A Secret Garden in Southwark | Red Cross Garden
Sometimes you stumble upon a place in London and you just don’t want to share it. That’s how I felt about Red Cross Garden when I first encountered this Southwark gem on a sunny day a few years ago.
However, as a London Guide it feels a bit mean to not share my find with you intrepid explorers so I encourage you to seek out Red Cross Gardens, just don’t tell anyone else, ok?!
History of Red Cross Garden
Red Cross Garden started life as an idea from the Society of Friends (Quakers). In 1762 they took out a lease on the West side of Red Cross Street (today’s Red Cross Way) in Southwark in order to build a meeting house on some land they already owned and used as a burial ground.
The ground was closed for burials in 1794 and the meeting house was enlarged in 1799 and was in use until 1860, when it was sold to the Metropolitan Board of Works.
In 1887 part of the gardens were bought by Julie, Countess of Dulcie on the advice of Octavia Hill.
Octavia Hill was one of the founding members of the National Trust and a social reformer. She was a firm believer in quality housing for the the working poor and Red Cross Garden was one of her flagship projects, providing an open space for the overcrowded and often unsanitary conditions of Southwark locals.
As well as the garden she also commissioned Elijah Hoole to design 6 cottages overlooking Red Cross Gardens. They date from 1887.
The cottages were model dwellings (a group of private companies that aimed to provide the ‘worthy’ poor with housing) and were attached to a community centre. The garden was intended by Hill as an ‘open air sitting room for the tired inhabitants of Southwark’.
They embody her idea of wholesome housing and their gabled fronts and bay windows have a strong Arts and Craft influence.
Door to the community centre with the red cross of Saint George.
Most of the garden was paved over after the 1940s, but in 2005 Red Cross Garden were restored to their original Victorian layout. In 2006 they enjoyed a Royal opening ceremony with Anne, Princess Royal officially opening the renovated gardens.
So today, even thought its overlooked by London’s tallest building, passersby and locals can enjoy the lake, grasses and winding paths as Octavia intended.
One last details I spotted was this stencil artwork by ‘ANNA’.
After struggling to find more information about it, imagine my happiness when the artist, Anna Karin, found my blog post and emailed me! Her artwork is inspired by the story of a local Southwark resident called Alice Ayres.
On 24 April 1885, an oil and paint dealership at 194 Union Street caught fire. Above the shop lived the owners, Henry and Mary Ann Chandler as well as their 4 children (aged between 6 and 3) and Mary Ann’s younger sister; Alice.
Alice managed to save three of the young children, but at the cost of her own life.
Her courage garnered a lot of media attention and she is one of the dozens of names remembered in the City of London’s Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice in Postman’s Park.
Inside the hall, where this piece was painted in Easter 2018, there used to be a fresco of the fire by Walter Crane. Anna used a photograph of this as inspiration for her own artwork.
The picture above is from the V&A Collection.