When Finsbury Park became neglected and rundown in the 1990s I wrote letters to Haringey Council and the Home office and joined others campaigning to stop its buildings being burnt down by vandals, its lake killing the birds with botulism, its grass and trees trashed by commercial concerts. I started to research a history of the park to show how important Finsbury Park had been to the community over the years. It was then I discovered to my surprise that I was just part of a long history of local people campaigning for and in the park, campaigns to get the park built, campaigns to protect it once it was in existence, and political demonstrations on its green spaces.
The creation of Finsbury Park took 20 years of agitation by north Londoners before it became a reality, and although the reality was a poor shadow of the earlier proposals, it would never have been built without thousands of ordinary people meeting up and writing letters and signing memorandums.
From 1800, land north of the city of London shot up in value and was rapidly built over, including traditional open spaces like Finsbury Fields. Everyone could see the need for new open spaces, particularly for health reasons. In 1833, a select committee reported to the House of Commons in favour of the establishment of parks for the eastern, southern and northern districts of the metropolis (The west of London already had Regents Park). Whilst Victoria Park in the east and Battersea Park in the south were created with Government funding, a park for the north of London came up against impossible hurdles, due mainly the ever rising cost of land for new buildings to accommodate the massive influx of people from all over.
In 1841 a petition for a north London park numerously signed by residents was sent to the Queen and various sites were suggested but they were built on before action could be taken. Agitation for a park continued and when the Metropolitan Board of Works was created in 1855, funded by local ratepayers, with a remit to oversee improvement of the metropolis, a new group began agitating for a park for Finsbury and a plan was created in 1856 with an estimate of costs. It was opened in 1869.
Out of the 131 acres, The Albion Cricket Club was given its own patch by the New River, the East London Water Company was given an underground reservoir and 20 acres were allocated as building leases in order to cover costs. Local ratepayers were up in arms and meetings in 1868 followed by a petition signed by 14,137 local residents and a deputation to parliament had its effect. In 1873 the MBW decided to give up on leasing the 20 acres for building and designated them for recreational purposes
Those many people who fought for a park for Finsbury in order to promote the health and improvement of the moral condition of the middling and poorer classes may not have intended the park to become a centre of protest and demonstrations. Once opened, there were regular meetings by labour groups and religious groups and during the First World War large meetings of pacifists belonging to the Herald League attended on one occasion by Sylvia Pankhurst. Between the wars there were famous clashes between the British Union of Fascists and the anti-fascist organisations. Interestingly, in the 1950s the committee of 100 had their offices at no 4 Blackstock Road and it was there that the ban the bomb sign was discussed and agreed upon.
In recent times, the Finsbury Park Action Group (FPAG), with support from many local people, fought for increased funding... The Friends of Finsbury Park came out of this group, formed in 1986. It was the efforts of FPAG that managed, after a number of attempts, to get £27m SRB funding for the area in 2001. The Friends of Finsbury Park focused the large number of complaints about the park... They also ran festivals, art and music events, Easter egg hunts, produced a history of the park, opened the community garden and ran a successful history project about the park with talks, exhibitions and signage about the park.
They brought in over £300,000 of funding, and helped galvanise Haringey into successfully applying to the Heritage Lottery Fund supported by the SRB money. About £6 million was spent on restoration of the park.
Whilst fashions change and the park has had to provide more sport, or allotments during the war, or put up with commercial concerts to pay council bills, it is important to remember that Finsbury Park is there only because thousands of local people have fought for and defended its existence for over 150 years.