Hyde Park through the Ages

From Tyburn to the Rolling Stones
by HOWARD WATSON

Hyde Park is London's largest green space. It covers an area of around 340 acres from Bayswater in the north to Green Park in the south and from Kensington Gardens to Mayfair from west to east. Owned by Westminster Abbey in the Middle Ages, Henry VIII acquired it via the Dissolution for a hunting forest. From 1637 onwards, the public have been admitted and have made it a truly public open space.

Rotten Row (Hazelle Jackson collection) At the southern edge of Hyde Park is Rotten Row. It was the first street in England to be lit at night, with three hundred lamps hung from trees nearby, in order to ward off highwaymen. Its name is a corruption of the French "route du roi' or 'the King's Road' dating from William Ill's habit, during the 1690s, of riding through the park on a track that connected his two palaces, St James's and Kensington.

As a thoroughfare, it was most popular during the Georgian and Victorian periods, when the fashionable, the good, and the not so good promenaded there. During the 1850s and 1860s, the cream of the courtesans rode in their carriages, displaying their charms.

Speakers' Corner stands at the north-eastern edge of Hyde Park, close to the Tyburn 'tree'. Many criminals were executed here from the Middle Ages onwards and especially in the eighteenth century, when, during a twenty-year period, nearly three hundred highwaymen died here.  Speakers' Corner is now a symbol of freedom of speech, but the tradition of holding impromptu meetings arose from the last words given by condemned men and women, who were allowed to make a statement before they met their maker. Tyburn's gallows no longer cast a long shadow, as Marble Arch stands there in its place, although the ghosts of its victims are still believed to haunt the area.

Victorian Transformation

It was the Victorians who truly transformed London's parks into the public spaces as we know and understand them today. After the Great Exhibition in 1851, they introduced the flowerbeds, fountains and statues that are familiar to visitors and Londoners alike.

The Serpentine (Hazelle Jackson collection)The Serpentine, however, is an earlier feature, dating from 1730. This was the brainchild of Queen Caroline, George ll's wife, who had it built as a boating lake. During the depths of winter, it was used by both sexes as a skating rink. In 1826, Henry Hunt drove his company's van, drawn by four horses, across the ice's broadest part and won a hundred guineas from 'a Noble Lord of Sporting Celebrity'.

Flowering of the Arts

Queen Victoria's reign witnessed the flowering of the arts in Britain and Hyde Park drew artists to its environs. Frederic Leighton, the first painter to be knighted, lived in nearby Kensington and Holland Park, which had its own artistic circle. If there is one painting that sums up Hyde Park it has to be John Ritchie's A Summer's Day in Hyde Park, first exhibited at the British Institution in 1858. This shows the Serpentine in the foreground, with Connaught Place, Marble Arch and Grosvenor House in the distance.

Troops in the Park

Throughout its history Hyde Park has witnessed all manner of human behaviour. Troops were stationed in the park during the Jacobite rebellion and George Ill survived an assassination attempt there. From deaths by duelling in the eighteenth century through to the free concert given by the Rolling Stones, shortly after the death of original member Brian Jones, Hyde Park has seen it all.

Fortunately, the park is a more tranquil place these days. Hyde Park even has its own police station. No highwayman would dare ply his trade here now.

Howard Watson 2005