Our Library holds a wealth of information on the social and political history of London’s parks and open spaces. Here, inspired by her course Parklife (1840s-1960s), Interpretation Manager Michelle Johansen compiles an A-Z based on the pamphlets, books, and photographs which form part of our Special Collections.
A is for “All O-u-t” which was yelled in a sing-song style by Victorian park keepers as they made their rounds of the city’s green spaces at dusk, ahead of locking up the park gates overnight.
B is for bandstands. In the 1930s, some 70 bands played in over 40 London parks on Sundays.
C is for Cremorne Gardens. In 1858, vast crowds gathered in these west London pleasure gardens for a performance by the Italian Salamander. Dressed in an outfit which made him impervious to the effects of fire, the showman entered a temporary iron structure surrounded by brushwood that had been set alight. Moments later, he emerged unharmed from the burning structure. The spectators noisily applauded his feat.
D is for dancing. As dance mania swept the nation following the end of the First World War, legislation was passed which enabled local councils to add dancing enclosures on open spaces. Typically created alongside bandstands, these popular enclosures turned parts of some city parks into outdoor dance halls.
E is for Epping Forest. On bank holidays, thousand of Victorians crowded on to steam trains to Chingford to head to the forest where the outdoor entertainments included live organ music and goat-chaise rides.
F is for the female caretaker who drew her employers’ praise in 1886 for maintaining order at St Luke’s playground on Wentworth Street in Whitechapel, even though the area was ‘of the roughest’ character. The vast majority of park employees at this time were male.*
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G is for the ‘Grand Cooperative Summer Fete’of 1952, which saw supporters of the Coop Party gather in Acton Park for a day of balloon races, fancy dress parades, and an exhibition of handicrafts. The knobbly-knee competition was a highlight of the event.
H is for the Hyde Park railings affair of 1866. This West End park had become a site of protest. With tensions rising between the labouring classes and those in power, the Home Office refused permission for marchers to congregate in Hyde Park as part of a planned demonstration on the extension of the vote to working men. Most demonstrators diverted to Trafalgar Square but some were determined to exercise their right to peaceful protest in Hyde Park. As the crowd pressed in on the perimeter of the park, the railings gave way. Disorder followed. Once fighting broke out between protestors and the forces of law and order, some adapted the railings as weapons.
I is for ice skating, a popular winter pursuit across the city’s parks and open spaces during the nineteenth century. Favourite spots included the Richmond Park ponds, the Serpentine and Long Water in Hyde Park, and the Ornamental Waters in Regents Park.
J is for the Japanese garden of peace, planted as part of the Japan-British exhibition held at White City in 1908. Today, the garden forms part of Hammersmith Park.
K is for kiss-in-the-ring, a boisterous game popular with Edwardian youth and often played under the trees in the Vale of Health on Hampstead Heath during the summer bank holiday festivities.
L is for lidos. During the early 1920s, British people were increasingly preoccupied with sports and physical fitness. The London County Council responded by providing more sophisticated leisure facilities in their parks, from croquet lawns to gym equipment to swimming baths. By the late 1930s, there were thirteen open-air pools in London, including lidos at Victoria Park, Brockwell Park and Parliament Hill.
M is for model dwellings for the labouring classes, specifically the full-size example of a bright and airy block of flats that was exhibited in Hyde Park as part of the Great Exhibition of 1851. The model was afterwards rebuilt in Kennington Park, where it still stands today.
N is for the 1,500,000 new bulbs planted in the 150+ parks, green spaces and woodlands managed by the London County Council in the mid-1960s.**
O is for open air entertainment. Some parks ran an ambitious programme of concerts and cinema shows on summer evenings. Among the performers at Parliament Fields in 1945 were the Dorela Dancers, the Whimsicals Concert Party, and a cossack orchestra. Anyone bored of the on-stage entertainment could wander off to enjoy a game of chess on Parliament Hill’s giant chess board.
P is for paddling in the ponds on Wandsworth Common in warm weather during the 1920s (see photograph).
Q is for Queen’s Park, originally created in the 1870s as part of the showground used for the International Exhibition of the Royal Agricultural Society. A small farm remains on the site today, along with a pitch and putt course, tennis courts and a children’s paddling pool.
R is for Richmond Park, the largest of all the London parks at 2,500 acres. Compare this to St James Park, for example, at just under 60 acres.
S is for sandpits. These were a standard feature in playparks c.1960, including at Deptford Park where local children also had access to a platform for use as a stage, igloos, and a hopscotch area to inspire their imaginations and encourage active play.
T is for theatre. By the late 1960s, the summer months were ‘grass theatre’ season at Waterlow Park in Highgate and the Rookery at Streatham Common. Performances of drama, opera and ballet took place on stages set amidst the greenery in an informal outdoor setting.
U is for the up-to-date rifle range in the Crystal Palace Park at the turn of the twentieth century, featuring the latest animated and self-indicating electric targets. Other attractions in the 200-acre park included the topsy-turvy railway, the ostrich farm, and the phantom swing.
V is for votes for working men, a cornerstone of the People’s Charter, drawn up in the 1830s. In April 1848, Chartist supporters gathered en masse on Kennington Common (now Kennington Park) ahead of a planned march on Parliament to demand better representation at a time when only around one fifth of adult males were eligible to vote in elections.
W is for the wallabies that were kept in some of London’s smaller parks in the mid-twentieth century, including at Clissold Park.
X is for X-rated. In 1968, journalist Betty James recommended the third big tree past the second shelter from Speakers Corner in Hyde Park to lovers seeking a secluded spot for a romantic liaison after dark.***
Y is for yachting. The Round Pond in Kensington Gardens is the home of the oldest model yacht club in the country. For almost 150 years, enthusiasts have gathered at the pond to compare vessels, share expertise, and take part in competitive races.
Z is for the zoological gardens south of the river. Situated roughly at the junction of Penton Place and Kennington Road in Walworth, this popular nineteenth-century attraction housed a variety of exotic birds and animals including zebras, lions, elephants, giraffes, and monkeys.
From bandstands to boating ponds, from protests to picnics, discover more about London's public parks and gardens in Michelle's course, Parklife (1840s-1960s).
* Fourth Annual Report of the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association (1886)
** Parks for Tomorrow (1964)
*** Betty James London for Lovers (1968)