For an inner London borough, Newham has never been lacking in green space and happily some of our loveliest parks are to be found in and around the Greatfield area of East Ham.
Plashet Park was opened in 1891 with land taken from the former grounds of late 18th Century manor, Wood House, acquired for £3,000. Prison reformer Elizabeth Fry had formerly lived nearby in Plashet House. In 1964 a small zoo was added, and was later expanded with a butterfly house and aviary as well as enclosures for rabbits, Vietnamese potbellied pigs, wallabies and Shetland ponies. Sadly this was closed in the 1990s, depriving newer residents of the chance to enjoy the legendary ‘pheasant phenomenon’.*
Central Park could probably command an article all by itself. Between 1851 and 1911, East Ham’s population had grown from 1,737 to 133,487, driven by the arrival of the railways in 1858 and a search for jobs around the Royal Albert Docks, Victoria Docks and the Beckton Gasworks. In an attempt to counterbalance this urban invasion of what had formerly been grazing land, John Harvey Bethell – first mayor of East Ham Borough – united with William H. Savage, the district surveyor for East Ham, and local landowner Col. Ynyr Henry Burges, Lord of the Manor and owner of Rancliffe House, to create Central Park. Seventeen acres of land around Rancliffe house were bought for £8,500 and then another eight acres for £4,000. The development also included a large number of houses designed for clerks and skilled workers.
The park was opened on 5 July 1898. 7,000 attended the event, enjoying refreshments and speeches stressing the importance of creating resources for children to prevent ‘Jack becoming a dull boy’. The original park consisted purely of walkways and a fountain but later incorporated public baths, a sundial, a bowling green, glass houses and a putting green. Other highlights added later included the present war memorial, a small railway that carried residents round the park, and the park dances that used to take place during the Second World War and then again in 1948.
A third East Ham park, created after Plashet and Central Parks, was Barking Road’s recreation ground. Land for the park was purchased by John Bethell – already creator of Plashet and Central Parks – in 1905 with money raised through public subscription, and donated to the council. Barking Road Recreation Ground was opened in 1908 by Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll. It had been laid out by unemployed workmen as part of local relief works under the Unemployed Workmen Act of 1905, with the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association providing some seats.
I realise this post ignores at least two highly local parks: Gooseley Lane Playing Fields and Brampton Park, right at the heart of Greatfield, both seemingly far better at disguising their origins. If anyone can peel back the curtain on their beginnings we would love to hear.
*Susan describes her memory of this as ‘cages of really odd looking birds – pheasants, allegedly – with a rather predatory and ugly turkey called Dandy wandering free in their enclosure.’
Pictures above show (all Central Park): egg and spoon race as part of 1977 Silver Jubilee Celebrations; the swimming baths; unveiling of the war memorial, 1921; postcard c.1912; bandstand c.1900. All taken from the Photographs of Newham project.