East End Memories



What makes London such a delightful city to visit is the many parks and squares that occur throughout the city. Most squares are little gardens with seats where people can sit and enjoy a quiet think amongst the greenery. Here the visitor can escape the hustle and buss le that is the modern city for a while and allow the world to pass by. Many of the smaller squares are surrounded by decorative iron railings however some suffered from having these removed during the World Wars where they were melted down and recycled to make guns. Other squares are huge affairs that contain fountains or monuments or both. I once tried counting the squares in London, but gave up once I reached two hundred.


Trafalgar, Berkley & Golden Squares


Besides the square, another characteristic of London is the park. London is a green city and by green, I mean that there are a multitude of green sites. Its parks are open to the public, and unlike where I used to live in New York City, entry to none is restricted to an exclusive group in possession of a key to the gates. London’s parks range in area from large to small with all sizes in between. The larger parks in the centre of the city once formed the grounds of stately homes. For those with energy and time, it would take well over an hour to walk across Kensington Gardens to Hyde Park and then once across the road to St. James’ Park and finally to Green Park. As wonderful as these parks are, they are not the only green areas of note in the city. Around the city are huge parks offering places for walks, sporting facilities and picnicking. Every London borough has many green sites, each of which is treasured by the populace as the larger ones once were by their titled owners.


Parks in Central London


The Victorians were fond of parks and those in authority believed that they and drinking fountains were vital to a healthy life and also kept the working class happy. It was during this era that many of the London parks were formally lain out. I was born in Bethnal Green in the East End, which boasts a number of parks, one of which is special to me.


Bethnal Green Greenery


The first record of Bethnal Green was in an eighth century document regarding a large house built there called Blithe Hall. The original Green was the centre of life in the village and also used for the grazing of local animals and those on their way to market at Smithfield. In later times, Bednall House was built on the Green close to where the Bethnal Green Public Library now stands. In 1727, it became an asylum for the mentally ill and functioned in this capacity until 1843 when it was demolished to make way for a new hospital. This was closed in 1920 and a housing estate built on the site. The remaining green space surrounding the library was renamed Bethnal Green Gardens, but this was ignored by the public who continued to refer to it as they always had as the Barmy Park. Across the road from this park in the centre of Bethnal Green are two gardens, one of reasonable size, called Victoria Park Gardens (or more lately, Museum Gardens) and a second smaller garden area, separating Cambridge Heath Road from Paradise Row, which no one seems to know its rightful name.


Bethnal Green Library


Bethnal Green was a place of refuge for many immigrants over the years, most notable at one time being the French Protestant group, the Huguenots. They were weavers and were the first to introduce the rag trade to the East End. During the 1960s, an area of industrial wasteland and poor housing was cleared and a park was lain out and named Weavers Fields in their honour.


French Bethnal Green


As nice as these small parks are, not a stone’s throw away from the heart of Bethnal Green is one of the most delightful parks in London. Victoria Park, as it was named, was lain out between 1842 and 1846 and officially opened in 1845. The park has played an important role in the life of the community since that time. Without doubt it played a prominent role in my mother’s life when she was a child, as she often brought her many half-siblings here to spend the day. My mother would be given a few slices of bread and a bottle of tap water by her mother and step-father and told not to return home with the kids until dark. This freed up her parents for more important things, such as drinking and increasing the number in their family. My mother said that she and her half-siblings regularly spent over twelve hours a day in the park during the summer months and knew just about every blade of grass that grew there.


Autumn in Victoria Park


Part of the park was formed from Bonner Fields, which itself was part of the parkland of the Palace of the Lord of Stepney. However, when taken for public use, the area had been spoiled thanks to removal of gravel and clay used to produce bricks. The park quickly became the finest in the East End. It is bounded on two sides by canals, the Regent’s Canal and its branch, the Hertford Union Canal. Until 2009, the main entrance of the park was guarded by replica statues of the Dogs of Alcibiades. Unfortunately, the statues were recently moved to another spot in the park to avoid vandalism.


Regent Canal at Victoria Park


By the mid-1800’s, the park was established as a place often visited by the working class and for the majority of children of the area it was the only large area of greenery they saw. In the 1880’s, when a bathing pool was built, swimming was introduced to many. At that time, public baths did not offer a swimming pool and were merely facilities for communal washing.


Dusk is long during summer months in England. When I was a child, my father enjoyed taking us for walks in the park on Sunday evenings during these months. Victoria Park was, and is, filled with flower beds containing a multitude of flowers during spring and summer, the most spectacular of which are the rose bushes and trees, which bloom during late summer and autumn. My father always enjoyed the floral displays and the fragrances that filled the air on those long summer evenings and was always reticent to leave, but the park keeper would ring a bell to inform visitors that the park gates were soon to be locked and so regretfully he would turn and lead us home.


Flowers, Victoria Park


I liked to visit the park’s small zoo as a child. I remember that it was here that I saw my first kangaroo. I was mesmerized by these animals and loved to watch them leaping around their enclosure. There was also a parrot house. Although I could hear a bird talking, I cannot actually remember ever seeing one. Regardless, I would stand there and call out Pretty Polly, and the bird would talk back. Sadly, the kangaroos and the parrots are no more, but there are still deer and goats in the park.


The Lake at Victoria Park


A War Memorial is present in the park as well as two pedestrian alcoves, which were taken from the old London Bridge when it was demolished in 1831 and which date back to the 1760 refurbishment of the bridge. There is also a huge Victorian drinking fountain that was erected by the Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts in 1862. This structure is a magnificent example of Victorian grandeur and was in use until recently. As a result of vandalism, the structure is now maintained behind a tall wire fence. It is unfortunate that such a fine structure can now only be viewed from a distance.


The War Memorial & An Alcove from Old London Bridge


Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts


The Victorian Drinking Fountain


The Park’s central lawn has always been a People’s Park, as inhabitants of the area soon began to meet, socialize and discuss politics here. From its opening, people came to demonstrate against the rampant poverty in the East End and the area became famous for the strong socialist leanings, revolutionary fervour and religious dissent discussed here. Today, numerous rallies either begin or end in the park and dissent of some form still thrives here.


Demonstrations in Victoria Park


When I was a child, dances were held on Friday and Saturday nights in the park. Occasionally I was taken to listen to the band and to watch the dancers. Today, concerts and music festivals are held here. The oldest model boat club in the world regularly shows off their models on the lake and a number of regattas are held each year. Large sporting facilities are available in the park, which have become home to soccer, athletics and cricket clubs.


Band Shell & Dances at Victoria Park


When next in London, don’t just wander around the centre and the posh parks.  Why not take a trip to Bethnal Green and check out the Museum of Childhood and then stroll up to the park.  Believe me it will be worth your time and effort.


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Copyrightę 2011 - : Charles S. P. Jenkins