Sunday 10 July 2016

We have a difference of opinion, or: the Park Keeper's Lodge, and another chapter from the lost history of Broken Barnet

Victoria Park: an early 20th century view - from 'Finchley & Friern Barnet, a Pictorial History', by Stewart Gillies and Pamela Taylor

Whether or not you have a curiosity about the distant past, the history of the place you live in, or even the 'genius loci', the spirit of the place in which you live; the past that lies beneath the feet you stand on, even in Broken Barnet, can have the power to influence the unwinding narrative of the present time. 

How can you live in an old house, and not feel curiosity about its past? In my own case, and in regard to the history of a house that has never felt entirely home, certain things have always worried away at the back of my mind: the strange noises that occur from time to time: the banging on the living room door, when no one is there; the shadow in the hallway, flitting around the corner, just out of sight - the 'dream' my son had when he was younger that he woke up and saw an old man sitting in the chair in his room, watching him. 

Whether or not you believe in ghosts, or simply the ability of the long years of a building's past life to influence your imagination, you surely cannot deny the impact of the lives of others gone before you, on the place where you live now.

A couple of years ago, out of the blue, I opened a letter, addressed by hand, in bold black ink, that had  fallen on to the doormat, addressed to 'the occupier' of my house. 

It was from a man who had lived here, as a boy, before and during the war, with a black and white photograph of the Edwardian house, as it was, before subsequent owners pulled out some of the original windows, and the front garden wall. 

Fascinating to see, and further correspondence with him led to a copy of his childhood memoirs, a short autobiography of his life in our house, which detailed the disintegration of his family, including an attempt on his mother's life, a 'good time girl' who spent much of her time 'up Soho' getting up to no good - an assault made by her jealous spouse, as she stood by the back door, one evening, during the weekly Saturday night party to which all neighbours were invited, to sing around the piano, and play racy games in the dining room ...but also, his memories included immensely potent details of the building itself: the characteristics of the house, and the curiosities he found in the cupboard under the stairs when he moved in:

... the black and white lozenge-tiled entrance hall at the end of which was a dark, triangular, under-stair cupboard in the depths of which was a cornucopia of goodies. 

The first wonder I discovered was a large, metal, 3-storey multi-windowed hotel-cum-train station, void except for a candle-holder. At night the candle provoked exciting imaginings as its light flickered out through the glassless windows. 

Deeper in the cupboard I found  a pair of cowboys’ chaps (“Steady, The Buffs!” – my drunken uncle's habitual warning not to lose control of your emotions.) They were made of REAL sheepskin, but ancient and stiff as a board. I was Roy Rogers as I waddled around in these dreadfully uncomfortable over-trousers that protected my legs from the lethal cactus thorns along the dry gulches and cattle-trails in our garden

Up in the attic he found the gramophone player with a few choice jazz records which inspired his life long love of music and career as a semi-pro trumpet player. 

And as a boy, he could recall, still,  memories of playing in the local park, Victoria Park:

 “Watch out, here comes Treaclefeet!” Why did we run away from this miserable old sod in his Park Keeper’s uniform? What could he do? Would he actually hit us with his stick? In 1948, YES! ‘Treaclefeet’ was a name steeped in irony. He could run like the wind! But he never caught us; we ran like a faster wind and we left him puffing every time. 

He got incensed (quite rightly) when we gouged and ripped up the neat Park grass with our bicycle wheels on a Friday morning when the Park temporarily became Wembley Stadium and we were skidding,  speeding Wembley Lions. Treaclefeet! Time to go!

The house, his house, my house, was built in 1906, on land that was once, like Victoria Park, part of Cobley's Farm, the place where Charles Dickens came to stay in the 1840s, when he was writing 'Martin Chuzzlewit', a salutary tale of selfishness, hypocrisy and greed, with at least one character, Mrs Gamp, based on those he met while walking the 'green lanes' of Finchley, all that time ago. 

Selfishness, hypocrisy and greed are eternal driving forces, of course, and now deeply embedded as the corporate values of Broken Barnet - and Charles Dickens would have found himself in familiar territory, should he return to those green lanes, and those familiar fields of Cobley's Farm, as we shall see.

Time, in Broken Barnet, is money, of course, or it is nothing at all, and the past is not just another country, to our Tory landlords, where they do things differently, and a matter of no relevance, but something to be despised, as of no monetary value. 

Hence the closure and ransacking of our local Museum, at Church Farmhouse, a beautiful Grade II* listed building, central to the history of Hendon, the childhood home of Dickens's friend and Punch editor Mark Lemon - and providing for decades a perfect home for a museum with an irreplaceable permanent local collection, as well as a venue for an unceasing sequence of wonderful exhibitions of a more general nature.

Our grasping Tory councillors had long had their speculative eyes on Church Farmhouse: a building that they thought must be worth a fortune, and presented a marvellous opportunity for capital profit, if sold - as well as presenting another opportunity, one of demonstrating their inordinate contempt for the subsidisation, as they see it, of culture, or the preservation of heritage. Their sight was fixed on the house, and its fate was doomed. 

Unsurprisingly, no developer wanted to take on the restricted use and risks of a listed building, so it has stood empty and forlorn, neglected and rotting, a perfect symbol for the only culture to which this current administration aspires: a culture of despair and cynicism, where only profit matters, and to hell with all the rest.

Another property on the list of targets for our council, a few years ago, was the Park Keeper's Lodge, in Victoria Park, Finchley: just around the corner from my home, and a building of no little charm: an arts and crafts style design, with sloping gabled roof, dormer windows, terracotta finials, a distinctive chimney, a sweet little porch, and other period features, nestling in a secluded garden, fringed by a privet hedge, and a selection of fine old trees. Once the home of 'Treaclefeet', and no doubt a number of other guardians of the Park.

We don't know exactly when the Lodge was built, except that it was after  1901, and before 1911 - the house is listed on the latter census, as the home of the Park Keeper, Thomas George Smith, a former gardener, who lived in the four roomed property with his wife Fanny, fifteen year old son Frank, and fourteen year old daughter Dorothy. 

Thomas Smith signed the census return with a firm hand, giving his address, significantly, not as Long Lane, the road which runs along this side of the park, but as 'The Lodge, Recreation Ground, Finchley'.

from the 1911 census, image credit

A few years ago, the property was happily inhabited by another family, social tenants of the council. 

They were summarily evicted, despite the chronic housing shortage, the children's swing and toys abandoned in the garden, as if they had left in a hurry. The building was then left empty - again, like the Church Farmhouse, initially, whether by design or indifference, with no security or maintenance - making the properties easier to condemn as beyond saving in their original state, of course. 

Years later, and still the Lodge stood empty and decaying, the gate left unlocked,  and the property an open invitation to vandalism. Why? And why was it not, as we were informed, going through the process of sale? 

Because, it transpired, the authority, after launching itself on this course, had belatedly discovered that all of the park was protected by covenants that date from the time of its creation, more than a hundred years ago. 

The council, when originally questioned, was reluctant to explain the issues behind this delay in action, but was confident that the covenants could be proven to be shown to be no longer valid. 

And a few weeks ago rumours emerged that at last, the Lodge had been sold. 

Horrifyingly, it seemed that not only had it been sold, developers intended, once planning permission had been obtained, to demolish it, and build a block of nine flats - with underground parking - in its place. It was also rumoured - quite incredibly - that they had 'other plans' for the rest of the park, although this has yet to be substantiated. What is clear, and this was not denied at last week's Forum meeting, is that there are extraordinary plans by unknown parties - and the council - to create a car park near the Ballards Lane entrance.

The idea that we would lose the Lodge, a building integral to the park's history, and an irreplaceable part of our built heritage, and clearly in keeping with the Edwardian and Victorian housing that dominates this part of Finchley is bad enough: to see it replaced by a modern building, forced onto the footprint of the park, and violating the very principle of a public open space, is intolerable.

The precedent that such a development would create is very dangerous, and would compromise the future of every park and open space in the borough.

One local resident, Mary O'Connor, who lives very close to the Lodge, has spent years investigating the truth behind the proposals for this building, accumulating a wealth of documents pertinent to the early history of Victoria Park, and with much material which might well be used as evidence to support the claim that the founding of the Park, by public subscription, and generous donations by local benefactors, in order to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, is - or should be - protected by covenants that may not be undone at the whim of the current administration, simply because they want to make capital out of a public asset. 

The park was officially opened, on the 10th May, 1902, by the late Queen's daughter, Helena, Princess Christian.

One hundred and fourteen years later, in the year in which the nation celebrated the ninetieth birthday of Victoria's great great granddaughter, the elected members of the London Borough of Broken Barnet have approved the sale of part of the Jubilee park to commercial developers. 

An appropriate gesture from a Conservative council which puts profit before all other considerations, even as they gather under a portrait of Her Majesty, in the Town Hall chamber, at Full Council meetings, and send her loyal greetings on our behalf. 

The sale has taken place: but should it have been approved? 

Mary has tried her best, over the years, to ask questions about the intended sale, the involvement of trustees, the covenants and so on: and has always been assured the transaction was perfectly in order. Yet it is clear the council itself has never been entirely sure of the legal limitations of the proposed sale - even now, after the event.

Mary O'Connor - pic credit the local Times group newspapers

At this week's Finchley & Golders Green Residents Forum, she attempted to ask about the sale, and the implications of the fact that it was approved by councillors at an ordinary council meeting, apparently with no conflict of interest inherent in their other roles as trustees of the Park: in other words, approving a sale that would benefit the council, at the expense of those whose best interests in the use of the park are supposed to be protected by those same councillors, acting as trustees, who have inherited the role of guardianship of that same park.

Quite clearly there is a clear conflict of interest here: it benefits the council to sell the Lodge to developers, because although, no doubt to the great annoyance of the Tory councillors, who had not foreseen any trouble in flogging yet another public asset, it now transpires that any money gained by the sale of any part of the park must be ring-fenced for the purposes of the park itself - just like income from the iniquitous parking scheme, this frees pressure on parts of the council's budget, and allows them to make cuts in spending.

Parking income subsidises the Highways budget, and in similar fashion, the windfall from the sale of the Park Keeper's Lodge, they think, will absolve them of responsibility for the improvement - and to some degree the maintenance - of Victoria Park - a 'premier' park, which will now act as a precedent, a template for all other parks and open spaces in the borough, which can be milked for income to be used instead of the council tax you and I already pay for such services, so as to subsidise the losses incurred by other council expenditure such as the unstoppable demands of the Capita contracts.

In order to present the sale of the Lodge as something beneficial to the users of the Park, Barnet has been awfully clever - or so they think. They have skirted the requirements of consultation with the community by identifying a small group of residents - a handful of people, not a formally constituted group or association, and negotiating with them, in secret, and with the developers, and including them in plans to spend a sum of around £600,000, which they say the sale will enable them to use - in fact requires them to use - on the Park.

Trying, as a local resident, and park user, as well as an investigative blogger, to find out anything about this tiny group, the 'Etchingham Friends', is practically impossible. There is no website, no way of knowing who they are, or when they meet. The only reference found was in regard to a visit to the House of Commons, hosted, funnily enough, by local Tory MP, Mike Freer.

After asking around and obtaining an email address from a contact, I wrote to a representative of this group asking for details of the level of membership, how often they met, if minutes are available. No proper response to these specific questions has been given. But apparently ... the group is working with the developers, having formed the opinion that the Lodge is a lost cause, and anyway of no real merit. 

I was told that it was a shame the Lodge could not be saved, but that it was "was not of any great architectural value" and anyway now "we have a pot of something over £600,00 in a ring fenced fund, held by Barnet Borough, to be used purely for Capital Developments in Victoria Park ..." 

The group, doubtless well meaning, and acting in good faith, is informal, very small, and practically anonymous, but clearly has been given a formidable responsibility.

We have a pot: whose pot? From the sale of the Lodge? Who are we, and anyway, who should be consulted in the allocation of such funds? The wider community, surely, not a favoured few? Even if 500 other objectors were completely ignored before the Lodge was sold.

I understand that the average attendance at this group's meetings is around ... eight people. 

How one becomes a member, or takes part in the process of consultation for the expenditure of around £600,000, is a mystery, especially when it is admitted the group is not legally constituted. Is it even lawful, to hand over the control of such a budget to an informal group, without proper consultation?

To be fair, I was invited to join, now, rather late in the day. 

I will not be doing so, as I believe the entire basis of the sale of the Lodge and the new policy of the attempted commercial exploitation of our parks and open spaces is wrong, and deeply regrettable, and not something to condone by cooperation with the council and developers.

Back to the Forum meeting, anyway,  held after many months of no meetings at all, in a venue in the very affluent Hampstead Garden Suburb, a choice of location so obscure, of course, that poor Mrs Angry, perhaps predictably, got lost, and ended up only just in time for the Lodge items.

As I arrived, Labour councillor Arjun Mittra was angrily protesting at the habit of this Forum to fawn over the slightest request of residents of the Tory Suburb ward, and yet ignore those from Labour wards such as his own, in East Finchley.

Victoria Park, of course, is in the Labour held ward of West Finchley.

Mary O'Connor had submitted, well before the deadline, a series of questions. The day before the meeting, however, she was told there would be no written responses, only verbal replies at the Forum, due to the 'complexity' of the issue. 

This is totally against the constitutionally defined process of the Forums, and utterly unacceptable. 

Mary wrote in protest at this cynical misuse of that process. Only when she arrived at the meeting did she discover, without warning, that some written responses had been given, at the last minute, although not published on the website, and of course too late for her to read, absorb, and thereby formulate proper supplementary questions. She struggled to do so, and was clearly upset by their game playing. 

Significantly, however, present at the meeting was a lawyer, from the authority's outsourced legal service, HBPublicLaw, who was very keen to respond to Mary's concerns. Why had Barnet obliged this woman to attend this meeting? Could it be that ... Mary O'Connor had actually touched on an area of this issue that was indeed open to legal challenge? 

An defence of the Lodge sale by a representative of the council's outsourced legal services, watched by Tory councillors Chair Shimon Ryde (third from the left), and library cutter Reuben Thompstone, to his left.

Who knows? The law is a ass, and in the end, there may be nothing we can do, to stop the inevitable plundering of Victoria Park, and every park and open space in Broken Barnet.

The meeting itself was something of a stand off between Mary, the HBPublicLaw representative, and the Tory councillors, who thought that the fact they had provided some belated responses to the questions required a deep sense of gratitude in return from residents present, and could not or would not elaborate on any real explanation of their own involvement in the approval of the sale. 

Had they read the 500 objections? Or even looked at any of them?

A long and awkward silence. 

Clearly not. 

Eventually, after further awkward questions,  from Mary and me, Councillor Zinkin gave way to an outburst of indignation that underlined the real attitude of our Tory members: that we are accountable to them, and not the other way round, and should not dare to challenge their decisions. The tension in the room was palpable: and a sense, from the nervousness of the councillors, that the full story of the Lodge's sale was yet to be uncovered. The Chair brought the discussion to an end: there was no time to continue, and no point - We have a difference of opinion, he concluded, bringing the meeting hastily to an end.

The day after the meeting, out of curiosity, I thought I would visit the local Archives, and see if there was any material relating to the early history of the park, and the land on which the Lodge now stands. 

Ploughing through some accounts of the period, and the creation of  Victoria Park, was an educational experience, in fact, and in lesson in historic irony.

The Park was created in order to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, although by the time it was opened, Victoria was dead, and a new era begun, but in fact the idea of some sort of royal commemoration in Finchley had first been launched before her Golden Jubilee, in 1887. 

Local worthies, including Henry 'Inky' Stephens, of Avenue House, had set the ball rolling, public meetings were held, but the plans came to nothing. The Golden Jubilee was marked in other ways, such as a fete in East Finchley, whose attractions included a notably politically incorrect Minstrel Show, amongst other features. 

Local benefactor Henry "Inky' Stephens

Ten years later, there had been much speculation in the local press as to what plans were being made to mark the next royal jubilee - ideas included a hospital, or a recreation ground - and there was a good deal of waspish criticism in the local papers over the apparent secrecy of those involved in the organisation of the proposals, a 'self appointed committee' - as well as the lack of  ... consultation. Future historians, it was noted in the Finchley Free Press, would have difficulty in collecting material to write about the Jubilee. Indeed they have.

Enter the politics of class war, as we learn in a history of 'Victorian Jubilees' by Paddy Musgrove (no relation, as far as I know, thought we did meet once, I recall, when I was still at school ...) published in 1977: in regard to Finchley and Victoria Park he notes that early meetings 'had been attended by a fairly small group of well-off inhabitants', but that then there was another meeting, of around 200 people,  'a conference of working men to consider not only the provision of a recreation ground, but also the need for allotments ...' A rather more pragmatic approach to the useful commemoration of the monarch's reign.

That idea fell by the wayside, and Mr Stephens had his way: plans were approved to create a recreation ground, and money raised by subscription to purchase several parcels of land which now comprise the park we know today. 

The very first purchase, it should be noted was from, Henry Francis Brooks, a local timber merchant - and was the piece of land that now includes the Park Keeper's Lodge.

There is a wealth of documentation still available to explain the history of the park's origins, and the clear intention of Henry Stephens, Henry Francis Brooks, Francis Hamilton, and various other donors, that the park should be for the benefit of the people of Finchley,  and protected by covenants to that end.

Part of the original documents relating to the subscription for, purchase and endowment of the land on which the Lodge stands.

It is also clear that Barnet Council has never been entirely sure of the extent of that protection and has had extensive correspondence with the Charity Commission to that effect, some of which, on close inspection, raises questions about the interpretation the authority has placed on the advice it has received.

After the Residents' Forum, two men approached me and introduced themselves. They were the new owners and would be developers of the Lodge site. They wanted to include me in their discussions. What was there to discuss, I asked? You want to demolish a piece of our local history, and build a monstrous block of flats in my local park. They smiled. Why didn't you buy it then, they asked? 

I wish I could have done so, friends: and if I could, I would have followed in the tradition of Inky Stephens, and Henry Francis Brooks, and given it back to the people of Finchley, for use as it was intended, for the benefit of park users - as a cafe, or some other community use.

Here in Broken Barnet the idea of community is not understood, or respected, of course. We are in the process of undoing the work of Victorian philanthropy - poised to destroy our local library service, most notably - and now gearing up for an assault on our parks and open spaces. 

How shameful that is.

On Friday I began this post, and wrote about the lovely features of the Park Keeper's Lodge: the terracotta finials, and the slender chimney. 

On Saturday morning I had an email to say that someone had begun to ruthlessly remove such features from the building, apparently overnight. On visiting the site, it was plain to see that it was true: the finials had been smashed off their places on the roof, and the chimney - pointlessly, savagely smashed in two. It was a terribly upsetting sight. Clearly someone had decided to remove from the Lodge the most remarkable external period features. Why, and why now, is an interesting question.

The damaged lodge yesterday: hammered off finials, and the chimney smashed in half

As I was taking photographs by the gate, a young mother with a son of about six years old, stopped to ask what was going on with the building, and was astounded to hear that the Lodge would be replaced by flats, in the park, overlooking the children's playground. 

Looking at her son, I could not help but wonder, when he has children of his own, whether or not there will be any parks at all, in this borough.

The story of Victoria Park Lodge, in its small way, is the story of Broken Barnet.

Our Tory councillors may try to eradicate the social functions of our public services and amenities. 

They may attempt to sell our heritage to the highest bidder, demolish the buildings, and pimp our open spaces to private enterprise: all the more reason, then, to remember the history of these places, and the reasons they were so important to us, once upon a time. 

Perhaps, before it is all too late, we can reclaim the past, and use the lessons it holds, to make a better future.

And here is the point at which we will stop, and look again at what seems to be the only remaining photograph of the early history of Victoria Park, shown at the very top of the post. 

Just as I was about to shut the book in which I found it, and wander forlornly out of the archive section of Hendon Library, on the day in which the staff had been to a meeting to be told the majority of them faced the loss of their jobs ... something rather curious caught my eye, in the right hand corner of the picture. 

I went back to the photo I'd taken, and enlarged the image ... yes: look, standing to the far side, almost unnoticeable, out of focus, the wraith like figure of a man, dressed in gardening clothes, looking on, from the side: it must be the park keeper, Thomas Smith. 

It seems like a message, of sorts, to me: a moment of acknowledgement from the spirit of the past we are about to lose, robbed from our common history - but I'm not sure many will understand what it means.