Celebration of 150th anniversary of West Ham Park’s opening

Saturday 20 July 2024

Background

Surviving documents relating to the parklands date from the mid-sixteenth century. By 1670, Rooke Hall, later renamed Upton House, was the main house dominating the area.

In 1762, physician and botanist Dr. John Fothergill bought the house (see here for details), enlarged the grounds, built extensive greenhouses, and planted them with rare and exotic botanical species from around the world.

Dr John Fothergill

Unfortunately, 260 years later, the Corporation of London has decided to tear down the last of the greenhouses and cover the area with housing.

Fothergill’s botanical gardens were second only to Kew in importance in England. He recorded the details of his plants in records that survive in the British library and commissioned paintings and drawings, many of Catherine the Great of Russia acquired on his death. They languish, untended, in a small botanical museum on the outskirts of St Petersburg.

Although the greenhouses have gone and the paintings are inaccessible, at least one of Fothergill’s specimens remains in the park—the Gingko Biloba tree (pictured), which he is believed to have planted there in 1763.

Fothergill's Gingko Biloba tree

Upton House was renamed Ham House in the 1780s and eventually acquired by Quaker banker and philanthropist Samuel Gurney in 1812 (see here for details), where he resided for the rest of his life. When he retired from banking in the 1840s, he dedicated his efforts to philanthropy and local land acquisition, and in a piecemeal fashion, he purchased over 30% of the land that is now recognised as Forest Gate.

Samuel Gurney

Gurney’s older sister, prison reformer Elizabeth Fry’s (see here for details) household fell on hard times in the 1820s. Samuel allowed them to live in a house named the Cedars on the edge of his landholding from 1829 until 1844. That house later became a Territorial Army barracks and local headquarters.

Elizabeth Fry

Soon after Gurney died in 1856, his own immediate family faced financial difficulties following the collapse of the bank he once led. His grandson, John, set about disposing of some of the land Gurney had accumulated, which in many ways led to the growth of Forest Gate as the Victorian commuter suburb it largely remains today.

Ham House in its grounds, before demolition in 1872

John Gurney was keen that the 77 acres of his grandfather’s immediate estate should become a public park. He valued it at £25,000 and offered to sell it at half its valuation if local people contributed the other half towards its sale price. A fund was launched to find the money, led by one-time Gurney employee and administrator Gustav Pagenstecher (see here for details). 

Gustav Pagenstecher

The then local authority was unwilling to contribute, and only £2,500 was raised from immediate local sources. Pagenstecher turned his fundraising attention to the Corporation of London, which was already interested in acquiring Epping Forest, including Wanstead Flats, for public use (see here for details).

The Friend, a Quaker publication dated 1 April 1873, explains the Corporation’s interest. It noted, “No parish in London has expanded more rapidly than West Ham. It has seen an increase in population of more than 60% over the last 10 years.”

Gurney and Pagenstecher feared that developers would have bought the land and turned it into housing if it had not become a public park.

The Corporation contributed £10,000 towards purchasing the Park, which was to be open to the public “in perpetuity … at its own expense” from its opening in July 1874. The corporation has run and managed it ever since. Pagenstecher maintained a keen interest and was deputy chairman of its board of trustees from its establishment as a park until he died in 1916. He wrote the first history of the park.

Elements of the history of the park

One of the first things the Corporation did during the acquisition was demolishing Ham House and leaving some of its remnants as a cairn near the park’s main entrance (see photo).

Ham House, before its demolition in 1872  

 

The cairn near the main entrance to the park, all that remains of the house today

The park has many fine features today, including a delightful ornamental garden, children’s play area, bandstands, a cafĂ©, and pitches and greens for many sports. It is a Grade 11 listed park.

It has often attracted large attendances for special events. The Godwin school diary of 10 September 1895, for example, noted: “The attendance (at school) was good this morning, but owing to the visit of the Lord Mayor and Corporation to West Ham Park, it was greatly affected in the afternoon.”

Entrance to the park, 1907
An Edwardian postcard of the formally laid out park

Another significant turnout was recorded for the Civil Defence Ceremony of Remembrance on 26 September 1943 – see photo below.

Civil Defence ceremony in the park, 1943

Sport has always featured prominently in the park, and Pagenstecher ensured it was well catered for, as indicated in his memoirs:

I’ve always been an enthusiast for cricket. On the Park Management Committee, I used to endeavour to ensure that portions of the Park should be laid out as cricket pitches. I was secretary of Upton Park Cricket Club which dates back as far as 1854 (ed: i.e. some 20 years before the land was formally adopted as public parkland).

Football

West Ham Park is perhaps better known for its unusual football heritage. From 1866, eight years before the grounds were formally designated a park, it hosted Upton Park FC, a club with a couple of unique achievements. It was one of the fifteen clubs competing for the inaugural FA Cup trophy in 1871 and has the distinction of hosting the competition’s first-ever goal, when Upton Park went 1-0 down in the 11th minute of the game (eventually losing 3-1) to Clapham Rovers, on 11 November that year.

Crest of Upton Park FC

As we approach the 2024 Paris Olympics, Upton Park’s second great claim to football fame comes into view. The club represented GB in the 1900 Paris Olympics and emerged victorious gold medal winners! There is no GB team at this year’s Olympics, so Upton Park’s record as victorious UK footballing Olympians in Paris cannot be matched this summer.

Logo of 2nd Olympiad - Paris 1900

The local area has boasted the strange quirk of having Upton Park FC playing at West Ham Park, while West Ham FC played at Upton Park!

What a hotbed of football this small area of Forest Gate was at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries. Just a couple hundred yards from West Ham Park is the Old Spotted Dog ground, home to Clapton FC, who boast several impressive achievements. In 1890, they became the first English football team to play in Europe (beating a Belgian X1 7-0) and competed in six (winning five) FA Amateur Cup finals between 1903 and 1928.

Wanstead Park Station celebrates its 130th birthday

Tuesday 9 July 2024

9 July is the 130th anniversary of the opening to passengers of Wanstead Park station and the line it serves. The Barking Riverside to Gospel Oak line, known to many as the “GOBLIN”, and recently christened the “Suffragette line” by TfL, began life in the 1860s, when the western section from Gospel Oak to South Tottenham opened. In 1890 parliament passed an act authoring a new section of line to Barking. This was at the prompting of Sir Courtney Warner, whose family had significant landholdings in Walthamstow. Warner was planning to develop new housing estates there, and the railway would he hoped encourage London’s better-off working-class families to move out to Walthamstow.

A company to build and operate the new line was formed in 1891, with Warner as chairman. Shares were offered to the public, but the Midland Railway Co. and the London Tilbury and Southend Railway had large shareholdings. These two companies connected with the new line at either end. So it was possible to get a train from Wanstead Park, the new station in Forest Gate, directly to East Ham station and connect to Fenchurch Street (Shakespeare Crescent in East Ham was later built over this spur line). Or connections to Kings Cross and St Pancras were possible via South Tottenham.


The Tottenham and Forest Gate Railway bridge over Woodgrange Road 1900s

North-east London had by the 1890s already undergone rapid development, and the railway cut a swathe through existing streets of housing.   The solution was to build the line on a long brick viaduct (hence a popular nick-name - the Chimney Pot line). Many houses were demolished to make way and there was considerable local opposition to the railway, as this article from the Stratford Express shows.

The line officially opened on 1 July 1894 with a passenger service starting a week later on 9 July. While mainly a commuter service, it was also possible to get excursion trains to Southend (hence the very long platform at Wanstead Park). These excursions ran until relatively recent times, and older Forest Gate residents remember the excitement of getting crowded trains from Wanstead Park for a day at the seaside.

The new railway was popular from the start, with a local newspaper reporting that Wanstead Park station was besieged by passengers all day long in the first week of service. The station was named Wanstead Park despite being nowhere near the actual park possibly because it sounded grander than (say) Forest Gate North. Oddly titled stations seem to have been a feature of the line – Walthamstow Queen’s Road is actually in Edinburgh Road, several streets away from Queen’s Road itself. Similarly, Woodgrange Park station is not near any park called Woodgrange.

Advert for the new line July 1894

The early success of the Tottenham and Forest Gate was not sustained. The line does not go directly to any central London terminus (though strangely in the 1940s it ran an all-night service as well as through trains to St Pancras on Sundays and in the middle of the night!) Also, unlike the Shenfield route through Forest Gate station, the line was not electrified in the 1940s. 

For many years it remained a Cinderella service, kept going partly because it was a useful route for the substantial amount of freight coming from the industries and docks of south Essex. In 1963 the line was earmarked for closure under the Beeching plans, but as most of Beeching's proposals for London were not implemented, it remained open. 

Station looking the worse for wear, 1967

Nevertheless it was allowed to fall into a poor state of repair and reliability; by 1980 there was only one train an hour, running between the old terminus of Kentish Town and Barking. The station canopies were gradually demolished, ticket offices were phased out and stations were left unstaffed. In 1981 Gospel Oak became the terminus, but the line continued to be neglected, even after being franchised to Silverlink (a train operating company owned by National Express) in 1997.

Wanstead Park station before the station canopy and platform gas lights were removed in the 1980s

Finally a corner was turned in 2007 when London Overground took over the line.

Since then there has been a marked improvement in services; electrification in 2018 and the introduction of new, longer trains in 2019 has greatly increased the popularity of the line. Proof that if a railway offers what passengers (sorry, customers) want, they will use it.