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History Notes by M Bance

Schools will soon be out for summer. Another academic year over and the long holidays ahead. Years ago, when my sons were younger, the very thought of the approaching school summer holidays filled me with dread. What was I going to do with them for all those weeks? Luckily for me Preston Park was there to come to my rescue.

In the nineteen century, the first mother to live in my house would not have been so fortunate. Despite the liberalism of the time and Victorian interest in public health, Brighton Council was slow in providing parks and gardens for the public. This was due to a combination of factors, the first and perhaps most obvious being the costs involved, parks cost money and the Town Council was reluctant to increase rates in order to pay for one. The second reason was linked to Brighton’s history as a seaside resort and the belief amongst many that sea air, the beach and promenade provided all the health, exercise and amusement the town required.

However, not everyone shared this attitude towards public parks and in 1876, a campaign was launched to persuade the Town Council to change their views. Campaigners drew heavily on popular concern surrounding use, or more specifically mis-use, of leisure time and argued that the public park represented a healthy alternative to the pastimes of drinking and gambling. Parks offered the means ‘to afford the weary workman and his family an opportunity for the enjoyment of rest amidst the surroundings of nature’s loveliest forms.’

Campaigners’ ambitions to have a park that would act as the “lungs” of the town were greatly advanced in 1879 when a local bookmaker, William Edmund Davies, bequeathed £70,000 to the town. In 1883 Brighton Council used this money to purchase 65 acres of meadowland, released onto the market by Mr and Mrs Vere Bennett-Stanford, for the sum of £50,000. After extensive landscaping and the installation of leisure facilities, costing £22,868, the Mayor, Alfred Cox, formally opened Preston Park on 8 November 1884. In his opening speech, the Mayor hoped that the park ‘would long be a means of enjoyment, recreation and increased health to the inhabitants’. It was Brighton’s first and largest municipal park and it had a secret; an underground water supply, known as the Wellesbourne or Brighton’s Lost River. The source dates back many centuries and runs below Preston Park, London Road and The Level and is the reason why the park remains so green throughout the summer.

The site was laid out with a series of winding pathways set amongst trees, with flowerbeds lining its boundary with the London Road. The main entrance at the southern end of the park had a pair of gates and a memorial drinking fountain. Railings surrounded the park and a bell was rung at dusk before the gates were locked. In 1887, the chalet café in the centre of the park was opened and this housed the park police in its upper rooms. In the same year, a cricket ground and cycle track was added to the north east of the park. The Clock Tower, inaugurated on 17 June 1892, was designed by Francis May and was made of redbrick and terracotta. The initials EW on the clock stand for Edward White, who financed the project.

In the years following the First World War, Brighton Council came to realise the necessity of promoting the town as a leading seaside resort. They decided that one way to increase the town’s status and prestige was through its parks and gardens and the extensive outdoor activities they offered. This policy led to the substantial re-design of Preston Park in 1928. The railings and southern entrance lodge were removed, a new rose garden created and a large number of shrubs moved to make room for more recreational facilities. New entrances to the park, with balustrade walls and dolphin lamp standards, were added in the 1930s. Another addition to the park was the Rotunda Café. This building had originally been an exhibit at the Wembley Exhibition of 1924 and was purchased by Brighton Council and erected in the park in 1929.

The next major event to impact on the park was the great storm of 16 October 1987 when winds of up to 113 miles per hour uprooted countless trees and dramatically altered the park’s landscape. Since then re-development work, part of a lottery-funded programme, has introduced many new saplings, new planting schemes at the southern end of the park including the most beautiful English roses and, my very favourite area especially after a long afternoon on the swings, has refurbished the Rotunda tea pavilion. And that is where I plan to be on hot, sunny afternoons this August or, alternatively, perhaps on the other side of the main road in The Rockery - the biggest city-owned rock gardens in Britain. Originally known as “The Rookery”, referring to the tall trees in the former wood which were frequented by rooks, this is a surprisingly peaceful oasis that is always a pleasure to visit

Posted in History on Jul 01, 2007