It’s less than two long lifetimes since Walthamstow was a string of semi rural villages, more prosperous than most. Early in the nineteenth century Hoe Street was lined with grand houses, there was a stage coach commuter service, the railway was still half a century away, local government was organised by the parish, and residents had common land rights. These included the right to graze your cows at most times of year as long as they were marked with your initials.
By the 1860s much had changed – the railway had got as far as Lea Bridge Road, the prosperous middle classes had begun to sell up and leave – and the common lands were being sold. In some places this was a hugely controversial process: in Walthamstow the changes were made with scarcely a blink. The reality was that fewer local people had small holdings with cows to graze, and so had less use for the benefits the commons gave. But the enclosures had effects that continue to this day.
But there were limits. The railway was a late arrival in Walthamstow, but when the time finally came to survey the most suitable route between the planned Hoe Street Station and Chingford, the choice fell upon part of the common land near St Mary’s Church, the Berry Field. The Vestry – the parish committee that had organised most aspects of local government for many centuries – drove a hard bargain, negotiating not only a good purchase price but an undertaking to build the railway in a cutting which was to be planted with trees, and any excess land to be made available as a recreation area – as it still is.
After much consideration, the committee decided to buy the land that is now Selborne Park, carefully minuting that it was to belong to the people of Walthamstow. Once the new Council came into being in the early 1870s, the Vestry agreed that a Council Officer should “interest himself” in the management of the park. But that was all. As time went on the Council seem to have assumed that the land was theirs.
All through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the park was the venue for many concerts, meetings and performances. There were roundabouts, a slide, a giant chess board, boules, a café and carefully tended planting. During the First World War one of the newly invented tanks came to visit as part of a fundraiser to persuade local people to contribute to the price of more tanks and guns. Bands played, minor scuffles were quelled and endless impromptu football games played. In later years there was a public art project
It was not until the late 1970s, after the Victoria Line came to town, that the local authority took a chunk of the park space for a new bus garage. Then another chunk vanished to provide a shopping mall – the land was sold to the developers on a long lease. Only around a third of the original park remains, and much of that, and many trees, are threatened by a planned development that offers increased retail space no one wants, luxury flats no one can afford, further pressure on already overstretched transport and services and one small play space for children. A poor bargain.