade pictured outside Burgh House
World history according to Hampstead

Christopher Wade often felt he should write the history of the world according to Hampstead, writes Gerald Isaaman

Burgh House and Hampstead Museum
is available at Burgh House priced £2.95

CHRISTOPHER Wade knew he had found the perfect place the day he stepped out of the Tube at Hampstead in 1956.
Diana, his delightful secretary at the BBC, had promised to marry him, but only if they lived on a hill – because she was a girl from the heights of Snowdonia.
So he had left his small apartment in nearby St John’s Wood and come house-hunting.
“That’s when I fell in love with Hampstead too,” he recalls. “Instead of a lot of flat roads, they went off in all different directions, on different gradients, downhill and up and I got lost quite quickly. The setting was quite magical.”
That magic has stayed with him as, now 85 and remarkably fit, he wears the badge and cloak of Hampstead’s own historian.
Those sagas of the earlier Hampsteadians now noted by blue plaques – there are more plaques adorning NW3 walls than anywhere else in London except Westminster – people whose passions, ideas, inspirations and inventions have changed the world.
They range, of course, from Keats and DH Lawrence to Elias Canetti and John le Carre, from Constable to Henry Moore and Stanley Spencer, from Karl Marx to Freud, from Elgar to Jacqueline du Pre, from Marie Stopes to the birth of CND, from Ramsay Macdonald to Michael Foot. “I sometimes felt I ought to write the History of the World According to Hampstead,” he muses. “When important things happen, there’s always some link with Hampstead.”
Yet his latest delve into the past is a more modest but equally important one, a glossy new history and guide book to Burgh House, the grade-one-listed Queen Anne mansion around which so much has happened since it was built in 1703, and which was rescued by the community when Camden Council wanted to flog it off in 1977.
For more than 20 years, since Christopher and his late wife Diana set up the Hampstead Museum, visitors had to make do with a 10p sheet of information.
But when a £600,000 Heritage Lottery grant to refurbish and modernise Burgh House was won the overall £800,000 budget specifically included £100,000 to refurbish the museum – and pay for the publication of a guide worthy of Hampstead’s own stately home, now visited by 35,000 people a year.
Who better to research and write it than Christopher Wade, a task that took eight months with the help of Carol Seigal, current curator of the Hampstead Museum.
Now it is on sale for just £2.95, the best of souvenirs packed with the best of stories of Burgh House’s former and often obscure owners over the centuries.
They range from Dr William Gibbons (1649-1728), the Spa Physician whose exaggerated praise for the wonders of the local chalybeate waters made Hampstead such a fashionable place, to The Rev Allatson Burgh (1769-1856), who paid an amazing £2,645 for what was then called Lewis House in 1822, and after whom it takes its name.
They include too Thomas Grylls (1845-1913), a distinguished stained glass designer, his wife and 12 children, Gryllis’ talent still seen today in the rose window in Westminster Abbey’s Poets Corner, and Captain George Bambridge (1892-1943), who won the Military Cross in World War I.
His wife, Elsie was the only surviving daughter of Rudyard Kipling, who became a regular visitor.
And the guide tells the dramatic story of the vociferous local campaign in the 1970s to save Burgh House for the people.
Christopher’s own life has had its drama too. Born in Bradford and brought up in Bedford, he was one of three sons of a solicitor who survived the World War I trenches and his extrovert, musical wife, who encouraged them to put on “little plays” at home.
Joining the world of entertainment was always his ambition. So he naturally performed and directed while at Cambridge and again when he joined the RAF in 1941, his fluent German giving him a post in intelligence interrogating Luftwaffe crews shot down over England.
“We had to sweep up the bodies or whatever was left of them, take those who lived away and interrogate them about the German Air Force,” he recalls.
Finally demobbed, he and a friend tried to launch new theatres in the provinces with dismal success. Then he joined the BBC’s German service, moved into audience research and finally became script editor for BBC television drama in the great days of Cathy Come Home and Up the Junction.
But he clashed with the dynamic Sydney Newman, who came over from ITV and “bust the whole thing up,” resulting in Christopher taking earlier retirement on a generous BBC pension in 1973, and finding a new career as Hampstead’s own history man.
Through his membership of the Camden History Society, came The Streets of Hampstead, Streets of Belsize, Streets of West Hampstead, which he edited, popular pocket books still in print today with a host of other local history publications.
“We were largely trying to make history for the man in the street,” he explains. “There was all this fascinating information there, about the houses, their architecture, those who lived in them, their passions and ideals.
And the Burgh House guide is itself an eye-opener to what is a remarkable story.”

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