West Ham Park

posted by: Robert J Rogers.

 “West Ham Park is a bright gem set centrally in the northern part of the Borough” These words were taken from a book called “Fifty years a Borough”, in 1936.It can still be said today in the 21st century, but the history of the area we know as West Ham Park goes back to the 16th century. 

The original development of the area was by a family called Rooke, in the 16th century. William Rooke bought a small tenement called Grove House, which later became known as Rooke Hall. In 1559 William Rooke, son of the original William Rooke succeeded to the small estate on the death of his father. By his death in 1597, the estate covered 28 acres.Various members of the Rooke family then owned the estate until 1666. They all lived at Rooke hall, and their memorial is in West Ham Church. 

In 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London, Sir Robert Smyth who was a London Draper purchased Rooke Hall.This became the Smyth’s family seat, and various members of the family lived there.In 1731, it was rebuilt by Sir Philip Hall, and became known as Upton House. In 1760 the Hall came into the procession of Admiral John Elliot, who is credited with planting the parks famous Cedar trees. Admiral Elliot was at one time a captain of H.M.S Victory (Nelson Flagship).  

In 1762, the Quaker physician, Dr John Fothergill (1712-1780) acquired the estate, which by now covered 30 acres. His practice was in the City of London, and he would travel from and to Upton House each day by coach and four horses. He was a world famous Botanist. He had developed a rural estate into what had become second only to Kew as the most famous Garden in London.The Plant House’s were full of exotic and rare plants from all over the world. It is possible that the famous British Preacher John Wesley who founded Methodism stayed at Upton House when preaching at the Friends (or Quakers) Meeting House in North Street, Plaistow in 1739. Fothergill Close in E.13 is named after him. 

When he died in 1780, the outlying portions of the Estate, which stretched to what is now the Romford Road, were sold off. Upton House changed name to Ham House. In 1787, Mr James Shepard bought Ham House and the Estate. In 1812, the year of Napoleons retreat from Moscow, (celebrated in the 1812 overture by Tchaikovsky), James Sheppard died, and passed the estate over to his son-in-law. This started the ownership by the Quaker dynasty, the Gurney’s. 

Samuel Gurney was the great Quaker Philanthropist. The family carefully preserved the House and Gardens, and many famous people from far and wide visited the estate. The estate passed through various members of the family until it reached John Gurney.By now the Gurney family seat was at Earlham Hall, Sprowston, Norwich in Norfolk, (Gurney Road, Gurney Close, Earlham Grove, Norwich Road, Sprowston Mews and Fry Road are all named after this Family.) John did not want the property and decided to dispose of the Estate. Before we leave the Gurney Family, Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), who was a Quaker Minister and Prison Reformer, was Samuel Gurneys sister and lived for many years in Upton Lane House, which was known as the Cedars, on the estate. In 1842, royalty visited the estate, when she entertained Frederic William IV, King of Prussia. The Public House at Stratford, now known as the `Edward VII`, was originally called the `King of Prussia` in memory of this, but changed it’s name at the start of World War One. Another relation of the Gurneys was the Surgeon and discoverer of Antiseptic Surgery, Lord Joseph Lister (1827-1912) who was born at Ham House. 

In 1872, Ham House was demolished, the only remains of the building was a drinking fountain which was made from stones of the old House, and placed in front of where the house stood. (See Photo). 

It was John Gurney who decided that the grounds should be made into a public park. At this time the grounds was known as Upton Park.  There were various political problems with the planning and funding of the park, but on the 20th July 1874, West Ham Park opened.There was a public ceremony, attended by the Lord Mayor of London and eight hundred guests.The Lord Mayor, David Stone, on behalf of the City of London, formally accepted the title deeds, and the park was declared open for `Enjoyment of the People`. To celebrate, the opening of the park, a book was written by Dr Pagenstecher, called `The story of West Ham Park`. 

Gustav Pagenstecher (1829-1916) was born in Germany.His father was German and his Mother was West Indian.He came to England as a private tutor to the Gurney Family.He lived at the `Cedars` from 1869.It would seem he was a great Cricket player and help to encourage the sport in this area, by having cricket pitches put in the park. Even by 1936, his book was considered `rare`, although West Ham Central Library held a copy. The `Cedars` was demolished in 1883. It is one of life’s little ironies that the home of the peace-loving Quakers, in 1890 had an Infantry depot built on the site. This was replaced by the West Ham Territorial Army base in the 1960`s. 

Today, West Ham Park is still used for the enjoyment of the People of Newham. Information for this article was from the books, “Fifty years a Borough” 1886-1936. Published by West Ham Council in 1936.West Ham 1886-1986. Published by the London Borough of Newham in 1986.  

©R.J.Rogers.September 2004.

West Ham Park