Burgess Park was once open space, farmland and market gardens that produced fruit, vegetables and dairy products for nearby London. Wealthy middle-classes moved here to escape the stench of the city. By 1811 the Grand Surrey Canal was completed, which lead to the building of wharves, warehouses and factories. This in turn lead to a population explosion in the area and for the need to build streets, houses, shops, places of worship, public houses etc to serve the population. By the turn of the century the area was almost completely built over, overcrowded and with no open spaces. Local people recognised the need and began campaigning for a better environment in which to bring up children. It took a world war to ring the changes.
The Abercrombie plan (1943) had pointed out that large parts of London were short of open space. Overcrowded places such as this part of north Camberwell qualified for a large park to act as a green lung both locally and more widely. The central section of the current park was heavily bombed in WW2 with many buildings either completely destroyed or damaged beyond repair. Over time, and continuing to this day, Burgess Park has been created, by removal of streets, compulsory purchasing buildings, filling in the canal and replacing it with the lake to create the open space we have today.
Traces of the park’s history can be found in the buildings that remain, such as Chumleigh Gardens. These were former almshouses built by a charity to house vulnerable elderly women before 20th century welfare reforms came into existence. They now contain the park and park ranger offices, the café, meeting rooms and the beautiful World Gardens, designed to reflect the diversity of the area. The Old Library, Bath & Washouse was another charitably funded institution whose aim was to improve the health and leisure of local working people at a time when many houses lacked bathrooms, clothes washing facilities and books. It is currently in use as a boxing club and has been occupied by a few theatre companies, churches and photographer studios. The Limekiln and the Bridge to Nowhere are relics of the park’s industrial past, supplying lime to the building trade and the means to transport that product by barge via canal to the Thames and beyond. Art in the Park is based in a former mineral water works, close to Chumleigh Gardens.
At 56 hectares (140 acres) Burgess Park is now one of London’s biggest parks, created within living memory and named after Southwark’s inspirational first female mayor, Jessie Burgess. The park continues to change and develop in response to local need, an open space, a vital green lung with an unusual past.