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Red Cross Garden formed part of Octavia Hill's pioneering social housing scheme here, two small rows of Tudor revivalist style houses, Redcross Cottages built in 1888 and Whitecross Cottages in 1890, which together with Red Cross Hall were designed by Elijah Hoole. Red Cross Garden predated the buildings and was laid out in 1887, the opening ceremony taking place in 1888. An energetic social reformer particularly for the provision of well-designed affordable housing and attendant community facilities, Octavia Hill was also passionate about the need for public open space. She was closely involved in the Kyrle Society whose Open Space Committee played an important role in saving recreational open space in London from building development and also in creating new public open spaces. This work led directly to the establishment of the National Trust, first mooted in 1885, of which Hill was co-founder. She was involved in the creation of parks such as Vauxhall Park and Brockwell Park, and participated in campaigns such as those that led to saving Queen’s Wood, Parliament Hill Fields, West Wickham Common, Archbishop’s Park and Hilly Fields (q.q.v.).
In the social housing schemes that she pioneered, Hill always strove to provide attractive homes with communal facilities such as recreational space and community halls. The Red Cross housing scheme in Southwark is a clear and early example of this approach, and its small public garden was described as 'an open air sitting room for the tired inhabitants of Southwark'. The Hall, now called Bishop's Hall and privately owned, had a reading room, library, facilities for clubs and groups, concerts, plays, poetry readings and gymnastics. The land was owned by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners and leased to Southwark Borough Council, and had been acquired when Southwark Street was laid out in 1860. It had formerly been the site of a paper factory and a hop warehouse. In her 'Letter to My Fellow-Workers' in 1887, Octavia Hill referred to the new garden that was then being laid out: 'walks wind about between small lawns and flower-beds set with flowering trees and shrubs. Two plane trees are planted on the larger spaces of gravel, which are to have circular seats round them, and where we hope working women will sit and rest and do needlework, and tired men sit and smoke on summer evenings. A small pond has been made in the garden, and a jet of water forms a fountain in it. The narrowest part of the pond will be crossed by a little bridge.'
Red Cross Garden, overlooked by Redcross Cottages, was opened at a ceremony in 1888. A plaque on the wall states that the garden was provided by Julia, Countess of Ducie in 1887 and has the words: 'God saw the earth and behold it was very good. Have we done our best to make it very good?'. Lady Ducie and the Kyrle Society provided the main funds of £1000 for its layout, which was designed by Emmeline Sieveking working with Fanny Wilkinson, landscape gardener for the Kyrle Society and later for the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association. Above this plaque is a mosaic of The Sower with the text: 'THE SOWER WENT FORTH TO SOW'. This mosaic was donated by Miss Julia Minet and its installation arranged by Octavia Hill in 1896; it was restored in 1956 by the Horace Street Trust, the model housing association that Hill had founded, and again in 2005 during the garden restoration.
The garden's original layout consisted of curved lawns, flower beds and serpentine paths, with an ornamental pond with a fountain, a bandstand and a covered children's play area. Stairs from Red Cross Hall led to a walkway from which the garden could be viewed, and in addition to The Sower mosaic was another called The Good Shepherd. The garden hosted the annual Southwark Flower Show and numerous other celebrations. In 1928 Red Cross Garden was described as a small rectangular area flanked by buildings on 3 sides and 'very attractively laid out as an ornamental garden'. This layout was subsequently lost. During WWII the garden railings were removed for the war effort and the caretaker was dismissed. Sir Sidney Cockerell, writing to The Times about his visit on 21 July 1948 was appalled 'to find not a flower, not a shrub, not a tree surviving, no covered playground, no pond, no bridge, no bandstand - merely a desolate flat space part of it newly asphalted . . . A few months previously vandals had fired the covered way . . . '. A photograph of 1965 shows the garden without trees although some were subsequently planted, but prior to the garden restoration of 2005 it consisted largely of grass with an area of tarmac, a few concrete planters, old seats, a few hornbeam trees, and flower beds on two sides, with a small brick shelter at the entrance on Redcross Way.
The Red Cross Garden Group was set up to oversee restoration of the garden, working with Bankside Open Spaces Trust (BOST) and Land Use Consultants. A successful bid was submitted to HLF and the garden has been entirely re-landscaped, restoring many of the original features to once more provide an important asset to the local community. Although no masterplan of the original layout has been found, an archaeological survey revealed the layout of paths and the pond. The planting reflects its Victorian origins combined with ecological planting, with individual areas grouped in themes such as English cottage garden, exotic shrub and herbaceous border, rockery, pond garden. A new building now stands where the former covered play area once was, but the raised gallery promenade reached by stairs at Redcross Hall was not restored. Red Cross Garden re-opened in July 2005 with the official opening ceremony attended by the Princess Royal taking place on 1 June 2006.
History of Red Cross Garden on Bankside Open Spaces Trust website, www.bost.org.uk. Octavia Hill Birthplace Museum Trust. Report of the Royal Commission on London Squares, 1928; 'The London County Council and what it does for London: London Parks and Open Spaces' (Hodder & Stoughton, 1924); Southwark Listed Buildings data; 'Octavia Hill's RED CROSS GARDEN, Borough, Historical Survey and Restoration Management Plan Prepared for Bankside Open Spaces Trust & The London Borough of Southwark Regeneration and Environment Department by Land Use Consultants, 2001; Elizabeth Crawford, 'Enterprising Women: The Garretts and their Circle' (Francis Boutle Publishers, 2nd ed. 2009)