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Mike Bassett and a lifetime’s research on the history of Hampstead

Historian's book 'Hampstead Surveyed' was put into the print weeks before his death earlier this year

07 September, 2017 — By Gerald Isaaman

Detail from the cover of Hampstead Surveyed 1700-1762 by Mike Bassett

HISTORY often tells us the strangest stories, revealing secrets covered with mud that shine like jewels when revealed.

And historians themselves can be equally strange, the secrets they discover having to wait until they are dying to appear in print after years of demanding research.

Mike Bassett was lying in a bed at the Royal Free Hospital before a friend finally brought to him the published copy of Hampstead Surveyed, a huge paperback running to 525 pages, on which he had worked for 30 years.

It was a book that Camden archivist Malcolm Holmes devoted his own free days in helping Mike prepare for print but seriously believed no publisher would ever touch it. And only to be proved wrong.

“Mike, that’s great, at last it’s published,” his friend Bob Shemlit, who was at his hospital bedside when the book was finally handed over, told me. “And Mike said to me, ‘Take the bloody thing away!’
“Why? I think it all started off as a labour of love, but then that book just totally took over his life.”

A few weeks later, transferred to a Hampstead hospice, Mike died in June, aged 75, his tome packed with new and valuable information.

Mike was a very private, almost mystery man, who stayed single and refused to have a phone at his home in Neale Close, Hampstead Garden Suburb, according to his oldest friend Eddie McGurk.

They met, aged 13, at Acland Burghley School, in Tufnell Park, both winning apprenticeships – Mike to become a metallurgist with the Euston-based British Non-Ferrous Metal Research Association – and, both sub-aqua divers, they went on holiday together to the Mediterranean.

Eddie is convinced that Mike’s passion for Hampstead came from growing up in South Hill Park Gardens, before his parents sold the house to join an artists’ colony on the Isle of Wight.

Mike was interested in the history of Hampstead’s houses, when they were built, who lived in them, how they changed. But that didn’t explode until he walked into Swiss Cottage library with a query and met Malcolm Holmes, who showed him the manorial map of Hampstead drawn in 1762, a landmark survey by James Ellis.

From that moment Mike probed backwards to 1700, thus creating a unique and comprehensive account of his beloved Hampstead’s early development during the first half of the 18th century, and alongside it, the fascinating characters involved, from worm doctors and criminals to impresarios and inventors.

The details even reports that Robert Cary of Hampstead sat on the jury that awarded £4,000 damages to John Wilkes, the radical journalist and MP, in a court battle with Lord Halifax. A suggestion too that the Tyburn gallows be moved to Highgate, to deter the prevalent local highwaymen.

“He must have come in to see us hundreds of times after that,” said Mr Holmes. “He was really enthralled by the 1762 map we produced. And over the years I, my colleague Mike Ashton and other members of staff did our best to guide him to all the sources that existed to help him trace further information. I went through the initial manuscript line by line and actually spent four days on my own at his house, but the trouble was that he really didn’t know how to carry out historical research, often didn’t know the historical significance of what he discovered and how it was so relevant to the history of Hampstead and its links with society.

“It was all rather frustrating at times. He did see it as a book. And I was staggered when he produced something that nobody else has ever done. But I never in my life imagined any publisher would touch it.”

One of many surprises in Hampstead Surveyed is the discovery that a huge artificial mound existed near Whitestone Pond, which was removed as gravel, along with sand from the Heath, to create the Islington turnpike.

“It might have been a burial mound from the past,” said Mr Holmes. “Mike also came across going to the Hampstead tollgate with a local product known as Spanish Earth early in the 18th century. It was a brickmaker’s term used for the type of soil available. And that preceded any date we know for the Spaniards Inn. Perhaps that might be the origin of Spaniards’ End and the inn.”

It is fair to say that Mike’s mammoth musings, meanderings, deviations, are not for the faint-hearted. Some may even find his style impossible compared to basic histories whose facts have provoked further interest.

Yet those who know Hampstead love Hampstead through all its worst vicissitudes, and will recall Daniel Defoe, after plodding up Haverstock Hill to London’s summit, declaring: “Tis so close to heaven that it was fit only for a special people.”

Hampstead Surveyed: Mapping a London Town, 1700-1762. By Mike Bassett, Austin Macauley, £14.99

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