Thursday 13 February 2020

Green Parks and Open Spaces

Historic considerations

By Alan Pett

The present London Borough of Greenwich (joined with that part of Deptford incorporating the Royal Dockyard, now in Lewisham L.B. but previously within Greenwich) was the focus of early industrialisation, before the Industrial Revolution. It was here that the ‘cutting edge’ of naval architecture - epitomised by Peter Pett’s “Sovereign of the Seas” – provided the Royal Navy with the ships to establish and sustain the British Empire by beating their European naval competitors. This was coupled with the output of the Royal Arsenal and the endeavours of the soldiers and sailors of that time. Whatever our views of Empire and colonialism may be today, it was this early industrialisation, joined with Royal patronage, which the led to the importance of the area, then and now.

The early industrial development of the area of Greenwich Borough might be expected to compromise the availability of green space in this inner city area today. Fortunately, this is not the case.

Large land holdings by the powerful and wealthy, including the Royal Park of Greenwich and the Maryon Wilson family estate, represented by Charlton House, Charlton Park, Maryon Park and Maryon Wilson Park were preserved from this development. Today, they provide a substantial green area where otherwise industry or housing might be expected. Other quirks of history account for smaller parcels of land in the otherwise built up area of the Thames valley floor, such as East Greenwich Pleasaunce and Charlotte Turner Gardens. Post-industrial redevelopment has led to the provision of significant areas of open space, including Royal Arsenal Gardens, and especially the green spaces of Thamesmead (though not owned by the Council) on the former Royal Arsenal site. Other sites throughout the borough owe their existence to similar previous ownership, such as Well Hall Pleasaunce (associated with the Royal Palace of Eltham), Shrewsbury Park (once owned by the Earls of Shrewsbury) and Avery Hill Park, once owned by Colonel North, a successful Victorian entrepreneur.

Our cemeteries are the earliest example of municipal open space creation, although their justification stems from public health considerations, the cholera epidemics of the 1830s. The Burial Act 1853 empowered the establishment of civil burial grounds (by Burial Boards), following the enforced closure of churchyards by the Burial of the Dead within the Metropolis Act 1852. Within the Borough, they were established as follows: Charlton (1855), Greenwich (1856), Woolwich (1884), Plumstead (1890), Eltham (1935).
Local government for London as we know it today was established at the end of the 19th Century. The development of civic pride and an awareness of the benefits of green open spaces gave rise to the development of space available to meet the perceived needs of the population of the then Metropolitan Boroughs of Woolwich and Greenwich.

At that time in the early 20th Century, the population included a high proportion of poorly paid industrial workers, working long hours in poor conditions. Families would depend upon public transport for mobility and had little disposable income, if any. Two weeks holiday was the norm. ‘Going away’ was the exception rather than the rule. Consequently, public parks, gardens and open spaces were of huge importance locally.
Public parks and gardens were designed with the perceived needs of the public of that time in mind. The Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich was particularly active in providing a number of such sites in the mid-Thirties, including Bostall, Plumstead and Rockliffe Gardens, and Well Hall Pleasaunce. These have an element of commonality with a Bowling Green and Pavilion, formal gardens with built structures and an area of grass for informal activity. They were accessible to a population dependent upon walking or a short tram, trolleybus or bus ride.

With increase in personal wealth and disposable income in the late 50s, coupled with greater leisure time, much of the population was able to travel for holidays, first to the British seaside, later to sunnier European destinations and now anywhere! Related to this has been the development of greater professionalism and commercialism in the presentation of other entertainments, such as professional football. At a time when other activities were exploiting and benefiting from the greater wealth of the population, local authorities were experiencing financial constraints. Funds for basic maintenance were limited – little or nothing was available for development. Parks and Open Spaces nationally became shabby at best. (See “The Times” article, 23rd August 2001) Despite a general increase in wealth and disposable income nationally, the poor were still poor. (Documented in the “Breadline Greenwich”, 1995) Wealth is related to employment for most. High unemployment struck Greenwich with the decline of armament production and heavy industry in the area. With this, and other factors, came a situation in which there are contrasting levels of disposable income, aspirations and needs. Additionally, there has been a change in the cultural mix of the population. Finally, 43% of Greenwich households are said not to have a car, so access remains a problem to many families.

This piece first appeared in the March 2005 GIHS Newslettet

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