Victoria Park, East London in London
Victoria Park (known colloquially as Vicky Park or the People's Park) is 86.18 hectares of open space that stretches out across part of the East End of London, England bordering parts of Bethnal Green, Hackney, and Bow, such as along Old Ford Road, London E3 and Victoria Park Road E9. The park is entirely within the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. It is also used as a concert venue and hosts many festivals each year.
The Crown Estate purchased 218 acre which were laid out by notable London planner and architect Sir James Pennethorne between 1842 and 1846. A part of the area was known as Bonner Fields, after Bishop Bonner, the last lord of the manor of Stepney. The land had originally been parkland, associated with the Bishop's Palace, but by the mid-1800s had been spoiled by the extraction of gravel, and clay for bricks.
It was opened to the public in 1845. This large park is reminiscent of Regent's Park (not least because the latter was designed by Pennethorne's teacher John Nash), though much less busy, and is considered by some as the finest park in the East End. It is bounded on two sides by canals: the Regent's Canal lies to the west, while its branch, once known as the Hertford Union Canal runs along the Southern edge of the park. There is a gate named after Edmund Bonner. Guarding the main entrance at Sewardstone Road are replica statues of the Dogs of Alcibiades, the originals of which stood here from 1912 to 2009 until vandalism led to their being removed, restored and rehoused elsewhere in the Park.
Two pedestrian alcoves, surviving fragments of the old London Bridge, demolished in 1831, are located at the east end of the park near the Hackney Wick war memorial where they were placed in 1860. They were part of the 1760 refurbishment of the 600 year old bridge, by Sir Robert Taylor and George Dance the Younger, and provided protection for pedestrians on the narrow carriageway. The insignia of the Bridge Association can be seen inside these alcoves. The alcoves have been Grade II listed, since 1951.
The Lido opened in 1936 and reopened in 1952 following damage during the Second World War; it was closed and demolished in 1990.
The People's Park
In the latter half of the 19th Century, Victoria Park became an essential amenity for the working classes of the East End. For some East End children in the 1880s, this may have been the only large stretch of uninterrupted greenery they ever encountered. Facilities like the Bathing Pond (picture right) —later superseded by the park lido—would have introduced many to swimming in an era when many public baths (like that at Shacklewell) were still simply communal washing facilities.
Victoria Park's reputation as the 'People's Park' grew as it became a centre for political meetings and rallies of all stripes, perhaps exceeding in importance the more well-known Hyde Park in this regard. The park occupies the interface between Tower Hamlets — sunk in poverty in the 19th century and with a strong tradition of socialist and revolutionary agitation — and Hackney, more genteel, but heir to a centuries-old legacy of religious dissent and non-conformism that led to its own fierce brand of reformism. So it should come as no surprise that the scene at the numerous Speaker's Corners was a lively one.
Although any one could set up their own soapbox, the biggest crowds were usually drawn to 'star' socialist speakers such as William Morris and Annie Besant.
This description by J. H. Rosney, correspondent for Harper's Magazine (February 1888) evokes a scene:
The tradition of public speaking in the park continued until well after the Second World War, and was still later reflected in politically oriented rock concerts, such as those held by Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League in the 1970s and 1980s. And it is still not uncommon for marches or demonstrations to begin or end in Victoria Park.
Second World War
During the Second World War, Victoria Park was largely closed to the public and effectively became one huge Ack-Ack (anti-aircraft) site. The gun emplacements conveniently straddled the path of German Luftwaffe bombers looping north west after attacking the docks and warehouses further south in what is now Tower Hamlets, and so the park was of some strategic importance.
More controversially, anti-aircraft activity in the park has been implicated in the crowd panic that caused the Bethnal Green tube disaster of 1943. Some eyewitness accounts have led to the suggestion that, after several air raid alerts, the panic run for shelter was caused by a gigantic explosion of noise from the direction of the park. A BBC documentary on the event suggests that this was due to the first firing of the new Z-Battery anti-aircraft rockets. The UK Ministry of Defence, however, disputes this account.
In recent times, Victoria Park became noted for its open-air music festivals, often linked with a political cause. The 1980 rock docudrama Rude Boy features The Clash playing at an Anti-Nazi League event in the park. Radiohead played two concerts in the park on 24–25 June 2008. Madness celebrated their 30th year with a fifth Madstock there on 17 July 2009. The park has also become very popular amongst dance music's biggest names; Dutch DJ Tiësto played at Victoria Park in 2009 and again in 2010. On 24–25 July 2010, Victoria Park was the site of the first High Voltage Festival. Victoria Park has also hosts Field Day, The Apple Cart and Underage Festival.
In summer 2008, the park was voted London's best local park by Time Out magazine. In 2011 it won its first Green Flag award and was again voted London's favourite park, this time in the national People's Choice Award.
Victoria Park is very popular with children and is host to: a One O'Clock Club for under-fives; a herd of deer and goats; a programme of summer activities and a children's play park including a paddling pool.
The oldest model boat club in the world, the Victoria Model Steam Boat Club, founded in the Park on 15 July 1904, is still active today and holds up to 17 of their Sunday regattas a year. The VMSB Club runs straight-running boats just as they did 100 years ago but have also progressed to radio controlled boats and hydroplanes. The first Regatta is traditionally held on Easter Sunday and the Steam Regatta is always held on the first Sunday in July.
The Park is also the home of Tower Hamlets Football Club and Victoria Park United Football club, Victoria Park Harriers & Tower Hamlets Athletics Club, which has its headquarters at St. Augustine's Hall located at the north-east corner of the Park. The Club celebrated its 80th Anniversary in 2006.
During the summer cricket is played every evening on the park's three all-weather wickets, organised by the Victoria Park Community Cricket League. The park also has a popular three-lane cricket net, free to use at all times. It was refurbished to a high standard at the end of 2005, paid for by a grant from the England and Wales Cricket Board.
The park is open daily from 6:00am to dusk.
In 2010 the National Lottery Big Lottery Fund awarded the London Borough of Tower Hamlets a £4.5 million grant towards a £12 million programme of major improvements to Victoria Park.<ref name=Tiesto/> Plans include a new building, the Eastern Hub, comprising a cafe, public toilets, community rooms and adult play facilities to promote healthy living. The landscape will be restored and a new pagoda will be introduced to the lake. The park will play a major role in the London 2012 Olympics as a Live Site with free access big screens and used for other Olympic events.
- A Pictorial History of Victoria Park, London E3. Published by the East London History Society,
- Victoria Park at Green Flag Awards website
- Tower Hamlets Football Club
- Victoria Park Community Cricket League
- Victoria Park Harriers & Tower Hamlets Athletics Club