From Albert Town to Butterfield Green
A history of Stoke Newington’s forgotten park
Butterfield Green must be one of Hackney’s least well-known green spaces, tucked between Newington Green, Stoke Newington High Street and Church Street.
This small park, not yet thirty years old, has had something of a renaissance in the last few years, as local residents have worked with the Parks Department to improve facilities and make it the kind of place where you’d actually like to spend time.
The park seems quite small when you first go in but, once inside, it is surprisingly big as it opens up into a series of green ‘rooms’ such as a bandstand area, a grassy space, a small wood and a series of playgrounds including a real gem for children and young people, Shakespeare Walk Adventure Playground.
There are two parts of the park that are particularly unusual: the orchard and the stream. The orchard is one of London’s first ‘community orchards’ and is only in its third year.
With help from the Council and social enterprise Growing Communities, Shakespeare Residents’ Association (SRA) has planted over thirty fruit trees, including favourites such as apples and plums, as well as increasingly rare traditional English fruit trees such as quinces, crab apples and medlars.
Butterfield Green’s very own stream is not quite as ancient as the Thames but it does make an attractive focal point for young people and families. It is one of the original features of the park which sadly had stopped working within a year of its construction.
Now, twenty years later, the stream is running once again, thanks to a grant from the Learning Trust and some hard work by the Butterfield Green Users’ Group, part of the Shakespeare Neighbourhood Residents’ Association.
The history of the park evokes Victorian brickmakers and poets, as well as 1970s urban reformers.
In the Middle Ages, the area which comprises the current Butterfield Green was open fields of pasture for sheep, cows and hay-making, in between the hamlets of Newington Green and Stoke Newington. Then, market gardens began to be established here, catering for the expanding population of London.
By the 1830s, the metropolis of London had reached beyond the old village of Islington and so Stoke Newington was no longer a remote rural outpost.
As has happened many times in London’s history, the first signs of the imminent new developments were the ‘brickearth’ quarrymen, digging up the brickearth subsoil to fire in improvised kilns to make bricks. Some of these bricks came from earth at Butterfield Green.
Meanwhile, in 1849, the large private estate in this area known as the Foy estate was sold and parcelled out to developers in bundles of leases.
By 1854 the developers had built houses along newly built Milton Row, Shakespeare Road, Spenser Road and Cowper Road: the new suburb was patriotically known as Albert Town, after Prince Albert and the roads were named after England’s great (and male) poets. (Somehow the road known as Cut Throat Lane, leading north from Newington Green, didn’t quite fit into this scheme and had to be renamed Wordsworth Road).
Albert Town soon had a school, the Anglican church of St Matthias and a number of nonconformist chapels including a Baptist Chapel in Wordsworth Road and a Congregational Trinity Chapel (now the Walford Road synagogue).
By the late nineteenth century the area was one of the most densely occupied parts of Stoke Newington with an average of 24 houses or 172 people per acre (the modern figure is much less, around 50 people per acre).
The area was occupied by middle class families such as clerks and craftsmen, with the smaller terraced houses occupied by skilled workers such as brickmakers.
The area comprising old Albert Town was quite heavily bombed in World War II and so the borough housing department began replacing the damaged Victorian houses with new flats, beginning with the first parts of the Milton Gardens estate in 1949, extending it further north in the 1950s and 1960s with Binyon, Shelley and Browning Houses, continuing the earlier tradition of using poets’ names.
Architecturally, the estate has a rich variety of post-War housing types, with both mid-rise blocks and houses.
By the 1970s some of Stoke Newington’s private Victorian houses were in a poor condition; the Greater London Development Plan of 1976 had defined several ‘housing problem areas’ in north and east London, including this area between Dalston and Stoke Newington.
In 1976, Hackney Council therefore designated a series of ‘action areas’ for improvement, including the ‘Shakespeare Walk Action Area’. Victorian houses on Spenser Grove and Cowper Road were demolished, new council houses were built and public money was used to restore Victorian houses in other parts of the area.
By the end of the 1970s, a large open space of wasteland remained in between the Milton Gardens estate and Allen Road: the site of Butterfield Green.
The park was designed by landscape architects from the council (Angela Hodkinson, Penny Gardiner and Felicity Roberts), who laid it out in phases in the early 1980s, although part of the open space – the Shakespeare Walk Adventure Playground – had been informally set up a year or two earlier, probably in 1979.
The park was named Butterfield Green after William Butterfield, the architect of St Matthias church and a celebrated builder of London churches.
The first phase was the westernmost area (by Milton Grove) where a small self-contained park, almost a London square in shape, was laid out, containing a complete range of park leisure facilities (grass, trees, playground and football area), in part as a precaution in case further funding was never obtained.
In the event, the funding for the subsequent phases was obtained and the next phase of the park lay between Cowper Road and Wordsworth Road (the far south-east corner of Butterfield Green), incorporating the former Baptist Chapel and the old electricity generating station on Wordsworth Road.
To the south of the chapel another playground and grassed area was laid out. The final phase took place in 1986–7 and created the main park area, featuring a slightly raised green, a spectacular artificial stream (newly restored in 2009), a wooded area and an updated version of the traditional park bandstand.
This phase of work also joined the main park area to the western part of the park with a BMX biking and skateboarding area (damaged and disused in recent years and replaced by the community orchard in 2007).
Today, Butterfield Green is thriving once again. The planting of the community orchard is part of this success story and local residents are very proud to have recently received an award from the British Urban Regeneration Association (BURA) for their community regeneration work in creating the orchard.