History of Victoria Park
for a park in the East End of London became apparent when the
population grew rapidly in the early 19th century with the
development of the docks, industry and overcrowded housing that led
to poor health and low life expectancy.
The first official acknowledgment of the need
for a park in the East End of London came in the 1839 Annual Report
of the Registrar General of Births, Deaths and Marriages, which
recorded a mortality rate far higher than for the rest of London,
brought about by massive overcrowding, insanitary conditions and
The report stated: "… a park in the East
End of London would probably diminish the annual deaths by several
thousands… and add several years to the lives of the entire
This was followed in 1840 by a petition to
Queen Victoria, signed by 30,000 local residents, urging the
formation "within the Tower Hamlets, of a Royal Park”.
There were no open spaces in the East End of
London, and there were fears that disease would spread from the
stinking industries and slum population of 400,000.
This was the first public park to be built in
London specifically for the people. The Act of Parliament passed in
1841 made it the first to be planned in the country, and indeed the
first in the world, specifically intended to meet the needs of the
The government bought poor quality land that
had been used for market gardens, grazing and gravel digging. The
land was flat, with poor soil and little water, but was cheaper
than an alternative and larger site nearer the Thames.
James Pennethorne, architect to the Commissioners of Woods and
Forests, prepared an initial design that included a grand entrance,
a perimeter drive with elegant housing and a parkland landscape of
trees and grass.
It was an instant success, with local people
using the park as early as 1843, before works were completed.
Pennethorne’s design underwent several
changes, the first of which was to include a boating lake with
three islands in the west of the park.
In 1847 a pagoda, which had formed the
entrance to the Chinese Exhibition at Hyde Park Corner, was
acquired and erected on the largest of the islands. Unfortunately,
the magnificent and elaborate bridge, designed by Pennethorne, was
never built at the time. Instead, a rustic bridge provided access
to the island, and there were rustic shelters, a cascade, fountain
The site was extended 1872 when land
originally set aside for residential development was incorporated
into the park. In April 1873, Queen Victoria visited the park,
which she had been instrumental in establishing and which bore her
Victoria Park was established as a place of
horticultural excellence with fantastic bedding that was described
in great detail in the gardening press.
Surplus plants were handed out to local
people. The park proved immensely popular, especially on Sundays
when large crowds came to hear speakers on a variety of topics.
They gathered in open spaces around the Victoria Fountain, an
elaborate drinking fountain donated by Angela Burdett Coutts,
philanthropist and heiress to Coutts Bank, who undertook much work
to relieve poverty in the East End.
Many of the original features of the park have
been lost or have deteriorated. Many parts of the site were bombed
during World War II and have not been restored, some of which –
such as the pagoda and the bridges to the island – were in such a
poor stage of repair that they had to be demolished.
In 1987 a great storm further damaged the
park, when it uprooted many mature trees. Despite the loss of many
of the park buildings and features, local people led successful
campaigns to protect the park from proposed road schemes. The lido
was also closed and demolished during this period. A playground was
created on the site of the eastern bathing lake to serve the many
communities who lived in this area of London.
Despite the losses the park has suffered over
time, Victoria Park remains a well-loved institution for the people
of London. In heritage terms the park is still of national
importance as signified by its inclusion as a Grade 2 park on the
English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic
IThe park has passed through a number of
managing organisations – from the Metropolitan Board of Works in
1887, transferring to the London County Council in 1889, then the
Greater London Council in 1965, then to Tower Hamlets in 1986
(initially, with the borough of Hackney through a joint management
board), becoming the sole responsibility of Tower Hamlets in
In 2011 major restoration and improvement
works began in Victoria Park with £12m being spent by Tower Hamlets
Council and HLF Lottery Fund. The pagoda was returned to the island
in the lake and the Dogs of Alcibiades (picture above) received a
refurbishment, as did the Burdett-Coutts fountain. A new eastern
hub building including a café were added next to a new adventure
playground and the park in general received a large tidy-up.