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Birkenhead Park

I’ve long suspected that Radio 4’s consumer affairs show You & Yours is a sinister experiment, covertly funded by the MoD to test the human capacity for enduring tedium, but today the programme carried an item of interest, on the subject of Birkenhead Park.

Birkenhead Park

I’m a big fan of municipal public parks, if only because there is something fundamentally decent about the state providing areas for recreation and reflection. The fact that these spaces are transformed at nightfall into arenas for anonymous sex acts, violent muggings and underage drinking adds a frisson to the more legitimate daylight activities of frisbee throwing, dog-walking and, well, underage drinking.

Birkenhead Park was the first municipal public park in the world, opening its gates on the 5th of April 1847. Designed by Sir Joseph Paxton (better known as architect of the Crystal Palace) the Park is an artificial countryside of meadows, man-made hills and valleys, lakes shaped to look like rivers, and occasional follies - a Swiss Bridge, an Italian Lodge - dotted about the landscape. It set the template for public parks, too, notably Central Park in New York, designed by F.L. Olmsted, who incorporated many of Birkenhead’s features in his plans after visiting in 1850.

So, why did a backwater1 like the Wirral end up as the site for the world’s first public park? It seems to be down to a quirk of geography. The Wirral, you see, is a penninsula, and the River Mersey served as a barrier to encroaching industrialisation - while Liverpool grew fat on the proceeds of shipping, and cemented its position as a hub of trade between Europe and the Americas, Birkenhead and the rest of the Wirral stayed stuck in the agrarian past. The steam ferry service, which opened in 1820 and runs to this day (albeit tainted by the warblings of Gerry Marsden) changed all that, and Birkenhead’s population rocketed from a few hundred souls to two and a half thousand, within a decade of the first ferry ‘cross the Mersey. This slight delay in industrialisation turned out to be a boon, for park-lovers at least - Birkenhead’s rise matched the growth in reform movements, spurred by the terrible living and working conditions in established industrial towns and cities and dedicated to improving the lot of the working classes. The Parks Movement in particular was gathering steam in the mid-1800s, based on the principle that a nice bit of open space does wonders for the well-being of the workforce, both for their benefit, and in the interests of maximising profits, ideas close to those that underpinnned the work of, say, Joseph Rowntree.

I find this brand of 19th Century largesse, with it’s unlikely forms of wealth redistribution, fascinating. Consider this post the first in a mini-series on the subject, liable to take in workers’ villages like Port Sunlight and Bourneville, the odd relationship between non-conformist Christianity, sweet manufacturing and philanthropy, and Joseph Williamson’ssubterranean New Deal.

1. A comment in defence of the borough from my Dad is inevitable, but The Wirral is a backwater.

Posted at 6pm on 21/01/04 by Jack Mottram to the places category.
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  1. Here, I think that my local bit of green space, Victoria Park in East London, opened earlier than Birkenhead. People always say that it was the first public park in the world, and that kind of thing, but perhaps there are different definitions of kinds of park?

    It opened in the early 1940’s I think. I’ve done some searching on the web, and I’m mostly finding information on a park in Ontario, but I’m too lazy to search properly.

    Happy new year by the way!


    Posted by Mark Godber at 10am on 22.01.04

  2. Happy New Year!

    Yeah, I think it probably comes down to definitions of ‘municipal’ and ‘public’ - the Birkenhead Park site is careful to say things like ‘widely acknowledged to be the first municipal public park.’ Victoria Park opened in 1842 apparently, so it did beat Birkenhead. Perhaps I’ll need to get all Catholic and date it from the moment of conception!

    That whole area of London oozes with the sort of a thing I’m thinking about - the first Barnado’s school, William Booth started preaching there, and the Suffragettes HQ was on the Old Ford Road, I think - that’s where Sylvia Pankhurst set up The Mother’s Arms anyway.

    I’m turning into one of those tweed-jacket history buffs, it would appear…

    Posted by Jack Mottram at 3pm on 22.01.04

  3. Made a bit of a typo when I said 1940’s obviously, meaning 1840’s. Other website put different years to the opening date, but all of them seem to be before Birkenhead so yah boo sucks etc.

    There was a performance in Victoria Park last summer by some women restaging a famous suffragette protest (don’t know how to do fancy html: )

    If you can cope with the way he writes, then Iain Sinclair wrote stuff about Viccy Park in that Lights Out for the Territory book. Mostly about people training their pit bulls to hang off tree branches though.

    Do you aspire to his self-obsessed tweediness?

    Posted by Mark Godber at 4pm on 22.01.04

  4. there’s only one ‘e’ in bournville
    the chocolate pedant.

    Posted by bobby at 5pm on 23.01.04

  5. Suggest you look at the site relating to Derby Aboretum Park - it opened to the public in 1840, and was owned by Derby Corporation. So how can Birkenhead Park, which opened in 1847, be the first municipal public park in the world? For information, the Derby Arboretum Park is still open, still in mulicipal ownership, and currently undergoing restoration.

    Posted by David Faircloth at 3pm on 25.01.04

  6. Thanks for the tip David - Birkenhead’s claims are looking shakier by the minute! Perhaps I should ring the council and see what definition they’re using…

    Posted by Jack Mottram at 3pm on 25.01.04

  7. derby arboretum park was given by joseph somebody or other to the corporation - birkenhead’s definition of first municipal park is as in ‘the first time a park was opened to the public with the cost of landscaping and the land itself met by the local authority’.

    this is a bit more complicated than birkenhead having the first public tramway in the world - as in the first town in the world to have a public tramway.

    Posted by bobby at 2pm on 29.01.04

  8. Joseph Strutt, youngest son of Jedediah Strutt and first Mayor of the reformed Derby Council (1835)commissioned John Claudius Loudon to design and create a “Pleasure Ground and Public Walks” for the people of Derby. Work commenced in 1839, with the park opening on September 16th 1840 and named “The Arboretum” by Joseph Strutt.
    On the hand over to the council, Joseph Strutt made the following statement:
    “I will only add that, as the sun has shone brightly on me through life, it would be ungrateful in me not to employ a portion of the fortune which I possess in promoting the welfare of those amongst whom I live, and by whose industry I have become aided in its acquisition.

    I now therefore present to the Council the Deed of Settlement and all the writings relating to the Arboretum.”
    The Arboretum cost Joseph Strutt £10,000 - not a mean gift for the period.

    In 1845 the Council created an extension to the Arboretum, this was a recreation ground and entirely funded by the council.
    Both of these parks pre date Birkenhead - sorry to the Wirrel - but we were first, but don’t forget that Birkenhead was designed by a Derbyshire man!

    It is also to be noted that this is the first time the word Arboretum was used to identify a geographical location, the word was previously used as a book title. “The Arboretum Britanicum” by John Claudius Loudon (1838).

    Posted by Chris Harris at 1am on 07.03.04

  9. Thanks for the information Chris - looks like Birkenhead’s claim to be first is on very shaky ground indeed, to the point of being completely untrue…

    Posted by Jack at 7pm on 09.03.04

  10. Some notes I posted for my landscape architecture students. They might clarify things a bit:

    Where was the first public park in Britain?

    This is not such an easy question to answer. It depends upon definitions of park and public.

    Victoria Park in Bath 1829-30 this could be regarded as the first public park as it was the first created through public subscription, but it was not a true municipal park because the land was leased rather than owned by the local authority.

    A second Victoria Park was created later (opened 1845) in London’s East End this was created as the result of a series of public meetings and a 30,000 name petition which was presented to the Queen. It was laid out by James Pennethorne who had worked with Nash on Regent’s Park. Initially the promoters of the park tried to do the same sort of development that had been so successful at Regent’s Park, but they couldn’t afford to put in the required road infrastructure and the plots didn’t sell. Perhaps this was as well; Victoria Park became London’s real People’s Park.

    Moor Park, Preston, 1833 this was created through the enclosure of the Town Moor by the town council. It was partially laid out with a serpentine lake, entrance lodges and walks. It was fully laid out by Edward Milner (1819-84) in 1864. Milner had worked as an apprentice under Joseph Paxton, before going into practice for himself in 1850.

    J.C. Loudon Derby Arboretum 1839. Some authorities say that this was the first British public park. Certainly it was conceived and designed from the outset for public rather than private use, and Loudon himself regarded it as the most important commission of his career (he had a smaller commission for a site in Gravesend in 1836). If it was not strictly the first, it was still a great landmark.
    Derby was a smoky industrial town, but it lay close to the Picturesque landscapes of the Derbyshire Peak District. Also nearby were the grounds of Chatsworth, which had been laid out by Capability Brown. The Arboretum was the result of the philanthropic gift of

    Joseph Strutt, a textile manufacturer, and former Mayor of Derby. The knotty problem of balancing capital and revenue expenditure, so much a feature of today’s practice, was evident even then. Strutt gave 10,000 pounds to create the park, but he gave no endowment. As the Corporation had no powers to tax for parks, the had to charge 10s 6d annual subscription, but the park was free on two days a week.

    It is not a full-blown romantic garden. Loudon?s main interest was in displaying specimen trees ? there were over 1000 different species of trees and shrubs. Also, by this time, there had been a change in taste towards more formality. It is of very simple design. There is a straight spine, jointed in one place, together with a serpentine path. Because the site was marshy, a mile of under-drainage was provided. The walks themselves were made of rolled hard-packed gravel.

    Trees were planted in groups, but Loudon specified that no canopies were to mingle so that the correct form of the trees could be observed as they grew. This actually meant that on such a small site mature specimens would have to be removed.

    During the 1840s there were various Parliamentary commissions on conditions within the industrial towns. Loudon knew that his Arboretum could become a model and sure enough it was included in Edwin Chadwick’s Parliamentary Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain of 1842.

    The park was a great popular success. People came from Nottingham, Sheffield, Birmingham and Leeds just to enjoy a day there. 9000 people turned up for the opening, and there were brass bands and other entertainments. Not a single shrub was damaged. ‘Such a population is worthy of this noble gift.’ wrote Loudon.

    The Arboretum was visited later by two American pioneers Charles Mason Hovey (1844) and Andrew Jackson Downing (1850) Both were impressed by the principle but not by the aesthetics.

    Manchester Parks:

    The first of the major cities to get public parks was Manchester which got Philip’s Park and Queen’s Park, while neighbouring Salford got Peel Park.

    Posted by Ian Thompson at 11am on 09.02.05

  11. Wow! Thanks Ian - looks like it all boils down to who means what by ‘park’ and ‘public’ as we thought…

    Posted by Jack Mottram at 11am on 09.02.05

  12. Just another thought on Birkenhead. Did you know it was the inspiration for New York’s Central Park?

    F. L. Olmsted visited Birkenhead twice, in 1850 and in 1859, and came to use many of the ideas in New York?s Central Park, particularly the idea of separate circulation system

    Posted by Ian Thompson at 10pm on 10.02.05

  13. Sorry.. I just realised you already did know that! But maybe not that when it opened 10,000 people came. There were bands, bellringers, sack races, and other games, including a porridge-eating competition and something called catching the greasy pig.

    Posted by Ian Thompson at 10pm on 10.02.05

  14. manchester got its public parks in 1846 - as jack minds well Glasgow Green, the first public park in europe, was restored in 1828

    Posted by bobbydad at 3pm on 11.02.05

  15. Very interesting article - I come from the Wirral, and, apologies to your Dad, the word “backwater” is apt (I don’t live there now so won’t get lynched), surrounded as the park is by so much ugliness. So it doesn’t surprise me they’d claim it was the first - I presume they expect no-one to outside to visit. Oo, I am being rude.

    My squiffy child’s mind thought somehow that Birkenhead Park was based on NY’s Central Park, which is silly - I thought of it a bit like a model village of something big in America. It was nice to see what I thouht of as “the real thing” when I visited New York.

    Just found this site via - very nice. I look forward to your thoughts on both Port Sunlight (Wirral connection) and Bourneville: Cadbury’s also of course had a factory on the Wirral (in Moreton) in which my father worked. They didn’t build pretty houses for people though.

    Posted by honey at 12pm on 12.02.05

  16. Belated update - I noticed today that the Wikipedia entry on Birkenhead states:

    > Birkenhead Park is acknowledged to be the first publicly funded park in Britain

    Vaguely-worded and from a non-authoritative source, but still…

    Posted by Jack Mottram at 5pm on 02.10.05

  17. i think bhead park is brill !! i got dere almost everyday with my friends its better when its sunny we play games on tha huge grass area at the moment its gettin developed and the pond is getting cleaned out

    Posted by jazmin hughes at 12pm on 08.06.06

  18. My mother used to live in South Lodge Birkenhead Park. My Grandfather was the Gardener and although I have never been there I have heard so many stories. My husband and I live in London and plan to visit the park next month. I want to retrace my mothers memories. Your site has only heightened my interest. Many thanks

    Posted by Bernadette Morgan at 7pm on 11.03.08

  19. A very interesting article, I was always a little dubious about the park being the first ever municiple park but coming from Birkenhead I always harboured a hope that it was. Bernadette I am pleased you have chosen now to visit the park as you will see it in its best light with the funding that it has had over the last 5 years , once again the bridges and boathouse look wonderfull now they are restored to there former glory and the landscaping competes with any of the Royal Parks in London.
    Honey I promise not to come and find you and lynch you up but I do take umbrige with you saying that the park is surrounded by ugliness. The park has architecture from the last 200 years surrounding it showing Birkenheads heritage, Ok not all very pleasing to the eye but history non the less, the park stretches from the outskirts of Oxton (a beautifull village full of Georgian buildings) to Conway street showing the terraced housing of the working class. If you are refering to Birkenhead as a whole being ugly , well I would say areas such as Hamilton Square, the old library on Bourough Rd and Pine walks in Prenton (amongst others) prove you wrong, these places coupled with the other public parks that are in Birkenhead such as Arrow Park, Mersey Park and little gems such as the Arno and its faboulous rose gardens make me feel that perhaps a visit back to your roots may be in order.
    I will happily admit however Honey that Argyle Street on a Friday and Saturday night are one of the ugliest places imaginable.

    Posted by Mark Doughty at 10am on 27.03.08

  20. Good on you Mark Doughty, thats from a Welchman.

    Posted by doug at 12pm on 23.07.09

  21. I write for two reasons. Firstly about Northwest Tonight TV programme and a competition artist making the same claim as you about Birkenhead Park being the World’s first Municipal Park.

    Secondly about my claim that the title should go to Philips Park in Manchester.

    I have always thought the latter held this unique honour without any research on my part and indeed have always championed it as such to anyone that cared to listen.

    When I heard the TV claim (the artist wants to put a brass bandstand at Birkenhead) I thought I would do some research. I already knew that Philips Park was opened in 1846 which is twelve months before Birkenhead and this seems to establish my claim.

    In fact THREE parks were opend on the same day in 1846 in the Manchester area, as well as Philips, there were Queens Park and Peel Park in Salford.

    Peel was actually the first on the day to be opened although Philips had been established first.

    As Birkenhead was not opened until 1847 I would be glad to know how it claims to be the first.

    I am sure you have all the facts that I am unaware of but nevertheless I would be grateful if you could help.

    When I got on to a website there bold as brass were two titles.



    Both cannot be right can they?

    I look forward to your reply.

    Terry Rourke

    Posted by Terry Rourke at 3pm on 22.10.09

  22. Great sharing. thanks Ian - looks like it all boils down to who means what by ‘park’ and ‘public’ as we though..!!

    Posted by ferries at 11am on 08.05.10

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