Archive for the ‘Camberwell’ Category

Historic bandstands make a welcome revival in London parks   1 comment


I’ve got my own memories of children listening to a brass band perform classical music during a particularly windswept holiday, which ended with us all diving for cover when the heavens opened. That particular concert in a bandstand similar to this one wasn’t very full, but during their heyday in the Victorian era bandstands were enormously popular and drew crowds of up to 10,000.

Thursday night concerts at Myatt’s Fields, Lambeth were always packed, right up until the Second World War. This account by the writer Jack Donaldson was published in 1937: “I arrived on time but there was no room on the seats or the railings, so I leant against a tree and enjoyed the music. The children danced to it, played ball to it, sang to it and ignored it, The grown-ups, all listening, sat round on their wooden seats or leant against the green railings and were happy.”

Bandstands were first pioneered by local authorities in the Victorian era who wanted to attract people to their parks. The councils realised that worsening conditions in urban areas meant there was an increasing need for green, open spaces where the general public could relax, and the offer of free musical entertainment meant the crowds packed in to listen to brass, military and wind bands that were hugely popular in those years.

But the origins of British bandstands go right back to the great Pleasure Gardens of the 17th and 18th centuries. The most famous of these was Vauxhall Gardens, which were situated in New Spring Gardens, close to the railway station. It combined music, illuminated fountains, hot air balloons, tightrope walkers and firework displays for the rich and fashionable people. They were like the night clubs of their day and drew enormous crowds from all over the country, who loved the music pavilions, which hosted promenade concerts, where the audience could stroll about while listening to the music, and it was from these musical events that the bandstand evolved.


The first were built in South Kensington’s Royal Horticultural Society Gardens in 1861 and when they closed the bandstands were re-erected in Southwark Park and Peckham Rye, but both were destroyed in the Second World War. They soon became so popular that nearly every public park and seaside resort had one by the end of the 19th century. They tried to out do each other in terms of their colourful and ornate design.

But the popularity of these concerts waned in the 1950s as other attractions, such as the cinema, radio and TV became increasingly popular and, as a result many fell into disrepair. There was a brief revival in the late 60s when groups like Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac played a series of free bandstand at Parliament Hill, but most parks were struggling and in the years between 1979 and 2001, more than half of the 438 bandstands in historic parks across the country were demolished, vandalised or fell into a chronic state of disuse.

However, the future’s become much brighter in the last 15 years, with the most significant investment of funding seen since Victorian times, brought about by the National Lottery and the Heritage Lottery Fund. More than 80 bandstands have been fully restored, including this one, or replaced and are now central to regeneration initiatives, making them once again central to their local communities.

For example, Bandstand Busking is now a regular monthly event that gives up-and-coming musicians the opportunity to perform in underused bandstands dotted around London’s parks, and the annual Bandstand Marathon aims to raise the profile of bandstands by staging simultaneous concerts arranged on a single weekend every year. Myatt’s Fields took part last year, holding a free music workshop in July that included percussion and stringed instruments. The bandstand also stages weekly concerts here every Sunday throughout the summer.

There’s also been changes in the way bandstands are promoted. Oganisations like Bandstand Busking use Facebook, Twitter and social media to spread the word about their concerts and a new iPhone App has been launched by a company in the Midlands that plays you stories about the history of its local bandstands.

A new wave of designers have also been creating striking new designs – here we have a picture of a sleek looking bandstand that was recently opened in Maidstone, and Bermondsey’s ultra moden More London Bandstand hosts a range of events throughout the year from dance and theatre to performance art.

This is a clear sign of a renewed interest in British bandstands and, after a period of neglect, they are starting to become a focal point of our parks and communities again and are also very much in the forefront of a new era of public music.

Why May Day is not just about maypoles   Leave a comment


May Day has traditionally been a time of protests, marches and demonstrations.

You can go right back to 1517 and the time of the Tudors, when a mob of young apprentices rampaged through London targeting the businesses of foreign merchants.

But the origin of our present May Day holiday lies in the fight for an eight-hour working day, which began across the Atlantic when the American Federation of Labor took industrial action on 1 May 1886. A bomb was thrown in Chicago killing a policeman and there was a huge international outcry when eight anarchists were falsely accused of the crime and seven were sentenced to death. The police who had earlier shot dead two strikers were accused of fabricating evidence and socialists all over the world, including local groups like the Peckham Reform Club, spoke out against the trial and sentences.

The movement for a shorter working day did not die with those who became known as the Chicago Martyrs. The American Federation of Labor called for a national day of demonstrations and strikes on 1 May 1890, which was echoed by the International Socialist Conference in Paris.  As a result, demonstrations went ahead all over the United States and Europe, which is why May Day became an international festival of working class solidarity.

In London, there was a huge demonstration in Hyde Park, with many local workers setting off from Camberwell Green. The procession was headed by the North Camberwell Radical Club’s band who called for ‘Eight hours’ work, eight hours’ pay, eight hours’ rest for eight bob a day’.

Initially, May Day was intended to be a one-off protest. But it continued largely because of the flourishing trade union movement at the time and as a result the size of the London marches grew larger every year. In 1892 a huge crowd estimated at half a million walked from Westminster Bridge to Hyde Park, led by the dock workers of Bermondsey.

It was during this time that elements from traditional May Day celebrations began to be incorporated into socialist demonstrations. Artists and writers like Walter Crane, whose work can be found in the South London Gallery in Peckham, and William Morris started combining socialist values with the familiar ‘Merrie England’ imagery of May queens, garlands and angels. Morris used images of mediaeval pageantry and a lost rural idyll to criticise the squalor of industrial capitalism, while the artist Walter Crane drew a workers’ maypole, with socialist slogans like ‘Solidarity’ and ‘Leisure for All’ written on the ribbons.


This tribute to the workers of the world, called on labourers and factory workers to come forth on May Day and “be glad in the sun” But for most workers relaxing in the green fields on a working day was not an option, it was only the reduction of working hours and the extension of the weekend and holidays that could make that possible, so the marchers sang songs that contrasted the mirth of May Day festivities with the tough and weary world of work.

In 1926, May Day marked the start of the General Strike, and there were many clashes here at the Elephant and Castle. The strikers would stop buses, lorries and vans that didn’t have a TUC permit, but this didn’t deter many blackleggers from trying to force their way through, which led to violence and two buses being set on fire. As a result, the police constantly patrolled the Elephant, many on horseback, and kept chasing people away by riding at them and swinging their truncheons.

There were more local clashes with police in the 1949 when the government tried unsuccessfully to ban May Day marches, but by the sixties these events were beginning to dwindle and when it became a Bank holiday in 1978, it’s radical past seemed to be fast disappearing.  So a number of activists launched their own alternative events to take May Day back to its roots, including John Lawrence, who lived in Camberwell, and began organising marches in the 70s that ended in a park with free music, dancing and sport.

By the year 2000 May Day had returned as a more militant protest, due to a broad coalition of activists under the anti-capitalist banner. Green issues had also become more prominent and protestors made the headlines by raising a Maypole next to Parliament, planting flowers in Parliament Square and giving the statue of Winston Churchill a turf Mohican.

The following year a large crowd met at Elephant and Castle for an anti-privatisation picnic before marching on to the West End, where militant anarchists ruined the party atmosphere by breaking away from peaceful demonstrators and smashing shop windows in Tottenham Court Road.

Since then there have been a number of small peaceful radical May Day events that have been a big success, without hitting the headlines. In 2007, a procession made its way from Camberwell to Kennington Park, where the Chartists, a working class movement for political reform, demonstrated in 1848. After reaching the park, the marchers gathered for a picnic and danced around a workers’ maypole, with an imitation surveillance camera on top. Protests like this prove that May Day is not simply backward looking, but remains an ever-changing event that still offers workers a unique opportunity to join together, march for their rights and demonstrate against injustice.