Red Cross Garden

On this page

1. The History of Red Cross Garden
2. Planting and Wildlife
3. Events and Education
4. How to get involved
5. Opening times
6. How to find us
7. Contact us

1. The History of Red Cross Garden
19th century Bankside was a grim, squalid area, overcrowded and packed with factories and slum dwellings. Octavia Hill, a co-founder of the National Trust, and ardent social reformer, established Red Cross Garden in 1887 as an 'open air sitting room for the tired inhabitants of Southwark'. She went on to build six neighbouring model dwelling cottages as a determined move to improve housing for the working poor, alongside a community hall, then known as Red Cross Hall, as a 'Parish parlour'.

Red Cross Garden itself was laid out on the site of a derelict paper factory and a hop warehouse. Its meandering paths are to give a sense of space and a place to wander amongst the curved lawns and flower beds. An ornamental pond was made with a fountain to provide beauty and movement, offering a focus for contemplation. The bandstand provided for performances of music and poetry. Where the new building now stands, Octavia Hill had a covered play area for children so that they could be outside in sunshine or rain, and overhead a walkway for viewing the garden, accessed by stairs which ran up at the end by the Hall. Colourful mosaics brought art and beauty to the working poor - The Sower mosaic still remains, but there was also a beautiful glass mosaic called The Good Shepherd - unfortunately this seems to have been lost when the warehouse that bounded the garden on the north side was demolished. The garden was the venue for the annual Southwark Flower Show, and many fetes and celebrations.

Red Cross Hall was designed by Elijah Hoole (who also designed Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel). The Hall provided a reading room, library, and facilities for working men's clubs, women's groups, concerts and plays, poetry readings and gymnastics. The Cadets movement started here. Elizabeth Casson, founder of the profession of Occupational Therapy was one of the first managers. It is now privately owned and known as Bishop's Hall.

Red Cross Cottages were designed by Elijah Hoole in a Tudor revivalist style. Octavia Hill advocated small scale high quality homes, and each one is slightly different to give individuality. They provided an alternative to the cramped, impersonal tenements that had been built across the road (where Cathedral School now stands). The cottages are now owned and managed by Octavia Housing and Care, a housing association.

The elaborate layout of Red Cross Garden was lost under municipal grass and tarmac in the 1950s and became much underused. BOST secured funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Southwark Council and have completed most of the restoration in spirit of the garden, restoring many of its original features, but ensuring its relevance and sustainability for the local people of Southwark today. Bankside Open Spaces Trust have been working for many years, leading on consultation and planning for the restoration in spirit of Red Cross Garden to bring back this valuable community asset. We now lease the garden from Southwark Council. This urban oasis reopened in July 2005 and was officially opened by the Princess Royal on 1st June 2006. Since then we have built up a regular group of volunteers to help maintain the garden and develop tours of the key historic details of the scheme, along with regular after-school clubs. In the future we shall be hosting poetry readings, concerts, talks and flower shows once again.

2. Planting and Wildlife - Restoration or enhancement?
In 2005 the original garden layout of Red Cross Garden (from 1887) was restored. As the garden is adjacent to Red Cross Hall (recently Bishop's Hall) and Cottages the aim was to recreate a landscape context appropriate to the buildings. The restoration was to provide an attractive and invaluable open space for the surrounding communities and appreciate the needs of the current users. As no masterplan of the original design of Miss Sieveking exists, the findings of the garden archeology survey provided the layout of the paths and the pond (the latter have been uncovered in its entirety from under a foot of topsoil during the construction work) and the 1897 Ordnance Survey Plan along with written and illustrative archive material provided further information. Without a definitive masterplan, the approach to the restoration will therefore was one of historic interpretation rather than that of 'pure' restoration. The garden is to provide a quiet relief and a place of beauty and contact with nature for its users.

Planting themes The restoration of Red Cross Garden is intended to reflect its Victorian origins as a community garden. The site features a mixture of nineteenth century plants with ecological planting. Individual areas are grouped in broad themes, each with an area of different or mixed character: English cottage garden, exotic shrub and herbaceous border, rockery planting and pond garden. The south side of the pond is also acting as a wildlife pond along with the adjacent bog garden. This will provide a useful educational tool at the same time enhancing the biodiversity of the site. The water is left to be colonized naturally and monitoring by schoolchildren map the migration of species from completion.

3. Events and Education
Guided tours about the history and present use of the garden are run by our volunteer tour guides on the last Sundays of each month (bar December) at 2.30 pm on request.
A programme of events is being developed within the garden to continue Octavia Hill's community focus for the garden. For details please get in touch.
We are building educational links with local schools and beyond to use the site as a tool for teaching aspects of the National Curriculum.  Victorian costumes along with games and toys can be booked through the office. The Green Fingers, a free family gardening club runs on Thursdays during term time (except from early January to Easter) from 3.30 pm to 4.30 pm. Please get in touch if you would like to find out more.

Interpretation boards and self-guided tours are also being developed to explain the historical importance of the garden, its creator, the process of restoration and local plant and animal life, in order to make this information available to all visitors.
We are also building up a small library of books focusing on local history, wildlife and gardening. These are available from our visitor centre, which is open by prior arrangement.

4. How to get Involved
Our volunteer days take place on the last Sunday of the month (bar December) and last from 2 pm to 4.30 pm. Forthcoming dates are 25 Oct, 29 Nov 2009, 31 Jan, 28 Feb, 28 March 2010. If you rather volunteer during your lunch break, join us on Wednesdays at 12.45 pm. For more information or if you wish to volunteer any other time please get in touch.

Volunteers are critical to the ongoing success of the garden, join us if you would like to gain gardening experience in good company and enjoy a cup of tea & biscuits.

We are also looking for people to help run our educational activities, act as tour guides (training is provided) or just give a helping hand with maintenance. For more details about these and our volunteer policy please contact us.

Tour Guides are needed at Red Cross Garden to help interpret the historical experience of the restored garden here. BOST will provide training in the information needed and the best way to pass it on. In return we ask for occasional help at weekends.

The garden is maintained by a charity, so are very grateful for any donations, small or big. We are also often looking for gifts in kind to help us to run the garden, events or educational activities. For a list of these items please contact us.

5. Opening Times
The garden is open daily. Currently the garden is open from 9 am and closes before dusk. For possible changes to these times and for the opening times of the visitor centre please contact us. We aim to staff the garden during most of the opening times. The site is flat and accessible for wheelchair users and pushchairs. The path surface includes some loose gravel. We regret, that only working dogs for people with disabilities allowed into the garden.

6. How to Find us
London Bridge Tube: London Bridge (Northern and Jubilee line), Borough (Northern line - Bank branch)

Buses: 21, 35, 40, 133, 343, 344, RV1, C10 
The garden is near the south end of Redcross Way, next to Travis Perkins.


7. Contact Us
Red Cross Garden
Bankside Open Spaces Trust
50 Redcross Way

Tel: 02074033393