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‘Determined’ resident sees 19th-century Finsbury playground reopen to the public after 50 years

Leo Chapman

Leo Chapman: ‘Kids needed somewhere to play’

Published: 16 December, 2016
by KOOS COUVÉE

A 19TH-CENTURY playground in Finsbury has been reopened to the public after 50 years following an 11-year campaign by a local resident.

The 125-year-old garden in Seward Street, Finsbury, was opened by Islington mayor Kat Fletcher on Saturday, and it came as an early Christmas present for the children living in the nearby flats after Islington Council spent £300,000 on improving play facilities.

The park had been closed to the general public for more than 50 years, having been leased to the nearby private Dallington School for the past three decades. This would have remained the case had it not been for the efforts of Leo Chapman, who launched a campaign in 2005 to get the council to take the site back.

“I’ve lived around here for 20 years and passed the site and noticed children in there, and it was locked. I found out it was leased to a small private school,” Mr Chapman said. “But I felt the kids [in the neighbour­hood] needed somewhere to play.”

Australian-born Mr Chapman, a retired journalist, dug around for information about history of the site in the council’s local history centre. He discovered that the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association – of which he is a member – gave the 1/4-acre site to Islington Council’s predecessor in 1891, on the condition that it be maintained as a children’s playground. 

Mr Chapman then obtained a copy of the school’s lease under the Freedom of Information Act. In it, he spotted a break clause allowing the Town Hall to end the lease if it gave six months’ notice. He told the Tribune: “I asked the council not to renew it and they did, the council broke the contract a couple of years back. I’m very happy with result. It’s not often Islington gets a new park. Children can now play on what is some of the most valuable land in the world being close to the City of London. It just shows if you keep at it you can get something.”

Mr Chapman’s victory comes some years after he managed to persuade the ancient Honorary Artillery Company, in City Road, to open its grounds to children of three local schools following a six-year campaign. The key to his success was the discovery of a 1998 planning condition that had become bogged down in Islington Council’s administrative procedures. It was the first time in 500 years that residents could use the ground free of charge. 

Jenni Chan, secretary of the Islington Friends of Parks Forum, said: “Mr Chapman is a very determined man and when he gets his campaigning teeth into something there’s no stopping him.”

The playground had been St Bartholomew’s Hospital burial ground for unclaimed bodies – a potter’s field, the term for a pauper’s cemetery. This saved it from being sold by the council in the 1970s as the cost of disinterment was too high. 

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