Image: Travis Elborough, 2014

Victoria Park Residency

Postcards from Victoria Park:
At the V&A Playground


by Travis Elborough


The V is for Victoria. But the A came as a surprise. Alexandra rather than Albert: the old Queen’s daughter in law, rather than her much-mourned German consort, with his hall, memorial and a kind of piercing. Albert very nearly got an east London park of his own too. A renaming for Clissold in Stoke Newington was mooted for a time, only to be discreetly forgotten all about. Here in Victoria Park, Alexandra once had a yacht club to call her own. Today however, she is reduced to sharing a playground with Victoria, their combined initials invariably putting most people in mind of someone or somewhere else, and further west. A museum in South Kensington, say, that lost its own original name in 1899. Just as Bonner’s Fields in Bow, a rough and ready commons that was home to political meetings, prize fights and gambling was remade and renamed Victoria Park, London’s first purpose-built public park. Also eradicated by James Pennethorne’s new sylvan landscape, with its water features, fences and pagoda on an island, though, were market gardens notorious for harbouring thieves; one remote cottage area known as Botany Bay after the destination of many of its inhabitants.  

Interestingly, members of the British crew who sailed aboard HMS Sirius to Botany Bay in 1788 to establish the notorious penal colony in Australia recorded that at first glance, the woodland there ‘resembled a… park, as much as if they had been intended for such a purpose.’ Commenting on this in The Fatal Shore, his history of Australia’s convict years, Robert Hughes wryly notes that after months at sea possibly ‘any land can look like Eden.’  

But then if Botany Bay in Bow was lost to Victoria Park, parks are, metaphorically at least, all about transportation. They are destinations in their own right; they take us out of the city and out of ourselves. There are often postcards of public parks to send and collect, as if they were far-flung and exotic locations. Their founding principles, like most new-found worlds, are utopian. To orientate ourselves in them, we consult their maps as eagerly as any sailor staving off scurvy with sauerkraut and peering at the horizon with a sextant for any hope of land back in the day. And in Victoria Park’s case, a much lighter on the rum, lash and hardtack boat trip can be enjoyed on the lake.  

Fanciful, perhaps, but the notion of the Victoria Park as a realm of exploration was possibly even underlined in 1862, at the official presentation of Angela Burdett-Coutts’s gargantuan high Gothic drinking fountain. Henry Cowper, then 1st Commissioner of Works, thanking the philanthropist and heir to the Coutts banking fortune for her gift, was moved to quote lines from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner – a poem inspired by the voyages to the southern hemisphere by James Cook and James Newton, the former captain of slave ships turned Christian evangelical abolitionist.  

And among Burdett-Coutts’s many other acts of philanthropy was also to endow the bishopric of Adelaide, and, with Charles Dickens, she set up the House of Urania – a refuge for ‘fallen women’ in Lime Grove. After spending a year in Urania Cottage and having proved themselves capable of abstaining from ‘the oldest profession’, the women were given supervised free places on emigrant ships to Australia. Though as Dickens was to complain, many of the girls he attempted to coax off the streets of east London refused to take up the offer of the refuge and a new life in Australia because, in the view of the author of Great Expectations, they confused ‘emigration and transportation’.  

Even thirty years later, George Lansbury, the future leader of the Labour party who cut his teeth at political meetings and rallies in Victoria Park still wasn’t sure if there was that much difference.   As a child, Lansbury played in Victoria Park and recalled that as a boy he’d believed that the Pagoda on the island was inhabited by a Chinese family, who came out at night to tend to the plants and feed the ducks. Not unlike Burdett-Coutts, his name would also become attached to a park water feature (as well as a post-war Poplar housing estate). The bathing pool on the Serpentine in Hyde Park opened in 1930, and was christened the Lansbury Lido in his honour. But while Hyde Park keeps its pool, unlike the lido of Victoria Park, closed in 1989 and demolished soon afterwards, the name has gone, another erasure in a royal park.         

In 1884, aged twenty-five and with a young family to support, Lansbury had emigrated to Australia. Like many working class Londoners during this period, he’d been encouraged to emigrate by a campaign backed by the British and Queensland governments to find new settlers for the continent. Returning to East London two years later, broke and furious at the social conditions he’d found there, he immediately threw himself into local politics.  

One particular disappointment he’d suffered in Australia was a failure to see the touring England national cricket team play in Brisbane. The competition of that test promised to be intense, as this was just two years after Australia had beaten the English side at the Oval for the very first time. This breakthrough victory for the new nation had been celebrated by the publication of an obituary ‘in affectionate remembrance of English cricket’ in The Sporting Times. The paper reported that ‘the body’ was to be ‘cremated and the ashes taken to Australia’. What was actually burnt and with mock ceremony presented to winning team’s captain in an urn was the charred remains of the ball (cricket balls are composed of cork largely harvested from Portugal and bound in leather and string), and the two countries have competed for ‘the ashes’ ever since.  

To miss such a match for Lansbury, a keen follower of cricket, was all the more galling, as his memoir My Life makes plain, as he had been employed laying out the pitch in advance of the arrival of the English team. Two weeks of back-breaking labour at the Brisbane ground did not entitle him to a free seat. Made redundant the moment the pitch was completed, he was forced to take the first job available and was left with neither the funds for a ticket, nor the free time to attend any of the games.  

Back in Britain, it is hardly surprising that Lansbury went on to ceaselessly commit himself to improving the lot of working people. His self-confessed aim in life was ‘to chain down misery and set happiness free’. And his journey to parliament began at a place he’d been most happy in as a child: Victoria Park. Where presumably he also finally got to watch some cricket.


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