Park History

These pages will continue to be updated as we gather information.

The Parks Movement

We walk around parks all the time and rarely notice or ponder on the features and design of the park. But many of the things that we see as common features of our parks and take for granted were actually carefully planned in order to create the perfect environment for walking and the optimum conditions for providing good health.

Although municipal parks did develop long before the C19th, (the first was thought to have been developed in Exeter in 1612 and the park is still in use today and others followed in Shrewsbury and Leicester), it is in the C19th we first see the interaction between ideas about health and ideas about parks and urban planning.


The creation of the municipal park has been seen as a prime example of the Victorian concern with improving the physical, moral and spiritual condition of the urban dweller. Protected from the realities of its city surroundings by gates and railings, it represented an ideal landscape in which the air was clean, the spirit was refreshed by contact with nature, and the body was renewed by exercise.

Indeed, until towns had grown considerably there was little physical need for parks, areas of open space set aside specifically for recreation and exercise. The open spaces of the town square, the market place and the chuchyards, remained from medieval times, and most towns were small enough for adjacent spaces such as commons and wasteland to be accessible for outdoor activities. BUT by the end of the C18th population growth in towns and cities all over England was starting to become a problem for public health as space was taken up by slums. People came to cities and towns to find work and often worked in unhealthy factories and lived in unsanitary conditions. With population expansion, the growth of the urban centres and the enclosure of commons, open space for recreation became less accessible. Housing conditions were poor and cramped and this only worsened during the C19th. In Worcester, the population grew from 13,000 in 1799 to 46,000 by 1899. This was a huge growth rate when it is considered Worcester’s population only grew to 49,000 by 1931. The population of larger cities also grew at a similar rate. Birmingham’s population was 400,000 by 1899 compare to London’s 3 million.

Physical Health of the poor 

Perhaps the first real action taken by the authorities in public health in Worcester followed the cholera outbreaks, which coincided with the national outbreaks in 1832, 1848 and 1853. Cholera proved fatal to many, particularly those in the area of Worcester where the worst of the slum housing was located, known as The Pinch. This was a small area just off Tybridge Street in St Johns, so called because the land plot on which it was built was a triangular or 'pinched' shape, consisting of a dozen or so cramped, overcrowded dwelling houses.

These cramped housing conditions were a common feature of working class housing in Worcester at that time, another area being in St Andrew's parish - the area around the Glover's Needle where another major outbreak of cholera was focussed around Bell Square. There is a surviving Health Inspector's report from the period which talks about the awful conditions people were living in, with open cess poolsand overcrowded graveyards resulting in decaying remains seeping through the walls of housing, with the fumes reported to have tarnished candlesticks!

Each house would have been shared by several different families, who would have taken their water from the nearby River Severn. The rest of Worcester’s poor lived in housing conditions that were little better. They lived in courts containing 5 to 20 houses, which had no efficient drainage, 2 privies the contents of which were received into a large open cesspool. The courts were also surrounded by stables and pig sties, much to the complaint of the authorities. This then included over 2000 houses, 769 privies and 406 open cesspools. Another public health hazard that was a direct result from increased population growth was the overcrowding of burial grounds. Many of the burial grounds in Worcester were full and local residents became annoyed at the stench. Following the Cholera outbreak of 1848, the government issued the Public Health Act, which gave them the authority to intervene in any disturbance or situation perceived to be the cause of bad public health. Previously, the state kept out of private affairs. In Worcester, the mortality rate was so high (26.5 deaths per 1000, the average was about 15 per 1000) that the local authorities were forced to act. The Worcester authorities conducted a systematic street by street survey of the poorer parishes to assess the state of sanitation provision, sewerage, drainage and water supply in accordance with Public Health Act. Of course, they had no knowledge of germs, the theory which was not discovered until the 1860s but they still rightly believed than unsanitary conditions could be a causal factor in disease.

One of their recommendations was to make more public space available for the poor in the form of parks. These parks would provide workers with cleaner, fresh air that they could not get at work or at home, and away from the possibility of catching diseases. The human body was compared to a machine which needed oiling and looking after if it was to work well. As oil was to machinery, so pure air was to the human frame as quote ‘it prevents friction and corrosion of parts [and] removes impurities from the blood….Bad air fills the body with impurities and impedes proper action: just as bad oil clogs and hinders the progress of machinery. Exercise will oblige them to breathe the greatest amount of oxygen to purify the blood.’ Manchester was the first industrial city to have a park built. They had been drafting a sanitary code in the 1840s and her reputation for local reform was growing.

Between 1845 and 1875 park development increased steadily. Some parks were built in the city centre but more widely dispersed small open spaces were favoured for the benefit of those who had little time for recreation and could not easily visit central spaces. Benefactors based all over the country donated land for parks in Derby and Sheffield. Victoria Park in London was established as a result of East End poverty, from the expansion of the docks and the most dangerous occupation. In 1859, Worcester opened its first public park, which were a type of park called Pleasure Gardens. Worcester’s was called Arboretum Gardens and was situated where the Arboretum housing estate is now Pleasure Gardens were a form of park where entertainment took place usually in the evening, including music, dancing masquerades, balloon ascents and fireworks and were very popular with the middle classes. More were built in London than any where else. For this entertainment and to enter the gardens, visitors were charged a fee. However, free access was given to Arboretum Gardens on one day a week in order to encourage those less likely to afford the entrance fee. This was facilitated by a £1,000 donation from the City’s Corporation, which suggests their support for more workers to attend these parks. In the Arboretum Gardens, there were firework shows, tightrope walking and a horticultural show BUT it was so expensive to maintain that it went into liquidation in 1863. The whole site was sold to build houses. Click here for more information on the Arboretum Pleasure Gardens.

But it is after 1875 that a substantial increase in activity becomes evident as a result of the Public Health Act of 1875. Despite the earlier Public Health Act, this was the first major statutory provision enabling local authorities to acquire and maintain land for recreation. The Worcester authorities started the work to build Cripplegate Park in an area affected by disease and slums. As the local authorities gradually acquired the powers to enable them to confront some of the major urban problems, so their confidence grew and with it became an increased sense of civic consciousness, most notably in Birmingham. Joseph Chamberlain with 1890s believed that urban mortality rates fell as more parks were built and used by the public. He said in 1884: "I sometimes think that the municipalities can do more for the people than Parliament. Their powers will probably be enlarged; but under the powers they already possess they can greatly diminish the amount of sickness in the community, and can prolong human life. They can prevent – they have prevented – tens of thousands of children becoming orphans. They can do much to improve those miserable homes which are fatal not only to health, but to decency and morality. They can give to the poor the enjoyment of pleasant parks and gardens...

Reform – the moral and social health of the poor

HOWEVER, at the same time as the authorities were concerned with the physical health of the population, reformers wanted to introduce more parks to improve the moral and social wellbeing of the poor. The middles classes feared that increased urbanisation had led the workers to undertake increasingly immoral activities in their recreation time such as gambling, sex and drinking. Indeed, with the expansion of towns and cities came the rise in number of pubs, which became an important centre for recreation. Pubs were built on almost every corner, with the aim of providing workers with a social place to relax with a drink and gamble after a hard days work had finished. Also from the 1840s, urban workers had more free time than ever before. The Ten hour Act was introduced in 1847, which limited the number of working hours to 10 a day and there also a growing Saturday half-Holiday movement, so workers could work 5 and a half days instead of six. By the end of the C19th, there were also enforce public and bank holidays, which provided workers with more free time. In Birmingham in 1848, there was one public house for every 166 inhabitants and the Farmer’s Arms pub was already well established in the Pinch in Worcester by 1841.

Furthermore, the pub may have been the only place open on Sunday, which detracted from going to Church. In fact, many parks were closed on Sunday mornings in order to encourage people to attend church services, not the pub. Park reform was taken on by reformers in the Temperance Movement (against alcohol), the Sabbatarians (Sunday the Lord’s day) and other reformers. These reformers believed if the urban working classes used parks they would became thrifty, industrious, docile and moral like themselves. Reformers began to produce publications such as The Birmingham Saturday Half-Holiday Guide of 1879, which provided information on the surroundings of Birmingham for leisure time. The park was the perfect place for all classes to coexist in harmony. Indeed, one of the reformers that designed a number of parks in this period, J. C. Loudon was heavily influenced by his teacher, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, famed for saying’ the greatest good for the greatest number of people.’ Parks could also create family togetherness, which could not be achieved down the pub, which were places only for men to the exclusion of women and children.

Of course, part of the authorities drive for increased numbers of parks was also driven by economics. By determining workers leisure time, the authorities also thought they would create a happier workforce, and a happier workforce, they believed would be more productive. By the late C19th, increased productivity in Britain was crucial in order to compete internationally. Germany and US were overtaking the UK as a world economic superpower. Many parks designers and urban planners therefore looked to prosperous countries in Europe and beyond for inspiration on their well laid out and beautifully designed parks. British parks designers then began to incorporate features which reflected British patriotism and under Queen Victoria, imperialism, which had local relevance. For example, Liverpool parks reflected maritime pride through statues of great men such as James Cook. Gheluvelt Park, is the ultimate symbol of British patriotism as this park is a war memorial and the houses that surround it were built to house war widows. Click here for more information on the Battle of Gheluvelt.

But what features did reformers of public health and moral virtue want their parks to have?

From the 1840s onwards, park design consisted of the following features:

Plenty of seating - The seating should face a view, to enrich the soul of the park visitor. All benches in the parks face something. Seating should also be available to encourage the elderly visitors and those less able to walk far distances to visit the park – they can benefit from clean fresh air without having to walk very far. Some seating should be in the sun while others should be in the shade. Indeed, during the late C19th and early C20th, skin cancer caused by the sun’s rays was not known about and sitting in the suns rays was thought to provide therapeutic benefit. And in moderation, it does. Around the early years of the C20th, doctors discovered that the sun provided the body with vitamin D and that this was a cure for rickets, a common ailment amongst children in British towns and cities that received little sun light. For those that could not lay in the sun in park, (indeed, there would be little sun in their housing courts) artificial UV lamps were available, which proved to be very popular. Of course, becoming tanned as a result of laying in the sun was not very fashionable, as it was still fashionable to be pale.

Bandstand – By the end of C19th, bandstands were one of the most common feature of parks. Music has long been associated with a sense of wellbeing and live music, of hymns (Christian and patriotic anthems) especially so. Hymns and national anthems were part of the reforms the authorities wanted to enstill in the working class and were considered an important moral influence. Military and works bands were a very popular form of entertainment in the latter half of the C19th and concerts were held on weekday evenings and on Sundays in the summer. Bandstands were often centred in a lake like in Gheluvelt Park, or on a raised platform on grass so the musicians would be separated from the audience. Of course, the bandstand provided shelter from rain for the musicians but it was also attractively designed. The one in Gheluvelt Park was painted red in traditional style but it does resemble an Oriental style. Oriental designs for bandstands and also pagodas became fashionable from late C18th and this fashion remained into C20th. Reformers included bandstands with Chinese and Japanese influences because they wanted park visitors to experience things they were never likely to see anywhere. They wanted parks to provide a complete change of environment, with features they would never get at home. It was unlikely that the average park visitor would ever visit China or Japan so they incorporated features in parks.

Water, lake – Most people would never have access to lakes or the birds that found sanctuary by lakes either. However, lakes also formed part of the wider scheme to provide tranquillity and calm, with which water has often been associated. Activities in larger lakes than this included fishing. In fact, this land had fish ponds on it from the late C19th. Lakes also formed part of the movement to get the nation fit and healthy. In larger lakes again, park visitors were often allowed to swim, although swimming naked was a serious offence and could get you arrested. Indeed, the Recreation Grounds Act 1859 gave managers of parks and recreation grounds powers to make and enforce bye-laws. Lakes were not often clean. Dog washing, for example, has long been considered a nuisance. The ponds in Gheluvelt Park were cleaned when the park was established as was the brook that ran through the park but in the 1960s, it was discovered that the brook was being polluted from industrial sources outside the city. This, along with the rising fear of polio across the country, meant the brook was fenced off to prevent use by children. The water feature will provide children with active enjoyment with water. 

Open spaces and exercise – The Metropolitan Public Garden, Boulevard and Playground Association was set up in 1882 by Lord Brabazon, who was particularly concerned with the questions of the physical condition of the urban population and the role parks could play in improving it. These associations were quickly followed by the National Health Society established by Ernest Hart, the editor of the BMJ and the National Footpaths Association, which sought to provide healthy walks to the population in and outside of parks. The publication of the Report on Physical Deterioration in 1904 marked official recognition of the problem and further evidence came from the medical reports on the prospective army recruits for the Boer War and WW1. The resulting pressure led to the setting up of such organizations such as the National Playing Fields Association, which set aside more public space for teams sports. The Report on Physical Deterioration recommended that building bye-laws should include the provision of open space by local authorities, in proportion to the density of the population.

Also, providing footpaths around the outside of the park providing visitors with longer healthy walks than if they were in the middle, as a form of moderate exercise. Paths should flow around the park and create ease and wellbeing. It wasn’t just men and women that reformers tried to target with increased exercise campaigns. They also targeted children by emphasising the importance of play. The form of play in a specifically designed playground should be for educational purposes as well as for physical exercise. For example, setting a mental and physical challenge. By targeting children, reformers hoped to increase their happiness and produce a more productive society in the long term.

Water fountains - If parks were to be used for any length of time some method of slaking the thirst was essential, particularly after exercise or sunbathing, other wise children were seen quote ‘flocking round the cabstand and drinking with the horses out of their pails.’ The provision of water fountains in parks also formed part of the reformers’ campaigns. By providing free drinking fountains, visitors would be less likely to turn to alcoholic drinks. Many of the early water fountains in parks were donated often by the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association set up in 1859, which had close links in with the Temperance Movement. A drinking fountain was donated to Gheluvelt Park during the 1920s.

Plants – Of course, plants and trees formed an important park of the reforming movement. Like water, plants provided parks with tranquillity. Designers attempted to get exotic plants, like those from Australasia. This was again another form of patriotism as it gave the nation a chance to show off the huge variety of plants growing in different parts of the Empire. Like the Oriental influenced bandstands, the lake and birds, exotic plants gave visitors a chance to see something they would not normally see. They were certainly not see them in their own gardens, if in fact they had gardens at all. However, increasingly, park designers realised that not all plants from parts of the empire were suitable for the British climate and also suitable to survive in the air pollution and instead decided to invest in plants that could withstand the atmospheric conditions. Rhododendrons, for example, are almost always evergreen. Oaks trees are very resilient.

Shelter – Parks also needed to provide shelter in times of bad weather. Also, shelters provided those that were unable to do much exercise or walking a place to play boards games such as chess. The original shelters in the parks no longer exist but the sons of rests shelters in Cripplegate and Gheluvelt Parks fulfill the same purposes for inside activity and by extension, moral and social improvement.

It was the Town Planning Act of 1909 which for the first time gave local authorities the powers to plan for the future, instead of reacting to the problems of the past and trying to ameliorate them. This then marks the date park and open spaces movements became absorbed into town planning. From this planning, the Garden City movement was launched and the New Town movement after WW2. Now parks form a much more integrated part of town planning to improve health and wellbeing than it did in the C19th.

In response to the Great Smog of 1952, the British Parliament introduced the Clean Air Act 1956, to enforce clean air standards has contributed to an improvement in human health and longer life spans. This act legislated for zones where smokeless fuels had to be burnt and relocated power stations to rural areas. The Clean Air Act 1968 introduced the use of tall chimneys to disperse air pollution for industries burning coal, liquid or gaseous fuels.

There was much debate in early park design over whether landscape design should have priority, for moral reform, or flat open space suitable for exercise, and therefore physical reform. One solution was to position activities in the middle and those that required smaller space on the outside – however in Gheluvelt Park the tennis courts are on the outside of the park not in the middle, leaving space for football or unstructured activities in the middle. Tennis courts have formed an important part of Britain’s parks since the game was introduced in the late C19th. Similarly, with football.  

Written by Claire Jones, formerly of the Charles Hastings Medical Museum.