Inventory Site Record

Bethnal Green Gardens (Tower Hamlets)

Brief Description

Bethnal Green Gardens were once part of Bethnal Green Poor's Lands, an area of former manorial waste that under a trust deed of 1690 was administered to benefit the local poor. This part of the Green was purchased by the LCC in 1891 and laid out as public gardens that opened in 1895. Bethnal House on the east side of the gardens is on the site of a C16th mansion, Kirby's Castle, which was later used as a Lunatic Asylum from the late C18th, part of which was converted as Bethnal Green Public Library in 1914. The gardens have an area of formal planting in the north with open grass and sports facilities predominantly in the south. A memorial to victims of the worst civilian disaster of WWII when 173 people died in Bethnal Green underground station, which was then being used as an air raid shelter, was installed in the north-west corner, completed in 2017.

Practical Information
Previous / Other name:
Bethnal Green Poor's Lands
Site location:
Cambridge Heath Road/Roman Road
What 3 Words:
Type of site:
Public Park
Tower Hamlets
Open to public?
Opening times:
8am - dusk
Special conditions:
Children's playground, basketball/tennis courts, football/sports pitches
Public transport:
Tube: Bethnal Green (Central)
Research updated:
Last minor changes:

Please check with the site owner or manager for latest news. www.towerhamlets.gov.uk

Full Site Description

The c.3.65 ha. of public gardens that now constitute Bethnal Green Gardens, Museum Gardens and the V&A Museum of Childhood Garden (q.q.v.) are the remains of Bethnal Green Poor's Lands, a c.6.27 ha. estate, itself originally part of the extensive commonable waste lands of the Manor of Stebonheath or Stepney. In 1667 this piece of land was purchased for £200 by a group of people from the then Lady of the Manor, Lady Philadelphia Wentworth, in order to prevent it from being built over. Including the cost of enclosure and other necessary expenses, the sum raised amounted to £332 2s 10d. As not all the purchasers were resident at Bethnal Green, the land was made subject of a trust deed on 13 December 1690 and conveyed to 27 local trustees, who were charged with administering the estate and distributing its proceeds, for example the profits from leasing lands, for charitable purposes to the local poor. The estate was named the Bethnal Green Poor’s Lands. A clause in the trust deed expressed the original wish of the purchasers that the land should not be built over and in the C19th enabled the residue of the Poor’s Lands to be laid out as public gardens. Among the expenses that were payable out of the profits from leasing lands were not only those of distributing coals and money to the poor, but also those for maintaining paths, gates and stiles on the enclosed land.

Adjacent to the Green was Kirby’s Castle, a large mansion built here in 1570 by John Kirby, a wealthy merchant. In c.1661 it was purchased by Sir William Ryder, Deputy-Master of Trinity House and a friend of Samuel Pepys, who records visits and parties here, and a diary entry of 26 June 1663 refers to walking in the garden, which had 'the greatest quantity of strawberries I ever saw, and good'. Pepys took his diary here for safe keeping during the Great Fire of London on 8 September 1666. After Sir William's death in 1669 the house went through various owners and in records of 1703 the house is referred to as Bethnal Green House. It was purchased around the end of the C18th by Dr Warburton for use as a private asylum, Bethnal House Lunatic Asylum, who leased land from the Trustees of Bethnal Green Poor's Lands, part of which was used as recreation ground for the inmates; by 1890 the lease of this land to the Asylum generated £430 for the charity.

In 1825 part of the Poor's Lands was purchased for St John’s Church and Vicarage, which essentially divided the Green into two parts, north and south of the church, which was built in 1826-8 to designs of Sir John Soane. In 1868 c.1.82 hectares of the northern part of the Poor's Lands were then sold by the Trustees as the site for the new Bethnal Green Museum with the proviso that what was not built on should become public recreation grounds. The museum opened in 1872 and in 1875 the area now known as Museum Gardens was laid out as public gardens to designs of the Superintendent of Victoria Park (q.v.). This garden, then called Bethnal Green Museum Garden, was initially maintained by the Government, in 1887 becoming the responsibility of the Metropolitan Board of Works under the 1887 London Parks and Works Act, subsequently that of the LCC, then the GLC and now LB Tower Hamlets.

Urban invasion of the area had begun at the end of the C17th with the spread of the silk weaving industry from Spitalfields. In 1888 the Trustees wished to frame a new scheme through the Charity Commissioners whereby they could sell remaining land for building purposes in order to create larger income. This was opposed by the LCC and the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association as a result of which on 27 February 1891 there was final agreement to a scheme that granted to the LCC 'or any other public body, all the land held in trust for the charity, provided that the said land be secured and permanently maintained [. . . ] as a recreation-ground accessible to the inhabitants of the said parish’ (Bethnal Green). The scheme also provided for the sale of land to the asylum, accruing a sum of £1,000 for the Trustees, on which a counting-house had already been built. The land for the new recreation ground was conveyed to the LCC for £6,000 and at that time comprised an orchard, paddock, kitchen garden and pleasure ground, described by Lieut. Col. J J Sexby of the LCC Parks Department in 1896 as 'all in a rough and neglected condition'. It was entirely remodelled as a public park at a cost of £5,000, which included 'the erection of an ornamental wrought-iron enclosing fence; the formation of broad walks and shrubberies; a sunk garden with a central fountain flanked by an extensive rockery for the display of alpine and other suitable plants; the construction of a gymnasium for children, together with other necessary buildings' (Sexby). The new park opened to the public on Whit Monday 1895. In 1899 Bethnal Green, Poplar and Stepney became three separate Metropolitan Boroughs. A wing of the former Lunatic Asylum, a 2-storey red-brick building of 1896, was converted as Bethnal Green Public Library, which opened in 1914.

Bethnal Green Gardens today has a rose garden and ornamental planting at the north-west entrance from Cambridge Heath Road near the junction with Roman Road, east of which is a modern shelter that was erected in the C20th, recently restored. The area of formal planting is bordered by a line of trees, to the south of which the park is largely open grass used as recreation and sports ground. A wide railed tarmac path leads from Cambridge Heath Road to the front of Bethnal Green Library, which has areas of formal planting either side of the ramped entrance, including some fine trees and shrubs. The area south of this pathway is largely laid to sports pitches and a playground adjacent to railway arches.

A monument in the north-west corner of the park commemorates the 173 civilians who died on 3 March 1943 in the worst civilian disaster of WWII who were crushed on the staircase in Bethnal Green Tube Station, which was being used as an air raid shelter. The project to create a memorial began in 2006 when two architects, Harry Paticas and Jens Borstlemann, who regularly used the station, noticed the discreet brass plaque by the staircase commemorating the tragedy and on investigating further they decided that a more fitting memorial should be erected. A charitable trust was set up in 2007 to fund-raise for the memorial, with much local support from businesses and individuals. The design by Paticas and Borstlemann was 'a massive teak cast of the staircase, which appears to float alongside the 19 stairs where the people actually died. It is the exact dimension in which 300-400 people were crushed. It has 173 conicals in the roof that allows sunlight to shine through to represent those who lost their lives. The memorial vividly describes the historical facts of the Bethnal Green tragedy. It has individual plaques along the plinth narrating what happened on that fateful night from relatives of those that died, from survivors and officials on duty. The full names and ages of the victims are also listed' (extract from Stairway to Heaven website). Although construction of the memorial commenced in 2012, it was built in two phases due to various problems. It was finally completed and officially unveiled in December 2017. An annual memorial service is held on the first Sunday in March in St John's Church Bethnal Green (q.v.), when supporters, survivors and family members attend and lay wreaths and flowers; the names of the 173 victims are read out and candles lit in their memory. The memorial has created a new landmark next to the Bethnal Green underground station entrance where the disaster occurred.

Sources consulted:

Bancroft Library, Clippings. Lieut. Col J J Sexby, The Municipal Parks, Gardens and Open Space of London (their History and Associations, Elliott Stock (London) 1895 (1905 edition); Ben Weinreb & Christopher Hibbert, 'The London Encyclopaedia' (Macmillan, revised ed. 1993); LB Tower Hamlets 'Bethnal Green Gardens Conservation Area Character Appraisal and Management Guidelines' adopted 2009; www.stairwaytoheavenmemorial.org

Further Information (Planning and Conservation)
Grid ref:
TQ350826 (535050,182650)
Size in hectares:
Site ownership:
LB Tower Hamlets
Site management:
Leisure Services, Parks and Open Spaces
Listed structures:
LBII: Bethnal Green Library
On National Heritage List for England (NHLE), Parks & Gardens:

Registered common or village green on Commons Registration Act 1965:

Protected under London Squares Preservation Act 1931:


Local Authority Data

The information below is taken from the relevant Local Authority's planning legislation, which was correct at the time of research but may have been amended in the interim. Please check with the Local Authority for latest planning information.

On Local List:
In Conservation Area:
Conservation Area name:
Bethnal Green Gardens
Tree Preservation Order:
Nature Conservation Area:
Green Belt:
Metropolitan Open Land:
Special Policy Area:
Other LA designation:

Bethnal Green Gardens

Bethnal Green Gardens, formal planting near north-west entrance, September 2008. Photo: S Williams

Bethnal Green Gardens: detail of Stairway to Heaven memorial, April 2021. Photograph Sally Williams
Bethnal Green Gardens: Stairway to Heaven memorial, August 2020. Photograph Sally Williams
Bethnal Green Library, July 2009. Photo: S Williams
Bethnal Green Gardens, planting near north-west entrance, July 2009. Photo: S Williams
Bethnal Green Library with war memorial, September 2008. Photo: S Williams
Bethnal Green Gardens, looking south, September 2008. Photo: S Williams

Click a photo to enlarge.

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