Tucked away in the centre of Newham is West Ham Park which covers 77 acres and is managed by the City of London Corporation following purchase of the land in 1874 from the Gurney family, who still have four seats on the management committee.
The Green Flag inspection in 2006 noted there was no Friends group, and the City of London Corporation called a public meeting at which the group was established. A member of the park management team attends Friends meetings, and the group works closely with the management team.
We aim to encourage the local community to make the most of this precious resource in this densely populated, deprived borough, and to raise awareness of nature. Newham has the least green space per capita in London.
We run public events such as guided bird watching, bat watching and stargazing. We run a community vegetable garden and lead regular health walks. We hold an annual ‘Biggest Leaf Pile’ event, which is enormously popular, especially the part when all the children (and some adults) jump in the pile.
This kind of free play is not usually available to children living in high density housing and these events could not take place without volunteer planning and delivery.
The Park includes an historic garden of 7 acres which was owned by Dr John Fothergill, a Quaker physician and plant collector, in the eighteenth century. The garden was regarded by Sir Joseph Banks as second only to Kew. Dr Fothergill sponsored exploration, including the journeys of Captain Cook, in return for plant specimens for his collection.
He had a large area of glasshouses for plants from warmer climes and was also one of the first in England to successfully grow a large tea bush (Camellia sinensis). He employed the best artists of the day to record and illustrate his collection, including Ann Lee and George Ehret.
We wanted to raise awareness of the history of the park, and to highlight the beautiful ornamental garden. We created two temporary exhibitions in 2018 and 2019, showing historical information and introducing the history of botanical illustration in relation to the works commissioned by Dr Fothergill.
These were sold after his death, to Catherine the Great of Russia, and are not currently on display in Russia. We have a long-term aim to trace these illustrations, which we know are somewhere in the archives of the Komarov Institute in St Petersburg.
The temporary exhibitions received a great deal of interest, and we have now been able to install a permanent exhibition in the historic rose garden. It features reproductions of work by artists known to have worked for Dr Fothergill.
The Friends group obtained grants and did all the research for the exhibition, including obtaining permissions to use the historic images and making contact with the Komarov. Luckily, we have a Russian speaker in our group as well as a very knowledgeable researcher.
The partnership between the Friends group and the park management and staff, including the park keepers and gardeners, has made this addition to the garden possible. It is being enjoyed by many visitors and already being used by local schools to tie in with subjects on the National Curriculum.
The Park includes a three-acre site used for glasshouses and operational buildings. This formerly provided all the bedding plants for the park, and for all the gardens within the City of London. It also grew all the flowers used for floral arrangements at Guildhall banquets.
Changes in fashions for flower arrangements, and reduction in the use of annual bedding plants in favour of more perennial planting, resulted in this plant nursery being uneconomical to run, and it closed in 2016.
Public opinion in the area strongly favours this site being turned into additional parkland, with possibly a café and community room to improve on current facilities. The staff rooms and equipment sheds would also remain on the site.
However, the City of London Corporation wish to derive some income from the site, and plan to use most of the area for a development of apartment blocks. As already mentioned, Newham has the least green space per capita of any London Borough and is also one of the most deprived boroughs.
The Friends of West Ham Park are watching closely the progress of plans for this area. No planning application has yet been submitted to Newham by the City of London Corporation, but we are gathering evidence of the historical, ecological and community value of the park, and raising awareness of the importance of returning this area to open space rather than housing.
We feel certain that what is planned is unlikely to be the social housing which Newham needs, and we plan to vigorously fight to gain the area as open space for the local community to enjoy.