Tuesday 13 June 2023

Green London: Betts Park & Tales of an Ancient Common

I've lived near Betts Park, in South East London, most of my life. At one time there was a library at the top where I'd borrow books then sit on the grassy slope pictured above on sunny summer Saturdays to read. This is one of my happiest memories of my youth.

Last weekend, I went on a tour of the park called On the Common. It was part of the London Festival of Architecture and was run by local historian Alan Pottinger of the Friends of Betts Park. I learnt that it had far more fascinating history than I'd realised. The area was once part of Penge Common, ancient common land. The green space that's now the park was known as Clay Copse, because of the soil and because it was a tree-filled area where local residents coppiced wood for their fires. 

The arrival of the Croydon Canal in the early 19th century cut the common in two. This was devastating for the poor people who relied on it for their livelihoods because it restricted their access to land and to fresh water from streams. Actually, the very last bit of the canal can still be seen in Betts Park, where a long section is preserved. 

The canal and later the railways brought more people to the area, but the original commoners and their descendants were squeezed out. Penge Common was sold in 1827, and the last of the poor tenants forced away. Many of the families had lived there for a 1,000 years. 

Clay Copse only survived due to a legal battle over ownership of the land, but was later preserved as a park for all to enjoy. It gets its current name from a wealthy self-made man and philanthropist, Frederick Betts, who in the 1920s bought the land and the house that became the library, and gifted them to the people of Penge "in perpetuity". Sadly the library relocated some years ago, but Betts Park is still a lovely place to enjoy a sunny summer's day.  

Alan's walking tour covers far more history than I've written about here, and is running again on Saturdays until the end of June. The walk is free, although donations are welcome. You can find the details to reserve a place here. Betts Park is in London SE20 and the nearest station is Anerley. 

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