Victoria Tower Gardens

Ruth Holmes, Chair of London Parks & Gardens Trust

Local residents and visitors have watched Victoria Tower Gardens change over time, most recently with the introduction of the Parliamentary Education Centre at the north end, the restoration of the Spicer Memorial, extension of the playground, introduction of a kiosk and reopening of the public toilets to the south. Grade II listed, the Gardens have developed incrementally over 100 years, being converted from wharfs with the construction of the Embankment wall (which is also listed) and finally being enclosed at the southern end when the first Lambeth Bridge was built (which was a suspension bridge).

In the 21st century, central London parks play a vital role for the local economy by providing spaces for active and passive recreation. At the heart of the city, Victoria Tower Gardens has a local population (with areas of deprivation identified by Westminster City Council) close by that rely on the space to provide areas for play, recreation and relaxation. It is also a key area for tourism and national celebration. The Gardens provide the setting for the Palace of Westminster, which is a World Heritage Site, as well as the Buxton Memorial (the abolition of Slavery), Burghers of Calais and Emmeline Pankhurst statues, which have contributed to the area being designated as a 'Monument Saturation Zone' by Westminster City Council. Saying this, the wonderful Spicer Memorial has a delightful story about children's play, beautifully interpreted from the National Archives by Linden Groves.

In the 19th century the Gardens were heavily used by local children presumably living in the nearby slums and in 1898 a proposal was made by the Westminster Committee for Health to establish a children's playground there but it was declined by the authorities. There were further attempts by the Chairman of the Westminster Committee for Health, Temperance and Morality, Revd Thicknesse and Basil Holmes of the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, to provide some play provision in the Gardens as 'St James's Park is not readily accessible to those who inhabit the many small streets to the west of the garden and to the south of Victoria Street.'

In 1912, Mr Henry Gage Spicer appeared on the scene, prepared to donate money for a drinking fountain in the Gardens for the benefit of the children. Thankfully by then the Office of Works position had changed. The First Commissioner proposed something rather special — that a drinking fountain, in an architectural surround, could be accompanied by a small children's playground, similar to the sandpit in St James's Park!

Mr Spicer recognised the opportunity and offered to fund both the fountain and the playground and by spring 1923 the playground — consisting of a huge sandpit - was open and proving hugely popular - see photo. The First Commissioner writing to Tilden (the architect who designed it) that, 'The sandpit is daily swarming with children.' (National Archives WORK 16/1214, letter from First Commissioner to Philip Tilden, 9 May 1923) Mr Spicer was, of course, thanked in glowing terms: 'Both you and Mrs Spicer must feel in some measure compensated for your generosity by the masses of poor children who frequent the pit, apparently obtaining incessant and endless joy therefrom.' (National Archives WORK 16/1214, letter from First Commissioner to HG Spicer, 5 June 1923

A few years later the success of the sandpit led to the introduction of a trial period where children were allowed greater freedom in the rest of the Gardens, i.e. to play on the grass. Thus the Gardens have become a vibrant, joyful place filled on sunny summer days with children, who not only enjoy the playground and education centre, but also the expanse of grass and dappled shade of the majestic plane trees for picnics and running around. Victoria Tower Gardens is a very special green open space with a wonderful history and is cherished by many as a respite from the city around it.

London Parks and Gardens Trust are working with other civic organisations to celebrate this important space. We are alert to the possibilities of change to Victoria Tower Gardens but consider the latest proposal for a memorial and learning space that will take up two thirds of the remaining park area and encourage some 2m visitors will overwhelm this precious space. If you would like to help us, we would welcome donations to support our planning work or if you can offer practical expert support such as pro bono legal, planning, or campaign communications advice please do get in contact with the office:

Victoria Tower Gardens today
Victoria Tower Gardens today (Photo: Sally Prothero)

Victoria Tower Gardens in the 1920s