Are You Sitting Comfortably?

HAZELLE JACKSON investigates that most commonplace item - the humble park bench.

The magnificent cast-iron camel-styled benches on the Victoria Embankment
The magnificent cast-iron camel-styled benches on the Victoria Embankment

Sponsor a Bench in Battersea Park

As part of the HLF-funded restoration of Battersea Park, over 200 benches were installed, in traditional Victorian style, to make the park a pleasant place to rest and relax. In 2002 the LB Wandsworth introduced a scheme for friends and admirers of the park to sponsor a bench with a plaque as "a lasting and memorable contribution to this much loved and well-used park."

LPGT member Jen Ullman was Chief Parks Officer at the time for the LB Wandsworth. Jen recalls: "It went really well. We relocated most of the old benches in the park to non-restored areas, contacting the original donors when we had the information.

Two Styles

"We had two styles of bench to sponsor. The style was originally location-dependent and cost either £500 or £750, including a plaque. (Prices has recently been increased to £750 and £1000 to cover inflation costs in manufacture and materials.)

"In the first year we took £20,000 in donations, the riverside proving the most popular location. it trailed off a bit after that but is still tremendously beneficial to the Park.

"The donors receive a letter of contract that says that the park will replace a bench if it is damaged within three years of the donation. The park endeavours to keep each bench in the place of donation, but reserves the right to move or remove if necessary.

Database

"All the information is kept on a database so that the park can contact the donor in case of damage or problems. So it works well."

  Further information

The two styles of bench used in Battersea park. The cast-iron bench design (left) was at its height during the mid 19th century. Very few benches from that period survive. The design for the Battersea Park cast-iron bench was copied from this photograph, brought back to life for the restoration of the park. This style of bench is used in the more formal areas of the park, including the Riverside Promenade, the Sub-Tropical and Rosery Gardens and on Central Avenue.

The steel strap bench (right) can be seen in early photographs of the park. Some of the original strap benches survive and have been refurbished. New benches are exact replicas, except the wood used is from sustainable sources, rather than the teak used on the original benches. The strap bench is used widely throughout the park, except in the formal garden areas.

Public parks were an invention of the Victorians. New parks for the urban masses demanded new forms of mass seating - and public seating was tackled with the same energy as other innovations of the age. The latest technology was eagerly harnessed by the Victorians, who used both cast and wrought iron to create the exuberant swirling seats so typical of a Victorian park. The magnificent cast-iron camel-styled benches shown here are reproductions from the original designs dating from 1877 and are located on the Victoria Embankment.

Much decorative ironwork used by the Victorians in their parks was lost when it was recycled, along with park railings, for the war effort during the Second World War. Modern reproductions are widespread.

The Edwardians liked rustic designs and materials and used a lot of wooden park furniture including benches made from knobbly tree branches, probably built by the park staff. The circular tree seat was also very popular with the Edwardians, built of wood or metal around the trunk of a substantial tree.

In the early twentieth century parks had plentiful supplies of wood-and-metal folding chairs, often used around bandstands. Such a resource was only possible when plentiful park keepers were also available to put them out and put them away and keep order genera1ly.

A popular style of bench which endured well into the twentieth century was made of wooden slats fitted round a curving S-shaped metal frame. This type of slatted bench features on many comic postcards, which show unwary sitters getting up from a newly painted bench with fresh paint stripes on their clothing.

Many of the mature trees in our parks are now well over 100 years old and increasingly vulnerable to high winds. In some woodland areas, the trunks from fallen trees have been carved into basic seating.

Wooden benches remain a mainstay of public parks but increased demand for hardwood timber and a diminishing supply meant a shortage of durable oak. Imported teak became a popular alternative.

Never out of Style

The classic wooden bench never goes out of style and wooden benches are often donated by friends and family in memory of a deceased relative, with a small dedication mounted on a metal plaque or carved into the wood on the back.

Some benches even utilise modern technology from the digital age. In 2001 the family of punk singer lan Durie unveiled a solar-powered bench dedicated to the star in Richmond Park. The bench lets visitors plug in a set of headphones and listen to eight of his songs, as well as an interview, although sadly it is often vandalised.

Not to be outdone, famous dogs also have their own Dog Walk of Fame in Battersea Park. Unveiled by the Kennel club in November 2007, this takes the form of a plaque and bench for each dog, sited around the park's bandstand, honouring such canine stars as lassie and Gromit.

With park keepers thin on the ground and greater pressure from an expanding population, not all well intentioned, vandalism, graffiti and theft are ongoing problems and modern park benches have to be resilient enough to resist ill treatment and need to be firmly anchored down. The traditional bench in metal and wood still survives, reproduced from the original designs, in many restored Victorian parks, while forms of contemporary metal seating are also widespread. Modern parks like Mile End Park have adopted resilient stainless steel seating. And, with the popularity of recycling, the new Northala Fields park alongside the A40 in West London has benches are made from gabion baskets of recycled material including crushed concrete from the old Wembley Stadium, topped by hardwood slats for the seats.