Birkenhead Park Visitor Centre

Park Drive

Birkenhead 

Wirral, CH41 4HY

birkenheadpark@wirral.gov.uk

Tel: 0151 652 5197

Birkenhead Park Historic Timeline

 

As this time line shows, Birkenhead Park has been an integral part of the town, reflecting its social history and national events since it was first proposed in 1843.

 

1843 An Act of Parliament gave the Birkenhead Improvement Commission the authority to buy land for a park that would be of benefit to the whole community. The Commissioners appointed Joseph Paxton, the head gardener at Chatsworth with a national reputation in landscape design, to draw up plans for the park.

 

1844 First sale of housing plots around the edge of the park to help recover the cost of creating the park.

 

1846 The Birkenhead Park Cricket Club was founded.

Another auction of housing land around the edge was held.

 

The Manor House was built for William Jackson, Chairman of the Commission, overlooking the park. The gardens were laid out and planted by Paxton with colourful borders of shrubs and flowers and groups of trees, echoing the planting theme for the park.

 

1847 The park was officially opened by Lord Morpeth, who also opened Birkenhead’s new docks, warehouses and a railway extension to the docks. Thousands of people joined in with the celebrations.

 

Edward Kemp, who had worked under Paxton at Chatsworth and had been supervising the developments in the park, was appointed Park Superintendent and given free accommodation in the Italian Lodge. He held the post of Park Superintendent for 46 years until his death in 1891.

 

Later in the year, investment in the docks and other industries in the town came to a halt as the money ran out and thousands of people moved out to look for work elsewhere; the empty houses and silent docks led to the town being renamed ‘the city of the dead’.  This coincided with a national economic crisis and political instability. In addition, the Corporation of Liverpool, alarmed at the growth of Birkenhead’s docks, dramatically expanded their own docks, so that ships would not need to go into Birkenhead.

 

1848 Sculptures including the Blind Fiddler, Mazeppa (a Cossack leader) and Two Sisters are placed in the park by a local stonemason Mr Forest. They were subsequently removed in 1855 following his death as the commissioners were not prepared to pay for them.

 

A refreshment saloon was opened for the sale of confectionary, fruit, lemonade, ginger beer, milk, tea and coffee.

 

1849 A camera obscura was added to the entertainments in the park. It was an optical device in which outside objects were projected on to a screen and then sketched. The Park Committee permitted it to be in operation every day except Sundays.

 

The brick built club house for Birkenhead Park Cricket Club was opened; it is still there today and is possibly the oldest in the country.

 

A suspension bridge was put up over Lower Lake as part of a private commercial development. The bridge fell into the lake four years later.

  

1850 Frederick Law Olmsted, an American agricultural engineer and journalist, visited Birkenhead having heard that it had been called ‘the city of the future’. He was impressed by what he saw, describing Birkenhead as a model town built ‘all in accordance with the advanced science, taste, and enterprising spirit that are supposed to distinguish the nineteenth century.’ 

 

During his visit, Olmsted was urged by a local baker not to leave the town without visiting the park. Olmsted was overwhelmed by its beauty ‘gardening had here reached a perfection that I had never before dreamed of. I cannot undertake to describe the effect of so much taste and skill as had evidently been employed.’ He was also very impressed that this magnificent park was for everyone: ‘the poorest British peasant is as free to enjoy it in all its parts as the British queen.’

 

Olmsted went on to design New York’s Central Park, employing several of Birkenhead Park’s features within it and subsequently, assisted with over 80 parks in North America. Birkenhead’s influence was spread far and wide!

 

A gondola (a type of open boat) was bought for the boathouse on the Lower Lake.

 

1851 The national census for this year indicated just how Britain had shifted from a rural population to an urban one. It showed that more than half of the country’s inhabitants lived in towns and cities.

 

In London, the Great Exhibition – the first international exhibition in history and a celebration of manufacturing invention – was opened in Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, the first building made only of iron and glass. Paxton’s pioneering design for the palace was the inspiration for Birkenhead Park’s Visitor Center opened in 2006 as part of the major restoration programme.

 

1853 Mersey Curling Club was given permission to use the Upper Lake during the winter.

 

1854  Britain, France and Turkey fought in the Crimean War against Russia. Two cannons captured from the Russians at the Battle of Sebastopol were presented to Birkenhead by the War Office in 1857. At first they were placed near the Grand Entrance before being moved to the Lower Park, where they gave their name to Cannon Hill. The cannons were later melted down in 1940 for use in the Second World War.

 

Another part of the park – Balaclava Field – took its name from the Crimean War, after the Battle of Balaclava, when the Light Brigade heroically but disastrously charged Russian guns.

 

1855 The Liverpool Dock Trustees bought the loss-making Birkenhead Docks from the town’s commissioners.

 

1860 The Cheshire and Liverpool Volunteers staged a review in the park and a silver bugle was presented to the 1st Cheshire Rifle Volunteers, who became regular users of the park to practise drilling.

   

Another achievement for Birkenhead - it was the first place in Europe to operate a dedicated passenger tramway. The enterprising Birkenhead Commissioners gave permission for the street railway where other towns had turned down the opportunity and the first tram travelled from Woodside Ferry to the Grand Entrance of the park, a distance of one and a quarter miles.

 

1863 The town celebrated the marriage of the Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra with a procession through the decorated streets to the park. The procession, which included all the town’s school children, carried banners and was accompanied by bands.

 

The Manchester and Liverpool Agricultural Society held their annual cattle show in the Lower Park.

 

John Laird became the first member of parliament for Birkenhead. Like his father William who founded the shipbuilding yard, John Laird was a great benefactor to the town, giving money for the building of the Borough Hospital (later Birkenhead General Hospital) and the Laird School of Art (now part of The Wirral College of Art and Design). A statue was John Laird was unveiled in 1877 and now stands in Hamilton Square gardens.

 

1864 After several days of celebrations to mark the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, a commemorative oak tree was planted in the park before a crowd of several thousand people.

 

1866 Professional cricket came to the park when an All-England XI played at the Park Cricket Club team which fielded 18 players. The event was repeated in the following year and subsequently in 1869, 1870, 1871 and 1873. In 1871 the Park Cricket Club beat the professionals by 13 wickets.

 

1869 A cast iron pillar box was sited on Ashville Road outside the park’s Central Lodge at the request of the Birkenhead Postmaster. The original box is still there.

 

1871 Birkenhead Park Rugby Football Club was founded.

 

1878 Birkenhead St Mary’s Cricket Club was founded.

 

1885 A cast iron band stand was put up in the Lower Park; it was later removed (in 1929) to Mersey Park, Tranmere.

 

1887 Local schoolchildren celebrated Queen Victoria’s Jubilee by parading through the town to the bandstand in the park, where several thousand people listened to a concert.

 

An international rugby match between Wales and Ireland is played in the park; another took place seven years later with Wales playing England.

 

1888 Land that had been earmarked for housing but was not sold was turned into a recreation ground with a skittle alley, bowling green and quoits ground.

 

1895 William Hesketh Lever, who founded Port Sunlight village in 1888 for the workers at his soap factory, used the Grand Entrance as a venue to make his election speeches, followed by a parade of 3,000 people.

 

1897 The 50th anniversary of the opening of the park and Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee; the latter was celebrated by children in the park.

 

1900 The tramway, opened in 1860 was electrified. Britain was fighting the Boer War in South Africa.

 

1902 To mark the coronation of King Edward VII, a commemorative oak tree on Cannon Hill was planted in the park by the Mayoress Mrs G S Hazlehurst, who was then presented with a spade, engraved with the arms of the borough, oak trees and an inscription.

 

1903 The Boothby Ground, which was originally one of Paxton’s sites for housing around the edge of the park, was incorporated into the park.

 

1911 The town’s population was 130,794. The Birkenhead 1910 League held a meeting at the Grand Entrance to protest on behalf of the poor and suffering.

 

The coronation of George V was marked in the town with a whole host of events; the most significant in the park was the Children’s Pageant.

Commemorative oaks were planted in the Upper and Lower Parks. In the evening there were several bonfires and firework displays at venues in the town, including one in Birkenhead Park.

 

1914 The beginning of World War I and an open air concert was held in the park to raise money for the war effort. 

 

1917 The war continued and Britain was close to starvation as German submarines sank British ships. People were encouraged to grow their own food and allotments appeared in the park.

The Welsh National Eisteddfod was held in the park and was attended by the Prime Minister Lloyd George, who was given the Freedom of the Borough and described Birkenhead as one of the ‘few towns of recent growth which had established such a fame and such a position.’  He also urged the townsfolk to be of good heart during this time of war.

 

1921 This was a year of industrial trouble and a major Labour Day demonstration was held in Lower Park which pressed for better wages.

A Palm House was erected in the Upper Park. This spectacular building housed a full sized palm tree at its centre, statues and exotic plants. It was damaged in World War II and although repaired was later demolished.

 

1924 Rugby internationals the New Zealand ”All Blacks” played Cheshire in the park.

 

1925 A memorial stone to commemorate the site of the opening ceremony of the Welsh National Eisteddfod was erected on Cannon Hill.

 

1927 Birkenhead celebrated its 50th anniversary in the hope that the celebrations would bring ‘the borough and its industrial and commercial facilities far more prominently under the notice of the nation than they have ever been before’ (Wallasey Guardian 29.6.1927). Civic and church services were held in the town, with the Bishop of Chester preaching at a parish church, receptions and luncheons held and notable citizens presented with the Freedom of the Borough. The park shared in the festivities with the Mayor’s Garden Party taking place in the grounds of the Palm House, Jubilee sports competitions, displays, processions and band concerts.

 

1929 A new bandstand was installed with a series of band concerts. During the preparatory work at the site of the bandstand, workmen found a Bronze Age axe-head several thousands years old.

 

1930s Unemployment in Britain reached 2 million in 1930. These were troubled times with financial and political instability. The Grand Entrance was used as a gathering place for protests. Political groups – communists, fascists and Oswald Moseley’s Blackshirts – held meetings and marched from here.

 

1932 Birkenhead Means Test Riots also started from here; park railings were broken and there was violence in the town. The Lower Park was the location for May Day celebrations and Labour Day protests. 

 

1934 The Mersey Tunnel and Central Library in Birkenhead were opened by George V and celebrated with an ox-roast in the park.

 

1938   The outbreak of another war looked inevitable. In Birkenhead, there was a “No More War” procession to the Grand Entrance and an army parade in the park when communications and medical equipment, and howitzer guns were on display. Air raid protection trenches were dug in the park.

 

1939 - 1945 The Second World War and the people’s park in Birkenhead played its part. Bombs damaged the Palm House and the cricket pitch, the Park Cricket Club’s pavilion was taken over by the army and shelters were erected near Cannon Hill. The Russian cannons, captured in the Battle of Crimea, and most of the park railings, which had been in position for over 100 years, were removed so that they could be used for scrap metal for war purposes. This left the park, which had been closed at nightfall, open at all times and an appeal was made to the public to be responsible and guard against vandalism in the unprotected park. The town also held a scrap metal week to collect unwanted metal from local people and it was announced that Birkenhead had given more scrap metal than any other town - £21 worth for every 1,000 people compared with an average of £5 across the country.

 

In the Upper Park, 14.9 acres (6 hectares) of land was dug up for use as allotments as part of the government’s “Dig for Victory” campaign.

 

There was a near miss for the people of Birkenhead when a plane on a test flight from Hawarden went out of control over the River Mersey. The pilot baled out and the plane dived towards the town before crashing in the south east corner of the park.

 

1950 Birkenhead was awarded £50,000 as a war damages claim to restore the park; a new café and conservatory was built. The conservatory was planted with a collection of giant cacti and flowering plants.

 

1952 A rally was held on the rugby ground in the park by the Rosary Crusade. The main speaker was Father Patrick Peyton, a catholic priest from America. A crowd of 30,000 were reported to have attended.

 

1953 The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and the park was the assembly area for a parade through the town. An avenue of lime trees was planted in the park by local schoolchildren as part of a day of celebrations.

 

1957 The Blind Garden was opened on the site of Paxton’s third lake. The plants and flowers were scented to appeal to blind people and a circular path with rail was constructed.

 

1969 The last working horse used to collect grass and leaves in the park was retired.

 

1976 The Friends of Birkenhead Park was formed by Lord Griff Evans as a pressure group to look after the interests of the park, with the motto “That which is good should be preserved”. The group were increasingly concerned about the poor maintenance and crumbling structure of the park that had once been such a source of pride for the town.

 

The decline of Birkenhead Park reflected the national picture; across the country urban parks were suffering from neglect due to social and economic changes. This situation continued until the mid-1990s as a result of several factors.

Local government reorganisation in the 1970s saw the formation of large leisure departments. There was no statutory obligation to maintain parks and they were sidelined as budgets were shifted to facilities such as sports centres.

 

Legislation in the 1980s introduced the system of competitive tendering, when local authorities had to accept the lowest bid for work that needed to be carried out, so skilled gardeners and their supervisors disappeared to be replaced by cheaper, unskilled staff. In addition, grounds maintenance work was specified by someone sitting in an office (even down to such matters as how far apart plants should be spaced in a flower bed) who had little idea of conditions prevailing on site. Although competitive tendering has been replaced, its legacy lives on in many urban parks.

 

At the same time, people no longer needed urban parks in the way they once had; they had access to their own green space in their gardens or could escape by car into the countryside.

 

1977 Birkenhead Park was designated a Conservation Area partly due to the Friends’ efforts and many of the houses built originally to fund the park were listed as Grade II buildings for their architectural and historic importance.

 

1979 As part of a youth training scheme, Birkenhead Park Pottery was set up in disused buildings in the south east corner. The pottery eventually became an independent studio pottery.

 

1984 The Park Ranger Service was started.

 

1993 A major extension was added to the Park Cricket Club’s clubhouse in the form of a permanent tented structure.

 

1996 The Heritage Lottery Fund launched its Urban Park Programme following a study of public parks that showed just how important they were in enhancing the quality of life and the sustainable management of towns and cities.

 

1997 The park’s 150th anniversary was celebrated with a series of events. At the same time, a project was being developed to restore Birkenhead Park.

 

2002  A grant over £11 million was awarded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Merseyside Objective One Programme and Wirral Borough Council to restore Birkenhead Park. The project also has the support of The Friends of Birkenhead Park and includes repairs to the Grand Entrance, restoration of the Swiss Bridge and the Boat House (including the replacement of the pantiled roof), restoration of the original drainage system, refurbishment and replacement where necessary of railings, gates and stone piers, improvements to various sporting facilities, installation of new benches that reflect the originals, landscape works such as tree planting, installing new bridges and de-silting and reshaping the figure of eight lake. In addition, the grant allowed for a number of staff to be appointed to oversee the developments and work in the park and for a new building which would be a visitor centre and a base for staff on site.

  

2006 The new Visitor Center was opened in the park as a focal point for local people and visitors and as a base for staff. The design was based on Paxton’s Crystal Palace 

2007 The park receives it's First Green Flag Award and Green Heritage Awards, for the pristine landscaping and the continued restoration of the beautiful park. It has received these awards every year since.

2011 The Edward Kemp Community garden was officially opened

2012 The Olympic Torch is carried through the park on route to the 2012 London Olympic Games, several local celebraties participated in the carrying of the torch.

Part of the crashed WW2 spitfire was excavated. The finds included the Cockpitinstruments, part of the pilot's seat and a complete Rolls-Royce Merlin Engine, which is now on display at New Brighton's Fort Perch Rock.

2013 Doug Blonsky, President and CEO of Central Park New York,visits Birkenhead Park, he remarks;

"Without Birkenhead Park, there would be no Central Park and without Central Park, there would be no New York City."

Further showing cementing the importance and far reaching influence that Kemp and the Park have in the world.

2015 The Guardian names Birkenhead Park as one of the top 10 parks in the world, and later in the year the Rangers from the park travelled to Stockholm to give a presentation at the 'Large Parks in Large Cities' conference. Birkenhead Park starts to gain international recognition and appeal.

2016 Birkenhead Park received a visit from a very special guest to mark it's 169th Birthday. HRH The Princess Royal landed in the park via Royal Helicopter as part of her visit throughout the North West.