St Mary Magdalene Gardens, Islington, London.
   
 
 

Introduction

St Mary Magdalene Gardens, Islington is a unique place which is approaching its 200th anniversary.

Originally the gardens were burial grounds laid out around a handsome early Victorian neo-classical Chapel of Ease, built for the princely sum of 30,000. Later a Coroner's Court and a mortuary were built close by, giving greater structure to the process of death in the rapidly expanding Borough.

As the land approached the end of its useful life as a burial plot at the end of the 19th century, an Act of Parliament was passed to allow the transition from remembrance gardens into a public park. Many of the tombs and headstones were removed, the land enlarged and formal rose Gardens added. The chapel of rest became St Mary Magdalene's church, as it remains today.

The 20th century saw many changes in human life and the local social fabric, and over time the park has evolved and its usage has changed.

Burial rituals may have given way to informal leisure activities, promenading to jogging and dog-walking, family picnics to packed lunches, but striking lines of continuity remain. The park is a quiet place to sit in sun or shade, a safe place for children to play, a great place for reading and contemplation, a place for romance, a place for sanctuary, a place to walk beneath trees, to smell roses, a place where entrance is still free, even a place for occasional drunkenness, as it used to be in the 1850s, when inquests were still held in the local pub

 
 
   
 

Around the park, the environment has also changed. The Holloway Road is now a major arterial 'red route', carrying a near-constant stream of motorised traffic which can only be bridged by pedestrian traffic lights, presenting a physical barrier to the Central Library (built 1906) and Highbury Fields beyond.

Adjacent social housing such as Morgan Mansions and the Mersey Estate (built 1938) have no green space of their own and so the park is a valuable resource for over 200 local households. St Mary Magdalene School on Liverpool Road, originally Victorian, was rebuilt in the 1960s and there are plans for it to be rebuilt again as an academy.

With the increase in population, there is also the pressure of survival on this small, thriving, green urban space. The 39 majestic London plane trees, the many mature lime and ash trees and native shrubs that have risen up around the church set a huge green shady canopy across the park, and these oldest living residents have become the mainstay of a rich city ecology, giving this walled public space a sense of protection and seclusion unrivalled in Islington, all the more remarkable for being in such a densely populated borough.

 
 
 

In the middle of this rich landscape, Saint Mary Magdalene's church, set back from the road and partially cloaked by trees and buildings, still dominates its surroundings in an impressive way, but many casual users of the modern-day park know little of its inner life, despite its continuing and evolving community role.

 
This modern church represents a complex weave of tradition and progression, spiritual guidance and social care.

Funerals are still sometimes held here as of old, and Holy Communion, marriages and births are also celebrated. The campanologists ring the bells in the tower at each midweek evening practise, and twice on Sundays. An Asylum Seekers' group, Sierra Leone Women's group, Alcoholics Anonymous, and a children's art group all meet in the church crypt.

The great value of St Mary Magdalene Gardens lies in its uniqueness within the local area. With its many overlapping functions, it is an important and irreplaceable community resource.

During July 2005, we will be exploring and expressing these aspects of the park, helping to develop this rare resource in a way which balances conservation with celebration.

With participation from artists, architects, musicians, archeologists, local historians, ecologists, Church groups, local residents and park users, we plan to extend the cultural use of the space, and thus enrich the community over time.

We look forward to a rejuvenation of the Garden, culturally, socially and spiritually.

Dean Whitbread, June 2005.

 

Church Website - Park Benchcam - Project Weblog