East End’s Vicky Park voted People’s Choice as Britain’s best open space

PUBLISHED: 16:00 22 October 2015 | UPDATED: 16:16 22 October 2015

Mayor John Biggs gets rough ride on dodgems in the summer with 'co driver' Cllr Asma Begum

Mayor John Biggs gets rough ride on dodgems in the summer with 'co driver' Cllr Asma Begum

TH Council

A vast green space first laid out by Victorian town planners as London’s “fresh air lungs” to stop industrial expansion swallowing up what remained of open countryside east of The City has been voted People’s Choice as Britain’s favourite public open space yet again.

2014... Creative Unity steel band celebrating last year's People's Choice win2014... Creative Unity steel band celebrating last year's People's Choice win

That stretch of greenery known fondly as ‘Vicky Park’ is east London’s ‘jewel in the crown’ stretching from the Regent’s Canal at Bethnal Green to Hackney Wick and Old Ford, which gets Keep Britain Tidy’s top Green Flag award for the second year running and the third year since 2012.

Now the annual fireworks show planned by Tower Hamlets council on November 7, two days after Guy Fawkes Night, will be a special celebration.

“Victoria Park has done it again,” the council’s lead member for culture Asma Begum boasted. “It’s a huge place in the hearts of the people of East London.”

Family of ducks at the park lakeFamily of ducks at the park lake

An official presentation is being staged next Thursday in The Hub community building in the park with a small family fun day organised by park staff.

Around nine million people visited Vicky Park last year, it is estimated, including 275,000 spectators to its music festivals.

Green Flag Award manager Paul Todd said: “The huge number of public votes we received show just how important parks and green spaces are to people.

Children's 'cardboard city' in the summerChildren's 'cardboard city' in the summer

“Victoria Park is a worthy winner of the 2015 People’s Choice award.”

The park had a £12 million makeover for the 2012 Olympics when it staged events that attracted well-over a-million visitors in a fortnight that summer.

Historic monuments were restored, new skate park and play equipment were put in, a community café opened and the famous Chinese pagoda destroyed by fire in 1958 was rebuilt.

Children's 'Workbook' project at the park's Hub centre in 2014Children's 'Workbook' project at the park's Hub centre in 2014

Victoria Park opened to the public in 1845. Sickness among the working class in Victorian London was a huge problem and mortality rates in the East End were far higher than elsewhere.

So a park was laid out, supported Queen Victoria herself, to create east London’s fresh-air lungs.

But it wasn’t long before the 220 acres were in danger from industrial expansion, when the Gas Light & Coke Company wanted to build a gasworks at Victoria Park.

Taxi drivers' annual day trip for underpriviliged kids settiing off from Vicky Park in 2010  for Southend-on-SeaTaxi drivers' annual day trip for underpriviliged kids settiing off from Vicky Park in 2010 for Southend-on-Sea

It led to campaign in November, 1866, with a deputation by “a society for the preservation and extension” of the park which lobbied Parliament. “The people of the East-end set their faces against any further encroachments of the gas companies,” the local press reported.

The people won the day and Vicky Park was saved for future generations.

The campaigners favoured extending the park to London Fields, Well Street Common, Hackney Marshes and even Hackney Downs, but that never happened.

Making a splash... children paddle in the park lake, 1950sMaking a splash... children paddle in the park lake, 1950s

The park today has many historic oddities. Two pedestrian stone alcoves can be found near the Hackney Wick war memorial that are surviving fragments of the old London Bridge demolished in 1831. A public drinking fountain was paid for by Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts in the 1860s to stop people thirsty enough drinking from the bathing lakes.

Victoria Park became a centre for political meetings and rallies, with textile designer and socialist William Morris one of the first radicals who drew in the crowds.

The world’s first model boat club has been meeting at the Victoria Park lake since 1904, still holding 17 Sunday regattas a year, the first traditionally on Easter Sunday.

Victoria Park at war

- Vicky Park, largely closed to public during Second World War, used as an anti-aircraft gun site targeting the Luftwaffe heading to the London Docks.

- First anti-aircraft rocket guns tested March 1943, causing false air-raid alert at Bethnal Green that led to Britain’s worst wartime civilian disaster, when panicking crowds in the street rushed into an underground air-raid shelter causing a crush in which 173 people died.

- Public air-raid shelter at St Mark’s Gate gets a direct hit, killing 15 people and trapping 100 others.

- PoW camps erected in park to house German and Italian prisoners.

Norman Phelps, who died in 2011 aged 80, had been its president for several decades, a member for 75 years since he was a boy.

He married a girl from Sewardstone Road he met at a dance at Hackney Town Hall.

The young couple raced boats together—and became legendary in the world of model engineering.

Historic moments in the park

1845: Chinese pagoda arrives, built originally for 1842 Chinese festival at Hyde Park, destroyed by fire 1958, replaced 2012.

1860: Two pedestrian stone alcoves created 1760 for the old London Bridge demolished in 1831 are erected near Hackney Wick, Grade II-listed since 1951.

1865: Public drinking fountain is paid for by Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts.

1866: Campaign launched to stop Gas Light & Coke Company building its gasworks. A deputation lobbies Parliament with the people “setting their faces against further encroachments of the gas companies.”

1904: Victoria Model Steam Boat club holds first gathering at the lake, still holds 17 regattas a year.

Victoria Park played a strategic role in the Second World War when it was largely closed to the public and used as an anti-aircraft gun site targeting Luftwaffe bombers heading to the London Docks. PoW camps were also erected in the park to house German and Italian prisoners.

Nowadays, some of the world’s biggest music acts have performed in the park, beginning with The Clash at an Anti-Nazi League event.

Lovebox has been held each summer since 2005, with artists including Blondie, Florence & The Machine, Chaka Khan and Hot Chip.

But the noise and late-night crowds haven’t gone down well with those living nearby.

Petitions have been organised over the years urging the local authority not to allow so many commercial events in the summer months, weekend after weekend—on top of the disturbances one year from events staged for the 2012 Olympics.

But Vicky Park is by far the People’s favourite, voted London’s Best local park by Time Out in 2008 and awarded its first Green Flag four years later.

It was voted best park in the UK in the People’s Choice awards in 2012, then regaining the title in 2014 after narrowly missing out in 2013 coming second.

This week’s award has made Vicky Park Britain’s favourite for the third time.

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