Hackney Marshes were formerly Lammas land, which in the C12th was divided into marshy meadows. By the mid C18th these amounted to nearly 300 small strips, with the remainder of the land owned by the Lord of Hackney Manor. There is a long history of sports and recreational use of Hackney Marshes. The land was acquired by the LCC under the Open Spaces Act 1893 and was formally dedicated as public open space in 1894. Hackney Marshes are predominantly used for playing fields.
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Hackney Marsh was formerly Lammas land, in other words parish lands to which tenants had pasturage rights from Lammas Day (August 1st). In 1185 records show the land divided into marshy meadows and bog, and by 1745 there were nearly 300 strips of less than 5 acres each, the lord of the manor owning the remaining 72 acres. An Act of 1623 confirmed the annual appointment of manorial drovers and prescribed fines for stray animals. There is a history of sports and recreational use of Hackney Marsh, with fishing, bird shooting, hare and rabbit coursing being practised in the past, an ox-roasting recorded in 1735, bull-baiting in front of a crowd of 3,000 in 1791, a nearly fatal boxing match in 1790 and the death of a prize fighter in 1875. The freezing of the Marsh after winter flooding provided skating in Victorian times. In 1889 the newly formed London County Council sought to purchase 337 acres of Hackney Marshes, prompted partly through the need for games pitches in the area, but also in light of a threat that the landowners might build on it. A scheme was drafted in 1890 for the LCC to acquire the rights from the owners for £75,000, of which Hackney District Board provided £15,000, the Lord of the Manor £5,000 and private subscriptions a further £5,000. Hackney Marsh had been excluded from the scheme of 1872 whereby the Metropolitan Board of Works took over 180 acres of various 'Hackney Commons' in order to preserve them as public open space.
Hackney Marsh was acquired under the Open Spaces Act 1893 and was formally dedicated as public open space in 1894. The Earl of Meath declared it to be 'the most magnificent playground in the world'. At 140 hectares it is Hackney's largest open space and public park. Until the canal system was created in the C19th the marshes were frequently subject to flooding and the LCC carried out various flood prevention works. Much land was reclaimed in the 1930s and when the marshes were drained evidence was found of Roman occupation, including the remains of a causeway, coins and a coffin. Hackney Marshes are predominantly used for playing fields, which are surrounded by a variety of trees, many of them mature, and bordered by the River Lee Navigation (Hackney Cut) to the south, and the River Lee (or Lea) to the north. Along the River Lee Navigation is the Lee and Stort Navigation Towpath, separated from the Marshes by railings in part, which leads to the Middlesex Filter Beds (q.v.). Along the River Lee is a pleasant, wooded riverside walk alive with birdsong, with seating areas, the river crossed nearby via a small pedestrian bridge that leads to a further playing field in the north east. The southern area is crossed by Homerton Road, to the south of which is Wick Field, an overgrown area which is being planted as a forest. There is a wildlife and conservation area, and riverside walk along Lea Navigation Canal.
Two areas of the Marshes are particularly important for nature conservation, Daubeny Green, which borders on the River Lee Navigation Hackney Cut, and Arena Field in the south, formerly sports pitches but in recent years left unmown, and it provides habitat for grassland invertebrates. Part of the Marshes are being built over for the London Olympics in 2012, following which it will then be restored as open space. Hackney Council and the London Development Agency are working together to deliver numerous improvements to Hackney Marshes through a multi-million pound improvement plan being implemented between now and the 2012 Games to provide improved pitches and changing facilities, new bridges, footpaths, cycle ways, and community facilities. Improvements to drainage on some of the pitches has been completed, and work is about to start on new changing facilities. The Hackney Marshes Centre at South Marsh opened in spring 2011, providing 30 changing rooms, educational and community facilities. A new café and terrace with views across the Marshes will open later in 2011.
Parks and Open Spaces in Hackney, A Report by the Hackney Society, London 1980; Andrew Crowe 'The Parks and Woodlands of London' (Fourth Estate, 1987); Ben Weinreb & Christopher Hibbert, 'The London Encyclopaedia' (Macmillan, revised ed. 1993); J J Sexby, The Municipal Parks, Gardens and Open Spaces of London (1898); David Mander, Strength in the Tower, an Illustrated History of Hackney (Sutton) 1998; Victoria County History