by Pat Kingwell
It is a pleasure to make a contribution to the Southwark Festival of Words. I have an interest in Southwark Park, so thought it might be worth looking back in time to see how words have played their part in the long story of the borough’s oldest park.
It is possible that over the past century and a half as many words have been written or spoken about the place as there are blades of grass in its 25 hectares. This article will look at some examples from the early years 1856-1869, and then some more from 1998-2020. In doing so I touch upon the written word, such as memorials, letters, petitions, official reports, newspaper articles and creative works. I also refer to the spoken word used at public meetings, ceremonies and performances.
The park is so familiar to us now that it is hard to imagine it not existing, but that was the case until 1869, when it first opened to the public. The campaign to secure our local “green lung” started in earnest in April 1856, and was begun by the written word.
A memorial was presented to the Bermondsey Vestry, signed by over 250 of the principal inhabitants of the parish. The memorial was a very formal and respectful way of addressing an authority – in this case the local vestry, which was back then a limited type of local government. A statement of facts was usually accompanied by a petition or remonstrance. The message was clear enough – we live in an area with public health challenges and a park will help us meet them. Other places have a park, so why not us? Also, we don’t want to see too many houses built on the land, except for those working in the locality. Read it in the words of 1856.
“To the Vestry of Bermondsey. We, the undersigned, being anxious and desirous for the improvement of the parish of Bermondsey, and the preservation of the public health, beg to call your attention to the necessity that exists for obtaining for this parish the advantages that are enjoyed in other districts.
It is well known that occasional epidemics have from time to time visited Bermondsey with greater severity than any other parish, entailing in addition to the sufferings of the poor an increase in the rates; that we attribute this greater severity in some measure to the unwholesomeness of the water used for domestic purposes – the proximity of the parish to the Thames, the laborious occupation of the workmen, and the absence of any public walks or park. That since the last epidemic, unwholesome water has been supplied, and it is hoped before long the Thames will be purified; that in nearly every other district around the metropolis grounds have been laid out for squares, public walks or parks; that there is in this parish at the present time a considerable open space used for market gardens, which might be obtained and converted into a park, but which otherwise in the course of a few years will be covered in houses and let to persons not engaged in the legitimate trades of this parish.
That this parish, being essentially a manufacturing one, it is not desirable to increase the number of dwelling-houses except for the accommodation of workmen and persons engaged in such trades.
That we request you to take such steps as you may deem advisable for the purpose of providing the public with a park or public walks in this parish.”
The Bermondsey Vestry and the memorialists initially approached the government to build a park, but were advised by Sir Benjamin Hall, the First Commissioner of Works, that their best chance was to go to the recently established Metropolitan Board of Works for help.
Hall played his part by using words. He sent an important letter of support, in which he wrote “I am strongly of the opinion that it would be very desirable to have some large open space provided for the inhabitants of the South Eastern portion of the Metropolis …it is scarcely necessary to press on the Metropolitan Board the advantages to this neighbourhood of some easily accessible public place of recreation, most of the Members of the Board are acquainted with the district and know that there is no open space in which the poorer inhabitants can walk, still less enjoy exercise and recreation which has been found so beneficial in other neighbourhoods, the open space, walks, trees and turf of St. James’ Park, Hyde Park and Victoria Park must be still more beneficial in this neighbourhood and as every day the want of such a place of recreation is more felt on account of the increase in the number of houses there.”
Sir Benjamin Hall’s influential letter helped widen the park movement beyond Bermondsey. The case for a wider South-Eastern Park developed involving the representatives and inhabitants not only of Bermondsey, but also Rotherhithe, Southwark and Camberwell. In January 1857 the Board of Works published a vital document, the report of the Works and Improvements Committee, which officially recommended a park should be built. That rather innocuous looking item, just eight pages long, got us to where we are today, but not straightforwardly.
Although the report backed the idea of a park, it did not say exactly where in South London it should be. This was because there were two contending plans from the vestries of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe, each with their powerful supporters and parochial interests. The former plan was the larger of the two and more expensive. The Board of Works hoped for a compromise proposal, but that did not come. Instead the second half of 1857 saw the public meeting become the place where a more dynamic expression of the people’s feelings on the subject were voiced. Between July and November 1857 several large public gatherings were held at which numerous enthusiastic speeches were made.
The one held in the grounds of the Dun Cow Tavern, Old Kent Road, on the evening of 6 July 1857, was typically eventful. It was attended by the two Southwark Members of Parliament, Admiral Sir Charles Napier and John Locke. Dr. John Challice, the eminent medical Officer of Health for Bermondsey, and writer of many medical advisory texts, presided. He said that upon the South-Eastern Park a good sermon could be preached. This he did not mean to do; but he would remind them that it was now or never that they should assert their right, their natural right, to the formation of this park, and those that did not now press that right, would regret that they had neglected to do so. As he spoke it rained with such force that the meeting adjourned into the spacious skittle saloon. The crowd was anxious to gain admittance, the doorway became choked up, and those who had already entered the saloon were somewhat surprised to see the gallant admiral make his way in through one of the windows.
Sir Charles said that if they looked around they would find that all had got parks with the exception of Southwark. He felt that Southwark had a great claim for a park. He did not say that to please them, as he was not in the habit of trying to please anybody (laughter). A great deal of money had been spent in the improvements of St. James’ Park …, and it was no doubt very pretty to see a clear stream in front of the palace, but if they could vote money for that, could they not do so for the benefit of the people at large!
John Locke made a forcible speech. He said he never heard anyone say anything against establishing a park, the only thing they could urge being that they did not like to subscribe their money (hear, hear). They therefore started with the fact that parks were good without any qualification…Had not public money been voted for Manchester and other parts, for the establishment of places of resort for the people? (Hear, hear) Did not their great metropolis afford to all who chose to come a chance of bettering or making their fortunes, and when they come, were they not warmly welcomed (cheers) and treated with the greatest friendship? …The metropolis had been spreading on all sides, and if they allowed that to go on without thinking of the health of the people, they would do that which no great city ever did without bringing destruction on the people. If they had a park brought to their own doors, there was no reason why they should not go into it, and enjoy the fresh air every day of the week. To tell them that because a park would cause a trumpery rate of three farthings in the pound to make it, that it should therefore, be refused, was an insult, and any man who urged it was an enemy to the people (hear, hear).
Fired by the words of Napier and Locke, Archibald Kintrea, a Camberwell vestryman, successfully moved a resolution which indicated a certain sense of injustice: “That the aristocracy and the gentry inhabiting other parts of the metropolis, have for years had the benefit of spacious parks made and maintained for them at the public expense, and this meeting feels that our numerous manufacturing and industrial population have a just right to demand a park for this district, to be made and maintained by a rate levied over the whole of the metropolis.”
Benjamin Young, gelatine manufacturer of Spa Road, seconded the resolution, saying he had lived in the district all his life. If they wanted an argument why the park should be established, let them look up the blind alleys in Tooley Street, Parker’s Row, Bermondsey Wall, Dockhead, and other places even more open, and they would find nothing but a mass of bricks and mortar. A man could not take his children into the fields because of the distance, and he therefore went by himself and had to travel a long time before he could catch sight of a bit of green. He then felt very tired, and to rest himself found refuge in a public house. The proposed park was a place for the poor man to take his exercise in, and for his children to see those beautiful flowers which otherwise would be a closed book to them.
Similar strong sentiments were expressed at other public meetings. On 9 September 1857 at the Lecture Hall in Fair Street, Thomas Chaplin, a solicitor and member of the Southwark Radical Club, said the east end of London had Victoria Park, which the community at large and those of this district helped to obtain; and now let the people of the east end, and others who had this privilege, aid those on this side of the water, and in this district, in obtaining a similar advantage. Why should all other districts of the metropolis have their parks, while those in the Southwark district had only the “Old Islands?” (A reference to the Seven Islands of Rotherhithe) Let them keep the old islands, and the green grass upon them, but not let them relax their exertions in obtaining this object, which would be a boon to the whole of the district. On 6 October 1857, at a meeting in Spa Road, Lewis Wilcher, the secretary of the South Eastern Park Association, commented that while large sums were willingly voted for public buildings, royal dowries and pensions, he thought a small outlay should not be grudged to enable the youth to grow up in strength and vigour. Boys, for want of space to indulge in cricket, trap ball, and other manly sports, were driven to smoking, cheap concert-rooms, and other questionable kinds of amusement. No opportunity was afforded them for the contemplation of the beautiful works of Nature, and the result was moral as well physical deterioration.
The campaign for the Bermondsey plan reached a high point on 16 October 1857 when the South Eastern Park Association presented a petition to the Board of Works signed by over 6,000 people. However, the Board opted for the smaller and cheaper Rotherhithe plan, locating the park more or less where it is today. The decision provoked a good deal of outrage.
On 12 November 1857 the Association held a public meeting in the Green Man Tavern, Old Kent Road, which was described by the contemporary press as “one of the most stormy and disorderly ones we ever witnessed, and will not soon be forgotten by those present.” Emotions ran high. Accusations of personal duplicity were traded across the floor. The Board of Works was lambasted for “its great mistake” in choosing Rotherhithe as the site for the park. The Camberwell representatives at the Board were openly accused of deliberately undermining the Bermondsey plan because they wanted to get a park at Goose Green for their own especial benefit, and to do that, they wished to drive the present park as far as possible from their own district. The meeting descended into “indescribable uproar.”
I have dwelt on public meetings because in the crowded rooms the formal, restrained language of the memorial was often replaced by passionate words. Criticism of the powerful was voiced openly and vividly. Local affinities were not hidden. Insults and accusations flew. All of which was reported in detail in the local and sometimes national press. The Board of Works, uncomfortable with the controversy, and increasingly preoccupied by London’s drainage needs, postponed implementation of the park until further notice.
From 1858 until 1863 Southwark Park was virtually in limbo. Then the local vestries reignited the dormant campaign. Learning the lessons of disunity which was so damaging in 1857, the vestries conferred and agreed to push once more for the Rotherhithe location. Letters and memorials were sent to the Board of Works. There seems to have been no more disputatious public meetings. In November 1863 another form of words, a notice, was issued by the Board stating its intention to apply to Parliament for powers to create the park. On 28 April 1864 the Southwark Park Act was passed. Its 42 clauses and accompanying schedules may not amount to the most beguiling set of words ever written about the park, but they are surely the most significant.
Putting the words of the Act into force was easier said than done. A combination of complicated land and lease purchases; dilatory design and a sleepy works programme, meant five years passed before the park was completed. During that time the local vestries became increasingly frustrated at the slow rate of progress, and a number of letters of complaint, memorials and deputations were sent to the Board of Works. The local press joined in too, as evidenced by this sarcastic comment published in the South London Press in November 1866: “The mythical park for Southwark came up for conversation at the Metropolitan Board of Works yesterday. The money having been paid for the ground, it is devoted to growing Brussels sprouts, etc., for unknown officials, pending their leisure to design gravel walks on paper and draw specifications for the approved lodges. As only a year has been thus wasted, and £3,300 of the public money expended, the inhabitants of Southwark may hope to see a man and a barrow A.D. 1876, prior to another vote being asked for, as the money now in hand will be paid away that time in interest for the present loan.”
In February 1868 the South London Journal published a letter about the need for the Chairman of the Board, a former Southwark representative, to do something about the delay:
Southwark Park was formally opened on 19 June 1869, and again words played their part on the day. The official ceremony began at 3pm on a very wet Saturday when Chairman Sir John Thwaites arrived with the officers and members of the Metropolitan Board of Works. They and the local MPs John Locke and Austen Henry Layard headed a procession of the great and the good on a tour of the park. During the walk four commemorative trees were planted, and on returning to the platform speeches were made. Sir John Thwaites declared the park open some thirteen years after it had first been proposed. He said “Of the value of parks and open spaces they had all but one opinion, and they were of peculiar value in this crowded district, which was inhabited principally by working people. The design of these parks was to minister to the health of the people and their recreation from toil…such places were calculated not only to improve physical well-being, but also, to raise the standard of moral sensibility. At present, the workman, when he retired to his ill ventilated home, had nowhere to go to, excepting either the taproom or the skittle ground. But he would now be enabled to come here with his wife and children, and breathe the fresh air.”
Sir John’s was the first ever public speech delivered in the park. The second ever was by John Locke, but owing to the discharges of cannon part of his speech was inaudible. He referred to the meeting in the Dun Cow as far back as 1857, and congratulated all on “obtaining this long sought for boon”. Was he being ironic when he said he was grateful to have lived to see the project carried out?
Austen Henry Layard made the most telling speech. He said: “The rain is good for the grass and plants but not so good for human beings…Sir John has alluded to the cost which the park has been to the Metropolis. I will tell Sir John that I believe, in a short time, the cost will be indirectly repaid them through the improved moral and social condition of the people. He has also asked you to take care of the flowers. I am not afraid of that. The time is not long gone by when people were thought incapable of being trusted; but when they were trusted, what was the result? Since I have been First Commissioner of Works, I have not had a single complaint of a flower being plucked, or a tree, plant or shrub injured in any of the parks. We now see the park at its worst. But the time will come, when our children are become men and women, that these trees which have been planted today will have grown to maturity and this park will then be a glory to Southwark.” How right he was.
An amusing aside to the day concerned the funding of the ceremony. The Board of Works offered nothing, so it fell to the notoriously tight-fisted vestries to foot the bill. The South London Chronicle enjoyed recounting their actions: “Half a dozen parishes, beginning with Rotherhithe in the historical and ancient ‘boroughs of Southwark’, were asked to contribute to the expense of a ‘jollification’, as the modern phrase is for what used to be called in polite circles as a dejeuner, and contributions of £200, £150, £75 and £50 have been made with more or less willingness by the governing bodies. The idea was to give a welcome to the great Elite of the Metropolis and his subordinates, and the notion was at once hospitable and inexpensive on the part of those who proposed it, for they were to give the invitation and join in the feast while others were to pay. There is always somebody ready to spoil sport, and in this event it was Mr. Field of St. Saviour’s, who gladly suggested that they should contribute to “Button Park”, a euphemistic phrase which we take to mean the pockets of the Vestrymen… Mr. Millar and Mr. Burgess in St. George’s also declared against buying a dinner for themselves at the expense of the already over-burdened ratepayers, but the feeling that they ought not to ‘get shabby’ strengthened by the dictum of the vestry clerk and Mr. Collinson, that the expense was allowed by the Metropolis Management Act, counterbalanced any such qualms, and carried the day and £100. In St. Olave’s Mr. Shand had to enact the part of Oliver Twist, and ask ‘for more,’ and almost with the same feeling that he wouldn’t get it; for the joint Dejeuner Committee had pooh-poohed the £50 already voted, and had laughed Mr. Shand into an unauthorised promise of £25 more. Well, he asked, and Mr. Eyell and Mr. Tolhurst gently chided him for taking upon himself so much, and the stout men of St. Olave’s passed the little ‘extra’ rather than make Mr. Shand pay for his promise out of his own pocket.”
In Part 2 we’ll fast forward now to more recent times.