When they officially opened in 1895, the Island Gardens were the first public green space on the Island. Millwall Park was not created until 1920 (today it is still referred to as ‘new park’ by some old Islanders) and it would be the 1960s before John MacDougall Gardens and St John’s Park opened. That huge green space in the middle of the Island, the Mudchute, was officially off-limits and occasionally patrolled by Port of London Authority police until the late 1970s, when the Mudchute farm started.
The Island Gardens rightfully claimed, and still claim, a special place in the hearts of Islanders. Not just because the gardens offered a brief escape from an otherwise grey, industrial world, but because they provide one of the finest views in the country, a view that is certainly among the best historical city views in the world.
The view across the Thames to Greenwich, to the former Royal Naval College and Dreadnought Seaman’s Hospital, to the Cutty Sark, to Queen Mary’s House and the National Maritime Museum, across the park and up the hill to the Royal Observatory and the lone statue of General Wolfe. All of these can be taken in from a park bench in the Island Gardens. What better place for a hard-working docker or factory girl to sit awhile?
How strange it is to realize, then, that the Island Gardens owe their existence to an effort to improve the view from Greenwich and not of it?
From the mid-1800s, the Island was almost entirely covered in factories. Chimneys emitted foul and sulphurous fumes, and the ships on the Thames and in the docks were equally polluting. Medical inspector to Greenwich Hospital, John Liddell, complained that respiratory complaints among patients were rife. He wrote:
No casual visitor can fail to be struck with the dull & stupified air of a Greenwich Pensioner, or with the monotony & melancholy that pervade the Hospital, where one dull routine of existence is unchequered by any occupation or incident to beguile its weariness.
Liddell desired to create a healthy and pleasing environment to match that enjoyed by Chelsea Pensioners further up river. Amongst his recommendations was a scheme to purchase part of the riverside opposite the hospital, on the Isle of Dogs, an area which was not yet fully developed, in order to:
…prevent the total closure of its vista, and to shut out the annoyances of gloomy unsightly and offensive buildings, that are sure to be erected.
In other words, to hide the Isle of Dogs from view.
The land opposite Greenwich was owned by Lady Glengall and leased from her by William Cubitt. In 1852 they signed a 99-year sub-lease agreement with Greenwich Hospital. Initially, Lady Glengall stipulated that there should be no building at all on the land, but eventually she agreed to Cubitt’s idea for the creation of a well-to-do neighbourhood. It was to have landscaped gardens (a “plantation”) with imported trees and shrubs, and five large villas were to be built a little back from the river so they could not be seen from the hospital.
But, there was no interest from buyers; the wealthy businessmen that the development was expected to attract did not want to live on the Isle of Dogs. Close to 50 years later, only one villa had been built, and the land that had been set aside for gardens had become a public open space, but it was far from landscaped. Locally it was known as ‘scrap iron park’.
The end of the 19th century saw an energetic period of public park creation by the newly-formed LCC and other urban governments – understanding the importance of a healthy environment for city dwellers. In 1892, the LCC took over the land and the villa (named Osborne House). John James Selby described it in his 1905 book “The municipal parks, gardens, and open spaces of London; their history and associations”:
The ground when acquired for public purposes was in a very rough and neglected condition, and paths had to be formed, drained and fenced, which, together with other works, cost nearly £2,000. A residence had been built at one end of the ground, part of which is occupied by the foreman, whilst the remainder is used as a free library. Near the centre of the gardens an inexpensive bandstand, surrounded with a rockery, has been erected, where performances are given during the season. In a corner of the ground is a gymnasium ; but the principal feature of the laying out has been the formation of a gravelled promenade along the river-front, which is nearly 700 feet in length. This is liberally provided with seats, and affords splendid views of the river and its surroundings.
This map shows the transformation from ‘scrap iron park’ to Island Gardens. Wharf Rd was renamed Saunders Ness Rd at the same time, presumably designed to be a more attractive-sounding name. The new park was smaller than the original because land in the west was sold off for the construction of the North Greenwich Railway Station (where the rowing club and Calder’s Wharf social club are located today). Map source: British History Online.
On 3rd August 1895 the gardens were officially opened by Will Crooks, trade unionist and local politician who two years later would become the first Labour mayor of Poplar.
A couple of years later and the Island Gardens were confronted with a loss of part of their land. An 1897 act of parliament gave the go-ahead for the construction of a foot tunnel from the Island to Greenwich, and in 1899 a shaft was sunk in the south-west corner of Island Gardens. The tunnel was officially opened in 1902.
Side note: The opening of the tunnel led to the cross-river ferry companies going out of business. This in turn greatly reduced the travel options for football fans who were regularly crossing the river to see Millwall play on the Island, a significant reduction in crowd sizes which led Millwall to make its move ‘over the water’.
Osborne House’s library function ended in 1905, when the public library on Strattondale St opened. It then became a refreshment house.
In 1980 Tower Hamlets Borough Council built the new café with its teapot and cup brickwork design. In 1985 new gates and railings were installed in as part of a general scheme of improvements.
In 2013 an application was made to use a corner of the park as a community centre. Although this was not in a green part of the gardens, it led to a huge amount of protest from Islanders and the application was denied.
Now, at the end of 2013, the gardens are threatened again. Not by a development that would claim the land, but by a plan to build flats along its western boundary. The building would overshadow that side of the gardens and even proposes replacing the boundary wall with a fence in order to open up the view into the park (which of course means also opening up the view of the flats from the gardens). A “Friends of Island Gardens” organization has set up an online petition to protest against this development: http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/threat-to-island-gardens-conservation-area-and-greenwic.html
For close to 120 years (far longer if you include Scrap Iron Park) the Island Gardens have served as a place of rest and recreation for generations of Islanders and visitors who want to rest and admire the view. Clearly, the gardens need all they friends they can get.