From mediaeval times – and maybe even earlier – this area was characterised by fields and market gardens that fed the growing metropolis. Unusually, unlike many surrounding areas, it resisted the encroachment of buildings. The site of the current nature reserve persisted as a single isolated pocket of rural life right until the mid 19th century.
In the 1400s, it was part of the Burgoyne freehold estate centred in Shoreditch when it was largely used as nurseries and market gardens. The land passed through many hands subsequently, including in the 16th century, to Dame Joan Cromwell. In 1717, when records describe ’47 acres of meadow and pasture, now or late in the occupation of Edmon Lidgold’.
To the west, in 1746, Coates Farm on Saffron Close was the nearest large farm. At this time farming would have been a mix of arable, and livestock consisting primarily of sheep, geese and pigs. There are detailed accounts of the types of produce cultivated in Bethnal Green ranging from orchards to soft fruits, cut flowers, herbs, gooseberries, vines, artichokes, peaches, plums, nectarines and saffron which is processed from the crocus sativus plant.
John Mandeno is recorded as a local gardener along with his son to the land north of Punderson’s Gardens and Hollybush Gardens in 1802- 1836 when land was passed to a developer. Incidentally Pundersons Gardens were created by Captain Jonathan Punderson who was also elected as headborough of the parish of St John, Wapping, and is mentioned in dispatches between Samuel Athawes to George Washington regarding his ship Neptune arriving at the York River, Virginia in 1774, two years before the Declaration of American Independence.
The ownership and use of the land changed fundamentally in 1842 when Sir William Fowle Middleton sold it to the Bishop of London and William Cotton for the site of St Jude’s Church and School.
The Church was now saw the East End as a pastoral challenge. Bethnal Green was the third most populated area of London. Alongside growth there was poverty and decay, small homes without drainage or sewerage. By1848, the average life expectancy for mechanics, servants and labourers was just sixteen!
The Bishop of London, Charles James Blomfield, had established the Metropolis Church Extension Fund in 1836 in order to build fifty new churches across the city. He was widely criticised for being far too ambitious but actually oversaw the delivery of seventy-eight. In 1839 in parallel to this initiative the Bethnal Green Churches and Schools Fund was established at a cost in today’s money of £86million to create ten new parishes each with a church, school and parsonage. St Jude’s was created on the footprint of the current Raynes Foundation Middle School. It was designed by the architect Henry Clutton in a Romanesque style with a capacity of around 1110 and opened in 1846. But St Jude’s was more than a Church. It was a social space for community interaction with a library, a provident society, a school, a young men’s society, soup kitchen and institute and hosted classes for mothers and their children.
The landscape of Bethnal Green was significantly altered during the aerial bombardment of World War II. St Jude’s itself was damaged by a bomb in 1940 and was subsequently demolished. The ruins of the former buildings remained untouched for many years and were progressively reclaimed by nature and became wilder and wilder.
Later a group of local people recognized the latent potential of the site and with support from the Environment Trust started to clear the site.
Tower Hamlets Council fenced it off in the 1970s to protect it and in the late 90s the Teesdale and Hollybush TRA became its stewards, with continued support from the Council. A collaboration between them and Nomad Projects Ltd in 2014 has resulted in a series of substantial cross-disciplinary projects (see Projects), to the significant development of the site and, in 2016, the National Award for Innovation given by Kew Gardens.