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A Concise History
of our Great British Parks

Review of the talk by Paul Rabbitts
on June 26th 2019
Paul Rabbitts

Paul Rabbitts is a passionate advocate of public parks especially Victorian and Edwardian parks and shared his enthusiasm with us in an interesting and entertaining talk.  He is a prolific author having written a biography of Sir Christopher Wren, several books on bandstands and he is currently writing a book about Grinling Gibbons.  Paul believes that parks are there to be enjoyed by everyone regardless of race, religion or class.  He has spent over 30 years working with local authorities and is convinced that they should make parks a priority as these green spaces perform such an important public service.  The visitor numbers particularly for royal parks bear this out at an astonishing 77 million visitors a year.  Even the smallest, St James’, achieves 17 million visitors.

Drawing of Richmond Park
Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827), Richmond Park
Yale Center for British Art

In the course of his talk Paul took us through the origins of parks, their heyday, decline and resurgence, key figures in their development and the different trends and fashions in their architecture and use.  He began by focusing on royal parks which were hunting grounds and not open to the public.  Between 1533 and 1689 England saw the creation of St. James’, Richmond, Hyde and Kensington Park.  The development of royal parks such as Regents’ Park benefitted from the involvement of talented architects such as Nash who was influenced by the work of Humphrey Repton.  It is Nash we have to thank for its stunning landscaping and architecture.  One of Paul’s favourite parks, Richmond, has changed little over the years retaining one of its original lodges, White Lodge which is the home of the Royal Ballet School.  By the mid-18th century public access to parks like Hyde Park had increased.  Though once a notorious haunt of highwaymen, it became a fashionable part of the London scene with its Serpentine, Rotten Row and Lovers’ Walk and was much loved by Queen Victoria.  This was also the era of pleasure gardens such as those at Vauxhall, the scene of fireworks and entertainment.  On one evening in 1749 as many as 12,000 were known to have turned out to hear 100 musicians in the orchestra stand.

Paul explained how the growth of cities brought about by the Industrial revolution and the resulting poor quality of living conditions for workers galvanised reformers to push through legislation to increase the number of parks and to widen access to them.  There was growing evidence from the 1830’s onwards that health, wellbeing and life expectancy could be improved by increased access to green spaces for workers enduring long hours of labour in a polluted atmosphere and with limited access to water and sanitation in their homes.  This period saw the start of a parks movement that gave us parks like Victoria Park in Tower Hamlets.  It was a time of sandpits, lodges, lakes and pavilions.  This was the era of Paxton whose work on parks was world class and inspired the development of Central Park in New York.  With municipal funding parks like Birkenhead, Liverpool, Halifax, Dundee and Dunfermline became the order of the day with their boat houses and lakes, fountains, bandstands and horticulture.

By the 1860’s aristocrats, benefactors, landowners, MPs were taking up the fashion to make their mark on the park movement.  A fine example is that of Albert Park in Middlesbrough where Henry Bolckow’s influence resulted in a park with facilities for archery, a maze, a cricket ground, a lovers’ walk, a bandstand, refreshment rooms, a sundial, clock, roller skating area.  Stunning carpet bedding designs were to follow in the 1880’s in parks like Abbey Park in Leicester.

Plan of Sefton Park
Design for Sefton Park, Liverpool, 1867

From the 1880’s to the start of WW1 much of the work to increase the number of parks was driven by teams of staff in towns cities and boroughs across the country.  Many such teams are no longer in existence.  The issue today is how best to maintain or not, the legacy of this heyday of parks and their associated ‘parchitecture’.  What should be done to maintain a beautiful model yacht club clubhouse on a lake in a park when resources for all local services are scarce?

The focus on architecture in parks extended at this time to the development of facilities which would encourage the public to spend as much time as possible in the park.  Palm houses, toilets, drinking fountains, aviaries, paddling pools and statues all had their place in the grandest of parks.  It followed that parks would be an appropriate setting for many of the war memorials erected from 1918 onwards.

Throughout the latter part of the 19th century and up to the mid-20th century it was common to have entertainment in parks, be it brass bands on the bandstand or popstars playing to massed ranks of festival goers.  However, the 1970’s and 80’s were grim times for such public facilities and parks declined.  Expertise in planting and maintenance was lost and facilities fell into decline.  Thankfully, the tide turned with the large-scale investment in parks that followed the introduction of the National Lottery in 1996.  Since then we have seen facilities restored, new features developed like coffee shops and education centres, bandstands restored and statues brought back to their former glory.  In recent years there has been a growing awareness of the need to safeguard and maintain our parks as relaxing, entertaining environments for all the family.  Cutting budgets for such amenities may seem painless in the short term.  But once lost, this aspect of our heritage will not easily be restored and Paul is a strong advocate for the safeguarding of such treasures.

Vivien King

Related link

Paul Rabbitts' website