The Crown Estate purchased 218 acres (88 ha) which were laid out by notable London planner and architect Sir James Pennethorne between 1842 and 1846. A part of the area was known as Bonner Fields, after Bishop Bonner, the last lord of the manor of Stepney. The land had originally been parkland, associated with the Bishop's Palace, but by the mid-1800s had been spoiled by the extraction of gravel, and clay for bricks.
It was opened to the public in 1845. This large park is reminiscent of Regent's Park (not least because the latter was designed by Pennethorne's teacher John Nash), though much less busy, and is considered by some as the finest park in the East End. It is bounded on two sides by canals: the Regent's Canal lies to the west, while its branch, once known as the Hertford Union Canal runs along the Southern edge of the park. There is a gate named after Edmund Bonner. Guarding the main entrance at Sewardstone Road are replica statues of the Dogs of Alcibiades, the originals of which stood here from 1912 to 2009 until vandalism led to their being removed, restored and rehoused elsewhere in the Park.
Two pedestrian alcoves, surviving fragments of the old London Bridge, demolished in 1831, are located at the east end of the park near the Hackney Wick war memorial where they were placed in 1860. They were part of the 1760 refurbishment of the 600-year-old bridge, by Sir Robert Taylor and George Dance the Younger, and provided protection for pedestrians on the narrow carriageway. The insignia of the Bridge Association can be seen inside these alcoves. The alcoves have been Grade II listed, since 1951.
The Lido opened in 1936 and reopened in 1952 following damage during the Second World War; it was closed in 1986 and demolished in 1990.
In the latter half of the 19th Century, Victoria Park became an essential amenity for the working classes of the East End. For some East End children in the 1880s, this may have been the only large stretch of uninterrupted greenery they ever encountered. Facilities like the Bathing Pond (picture right) —later superseded by the park lido—would have introduced many to swimming in an era when many public baths (like that at Shacklewell) were still simply communal washing facilities.
Victoria Park's reputation as the 'People's Park' grew as it became a centre for political meetings and rallies of all stripes, perhaps exceeding in importance the more well-known Hyde Park in this regard. The park occupies the interface between Tower Hamlets — sunk in poverty in the 19th century and with a strong tradition of socialist and revolutionary agitation — and Hackney, more genteel, but heir to a centuries-old legacy of religious dissent and non-conformism that led to its own fierce brand of reformism. So it should come as no surprise that the scene at the numerous Speaker's Corners was a lively one.
Although any one could set up their own soapbox, the biggest crowds were usually drawn to 'star' socialist speakers such as William Morris and Annie Besant.
This description by J. H. Rosney, correspondent for Harper's Magazine (February 1888) evokes a scene:
On the big central lawn are scattered numerous groups, some of which are very closely packed. Almost all the religious sects of England and all the political and social parties are preaching their ideas and disputing [...]
On this lawn the listener, as his fancy prompts him, may assist on Malthusianism, atheism, agnosticism, secularism, Calvinism, socialism, anarchism, Salvationism, Darwinism, and even, in exceptional cases, Swedenborgianism and Mormonism. I once heard there a prophet, a man who professed to be inspired by the Holy Ghost; but this prophet ended by being locked up in an asylum, where he will have to convert the doctor before he can recover his liberty.
The tradition of public speaking in the park continued until well after the Second World War, and was still later reflected in politically oriented rock concerts, such as those held by Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League in the 1970s and 1980s. And it is still not uncommon for marches or demonstrations to begin or end in Victoria Park.
On 26 June 2014, a campaign to revive the Speakers' Corner at Victoria Park was launched at a democratic theatre event held in Shoreditch Town Hall. Hosted by The People Speak, a participatory campaign and events group, 66 audience members deliberated over how to use the pooled cash revenue from their tickets, and eventually voted to recreate the well-known tradition of free speech and debate in Hyde Park in East London's Victoria Park. The campaign is due to formally launch in July 2014.
During the Second World War, Victoria Park was largely closed to the public and effectively became one huge Ack-Ack (anti-aircraft) site. The gun emplacements conveniently straddled the path of German Luftwaffe bombers looping north west after attacking the docks and warehouses further south in what is now Tower Hamlets, and so the park was of some strategic importance.
Prisoner of war camps were erected along the north eastern edge parallel to Victoria Park Road and were used to house both Germans and Italians. An air raid shelter was built underground just inside St Marks Gate. On 15 October 1940 a bomb made a direct hit, trapping around a hundred inside and killing fifteen. Much of the park was taken to be used as part of the war effort, which much of the earth being used for allotments, military stations and barrage balloon sites, even the park railings were melted down to be re-used.
More controversially, anti-aircraft activity in the park has been implicated in the crowd panic that caused the Bethnal Green tube disaster of 1943. Some eyewitness accounts have led to the suggestion that, after several air raid alerts, the panic run for shelter was caused by a gigantic explosion of noise from the direction of the park. A BBC documentary on the event suggests that this was due to the first firing of the new Z-Battery anti-aircraft rockets. The UK Ministry of Defence, however, disputes this account.
The war destroyed many of the parks beautiful early features, three lodges including the Bonner Lodge were completely reduced to rubble. The palm house was shattered, St Augustine's Church collapsed in on itself and the pagoda, moorish shelter and lido were all damaged. With finances tight after the war ended these were sadly torn down rather than repaired.
In 1986 the Greater London Council transferred responsibility for the park to the London borough of Tower Hamlets and the London Borough of Hackney, through a joint management board. Since 1994 Tower Hamlets has run the park alone.
In recent times, Victoria Park became noted for its open-air music festivals, often linked with a political cause. The 1980 rock docudrama Rude Boy features The Clash playing at an Anti-Nazi League event in the park. Radiohead played two concerts in the park on 24–25 June 2008. Madness celebrated their 30th year with a fifth Madstock there on 17 July 2009. The park has also become very popular amongst dance music's biggest names; Dutch DJ Tiësto played at Victoria Park in 2009 and again in 2010. On 24–25 July 2010, Victoria Park was the site of the first High Voltage Festival. Victoria Park has also hosted Field Day, The Apple Cart, Underage Festival and Lovebox Festival.
For children, Victoria Park is host to: a One O'Clock Club for under-fives and a programme of summer activities and a children's play park including a paddling pool that runs from 1-5pm in the summer months.
The oldest model boat club in the world, the Victoria Model Steam Boat Club, founded in the Park on 15 July 1904, is still active today and holds up to 17 of their Sunday regattas a year. The VMSB Club runs straight-running boats just as they did 100 years ago but have also progressed to radio controlled boats and hydroplanes. The first Regatta is traditionally held on Easter Sunday and the Steam Regatta is always held on the first Sunday in July.
The Park is also the home of Tower Hamlets Football Club and Victoria Park United Football club, Tower Hamlets Cricket Club, Victoria Park Harriers & Tower Hamlets Athletics Club, which has its headquarters at St. Augustine's Hall located at the north-east corner of the Park. The Club celebrated its 80th Anniversary in 2006.
During the summer cricket is played every evening on the park's three all-weather wickets, organised by the Victoria Park Community Cricket League. The park also has a popular three-lane cricket net, free to use at all times. It was refurbished to a high standard at the end of 2005, paid for by a grant from the England and Wales Cricket Board.
The park is open daily from 6:00am to dusk.
In 2010 the National Lottery Big Lottery Fund awarded the London Borough of Tower Hamlets a £4.5 million grant towards a £12 million programme of major improvements to Victoria Park. Plans included a new building, the Eastern Hub, comprising a cafe, public toilets, community rooms and adult play facilities to promote healthy living.
The landscape has been restored in many places, and the Old English gardens restored to include new water features. In 1842 a pagoda was put in London's Hyde Park as an entrance to its Chinese Exhibit, and when the exhibit finished it was moved to Victoria Park's island in the west boating lake for ornamental purposes. The original architect for the park, Pennethorne, designed a bridge to the island that matched the style of the pagoda; this was never built, however, and during WW2 the pagoda suffered much damage.
The pagoda was eventually demolished in the 1950s and all but forgotten, while the water surrounding the island was filled in, shrinking the lake and making what was the island part of the park landscape. With the parks refurbishments that began in 2010 it was decided to restore the island to its former glory; the lake was extended back around the original area, the pagoda was replicated through the use of many photographs and eye-witness information and then, to complete Pennethorne's unfinished vision, the plans for his original bridge were discovered and the bridge built. It took over 100 years, but Pennethorne's vision was finally completed. As a finishing touch, pedallos and row boats were brought back on to the West lake, a feature which had been missing from the park for decades.
The Burdett-Coutts fountain (named after Angela Burdett-Coutts the Victorian philanthropist) had a partial restoration of its intricate granite carvings and sculptures. In recent years the fountain had been fenced off due to graffiti and vandalism, but along with the restoration the fences were removed, and four symmetrical mirror pools were placed around the fountain along with decorative flower beds. The area is now a public space, with many benches offering an attractive place to sit.
A modern addition to the park is the Memoryscape trail, an audio trail winding through the park that visitors listen to using headphones. The trail consists of many historical facts and tidbits of information, and includes accounts from people who grew up in and around the park, with one person for example reminiscing about the prisoner of war camp in the park during World War 2. Visitors can either download the tracks from the council's website and put them on their own device, or they can get a pair of pre-loaded headphones from the hub in exchange for a small refundable deposit.
London Buses Routes 277, 425 serve the heart of the park, 8, 339, D6, and Night Route N8 on Roman Road. 309 and D3 at London Chest Hospital via Approach Road. 388 (westbound) on Victoria Park Road.
Mile End tube station for the Central line, District line, Hammersmith & City line services to Stratford, Upminster, Barking or Central London is 10min via Grove Road, you can take the 277 or 425 to Mile End which is 5min away. Cambridge Heath station for National Rail services to Liverpool Street and Enfield or Chingford is 5mins away via Bishops Way. Victoria Park had its own rather grand station Victoria Park railway station (London), on the North London Railway, closed in 1943. The station survived into the 1960s, but when the line to Stratford reopened, it was replaced by Hackney Wick railway station, which is also a short walk from the Park.
The Regent's Canal and Hertford Union Canal is located next to the park; this offers to access to walk or cycle on its towpaths. Mare Street or Mile End or Hackney Wick can easily be reached from here. The National Cycle Route 1 (NCR1) passes here on the Hertford Union Canal.
The Greenway walk/cycle path to Beckton via Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and Newham General Hospital starts nearby at the far end of the park.
In summer 2008, the park was voted London's best local park by Time Out magazine.
In 2011 it won its first Green Flag award (which it has won every year since,) and it was again voted London's favourite park, this time in the national People's Choice Award, a UK wide competition. In 2013 Victoria Park was also certified a Green Heritage Site by English Heritage and Keep Britain Tidy, an award given in recognition of achieving the required standard in the management and interpretation of a site with local or national historic importance.
In 2013 the park came second in a national vote to find the public's favourite Green Flag Awarded park, beaten only by Margam Country Park in south Wales from a field of 1,448 qualifying open spaces.
In 2014 Victoria Park reinstated itself as the most popular park in the UK, with over 13000 votes in the Green Flag Peoples Choice Awards. The park also was once again rewarded both Green Flag and Green Heritage status.
In August 2015 it was revealed that the park had retained its Green Flag People's Choice Award, winning the most votes for a park in the whole of the UK.Appears in the feature film 'Pride.' Starring Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy and Dominic West.
Appears in the feature film 'Good People.' Starring James Franco and Kate Hudson.
Appears in the music video 'Paper Heart', by Chloe Howl.
The song 'Sat in Vicky Park' features in Apologies, I Have None's 2012 album London.
Appears in the 2014 John Lewis Christmas advert. Monty the Penguin can be seen around the West Boating Lake.
Appears in the 2004 film Spivs by Colin Teague and Starring Rita Ora.