While staying in London over Christmas, I walked through Battersea Park for the first time in over thirty years. Perhaps because it’s not a Royal Park, (it’s owned by the London Borough of Wandsworth), its had the freedom to change and develop. What other park in London has views over the River Thames, an art gallery, an exhibition centre, a children’s zoo, an adventure playground, a Peace Pagoda, a bandstand, a boating lake, sports facilities and a few hidden secrets?
HISTORY: Battersea Park was officially opened to the public by Queen Victoria on March 28th, 1858 on a site that was created by merging part of Battersea Common and Battersea Fields with reclaimed Thames marshland. The idea was first presented to the Royal Commission for ‘Improving the Metropolis’ in 1843 by the Hon. Rev. Robert Eden and Thomas Cubitt, a leading master builder. A friend of Prince Albert, Cubitt was involved with the design of Osborne House and the building of the east front of Buckingham Palace with its famous balcony.
Covering over two hundred acres, John Gibson as Park Superintendent was responsible along with James Pennethorne, for the layout of the gardens. In 1835, Gibson had travelled via South Africa and Madiera to India on a botanic expedition paid for by the Duke of Devonshire and had brought back orchids and other exotic plants. By planting a shelter belt of trees and rocks, Gibson created a micro-climate at Battersea and in 1863, the Subtropical Garden was opened. It included palms, tree-ferns, India-rubber trees, castor-oil plants and Japanese honeysuckle and Chinese privet. Gibson was also responsible for introducing to England the fashion of ‘carpet-bedding’, mixing brightly-coloured bedding plants with exotics. [Read more about the History of Gardens on my website]
Besides horticulture, the Park was also a sporting venue: on 9th January, 1864, the first exhibition football game was played here under the rules of the recently formed Football Association and it was also the home of the Wanderers Football Club who won the first FA Cup in 1872. In 1889, the Park came under the jurisdiction of the newly formed London County Council and was used during the two World Wars for defence (it housed a barrage balloon and an anti-aircraft and radio station) and for growing vegetables.
The first suggestion for an international exhibition to commemorate the centenary of the 1851 Great Exhibition came from the Royal Society of Arts in 1943. Two years later, the government appointed Lord Ramsden to explore the possibility but after the devastation of the Second World War, the Labour government decided it was more appropriate to focus on Britain’s achievements in Science, Technology and the Arts. The Festival of Britain’s aim was to make the British feel good about themselves and to have ‘faith in the nation’s future’.
With a budget of £12 million, fairs were held all over the UK and Battersea Park was chosen to celebrate the Arts through the creation of the Festival Pleasure Gardens. James Gardner (known all over the design world as ‘G’), the artist John Piper, the cartoonist Osbert Lancaster and the garden designer and landscape architect, Russell Page worked together on the project with Page having overall responsibility for the planting. Near each structure, Page chose bedding plants which he believed complemented the buildings; the riverside kiosks were painted pale blue and white so Page devised a colour scheme of white, blue and yellow flowers. In some areas, shrubs and perennials were planted with salmon-pink rhododendrons brought in from the Exbury Estate. Page wrote:
‘Here at Battersea, against acres of exuberant colour and fantastic painted arabesques, conventional planting or even solid patterns of flower colour could have entirely the wrong effect…Finally I saw that I must mix my flower colours, plant in wide pools and drifts, let pale pinks overlap into clear lemon yellow, interplant orange with red-purple and use every device I could so that texture, colour, size and shape would combine to make all the flower plantings sparkle, shimmer and seem to move in contrast to the bright, flat and static surfaces of paint’.
In 1966, the Park became the responsibility of the Greater London Council although plans to rejuvenate the Park were not approved until 1984; after the abolition of GLC two year later, the London Borough of Wandsworth took over its ownership.
The Peace Pagoda was built near the River in 1985 by the Nipponzan Myohoji Order of Japanese Buddhist Monks and is looked after by a resident monk.
Thrive, a charity that provides horticultural training and therapy to gardeners with physical disabilities and/or mental health issues, arrived at Battersea Park in 2002. They look after three gardens here including the Old English Garden which was redesigned by Sarah Price in 2012 and is maintained with funding from Jo Malone Limited, now owned by Estee Lauder.