Primroses planted and seeds sown; the energetic birth of the Trust

Primrose credit Philip Precey

In the week of the 40th anniversary of one of the Trust's defining moments, our Director of Conservation Mathew Frith shares the story of the Primrose Hill Declaration

Just over 40 years ago, on 16-17th May 1981, over 400 people attended a Nature in London workshop held at Clissold Park Secondary School.[1] Paying £5 for a mixture of lectures, walks and discussion sessions, delegates attended what was later reported as the largest meeting of its kind.  Speakers included Chris Baines and Bunny Teagle (both of the ‘Black Country contingent’[2]), Alan Stubbs (on the ecology of rubbish tips), Rodney Burton (London Natural History Society, on inner London flora), as well as Frank Perring (from the Royal Society of Nature Conservation[3]) and John Davidson (Countryside Commission[4]) to ‘lend legitimacy’ to the proceedings.  It set in play the foundations for the establishment of London Wildlife Trust.

The workshop was organised by the London Wildlife Group, which had formed a few months beforehand; a small number of activists, most of whom were in their twenties, at a meeting at the Black Bull pub on the Fulham Road.

The Group’s formal inauguration was 5th May, and to mark it a primrose was to be planted on Primrose Hill.  However, officers of the Department of the Environment (Royal Parks Department) refused permission for the Group to do so.[5]  Chris Rose, the Group’s Chair, ever alert to the power of the media, made sure the press took up the story. Local papers, The Daily Telegraph and The Observer picked it up:

It seems the Department feared that the new group was using the hill for its own publicity… [The Minister stating] ‘…indeed these loveliest of flowers will have to battle the ravages of dogs and vandals – I have asked my experts to carry out suitable planting at the correct time.’” Daily Telegraph

The Department has refused conservationists plant a primrose in the London park to symbolise the importance of bringing wildlife back to London. It says that the gesture would not be ‘worthwhile’ and that the flower should be planted in Battersea Park instead.  When Chris Rose… first contacted the Department for permission to plant the flower he was asked how tall the primrose was. ‘This surprised me, so I said ‘What do you mean?’ ‘The official said ‘How many feet tall is it?’ ‘I said ‘three or four inches’; he explained he had thought it was a tree because people only wanted to plant trees in the past.’”  The Observer

However, the Group’s ‘publicity stunt’ yielded results; a photograph featured in The New Standard[6] on 15th May showed two pupils from the local primary school planting a primrose - ‘their school emblem’ - on Primrose Hill.

More successfully, the day before the Nature in London workshop, the new leader of the Greater London Council (and Camden Council’s Chair of Housing), Ken Livingstone, “struck his first blow for London’s homeless” by nailing a nestbox into one of the cherry trees in Jubilee Gardens on the South Bank (“the one-time window-cleaner revealed a good for heights”). Mr Livingstone recalled his time playing on bomb-sites “full of flowers, birds, butterflies and small animals” and hoped a family of blue tits would move into the box.”[7] In addition, teenagers in Hackney had built 1,000 nestboxes to install around the borough.  

Delegates to the workshop were given a copy of Wild London[8], which had the rough and ready samizdat feel of a punk fanzine, and referred to ‘The Front Line’; and the threats to wasteland, and a number of sites (including Frays Farm Meadows and Walthamstow Marshes)  by pointing a finger at the villains (Greater London Council and Lee Valley Regional Park Authority[9]). 

With this came the Primrose Hill Declaration; a manifesto for conserving London’s natural heritage against the “expropriation by.... industry, development, greed, waste and mis-conception.” This was meant to have been read at the inaugural meeting on Primrose Hill. 

The Group intended to formally set up as a Trust, and followed the workshop by securing funds to launch a Tree Campaign in the autumn. This consisted of ‘Trees on wheels’, bussing schoolchildren to collect acorns, seeds and seedlings in outer London woodlands, to plant them in nursery areas in central London, and a ‘Loosen my ties’ campaign to raise awareness in local authorities of poorly maintained trees.[10]

London Wildlife Trust was eventually inaugurated as a charity in November 1981; with a Board of 20 trustees, a new Chair, Bob Smyth, a Patron, Peter Melchett and President, Richard Mabey.  Our founding followed hot on the heels of other wildlife trusts established in Birmingham & the Black Country, Avon, and Tees Valley (all in 1980).  The creation of these urban trusts was symptomatic of the growing challenge to the prevailing nature conservation attitudes of the time, still orientated towards the countryside and away from where most people in Britain lived.[11]

And with the wind in our sails, in January 1982, a day-long conference and exhibition - the North London Wildlife Day - was held at Alexandra Palace, attracting over 1,000 people and described as ‘the biggest event of its kind since National Nature Week in 1965.’  It was all systems go for the new-born Trust.

The Primrose Hill Declaration, albeit rooted in the language of the day, still resonates today.  Our founders affirmed “the rights of London’s people to:

  • clean air 
  • unpolluted water
  • the integrity of our ecological world for our children and theirs
  • ample open space as in the best of the countryside
  • live and plan in harmony with wildlife
  • determine the reasonable use of our land and resources

 

The actions of thousands of people and hundreds of organisations have worked over the past 40 years to help achieve this founding vision, and significant progress has been made on many fronts, and yet we are now in a much more challenging times.  Nature needs our help like never before.

End note

In issue 3 of Wild London, Brian Wurzell (an expert botanist) contributed the following paean to the ‘failed’ primrose planting;

“One sweet primrose Hill primrose did no-one no harm

We lament that cruel London denied u its charm

But what headline reports our brave Group might have read

Had Chris lived at the Elephant & Castle instead?”

 

Mathew Frith

Director of Conservation

 

[1] The school closed in 2012.

[2] The modern origins of urban nature conservation practice largely emerged from the Black Country in the mid-1970s.

[3] Today, the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts, an independent charity of which London Wildlife Trust is a member.

[4] Established as a government agency in 1968, eventually merged with English Nature in 2006 to form Natural England.

[5] The Royal Parks, managers of Primrose Hill, eventually became a government agency, before being restructured as a charity in 2017.

[6] The New Standard eventually became The Evening Standard in 1988.

[7] Someone asked him whether the birds could buy the nestbox after a year.

[8] Published by the LWG, but it became the Trust’s membership magazine by issue 3, and has to date run to 123 issues.

[9] Both were criticised for their plans to extract gravels from both sites (landlords respectively of both); this never happened, and both since have become designated as SSSI/Local Nature Reserves.

[10] Planted trees still fall victim to lack of ongoing management, including the lack of removal of stakes and ties.

[11] Inevitably the grasp of how important it is to view nature conservation from a city dweller’s perspective has taken far longer to embed itself into policy and practice.