Inventory Site Record

Victoria Park * (Tower Hamlets)

Brief Description

* on The National Heritage List for England, Parks & Gardens

Victoria Park was created as part of a government initiative to provide public parks for London's expanding suburbs. It officially opened in 1845, laid out with a perimeter carriage drive, belts of trees and formal bedding displays. The lake in the western section originally had 3 islands, a cascade, ornamental footbridge and a pagoda, and was popular for bathing. Another bathing lake was later formed in the eastern section and was for a time divided into 3. Over the years new facilities have been added, and the park underwent major restoration in 2012.

Practical Information
Site location:
Grove Road/Old Ford Road/Victoria Park Road/Cadogan Terrace
Postcode:
E3/E9
Type of site:
Public Park
Borough:
Tower Hamlets
Open to public?
Yes
Opening times:
6am - dusk
Special conditions:
Facilities:
Children's playground, Pavilion Café, numerous sports facilities including athletics track, tennis courts, bowling green
Events:
Various events
Public transport:
Tube: Bethnal Green (Central) then bus; Mile End (Central/District) then bus. Bus:
Research updated:
04/09/2015
Last minor changes:
04/11/2021

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

Full Site Description

Site on The National Heritage List for England, Parks & Gardens, for Register Entry see https://www.historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list. The Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England was established in 1984 and was commonly called English Heritage. In April 2015 it split into 2 separate entities, Historic England (HE), which continues to champion and protect the historic environment, and the English Heritage Trust, whose role is to look after the 400+ historic sites and monuments owned by the state. HE manages the National Heritage List for England (NHLE) that includes over 400,000 items ranging from prehistoric monuments to office blocks, battlefields and parks, which benefit from legal protection.

In 1840 the Commission of Woods and Forests gave authorisation for Victoria Park to be created as a 'Memorial to the Sovereign' on an area of 77 ha, previously used as brick fields, market gardens, gravel pits and farmland. It was designed by James Pennethorne who was also responsible for Battersea Park (q.v.), and what became Finsbury Park (q.v.), all three parks part of a government initiative to serve the expanding suburbs. His first plan for Victoria Park of 1841 was modified a number of times before work began in 1842; it opened to the public in 1845, although it apparently opened unofficially in 1843. Pennethorne’s efforts were vilified by some at the time. Samuel Curtis was responsible for the initial planting and in the 1850s John Gibson, who worked with Pennethorne on Battersea Park, had horticultural control. In the C19th the park was noted for its 'varied and exuberant displays of formal bedding'.

The original layout included a carriage drive around the perimeter, with belts of trees along most boundaries and numerous areas of formal displays. The lake in the western section, known as the Old Bathing Lake (1846/7 and extended in 1868) originally had three islands, on the largest of which was a cascade (1846), a pagoda (1847), and ornamental footbridge (1849). Over time all these features, and the island itself which became joined to the land, ceased to exist, although the park is currently undergoing restoration in 2012. The footbridge was first replaced by a suspension bridge in 1910 and led to a Japanese Garden that was laid out as a temporary feature in 1910-1911 following an Anglo-Japanese exhibition. This bridge, the cascade and the pagoda were removed in the mid C20th. The eastern section, which retains its C19th path system, originally had a lake, the New (or Men's) Bathing Lake, which in 1937 was altered to form 3 lakes (a paddling pool, model yachting pool and juvenile boating lake). It was then further altered in 1983-85 with one lake remaining as a model boating lake, the other two lakes replaced by children's play areas.

Swimming in Victoria Park was from the first a favourite pastime, at first only available to male swimmers; the original Old Bathing Lake was open to men and boys in the summer between 4am and 8am, and thousands flocked to use it, causing the water to become unhygienic. A winter swimming club was established and the lake was extended in the 1860s when new facilities were added including diving boards and changing cubicles. In c.1876 the New Bathing Lake was constructed and by some considered to be 'the finest swimming bath in the world', with up to 25,000 bathers using it before 8am on a summer morning. Eventually the Old Bathing Lake was allocated for the use of female swimmers. These lakes were eventually closed for swimming in 1934 when the new Lido was built.

The eastern section also has an elaborate Victorian Drinking Fountain built of sandstone designed by H A Darbyshire, which was erected in 1862 by Baroness Angela Burdett Coutts (whose initials feature in its design). She was a major philanthropist in the area until she was disinherited by her family for running off with her 29 year old American secretary, upon which she was given an allowance of only £16,000 a year to live on.

In 1872 a further 10 hectares were added to the park and in 1887 the Metropolitan Board of Works took over responsibility for the park until 1889 when it was transferred to the London County Council. Facilities that were added to the park over the years included an aviary (1895, demolished in the 1950s), a Palm House (1892, demolished 1941), and an Old English Garden laid out after 1916 within a yew hedge with crazy paving, topiary, rose beds, mixed borders and bedding. In 1950 a fountain with bronze sculpture by Bainbridge Copnall set in a circular pond was donated by the Constance Fund and sited in the Old Fashioned Garden. The subject of the fountain was 'Young Tom and the Water Babies', featuring the playful lad seated on a water lily surrounded by five different fish spouting water.  Sadly the fountain was frequently vandalised here and eventually removed in 1973, but was then relocated to Golders Hill Park (q.v.) where it remains in the walled garden. An open-air swimming pool was built in 1936 in the eastern section adjacent to Grove Road, but it was demolished in 1989/90; the site is now a car park.

Plans had been submitted for an open air pool in 1934 when the bathing lakes were closed and the Victoria Park Lido was opened by Herbert Morrison MP in May 1936. It was designed by LCC architects H A Rowbotham and T L Smithson, and built at a cost of £25,000, almost a pair with Brockwell Lido (q.v.). These were two of the four lidos built by the LCC in the late 1930s, the others being those at Parliament Hill and at Charlton Playing Fields (now called Hornfair Park) (q.q.v.). All four were built of red brick and were architecturally and structurally similar although each had its own unique character. The pools had diving boards and slides, with symmetrical wings for male and female changing facilities, and later cafes and areas for sun bathing were provided. The Lidos were surrounded by walls to keep non-customers out and to provide a windbreak and suntrap. Victoria Park Lido had a very large pool, a shingle 'beach', diving boards and chutes and a café accessible from both the park and the pool. Admission was initially free on three days a week for adults and on five days for children. It was badly damaged during WWII but re-opened in May 1952 following £30,000 worth of repairs. By 1991 there was no trace that it had ever existed. To the north of the site of the Lido is a deer enclosure relocated here from its C19th site in the western section of the park in the 1990s.

Near the eastern boundary are two Portland stone alcoves removed from the parapet of Old London Bridge (designed by Sir Robert Taylor and George Dance the Younger), which were installed here c.1860. A pair of statues, the Dogs of Alcibiades, were donated by Lady Regnart in 1912, and stand either side of the Night Walk on the north side of the perimeter drive; these were restored in 1991. Victoria Park has numerous entrance gates, some with C19th lodge buildings although a number of these have since been demolished. A bandstand was erected in the eastern section in 1940 on the site of a late C19th bandstand. The park suffered during WWII causing structural damage to a number of park buildings, which had to be demolished. Some of the park was also used for allotments as part of the war effort.

After the war the condition of the park deteriorated through lack of funds, but in 1965 it became the responsibility of the GLC who began restoration work in 1973. The GLC regularly used Victoria Park for its annual May Day festivals, echoing its use for fireworks displays in the reign of Queen Victoria. When the GLC was disbanded in 1986, responsibility for the park was initially handed over to the two boroughs in which it is located: the eastern section in Tower Hamlets and the western section in Hackney. However, Tower Hamlets Council now has responsibility for all maintenance and the borough boundaries have changed to reflect this. Since the 1990s much restoration has taken place, including park fencing and the C19th fountain in the centre of the east side of the lake. A lakeside café was erected in 1991 on the site of the 1870 boathouse; a refreshment pavilion and open-air dancing area that had been created in 1940 after the western part of the Old Bathing Lake was filled in was demolished in 1989. Although it lost quite a few of Pennethorne’s features it remained a handsome park, although some planting lacked Pennethorne’s clarity of style. There are numerous fine trees throughout the park, including copper beech and tulip tree.

Since 2010 Victoria Park has now undergone major restoration works funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Works included rebuilding of the pagoda and ornamental footbridge, the re-design of the Old English Garden, new landscaping around the Burdett-Coutts Drinking Fountain and extensive new play facilities. The renovated park was recipient of the prestigious Green Flag Award in 2013.

Sources consulted:

‘A Pictorial History of Victoria Park London E3 Illustrated with postcards and contemporary photographs' Philip Mernick and Doreen Kendall, East London History Society, 1996; EH Register: sources include articles in The Gardeners' Chronicle (1871, 1874, 1876); Garden (1872), Journal of Horticulture and Cottage Gardener (1876, 1898), Gardening World (1897), Landscape Design (Feb 1986); E Cecil, London Parks and Gardens, 1907; N Cole, The Royal Parks and Gardens of London, 1877; N T Newton, Design on the Land, 1981; Pevsner, London except . . . Westminster, 1952; J J Sexby, The Municipal Parks, Gardens and Open Spaces of London (1898); C Poulsen, Victoria Park (1976); Ben Weinreb & Christopher Hibbert, 'The London Encyclopaedia' (Macmillan, revised ed. 1993). Postcard of the Month no 47, April 2004, www.eastlondonpostcard.co.uk; Website 'Lidos in London no longer open' compiled by Oliver Merrington and Andy Hoines with additional detail and photographs from Ian Gordon, www.lidos.org.uk.

Further Information (Planning and Conservation)
Grid ref:
TQ358834 (535850,183450)
Size in hectares:
86.4603
Site ownership:
LB Tower Hamlets
Site management:
LBTH Leisure Services, Parks and Open Spaces
Date(s):
1840s
Designer(s):
James Pennethorne
Listed structures:
LBII*: Burdett Coutts drinking fountain. LBII: Llanover Lodge, Bonner Gate gatepiers, London Bridge alcoves.
On National Heritage List for England (NHLE), Parks & Gardens:

Yes
NHLE grade:
Grade II*
Registered common or village green on Commons Registration Act 1965:

No
Protected under London Squares Preservation Act 1931:

No

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:
No
In Conservation Area:
Yes
Conservation Area name:
Victoria Park
Tree Preservation Order:
Not known
Nature Conservation Area:
Yes - Borough Importance I
Green Belt:
No
Metropolitan Open Land:
Yes
Special Policy Area:
No
Other LA designation:
None
Photos

Victoria Park *

Victoria Park, eastern section with Bandstand and Burdett-Coutts drinking fountain behind, April 2010. Photo: S Williams

Victoria Park, Lake in western section, April 2010. Photo: S Williams
2010
Victoria Park, Bedding displays, April 2010. Photo: S Williams
2010
Victoria Park, Old English Garden, June 2000. Photo: S Williams
2000

Click a photo to enlarge.

Please note the Inventory and its content are provided for your general information only and is subject to change. It is your responsibility to check the accuracy.