Anyone who, like me, is better at finding their way around London under the ground rather than above it may suffer from unfortunate ignorance of the great green spaces that, originally preserved for the various pleasures of the very rich, now act as green lungs for the city as well as ‘leisure facilities’ for its population.
Following our recent reissue of William Robinson’s book on Paris parks and gardens, we have also published two works on London parks. First, London Parks and Gardens (1907) by Alicia Amherst (married name the Honourable Mrs Evelyn Cecil) . Brought up among the extensive grounds of her family home at Didlington Hall in Norfolk (demolished (except for the stables) in the 1950s, but not before the entire contents, including the floors, had been sold), Alicia (1865–1941) was a keen gardener from an early age. Especially interested in socially beneficial gardening, she sat on the board of the Chelsea Physic Garden from 1900, encouraged the growing of smoke-resistant flowers in poor urban areas, and promoted the greater use of allotments and school gardens during the First World War.
She had previously published a learned and engaging work on horticultural history since Roman times, A History of Gardening in England, to great acclaim in 1895. This well-researched historical and horticultural survey of London’s green spaces is full of interesting anecdotes. For example, Elizabeth Montagu, the ‘Queen of the Bluestockings’ held a feast on 1 May every year in her garden at 22 Portman Square, for child chimney-sweeps, ‘to give these poor children “one happy day in the year” … a sumptuous spread of beef and plum-pudding on her lawn’.
This story comes from a chapter on ‘private gardens’ near the end. Most of the book is taken up with the public spaces, from the historic Royal Parks to the disused burial grounds turned into gardens. Even when reduced ‘strictly to the limits of the County of London within the official boundaries of the London City Council at the present time’, and thus excluding famous gardens such as Kew and Chiswick, the number of sites is huge, and some of them are difficult to visit, except for ‘the fortunate few who possess motor cars’, because of their distance: advice is given on how to catch one of the ‘motor busses’.
Amherst begins with Hyde Park, originally the property of the abbots of Westminster (the last of whom, John Islip, is commemorated in John Islip Street, down which the nervous provincial has to trot on her way from Pimlico tube station to the Tate Gallery (I’ve never quite converted to ‘Tate Britain’)). Henry VIII, having dissolved the abbey, used its park as a forested hunting ground, importing a herd of deer for the purpose.
She traces its various guises from earthworked bulwark of London during the Civil War, to driving ring for the rich with their equipages (and the less rich like Samuel Pepys with his hired hackney coach), to popular location for duels (see Henry Fielding’s Amelia), to the scene of experiments in landscaping by Bridgeman and Kent, and the introduction of massed flowerbeds in the 1860s. Not forgetting, of course, the Great Exhibition of 1851, when the Crystal Palace was built, actually encasing some of the ancient trees, and so leading to the need to deter the local sparrows – ‘Use sparrowhawks, Ma’am’, as the duke of Wellington (allegedly) said to Queen Victoria.
The other Royal Parks, municipal parks, common and open spaces, and public squares are all examined similarly. There is a fascinating chapter on the transformation of disused, overcrowded and frequently horrific-sounding burial grounds, an early advocate of whose use as gardens was John Loudon. Did you know that the lonely rural churchyard of St Pancras had a mineral spring near it, or that as late as the 1770s, coaches were robbed by footpads as they passed it? Or that there was (is still?) a garden inside the Bank of England, which was originally the burial ground of the church of St Christopher le Stocks, redundant by 1781 and ceded to the Bank, which demolished the church and kept the garden? Read this book for much, much more.
The second volume on London parks is Municipal Parks, Gardens, and Open Spaces of London: Their History and Associations (1898), by John James Sexby, about whom, unfortunately, little seems to be known, except that he was the Chief Officer of Parks of the London County Council, and is described on the title page of this book as a lieutenant-colonel and a professional associate of the Surveyors’ Institution, from which it can be deduced that he probably worked as a surveyor in the army.
Sexby’s skills as a horticulturalist and garden designer cannot be doubted, and he left his mark on many of the municipal parks and gardens about which he writes with such enthusiasm. He focuses on the municipal parks (those maintained by local authorities) rather than the nationally managed parks in central London, describing large open spaces such as Hampstead Heath as well as small, disused churchyards like that of St Dunstan’s in Stepney (also described by Amherst, who, interestingly, does not cite him in her bibliography). He also describes former private gardens, providing details of their owners and use as well as their then current condition.
This is an equally interesting book, longer than Amherst’s and with more illustrations (though none in colour). Sexby is less cheerful and more formal in his narrative, and less likely to go off into imaginative reveries about the days of Queen Elizabeth, but both books could well make the modern reader go off into many reveries about that smaller, greener London, with its satellite villages, before the arrival of Industry and the Motor Car.