How the new edition of “Wanstead and its Park” came to be written

"Ilford Recorder" photo from a feature on the launch of "Wanstead and Its Park"
"Ilford Recorder" photo from a feature on the launch of "Wanstead and Its Park"

At the Friends' AGM, Richard Arnopp told the story of how his new edition of "Wanstead and its Park" came to be written.

"The baby which makes its official debut into the world today has had a long gestation.

The original idea for reprinting Oliver Dawson’s little book on Wanstead Park was, I think, Ralph Potter’s.

“The Story of Wanstead Park” was long out of copyright, and had been reprinted at least once before, many years ago, by the Wanstead Historical Society. Doing another reprint certainly seemed a much easier proposition than writing a new history of the park from scratch.

Everyone thought it was a good idea. Dawson told the story of Wanstead Park’s owners in a readable way, and was pretty accurate. Also, his style had touches of humour and a good deal of period charm.

But nothing is ever straightforward and, like Topsy, this little project “jest grow’d”.

The first problem was that there were two versions of the text. We wanted, as far as possible, to recreate the appearance of the booklet that Oliver Dawson had first published in 1894. However, Dawson had gone on to serialise another version of the text – this time under the title “Wanstead and its Park” - in “Home Counties Magazine” in 1907-8. This was somewhat different - longer, more detailed, and somewhat more scholarly. So we decided to depart from a straightforward reissue and use that.

Then there was the issue of the illustrations, which were one of the major attractions of the booklet. Unfortunately, the versions we had access to were either too fragile to be scanned, or essentially photocopies which looked terrible. Much time elapsed, and then Ralph spotted an original copy of the 1894 book for sale on Abebooks. The price - £45.00 - was rather painful, but I took a deep breath and bought it. Although the book was cheaply printed on rather poor quality paper, the illustrations were usable with a little help from Photoshop and that was another problem solved.

We could have gone to print at that point, but we decided to make life difficult for ourselves and give our readers some added value.

With some help from Ralph’s late mother, I started to research Oliver Dawson’s life, about which nobody locally seemed to know anything, and uncovered what proved to be a really interesting story. Dawson was a man who started out as an apprentice fitter on the railway, but ended up as a pioneer of colour photography. If that sounds intriguing, you’ll have to buy a copy to find out the rest!

I also felt that Dawson assumed a good deal of knowledge in his audience about the historical figures he mentioned in his text. So I started to write endnotes explaining who they were and what they did. The research this involved was quite fun, and I ended up writing biographical notes about pretty much every person he referred to. I also added notes about other things, such as archaic terms which are no longer generally understood. I took the opportunity to work in some additional material about the development of the park itself, about which Dawson didn’t have much to say.

So there we have it. £9.99 for 112 pages, with nice original illustrations, including photographs of the park from the 1880s and 90s. The core of the book, about half of the text, is Oliver Dawson’s, the other half is new, and includes information which you won’t see collected in one place anywhere else".