The intriguing history of public parks during the Victorian era, and the craze for exotic botanicals

by Seth Williams

Almost two centuries ago in Derby, a wealthy man by the name of Joseph Strutt donated an 11-acre plot of land to the public and commissioned a leading horticulturalist, John Loudon, to design a unique green space among the fog of industrialisation. The Derby Arboretum was created, presenting a new aspect of Victorian culture. Public parks became increasingly impressive and often followed a traditional style to include other aspects of Victorian culture that could be put proudly on display for all the public to see. Greenhead Park in Huddersfield is no exception and still includes some of the Victorian features it was initially created with.

Greenhead Park was formally opened on the 27th September 1884, fifteen years after the newly established Huddersfield Corporation bought land from Huddersfield’s Ramsden Estate, the towns major landowner. [1] In the main entrance to the park there is a plaque dedicated to Alderman Thomas Denham, Mayor of Huddersfield 1880 – 1881, this is because of the Ramsden estates plans to turn the open land into housing. Alderman, at his own expense, leased 15 acres from the Ramsden estate and opened it to the public every summer holding band concerts, exotic and native flower shows, and galas. This early park became the first public park for Huddersfield and Alderman’s mission to develop a public recreation space carries on to this day.

The plaque attached to the park keeper’s house has been in place since the park opened and shows thanks to Mayor Thomas Denham for creating what is now Greenhead Park. Alderman Denham’s aim was always to secure a proper public park for Huddersfield. Negotiations to purchase the necessary land started with the Ramsden Estate as early as 1869. But it was not until January 1881 that the Huddersfield Corporation finally sealed the deal to purchase 30 acres of land from the Ramsden estate.

The plaque attached to the park keeper’s house has been in place since the park opened and shows thanks to Mayor Thomas Denham for creating what is now Greenhead Park. Alderman Denham’s aim was always to secure a proper public park for Huddersfield. Negotiations to purchase the necessary land started with the Ramsden Estate as early as 1869. But it was not until January 1881 that the Huddersfield Corporation finally sealed the deal to purchase 30 acres of land from the Ramsden estate.

The Mayor left the park in the hand of Richard Swarbrick Dugdale (1849-1903), a Lancashire born architect who also planned the Wainhouse Tower in Halifax, the world’s largest folly. Dugdale went on to be appointed to the role of Huddersfield Borough Surveyor[2] in October 1879. Dugdale going on to oversee Beaumont Park, Greenhead Park, and the Huddersfield open market in 1890. Most of the main features that were put into the park can still be seen today such as the classically Victorian and equally ornate Italian Gardens, decorated water fountain, and octagonal bandstand, still used today.

Here the Park keeper’s house can be seen in perfect condition. The house itself was built with the park, so the leading gardener could be on sight at all times. Notice the Monkey Puzzle tree from South Argentina. The tree began cultivation in England 1850, and was called so because a “monkey would find it a puzzle to climb that”

Here the Park keeper’s house can be seen in perfect condition. The house itself was built with the park, so the leading gardener could be on sight at all times. Notice the Monkey Puzzle tree from South Argentina. The tree began cultivation in England 1850, and was called so because a “monkey would find it a puzzle to climb that”[3]

Conway argues that the motives for a parks construction varied widely, this included “To add value to new housing developments, others were created to give a green space to the urban sprawl. Some were even used to try and regulate the leisure activities of the working classes. Other’s viewed them as expressions of civic pride”[4], parks became increasingly a priority and were used as a way of providing green spaces of leisure for town-dwellers, and most notably the working class, this was the main purpose of parks. However, they were also designed to control the activities of the working class as Conway suggests, the idea being that a working class leisure time was spent at a public house simply because there was nowhere else to go after work other than there or home[5], whereas the Middle classes were seen as examples of desirable behaviour valuing fresh air, exercise, and walking. Professor Paul Elliot from the university of Derby states that “the [public parks] were for the mill workers and citizens of the town”, “it was significant because the majority were free”[6], by allowing the working class somewhere to absorb Victorian culture it was hoped that a nation built even more so on national pride would emerge and a more civilised working class would follow.

A new age of leisure gardens allowed for a common interest in gardening to be split among all classes, the exotic flowers brought back with colonialism had Victorian Greenhouses own some of the best collections of plants in the world, with many exotic ones from places such as “Antigua, Fiji, and Singapore.”[7] In 1892 Kew published in its Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information, a series of articles describing in detail the production and processing of several exotic plants from around the empire. Kew had a duty from its own charter, in ‘aiding the Mother Country in everything that is useful in the vegetable Kingdom’. Gardens became more than places of leisure for Victorian Britain but also places of science, the relationship of colonialism to scientific development is obvious but with a new English past time growing, so did state funding for the research of Botany which overall allowed the new cultivation of crops and improved yields, partly due to the technological advancements of technology such as sheet glass. New greenhouses could be built on a scale not seen before and became far more intricate, such as Joseph Paxton’s own crystal palace which shows the Victorian obsession and perceived importance of botany and public gardens. The following Victorian pride perpetuated the British pastime into a form we still see it as today. Greenhead Park’s own greenhouse used to contain plants such as tea, coffee, pineapple, and tobacco… even a Cavendish banana[8] plant cultivated by Paxton himself, and the most widely used banana today[9].

Public gardens represented something much more than green spaces in the Victorian era but offered a display of Victorian man’s triumph over nature and science[10] and invited the public to take pleasure in the new imperial flower mosaics, and great walkways designed to flaunt the wealth of an empire. They were also spaces of great versatility to match the diverse terrain of the empire, rockeries, and cultivated swamps were in place to show everything from pines to water lilies. The diversity increased along with the Victorian empire’s stretch over the world. Wilder gardens also offered a place for the public to get out of the industrial city centre and somewhat connect with nature again without lingering smog or noise. Parks were therefore used by Victorians to display power and national pride, while trying to perpetuate an ideal Victorian ideology among lower classes. Public parks in Britain offered a view into how the Victorian’s saw themselves as well as a varied view on their own culture of pride and power.

A Victorian walk around Greenhead Park. Click here to view on Google MapsThe greenhouse in Greenhead Park, turned into a café but kept the original architecture.

The greenhouse in Greenhead Park, turned into a café but kept the original architecture.(Several boards are shown throughout the park that show its history)

(All images taken by me or from free sources from the Greenhead Park community)

Bibliography

Conway, H. (1991). People’s parks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.493.

En.wikipedia.org. (2018). Joseph Paxton. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Paxton

http://www.friendsofgreenheadpark.org.uk/our-park/park-information/

Huddersfield.exposed. (2018). Richard Swarbrick Dugdale (1849-1903) – Huddersfield Exposed: Exploring the History of the Huddersfield Area. [online] Available at: https://huddersfield.exposed/wiki/Richard_Swarbrick_Dugdale_(1849-1903)

Hunt, T. (2010). Paul A. Elliott, The Derby Philosophers. Science and Culture in British Urban Society, 1700–1850. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009, Urban History, 37(01), pp.189-190.

“Kew Bulletin”. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Kingsbury, N.  The Lost Plants of the Victorian Golden age. The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/gardens-to-visit/the-lost-plants-of-the-victorian-golden-age/

Mitchell, A. (1996). Alan Mitchell’s Trees of Britain. London: HarperCollins, p.82.

National Trust. (2018). Victorian gardens: 1837-1901. [online] Available at: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/victorian-gardens-1837-1901

Rowe, A. and Spring, D. (2007). Hertfordshire garden history. Hatfield: Hertfordshire, p.176.

 

[1] http://www.friendsofgreenheadpark.org.uk/our-park/park-information/

[2] Huddersfield.exposed. (2018). Richard Swarbrick Dugdale (1849-1903) – Huddersfield Exposed: Exploring the History of the Huddersfield Area. [online] Available at: https://huddersfield.exposed/wiki/Richard_Swarbrick_Dugdale_(1849-1903)

[3] Mitchell, A. (1996). Alan Mitchell’s Trees of Britain. London: HarperCollins, p.82.

[4] Conway, H. (1991). People’s parks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.493.

[5] Rowe, A. and Spring, D. (2007). Hertfordshire garden history. Hatfield: Hertfordshire, p.176.

[6] Hunt, T. (2010). Paul A. Elliott, The Derby Philosophers. Science and Culture in British Urban Society, 1700–1850. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009, Urban History, 37(01), pp.189-190.

[7] “Kew Bulletin”. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

[8] En.wikipedia.org. (2018). Joseph Paxton. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Paxton

[9] The Lost Plants of the Victorian Golden age. Kingsbury, N.  The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/gardens-to-visit/the-lost-plants-of-the-victorian-golden-age/

[10] National Trust. (2018). Victorian gardens: 1837-1901. [online] Available at: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/victorian-gardens-1837-1901

Leave a Reply