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Home arrow History arrow The Fields
The Fields PDF Print E-mail

Hackney was not mentioned by name in the Doomsday Book, most of the land then being part of the Bishop of London’s enormous Stepney manor. Manorial Courts for the whole manor were still held in Stepney until the 17th century. In 1275 the area that is now London Fields was recorded as common pastureland adjoining Cambridge Heath. It was not until 1540 that the name London Field is found recorded as a separate item consisting of around 100 acres in changing ownership of land (it generally didn’t become plural until the later half of the 19th century).

London Field was one of the many `commonable lands’ of Hackney where the commoners of the parish could graze their livestock on the fields from Lammas Day, (A.S. for bread mass) August 1st, celebrating the first loaf after the crops had been harvested, to Lady Day, March 25th. This arrangement was known as Lammas Rights and was protected by law.

Hackney, the largest parish in the county of Middlesex and so very close to the City of London, had been a favourite residence of wealthy Londoners from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. It became increasingly attractive following the “Great Plague of London” in 1665 that had not affected Hackney and the Great Fire the year after. Wealthy residents, who wished to be close to the court, entertainment and the financial centre of the kingdom, but also enjoy country living, built large houses in Hackney. Hackney was declared in 1756 to excel all other villages in the kingdom in the opulence of its inhabitants. These houses were surrounded by open countryside used for agriculture, hunting, nurseries, market gardens and the meadows along the Lea and elsewhere for grazing and production of hay (the largest crop, to power London’s large horse population). The bricks for these grand buildings would have been made in the many local brickfields using the abundant local clay. By 1806, with all the development, brickfields occupied 170 acres; more than all the market gardens and nurseries.

Although it is unclear how the name London Field came into being, the most likely explanation is the field’s position, on what had been for centuries the main footpath from the village of Hackney and beyond the river Lea from Essex, to the City of London. They knew when they crossed this field that they were only 2 miles from the City gate. The route ran from Hackney Grove, the site of the present Town Hall Square, down Grove Passage (which was Church Path before 1907) and along Martello Street (before 1938 Tower Street); the present cycle route through the Fields to Broadway Market (formerly Broadway 1881-1937 and Duncan Place 1811-1881); Goldsmiths Row; along Columbia Road (once Bird Cage Walk leading to the Bird Cage Inn); Virginia Road; Shoreditch High Street; through Norton Folgate and on to Bishopsgate (once known as Bishopsgate Without as it started outside of the city’s Bishop Gate). This path was used by market porters and drovers to take produce and walk animals- from both near and distant farms and the local nurseries, to Cheapside produce market within the City or Smithfield meat market without (then to the Northwest of the city).  The importance of the route is illustrated by a number of bequests for the upkeep of the path. In 1616 a Mrs. Margaret Audley left £35 a year, “part for repairing bridges, stiles and rails,” between Clapton and Shoreditch and in 1633 David Doulben, a former vicar of Hackney, left £30 for a similar purpose.

1745 John Rocque’s Map

In the early 16th century sixty one acres of London Fields are recorded as belonging to the Hospital of Savoy, by 1553 however, the hospital had been dissolved and its holdings passed to St Thomas’ Hospital. St Thomas’ Hospital owned land in the area for centuries and later built on its nearby land, at Shore Place, just east of Mare Street, becoming St. Thomas’s Square in 1771-2 (connected to London Field by London Lane). In 1700, London Field itself is recorded as being divided into six strips belonging to four people. Apart from its use as a thoroughfare, London Field was for long used to graze livestock.

By the ends of 16th century the area between Mare Street and London Field had become a distinct settlement along the route from London to Cambridge and Newmarket, the names of the local inns or posting houses of the time; the old Flying Horse Inn with courtyard at Flying Horse Yard (from 1821 Exmouth Place) leading to the London Field; the Nags Head in Hackney Road; the Horse & Groom, with a rear “tea gardens extending to the Church Path” (its latest reincarnation by Elingfort Road was renamed Madigans recently), all reflect the area’s strong coaching links.

By 1723 Mare Street had 19 licensed inns; it must have been very popular. While the names of the inns surrounding London Field, the Lamb Inn and Shoulder of Mutton named after the field opposite (from 1798 known as Shoulder of Mutton and Cat, later to be shortened to Cat & Mutton), and the local street names Lamb Lane (in the 18th century named Tower Street, for a large house on the corner of Church Street), Sheep Lane and Mutton Lane, suggest that the area was very much involved in sheep farming.

With the rapid development of housing in the area in the 19th century, certain predaceous developers were already nibbling away at the edges of common land. London Fields and other common land were in danger of succumbing to the great building bonanza. Parts of London Fields were lost to houses. The developers were looking for any strip of land they could find. Vendors in 1862 appealed to builders, dismissing Lammas rights as little used and of no value, while gravel digging on much of the common land, almost brought riots and started litigation. Fortunately the campaign by preservationists grew to a momentum that reached parliament. 

Enough commons and Lammas lands were preserved from 19th-century building to make Hackney relatively rich in open spaces, although most were useful rather than ornamental. Under the Metropolitan Commons Act, 1866, the district board organized a petition for the inclosure of nearly 180 a. collectively described as Hackney commons, whose transfer to the Metropolitan Board of Works (M.B.W.) was confirmed in an Act of 1872. The lands were Clapton common (9¼ a.), Stoke Newington common (5½ a.), North and South Mill fields (57½a.), Hackney Downs (50 a.), Hackney or Well Street common (30 a.), London Fields (27 a.), and strips of waste in Dalston Lane and Grove Street (later Lauriston Road). The Lord of the Manor while repudiating his agent's digging for gravel on Stoke Newington common, in 1875 provoked protests by inclosing part of Hackney Downs and the Mill fields. His fences were torn down, as were notices put up by the Grocers' Co. in 1877, but Chancery upheld him against the M.B.W. in 1879. His rights were purchased by the M.B.W. under an Act of 1881 and those of other freeholders under a further Act of 1884.

Shortly after in 1893 Hackney marshes were also saved. London Fields was the nearest open space north of the city of London. Shortly after becoming a park the well-known lines of Plane trees were planted. Being rather young the trees were planted much closer than you find them now, to be thinned out at a later stages. There was a small bandstand built in the middle of the park showing on the 1894 Ordnance Survey map. Later to be demolished and replaced by a larger, grander one slightly to the southeast, which itself was removed shortly after WWII. This was shown in the 1913 Ordnance Survey map surrounded by 8 oak trees; there are only 3 oaks remaining on the site today.

London Fields itself became a casualty, on the night of the 21st of September 1940 the area was heavily bombed and Richmond Road and Eleanor Road received direct hits. The houses on the north and northeast border of the park, along with the Eleanor Road, Board School, were so badly damaged that they were demolished after the war and the park extended to its present boundaries. The sole survivor, as far as buildings are concerned, was the Queen Eleanor public house (now the Pub on the Park). The lines of mature London Plane trees (planted circa 1880), surrounding the cricket pitch to the north and east, mark the old park boundary. Even with this increase the present area is only just over 31 acres, about a third of its original size.

London was harder hit than any other British city, both in number of bomb attacks and number of casualties. While later in the war, between June 1944 and March 1945, London received 41% of the attacks by V1 flying bombs (doodlebugs), and 49% of attacks by V2 rockets. The war left many people without homes. The Ordnance Survey map of 1948 shows 18 emergency prefabricated (asbestos walled) bungalows in 2 rows on London Fields, facing London Fields West Side. Another 21 “prefabs” ware also found on the remains of where the south end of Eleanor Road had been before the bombing. These were removed by 1951 when the park was extended over the area. The West Side ‘prefabs’ lasted into the 1960’s.


     After the war the netball pitches were lost. The hard tennis courts were transferred to its present site on the ruins of demolished houses in Richmond Road. The grass tennis courts remained until the 1970’s and only then were removed. The park keepers’ service yard, with manager’s office, storage and rest room were added (next to the Lido) around 1960. It is first found on the 1964 OS map.


     With the London suburbs stretching further out, in 1963 the LCC was extended by the government with the addition of the outer London boroughs, creating the Greater London Council (GLC). The boroughs were also rationalised with some of the smaller ones being absorbed into larger ones. Hackney at the time swallowed Stoke Newington and Shoreditch.


     With the southern paddling pool not in use a new, improved children’s paddling pool was added next to the Lido In 1978. We were later to discover how it was originally very poorly built. While at the same time the original fountain in the Lido was taken out, with the excuse that it was “to make an additional sunbathing area”. An alternative reason that was also circulating was that the water source for the fountain was diverted to the Paddling pool.


      In the 1980’s there were numerous cutbacks in government funding to councils. Because municipal parks and other leisure facilities (like swimming) are not a legal requirement for councils, they were among the first items to suffer cutbacks at times of funding shortages. By 1986 Prime Minister Thatcher abolished the GLC, while the services previously provided by the GLC were carved up between central government, the boroughs and a new set of London-wide non-representative bodies (quangos). Leaving a lack of integration of services and a further burden for the councils. By 1988 the London Fields Lido closed, like many others that year. Of the 68 Lido’s and open-air pools in the Greater London area at the time, there was eventually to be only 10 surviving in use.

      With the coming of the excessive health and safety concerns in the 1980’s the children’s play equipment was seen as far too exciting and dangerous (they did not come up to “insurance safety standards”) and one by one pieces of equipment were removed. While the permanent child attendant became unaffordable with the further cut backs of the early 1990’s. This playground was removed in 1998 to make way for its present replacement.   


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