Birkenhead Park has a rich and colourful history since its opening on Monday 5th April 1847. Seen as the forerunner of the Parks movement, Birkenhead Park has acted as the inspiration and template for countless other urban parks across the UK, Europe and North America. Since its opening, it the park has supported its local community through two global conflicts, played host to countless sports events with teams from across the World, all whilst maintaining its beautiful architecture and wondrous landscape.
Truly, Birkenhead Park will forever be the people’s park.
Birkenhead Park: Conception and Opening
In the early – mid 19th century leading local industrialists, William Jackson, Macgregor Laird and Thomas Brassey, had a vision of building a ‘City of the Future’ on the Mersey, opposite the thriving city of Liverpool, which saw the town of Birkenhead experience a huge population increase (from 200 in 1821 to more than 24,000 in 1851). In 1840, the select committee on the Health of Towns declared preventative measures were required for reasons of humanity and justice to the poor, over conditions arising from the rapid expansion of urban populations. In 1841, Isaac Holmes – Liverpool Councillor and Birkenhead Improvement Commissioner – suggested that Birkenhead should have a public park.
In 1843 Act of Parliament gave the Birkenhead Improvement Commissioners authority to borrow money for the purchase of land to create a public park. Several important merchant and businessmen had been buying areas of land in and around Birkenhead. This land consisted of former farmland, mainly arable fields and former pastures, ill-drained meadows and commons, and was re-sold to the commissioners of the Park.
The chairman of the Birkenhead Improvement Commissioners invited Joseph Paxton, head gardener at Chatsworth to design the park, to which he agreed for a fee of £800. The plan for Birkenhead Park incorporated a park bounded by a carriage drive and areas around the edge of the park were set aside for the construction of villas in order to recoup the cost of paying for the park.
At Paxton’s behest, Edward Kemp supervised the development of the park and was appointed Park superintendent. As a close associated of Paxton’s, Kemp maintained and enriched the character of the landscape within the idiom described by Paxton. Kemp remained as superintendent of the park for forty years.
Birkenhead Park was officially opened on Monday 5th April 1847 by Lord Morpeth to a crowd of 10,000 people at the Grand Entrance. Despite having been completed almost 6 months earlier, the park’s opening was delayed in order to coincide with the opening of the Morpeth Dock complex in Birkenhead. Since then, Birkenhead Park has remained largely unchanged. Its originality and integrity remain intact, whilst it continues to modernise to suit the ever-changing needs and requirements of its visitors.
In 1850, American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted arrived by ship in Liverpool. During his stay in Northwest England, he paid a visit to Birkenhead Park along with several other public gardens. He noted Birkenhead was "a model town" which was built "all in accordance with the advanced science, taste, and enterprising spirit that are supposed to distinguish the nineteenth century". In 1858, he and Calvert Vaux won the competition to design a new park, Central Park, for the rapidly growing city of New York.
Olmsted, who was influenced by the park, was greatly impressed by Paxton's designs. In his book Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England, he wrote about its social value as an aesthetic form:
Five minutes of admiration, and a few more spent studying the manner in which art had been employed to obtain from nature so much beauty, and I was ready to admit that in democratic America there was nothing to be thought of as comparable with this People’s Garden.
Olmsted also commented on the "perfection" of the park's gardening:
I cannot undertake to describe the effect of so much taste and skill as had evidently been employed; I will only tell you, that we passed by winding paths, over acres and acres, with a constant varying surface, where on all sides were growing every variety of shrubs and flowers, with more than natural grace, all set in borders of greenest, closest turf, and all kept with consummate neatness.
Birkenhead Park was also used as a template for the creation of Sefton Park, which opened in Liverpool in 1872.
Plan of Central Park New York
The Park at War
Birkenhead Park shared in the sacrifices made by the town during both World Wars. During the Great War, Birkenhead Park played host to the 3rd Battalion the Cheshire Regiment, who used the Park’s grounds for training exercises and training recruits – particularly conscientious objectors, who were sent to this regiment because of its reputation for toughness. Cavalry horses were housed on the pitch of Birkenhead Park Rugby Club, and several acres of parkland were converted to allotments for the growth of food. During the Second World War, much of Birkenhead was bombed, and the Park too, received its fair share of action. A searchlight and barrage balloon were placed in the Lower Park, the Upper Park was converted to allotments once more, and the vast majority of the park’s railings were taken away for scrap metal to support the war effort. Many of the Park staff left for jobs more relevant to the war effort and the Park went into a decline that would take more than a decade to reverse.
The park has seen its fair share of odd activities, from elephants to artillery!