Ruskin Park is a large historic park located between Camberwell,Brixton and Herne Hill in South London.The park gets its name from John Ruskin, the famous artist, writer and social campaigner, who lived nearby from 1823 to 1871.

By the late nineteenth century, while Denmark Hill was lined with substantial villas in their own grounds, and extensive terraced housing had developed around Loughborough Junction to the west of the park site (Fig.6). Pressure on open space was widely perceived to be acute: ‘between the Thames and the proposed Park …there is a nearly complete absence of Open Spaces, and the need for recreation grounds and resorts of natural beauty is severely felt.

In c1904-05, Samuel Sanders, descendant of the original Sanders, had decided to redevelop six of these villas and their grounds (even nos.162-72), including his own residence, No.168, the

portico of which now forms the shelter. In response to the threat, a Committee was set up by a local resident, Frank Trier, to purchase the site and preserve it as a park). Trier was evidently highly effective, rapidly securing the support not only of the London County Council, the Boroughs of Camberwell, Lambeth and Southwark, but also of the Commons and Footpaths Preservation Society, the Kyrle Society and the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association. His committee was chaired by the bishop of Rochester and included such eminent figures as Robert Hunter (one of the founders of the National Trust), George Shaw-Lefevre and Basil Holmes. The campaign succeeded in stopping the development, even after a contract had been signed, and securing £48,000 to purchase the twenty-four acres.

These four maps show the transition of the area that was to become Ruskin Park, from a villa lined road through to todays park and roads layout. The one constant element is the oval pond.

From Southwark Historical mapping 1896

From Stanfords 1894 Map

From Southwark Historical mapping

1915 – 1920 Ordinance survey

From Southwark Historical mapping

1949 – 54 Ordinance survey

A proposed layout of 1906 is very similar to the park as finished. The scheme began with the demolition of four of the six villas that fronted Denmark Hill, including Dane House (No.166), the grounds of which formed the central core of the new park. The portico and ground floor façade of Dane House was retained because it supported what was said to be the largest wisteria in London. The portico and ground floor of its neighbour, No.168, was retained and converted into a shelter, although this evidently was not part of the original intention. The stable block of No.170 was also retained but again omitted from the 1906 plan. The two houses retained were in the northern corner: the more northerly (No.162 Denmark Hill) was subject to a lease that ran until 1910, including its garden along the boundary with the railway; the other adjacent to it (No.164), was retained and adapted for use as the superintendent’s lodge, refreshment rooms and lavatories. The 1906 plan includes proposals for the land behind No.162, but most of this had to wait until 1910/11 to be executed.

The design of the park was probably prepared by the LCC Superintendent of Parks and Open Spaces, Lt-Col. John James Sexby. Ruskin Park was one of a number of parks formed from the mature gardens of private estates, an acquisitions policy which the LCC adopted as land-prices rose in the late nineteenth century.

As fences were removed, varying levels were revealed and necessitated the introduction of ‘rustic and formal steps and curved paths’. The kitchen garden of the property south of Dane House was not retained, perhaps because of cost, but was converted to a bowling green. However the treatment of this feature was of the highest quality. Its southern wall was adapted to form a retaining wall to a timber pergola with a crazy-paved stone walk, while west and east were elaborate herbaceous borders, all highly fashionable features in the Arts and Crafts style which was current in private gardens of the time. In addition the design included an American Garden just north of the stables, which would have contained specialist trees and shrubs.

 

The Extension, to the south-west of the original park, was purchased in 1908 to secure further recreational land, which was again, from the same land-owner, under threat of housing development. The northern end of what is now Finsen Road had already been built, and a southward route along the western boundary of the existing park was planned (see Fig.22). (This road, named Dumbleton Road or later Dane Avenue, was constructed and for twenty years divided the extension from the original park. However, after complaints and lobbying it was eventually closed and grassed over in 1928.) Again, local lobbying convinced the LCC and its partners to purchase the land, which comprised some 12 acres of hedged fields.

In 1910, the bandstand, which had always been part of the plan for the park and shown on the 1906 plan, was included in the annual capital programme. Until now, a temporary platform had been used, but in January 1911 tenders were received for a new timber structure. A wooden structure was specified, with the surroundings laid out as a formal, gravelled promenade, with seats, fencing and trees planted to provide shade. Sunday band concerts became a regular event.

Finally in 1910, the two-acre garden of No.162 became available with the expiry of its lease, and was added to the park. The ground was at a distinctly lower level than the rest of the park, and it was largely allocated to the provision of tennis courts. The LCC committee minutes record the conversion of the tennis courts laid out in 1906-07 to a playground. A paddling pool was created north of the main pond, connected by a rivulet

In 1913, it was agreed to provide new public conveniences and a changing room in the extension. This was an attractive building of brick, tile and timber cladding in an Arts and Crafts style which is still in place

The First World War War saw an inevitable reduction in maintenance. An anti-aircraft battery was installed in the park, finally cleared in 1921. In the summer of 1918, the lawn between the shelter and the bowling green was commandeered for for use by recuperating soldiers. A temporary bridge is said to have been formed from King’s College Hospital across the railway line, although there is no evidence of it in maps or Committee minutes.

The final development of children’s facilities on the northern strip was finally accomplished in October 1926 with the formation of the gymnasium, conveniences, shelter and paddling pool, as well as the construction of four hard tennis courts.

By c1939, the park had a full complement of staff. According to an LCC survey, the park staff comprised 1 officer in charge, 1 foreman, 1 head keeper, 1 acting foreman, 1 playground attendant, a total of 14 permanent site-based staff. On the Ordnance Survey plan used by the LCC to record WW 11 bomb-damage, the layout of the park has been added as a manuscript annotation, it being left blank on the original. The map shows not only that a football ground had been established on the site of the present redgra pitch, but also that a putting green had been laid out on the lawns south-east of the bowling green

The 1951 Ordnance Survey confirms the changes since 1913. The glasshouse west of the shelter had been demolished; the putting green had been removed to the lawn east of the pond; the bowlers’ pavilion had been erected on the north side of the bowling green; the paddling pool at the eastern end of the northern strip had been filled in and the existing pool at the western end constructed, together with ; one of the glasshouses in the complex to the north-east of the pond had been removed; tree planting had begun on the lawn around the Mendelssohn sundial; the shelter in the centre of the park is indicated in a dotted line, presumably built shortly after. The lodge formed from No.164 is still shown, although presumably it was demolished shortly afterwards. The site of the American garden, north of the stable yard has been planted up with trees in a semi-formal pattern.

In 1971 responsibility for maintaining the park was transferred to the new Lambeth Borough Council. Since 1973, the park declined in condition and various historic features and public amenities have disappeared. These include the glasshouses, all but one of the drinking fountains, the putting green, the refreshment kiosk, and the bowls pavilion. The portico and stable block are currently in a semi-derelict condition. The bowling green has been planted out with perennials and shrubs and has become an ornamental garden . The pergola has had some repairs but has lost a good deal of its Arts and Crafts character – remains of its original paving are now under a more utilitarian surfacing. Bedding and horticultural displays have been reduced. The commemorative plaques which were once attached to both the sundial and the shelter have been removed.

The toilets and changing room have been converted into a toilet block only while the refurbished bandstand once again has a regular summer concert series.

This is an abbreviated version of The History and Development Of Ruskin Park, prepared by the Parks Agency in 2005, with some small additions and alterations, and updates.