Keeping London Green

Rosie Atkins discovers more about the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association's historic links with Battersea Park.

As Curator of Chelsea Physic Garden, I spent over eight years living in London's oldest botanic garden and occasionally finding time to take a constitutional in Battersea Park, on the opposite bank of the river Thames. The Garden, founded in 1673, goes from strength to strength, as does Battersea Park, founded some 200 years later. When I was invited to join the committee of the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, I was delighted to find the MPGA had links with Battersea and this led me to look into how this area had changed over the millennia.

When the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries created the Chelsea Physic Garden in 1673, Chelsea was a quiet fishing village, where nobility built fine houses and elaborate gardens. In contrast, Battersea Fields was an isolated marsh that drew those who were attracted by dog fights and bare-knuckle boxing. The area around St Mary's Church in Battersea was surrounded by market gardens, started by the Huguenots, which kept London supplied in vegetables. Records show one plot, of 40 acres, growing nothing but asparagus.

The apothecaries leased their four-acre plot from Lord Cheyne because it was easily accessible by barge from their guildhall, at Blackfriars. Their apprentices would row over to the south bank of the river to gather 'simples' to make herbal medicines and travel up river on herborising expeditions. When Philip Miller took over the running of the garden in 1722, it went from being an outdoor classroom to a horticultural mecca attracting luminaries like the Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus, in 1736.

Over the next hundred years, the Enclosure Act made it possible for the authorities to take over common land and divide it into 'allotments', which were rented out to the local residents, who continued to provide London's ever-growing population with fresh vegetables. By 1846 an Act of Parliament was passed to turn 198 acres of Battersea Fields into a royal park, as an attempt to improve living conditions and curb the illegal racing and gambling linked with a notorious tavern called the Red House. The Commission for Improving the Metropolis leased the surrounding land to a speculative builder, Thomas Cubitt, to build houses.

When Battersea Park was being constructed, in 1853, storm clouds were gathering abroad. British and French soldiers were being sent to the Crimea to prevent Russia expanding its borders and asserting its influence in the Middle East. The Crimea had been annexed before in 1783 by Catherine the Great, who allowed aristocrats to build fine palaces and gardens there. History has a habit of repeating itself.

James Pennethorne, who had worked on Regent's Park, made the initial design for Battersea Park and the first superintendent, John Gibson, a pupil of Joseph Paxton, created the carriageways. In the spirit of the age, Gibson travelled to India to stock the sub-tropical garden with exotic plants.

Queen Victoria, accompanied by two of her daughters, opened Battersea Park on 31 March 1858, as well as a new toll bridge, named Victoria Bridge, which replaced its rickety wooden predecessor. In 1862, Joseph Bazalgette started work on the Embankment, reclaiming 22 acres of river bank and raising the land levels using 750,000 tons of soil dredged from the Surrey Docks. The granite used in the retaining walls came by ship from the lovely Lamorna Cove in Cornwall.

By 1865, the new park was included in a London guidebook called Cruchley's Handbook for Strangers. The entry reads:

BATTERSEA PARK. (185 acres) skirts the southern bank of the Thames, between Chelsea and Battersea Bridges; extends about 2 miles in length, and 1¼ miles in breadth; and was completed in 1852-1859, at an expenditure of £320,000. The plantations are as yet in their infancy, and the whole Park has a disagreeable air of newness; but a promenade on the river-terrace may reasonably be commended to the London explorator.

The Park is easily accessible. Steamboats stop at Battersea pier; the London and South-Coast Railway Company have a station close at hand; and the new Chelsea iron bridge connects it with Chelsea, Pimlico, and Belgravia.

The entry goes on to mention an historic duel that took place in the notorious Battersea Fields in 1829, between the Earl of Winchelsea and the Duke of Wellington, who was Prime Minister at the time. Shots were fired in the air and no one was hurt, but the duel caused a sensation because of the high profile of the participants who were arguing over Catholic emancipation.

In 1896, the river terrace mentioned by Cruchley was to become the Grand Promenade, which the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association helped fund. Before long the rumblings of the First World War could be heard. Fearing air raids, anti-aircraft guns and barrage balloons were installed in open spaces. Once again, much of Battersea Park was turned over to allotments to grow vegetables and there was even a pig farm. Maintenance of the park was cut back, as the war effort took priority.

The German airships were a threat but they rarely hit their intended targets. It wasn't until 16 February 1918 that a bomb meant for Victoria Station fell on the Royal Hospital Chelsea, causing many casualties. In 1924, a war memorial was unveiled in Battersea Park to commemorate the 10,000 men killed or listed as 'missing, presumed dead' while serving with the 24th East Surrey Division.

Battersea Park survived both wars, but by 2002 it was much in need of restoration. The Grand Riverside Promenade underwent major improvements using the original nineteenth-century designs found in the London Metropolitan Archive. The plans showed an ornate river wall, a wide promenade walk and areas of ornamental planting with associated earth mounding.

The Grand Promenade, which received MPGA support all those years ago, is now part of the Thames Path. This year the park sees the opening of a new building designed by architects Pedder & Scampton for Thrive, the horticultural therapy charity. This distinctive building is curved around a large London Plane tree, with curved slate roof and glazed orangery.

Battersea Park, like all London parks, is victim of financial cuts; yet the number of people using the park increases, which makes the role of The Metropolitan Public Gardens Association as important as ever.