Open House Festival

Walworth Garden

education, garden, community/cultural

Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative, 1988

206 Manor Place, SE17 3BN

Our timber frame building was designed by Matrix Feminist Design Co-Operative, and built by women. It represents our community's history of activism-the same ethos that transformed our site from dereliction, into a thriving community garden

Getting there


Elephant & Castle, Kennington


Waterloo, Elephant & Castle


68, 468, 176, 40, 12




History of the Walworth Garden Site

Walworth Garden (formally known as Walworth City Farm) sits on a wedged-shaped corner block half a mile south of Elephant & Castle in the residential streets between Kennington and Walworth. Up until the late 1970s the land was occupied by a row of Victorian terraces, these were subsequently demolished by Southwark Council to make way for new housing. However, with funds depleted, the council’s plans changed and these homes were never built. Instead a wire mesh and board fence was erected and the site was left to grow wild.

A group of local residents saw this as an opportunity, and in 1987 the ⅓ of an acre site was leased from the council to create a community growing space. The area at the time played host to numerous communities; council tenants and privately-owned houses as well as communities of squatters who lived adjacent streets, most notably on the Pullens Estate to the north and St Agnes Place to the south. It was residents from these differing communities with the support of three local labour ward councillors and funding from the Department of the Environment that brought Walworth City Farm into being.

The first task on site was to clear the knotweed and needles. This was followed by soil decontamination, the digging of drainage trenches and the installation of raised vegetable beds and bee hives. Two full time employees - a garden manager (Blaise du Puy, now Cooke) and an outreach manager (Dawn Saunders) - were hired to run the project. Their ambitions for the garden were based on the principles of permaculture; both in horticultural terms and within regards to community engagement.

On 15th July 1988, after many months of hard work, Walworth City Farm was opened to the public by Harriet Harman MP. The next step was the construction of a new building that would provide a permanent teaching space and facilities for the horticultural skills training as well as an office from which the garden’s other community outreach activities would be run. This next step would not only consolidate the garden’s educational ambitions, but also presented an opportunity to do things differently.

Up until this point work on-site, with the exception of the two female farm employees, had been undertaken by men. In an attempt to reverse this gender imbalance (one that persists in the construction industry to this day) it was decided that a predominantly female team would be hired to design and construct the new building. After researching Walter Segal’s self-build designs and visiting the Centre for Alternative Technology, Blaise and Dawn sought advice from Women in the Manual Trades who suggested they approach the all-female architectural practice, Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative.

Having been appointed as project architects, Matrix chose to adapt a timber-frame design that they had originally conceived for the Calthorpe Project in Kings Cross. The plans were reconfigured for Walworth and groundworks began on site in the winter of 1988. The day-to-day build was headed up by two women carpenters working alongside a roster of female day labourers and trainees.

Over the course of six months around fifteen women (many of whom were part of the nearby squatting community centred around St Agnes Place) alongside several men (including present day trustee Kevin Williamson, and two male outpatients from the Maudsley Hospital) were involved in laying foundations and framing the building. However by autumn 1989 the budget designated for the build had run out. At this point Matrix’s involvement ended and the wooden frame was left to sit under tarp until money was found to complete the build.

By spring 1990 the new management committee had secured more funding and architects Max Nasatyr & John Lawler were subsequently appointed to finish the build. Nasatyr & Lawler had met at the Greater London Council (GLC), where they worked together as project architects on the Coin Street Cooperative housing development. However, with the dissolution of the GLC in 1986, they became ‘architects in exile’, and with no hope that the council would be reconvened they set up in practice. They had been working on a project for a local school when committee member Robert Hadfield brought them in to finish building. Their plans worked with Matrix’s existing structure and included an office, classroom, kitchen and two accessible toilets that are still in use today.

Concurrent with the main build the management committee had been negotiating a land swap with the neighbouring Braganza street Territorial Army Centre for some years. Finalised in 1991 the TA signed over a disused garage to the garden in exchange for vehicular access into their drill yard. Work ensued to demolish the garage and install a new boundary wall, thereby making more room for plants at the heart of the garden.

Thirty-four years on the Garden's footprint remains the same, but much has grown… It is now home to over 250 native and exotic species, an apiary, a plant centre selling propagated and imported plants, and eighteen employees. The bee-inspired entrance gates by blacksmith Kevin Boys are open seven days a week for the local community and visitors alike. Inside sculptor Arthur Demowbray’s wooden butterfly bench sits alongside an evolving configuration of greenhouses, raised beds, and numerous ponds that provide a space for foxes, frogs, newts, dragonflies, moths, stag beetles and the ever essential roster of volunteers.

The education programme continues to offer social and therapeutic horticulture to those in need, training through its City & Guilds’ accredited Level 2 in Work-based Horticulture, and has expanded to include adult learning courses on the subjects of health, well-being and the environment. In tandem the ever-expanding garden services team — made up of both seasoned and trainee gardeners (both current and former students), work to maintain and landscape gardens and estates across Southwark and beyond.


Researched and compiled by Angharad Davies.

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