Next year, Bishops Park will undergo a renaissance as its multi-million pound restoration is finally revealed to the public.

Ahead of this momentous occasion, Fulham Palace is running an exhibition on the park’s 118-year history. RUPERT BASHAM reports.   

In the late 19th century, Fulham was on the up. The great Victorian age of industry and prosperity was in full swing, the newly opened District line made it easier for workers to travel into London and houses were springing up all across the area. As a result, families flocked to this burgeoning riverside location.

With a growing population, the Bishop of London, John Jackson, decided the people needed space for recreation, so he took it upon himself to give an area of land by Fulham Palace as a welcome gift to these new residents.

In 1893, Bishops Park and a new riverside embankment were officially opened.

However, this gracious gift to the people was not as much of a philanthropic act as it first seemed.

Being in such close proximity to the river, Fulham Palace was prone to flooding – one servant even reported seeing fish swimming around the rooms – so by giving away the land for recreational purposes, he struck up a deal ensuring the embankment was built and the palace protected.

In actual fact the land the Bishop was bequeathing had become barren and was worth very little.

The curator of Fulham Palace, Miranda Poliakoff, said: “There was a certain element of cynicism to the Bishop’s decision. When there were huge tides there was a lot of flooding and the market lands he was providing were a rubbish tip. There wasn’t any agricultural value to them. As houses were being built, all the open space in Fulham was rapidly disappearing, and the health of the poor was becoming a concern. They wanted to get people out of pubs and into parks.

“He agreed to give this healthy space so long as the embankment was built.”

Once open, Bishops Park became a haven for the newly arrived families, and by 1903 boasted a new pavilion, lush lawns and beautiful riverside frontage.

It was also home to Margate Sands – a beach and ornamental lake which appealed to those families unable to make it to the seaside. This man-made treasure proved to be exceptionally popular until health and safety bosses closed it down in 1936 as a result of a lengthy court case after a young boy cut his foot in the sand.

Mrs Poliakoff said: “People came from all over London to visit Margate Sands. It was a relaxing place where mothers could congregate and children could paddle in the pool.

“It was incredibly popular as families would come from all over to use the beach – particularly poorer ones who couldn’t afford to get down to the coast. However, because of the court case the beach and pool, as it was, closed.”

Throughout the 20th century Bishops Park was extended and improved to cater to its users.

It was a scene of exultation in 1945 as it hosted open-air dances to commemorate VE and CJ days.

Tennis courts, bowling greens and a putting green were added, a rose garden was laid out to mark the Coronation in 1953, and in 1960 an open-air theatre was built.

However, as councils across the country started to feel the pinch, less money was available for recreation, and despite initial investment in the 1950s and 60s, a lot of the much loved features in the park were changed.

Its boating lake, sand pit and paddling pool were remodelled and cafes were shut.

In the 1990s, Bishops Park was dealt a double blow of bad luck as the theatre was gutted by fire and a VJ Day memorial sculpture was vandalised only two months after installation.

Despite deteriorating, the park remained popular and began hosting its annual firework display.

Museum steward at Fulham Palace, Peter Trott, said: “Nationwide councils were at risk and realised that they didn’t have as much money as they thought they had. They then looked at places that didn’t make money. From the 1960s onwards we started to lose things in the park – the putting greens and boats were taken away, all of this based on finances. The park has always been a very popular place though. If you think of the shape of it and its location next to the river, it’s got something for everyone. You’ve got the dog walkers, the mums and their toddlers – it’s always busy."

But what of its renaissance? In March 2010 the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded £3.65m towards Hammersmith and Fulham Council’s £8m restoration programme to restore the park to its former glory.

Due to open early next year it will bring the urban beach back to life as well as restore the ornamental lake. On top of this, three major play areas and an education centre are being created.

Mrs Poliakoff added: “Bishops Park is being reinterpreted for the 21st century. Obviously people’s needs have changed and it’s difficult to satisfy everyone but the council have done a lot of consultation with residents, and now people can’t wait. It’s very exciting.”

Bishops Park: Fulham’s Victorian Oasis will be running at Fulham Palace until Tuesday, January 31, open Saturday to Wednesday, 1pm to 4pm.

Admission is free.