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Remembering William John Hepburn

Something from the Archives


John Hepburn

John Hepburn

It is 69 years since the death was announced of William John Hepburn (left), superintendent of the Central Royal Parks. He collapsed and died near the police station in Hyde Park on 30 May 1953, just two days before the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II; he was 64.

He started his career in the Royal Parks as assistant superintendent of Richmond Park in 1919. He then moved to Bushy Park on promotion to superintendent three years later and from there took up similar positions at Greenwich Park and Hampton Court. He finally moved to Hyde Park in 1948 to take charge of the Central Parks.

In that role he bedecked London with plants and flowers for the Coronation “on the scale of a military operation”. Since the previous autumn he, with 30 assistants, was responsible for growing 77,000 special plants in the Hyde Park framing ground to decorate the route of the procession.

The work was split into two parts; floral display, that would be undertaken on 1 June and carry on through the night with 200 men in attendance; and litter clearance starting on the night of 2 June and carrying on through 3 June with another 200 men in attendance. It is worth noting that 460 men and 150 vehicles were used in the previous Coronation Day activities.

Planning to work through the night produced some challenges. A lot of ‘behind-the-scenes’ negotiation over rates of pay between the Bailiff, Major Haggitt, and the Ministry of Works Establishment Division were needed. As things stood, they could only pay the men the normal routine rates, which were deemed inadequate when the men were being asked to work through the night.

Contractors working on the project were being given increased pay and special bonuses. It was not until July when rates were agreed.Seeing the names of some of the men working on the project brought back many memories for me from my time when I arrived in the Royal Parks in 1966.

People like Frank Gillard, foreman at Kensington Gardens, then a grade I gardener; Fred Kemp, foreman at Buckingham Palace, also a grade I gardener; Frank Peck, foreman at Hyde Park, then a tree lopper; Fred Blackburn, chargehand at Kensington Gardens, then a grade II gardener; and Jim and Frank Parkyn, both lorry drivers at the time of the Coronation, and to no one’s surprise were still lorry drivers at Kensington Gardens 13 years later. Oh, happy days! I do have the list of those 35 men who worked through the night before the Coronation. If anyone would like a copy you can obtain it by writing to me at research@trpg.org.uk

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