The Area: The area now occupied by Friary Park may well be the site of the earliest settlement in Friern Barnet – the parish church of St James is first mentioned in 1198. It was originally part of the Manor of Freren Barnet which was owned by the Bishop of London whose palace was in Fulham. The land in the area was of poor quality and was only suitable for the growing of grass which was supplied to London as hay. Until 1300 Friern Barnet Lane formed part of the main road to the north but then the Bishop of London allowed a new road to be driven through his land to the west and on higher ground. This became known as the Great North Road and from that date Friern Barnet declined in importance.
The House: In 1551 the Bailiff, Richard Clark, was ordered to build a mansion which included a hall, parlour and chambers. He died before it was completed and it was taken over by his son, William, who became the first tenant. A house has been on the site ever since and among the occupants was Sir John Popham, the Lord Chief Justice who became famous for trying both Sir Walter Raleigh and Guy Fawkes. It is likely that Queen Elizabeth stayed at the house as Popham’s guest on 10 June 1594. By the time of the 1665 Hearth Tax its owner, Sir William Gomvill, was taxed for 17 hearths. In the early 1700s Queen Anne was the guest of a Dr King who was then a resident of the house.
In 1800 John Bacon bought the house and the estate and when he died, leaving his affairs in a mess, it was taken over by his son, also John. He went bankrupt in 1824 and the next purchaser, Thomas Bensley, died in 1835. The Friary Estate was then bought by Edmund William Richardson, then Company Secretary of the Planet Building Society, who built the current house in 1871. He died in December 1908.
In July 1948, in response to the national housing shortage, flats were created on the top two floors of the house. In 2003 the offices occupied by London Borough of Barnet Occupational Health were given over to an elderly persons’ day centre and a Citizens’ Advice Bureau. At the same time a glazed walkway at the side of the house with a ramp was installed.
In 2010 a number of local organisations moved into the house – Barnet Asian Womens’ Association, BAWA Jagruti Mental Health Project, Barnet Elderly Asians group, Iranian Community Centre, Oshwal Association and Barnet Lone Parent Group. In November 2015 Community Focus moved in from its previous home at the artsdepot at North Finchley.
The Park: On 15 April 1909 Friern Barnet Urban District Council bought the estate from Richardson’s daughter, Eliza. A local businessman, Sydney Simmons, offered to cover the cost of £7796 5s 7d on the proviso that it was turned into a park ‘for all time’. He made certain stipulations including:
- The park to be forever maintained by and at the expense of the District Council
- No houses to be built on the ground except such lodge or lodges for the use of those employed in the park
- No allotments of any kind
- No large trees to be cut down
- One part of the land to be laid and used for pleasure and recreation of the general public
- One part for cricket especially for young people under the age of 17
- Any special cricket matches to be arranged for as certain number of days only each year by the committee
- Tennis courts and gymnasium
- The present building on the estate to be used for refreshments and a lounge or shelter, and caretakers.
- To be altered to suit requirements
The official opening of the park was to have been performed by the Lord Mayor of London on Saturday 7 May 1910. Unfortunately, King Edward VII died the day before so the Council had no option but to cancel the planned formalities but decided to let the public into the park at 2pm. A children’s tea party eventually took place on 21 July. This was not the first time a party had been held here – in 1897 Edmund Richardson had invited children to his garden to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.
The park had a shallow lake, a bandstand, greenhouses, a children’s playground, gymnastic apparatus and in 1912 a bowling green was added on the site of what used to be Edmund Richardson’s tennis lawn. Lawn tennis courts were added around the same time. In 1927 a putting green was added behind the bowling green. Despite the popularity of these attractions, Friern Barnet Council did not allow organised sports on Sundays.
Cricket matches regularly took place and from 1924 Friern Barnet Grammar School pupils played football matches in the park. In 1938 water taps and wash basins were added in the public conveniences, but a towel dispensing machine was considered too expensive and paper towels were issued instead.
The Council allowed religious services to take place on the proviso that no collections were to be taken.
From 1923 to 1939 hospital fetes took place each July with the proceeds going towards Finchley Memorial, the Royal Northern and Wood Green cottage hospitals. It was not until wartime, (March 1942), however, that the Friern Barnet Summer Show became a regular fixture in the calendar until 2014.
During the War public shelters were dug alongside the tennis courts and running down to the stream, the flowerbeds were turned into vegetable cultivation and 90 allotment plots were made available between the stream and the fence along Torrington Park, behind the tennis courts and behind the bowling green.
As part of the national Government scheme, the imposing main gates and the iron fence around the statue were removed for salvage.
In 2005 CCTV cameras were installed in the park and in 2009 a £30,000 skate park was created. In 2011 a disabled children’s playground was added to the main playground.
The Statue: The statue was erected in 1911 with the cost borne by Sydney Simmons. It was sculpted by Joseph Durham (1814-1877) who exhibited over one hundred works at the Royal Academy, including the statue of Prince Albert outside the Royal Albert Hall. The inscription on the statue itself reads: “J Durham Sculpt London 1862”. The whereabouts of the statue between 1862 and 1911 and its subsequent purchase by Sydney Simmons, is something of a mystery.
The statue is 3.5m high and is mounted on 200 tons of Devon rock in the form of a Devon tor, presumably in recognition of Sydney Simmmons’ county (he was born in Okehampton). Two of the stones carry inscriptions:
In memory of the Peacemaker, King Edward VII
Erected by Sydney Simmons, JP, the donor of this park, which opened to the public on May 7th 1910, the day following His Majesty’s lamented death.
Note: In 2010 the Friern Barnet & District Local History Society published The Friary Park Story, a a history of the Park written by Mel Hooper.