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Post Memories: The Mystery of Matchstick Island

PUBLISHED: 12:00 15 August 2016 | UPDATED: 16:21 15 August 2016

Picture: Valence House

Picture: Valence House

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Why is Mayesbrook Park sometimes called Matchstick Island? Why are there steps that lead to nowhere?

Picture: Valence HousePicture: Valence House

Take a stroll through picturesque Mayesbrook Park and you will see subtle signs of its fascinating history. Once home to a glorious sunken garden, mystery still surrounds its moniker - Matchstick Island.

The name Mayesbrook is quite easy to work out: the stream that runs down the park’s western edge is called Mayes brook. But why is the park sometimes referred to as Matchstick Island?

Clare Sexton, archivist at Valence House, explained: “There are a couple of theories to the name.

“Prior to the building of the Leftley estate two large gravel pits were dug side by side. These are now the lake. The strip of land between them was shaped like a banjo, to act as a turning circle for the digging machines, so many people thought the area resembled a matchstick. Other people remember matchsticks being dumped there around 1930 from the Barking factory.”

Picture: Valence HousePicture: Valence House

The park was built in the 1930s to provide open space for residents of the new Becontree housing estate. The council hoped the park would benefit the community before it was even built. With high unemployment in the borough, builders had a clause in their contract to make sure that 85 per cent of the workers should come from the local Labour Exchange.

There was a lot of work to be completed: the original plans for the north half of the park included 11 football pitches, seven cricket pitches, 18 tennis courts and a hockey pitch, as well as a putting green.

However, construction was interrupted by the Second World War, when soldiers were housed in temporary accommodation there. During the conflict several bombs fell on the park in 1940 and 1941, with houses on Lodge Avenue and the railway lines that run across the southern edge damaged.

One unusual feature of Mayesbrook Park has sadly since been lost. The sunken gardens, sometimes known as the Japanese gardens due to the lotus flowers that grew in the oval pond, were named Italian gardens in the original plans.

Picture: Valence HousePicture: Valence House

Brenda Parker (nee Bartle), 76, lived in Sheppey Road before moving to Woodward Road after her marriage, and has “fond memories” of the feature.

“It was a lovely walkway with flowers. We used to go there a lot with our three children.”

As a child herself, she spent time there in the holidays while her parents were at work. “I loved it, it was my home,” she added.

“We used to go scrumping in Mayesbrook Park over the little stream at the back. That was as close as we got to being naughty.”

Picture: Valence HousePicture: Valence House

Malcolm Hannan, 70, who lived in Bonham Road, Dagenham, was also “very fond” of the park.

“I once caught a budgerigar in the garden and took it home. I remember asking it if he knew where he had escaped from but he didn’t reply.” The tame bird went to live in his father’s aviary in Bonham Road.

Barry Watson, 74, used to take his children to the pond and carried out a survey of the animals in the park in 1984 and 1985 as borough representative for the London Wildlife Trust. He said: “It was a large round pond, not ideal for wildlife, but they seemed to enjoy it,” recalling how it was home to great crested newts and pond skaters – despite being “full of pond weed”.

Unfortunately, vandalism became a problem in the mid 1980s, and the costs of maintaining the pond and gardens was deemed too expensive.

Picture: Valence HousePicture: Valence House

Despite protests, the sunken gardens were filled in, but the steps remain.

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