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  Exploring Southwark and discovering its history

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Southwark Park

Southwark Park is the oldest municipal park in the Borough of Southwark.  It was created for the people of Bermondsey, Rotherhithe and Deptford where warrens of new housing and industrial premises allowed inceasingly little light to penetrate through the thick, polluted air.  The first calls for a park were in the 1850s and a petition was presented to the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1856 who approved the project.  The Southwark Park Act was passed in 1864 that enabled the formation of the park.  A suitable site of 63 acres was selected which was then mostly in use as market gardens. Just under £100,000 was spent on the park with almost £64,000 used to purchase the freehold and compensate leaseholders.  Negotiations with the freeholder, Lord of the Manor of Rotherhithe, Sir William Maynard Gomm, were said to be difficult and prolonged but agreement was reached in 1865.

southwark park bandstand Southwark Park Lake Southwark Park Sundial Southwark Park Ada Salter Garden

There was comparatively little money spent on the park itself with the entrance lodges, gates, enclosure railings, formation of roads, drainage and planting costing just under £21,000.  A carriage-way for use by horse-drawn carriages encircled the park, and there were gravel paths for those (the majority) on foot.  Most of the park was laid to grass and a large area set aside as a cricket ground.  The Times correspondent, reporting on the opening of the Park on 19 June 1869, was dismissive:   ”the so-called “park” is little better than a blank open space, with new roads and paths running through it, and bare-looking little shrubberies in patches here and there.”  Nevertheless, the opening ceremony took place with due pomp, with local dignitaries accompanied by marching bands and 500 invited guests. In addition “an immense assemblage enjoyed its Saturday half-holyday outside by looking on through the palings in the midst of a drizzling rain.”


The Southwark Park Act included for the provision that 16 acres be used for building purposes which would cover the costs of the park, as had happened in the construction of Finsbury and Victoria Parks.  There was however such great opposition that the proposal was dropped.


But though the Times reporter may have been dismissive, the Park over the coming years was to incorporate features that would lead to it developing its own character.  In 1870, the first flower beds were planted and a nursery installed that propogated and grew the plants. In 1887, a chrysanthemum house was built alongside which held an annual 4-week show where over 2,500 varieties were on display.  These shows were very popular and attracted over 30,000 visitors.  When the building proposals were abandoned, several hundred plane trees were planted.  Many of these have grown into the giants you see today though many were lost to thinning out in the 1950s.  Many other species of trees and shrubs were planted but very many did not survive due to the heavily polluted and sooty air.

An ornamental lake was included in the original plans for the park but not built. There was growing pressure for a lake to be built and in 1883 the Rotherhithe Vestry mounted a campaign which was successful. The lake was opened in July 1885 at a cost of £2,665.  It had three islands and waterfowl were introduced including a pair of swans sent by Queen Victoria who quickly made themselves at home.  

20 years later, after a grass-roots campaign, the lake was extended to become large enough for boating.  Opened in 1908, the larger lake could accommodate 20 boats and was constructed by local men as part of a scheme providing work for the unemployed.  

There had been other campaigns for the provision of a swimming pool, and in 1909, the LCC agreed to pay for a pool provided central government paid for labour costs as part of another project to give work to the unemployed, but the project came to nothing.  It was revived in 1920 when local unemployment was very high and Bermondsey Council and the Bermondsey Guardians formed a Committee with Alfred Salter as their spokesman to press the LCC to build the pool.  Finally, the LCC agreed in 1922 and the lido opened in 1923.  It was very popular, as were lidos in other parks, but all that is left today is the crumbling fountain savagely protected by ugly steel railings.

One of the loveliest parts of park for some is the Ada Salter Garden.  Dr Alfred and Ada Salter were committed to improving the lives of the people of Bermondsey and worked tirelessly to achieve this.   Alfred was a borough councillor, an elected member for the London County Council and an MP for 20 years. Ada was successively a Labour councillor on the Bermondsey Council, the first woman mayor in London and an elected member for the London County Council.    

Ada did much to beautify the environment in Bermondsey and encouraged the planting of trees and flowers, and suggested the creation of a rose garden in Southwark Park. The rose garden was opened in 1936 and originally named after the former LCC Parks Superintendent, JJ Sexby.  Sadly, Ada was too ill to attend the opening.  Always known locally as the Ada Salter Garden, it was officially renamed in her honour upon her death in 1942.

The original bandstand in the Park was erected in 1884 and made of wood, but was replaced by a more finely designed metal bandstand that had been designed by Francis Fowke.  It was one of a pair manufactured for the Royal Horticultural Society gardens in South Kensington and when the gardens closed, the London County Council purchased them.  One was installed in Southwark Park, the other in Peckham Rye Park.  The current bandstand was erected as part of the refurbishment of the park funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund in the late 1990s.  The design was based on the bandstand on Clapham Common which in turn had been based on the bandstands in Southwark Park and Peckham Rye Park, and many concerts and events are held there during the summer months.


The park suffered badly during the second world war and from neglect in subsequent years.The lake developed serious cracking due to bomb damage and was mostly filled in. The lido finally closed in 1992.  The Friends of Southwark Park  was set up in 1996 and applied for and won a £2.5 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund in 1999 to renovate the park. Works included the rebuilding of the lake to its enlarged 1908 size, refurbishment of the Ada Salter Garden, a wildlife garden established in the children’s playground and a new children’s play area built and the rebuilding of the bowling green pavilion.  


There is a full history of the development of Southwark Park on the Friends of Southwark Park website.  Scroll down to the link to the books "Our Park" by Pat Kingwell, written in 2010.