Picture credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

In praise of people’s parks

A civilising tradition has been sadly neglected

People’s Parks: the design & development of public parks in Britain
by Hazel Conway & Paul Rabbitts
(London: John Hudson Publishing, 2024)
ISBN: 978-1-7398229-8-9 (hardback); 978-1-7398229-9-6 (eBook) 
352 pp., 145 b&w and 240 col. illus.

Parade Gardens, Bath

The Victorians accomplished a great deal when coping with the unprecedented urbanisation of Britain. At the beginning of the nineteenth century most people in these islands (now dubbed The Atlantic Archipelago) lived in the country, and only some twenty per cent inhabited towns with a population  of ten thousand or more. Only fifty years later some thirty-eight per cent lived in  towns of that size, and by then the numbers in rural parts were fractionally down on those in urban areas. While there had been certain parts of Europe, notably The Netherlands (including what is now Belgium), where urban organisation was of considerable antiquity, and a sizeable proportion of the population lived in towns, Victorian Britain was the first truly urbanised modern society, and by 1890 London had developed into the largest city in the world (population 4,212,000). 

What is perhaps even more remarkable was the change from high to low birth and death rates in urban areas towards the end of the Victorian Age, during which the population of Great Britain dramatically increased, and over seventy-five per cent of thirty-six million people lived in towns. These figures reflect not only the great advances in lowering the rates of births and deaths, but also the huge successes of the towns which increased so rapidly in numbers of inhabitants largely through migration from rural areas. The phenomenon of rapid urbanisation during the Victorian Age (1837-1901) showed that the towns were magnets for the rural population: urban areas offered new opportunities for personal advancement such as could never be countenanced in the country. During the Victorian period gross national product increased four times, and from the 1850s to the year of the Queen’s death, income per head more than doubled. Investment, opportunity, invention, exploitation of inventions, and massive building works do not occur on a basis of subsistence farming or when there is no spare cash. Certainly there were slumps, crashes, disasters, failures, and catastrophes, while the story of speculative investment in housing is littered with bankruptcies, yet by the time King Edward VII (r.1901-10) succeeded to the Throne, the Victorian legacy was one of unparalleled achievement and unimaginable wealth by the standards of a century earlier. Even more remarkable was the civilising of the urban masses by means of education, sanitary reform, the provision of decent housing, and the stabilisation of society. 

Two of the most significant forces for reform and change contributed to the successful resolution of so many problems in overcrowded towns and cities. The first was the collection of documentary evidence, hard facts, statistics, and records that enabled a comprehensive picture to be drawn. Unlike previous centuries, the Victorian Age was well documented, and the records offer an enormous quarry from which historians may fashion their studies. The second force for reform and change was that remarkable phenomenon of the early nineteenth century, the Evangelical Conscience, which prompted teaching by example, promoted temperance, encouraged good works, and observed “the Sabbath”. There can be no doubting the colossal impact that Conscience had on the tone of nineteenth-century society: it emerged from a small group of influential persons associated with the parish of Clapham which reached into the Establishment, politics, the Church, and the City of London, and was bound by faith, by philanthropic zeal, by campaigns against drunkenness and vice, and by its desire to bring literacy and the Bible into every home. What became known as The Clapham Sect exerted an influence far beyond what its small numbers might suggest: in it were the beginnings of a movement that led to the formation of the conscience of the Victorian Age, later also imbued with a further religiously inspired flavour through the High Church party, notably the so-called “Hackney Phalanx”. Central to early urban reforms were the formation of large cemeteries through various acts of Parliament, intended to replace the obscenely overcrowded and unhygienic urban burial-grounds; the provision of clean drinking-water; the construction of massive works to deal with sewage; the provision of affordable housing (at first through philanthropic groups such as The Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes which, it should be noted today, stated very firmly that no more than one-fifth of any family’s income should be spent on housing); compulsory elementary schooling for everybody; the provision of higher technical, crafts, and art  education; the erection of churches in populous districts; and the provision of suitable open spaces in towns to provide green areas (with planting, seats, and even greenhouses for the cultivation of certain non-indigenous species and the education of the masses) for decorous recreation, relaxation, and reasons of health. In some such open spaces, known as parks, bandstands were erected from which agreeable live music would issue, played by brass bands or by ensembles of different instrumentalists. 

No student of the Victorian period can avoid recognising the enormously beneficial influence of the young German Duke of Saxony and Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha who had become the Queen’s Consort in 1840: Prince Albert (1819-61) not only chaired the Royal Commission to oversee the decorations of the new Palace of Westminster that were to act as a catalyst to improve the quality of British art, design, and manufactures, but, as President of the Society of Arts, he encouraged the application of  science and art to industrial purposes. With Henry Cole (1808-82) as his chief lieutenant, his was the main force behind the triumphantly successful Great Exhibition of 1851. As President of The Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes he not only encouraged the building of exemplary dwellings, but paid for the brilliant four Model Houses for Families erected at the Great Exhibition, and designed by Henry Roberts (1803-76): this structure was later re-erected at Kennington Park after the Great Exhibition closed. The Prince also proposed that the profits (which were considerable) of the Great Exhibition should be used to found an establishment where art and science could be applied to industry: this was the beginning of “South Kensington”, a complex of museums, scientific institutions, and places of learning, known as Albertopolis, which had as its nucleus the Schools of Design. The Victoria & Albert Museum is probably the Prince’s greatest memorial. Prince Albert also recognised the abilities of the Duke of Devonshire’s gardener, Joseph Paxton (1803-65), who designed the Crystal Palace which housed the Great Exhibition and thereby gained his knighthood in 1851. Paxton, however, had been profoundly influenced by the work of John Claudius Loudon (1782-1843), whose invention of an iron glazing-bar (1811) had made curved glazing possible, and who, through his many publications, had an enormous impact on the design of cemeteries, gardens, and public parks, in all of which he emphasised their didactic possibilities, thereby improving “the moral sentiments and general taste of all classes, and more especially of the great masses of society”, a cause close to the Prince’s heart. Loudon designed the Derby Arboretum (1839-41), a significant work, and before his involvement in the Great Exhibition, Paxton had laid out several parks, all influenced by Loudon, including Prince’s Park, Liverpool (1842-4), and Birkenhead People’s Park, Cheshire (1843-7 — realised under his pupil, Edward Kemp [1817-91], who was to go on to design Anfield Cemetery, Liverpool [1856], Hesketh Park, Southport, Lancashire [1864-8—complete with cascade and fountains], Stanley Park, Liverpool [1868], and the terrace gardens at Knightshayes, Devon [1874]).

Sefton Park Palm House, Liverpool (opened 1896), a splendid iron-and glass conservatory by
Mackenzie Moncur, of Edinburgh, the firm founded in 1869 by Alexander Donald Mackenzie (b.1836) and George Greig Moncur (b.1839). The park itself was laid out from 1867 to designs by Lewis Hornblower (1823-79) and Édouard François André (1840-1911).

This very handsome, well-designed, and superbly illustrated volume gives us a pretty good and comprehensive flavour of the Victorian public park, with its often splendid buildings (notably the many festive palm houses and winter gardens at Sefton Park, Liverpool, Glasgow, Wolverhampton, and elsewhere). Prefabricated, decorative, cast-iron structures, such as bandstands, shelters, clock-towers, and even pissoirs, notably those produced by Macfarlane’s Saracen Foundry in Glasgow (and illustrated in that firm’s beautifully produced catalogues), added jollity and punctuation-marks to many Victorian open spaces, showing what fun mass-produced decently designed artefacts could actually be, compared with the dreary uglification imposed by puritanical Modernism. I have always turned to those catalogues, and early formed the opinion that the inventive designers of those cast-iron brackets, lamp-posts fountains, shelters, bandstands, and urinals were persons of genius, purveyors of delight, creators of works that added pleasure a-plenty. What fun there was in each delightful detail, every finished ensemble, all the inventive, ingenious creations that were never dull or uncongenial! There were other firms, of course, such as George Smith’s Sun Foundry, and the Lion Foundry of Kirkintilloch, providing what was virtually a complete range of park furnishings, from elaborate entrance-gates and the railings surrounding the grounds, to seats, shelters, ornamental features, and much else. How amusing are the cast-iron clocks in the Borough Gardens, Dorchester, Dorset (by Macfarlane), and the very grand clock in Preston Park, Brighton, Sussex! On occasion certain objects could be preposterously over the top: one such is the cast-iron fountain from George Smith & Co.’s Sun Foundry, Glasgow, in Fountain Gardens, Paisley, Renfrewshire (1868), some 8 metres high, embellished with colonnettes, dolphins, putti, hippocamps, herons, etc., squirting water into a large pool surrounded by cast-iron rocks, with large iron walruses (also emitting water from their nostrils) rising from the capacious pool. The Gardens themselves were laid out to designs by James Craig Niven (1828-81) of Glasgow, a fomer assistant of Joseph Paxton. But what exuberant fun such an object is, even if it is slightly absurd! It compares well with the deadly dullness of Centre Square, Middlesborough, with its 120-jet water feature, steel walkways, and large areas of grass. Grim, po-faced, humourless Modernists just cannot do fun at all: after all, as the late Roderick Gradidge (1929-2000) sagely observed, Modernism never sold a pint of Bitter. 

Amazing cast-iron fountain, rockwork, and walruses in Fountain Gardens, Paisley (1868), by George Smith & Co., of the Sun Foundry, Glasgow, paid for by Thomas Coats (1809-83), of the famous thread-making firm.

I have previously been jolted by some curious aspects of work by Rabbitts, and have mentioned these in reviews. In the volume under consideration here I found a reference to “E.R. Lamb” in the comprehensive and well-prepared index (by the estimable Auriol Griffith-Jones), which I followed up to find that the person referred to was a collaborator of Loudon. In fact that person was the well-known “Rogue Goth”, Edward Buckton Lamb (1806-69), a figure familiar to all scholars of the period, but who seems to have passed Rabbitts by. As the “E.R.” is repeated, this not just a minor typo. I also spotted several errors of fact in the bibliography which could have been avoided if greater care had been taken in its preparation. In general, the illustrations are marvellous, but there are some very poor shots which should not have been included: one is of the entrance to Birkenhead Park (p.53), with appalling converging verticals which should have ruled it out immediately, and another is on p.248. In a review (February 2022) of Rabbitts’s tome, Decimus Burton: Gentleman Architect (2021), I specifically mentioned how amateurish snapshots with such converging verticals seriously marred the book, and although this new volume only has a few such, those simply should not have been included at all. But the Birkenhead shot is the worst offender here. 

This otherwise rewarding book is packed with plans, historical images, and information. The importance of  park designers such as Decimus Burton (1800-81), John Gibson (1815-75), Edward Kemp, J.C. Loudon, Alexander McKenzie (1829-93), Robert Marnock (1800-89), Edward Milner (1819-84), James Pennethorne (1801-71), and Joseph Paxton is rightly emphasised, and the wealth of illustrations outweighs any minor quibbles. 

I have long regarded the provision of public parks in the nineteenth century, with all their heartwarming and often beautiful accessories, as part of that general concerted effort to civilise, associated with the provision of garden cemeteries (themselves associated with recreation, education, and hygiene), urban cleanliness (encapsulated in the massive engineering works connected with the provision of sewers and water supplies), and what might be regarded as the potty-training of Urban Man. Behind such a massive shift lay the efforts of many remarkable human beings, but the climate  receptive to their works, ideas, and inventions was surely largely encouraged by that high-minded German Prince, who died so young, worn out by his endeavours, yet whose ideals led to a huge change in priorities, education, attitudes, and the very essence of society itself. 

Terrible damage has been done to far to many public parks through vandalism, neglect, etc., not least through the wholesale removal of iron railings and other artefacts, supposedly for the “war effort” during 1939-45, but really more to do with social engineering, as cast iron is not much use for munitions. Surprisingly, this book seems to accept the official government line on this matter. Whatever the truth, however, the visual damage was colossal, and restoration of some sort of order was hugely expensive and very slow. An awful lot of pleasing detail vanished, to be replaced by squalor, broken fencing, privet hedges, post-and-wire barriers, and other unattractive features, all unedifying, and none of which in any way made good the losses. This massive act of official vandalism, in fact, made many public spaces no longer agreeable, and led to the rapid deterioration of many public spaces, and their abandonment by the very people for whom they were intended. The condition of numbers of parks became a disgrace, encouraging more vandalism, destruction, and degradation of the environment. Many artefects disappeared altogether, impoverishing us all.

What strikes one forcibly when perusing the lavish illustrations in this tome is the inventiveness, ebullience, creativity, and humanity evident in the design of so much of the realised parks and gardens, not least in their buildings, ornaments, features, monuments, lodges, glass-houses, fountains, bandstands, shelters, and just about everything else. But a terrible lot has gone, more’s the pity, leaving melancholy remains and deep regrets …

Où sont les pissoirs malodorants d’antan? 

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