Clissold Park for the people

Clissold Park would have been built on in the 1880s if it wasn’t for a passionate local campaign to preserve it for the public.

The vivid and dramatic details of the campaign have recently come to light with the discovery of a treasure trove of press clippings, letters and maps kept for 127 years by the family of the chief campaigner, Joseph Beck.

Amir Dotan, a Stoke Newington history enthusiast and Clissold Park User Group member, provides a glimpse into the saga that could very easily have ended differently.

Amir has also put an archive of documents and further information on a separate website:
» Visit and read about the history of saving clissold park (1884-1889)

Stoke Newington’s disappearing open spaces

The park, which opened to the public in 1889, was in danger of being built on throughout the 1880s. Chaired by Joseph Beck, a manufacturing optician from Stoke Newington, The Clissold Park Preservation Committee fought for four years to secure its purchase “for the recreation of the public for ever”.

Similar battles to preserve open spaces in the rapidly expanding metropolis were taking place across London.

The campaign to save Clissold Park

The campaigners felt strongly that preserving the park would improve the health and well-being of people in the area. It would also have economic benefits, making the area more desirable.

By the early 1880s all open spaces in Stoke Newington, except Clissold Park, had become suburban streets. The transformation was rapid and people, such as Joseph Beck, were extremely concerned about losing an open space where the public, especially the poor, could relax in the fresh air.

The Clissold Park museum in the attic

The long campaign consisted of  a 12,000 strong petition, heated meetings and numerous articles in the press – but the various sources that refer to it lack detail.

I recently came across an extensive collection documenting the campaign in fascinating detail. It had been passed down through the generations by Joseph Beck’s descendants.

The meticulously documented letters and press clippings tell how the riveting saga unfolded.  It details the full extent of the drama, with the success of the campaign hanging on a thread throughout.

The campaign’s many ups and downs

Out of the asking price of £95,000 (about £10 million in today’s money), the committee managed to secure £72,500 from the Charity Commissioners and the Metropolitan Board of Works.

In order to purchase the park in its entirety, the rest of the money had to be raised from the local parishes.

This proved to be a difficult challenge as parishes needed to be convinced to contribute the remainder. The committee’s view was that although the park was in Stoke Newington and South Hornsey, as an open space it would also benefit people in the nearby parishes of Hackney and Islington. However, this view wasn’t shared by everyone in Hackney.

Islington and inter-parish politics, among other factors, proved a major obstacle. Negative views regarding the proposed purchase were expressed and threatened to derail the campaign on multiple occasions.

Strong opposition

One might think people would be willing to pay to preserve 53 acres of open space on their doorstep. In reality there was fierce opposition, mostly in Islington and Hackney.

The main arguments against were:

    • The money could be better spent
    • The campaign was driven by wealthy home owners who didn’t want to see the value of their property depreciate if the park was lost
    • Finsbury Park was close enough
    • Islington and Hackney shouldn’t be asked to pay for a park which is outside their boundaries
  • Rates were high enough as it is
  • The park was a ‘swamp’ not worth buying.

Islington was originally asked to contribute £10,000. Following heated discussions that sum was reduced to £5,000 and eventually £2,500. Hackney agreed to pay £5,000. Stoke Newington contributed £10,000 and South Hornsey £6,000.

The park is finally secured for the public

Finally, in the summer of 1888 all the money was raised and passed to the Metropolitan Board of Works, who purchased the park.

It opened officially on the 24th of July, 1889.

Sadly, Joseph Beck and John Runtz, the chief-campaigners passed away two years later.

Listen to Joseph Beck’s 1888 letter to the Weekly Recorder, read by his great grandson, Jonathan Shaw, including a photo montage of the park.
>> Download a copy of the article [PDF]

Watch a slide show of How Clissold Park was Saved by the Public, for the Public from History of Stoke Newington