While it is a wonderful place for a walk, Hyde Park is also used for major concerts and the annual Winter Wonderland. But the park has a long history that includes reviews of troops, encampments, duels, highway robberies, executions and more.
One of London’s eight royal parks, Hyde Park is in central London and adjoins Kensington Gardens. Its borders start from the west of Oxford Street at Marble Arch, down Park Lane to Hyde Park Corner, along Knightsbridge to the south and Bayswater Road/Hyde Park Place to the north with West Carriage Drive the natural divide between the two parks. Hyde Park covers 350 acres and is considered to be one of the ‘Lungs of London‘ to be protected for the fresh air it adds to urban living.
In the days of the Roman occupation of England (before AD410), the site of the future Hyde Park was a part of virgin forests. For more than ten centuries after it continued to surround London to the north and the west.
It is likely there were wild animals in the ‘forest’ including wild boars and bulls, wolves, deer, and smaller game such as rabbits and birds.
The Anglo-Saxon period lasted for 600 years, from 410 to 1066.
About the time of the Domesday Book (written in 1086), the manor of Eia was divided into three smaller manors: Neyte, Ebury and Hyde. The Manor of Eia also covered the site of Buckingham Palace.
The manor of Neyte became the property of the monks of the Abbey of Westminster as did the manor of Hyde. Both remained in the hands of the monks until seized by King Henry VIII at the time of the Reformation.
When Henry VIII was refused a divorce by the Pope in 1533, he broke away from the Catholic Church and created the Church of England so he could marry (the now pregnant) Anne Boleyn in a secret ceremony.
The king seized land and property across the country during the dissolution of the monasteries. Henry VIII wanted to extend his hunting grounds to the north and west of London. He had previously purchased the plot of ground that became St James’s Park, and he already had Marylebone Park (now the Regent’s Park and surrounding districts). Claiming the manor of Hyde from Westminster Abbey in 1536 gave him an uninterrupted hunting ground which extended from his Palace of Whitehall to Hampstead Heath.
It was, probably, also about this period that the manor of Hyde was made into a park and enclosed with a fence for rearing and preserving hunting game.
Throughout the rest of the sixteen century and the seventeenth, Hyde Park was a royal deer park for hunting as well as offering a valuable exercise in shooting. The royal favoured weapon of the time was the crossbow.
The stag was the most hunted animal which in the Tudor Age was usually called the hart. When a hart or buck was killed, it was eaten. Harts could be hunted at most times of the year but not in mid-winter, and the King and his nobles then engaged in hawking instead. Falcons were trained for this sport, and statutes were passed to punish any poacher who stole their eggs.
Before the end of Elizabeth I’s reign (r. 1558–1603) some forty acres of land on the southern side, not far from Knightsbridge, were added to the park and fenced in with rails as it was reserved for the deer to graze in. The railing was probably removed in 1592.
Limited Public Access
The Stuart period began in 1603 when James I became King of England (he was already James VI, King of Scotland from 1567).
The park remained the private land of the monarchy until James I’s reign when he allowed restricted access to the wealthier population.
Charles I (r. 1625–1649) created the Ring (north of the present Serpentine boathouse). This was a circular track where members of the royal court could drive their carriages.
Hyde Park had a large number of connected pools or ponds (more than ten). They were fed by a small stream, the Westbourne, which started in Hampstead in north London, passed through Kilburn and Bayswater to reach Hyde Park and ended at Millbank and Chelsea where it joined The Thames. These pools supplied drinking water to the local population as well as the royal deer. When the parkkeepers complained to the king that the pools were being drained leaving no water for the deer, the king decided to side with the animals which would have increased public animosity towards him at the time.
Charles I later opened the park to the general public in 1637.
During the early part of the Civil Wars (1642–1651), Hyde Park was largely used for exercising soldiers.
After the execution of Charles I in 1649, a special resolution was passed in 1652 to sell Hyde Park. The Park at that time contained about 621 acres, and the sale realised £17,068 2s. 8d. The purchasers of the three lots were Richard Wilson, John Lacey and Anthony Deane. The owners charged people to enter the park and ‘take air’ in their carriages.
When Charles II returned to Whitehall in 1660, the sales of the Park were treated as null and void, and Hyde Park became royal property again and was open to the public for free once more.
During the Restoration, members of the royal family were lodged in the palaces of Whitehall and St. James’s. Both Charles and his brother James enjoyed being outside in the parks. Hyde Park had an even more powerful attraction for men as it became a gathering place for unmarried ladies.
Charles II also introduced racing in Hyde Park and ‘Riding in the Ring’. This was an enclosed circular space around which coaches drove in two directions, first one way and then the other, creating the opportunity for their occupants to nod, smile and flirt with each other as they passed. I have seen this described as a Stuart speed-dating event.
The fashionable ‘dandies’ of that period, however, did not have it all their own way. When the plague hit London in August and September 1665, a large number of the poorer inhabitants of the city, who could not escape into the country, brought everything they owned and set up tents in the Park. Sadly, this didn’t protect them from the epidemic, and many died and were buried on the spot.
In the reigns of Charles II (r.1660–1685) and James II (r. 1685–1688), the mania for duelling was at its height. As gentlemen wore their swords as part of their everyday attire duels were, sadly, demanded far too often.
In the 1670s the Park was enclosed with a low brick wall and re-stocked with deer. This wall stood till the reign of George II (r.1727–1760) when it was replaced by a much taller wall. The wall was removed in the time of George IV. (r. 1820–30) and replaced by iron railings.
Royal Gun Salutes
Royal gun salutes are fired in Hyde Park to mark special royal events such as the Queen’s real birthday on 21 April. (Her official birthday receives a royal gun salute in Green Park on 12 June.)
It’s a loud occasion as the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery fire 41 rounds – 21 rounds for the ‘basic’ salute plus 20 rounds as Hyde Park is a Royal Park.
In 1689, new monarchs William III and Mary II chose Kensington Palace to be their country retreat.
William found that his route to St James’s across the parks was dark and dangerous, so he had 300 oil lamps installed, creating the first artificially lit highway in the country. Completed in 1690, the route formed part of King William III’s carriage drive from Whitehall to Kensington Palace.
The path was designated as a public bridleway in the 1730s, and by the late 18th century this route became known as Rotten Row, which is a corruption of the French ‘Route de Roi’ or King’s Road. It was often crammed with fashionable horse riders (only the monarch is allowed to drive a carriage along Rotten Row). Being seen riding on Rotton Row became one of the daily events of the summer season. It is still one of the most famous urban riding grounds in the world.
The democratisation of Hyde Park certainly didn’t put off Britain’s royals as George V (r. 1910–1936) rode regularly in the park. In the 1930s, the whole Kennedy family used to ride out in Rotten Row when Joseph Kennedy (father of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy) was the US Ambassador to the UK.
Today, Rotten Row is still used for exercising horses of the Household Cavalry. The Royal Park Shires can sometimes be seen working there too. As well as the stables at Hyde Park Barracks, you can often see riding lessons from Hyde Park Stables here as well.
As far back as the reign of Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603), there are reports of cheesecakes to be had at a house near the Serpentine. The Lodge was a timber and plaster building and was taken down in the early part of the 18th century. In Queen Anne’s time (r. 1702–1714), it was more generally known as The Cake House or Mince-pie House. As well as a location for refreshments, it was a place to be seen.
In the early 1730s, Queen Caroline (Queen Consort of George II) had the park landscaped. She also had the Westbourne River damned, which in turn created The Serpentine. This large lake was made up of eleven smaller ponds.
As mentioned earlier, The Westbourne came down from Hampstead to reach Hyde Park. By this time, the stream has been the Bayswater sewer for many years. Damning the flow meant that the new lake initially became about fifty acres of stagnant water with a depth varying from one to thirty feet.
Reports show it took a long time to remedy the situation but by 1834 the Bayswater sewer was cut from the Serpentine. The lake continued to receive a water supply but now from The Thames. It was still many years later that the decision was made to dredge the lake to remove the accumulation of putrid ‘mud’ at the bottom that still smelled rotten on hot days.
Later, once the water was considered pure again, in 1848 it was reported that the Park’s springs supplied drinking water to Buckingham Palace and to Westminster Abbey.
For a lake called The Serpentine, you would expect it to have twists and turns, but it is a long body of water with a slight bend. At the time this was enough to garner the new name as the Dutch fashion for landscape gardening had meant only straight and square features.
The Serpentine was soon popular with local wildlife and also with people seeking recreational activities. A fair was held on the ice in the winter of 1814. And in 1825 there are reports of a wager to drive a coach and four horses across the Serpentine during a severe frost. To rescue skaters who were literally skating on thin ice, the Royal Humane Society was erected, in 1834, on the north side of the lake.
Serpentine Lodge stands on the edge of the Serpentine. It is a Grade II listed structure, built by 1839 and occupied by 1841. In 1900, ‘The Old Police House’ was built a few yards away from Serpentine Lodge as the headquarters of the Royal Parks police force.
The Serpentine Swimming Club has members who swim every day early in the morning. They have a famous race on Christmas Day called the Peter Pan Cup as the trophy was donated by J.M. Barrie who lived nearly and wrote the famous children’s story.
In 1930, the lido was set up by George Lansbury, the First Commissioner of Works, and can still be used to this day.
Boats were introduced here in 1847 and are still popular today.
Hyde Park Fair 1814
The Hyde Park Fair was held on 1 August 1814 to celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of the Nile and the centenary of the ascension to the throne of the Hanoverian monarchs.
To mark the end of the Napoleonic Wars, it was a national day of celebration, and The Prince Regent organised fireworks. The highlight of the Hyde Park Fair was a mock sea battle re-enactment on The Serpentine.
About a hundred yards north of Apsley House (at Hyde Park Corner), you can see the 18ft high Achilles statue, the Greek hero of the Trojan War. It was made by Sir Richard Westmacott in 1822 using 33 tonnes of bronze from cannons captured in the Duke of Wellington’s campaigns in France. The body of the statue is modelled on a Roman figure, but the head is based on the Duke himself.
The statue cost £10,000, and the money was raised by subscriptions from the ladies of England as a monument in honour of the military successes of the Duke of Wellington. The ladies were given quite a shock as this was London’s first public nude statue. Following controversy and uproar, a small fig leaf was added.
Hyde Park Corner’s entrance to the park is Apsley Gate: three archways for carriages and scroll-top ionic columns. Designed by Decimus Burton (more about him below), it was built in 1826–29.
As noted in my recent article about Buckingham Palace, the Marble Arch was designed as a grand entrance for the palace. But it was later decided to move it. On the initiative of architect and urban planner Decimus Burton, a one-time pupil of John Nash, Marble Arch was relocated to the northeast corner of Hyde Park in 1851. The stone by stone removal was fully completed in three months.
You can find out a lot more about the Marble Arch in this Georgian Group document.
Marble Arch is by Cumberland Gate, at the north-eastern corner of the Park, at the western end of Oxford Street.
It was here, in August 1821, there was a disgraceful conflict between the people and the soldiery at the funeral of Queen Caroline when two people were killed by shots from the Horse Guards on duty.
1851 Great Exhibition
The 1851 Great Exhibition must have been magnificent. Presented in an enormous glass building, known as the crystal palace, it showcased wonders from across the world. It was open from May to October, and over six million people visited.
It created enough profit to build the big three South Kensington museums: the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum.
After the Great Exhibition, the crystal palace was dismantled and rebuilt in south London and gave its name to the neighbourhood, Crystal Palace.
But if you look on the ground near the site of the exhibition in Hyde Park, you can find this plaque embedded into the path.
Hyde Park Bandstand
The bandstand in Hyde Park is one of the oldest in Britain. It was built in 1869 and originally stood in Kensington Gardens, but moved to Hyde Park in 1886. The octagonal roof gives it particularly good acoustics.
In the 1890s, band concerts were held at the bandstand three times a week.
Hyde Park has long been used as a place to protest and rally. In 1866, Edmond Beales, president of the Reform League, marched through Hyde Park to press for manhood suffrage. (It took until the Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed for virtually all men over 21 to have the right to vote.) Protesters clashed with police so, when the fight was disbanded, the Prime Minister allowed meetings to take place unchallenged by authorities.
During the 1866 rioting, the ‘Reformer’s Tree‘ was burned down and the stump was later used as a noticeboard for political demonstrations. An impressive mosaic now commemorates the tree and what it represented.
Since 1872, people have been allowed to speak in the north-east section of Hyde Park on any subject. We know this area commonly as Speaker’s Corner. On Sunday mornings, you can see religious preachers, political protesters and much more being discussed.
Some attract crowds, and some do not. But it’s freedom of speech, so it continues.
The Hudson Memorial Bird Sanctuary is a carved stone memorial commemorating the 19th-century writer and naturalist, William Hudson. He helped to establish the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and campaigned for wild areas in parks, at a time when they were always neat and tidy.
The memorial was installed in 1924, yet it’s an area of the park I have never visited. I heard about it from a friend who is an Art Deco enthusiast (he runs London Art Deco tours) as he sent me this photo of the Sir Jacob Epstein statue of Rima, the bird girl.
“It came to me that Hyde Park has never belonged to London – that it has always been, in spirit, a stretch of countryside; and that it links the Londons of all periods together most magically – by remaining forever unchanged at the heart of an ever-changing town.”
Dodie Smith, from ‘I Capture the Castle’ published in 1948
(Dodie Smith is best known as the author of the novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians)
Joy of Life Fountain
The Joy of Life fountain, designed by T. B. Huxley-Jones, depicts two bronze figures holding hands while appearing to dance above the water, with four bronze children emerging from the pool. It was installed in 1963 when Park Lane was widened.
The Holocaust Memorial is a garden of boulders surrounded by white-stemmed birch trees, located to the east of The Dell. The memorial was constructed in 1983 and was Britain’s first memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.
Queen Mother’s Gate
Officially the Queen Elizabeth Gate but I’ve always known it as the Queen Mother’s Gate, these highly decorated gates were installed to commemorate the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. They were unveiled by the Queen in 1993.
The central screen, designed by David Wynne, unites two national symbols: the lion of England with the unicorn of Scotland. Do see this fabulous photo taken during installation.
The Rose Garden, in the south-east corner of Hyde Park, was opened a year later in 1994.
Diana Memorial Fountain
The Diana Memorial Fountain, commemorating Diana, Princess of Wales, was opened by Her Majesty The Queen on 6 July 2004. It contains 545 pieces of Cornish granite with a design intended to reflect Diana’s life. Water flows from the highest point in two directions as it cascades, swirls and bubbles before meeting in a calm pool at the bottom. The water is constantly being refreshed and is drawn from London’s water table.
The Memorial is also said to symbolise Diana’s quality and openness. There are three bridges where you can cross the water and go to the heart of the fountain. When flowing, the fountain is well-loved by young children.
Following the 52 killed in the 7/7 London bombings in 2005, a permanent memorial was unveiled in 2009 to honour the victims. There are 52 steel pillars, each engraved with the date, time and location of the bombing.
Hyde Park has a lot of memorials, and you can find out more about those mentioned above and others on The Royal Parks website.
Hyde Park Concerts
There are usually big-name acts performing in the park each summer for the British Summer Time concerts. While it may well be quieter this year, there is this concert drinking fountain to see. (It’s about halfway between Marble Arch and Hyde Park Corner.)
And one more quirky discovery that brings us right up to date as this was seen in January 2021 and shows that the parkkeepers’ work is never done. These ‘famous five’ double-flowering Horse Chestnut trees are currently receiving some extra attention. Thanks Sue from It’s Your London for this great find!
John Rabon has recently written Ten More Interesting Facts About Hyde Park.