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Sir Sydney Waterlow: park life

After Sir Sydney Waterlow made his pile from the printing trade, he gifted his lands in Highgate to the public as a ‘Garden for the Gardenless’. Dan Carrier considers the life of the great philanthropist

15 July, 2021 — By Dan Carrier

The gates of Waterlow Park. Photos: Peter O’Connor aka anemoneprojectors-Flickr CC 2.0

EVERY time you step through ornate gates and into the gardens of Waterlow Park, you are enjoying the kindness of a man whose stone visage gazes out from a plinth.

He is Sir Sydney Waterlow, a self-made Victorian businessman who decided his 29-acre garden in Highgate would make, in his own words, the perfect “Garden for the Gardenless”.

Sir Sydney was one of the Victorian period’s greatest benefactors, a man who used his immeasurable talent and sound sense to create a successful family firm of stationers and printers – and then turn his abilities towards the public good.

Now a new biography by his great-great-great-grandson, Sir Christopher, reveals how he made his fortune and used his success for the good of all.

“I grew up with his name ringing in my ears,” recalls Sir Christopher, who has inherited the Waterlow baronetcy.

Waterlow as Lord Mayor

“When I was three, I was taken by my father to visit Waterlow Park for the first time and to be photographed with the statue of this apparently God-like man.

“The work of Dickens and Nightingale are well known for their highlighting of, and contributions to, the improvement of conditions for countless numbers of the less fortunate in the 19th century. However, I am certain they would have acknowledged the work of many others, who, for whatever reason, did not remain in the public’s consciousness.”

Sydney was born to James Waterlow and Mary Corkell in 1822 at the family home in Finsbury.

James was the son of a milkman, and aged 14 was apprenticed into the printing trade. After serving seven years, he struck out on to establish a firm specialising in legal documents.

Sydney’s early formal education was patchy, and like his father, at 14 he became a printers’ apprentice.
At an early age, Sir Sydney’s progressive views were being formed.

The author points out the influence of preacher and politician WJ Fox, who spoke at a chapel in South Place Chapel, Theobalds Road. Fox made a lasting contribution to humanism and Sir Sydney enjoyed his sermons. He was also alive to the streets of London, witnessing everyday poverty, crime and disease.

Sydney learnt the compositors’ trade, and having a flair for the work, Sydney was given a huge job for an 18-year -old that put him right at the heart of the government.

His uncle’s firm had a contract to operate a printing press at Downing Street, preparing everything from sensitive documents to cabinet agendas. It not only gave him a grounding in running a business – he was made responsible for staff – but also forged connections with powerful people.

Sir Sydney went into the family business, managed at first by his father alongside his four brothers.

They enjoyed the mid-century railway boom: as firms laid tracks across the country, the Waterlows were on hand to offer their services for the vast reams of paper work railway companies needed.

And Sir Sydney believed his employees should benefit. It was his plan to set up a profit scheme, that would see employees earn the same percentage each year of their wages as any shareholder dividend. He felt morally bound to provide for the staff that made the firm’s wheels run, setting up a precursor of a welfare state for nearly 5,000 of his employees – but he wasn’t done yet.

His business success paved the way to enter public life and he was elected as a City Alderman, served as a magistrate, and would go on to be both Sheriff, Lord Mayor and MP.

The statue of Sir Sydney Waterlow in Waterlow Park; circled: Waterlow as Lord Mayor

“He had a clear knowledge of the arduous conditions under which too many working people themselves were living at the time,” cites Sir Christopher.

“He was convinced circumstances could be improved, primarily not by charity but by applying business principles and methods to matters that where highly prioritised at that time. He believed the conditions in which a man lived affected his character, and he tasked himself to improve the circumstances of the domestic environment of as many working men as possible.”

Sydney watched railway firms demolish swathes of housing as they built new track – leaving thousands homeless or squeezed into unsavoury hovels.

His answer was to embark on a privately funded home building scheme, which would show local authorities best practice in building good homes.

He did not stop at housing. Sir Sydney fought to improve health and education, helping set up Barts Hospital and City and Guilds colleges.

And in 1889, as he approached old age, he handed over his garden to the people of London.

Sir Sydney wrote: “One of the best methods for improving and elevating the social and physical condition of working classes is to provide them with decent, well-ventilated houses on self-supporting principles, and to secure for them an increased number of public parks, recreation grounds, and open spaces… Therefore, to assist in providing large gardens in the great city in which I have worked for fifty-three years, I desire to present to the council, as a free gift, my entire interest in the estate at Highgate.”

Sir Sydney’s story raises questions of the super-rich today, and illustrates that if you fulfil your moral duty of using your talents for the good of others, your name will live on.

A London Apprentice: Sir Sydney Hedley Waterlow. By Chris Waterlow, Vanguard Press, £7.99

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