Bishops Park: the early history

At the end of the nineteenth century the population of Fulham was increasing rapidly and in London generally there was a call for public spaces to be made available to improve public health and to provide an alternative to the drinking houses, dogfights and boxing matches and the commercial pleasure gardens such as Vauxhall and Ranelagh. The view was that a park should “by degrees train and educate the people to neatness in dress, habit of order, and respectability of conduct and behaviour”.(1)

Bishops Park was originally part of the grounds of Fulham Palace. It is a strange shape with a long area beside the river, a spur reaching up to the Fulham Palace Road and a very thin, little used, area bordering the Fulham Palace Road. In the middle are Fulham Palace and the allotments. Each section was added to the park at different times over a period of about 20 years and was deliberately designed for different activities: promenading along the river, refreshment and education, sport and children.

The following diagram was designed by Sandy Miller for her book The Creation of Bishops Park* and is useful when explaining the different areas.

Bishops Park plan

Bishops Park plan

Following a public meeting in 1883, the Bishop of London offered the area, Bishops Meadow (area 1 in pink), between the Palace moat and the river to the Vestry, then the equivalent of the local authority.

The offer was not quite as generous as first appeared as the area was described as a “malodorous line of foreshore backing a forlorn stretch of marsh land, unkempt and unsavoury … a sort of no man’s land, a nuisance to the palace and an eyesore to the public”. (2) It was a marshy, dangerous rubbish tip bordered by a very polluted river.

It took the Vestry eight years to do something about the park and then not until the Ecclesiastical Commissioners threatened to withdraw their offer. In the Vestry’s defence, there was an enormous amount to do to the local infrastructure in Fulham generally what with new roads, street names, horse troughs, drainage and sewerage, public urinals, rubbish collections and much else, so it was perhaps unsurprising that the park was not top of their agenda. Before any landscaping could take place, the meadow had to be protected from flooding by creating an embankment and building a river wall. The park was formally opened in 1893 and celebrated in the Illustrated London News:

Illustrated London News 30/12/1893

Illustrated London News 30/12/1893

There was space for exercise, paths and seats for perambulating and relaxing, and a tree lined river walk. The park’s name was changed to Fulham Park in 1902 and then back to Bishops Park four years later, so these postcards probably date from that period.

Postcard of Fulham Park

Postcard of Fulham Park

Postcard of Fulham Park

Postcard of Fulham Park

In the meantime, West Meadow had been added to the park in 1891 and opened in 1896 (area 2 yellow). The square of land closest to the river was for public entertainment and contained the inevitable bandstand (for listening only, no dancing allowed). The bandstand survived until 1959 when it was replaced by a summer theatre but this was vandalised in 1990 and pulled down in 1994.

Postcard of the Bandstand

Postcard of the Bandstand

The remainder of the meadow was used, as it is now, for sport. In 1902 a nursery and greenhouses were built at the top of the area, next to the lodge. This was used for bedding plants by the park gardeners until 1980 and in 1984 the charity, Fairbridge, took over the site. It is now closed while the present owners, The Princes Trust, decide what to do with it.

Vine Cottage, its gardens and outbuildings were acquired by the Vestry in 1894, demolished in 1897, and the present Pryor’s Bank pavilion constructed and opened in 1900 (area 3 green). This was to be the area for education and a refreshment room, reading and waiting rooms were included in the plan and newspapers and illustrated weeklies and monthlies provided.

Pryor’s Bank 1903

Pryor’s Bank 1903

It was at the entrance from Putney Bridge with a formal garden designed to impress.

Riverwalk at Pryor’s Bank

Riverwalk at Pryor’s Bank

While the work on Pryor’s Bank was underway, the council was thinking about how to extend the park to provide more recreational space, particularly for cricket, and in 1899 the Ecclesiastical Commissioners were persuaded to give it the meadow between the park and Craven Cottage, then occupied by a Mr Fielder (area 4 blue). The western section was turfed for a cricket pitch:

Cricket Field

Cricket Field

The eastern end was designed around an ornamental lake with a rustic wooden bridge over the narrow part and terracotta balustrades. There would be separate activities: exercise for small children on the beach (known as Margate Sands as the sand was originally brought from Margate) and the paddling area, a quiet croquet lawn or bowling green “for those unable to indulge in more violent exercise” and the more formal western area for recreations such as “picnicking and botanising”. The area opened in 1903 and was immensely popular. The lake was divided in 1937 and made shallower but the beach remained until the 1950s.

The Sketch 11 August 1909 - 'The seaside in London. Paddling in Bishops Park, Fulham'

The Sketch 11 August 1909 – ‘The seaside in London. Paddling in Bishops Park, Fulham’

In 1928 it was still as popular:

Margate Sands and paddling pool

Margate Sands and paddling pool

The last section of the park was added in the 1920s. The then Bishop of London decided to fill in the moat and offered the council the section of the moat between the Kings Head pub and Bishops Avenue (section 5, dark green).

Postcard of the Avenue and Moat at Bishops Park, postmarked 2013

Postcard of the Avenue and Moat at Bishops Park, postmarked 2013

The Moat Garden opened in 1924 and in 1926 the council was further offered the area between it and the allotments provided it was used as a children’s playground (area 6 purple). In 1954 a portion of the garden was given up for a school and in 1971 an Adventure Playground was opened as reported in the local paper:

Report in local newspaper

Report in local newspaper

Playground

Playground

There is no sign of any playground nowadays. There is a conservation area, a nature trail and teaching area. Ancient Monument legislation prohibits cultivation deeper than two feet.

[Fiona Fowler, Local History volunteer]

[1] May, J Sanitary measures in a provincial town and their results, 1857

[2] The London Argus, 25 July 1903

*More information can be found in “The History of Bishops Park: a people’s park” by Sandy Miller (2011) available in the Archives and from Fulham Palace and Nomad Bookshop.

All the images come from the LBHF Archives except the last photograph of the Adventure Playground taken in 1978 by Terry Austin-Smith

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