Post Memories: Park life! Exploring the history of Barking and Dagenham’s green spaces

Children playing on a roundabout at St Chads park in 1958

Children playing on a roundabout at St Chads park in 1958 - Credit: Archant

Parks are a crucial part of city living.

View through trees, across Barking Park's boating lake, with the steam boat Phoenix II on the water

View through trees, across Barking Park's boating lake, with the steam boat Phoenix II on the water and passers by - Credit: Archant

They provide a space for us to enjoy a bit of open air and, on rarer occasions, some sunshine, either with friends, family, or in splendid isolation.

The playground in Barking Park today

The playground in Barking Park today - Credit: Archant

There are 25 parks and open spaces spread throughout Barking and Dagenham, although, as the Post revealed last week, some of them have fallen into disrepair.

Community Ranger Loretta Roy

Community Ranger Loretta Roy - Credit: Archant

According to Valence House archivist Clare Sexton, many of the borough’s parks were established through the public park movement, which began in the 1830s and sprang out of a desire to improve people’s health in areas of overcrowding and disease.

They soon became symbols of civic pride and their clear benefits, not least in providing residents with attractive surroundings, meant local authorities actively sought to secure recreation grounds via changes in government legislation.

Barking Park was the first official public park in the borough.

It was opened on April 9, 1898, having been bought by the council from local landowners two years prior, and was formally referred to as the “Recreation Ground” at the time.

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The digging of the lake was carried out by local contractors, without the use of machinery, added Clare.

Some 30 years later, in 1928, the then Dagenham Urban District Council purchased Eastbrook Farm, which became Central Park, as well as part of Blackbush Farm, which is now known as St. Chad’s Park.

Valence House and the Valence Park grounds were also acquired at this time.

“At the outbreak of the Second World War, a number of parks in the borough took on a whole new function,” explained Clare.

“They were either turned into allotments in order to grow food, or had anti-aircraft guns installed.”

Mayesbrook Park, which is the UK’s first climate change park, was also used for the transportation of goods and supplies during the war and was historically known as Matchstick Island.

The history of our parks is not only top-soil deep, however.

Community ranger Loretta Hoy said archaeological digs had revealed worked flint at Beam Parklands, Dagenham, meaning the site had been used by man since the neolithic period, some 1000 years Before Christ.

“The land was inhabited in the Bronze Age, with the remnants of pottery and kilns discover not far from the Wantz stream,” she said.

“The Romans also worked the land for both pastoral and agricultural farming may well have lived at what is now the Leys Estate”

In more modern history the Park was home to Old Dagenham Hospital, which closed in the 1980s.

Last week the nation celebrated National Parks Week and, in the name of all things green and eco-friendly, Valence House Museum and Library will host Green Day on August 27 from 10am to 4pm.

Animals from Wellgate farm, face painting, flower arranging, poond dipping and bee keeping demonstrations will all be available as part of the country fair theme.

The event is free. Call Valence House on 020 8227 2034 for more information.