Saving Clissold Park: The four-year battle to secure public use

Clissold House as it looks today

Clissold House as it looks today - Credit: Archant

Clissold Park would have been built on in the 1880s if it wasn’t for a passionate campaign to preserve it for the public. The dramatic details have recently come to light, 127 years after it opened. Stoke Newington historian Amir Dotan provides a glimpse into the saga.

A campaign poster

A campaign poster - Credit: Archant

Clissold Park in Stoke Newington is one of Hackney’s most cherished open spaces. The park, which opened to the public in 1889, was throughout the 1880s in danger of being built on.

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 forever”, as similar battles to preserve open spaces took place across London.

The campaigners felt preserving the park would improve the health and well-being of people in the area, and also have economical benefits, as the area would become more desirable.

By the early 1880s, all open spaces in Stoke Newington except Clissold Park were transformed to suburban streets.

A map of the park from the 1880s

A map of the park from the 1880s - Credit: Archant

People like Joseph Beck were extremely concerned about losing an open space where people, especially the poor, could relax in the fresh air.

The long campaign, which consisted of three petitions, heated meetings and numerous articles in the press, is usually described in various sources in paragraph at best.

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

The meticulously documented letters and press clippings tell the riveting story of how the saga unfolded and the full extent of the drama as the success of the campaign was hanging on a thread throughout.

Clippings about the campaign

Clippings about the campaign - Credit: Archant

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

To purchase the park in its entirety, the rest of the money had to be raised from local parishes, which proved to be a difficult challenge.

The committee’s view was that while the park was in Stoke Newington and South Hornsey,

as an open space it would also benefit people in Hackney and Islington.

However, 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.

One might think people would be willing to pay to preserve 53 acres of open space at their doorstep.

In reality, there was fierce opposition, mainly in Islington and Hackney where locals felt the money could be better spent, the park was a “swamp” and Finsbury Park was close enough.

Islington was originally asked to contribute £10,000, which reduced to £5,000 and then £2,500. Hackney agreed to pay £5,000. Stoke Newington contributed £10,000 and South Hornsey £6,000.

Finally, in the summer of 1888 the Metropolitan Board of Works purchased the park. It opened officially on July 24, 1889 and people from all around the area have been enjoying it ever since.

The passionate Joseph Beck had this to say about the park: “It will be from the narrow streets of Shoreditch, from the pent-up alleys of Clerkenwell and Islington, that thousands and tens of thousands of our fellow beings will issue to enjoy the sweet breezes and lie under the shade of the old and handsome trees of Clissold Park.

“It will be on the soft grass that the little ones will romp and play and learn the charm of getting for a short time under the benignant of bright sunshine and fresh air.”

Find Amir tweeting at @HistoryOfStokey.