‘I want to share his memory with the world’

Have you ever wondered about the stories behind the plaques on memorial benches? Hear from the families across the ELL boroughs who have dedicated a bench to a loved one

Clinton on David's bench on Valentine's Day. Pic: Jane Jenvey

Every public park in London will most likely have a memorial bench and each one will tell a story. But what is it about a memorial bench in a green space that gives families that meaningful spot to remember their loved ones?

Bethany Harries, a psychologist, and PhD student in Environmental Wellbeing at the University of Surrey explains why being among nature while remembering a loved one is beneficial. “Losing a loved one can be a very stressful and upsetting experience but spending time in nature can help reduce stress,” she says. “The changing seasons and cycles of life can bring a sense of perspective, reminding us of our place in the world. This may be why people find park benches a good space to reflect and remember loved ones.”

Eastlondonlines spoke to families across the boroughs to discover the stories behind their memorial park benches.

‘It’s just like me and my nan sitting together again

While memorial benches are a great way of giving a community a space to pay their respects, they can also be a way to reminisce. For Suzelle Ambrose, 51, visiting Victoria Park in Tower Hamlets with her grandmother, Lilian Emily Moore, was an important part of her childhood. Her husband bought her a memorial bench in memory of Lilian back in 2002. Suzelle, now a grandmother herself, sits on the bench in the same place she and her beloved nan spent many happy afternoons together.

“She loved Victoria Park and I loved having that one-to-one time with her; I didn’t have the best upbringing, so she gave me everything I didn’t have,” says Suzelle. “In the furthest part of the park, there was a lovely swing set with an old-fashioned rocking horse in it. I knew back then if Nan made it to that part of the park, it was a big deal because of her health. I knew she only did that for me. Every now and then I’ll take my grandson to the park and we’ll sit on the bench. I know it sounds silly, but it’s just like me and my Nan are sitting there together again.”

In recent years Suzelle hasn’t visited her nan’s bench as much as she wants to due to Covid restrictions. She turned to Facebook to see if any regular walkers in Victoria Park would make sure the bench is okay. “The response I got back was phenomenal; people were asking where to find it and would send me pictures telling me that ‘Nan’s okay!’ Now every year on Christmas, her birthday, and the anniversary of her death two ladies would put flowers and wreaths on the bench at a cost to themselves. I can just imagine my Nan would be thrilled to bits; it just means the absolute world to me,” Suzelle says.

‘I didn’t want him to ever be forgotten

Across the river in Lewisham, Jane Jenvey, 60, searched for the perfect bench spot as a coping mechanism for herself and close friend Clinton Powell, after Clinton’s partner David Hale died of a heart attack in 2020, aged 58. “He was a brilliant colleague and really funny; we just had such a great time together,” says Jane. “The bench was something Clinton and I could do together to him keep occupied. It was also somewhere for him to go and sit.”

They settled for a spot at the highest point of Mountsfield Park because this is where the couple would walk most days. Recently, on Valentine’s Day, Clinton bought David a rose to celebrate together. “I wanted a bench to remember David because he was such a wonderful person, and I didn’t want him to ever be forgotten,” says Clinton. “I wanted it to be set in a park where others could sit and enjoy the beauty that surrounds them… I want to share his memory with the world.”

‘It is important for a local Black resident to claim a space

In the heart of Abney Park in Hackney sits a bench dedicated to Neil Macey, who was known for being a local musician and DJ, performing in pubs and clubs around the Stoke Newington area. After he died in 2021 from Covid, his wife, Celia Burgess-Macey, 78, and their children contacted the council to spread his ashes and to dedicate a bench to him in a park that was near all his favourite places. “Neil hadn’t wanted his ashes to go back to Trinidad. He said he would feel most comfortable being here where he lived most of his life, in Stoke Newington,” says Celia. “The park is close to some of his favourite haunts like the Three Crowns Pub, which played Black and Caribbean music in the 1960s. Neil was a DJ in the local clubs and he also played at Notting Hill Carnival on the Calypso and Soca stage; he was popular because he played a real mix of music.”

Neil came to England as part of the Windrush generation. Celia explained why it was important for a Black person to have their place in local history amongst other names in the park: “I thought it was important for a local Black resident to claim a space in the cemetery and be remembered amongst the diversity of people in there.”

‘We find ourselves close to her in that moment

For one family in Croydon, their bench dedicated to their daughter Evelyn Rae, who died after only a day in this world, is used to spread awareness of Group B Strep and baby loss. Evelyn passed away from sepsis caused by a condition called Group B Strep, which is usually harmless until a person gets pregnant. Evelyn’s bench is often found decorated with ribbons and posters to encourage pregnant people to get tested. “You assume there is a safe zone; you’ve had your baby, you hear the first cry, and you think everything is okay,” says Evelyn’s mother Lauren Lemasurier, 27. “I had never even heard of Group B Strep. We were told it was rare, but now joining the community we realise how common it is. We made a display on the bench and people were coming over saying that they lost their baby 30 years ago to similar causes, but it was just never spoken about then.”

While Lauren and her partner Connor O-Sullivan-Church, 27, have been devastated by the loss of their child, Evelyn’s bench in Selsdon Wood is a place they can come and celebrate milestones with her and remember the short time they had together. Her father Connor says, “when we walk there and the sun will peak out, we sit back on the bench and look at the view, we find ourselves feeling close to her in that moment.”

‘He was always determined to make the area nice for the locals

Henry “Harry” Foley’s bench sits in the middle of Ravenscroft Park, surrounded by swings and multi-coloured flooring. Harry’s plaque is only one of three on the bench; the others are dedicated to Harry’s friends, who came to be known as ‘the old boys’. “When my mum passed away, my dad started to go sit in the park because he was lonely, says Diana Wheeler, 61, the daughter of Harry. “All the old boys in the area used to walk through the park and sit and speak to each other. The five of them became really good friends. They’d meet there every day around 11am just to have a little chat. I’ve always said if it weren’t for that, I don’t know what my dad really would have done without my mum.

While the park looks different today, it still serves the same purpose it did when it was built in the 1980s: a space for children to play who lived in the high-rise estates around Bethnal Green. The man behind contacting the council and gathering a group of builders together was, in fact, Harry. “He ended up overseeing the whole design of everything. He was always determined to make the area really nice for the locals, nothing was too much trouble,” says Diane. “If the youngsters in the area couldn’t find a job my dad would let them work for him. People would come up to me and my sister and say, ‘if it wasn’t for your dad, I don’t know what our son would have done’.”

The bench keeps Lee alive

Over in London Fields in Hackney, sits Lee Anderson’s bench. Lee passed suddenly from a heart attack at 46. While he grew up in Essex, he moved out to East London as soon as he turned 18. So his sister Joanne Bower, 53, knew that the best place for his memorial was a park where his friends around Hackney could come and sit with him. “With gay men, you find that friends – who are their extended family – mean just as much to them,” says Joanne. “London Fields has an area called the ‘Pansy Patch,’ where they’d all meet for picnics and loll about in the sunshine. I get texts from his friends saying they’ve been to my brother’s bench and took 10 minutes with him and had a little chat. The bench keeps him alive.”

Alongside being the man about town and looking after a few pubs around London, such as the Bricklayer’s Arms in Hoxton, Lee was known for his generosity. “I jumped in an Uber with him once and the driver said to him: “Are you the guy on the front of today’s paper? He was on the cover of the Evening Standard for snatching a kid’s bike back after some people tried to steal it. He was very much for standing up for what you believe in and not getting walked all over.”

How much is a memorial bench in your area?

Croydon –  Benches are not currently available. Other memorial options available include memorial trees and rose garden plaques. Prices start from £491. Existing memorial bench plaques can be renewed every 15 years for £1,584.
Tower Hamlets – In Victoria Park, a new bench and plaque will cost £1,250. On an existing bench, it’s £750. In all other parks, a bench and a plaque costs £950. On an existing bench, it costs £500.
Hackney – A plaque on an existing bench costs £750. A new bench can be put in at a cost of £1,232. A memorial tree starts at £355.
Lewisham – Estimated £1,040 for a bench. Lewisham subcontracts its park responsibilities to Glendale.

If you have seen a memorial bench that has moved or intrigued you, or have a bench of your own you have dedicated to a loved one, share with us at #ELLmemorialbench on social media.

For the rest of our series on green spaces, click here.

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