Words and Southwark Park – Part 2

By Pat Kingwell

In Part 1 of this article we looked at the importance of the written word in the early history of Southwark Park.


Fast forward now to more recent times. By the 1990s Bermondsey and Rotherhithe were far different places than in 1869. The process of urbanisation that was beginning in mid-Victorian times was complete. Southwark Park, once the site of market gardens, was by now the only large green space left in a densely crowded area. Over the years the park had matured from the simple place where people promenaded, into a typical twentieth century recreational facility, catering for a variety of sports, children’s play, summer entertainments, and even an art gallery. By the mid-1990s the park required significant upgrading. At that point important words were spoken by the local community.

Reminiscent of the 1850s, passionate meetings were held in late 1995 and early 1996. The many who attended at the Southwark Park Primary School and the Rotherhithe Civic Centre called on Southwark Council to act. The Friends of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe Parks was formed and amongst those most intimately involved were Keib Thomas of Bede Centre, and residents Gary Glover, Gary Magold, Marjorie Hill, Grace Beesley and others.

Southwark Council responded by working with The Friends. A bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund was submitted in March 1998. Fundamental to the application was a Restoration Plan produced by Land Use Consultants. The case put together in that document, by Adrian Wikeley, Paul Harrison and colleagues, makes it arguably the most significant set of words written about Southwark Park since the Act of Parliament in 1864. It led directly to a substantial grant award and by 2001 the park was transformed.

Since the turn of the century words have gone on to play their part in the life of the park. An easily overlooked example is the improvement of signage which provides park users with basic information. Certain features have more detailed boards, e.g. the bees in the nature area; the bandstand; the Jabez West Memorial drinking fountain; the Ada Salter Garden; the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Tree and the Rotherhithe Caryatids. The main entrances have historical information boards too. Local-born cricketing legend, Bobby ‘The Guv’nor’ Abel, has a plaque on the wall of the art gallery.

Festivals and performances have traditionally been part of the park’s link to the community. The Bermondsey Carnival is an especially popular event, bringing on stage a variety of musicians and singers. Everybody will have their favourite memories, but for word play surely the appearances by Londoners Chas n’ Dave, Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook will be hard to eclipse.

Norwegian Constitution Day is another annual event. On 17th May (syttende mai) thousands of our friends from Norway gather near the bandstand to celebrate their independence. The Norwegian language is heard in speeches and folk songs. The bi-centennial event in 2014 was a special day, including the singing of the national anthem: 

“Yes, we love this country                                                 
as it rises forth,
rugged, weathered, over the water,
with the thousands of homes,
love, love it and think
of our father and mother
and the saga-night that lays
dreams upon our earth.”

Any account of words and the park must pay tribute to the Bubble Theatre, who have regularly staged plays in the open-air of summer. Too many to mention, but what fun was had when they brought ‘Punchikin Enchanter’ (2003); ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’ (2004); ‘The Crock of Gold’ (2005); Ovid’s Metamorphoses (2006); ‘The Dong With A Luminous Nose’ (2007); Homer’s The Odyssey (2009) and more recently ‘Tales From The Arabian Nights’ (2017).

As one of London’s oldest parks it was surprising that there was no book dedicated to it. In 1999 the restoration scheme gave impetus to myself and Len Reilly to write a very brief history in conjunction with Land Use Consultants. In 2010, following another Heritage Lottery Fund award, an oral history was published. ‘Our Park’, combined heritage information and the reminiscences of many members of the community. Written and visual work was given by children of Rotherhithe Primary School and St. Joseph’s, Gomm Road Primary School.

In 2014 the 150th anniversary of the Southwark Park Act was celebrated with many community-based activities. Words were prominent. With the support of the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association the 1st Southwark Park Brownies produced ‘Kid’s Park’, a colourful nature trail booklet.

Historians Ken Worpole and David Kynaston visited the park and gave free public talks: the former on London Parks, the latter on Bobby Abel. Gary Magold did a guided tour about the park during the First and Second World Wars, and Jon Best, Southwark Council’s Ecology Officer, organised a bat walk. Lynne Olding, Head Gardener, gave a tour of the Ada Salter Garden. 

The 2015 and 2016 summer programmes continued to interpret the park through guided walks and talks. Graham Taylor spoke on ‘Famous Women of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe’; apiarist Sharon Bassey ran bee education days in the nature area; Debra Gosling fascinated us with her ‘Bermondsey Smells’ walk and talk. Alison Clayburn ran creative writing sessions, which resulted in the book ‘Voices Of The Park’.    

In Part 3 we’ll look at some more recent publications.