The City that Sold the Sun

As the Garden Museum launches a campaign to increase the right to sunlight in public gardens and open spaces, LPG Director Helen Monger explains the importance of natural light, and efforts being made to defend it.

In June 2021, a development application for 8 Albert Embankment, adjacent to the Garden Museum, was turned down at the planning inquiry. The proposed 26-storey luxury flats would have overshadowed Old Paradise Gardens, one of many parks listed on the London Parks & Gardens Inventory. This historic little public park once formed part of the churchyard of St Mary’s Church, in which the Garden Museum is housed today, and was one of the first parish spaces to be converted into a park under the Metropolitan Open Spaces Act of 1881.

The Garden Museum had objected to the application on the basis that the high-rise flats would have plunged the park into 22 hours of shadow, for half the year; but although the application itself was rejected, the Museum’s reasons for objecting were ignored, along with many others. The inquiry found that the proposals were ‘compliant with current guidelines which require two hours of sunshine per day as measured on 21March’. Staff and researchers at the Garden Museum were shocked by the revelation that standards for amenity space were so poor. On 21 March 2022, they launched a campaign to address this issue in planning policy, supported by the LPG.

Why does natural light matter?

Guidance set by the British Research Establishment Trust (BRE) states that, on the Spring Equinox, sunlight must fall on a public garden for a minimum of two hours on at least half of the amenity area. The original intention of this guidance may have been well-meant, but the ‘two-hour rule’ has become a guide for planners across the UK who seek to deliver no more than this basic minimum.

The Garden Museum’s publication, The City that Sold the Sun, articulates the importance of access to quality green spaces with natural light. Professor Sir Sam Everington, a GP in Tower Hamlets, states that half of his patients are deficient in vitamin D, which is produced by the human body as a response to sun exposure. Vitamin D deficiency can lead to a loss of bone density, and at the extreme end of the scale this can lead to rickets and cause bone deformities in children. Tower Hamlets is an area of high deprivation, and is one of the most densely populated areas of the UK; the health impacts of lack of sunlight fall more harshly on already deprived communities.

As well as human concerns, there are real issues with lack of daylight for horticulture and nature more widely. Growers need more than six hours of sunlight per day to grow vegetables, and shaded gardens can support a less diverse range of plants. Lack of sunlight also influences temperature, and therefore insect activity; many major pollinators require a certain temperature before they can become active.

Tall buildings not only shade parks from daylight, but create issues of light pollution at night too. Government guidance on light pollution states that “artificial light provides valuable benefits to society, including through extending opportunities for sport and recreation”, but that it can also “be a source of annoyance to people, harmful to wildlife and undermine enjoyment of the countryside or the night sky” (1).

Canary Wharf Estate Westferry Circus Gardens (Sally Williams, March 2017)

One rule for us and another for them?

High-rise development brings both lack of sunlight during daytime hours and light pollution at night, yet the current thrust of UK development policy is to deliver a denser urban environment. This naturally leads to proposals aiming to build upwards, but the placement of multi-storey buildings is restricted by efforts to conserve landmark views across the capital. Since 1937, the City of London Corporation has operated a policy known as the ‘St Paul’s Heights’ to protect a number of famous views of the Cathedral. More recently, the London View Management Framework has defined protected views across London’s cityscape; indeed it was because of the view from Primrose Hill that the planning inquiry turned down proposals for 8 Albert Embankment.

Tall buildings not only
shade parks from daylight,
but create issues of light
pollution at night too

Local Authorities, however, must reach stringent targets set by central government and provide necessary housing, and this often leads to the identification of specific areas for tall building development clusters – with a resulting tacit acceptance of loss of access to daylight in these areas. Mathew Frith, Director of Policy and Research at the London Wildlife Trust, points out that clusters of tall buildings also cause additional cooling and disruptive wind-tunnelling effects, which provide a more hostile growing environment and can kill plants through desiccation and windburn.

The introduction to the Government’s Rights to Light (2) research published by the Law Commission in 2015 begins by defending the human need for natural light: Natural light inside buildings is immensely important for comfortable living and working. We like and want natural light in our kitchens, and at our desks; people like to have a window seat and most people thoroughly dislike a windowless room. The amount of natural light that a window lets in depends upon what is outside that window, and particularly upon the proximity of other buildings.

However, the report goes on to prioritise development over this need: The legal system recognises the value of natural light inside buildings, but because available space is finite it has to strike a balance between the importance of light and the importance of the construction of homes and offices, and the provision of jobs, schools and other essentials.

Although these statements relate to natural light in buildings, it is clear that the deprioritisation of natural light is applied to green spaces as well as to dwellings.

Old Paradise Gardens (Colin Wing, September 2020)

Setting new standards

There is limited quantitative evidence to demonstrate the need for access to sunlight; this is the challenge thrown at those campaigning for better protection in the planning process. All the authors of the Garden Museum’s report accept that their evidence is in part anecdotal, but they suggest a precautionary approach on the basis of this evidence. Our environment is too fragile and too important to lose through lack of prior consideration.

On that basis, the campaign has called for the GLA to amend its guidance. The following statement has been suggested by the LPG as an amended policy.

All developments should seek to maximize access to natural daylight in public open spaces for the benefit of everyone. In general it is expected that public open spaces should receive a minimum of six hours on at least 50% of the area at the equinox. It is expected that all developments should demonstrate how they will protect:

daylight for more than two hours on all parts of a children’s playgrounds and other outside sporting facilities such as fitness areas, football pitches etc, to maintain the amenity value; and
• the future sustainability of existing horticultural planting schemes based on an ecological assessment of biodiversity and climate value, in accordance with the Natural Capital Accounting methodology agreed in the Mayor’s London Plan.

There will also be a presumption against supporting a proposal which:
• reduces existing daylight access below the six-hour limit; or
• further reduces access to daylight in a space which already fails this standard.

George Hudson, Green London Curator at the Garden Museum, said: “We are grateful to have the support of London Parks & Gardens in our campaign to protect London’s green spaces from being cast into shadow by new tall buildings. Recently, our campaign has attracted the attention of assembly members at City Hall, and we are in conversation with them. The importance of sunlight is often understated, if not forgotten about completely.”

The LPG will update members on the progress of the campaign, and will continue to support this policy initiative.


2 data/file/391683/44872 HC 796 Law Commission_356_WEB pdf

Green Lewisham

By Candy Blackham

LPG volunteer Candy Blackham, whose book Green Lewisham was published in July 2022, gives a taste of the history and significance both personal and societal – of the green spaces on her doorstep.

When COVID-19 arrived in the spring of 2020, I felt imprisoned. The air was heavy with fear and my spirits sank ever lower, until the day I realised that my prison door had always stood open. Despite restrictions on socialising, I could still walk in the parks. I ventured out cautiously, my health improved, and my spirits rose.

I began to appreciate the complex relationships in my surroundings, and to wonder about lessons for urban living in Lewisham and elsewhere. I found ongoing patterns of concern for others, ongoing needs in our society, and a deep appreciation of nature and natural open spaces and the benefits they bring to people. I was surprised at how this understanding had been applied to urban developments in the past, and how little knowledge is new.

I also gained hours of enjoyment and peace at a very difficult time; pain from a lower back injury is alleviated by walking, and I am curious about new places and new ideas. I wanted to share that enjoyment – so, I decided to write a book. I consulted the London Parks & Gardens Inventory and started amassing a reference library. Where would we have been without obliging delivery people and postmen?
Lewisham was in the Kent countryside less than two centuries ago. London’s expansion, particularly from the mid-19th century onwards, was driven by an increasing population and their housing needs, and a number of factors conspired against areas such as Lewisham: changes due to industrialisation, the creation of new roads and new railway networks, changing political concerns, changes in land ownership, and new social patterns and social needs, particularly after the First World War.

Downham Woodland Walk (Candy Blackham)

So why are there any green spaces left in Lewisham? Some philanthropic landowners sold land below market value or donated land. Others lobbied for green spaces to be preserved from housing developments. Today, individuals still make a difference: local Lewisham residents convert derelict land into community gardens; there are thirty-six allotments, all with long waiting lists; beekeepers abound. The Quaggy Waterways Action Group have changed the management of the River Quaggy through its urban environment, enhancing parks and benefiting wildlife.
Caring for parks and nature reserves is an expensive and time-consuming undertaking. Lewisham Council and management company Glendale do a tremendous job, greatly helped by park Friends groups. Perhaps this relationship between professional and amateur gardeners has the potential for development, with increased opportunities for practical learning and training in horticulture? The restrictions imposed during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 reminded people of the importance of green spaces, particularly for those living in urban areas; volunteering for community gardens, parks and nature reserves increased and parks were well used. People felt a need to be closer to living plants, birds and the wildlife in the city, and wanted to eat food they had grown.

This trend takes us back 100 years, to an earlier time of positive connection between population growth and green space preservation. Development after the First World War often came in the form of new housing estates built on farmland. The Addison Act of 1919 had addressed the appalling living conditions in inner London, and London County Council, together with local councils, took inspiration for their new developments from Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City concept of 1898. This proposed tree-lined roads, recreation grounds, communal green spaces, and other community facilities in the new estates. Contemporary housing developers have been less generous than their predecessors, creating ‘pocket parks’ or green ‘architecture’ rather than offering the recreation grounds or public parks of the past. Is this good enough?

Downham Fields (Candy Blackham)

Surely the lesson of the past is that we live in a community, and it is for us individually and as a community to ensure our green spaces continue green and go on enhancing our living conditions. In the words of John Claudius Loudon in 1829: “It is much to be regretted, we think, that in the numerous enclosure acts which have been passed during the last fifty years, provision was not made for a public green, playground, or garden, for every village in the parishes in which such enclosures took place.”

Natural spaces are too easily set aside in favour of profit; if only planners would pay heed to those who watched with sadness as their countryside disappeared under London’s urban growth.

Book Review – English Garden Eccentrics

Jeremy Garnett reviews English Garden Eccentrics, by London Parks and Gardens President Todd Longstaffe-Gowan.

There is something in the spirit of man that both delights in, and is drawn to, the eccentric. This superbly researched collection studies explores the nature of eccentricity, expressed in garden creation from the eighteenth century onwards. It abounds with illustrations which tantalise our imagination since many of these eccentricities have disappeared over time.

The reader is taken on a dizzy voyage of rock-work mountain ranges, caves, grottoes and tunnels, automated hermits and collections of exotic birds and animals. We encounter gigantic churchyard topiary, a bizarrely decorated Byzantine folly, a statue garden described as a classical rubbish heap, a Druid’s walk and a vivarium in a London back garden. The examples selected would have been sources of considerable astonishment to the contemporary visitor, and an intriguing group of London gardens provides many examples.

We visit four extraordinary Middlesex churchyards famous for their ancient yew topiary, clipped into curious sculptural shapes on a gargantuan scale. The first recorded was the Harlington Yew in 1729 and the others probably date to around the same time, as though by fashion. Only the topiary at St Mary the Virgin, East Bedfont – in the form of two giant peacocks – survives today. They are said to represent two proud and haughty sisters who declined with disdain offers of marriage from a prominent local; in revenge, he had the yews cut into this pair of symbolic shapes.

Harcourt House in Cavendish Square was the London home of the eccentric 5th Duke of Portland, one of the wealthiest men of his day. He is described as wearing unusual dress: a tall hat, loose coat, and umbrella whatever the weather, and trousers tied up below the knee with a piece of common string. His obsession with privacy led him to erect a high-glazed screen round part of his property, and a massive stable block on another, to deter onlookers. Inside these high walls, his privacy was similarly protected by constructing a labyrinth of subterranean passages – some wide enough for a coach and horse – linking suites of underground apartments. The house – a sombre looking structure – was pulled down and redeveloped in 1907.

Another eccentric was Dr Samuel Phené, a man of considerable intellect and a widely travelled polymath who inherited an estate in Oakley Street in Chelsea in the 1850s. The house he built was whimsically Byzantine in style. Contemporaries described it as having the appearance of an Italian Renaissance château. The four-acre garden, originally intended as a statue garden, suffered an unfortunate fate at the hands of this obsessive
collector; he accumulated classical statuary with no plan for its distribution within the garden, which eventually assumed the appearance of a ‘classical rubbish heap’. The house was sold after his death in 1912 and eventually redeveloped; only the Phené Arms public house serves as a reminder of this eccentric.

The Reverend Willam Stuckely was another eccentric and an eighteenth-century antiquarian collector. He was both a Doctor of Medicine and a clergyman, and, on his retirement from his parish in Lincolnshire, he retired to Kentish Town. There he indulged his Druidic interests, setting out his garden in concentric circles with features such as a Druid’s walk, a temple, a hermitage, a grotto, a mausoleum, and a tumulus.

Ramillies House, near Oxford Circus, was from 1784 the property of Dr Joshua Brookes, a leading anatomist and the son of a prominent bird trader. In his garden he amassed large blocks taken from, and intended to represent, the Rock of Gibraltar. Around this extraordinary feature, he created his vivarium; in a letter to Sir John Soane, he describes a spacious reservoir of fish, aquatic plants and oceanic birds. Within the caverns of the rock resided a vulture, a white-headed eagle and an auriculate owl.

We begin to detect a common theme which emerges from the author’s analysis of garden eccentrics – namely how so many were passionate collectors of items gathered during their travels, a theme from the early days of the Grand Tour.

A fascination for mountains also emerges throughout this collection of eccentric gardens and their creators. One of the most impressive, judging from contemporary sources, was the Swiss glacier garden created by Lady Elisa Broughton in the 1820s, when she inherited Hoole House in Chester. John Loudon visited it in 1831 and declared it ‘a most extraordinary rock garden’, but it was much more than that. A visitor in the early 1860s, some time after the death of Lady Broughton, declared it ‘a most extraordinary caprice’, thirty feet high and crammed with every sort of Alpine species. The highest pinnacles represented the Alps, with white spar used for glaciers and snow peaks, all set against a bright emerald green lawn with bedding as though to represent the valley floor. Sadly, the garden exists no longer, and the author’s collection of stunning illustrations is all that remains.

Another example of an Alpine garden created on a scale bordering on the eccentric was created by Sir Frank Crisp at Friar Park, Henley-on-Thames, in 1889. Crisp was a successful lawyer and legal adviser to the Liberal Party, for which he was knighted. Like Lady Brougham, Crisp had a predilection for Alpine gardening inspired by the fame of the Matterhorn, which was first conquered in 1865 when he was a young man of 22. The Henley Matterhorn, as it became known, was set in a four-acre area within a larger garden, the crowning point being an exact model of the Matterhorn. The mountain was formed of York gritstone, its slopes covered with pulverised Derbyshire spar to resemble snow, and the peak boasted of a slab of the real Matterhorn. A mountain torrent was created, winding and twisting its way down to a pool at the base of the mountain. The garden lives on, unlike so many in this collection, and is privately owned by the widow of the Beatle George Harrison.

If gardens can be perceived as perfect examples of a three-dimensional art form, they give unlimited scope for eccentricity. The important theme of this hugely enjoyable book is that the heart of eccentricity lies in a resistance to conformity. What others might regard as eccentric is simply an urge not to conform, or even a lack of awareness of what conformity should be.

The author encourages his readers to catch a spirit of freedom and dare to be eccentric – an important message in this age of conformity.

English Garden Eccentrics is available to purchase from Yale University Press:

Investigating Victoria Tower Gardens

Historian and former House of Commons Clerk Dr Dorian Gerhold describes how a deep-dive into the history of Victoria Tower Gardens may have preserved it for the future.

Readers will be aware of the recent High Court ruling quashing the planning permission for the proposed Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in Victoria Tower Gardens (VTG). The ruling was based entirely on the fact that the permission breached the provisions of an Act of 1900. My own involvement in this came about in two ways; I was asked to research the history of the area which now forms the Gardens, and, separately, I had begun to investigate how a beautiful open space in central London could have been chosen for a large government building project.

First the history, which could be traced partly through maps and partly through deeds and lawsuits, almost entirely at the National Archives in Kew. The eastern part of the Gardens was embanked from the Thames just over a century ago, while the western part has a much longer history: in the north it belonged to the medieval Palace of Westminster, forming part of its gardens; in the south it belonged to Westminster Abbey. The Abbey had a water mill there by 1282, and later a slaughterhouse.

In the 16th century the Abbey was dissolved and the Palace ceased to be a royal residence. From about 1590 to 1620 the whole area was sold by the Crown and developed with houses and wharves. By the 1860s it was heavily industrial, with wharves, a flour mill, a cement works and an oil factory. The Lord Great Chamberlain regarded these as a fire threat to the new Palace of Westminster, and under an Act of 1867 those closest to the Palace were acquired by the Crown and cleared, though without much idea of what was to be done with the land – more of that later.

“I had always thought the Gardens a miraculous piece of urban planning, and was mystified that the Government had decided to build on it”

As for the Memorial decision, I had always thought the Gardens a miraculous piece of urban planning, and was mystified that the Government had decided to build on it without any coherent explanation of how and why the site had been chosen. As the campaigners have put it, ‘right idea, wrong place’. I submitted freedom of information requests to the relevant Department and Royal Parks, asking mainly for dates. That gave me my first lesson in FOI, as the Department took seven months to answer, and withheld most of the information. Unfortunately, the Information Commissioner’s Office fails to enforce the time limits for FOI responses. Royal Parks was somewhat more helpful. By the time I received these answers I was in contact with other VTG campaigners, including London Parks and Gardens.

Photo: Sally Prothero (2017)

A later FOI request for key passages in the minutes of the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation, which had recommended the site, was rejected by the Department, the Information Commissioner and the Lower and Upper Information Tribunals. This was mainly on the spurious ground that sites discussed in 2015-16, which in practice were no longer available or had been firmly rejected, might have to be considered again if planning permission was refused, and that disclosure would therefore prejudice decision-making. The Department rejected my most recent request about allowance for optimism bias in the costings by using the exemption that the information was already accessible, and referring me to a parliamentary answer that categorically refused to provide the same information! It is a fine example of the Government’s contempt for the public’s right to information. In general, the FOI Act has been of limited value in the campaign to save VTG.

Written parliamentary answers have proved more useful, mainly for eliciting basic factual information, They operate on a much faster timetable – days rather than months and years – and can be followed up. The snag is that, unlike FOI requests, you need to find a Member of Parliament willing to table them for you. It also helps to know the rules for questions, of which the most important is that you must be seeking information or pressing for action, not requesting opinions or making an argument. Here I had the advantage of having spent four years as a House of Commons Clerk in the Table Office, which ensures that the rules for questions are observed but also helps MPs to get around them. I had learnt that questioners needed to be persistent in following up inadequate answers, and this time I found that the formulation ‘for what reason the answer did not provide the information requested about X’ was unexpectedly productive. Note the neutral wording; even the word ‘why’ is frowned on!

One particularly useful answer included a copy of the letter sent by Lord Feldman in 2015 in which VTG was first suggested to a government minister as a possible location. Another provided the wording of the fateful recommendation of 2016, revealing that it was more tentative – ‘in principle’ than had been disclosed. But the most valuable result of the parliamentary answers was that it became possible to compile a chronology of the decision-making. This sounds dull, but it revealed a deeply flawed process. There had been a professional site search, but at the same time several members of the Foundation independently investigated the possibility of using VTG. The professional searchers reported on 11 January 2016, VTG was sprung on the Foundation’s members on 13 January and immediately agreed ‘in principle’, and the Prime Minister announced the intended location on 27 January. The timescale alone showed that there was no due diligence. A consequence of revealing this was that at the planning inquiry the Foundation’s co-chairs were forced to justify the way the decision had been taken, memorably describing it as a ‘moment of genius’, and to defend the fact that the chosen site did not meet the specification.

Among the most important information about any public open space is how it came into being and what conditions were imposed on its use at the time. The Government failed to investigate this, and so did I at first. There were no covenants in the land register, and the manner in which VTG had been created was obscure. Eventually I examined a file of papers at London Metropolitan Archives relating to the London County Council (Improvements) Act 1900 that provided the answers. The controversy over what to do with the land acquired under the 1867 Act had been resolved when the newspaper seller W.H. Smith offered £1000 for it to be converted into a public garden, now the northern part of VTG. Parliament had provided the remaining £2400 and the garden opened in 1881. Importantly, the Government had promised Smith that the land would be maintained as an open space.

In 1898 a private consortium sought an Act to acquire and develop a large area around Millbank and to rebuild the wharves on what is part of VTG. This was rejected by the House of Commons, partly because it did not turn the land by the river into an open space. London County Council stepped in with its own proposal, which would widen Millbank and also extend the existing open space, but it needed some financial help from the Government, together with a small corner of VTG for its chosen alignment of Millbank. The crucial document in the file was a letter from the First Commissioner of Works, the registered owner of VTG, stating that, because of the promise made to Smith, the condition for giving up part of the existing garden was that the land between the widened Millbank and the river become and remain an open space, and that this must be written into the Bill. He also insisted that the new land be transferred by the LCC to him, so that the enlarged Gardens could be managed as a whole.

Next I had to find a copy of the 1900 Act, which did indeed say that the new land should be ‘laid out and maintained… for use as a garden open to the public and as an integral part of the existing Victoria Tower Garden’. This was a far more emphatic result than I had hoped for. When London government was reorganised in 1965 and most of the 1900 Act was repealed, the section relating to VTG was kept, indicating its continuing effect.

Bizarrely, when the 1900 Act was brought to the Government’s attention, it insisted that the Act did not affect its plan to build on a great part of the new land. It claimed that the provisions of the Act had been fully implemented, that the First Commissioner of Works had been trusted with the future of the land, and that his successor (a government department) could therefore do what it wished with it.

For the judicial review, I went back to the LCC’s proceedings of 1899-1900, which are in large printed volumes with indexes, copied all the relevant committee reports and presented them, together with relevant proceedings of Parliament and Westminster’s local government, as evidence. They made abundantly clear that creating a permanent open space that was not to be built on was central to the negotiations at the time.

The words of an Act usually have to be interpreted as they stand, without considering what its promoters intended. Nevertheless, having concluded that the words in the Act meant exactly what they said, and therefore that the proposed building was unlawful, the judge quoted extensively from the proceedings of 1899-1900 to provide confirmation of her conclusion.

The Government has been refused leave to appeal, but could seek to repeal what remains of the 1900 Act. The future of VTG remains uncertain. But the case shows the value of historical research in campaigning to prevent the destruction of a public open space.

Further information
The history of the site, VTG itself and the decision on the Memorial is set out in Dorian’s book Victoria Tower Gardens, available from the Thorney Island Society – £15 including postage.

Green Spaces of New Cross

Rosanna Cavallo, now a London Parks and Gardens research volunteer after retiring from her gardening business, finds more than meets the eye in the green spaces of New Cross.

Lewisham had been anticipated as 2022’s London Borough of Culture for some time, so it has been several years since the members of the Research Group allotted sites between us to study. I knew the area less well than some of my colleagues, and so was left with three sites in New Cross with which I was not familiar.

On an August day with a blue sky and sparkling sunshine, I embarked on my first site visit to Hatcham Gardens. I was immediately hooked. Nothing – but nothing! – can draw me in quicker than an unusual plant; in this case the Albizia julibrissin f. rosea or pink silk tree, which was in full and glorious bloom. I had never seen it before and loved its rose-pink paintbrush flowers and mid-green leaflets.

The name Hatcham (now New Cross) is recorded as Hacheham in the Domesday Book (1086), and New Cross Gate is named after the New Cross tollgate (1718). Despite Hatcham’s historical credentials, the name has died out except in Hatcham Park Road and a few institutions; Hatcham Gardens, however, is a modern feature. Regrettably, in a heavily built-up area, the greater part of this rare open space is boarded up and scheduled for redevelopment.

Hatcham Gardens (Photo: Rosanna Cavallo)

Historically this site was influenced by George England, a robust character who arrived from Newcastle in 1839 and rented a factory – the Hatcham Iron Works – between Pomeroy and Kender streets. England built around 250 railway locomotives, took out two patents for machinery designs and made castings for the Crystal Palace. His success was such that he rapidly employed over 40 employees and built a substantial family home, Hatcham Lodge – now 56 Kender Street. He retired in 1869, to be succeeded by his son-in-law Robert Fairlie, who had eloped with England’s daughter when she was only 17; records show that England took Fairlie to court for falsely claiming parental consent, but clearly the family rift was mended by the time of England’s retirement!

My second site was Bridgehouse Meadows, which GoParks London describes as ‘a sizeable park contain(ing) extensive meadows, in an area of New Cross that is deficient in accessible wildlife sites’. On my visit, again on a sunny August day, I saw Bridgehouse Meadows at its best. It had clearly been sympathetically landscaped, with a good nod to its name showing in the abundance of wild flowers sown.

The main path is long and snaking, skirting a railway line, with open spaces leading off from it; the result is an oddly-shaped park. What is undeniably in its favour, however, are the hills adding extra interest – a legacy, I presume, of banking from its previous conception as a greyhound and speedway stadium. It pleased me enormously to see again how New Cross’s hilly green spaces at first mask and then suddenly reveal some quite imposing skylines of the city of London.

Bridgehouse Meadows (Photo: Rosanna Cavallo)

Unfortunately, on this day the separate Nature Reserve was locked and inaccessible, but I liked the park and found it to be well used. There really are so few green spaces in the New Cross area, and this ‘lung’ was a much-appreciated break from never-ending residential buildings.

My last site was Fordham Park, which, on the Sunday of my visit, made a great impact on me with its dominant feeling of spaciousness. Having now built up a stronger acquaintance with the area, I recognise that any feeling of wide-open space here is at a premium. Named after Charles Frank Fordham, a gardener and the last Mayor of Deptford, the park opened to the public in 1975 following clearance of tightly-packed urban streets in the 1970s. The eye-catching Moonshot Centre, with its triangular glass entrance picked out in bright blue, takes pride of place at one end of the park; it acts a base for various African and Caribbean communities in the area, and offers numerous activities.

Fordham Park (Photo: Rosanna Cavallo)

Fordham Park is very green, filled with trees and extremely well used. People patronise parks to a greater degree if the space satisfies the needs of varied sections of the community, and this park seems to do this very successfully. I saw many joggers, dog walkers and families; the atmosphere was happy and pleasant, and I enjoyed my couple of hours there. I would be less than honest if I did not mention the problem of anti-social behaviour, but I saw nothing myself except for a friendly and delightful public space, with the visual treat in the background of a great panorama of the city of London.

In conclusion, I may have originally thought I had drawn the short straw with the location of my research sites. How wrong I was! Researching past the obvious unfolds the interest – all human life is there. It is surprising to think that as recently as 150 years ago New Cross was forest; I am very happy to think that research to update and add new green spaces to the London Parks and Gardens Inventory may help protect what remains of them for the future.

21/07/22 Campaigners share ‘widespread dismay’ at Government failure to pursue a legal path for a fitting Holocaust education centre 

The Court of Appeal has today, 21 July, refused ministers permission to try to overturn The High Court’s ruling that building the Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre (HMLC) in a park protected in perpetuity for public enjoyment would be unlawful. 

The legal dispute arises from the London Historic Parks and Gardens Trust’s campaign to protect all London parks from development, while supporting a Holocaust Memorial and a learning centre in a fitting venue.  

The case centred on the 2019 decision of former Housing Minister Chris Pincher MP (suspended Con) to grant planning permission to build the centre in Victoria Tower Gardens next to Parliament, despite objections from some members of the Jewish community, Holocaust survivors, the local authority, campaigners, cross party Peers, a former Archbishop of Canterbury and a historic obligation in law to preserve this park for public enjoyment.  

In a case brought by the London Historic Parks and Gardens Trust (the Trust), the High Court over turned Mr Pincher’s permission on the grounds of this legal protection in April. Since then, concerns about the scheme, including the lack of work to find a suitable alternative site, have been raised by the National Audit Office spending watchdog.  

The Trust and campaigners including the Thorney Island Society and ‘Save Victoria Tower Gardens’ support a fitting Holocaust Memorial, education and a Learning centre. But they have described the current plan in a small, protected park as ‘the right idea in the wrong place’, especially considering the scope for other sites to do a fitting education centre justice.    

A spokesperson for the Trust said: 

“We share widespread dismay that in deciding to build on a protected park, the government pursued this noble cause via an illegal path. Had a more suitable site been chosen, a Holocaust education centre would already be doing its essential work. City parks are not a blank canvass waiting for development but greenspaces protected for public enjoyment so we sincerely hope that revised plans for a memorial near to Parliament can co-exist with a substantial education centre in a more suitable setting.”    

Media contact: Helen Monger (Director) via 

More on Victoria Tower Gardens

08/04/22 High Court backs charity’s appeal against Government plan to build on a London park 

The High Court today, 08/04/22, found in favour of a small charity’s campaign to protect Westminster’s Victoria Tower Gardens public park from development.   

In February Mrs Justice Thornton heard the claim of London Historic Parks and Gardens Trust [The Trust] against the Government’s decision to grant planning permission for the UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in Victoria Tower Gardens, next to Parliament [the decision]. Today Mrs Justice Thornton found that the claim succeeds on the grounds that the London County Council (Improvements) Act 1900 [the 1900 Act] imposes statutory protection of the park; 

“The appropriate remedy is to quash the decision, so as to enable further consideration of the implications of the 1900 Act.   It is an Act of Parliament which specifically regulates Victoria Tower Gardens and specifies that the land must be retained for use as a public garden.“

Planning permission had been granted following a 2020 Planning Inquiry which heard detailed opposition to the proposed scheme from the Trust, the Save Victoria Tower Gardens campaign, Westminster City Council, and The Thorney Island Society. 

Although supportive of Holocaust Memorial and Learning, the Trust joins many prominent people, including those from the Jewish community, who raised concerns about the Government’s plan. The Save Victoria Tower Gardens campaign believe that this proposal is the right idea in the wrong place, and with the Trust, hopes that the High Court’s decision will lead to a new approach and protection for historic landscapes.    

Helen Monger, Director of The Trust said: “This is major boost for the protection of London parks at a time when they’ve never been more valued by the public.  

The High Court has given the government a welcome chance to reflect and re-consider the best site for a fitting Holocaust Memorial which the UK deserves, without tearing up historic protections for our parks.”   

Lucy Peck from the Save VTG campaign said: “We are pleased that planning permission for the Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in Victoria Tower Gardens has been quashed. We have argued for many years that the Government was pursuing the right idea in the wrong place. Today’s judgement sends a strong message about the protection of public parks.” 

Richard Buxton, Trust Solicitor said: “This judgment reflects what Parliament intended in 1900, when Victoria Tower Gardens was seen as something that should be “kept as a garden for the use of the public for ever.” No Government can ride roughshod over Acts of Parliament, and we trust that the Government will see the good sense of their forebears and revise their unlawful plans for this protected site.

The Court did not support the Trust’s appeal on the grounds of the heritage setting nor comment on the matter of possible alternative sites.   Ends.

Notes to editors 

  • London Historic Parks and Gardens Trust is a small charity with a big mission to champion London’s historic parks, gardens, squares and green spaces for the benefit of everyone. More details:
  • The Court’s full decision (and press notice) are attached. The appeal was heard 22-23/02/22

  • The attached briefing provides background, a summary of the appeal, and the many grounds on which the proposed development has raised concerns.  

1928 Diaries of Loyal Johnson

Thomas Rutter, a horticultural trainee at the Garden Museum and LGT Research Volunteer, views some of London’s historical green spaces through a different lens with a reading of the 1928 diaries of Loyal Johnson (1904-1999).

Over the coming year the RHS, in partnership with many County Garden Trusts across the country, will be telling the story of the American landscape architect Loyal Johnson, who toured England, Scotland and Wales in the summer of 1928.

Loyal, in the company of his friend Sam Brewster, visited many gardens including Great Dixter, Munstead Wood, Gravetye Manor, Chatsworth and many more, covering almost 1,500 miles by bicycle. Luckily for us, his diary is not only a gardening chronicle, but also a social and cultural history of inter-war Britain, full of amusing observations and astute reflections.

In mid-August 1928, Loyal and Sam arrived in London. Inevitably they visited the attractions – just as popular today as they were back then; they ambled inside the National Gallery, observed the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, and toured Westminster Abbey. They also made their way to a branch of Woolworths – no longer to be found on the high street – to pick up ‘grub and utensils’; I only wish that this had been the brand’s slogan!

But Loyal, for the most part, seems to have been rather disappointed by London’s horticultural offerings. Their first stop was the Royal Botanic Society’s garden in Regent’s Park, described by Loyal as having very few visitors and a ‘poor collection of plants… scarcely any of them labelled’. Labelling, to Loyal, was essential! The Society and its garden – then found in the Inner Circle – existed until 1932, employing the gardener William Robinson from 1861 to 1866. Robinson was responsible for the garden’s herbaceous borders and specialised in British wild flowers; he would go on to publish his Wild Garden in 1870. By the time of Loyal’s visit the garden had fallen into a state of disrepair it was described as a site of ‘public embarrassment’. We can assume that by 1928, the Society knew the game was up; no lease had been secured, and closure was inevitable.

Fortunately, Loyal and Sam enjoyed their visit to Kew Gardens the following day, noting Kew as a ‘real park and botanic garden’. Loyal is foremost pleased that the materials are ‘well labelled’ – phew! He notes the vistas of the pagoda and the glasshouse canopy walkway.

The Rockery at Kew Gardens, around the time of Johnson’s visit

Hampton Court also pleased the American visitors, although they opted to travel by bus from King’s Cross, with Loyal observing that the buses in London seem ‘governed to 12mph’. Loyal was wowed by the vast vine, planted as a cutting in 1768 during the tenure of Capability Brown as Chief Gardener at Hampton Court; in 1928 the girth at the base was estimated at 6-8ft, fruiting prolifically, with bunches of grapes sold to the public for around 6 shillings per pound. The girth of the vine is now around 13ft at the base, although sadly no bunches of grapes are available to purchase.

Loyal and Sam went on to visit Crystal Palace Park, which it seems they found wanting, believing the park had been left to ‘dwindle’ and being ‘far from ship shape’. Joseph Paxton, the Victorian architect, had designed both the park and the Crystal Palace; the Palace was the main venue for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and was then moved to Sydenham in 1852. By the time of Loyal’s visit, he found the paths were ‘grown full of weeds… and everything just seems neglected’. The Palace had fallen into disrepair in the early 19th century and was declared bankrupt in 1911, and many gardeners were conscripted into the Great War of 1914, never to return. The structure itself sadly burnt down in 1932, a few years after Loyal’s visit.
Loyal sadly didn’t visit – or at least didn’t record – any of Humphry Repton’s squares, dotted across London. He did find the ‘fine little garden’ at Staple Inn, which Dickens cites in Bleak House – perhaps this was the reason for Loyal’s visit. This little pocket of green can still be seen today, although only through a gate, as it is closed to the public.

References to the bad weather and heavy traffic make it clear that Loyal was not having the best of times in the capital; when he eventually leaves London at the start of September, he remarks that it ‘feels so good to get gone’. Loyal’s search for the quintessentially English – or British – country garden, was not, I hope, in vain, and I am sure he found what he was looking for elsewhere in the country. Certainly he found inspiration in his tour, returning to America to a successful career in landscape design and city planning.

Check the website for your local County Garden Trust over the coming year to find out more about planned events and exhibitions commemorating Loyal’s journey.

What are friends for?

Roger Jones (Friends of West Ham Park) and Dave Morris (London Friends of Green Spaces Network) illustrate the transformative impact on London’s parks of the volunteer Friends who champion them.
Dr Fothergill’s garden in West Ham Park (Friends of West Ham Park)

Throughout London, our much loved and greatly valued green spaces need people to help promote, animate, enhance and protect them. In the past 20 years a vibrant ‘Friends’ movement of parks users has mushroomed, and is still expanding: there are now about 700 independent local groups in the capital, and around 7,000 across the UK.

Whilst every site, and indeed every group, is unique and has its own distinct character, the activities that Friends carry out tend to be similar. These may include: running volunteer sessions including litter picking and helping with some planting and maintenance; organising community activities and events of all kinds; generating publicity, spreading news and building membership through notice-boards, literature and social media; liaising with staff and managers regarding maintenance and repairs: linking up with local stakeholders such as sports teams, adjacent schools, a site café, nearby residents associations, and so on; discussing, proposing and sometimes fundraising for projects to improve a site; and helping develop a vision for its future.

The impact of an active Friends group can be transformative, as can be seen in the case of West Ham Park in Newham. The park is owned and managed by the City of London Corporation (CoL) following purchase of the land in 1874 from the Gurney family, who still have four seats on the management committee. It covers 77 acres (31 hectares). The Green Flag inspection in 2006 noted that there was no Friends group, and CoL called a public meeting to establish the Friends of West Ham Park; a member of the park management team attends Friends meetings, and the group works closely with the management team, thereby maximising its impact.

Newham has the least green space per capita in London; the Friends aim to encourage the local community to make the most of this precious resource in this densely populated, deprived borough, and to raise awareness of nature. The group holds public events such as guided birdwatching, bat-watching and stargazing, runs a community vegetable garden, and leads regular health walks. The annual ‘Biggest Leaf Pile’ event is enormously popular – especially the part when all the children (and some adults) jump in the pile. This kind of free play is not usually available to children living in high density housing; these events could not take place without volunteer planning and delivery.

Moreover, the park includes an historic seven-acre garden which was owned by Dr John Fothergill, a Quaker physician and plant collector, in the 18th Century. The garden was regarded by Sir Joseph Banks as “second only to Kew”. Dr Fothergill sponsored exploration, including the journeys of Captain Cook, in return for plant specimens for his collection; he had a large area of glasshouses for plant from warmer climes, and was one of the first in England to successfully grow large tea bush (Camellia sinensis). He employed the best artists of the day to record and illustrate his collection, including Ann Lee and George Ehret.

The Friends wanted to raise awareness of this unique history and to highlight the park’s beautiful ornamental garden, and so two temporary exhibitions were held in 2018 and 2019, to showcase historical information and to introduce the history of botanical illustration in relation to the works commissioned by Dr Fothergill. These illustrations, incidentally, were sold, after his death, to Catherine the Great of Russia, and are not currently on display – the Friends have a long term aim to trace them, somewhere in the archives of the Kornarov Institute in St Petersburg.

The temporary exhibitions received a great deal of interest, as a result of which the group installed a permanent exhibition in the historic rose garden, featuring reproductions of work by artists known to have worked for Dr Fothergill. The Friends obtained grants and did all the research for the exhibition, including obtaining permissions to use the historic images and making contact with the Kornarov; luckily the group boasts a Russian speaker, as well as a very knowledgeable researcher.

The partnership between the Friends group and the park management staff, including park keepers and gardeners, has made this addition to the garden possible. It is being enjoyed by many visitors, and is already being used by local schools to tie in with subjects on the National Curriculum.

Of course the size and scope of many sites, and consequently of their Friends groups, are on a much smaller scale ~ but all the groups contribute to public engagement, involvement and empowerment. Drawn from the local population, and specifically from park users, Friends groups give the public a real say about the present and future of our vital green oases in the urban fabric. Of course, those involved also have fun together and help foster some much-needed community spirit.

Friends groups increasingly share good practice and work together through their own local Forums in many boroughs, and throughout London via the London Friends of Green Spaces Network (LFGN). The LFGN itself works closely with the London Gardens Trust and with other green space bodies, including the new Go Parks London map, and campaign to promote all of London’s public green spaces.

Does your local space need extra care and attention? If it does, why not join an existing Friends group or set one up if there isn’t one yet. Every space needs lots of

The authors wish to thank the London Friends of Green Spaces Network ( and Parks Community UK ( for their information and advice.

Research Focus on Helen Colt

Maria Precedo, a volunteer with the LGT Research Group, launches our new research feature with an exploration of the work of the London-based ‘suffragette gardener’, Helen Colt.

By the close of the nineteenth century, as the movement for women’s suffrage was gaining ever-greater support and urgency, the role of women in salaried gardening had become a topic of debate in horticultural circles. Women had started edging their way into paid gardening via horticultural colleges such as Swanley, and the directors of the botanical gardens at Kew and Edinburgh were persuaded to employ women gardeners, as an experiment.

With apprenticeships available to boys from the age of 14, however, even college-trained women gardeners lacked experienced and found it difficult to compete for positions. Helen Colt, having attended the Practical Gardening School for Ladies at Regent’s Park and attained the Diploma of the Royal Botanic Society, felt that jobbing gardening was a good way for newly trained women gardeners to consolidate knowledge and build experience – and, more importantly, to showcase their technical skill. Men engaged as jobbers tended to be untrained, perhaps running gardening alongside other work, or were nursery workers who lacked finesse; in a 1910 article, Colt wrote that “the best male workers are hardly to be found in this line”. As a result, town and suburban gardens were too often unimaginative and ‘cheerless’; there was a need for qualified gardeners in domestic situations. Colt wrote: “Here, surely, the woman gardener may find her field.”

Find her field Colt certainly did. Between 1909 and 1910, she advertised in the Women’s Employment magazine as a ‘Practical Gardener’ who would take on gardens within 30 minutes of Baker Street station. From 1911 to 1914, her advertisements appeared in the Suffragette newspaper Votes for Women, in which she described herself as a ‘Specialist in town and suburban gardening’, and later as a ‘Practical, Scientific & Artistic Gardener’. This evolution of job title suggests an increased confidence; in all cases Colt stated her diploma, indicating a desire to be taken seriously. Votes for Women also ran an advertisement on Colt’s behalf, suggesting that garden owners who wanted more creativity than was offered by the typical jobber would appreciate the skills of a qualified woman, such as ‘Miss Colt’. They urged, “Suffragists who are keen on both their garden and their cause would do well to communicate with her.”

Colt was a member of the Women’s Freedom League (WFL), a breakaway group from the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). The WFL decided that their militancy would not take violent forms, unlike the WSPU’s arson and bombing campaign, which did not spare the horticultural sphere: in 1913, the Orchid house at Kew was attacked and the Tea Pavilion burned down; the year after, two bombs were planted in Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens – one was diffused but the other exploded and caused damage to the Kibble Palace conservatory.

To help promote her own work, and to encourage other women into urban horticulture, Colt penned articles for numerous magazines and newspapers such as Women’s Employment and London Daily News, In 1912, she held displays at the Royal International and Horticultural Exhibition and at the Englishwoman Exhibition of Arts and Handcrafts, showcasing plans and models for urban and suburban gardens. She was also active in the women’s professional networking organisation the Lyceum Club, and was a key figure in establishing their Agricultural and Horticultural Section.

Colt began to teach at London University’s Bedford College when women started taking horticultural degrees; with the onset of the First World War, she delivered lecture- demonstrations at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Regents Park, and later at the Hampstead Garden Suburb Institute, encouraging the public to grow vegetables in the war effort. For the profession itself, she acknowledged the opportunities that the war had opened up for women, but felt that it was a mixed blessing. Out of necessity, the training courses for the land girls were short, and Colt bemoaned the ‘bugbear’ of the Short Course. The departure of men to fight at the Front meant that an increasing number of gardening posts needed to be filled, and Colt felt that the jumble of experienced women gardeners with rapidly trained workers undermined both the profession and those female gardeners who had endeavoured to be taken seriously for years.

The war further altered Colt’s trajectory when she travelled to France with the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, linked with the Imperial War Graves Commission. Then, in 1918, she joined the American unit attached to the Sixth French Army, aiding the rehabilitation of gardens in the war-ravaged land. She was based at Villers-Cotterets near Aisne, but the work came to an abrupt end when the Allies were forced into retreat and their restorative efforts were undone by the Germans.

Colt persevered, and, after the war, formed The Garden League for Devastated France; as part of their work, the organisation raised funds in Britain to reconstruct “communal plantations of fruit, vegetables and flowers”, including school gardens. By 1923, they had procured over 1,200 garden implements, huge quantities of vegetable seeds and more than 1,000 fruit trees, and were given patronage by the Duke and Duchess of York. Colt pursued this work until her death just prior to the outbreak of another world war in 1939.

From striving for women’s emancipation to healing the scarred countryside of France, Helen Colt’s energy and dedication to horticulture is evident in her varied work. Though she was described by one newspaper as “one of the pioneers of professional gardening for women”, her story has been largely forgotten; it is time to redress this.