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History of parks and open spaces

History of parks and open spaces in Tower Hamlets, their heritage and significance 

The parks and open spaces of Tower Hamlets have come into being through a variety of processes. Some open spaces were the result of deliberate design or policy, while others are the result of historic accident or expedience. There were broadly three periods during which public open space was created in Tower Hamlets. These moves were primarily to benefit people, rather than improve land or rental values.

The first was the deliberate creation of  Victoria Park in the mid 19th century. The late 19th century saw the conversion of churchyards to public gardens and most recently was the development in the mid 20th century after World War II. Various open spaces are the result of late 18th and 19th century urban design and the vogue for formal gardens set in London Squares, and are protected by the London Squares Preservation Act, 1931. These sites include Trinity Square Gardens, Arbour Square, Albert Gardens and the Oval in Bethnal Green.

Victoria Park Pagoda

Many churchyards, particularly in the west of borough became public open spaces managed by the local authority. Having been closed to burial use because they were full, they were converted into public gardens in the second half of the 19th century. This process gave rise to Christchurch Gardens, Altab Ali Park (formerly St Mary’s Churchyard, the original Whitechapel) and St George’s Gardens, amongst others.

The City of London and Tower Hamlets Cemetery was laid out in 1841 to relieve local pressure on burial space. It had become neglected by the late 19th Century, with over a quarter of a million bodies by 1889 and thousands more after that. The former Greater London Council obtained a special Act of Parliament to close it and turn it into open space in 1966.

The last 20 years has seen its unique character become increasingly valued and it is now managed by the Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park as a wooded park and local nature reserve and hosts a variety of events and activities.

Parliament passed an Act in 1841 to create Victoria  Park, following  an  outcry  about  the  lack  of  parks  in the East End  and  fears  that  disease  would  spread  from  the stinking industries and slum population of 400,000. 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 the alternative site near the Thames.  Local people started to use the Park in 1843, before works were complete. The park was an instant success. The Metropolitan Board of Works took over the management of the park in 1887, followed by the London County Council in 1888, the Greater London Council in 1965 and by Tower Hamlets Council in 1986 (until 1994 with Hackney Council).  

Some  of  the  most  curious  spaces  are  the  remnants  of  commons  and  greens. Stepney  Green  Gardens  and  the  Stepney  Clock  Tower  site  are  the  last  fragments  of  Mile  End  Green. The Metropolitan Gardens Association formally created the Gardens in 1872, the ground having been originally enclosed some time after 1669.  Mile End Waste, the open spaces to the north of Mile End Road, was originally also part of Mile End common land.

Bethnal Green  Gardens, Paradise Row Gardens and Museum Gardens comprise the remnants of the medieval Green or Poor’s Land. The London County Council preserved Bethnal Green Gardens as a recreation ground in 1895 and the government purchased the land for Museum Gardens for the Bethnal Green Museum in 1868.The Gardens, “laid out and for ever to be maintained as an ornamental garden” as required by the Act to permit its purchase, were opened in 1875.

Kemp archive

The Greenwich Royal Hospital Commissioners acquired the site of Island  Gardens in 1850 to protect the view from the rapid industrialisation and development of the Isle of Dogs in the second half of the 19th century.The LCC laid the site out as a park in 1895. Mudchute Park and City Farm was created in 1977 from a landscape of low mounds and former world war two gun emplacements. Between 1875 and 1910, much of the site had been used as the receptacle for mud dredged by pneumatic pipe from the Millwall Docks.

By contrast Millwall Park seems never to have been built on except around the edges and was marsh land until converted to playing fields and a recreation ground by the LCC by 1919. It was the home of the original Millwall Football Club from 1889-1910.

Mile  End  Park, Langdon Park, Jolly’s Green, Bartlett Park, Allen Gardens, Weavers Fields and sites such as Ravenscroft Park were conceived after the end of the Second World War in 1945 to provide parks of various scales. Small parcels of land to create these parks were still being laid out with grass for the first time in 2005. Gardens and squares, such as Canada Square Park, Jubilee Park and Crossrail Place Roof Garden, form a main feature of Canary Wharf .

References Philip Mernick and Doreen Kendall, “A pictorial history of Victoria Park, London E3” 1996,

East London History Society

Bridget Cherry, Charles O’Brien and Nicholas Pevsner, “The Buildings of England: London 5: East” 2005, Yale University Press

Sally Williams, “The Inventory of Green Spaces – Tower Hamlets”, London Parks and Gardens Trust in association with English Heritage, 2003

Heritage significance of parks and open spaces in Tower Hamlets 

London Squares in Tower Hamlets: (Information taken from adopted borough plan 1986)

  • Albert Gardens (formerly Albert Square)
  • Arbour  Square 
  • Beaumont   Square
  • Carlton  Square    
  • Ford  Square
  • Ion  Square
  • Mile End Green (Mile End Waste)
  • Swedenborg Square (formerly Prince’s Square)
  • Rectory Square     
  • Sidney Square  
  • Stepney Green Gardens
  • The  Oval    
  • Trafalgar Gardens (formerly Trafalgar Square)
  • Tredegar  Square
  • Trinity Square Gardens
  • York  Square.

English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens of Historic Interest in England and Wales

English Heritage has entered four Tower Hamlets’ parks and gardens on this register: 

Listed structures in Tower Hamlets Parks and Open Spaces:

Many sites also have listed buildings, structures and war memorials (such as Victoria Park and Boundary Gardens). Trinity Square Gardens contains the Commonwealth War Memorials to the Merchant Navy war dead of both world wars, and the commemoration of those executed at the Tower Hill scaffold where over 125 people met their fate including St Thomas More, St John Fisher and Thomas Cromwell.

The London Inventory of Historic Green Spaces - Tower Hamlets:

This  inventory was published in 2003 by the  London  Parks  and  Gardens  Trust  and  supported  by  English  Heritage. It lists 52 publicly accessible open spaces of historic interest in the borough.


Our parks
Park and open space Brief history note

Albert Gardens

Built 1840s; opened to public by LCC 1906

All Saints Churchyard

Formerly  the  churchyard  of  St  Mary’s  Church,  the  White Chapel

Altab Ali Park

Formerly  the  churchyard  of  St  Mary’s  Church,  the Whitechapel

Arbour Square

Built 1820s; opened to public by LCC 1904

Bartlett Park

Laid out 1950s  as  part of  Festival of  Britain’s Lansbury Estate

Beaumont Square Gardens

Laid out c.1840; opened to public late 19th

Bethnal Green Gardens 

Part of  Bethnal Green “Poor’s  Land” trust. LCC opened to the public 1895

Museum Gardens

English Heritage Register Grade II

Boundary Gardens

Laid out as centrepiece of Boundary Estate by LCC in early 1900s; English. Heritage register grade II

Bow Churchyard

Opened  to  public  as  garden  by  MPGA  in  late  19th Century

Brickfield Gardens

Former brickfield purchased compulsorily 1899 and opened to public 1904.

Carlton Square Gardens

Laid out mid 19th century, opened to public by MPGA 1885

Christ Church Gardens

Church  built  1714-1729;  small  part  opened  to  public as garden late 19th Century

Ford Square Gardens 

Laid out 1820s; opened to public 1904

Globe Road Open Space 

 Remnant of former burial ground of  19th  century  chapel; opened as garden late 19th century by borough council

Grove Hall Park

Site of former asylum  established  c.1820;  opened  to  public 1909 and extended  1930  with  a convent  garden

Ion Square Gardens

Original  square  c.1845;  opened to public 1895 by MPGA; extension agreed with LCC 1953

Island Gardens

 

Opened in 1895 on land that the Admiralty saved from development to preserve the view of Greenwich; English Heritage register Grade II

Jesus Green

Opened in 20th century on site of cleared dwellings

King Edward Memorial Park

Opened 1922 on land bought by public subscription

Meath Gardens

Former burial ground laid out 1842 and opened as garden 1894 by MPGA and LCC

Mercers Burial Ground 

Also known as Stepney Meeting House Burial Ground, laid out 1779 and opened to public as garden 1976

Mile End Park

First planned 1943 and included in Abercrombie Plan for Greater London 1944.

Parts laid out as King George’s Fields in 1952 on cleared bomb sites; LCC and later. GLC continued to clear and lay out sites as open space until 1985. Millenium Commission landscape and building works 1995 - date

Mile End Waste/Green

Remnant of former medieval green

Paradise Gardens

English Heritage register Grade II

Poplar Recreation Ground

Former burial ground opened as garden 1867 by MGPA

Shandy Park

Former burial ground opened as garden 1885 by MPGA

Sidney Square Gardens

Laid out 1820s; opened to public by LCC 1904

St Anne's Churchyard

Laid out 1730; opened as garden 1887 by MPGA

St Bartholomew's Gardens

Former burial ground opened as garden 1885 by MPGA

St Dunstan's Churchyard

Church build by 1232, probably dating from 7th century; former burial ground opened as garden

St George's Garden

Church opened 1729; opened to public as gardens in 1875 via Vestry and Metropolitan Board of Works.

St James' Gardens

Former burial ground; laid out partly on land left over following construction of Rotherhithe Tunnel.

St John’s Churchyard

Chapel of ease 1617; site bombed during WWII

St Leonard’s Playground

Church built 12th century, rebuilt 1842 and bombed in WWII; much of churchyard cleared for road.

St Matthew’s Churchyard

Church consecrated 1746, churchyard closed mid 1850s; opened as garden 1896

St Matthias Old Church

Former church of East India Company built 1776; churchyard open to public; about Poplar Recreation Ground

St Paul’s Churchyard

Established 1656 as chapel of ease, parish created 1669, church rebuilt 1820; laid out as garden 1886 by MPGA; churchyard accessible only to school

Stepney Green Gardens

Remnants of Stepney Green, enclosed between 1669-1684; used for public hustings  mid 19th century; opened to public 1872 by Metropolitan Board of Works

Stepney Green Park

Formerly part of Mile End Green where Stepney Fair held late 17th to 19th century; enclosed 1694; built over as part of Clare Hall estate; site cleared of housing by GLC following WWII

Tower Gardens 

Part of  the Tower Liberties, governed by Tower until 1855; taken into care of local authority as gardens, managed by Historic Royal Palaces 1990s

Tower Hamlets Cemetery (Park)

Open fields until land consecrated for commercial burial ground 1841; was noted as containing 247,000 graves and neglected by 1889; many common public graves; bombed WWII;  closed  to  burials  by  special  Act  of Parliament  for  GLC as public open space.  Transferred to Tower Hamlets 1986 and became Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park 1990.

Trafalgar Gardens

Created as square late 18th century, renamed Trafalgar Square 1809; central garden bought by Vestry of Mile End Old Town and opened to public 1885

Tredegar Square Gardens

Laid out 1828;  original simple  rectilinear layout replaced by former Bow Neighbourhood with circular forms in late 1980s.

Trinity Square Gardens

Laid out to designs by Samuel Wyatt for Trinity House at top of Tower Hill by private enclosure act in 1795. Contains Commonwealth War Graves Commission War Memorials to Merchant Navy war dead of both world wars and memorial to Falklands Merchant  Navy war dead (2005); also contains commemoration of executions at Tower Hill  scaffold;  restored 2002 with funding from Heritage Lottery Fund and Tower Hill Improvement Trust

Vallance Gardens

Part is former Society of Friends burial ground; laid out 1880 as public garden;  gardens reconstructed 2003

Victoria Park

Designed by James Pennethorne; opened 1845; site extended 1872; managed by Metropolitan Board of Works in 1887, transferred to LCC in 1889, then GLC in 1965 then Tower Hamlets in 1986; site much bombed in WWII and not restored. English Heritage register Grade II

Wakefield Gardens

Laid out 1992 over new London Underground station entrance; land originally donated as public open space for benefit of local people by the Wakefield Trust in the 1930's

Wapping Gardens

Opened 1891 by Metropolitan Board of Works from cleared slum dwellings under “Artisans’ and  Labourers’ Dwelling  Improvement Act 1875; refurbished late 1980s.

Weavers Fields

Laid out in 1960s on land acquired and cleared of housing by GLC following bomb damage;  site intended to be much larger; extensive works to turn grassland into park during 1990s and early years of 20th century.

York Square Gardens

Site developed by Mercers Company in early 19th Century; garden opened to public in LCC 1904; GLC bought site 1969