Park stories

Clissold park stories, both current and historical

Celebrating 125 years of Clissold Park

Clissold Park first opened its gates to the public in 1889. During 2014 we held several events to celebrate its 125th birthday.

Family Party
On 21 June we held a big party in the park with food, music and lots of activities for children and families. It was a beautiful, sunny day and hundreds of people turned up to join the festivities.

Restoration of the memorial fountain
The park opened on 24 July 1889 so on the exact anniversary, a sunny Thursday evening in July, we gathered to unveil the newly restored memorial drinking fountain which celebrates the efforts of Joseph Beck and John Runtz who campaigned to save the land from development.

The unveiling was carried out by the great, great, great grandchildren of Jospeh Beck and three generations of the family came along to join the party and share the cake. We were also delighted to be joined by our great local poet, John Hegley, who shared a spontaneously composed poem with us:

What used to be where we now stand
Was once a stretch of common land
And there was danger this land could
Be a stranger to the public good.

But Mister Runtz and Mister Beck
Kept private ownership in check
And by the two St. Mary’s steeples
They secured it for the peoples.

In my pram, I knew this park
Not long after Noah’s ark.
We’re here to mark this Clissold Fountain
125 – alive and countin’

Famous photos
As a lasting momento of our celebrations, we restaged two of the more famous photographs from the archive, the gathering on the lawn of the Clissold House taken on the opening day in 1889 and a postcard of the fountain taken early in the 20th century

Celebratory Fireworks
The final celebration of the year was the spectacular Fireworks Display that took place on 8 November. This was the first public display organised by the Council in over a decade and, despite miserable weather, over 6,000 people turned up to enjoy the entertainments, food and festivities. Many more enjoyed the fireworks from beyond the park gates.

Restoring the park

Ken Worpole, our Honorary President, and Chair of the group for many years, describes the process:

A long wait, but worth the effort!
The story of how the lottery bid was finally won goes back to the mid-1990s when a group of local people concerned at the deteriorating state of the mansion in Clissold Park formed the Clissold House Trust.

This was with a view to securing funds from English Heritage to restore the structure and fabric of the building. Though this initiative failed in its attempt to raise money from this source, it was invaluable in preparing the ground for the Clissold Park User Group (CPUG) to start campaigning for a combined bid for park and house to the Heritage Lottery Fund’s (HLF) ‘Urban Parks Programme’. This began at the end of the 1990s.

From then on the CPUG officers lobbied councillors and council officers to develop and submit a major bid to the HLF, though on two occasions these were withdrawn on HLF advice for further work. A third bid was submitted in 2006 and secured HLF approval for development funding in early 2007. Extensive consultation and development of the Stage Two work plan followed, principally undertaken by Richard Griffiths Architects (for the house) and LDA Design (for the landscape elements), and was further approved by the HLF, now jointly funding the project with the Big Lottery Fund.

Work on site began in 2010 and the full restoration was finally completed in January 2012, with the opening of Clissold House to the public once again.

There has been enormous public approval of the restoration of the house and the extensive landscaping and refurbishment of the park – particularly the children’s playground, along with the extension of the New River and the treatment of the river edges, the refurbishment of the animal enclosures and new path systems, the complete renewal of the bowling green pavilion, the design and planting of the terrace gardens to the south of Clissold Mansion, and in many other aspects of the park’s historic setting.

In all, some £8.9 million was spent on the restoration, during which user surveys showed that Clissold Park was now getting some 2 million visits a year, making it one of the most popular and much loved places in London, and now looking better than it has been for many, many years.

Virgina Woolf comes to Clissold Park (and has thoughts about Clissold Park mothers)

Stoke Newington was a well known place of residence for well-to-do families of Dissenting or Nonconformist religious views, none more so than James Stephen (1758 – 1832), the grandfather of Sir Leslie Stephen, and therefore great-grandfather of Virginia Woolf.

He established home at Summerhouse (now Summerhouse Road), close to Abney House (later Abney Park). His neighbours included Samuel Hoare and his two sons, Samuel Hoare Junior and Jonathan Hoare. It was the latter who had Clissold House built for himself and his family in 1793, which now occupies the centre of Clissold Park, both beautifully restored.

James Stephen, a lawyer by profession, was also an MP from 1808 to 1815, and was regarded as the one of the prime movers of the 1807 Slave Trade Act. His fine tomb occupies a prominent place in St Mary¹s churchyard, as the photograph suggests. His wife Sarah (the sister of William Wilberforce) who died in 1816 is also buried in St Mary’s churchyard.

In her sympathetic but at times critical book about Virginia Woolf, historian Alison Light, recounts the story of the day Woolf decided to visit Stoke Newington to find the graves of her illustrious ancestor. It makes uncomfortable reading, as Light suggests:

In July 1937 Virginia had another of her field days and made an outing to the family tomb of her ancestors in a little churchyard in Stoke Newington, a suburb of North London, far off her usual beat.

She read the inscription put up by her great-grandfather James Stephen, to his friend and brother-in-law William Wilberfoce, who had fought for the abolition of slavery, and then she wandered into the public park, Clissold Park, which abutted the ancient church.

There too was the elegant, white-pillared house to which the Stephens had moved from the noisome city in the late eighteenth century. For a moment she imagined James Stephen studying The Times and his wife cutting roses:
‘now it smelt’, she wrote the next day in her diary, ‘of Clissold Park mothers; & cakes & tea; the smell – unpleasant to the nose – of democracy’.
Virginia had stopped to look at the deer in the park – some said there was a kangeroo – before she went home, despite, or perhaps because of, her observations, much refreshed by all this.

(Alison Light, Mrs Woolf & the Servants, Penguin Books, 2008, pp 254 – 255)

You can easily find the tomb of James Stephen, and from there wander into Clissold Park, just as Woolf did on that day, a day which brought out some of the best of her sympathies and some of the worst of her class anxieties too.

We are grateful to historian Bill Schwarz for bringing this passage to our attention.