On 23rd May 2015, we followed up last year’s Bombs to BMX talk on the history of the the area by bringing the account of the making of the park almost up to date. Once again, we were privileged to have an auspicious line-up of guests, and the panel included some of the key players from the park’s growing years:
David Sadler MBE (former Burgess Park Manager) Joyce Bellamy OBE (GLC Parks Department) and Robert Hadfield (former vice-chair of Groundwork Southwark), chaired admirably by Barbara Pattinson (Chair of SE5 Forum)
David Sadler kicked things off in a relaxed style with his own memories of the challenges of running the park day to day. Metaphorically and literally down to earth stuff. He’d been Deputy Park Manager (working for the London County Council) for a few years in the 1960s and recalled helping plant some of the very first trees of what was then known as the “North Camberwell Open Space”. It would eventually be renamed Burgess Park – even though, as he later recounted, if the local schools had had their way, it would universally have been named Georgie Best Park.
Schools involvement was later a big part of his work – the nature area on Cobourg road for instance, where school groups were invited along to study wildlife reclaiming a bomb-site.
Having moved on to work in West Kensington, no less, it was a call from out of the blue that queued up a mystery promotion opportunity. It proved, of course, to be Burgess Park. Despite some friendly dismay (“why do you want to go there? it’s not even a park!?”), David returned to Camberwell, and the streets he’d known as a boy, now as Parks Manager. He would stay throughout the 70s, until the abolition of the GLC in 1986, when “we all found ourselves very suddenly out of a job”. But before then there were colourful stories of run-ins with the Richardsons on Neate Street, Cypriot festivals, discoveries of warehouses full of contraband whisky and even a proud turning point visit from the Duke of Edinburgh himself in 1985 – rudely derailed by the Brixton Riots.
Joyce Bellamy followed – always engaging, and once again on fine form. Joyce gave a very clear account of the painstaking piecemeal acquisition of land that went to build up the green space – over literally decades. She recalled the sheer scale of endeavour involved in decontaminating every inch of acquired ground – like the creosote contaminated ex-timber-yard plots. Over in Addington Square there’d been a scientific instrument makers, painting dials with gow-in the-dark paint, where “the soil in that area ticked when it was tested” [for radioactivity, with a Geiger counter]. The square, she noted as an aside, lacks tall trees in the centre to this day, because of the air raid shelter beneath it.
As ever Joyce displayed her usual knack for marrying big ideas to on-the-ground details, such as the local impact of the Civic Amenities Act, and recalling a later period “when the police had seemingly decided that all trees harbour muggers”. But her overarching tone was clear – one of quiet pleasure in seeing the park today blooming, and especially looking so well used.
Robert Hadfield’s take reflected a later age, where grand visions were viewed a little more warily. Southwark Council had acquired the park rather suddenly in the mid 80s, and it seems initially nobody was quite sure what to do with it. Robert recalled with horror some of the dubious past plans (all thankfully fought off) to sell off plots of park land, noting in hindsight how they’d always occurred in June, July, & August when there were no Council meetings and the officers ran riot… There was almost a touch of W1A farce in some of the stories, including one of a war memorial being nicked, then spotted on the back of a lorry in east London and chased into the suburbs, later to be returned to its spot in front of St George’s church. On the surreal landscape of residual derelict buildings awaiting outright demolition, was the observation that they provided both hazard and resource alike – to eagle-eyed Robert on the lookout for a bit of skirting board or spare parts from the car-breakers’ yards.
But Robert’s overall theme was a cheerful reminder – that despite the highs and lows, and even the odd collective ghastly moment, the park always has been used and enjoyed by thousands, day-in day-out.
After a brief interval with refreshments and exhibition, the second half was given over to a lively audience question session. It was great to see a few familiar faces in the audience, such as Tim Charlesworth (author of “THE STORY OF BURGESS PARK – FROM AN INTRIGUING PAST TO A BRIGHT FUTURE”, and a memorable guest speaker last year), and the good folk of the Walworth Society.
We hope the supporting exhibition went down well – our thanks to Southwark Local History Library & Archive for permission to reproduce some of the images.
Finally a word of thanks to the Wells Way Pop-Up, who hosted us beautifully, providing seating and café.
Listen to Part 1 – presentations from the three speakers, following introductions from Susan Crisp – Friends of Burgess Park and Chair Barbara Pattinson – chair of SE5 Forum:
Listen to Part 2 – Questions from the floor: