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A Walk in the Park

By Jayne Shrimpton

As the days grow longer and the outdoors beckons, we appreciate more than ever the beautiful public parks of Brighton & Hove. There is a fascinating history attached to city parks – open green spaces for the relaxation and enjoyment of all. An early example is St James’s Park in Westminster, open to the public since the 1660s. However, most municipal parks developed later, many becoming established in the Victorian age.

Urban deprivation

The 1830s witnessed the rise of a popular movement in response to the deprivations of the Industrial Revolution and to Enclosure Acts, which barred ordinary people from using many former areas of common land. Urban populations were soaring and workers had few opportunities to escape the clamour and pollution of overcrowded towns and cities. Streets and buildings were filthy, sanitation woefully inadequate and drinking water the bearer of fatal diseases, as demonstrated by the cholera epidemic of 1832. Yet, just when people needed fresh air and healthy exercise, fewer woods, open heaths and meadows were now accessible: even village greens where local residents traditionally enjoyed outdoor recreation were disappearing. For example, in 1798 the Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent) sold off hundreds of acres of royal lands, including playing fields in frequent use by the silk weavers of Coventry for football and cricket. The proceeds helped to fund his extravagant lifestyle, and might well have helped finance the transformation of his Brighton lodgings into the elegant Marine Pavilion, underway precisely at that time.

Social reform

Social reformers began campaigning for public parks for the benefit of city workers. The Parliamentary Select Committee on Public Walks (1833) agreed that ordinary people were in need of somewhere pleasant and convenient to spend leisure time with their families. In London both Hyde Park and Green Park were open to all classes, while St James’s Park and Kensington Gardens welcomed ‘all persons well behaved and properly dressed’. However such places were sorely lacking in the industrial midlands and north, where eventually a combination of municipal funding, private philanthropy and charitable subscriptions facilitated their creation. The first of the new public parks was developed in Lancashire in 1834 when Preston Borough Council enclosed part of Preston Moor, draining moorland, planting trees and creating an ornamental lake. This was followed in Derby when wealthy industrialist Joseph Strutt donated to the city some 11 acres of land for an arboretum that opened in 1840.

Municipal parks

Also in 1840, another government inquiry into the appalling living conditions in towns prompted Parliament to apportion £10,000 to help finance public parks. However, it was the growth of civic pride that would ultimately be the key player. In Manchester the public raised £35,000 for the opening of three parks: Queen’s Park, Harpurphrey; Peel Park, Salford; and Philips Park on the Bradford Estate. All three officially opened in 1846 and were equipped with playgrounds, provision for popular sports including archery and quoits, skittle and ball alleys, as well as refreshment and retiring rooms. There were also ornamental ponds, fountains and flowerbeds and pedestrian footpaths. Not everybody approved of the new public parks: some were concerned that residents were visiting parks on Sundays instead of attending divine service at Church; others disagreed with the use of public money for their upkeep when towns still lacked decent sewerage systems and other basic amenities. However, further municipal parks opened and in Cheshire the 100-acre Birkenhead Park (1847) became the first to be funded entirely by a local authority.

Designed by Joseph Caxton (the architect of Crystal Palace) Birkenhead Park was laid out with lakes, picturesque bridges, Italianate and Gothic-style cottages. Indeed architecture played an important role in the unique character of each of the early-Victorian parks, represented by ornate drinking fountains, terraces, Chinese pagodas, temples and fashionable tea houses. Some parks provided formal walkways bordered with vibrant floral bedding schemes, while others incorporated an arboretum or palm house with displays of exotic plants from across the globe. Recreational facilities were also important in parks and ranged from bowling greens and boating lakes to brass bands and fun fairs. The Victorians loved music and the first bandstands (or ‘band houses’) appeared in the 1860s.

The 1871 Public Parks, Schools and Museums Act encouraged and assisted those wanting to donate land for the creation of public spaces; consequently during the 1880s there was a great blossoming of public parks and pleasure grounds up and down the country. Besides providing much-needed outdoor recreational facilities for local people of all social classes, parks were also viewed as valuable assets that would appeal to visitors and advance tourism in the region. This would have been especially true of Brighton & Hove, already a hugely popular seaside destination attracting numerous day-trippers and holidaymakers every year.

Preston Park

Preston Park was Brighton’s first and largest municipal planned park (Queen’s Park was older, but remained in private hands until 1890). It was first conceived in 1871, when William Davies, a Brighton bookmaker, bequeathed £70,000 to Brighton Corporation, his will stating that it must be used to purchase 67 acres of meadow for £50,000 from Mr and Mrs Bennett-Stanford of Preston Manor. On 13th September 1883, the Brighton Herald announced the opening of Preston Park: “…now that the park is actually in the possession of the inhabitants [of Brighton] we think the town may fairly be congratulated.”

Further landscaping of the park and creation of leisure facilities followed, costing £22,868. Iron railings were constructed along the Preston Road boundary, bordered by an avenue of elm, chestnut, ash and poplar trees; within the park flowers and shrubs were planted and seats installed. The Tile House was built in 1883, originally as the ladies’ cloakroom, and the park was formally opened on 8th November 1884 by the Mayor, Alderman Alfred Cox. A cricket ground was laid out at the north end of the park in 1887 with open-air seating and in the same year the Chalet Café opened. Another major landmark familiar today, the clock tower, designed by the Borough Engineer Francis May in red-brick and terracotta in the Flemish Renaissance style, was officially presented to Brighton Corporation on 17 June 1892.

Compared to the early parks of the industrial north, Brighton and Hove municipal parks were relatively late developments. Blakers Park, officially opened in 1894, was, like Preston Park, a late-Victorian creation, but most others were developed and modernised in the early 20th century, for instance Hove Park, officially opened in May 1906. Preston Park remains the largest neighbourhood park, comprising 67 acres including playing fields, tennis courts, cycle and athletics track, children’s play area, and two much-frequented cafés.

Posted in History on May 01, 2019