The History and legacy of Meath Gardens

Meath Gardens, formerly Victoria Park Cemetery, was officially opened by HRH the Duke of York on July 20th, 1894. As reported in the Penny Illustrated, the former burial ground represented ‘all that was dismal and squalid’ and was described as a ‘shameful blot to the neighbourhood of Bethnal Green.’ Its conversion into a ‘fair and wholesome pleasure resort’ was supported by the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association (MPGA), which, by 1900, converted almost 60 former burial grounds and disused cemeteries in the capital into gardens and parks.  

 

Victoria Park Cemetery

The land around here was first purchased in 1840 by Charles Salisbury Butler, a Member of Parliament for Tower Hamlets (1852-1868). Butler sold the land for the purposes of establishing a privately-run cemetery.  Victoria Park Cemetery when it was opened in 1846, was initially well managed. However, the cemetery, which was never consecrated, soon developed a reputation for being amongst the worst of the East End private cemeteries. This led The Times newspaper in 1856 to call the cemetery a ‘loathsome place’ and to write of its ‘revolting practices.’

Like so many such cemeteries, it proved a poor private venture in this poverty-stricken area of London and the owners eventually went out of business. By the time it was closed to burials in 1876, it was estimated to contain some 100,000 bodies, almost three quarters of whom were children. The ground fell into disuse and its 'gruesome state' was later described by Lt. Col J J Sexby of the London County Council (LCC) Parks Department: '...with its yawning chasms, rank grass, and mutilated monuments'; ‘a disgrace and a scandal’. Sexby also writes that the abandoned space became “the resort of loafers and roughs of the East End who came here to gamble and amuse themselves by the wanton destruction of the decaying property’.

 

Philanthropy and Conversion into Meath Gardens

The MPGA, which was founded by Lord Brabazon (later the Earl of Meath) in November 1882, aimed to convert ‘every morsel of land available’ into recreational space for the ‘inhabitants of the poorest and most densely populated’ parts of London. MPGA wrote to Charles Butler’s surviving son the Reverend J.B.D. Butler in 1885 to request conversion of Victoria Park Cemetery into a public park.   Although favourable to the idea, the cemetery conversion was held up for almost a decade due to a lack of funds and work did not start until 1893.

 

Fanny Wilkinson

One of the organisation’s members Fanny Wilkinson was tasked with landscaping the cemetery. She started to work as a professional gardener in 1884, working for several organisations including the MPGA and the Kyrle Society. A suffragiste and Britain’s first paid female Landscape Gardener, Wilkinson made it clear that she expected to be paid the same rate as a man and was a founder member of the Women's Agricultural and Horticultural International Union (1899).

Wilkinson was involved in many gardening projects in London, notably designing Goldsmith's Square in Hackney. As she noted, working with male gardeners was sometimes difficult: ‘often my customers prefer that their own men should work under me. This is often a stumbling block, since the gardeners occasionally imagine they know better, and they are often stupid and pigheaded’ (The Women’s Penny Paper, November 8, 1890). Wilkinson oversaw the transformation of many of the MPGA’s projects, and her work on Meath Gardens might be regarded as the pinnacle of this given its size and significance to the organization and the surrounding area.

Ms Wilkinson worked for over a year with a team of 30 men to conduct the grisly business of landscaping the 11-acre cemetery. In keeping with the majority of the MPGA’s work, the conversion did not involve the removal of those buried here. It would have been too colossal a task. Rather, the headstones were moved, and the completed regeneration retained some of the existing trees and included large open green spaces, a playground for children, exercise facilities and garden allotments. The park was re-named Meath Gardens after the Earl of Meath, the energetic Chairman of the MPGA, and the keys to it were handed over to Sir John Hutton (Chairman of the London County Council) at the opening ceremony; a gesture which symbolized the transfer of the park into the council’s long-term care.

 

 

Some of this landscaping remains today. You can also still see the old cemetery wall around much of the park, a small number of headstones and the Gothic stone entrance arch with the inscription “VPC 1845”.  It is worth noting that the woodland area in the southwest corner of Meath Gardens is listed in the National Forest Inventory of England.

King Cole (Bripumyarrimin)

One noteworthy unmarked grave in the park is that of an Aboriginal cricketer who was a team member of the first ever England Australian cricket tour in 1868. "King Cole" sadly contracted Tuberculosis whilst here and is buried in the grounds. There is a memorial plaque and Eucalyptus tree planted in his honour.   It is notable that 150 years later in June 2018, another Australian indigenous cricket team toured the UK and came to Meath Gardens to conduct a ceremony in his honour.  Cricket Australia funded the lectern to commemorate Kind Cole which is located next to the Eucalyptus tree.

1894 - 2009

After Meath Gardens was opened in 1894, it was run for many years by the London County Council (LCC) but fell into neglect with large parts of it virtually abandoned. It seems this neglect was largely due to the country’s economic circumstances and attitudes to green spaces at the time.

To the east of the site of Meath Gardens, on the banks of Regents Canal, there were two large warehouses, one of which was called “Victoria Works”.  The other contained coal and was part of the coal depot that spread across the railway to the south of Meath Gardens.  In the 1980’s there was a proposal to build on the Tower Hamlets Cemetery but because it had already turned itself into a woodland and because of the people buried there, this proposal did not happen.   In the 1990s, land along the southern edge of the gardens were acquired for housing.  The buildings comprising Suttons Wharf South were completed in 2008 and Suttons Wharf North a few years later.  It was at this time that Meath Gardens was further landscaped and extended to Regents Canal and a footbridge was built across the canal an opened in 2009.   During this time, a great many of the trees in the park were cut down.  In the early 2000s the warehouses on Regents canal were demolished and replaced with the modern housing blocks one sees today.

Present day regeneration

In 2015, a group of residents decided to mobilise the local community in Bethnal Green and established the Friends of Meath Gardens (FoMG).  A landscape strategy was developed, and local volunteers have started an ambitious planting programme for hundreds of shrubs, bulbs and native trees. In 2016, Meath Gardens was awarded a national Green Flag.

The Gardens are now a popular space for families, primary schools and youth groups. Planting days and other activities have brought residents leading to new friendships and a greater sense of pride and belonging. In July 2018, this work was recognized with a Community Tree Award from the Forestry Commission.  The Friends have also won the trust of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and received an Award of Excellence for the Community Engagement & Participation in December 2018. FoMG are being involved in other initiatives, such as the redesign of a Globe Town Market and “other greening initiatives across Bethnal Green”.

The group is open to all. For further information check the park’s notice boards, our Facebook page (Friends of Meath Gardens), instagram: friendsofmeathgardens and twitter: @friendsofmeath1

Sexby image showing new gardens.jpg
Fanny Wilkinson