The Victorian age saw public parks springing up all round the country. Rapid urbanization and industrialization led to poor housing, grinding poverty and fears of social unrest. Parks were seen, by reformers, as one way of diffusing potential problems as well as improving the health and lives – to say nothing of the morals- of their working-class users.
Increasingly too, the creation of new parks became a symbol of civic pride.
It was also the age of empire with years running up to the First World War marking the high point of Britain’s imperial power. These three factors coincided neatly with Queen Victoria’s Golden and Diamond Jubilees in 1887 and 1897.
As David Lambert points out in Jubilee-ation “it is perhaps not surprising to find that these new public spaces featured heavily in jubilee celebrations, either in being opened as part of the celebrations or as the location for commemorative events. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that public parks, one of the great developments of Victoria’s era, were central to the celebration of her jubilees.”
They also offered an opportunity to communities all round the country to create more permanent monuments to Victoria and did so on a scale never seen before or since… everything from new buildings, bridges and statues, to drinking fountains, benches, clock towers and memorial trees.
Victoria had set the horticultural tone early in her reign. The year after her accession she opened the gardens at Hampton Court to the public and two years later she not only handed over the royal gardens at Kew as the basis for a national botanic garden but she supported the petition for the first major public park in London which was eventually named in her honour. As her reign proceeded the Queen, together with Prince Albert, supported other horticultural and park projects. Although after his death she withdrew from much of public life and there was growing support for republicanism the Golden Jubilee in 1887 offered a chance to the monarchy to regain public affection. It was a difficult time with a terrible winter in 1886, with terrible hardship and high unemployment, among the poor, which led to starvation and rioting in the capital. It didn’t help that in discussion with Gladstone about the funding of the celebrations Victoria is alleged to have said ‘The people must pay”.
Just as with George III’s celebration in 1809 there were some opponents. Unsurpringly these included William Morris writing in his magazaine Commonweal in June 1887 called it amongst many other things “monstrous stupidity …hideous, revolting, and vulgar tomfoolery ..a grievous mass of flunkeyism.” He suggested that “this loathsome subject of the jubilee is consigned to its due dust-heap….” But as Mike Benbough-Jackson commented in Jubilee Tribulations “Of course no one denied that there was opposition, mainly from Republicans and Irish Nationalists. Yet the very fact that dissent came from these quarters seems to render the event all the more successful. These were minority, sectional interests whose squawks made the lion’s roar sound all the louder.”
New parks were one of the most obvious responses to the Jubilee. The Public Parks Act of 1871 had given local authorities the power to create and maintain public parks and the jubilee added to the impetus. It was primarily in the industrialised towns where the authorities bought land for these new recreational spaces. In some cases they were planned in advance of the event and were able to open on time for the jubilee, with most being named in Victoria’s honour. I can’t find a comprehensive list but I’ve tracked down some of them and most have their histories well recorded on local websites so I’ve added links where possible.
They included St Helens, Handsworth, Chesterfield, Smethwick, Frome, Queen’s Park in Kilburn, Partick [now part of Glasgow] Hull, Bristol and Swansea. In London too there was a significant addition to public open space, although definitely not a standard Victorian park – with the acquisition of Highgate Wood by the Corporation of the City to save it from development.
One place where there was a lot of activity – mainly because of local rivalry – was in the Six Towns that made up the Potteries, and now form the city of Stoke. In 1888 Queen’s Park in Longton was officially opened although consideration had been given to creating a public park there as early as 1879 when the Duke of Sutherland gave forty-five acres (c 18ha) to the town. Work began in Jubilee year and was hailed as an example of the ‘best practical solution of the problem between the landed aristocracy and socialism’.
Not to be outdone nearby Tunstall council in an ambitious scheme bought 33 acres (c 14ha) of mainly former mine workings to convert into a public park. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough money to get work started and it wasn’t until the Diamond Jubilee of 1897 that things really got underway. Even then it progressed slowly so it wasn’t until well into the next century that facilities such as the boating lake, bowling greens, tennis courts, and a pavilion were completed, and not until 1908 that it was officially opened as Victoria Park. Meanwhile the landscape architect Thomas Mawson had also been commissioned to lay out Burslem Park and Hanley Park although these were not officially connected with either of the jubilees. Tunstall was not the only one that was slow to get off the ground – Victoria Park in Finchley took 15 years to open.
It wasn’t just local councils who paid for all the work. At Newark the public were specifically invited to contribute towards a project to convert the former cattle market in the centre of town and immediately next to the picturesque ruins of the mediaeval castle into ‘public pleasure grounds for the free use of the people for ever’. There were two large donations from private benefactors towards the cost and the public raised the remaining £2500. The new gardens were designed by Henry Ernest Milner to be ‘a constant source of health and pleasure, an attractive resort for the inhabitants’ as well as giving Newark ‘one of the finest entrances of which any town can boast’, and adding largely ‘to its residential attractions’. The Castle Gardens were opened on Queen Victoria’s 70th birthday, in May 1889 and have hardly been altered since so are an excellent example of a small Victorian urban park.
At Glossop in Derbyshire it was local landowners and philanthropists who paid – although this was largely by default as the council had been declared bankrupt in 1886. The town had no public recreational facilities of any kind and the jubilee became the driving force to create not only a park, but to provide a library, public baths, hospital and public hall on land given by Lord Howard.
This was another of Henry Ernest Milner’s commissions and it is mentioned in his Art and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1890) because it was such an unusual piece of work. Not only did he have to integrate the hospital, baths, and the park itself into a single design, but also because he had to incorporate a steep natural gully, ‘Robin Hood’s Gutter’, that runs across the site. Milner added bridges, created waterfalls and flooded a section to make a lake. There was also a large lawn area with flowerbeds, a rockery, a bandstand, greenhouses and an American garden.
In his book Milner also acknowledged that laying out a park may be a good way of increasing the value of adjoining land which had development potential. This was the case at Glossop where housing went up along a carriage drive on two sides of the park and Milner is clear that his plan was to give the impression that “the park is a larger recreation ground belonging to the individual gardens.” That appealed to the town’s middle class but there’s no doubt the speeches given at the various openings show the moral forces that drove the donors towards the improvement of the lot of the working class. However plans to call it Victoria Park were eventually dropped in favour of honouring the donor and calling it Howard Park.
In the railway town of Crewe it was the major local employer the London & North Western Railway Company who took a leading role in creating Queen’s Park. To celebrate their own 50th anniversary as well as Victoria’s they gave about 40 acres of land to the Corporation for a park and then footed the £10,000 bill to lay it out. The company’s staff were later to pay for the clock tower. It helped that the town’s mayor, FW Webb, was also the company’s chief mechanical engineer but he also went on to co-design the park with Edward Kemp.
These new parks met with great public acclaim. At St Helens in Lancashire, the local authority did not start with green fields but bought the existing Cowley Hill estate for £11,000 and reconfigured the grounds for public recreational use. The opening ceremony on 21 June 1888 drew a huge crowd: ‘We have met in such numbers today as the St Helen’s public have never met before’ while the speeches hailed the importance of the park – ‘such a source of enjoyment and healthful recreation to us all that we wonder how we ever got on without it’. That remains true today especially after a major restoration project that started in 2013.
In signs of the times the mansion house was sold off in 1993 although to a good cause – Age UK – and as result public access to the building to the walled gardens, the kitchen garden, and the Orangery was drastically limited. Even that is now under threat as Age Uk in their turn cannot afford the upkeep and earlier this year the building was out up for sale again. So if you fancy living in an 1849 Italianate villa with orangery, a couple of acres and 45 parking spaces – or better still want to make a gesture to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee and buy it to give it back to the Friends of Victoria Park then check out the info and images at the estate agents website.
The Diamond Jubilee was an altogether different event. It was the first ever of its kind, and even the name had to be invented. Victoria was by then half-blind and partially incapacitated, and the service of thanksgiving at St Paul’s had to be held outside the cathedral as she couldn’t easily dismount from her carriage. Because she also refused to allow many of the events thought appropriate such as a mass gathering of European royalty, the historian David Cannadine argues that her government used the occasion to invent a new tradition of royal ritual in Britain, which has continued to evolve through the twentieth century.
However it was Joseph Chamberlain the Colonial Secretary, who made the most of the situation, seizing the opportunity to turn the event into a spectacular celebration of empire not merely at home but one which was marked all round the world, as a quick google search will show. [For more on this see Walter Arnstein, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, in The American Scholar .
It was also seized upon by commercial interests and again as a quick google search will show became the first seriously commercialised national event, with mass-produced souvenirs etc. For more on this see Tori Smith, “Almost Pathetic … But Also Very Glorious”: The Consumer Spectacle of the Diamond Jubilee.”
Meanwhile at home there were more new parks, including new sites in Neath, Truro, Leamington Spa, St Anne’s, Widnes, Brighton, Edmonton and Bromley. The City of London added Churchyard Bottom Wood in north London to its portfolio of open spaces saved from building and renamed it Queen’s Wood.
But completely new public green spaces were not the only way the two jubilees were celebrated. There were also a wide range of additions to existing parks. There are so many I’ve only really been able to note some of those those that are listed by Historic England. But they include bridges like the one at Lovers Walks in Matlock, and the footbridge, ornamented with the royal arms at Castle Green in Hereford.
In Lowestoft a bridge was built over the ravine in Belle Vue park and its interesting to see how the current jubilee is also being used as an excuse to justify its restoration and repair.
There were new pavilions and bandstands like the one that went up in Congleton Park, the People’s Park, Tiverton and in Dorchester, Salford and Hartlepool.
Grand new gates gave an opportunity to add civic arms to the royal ones, while new clocks and clocktowers like the one at Skegness helped make the park the place to go to discover the time. Darwen’s Bold Venture Park was even given a weather station and observatory, although sadly its now gone.
Elsewhere features like drinking fountains, benches and gates were ubiquitous – cheap and cheerful but practical reminders even if some were grander than others.
And of course there was also a wave of non-practical memorials – such as plaques, obelisks and of course, statues of the queen a-plenty.
She joined those of military heros and local philanthropists, and together with all the other features helped create not only what David Lambert describes as “an orderly and beautiful environment, which in itself was expected to encourage good behaviour” as well as patriotism, and other civic virtues such as temperance.
The other, and more easily overlooked feature are memorial trees. These were significant occasions. For example at Macclesfield an oak was planted in West Park with the planting recorded for posterity. Another still growing happily is the Jubilee Oak in Rothamstead Park planted in a ceremony witnessed by 2000 people.
Four sycamores were planted in Wigan’s Mesnes Park to the accompaniment of a royal salute of twenty-one blasts of the foghorn given by London and North-Western Railway engines from the nearby line. At least the mayor’s wishes that the trees would ‘grow up and prosper for many hundreds of years, and not only be a shelter to the people of Wigan, but be an ornament to that beautiful park’ have been partially fulfilled as two of them still survive.
And finally there were the quirky, but lovable, ways of celebrating with plants. We’re all used to the concept of Victorian carpet bedding but the jubilee allowed it to be taken to new heights. So, for example, at Victoria Park in St Helens in 1897, the bed opposite the entrance, in which the name of the park was picked out in bedding, was supplemented with the words ‘Diamond Jubilee’, ‘the letters being written in echeverias on a grounding of purple beet, bordered by pyrethrum’. A similar sort of scheme was put in place in South Park, Darlington.
But I suspect that the plant image that will stick in the mind longest is the enormous 3D crown that was constructed at Cannon Hill Park in Birmingham – wonderful in every sense of word – including bonkers!
You might bet surprised to learn that despite the fact that the thirty year s before the first world war saw the creation of more parks than before or since very little was actually written at the time, or has been written since about their design. A good place to start is Harret Jordan’s article Public Parks, 1885-1914 in Garden History, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Summer, 1994), pp. 85-113, although she doesn’t mention the jubilees at all!
And if you’re not jubilee-ed out don’t forget to take a look at David Lambert’s Jubilee-ation the free downloadable Historic England booklet about parks and jubilees
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