Mike Royden's Local History Pages


SEFTON PARK AND THE EVOLUTION OF URBAN PARK DESIGN IN BRITAIN

Margaret Putt



As a child my life revolved around Princes Park and Sefton Park. For twelve years I walked religiously every school day through Prices Park, later to senior school overlooking Sefton Park. Many happy Summer days were sent playing games in Sefton Park or tobogganing down the snow covered hills of Princes Park. How we took the Parks for granted. Now my experience of the Parks is taking a short cut through Sefton Park to avoid the many sets of traffic lights along Aigburth Road.

How times have changed not only for me but for my beautiful, elegant Victoria Park. Gone are the horse drawn carriages going to an fro from the elegant mansion, and gentry promenading in the Park, these have been replaced by cars and joggers.

Even in my time I remember how beautiful the gardens were only to be replaced by expanses of grass due to the cut backs in qualified gardening staff.

Let us not dwell too much on the changes that have taken place, as maybe this is 'progress' or maybe not, depending on one's views, but let us look at tha major contribution that Sefton Park has played in the evolution of urban park design in Britain.

Open spaces and parkland was nothing new to the South end of Liverpool. First there was the 2,300 acre Royal Deer Park of Toxteth which became 'disparked' in 1591. The land eventually came under the control of the Earl of Sefton. It remained his property until 1867 when the Corporation of Liverpool bought 375 acres at a reputed cost of �0,000, with the intention of constructing a large 'pleasure ground'.

As the town rapidly grew the green fields and woodland of Toxteth Park grew into narrow streets and courts packed with as many bodies as could possibly be squeezed into these tiny unhabitable houses where the air was stagnant, there was little or no sanitation and running water consisted of one tap in the middle of the court, if they were lucky. These conditions were a breading place for cholera germs. It is no wonder that in the 1840's the average age of death was 32.

People needed to escape the squaler they were forced to live in. Slaney's Report to the Select Committee of 1833 sought to find an answer to this problem but the wheels of beaurocracy are slow to turn. Sir Joseph Paxton in 1843 was the first to lead the way with the first public park in the country in Birkenhead. It was modelled on Parisian Parks with serpentine paths and undulating ground.

In the same year that Birkenhead Park was begun a private venture was taking place in Liverpool in the form of 40 acres which was purchased for �,000 by Richard Vaughan Yates. This was the birth of Princes Park. Richard Vaughan Yates threw this land open to the public but encircled the park with plots of land for houses whose finances would be used for the upkeep of the park. The parkland was landscaped and a tributary of the Mersey was constricted to form an ornamental lake.

The demand for large aristocratic mansions lay primarily in the South of Liverpool. In 1862 the Borough Engineer, Mr. Newlands, recommended a site for this development. An Act of Parliament in 1864 permitted corporations to borrow sums of money up to half a million pounds to be repaid over thirty years this allowed steps to be taken towards the purchase of land. Even though it was recognised that clean, fresh open spaces were now regarded as necessity it stil caused an outcry that a quarter of a million pounds was extravagant and wasteful. As with neighbouring Princes Park plots of land on the perimeter were sold for housing which helped in the funding of the layout, and so the seeds were sown for the development of Sefton Park.

The Liverpool Corporation instigated a competition for the layout of the Park. Out of twenty nine entries from all over the country the competition was won by Edward Andre and Lewis Hornblower. (See plan - Click plan for enlarged image) The plan was ambitious consisting of recreation grounds and plantations boulevards, roads, drives, an artificial lake. A large grotto built of huge blocks of sandstone forming a domed roof. A leafy glen was to be spanned by an iron bridge. An octagonal structure of steel and g;lass was constructed by a Glasgow firm. The Palm House stood majesticaly in the tradition of Paxton's glass houses and the Crystal Palace.

The Palm House was a gift from a member of Liverpool's old families, Henry Yates Thompson, who was the grand-nephew of the founder of Princes Park. It was open to the public in 1896. Henry Yates Thompson was boen at Dingle Cottage in 1838 the eldest son of Samuel Thompson of Thingwall Hall. Thompson was called to the Bar but never practised. He took up a political career, becoming private secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He late made three unsuccesful attempts to enter Parliament as a Liberal. It was thought that Thompson inherited most of the two million pounds fortune left by his Father. He bestowed much of this inheritance on his native City of Liverpool, including the conservatory in Stanley Park and the Palm House in Sefton Park.

The plan for the park was to cater for all aspects of Victorian taste, which proved to be a magnificent escape from the sqalid, overcrowded streets of the City. Lewis Hornblower was a Liverpool architect who had been involved with both Birkenhead and Princes Park, where he had been involved in architectural work on features such as gates, bridges and lodge houses. The other half of the partnership, Edward Andre was to be involved in the landscape of the Park. He was a highly acclaimed Parisian landscape architect. His previous work was to greatly influence his work on Sefton Park.

Andre paid careful attention to the planting schemes, using trees and shrubs to their best advantage to create illusions of distance and light. Sadly not all of the ideas and dreams Andre and Hornblower had for Sefton Park came to fruition. It was thought that Hornblower played a big part in curbing the 'natural exhuberance' of Andre, but it is more likely that money played and important part in curbing their exhuberance. There was an aviary and even some of the exotic lodges designed by Hornblower survived the 'tight' budget.

In 1872 the Park was officially handed over to the people of Liverpool. The Park was opened by the Duke of Connaught who drove to the park in procession from the Town Hall. A grand stand was erected in front of the Park gates agjacent to Princes Park, to accomodate 5,000 spectators. When the great organ was erected in St.George's Hall, marble columns had to be removed to accomodate the organ. These marble columns were used to enhance the gates at the entrance to the Park.

Sefton Park led the way in providing pastimes by providing club houses and pavilions. Sefton Cricket Club played host to W.G. Grace at a charity match, and the Park became host to the Mersey Bowmen which was founded in 1790. There was provision made for bowling, model yatching, and horse riding on 'Rotten Row' on the perimeter of the Park.

Sefton Park is blessed with an abundance of statues. The first of these statues was that of one of the great political reformers William Rathbone (1787 - 1868). The Palm House exhibited some interesting sculptures including 'One whom the Gods Loved' by P. Park; 'Two Goats' by C. Lombardi; 'Europa' by V. Luccardi; 'The Angel's Whisper' by B. Spence; and 'Highland Mary' by B. Spence. It also featured a large oramental bench in commemoration of Henry Yates Thompson. The eight corners of the Palm House are marked by eight figures depicting mariners and explorers such as Cook, Columbus, Mercator, and Prince Henry the Navigator and men of science and botany such as Darwin, Linnaeus, and the herbalist John Parkinson.

The Statue of Christopher Columbus is one of the most well recognised as it is felt that Columbus played a significant part in the growth of Liverpool and is known as the 'Maker of Liverpool'. After his discovery of America, Liverpools' subsequent trade with America grew bringing great wealth to its affluent merchants. Columbus Day, 12th October, is marked every year by the laying of a commemorative wreath at the statue of Columbus by the Anglo - Ibero-American Society.

The Park contains many interesting features, most well known being Peter Pan and Eros. The Peter Pan Statue was kindly donated by George Audley of Birkdale. The unveiling took place on 16th June 1928 in the presence of Sir James Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan. To celebrate the unveiling a pageant took place.

In 1932 Sefton Park was again the recipient of a replica this time the Eros fountain created in bronze and aluminium by Sir Alfred Gilbert. The Eros fountain was linked to the Samuel Smith obelisk by an equisite avenue of elm trees. Unfortunately Sefton Park was one of the first areas in the country to contact Dutch Elm Disease.

To the Victorians a large house was a status symbol, a display of financial success and influence. The Council hoped to aleviate the cost of laying out the Park by selling plots of land. The Council set aside 160 acres of land hoping to lure wealthy merchants into majestic mansions, knowing how important the large family house would be to them.

The external side of the wide Boulevard was laid out entirely for villas and terraces forming a boundary. Each house was built to the owners specifications. By 1882 it was reported that fifty five villas had been built, mainly on Aigburth Drive and Croxteth Drive. By 1890 Aigburth Drive and Croxteth Drive were complete although the number of villas built was far less than first intented by Andre and Hornblower.

Many of the villas are not notable for their architectural merit but for their eccentric style and solid craftsmanship. Both classical and Gothic architectural styles are in evidence.

Times have changed greatly and modern day families have become much smaller than thoseof the Victoria era. No longer do families need or can afford the upkeep of such large villas. Gone are the days when wealthy merchants had servants living in the household. Sad as it may seem one by one these great mansions have been converted into flats, university hostels, nursing homes or hotels.

Unfortunately the skyline of Sefton Park has been interrupted by replacing a number of demolished villas by multi storey flats. Luckily the proposal of the 1950's to encircle the park with multi storey flats never came to fruition. Maybe affluence is moving back to Sefton Park in the form of exclusive appartments built on the site of an old school.

A walk around the perimeter of the Park can be an enlightening and rewarding experience. It would be eay to lose oneself in the individual designs of a bygone era, and to dream of the families that once brought these houses alive.

Although Andre's vision of Sefton Park may not have been that of an urban conservation area, but in more recent times this has grown more a vision of the future, with the introduction of new varieties of birds and butterflies. Times have changed greatly from the affluent Victoria era, but Sefton Park still remains one of the country's most significant urban parks. It has been assessed by English Heritage as an "outstanding" landsacpe, and is officially registered as a Grade 11 Landscape.

Sefton Park has survived many set backs including two wars, but as at its innovation money problems again rear its ugly head. Lack of financialrescourses, cut backs in gardening staff, the abolishion of the Parks Police, even though this still exists in London. The enormous cost in replacing trees which have been hit by Dutch Elm Disease. Bad lighting to combat the problems of vandalism.

In spite of its problems Sefton Park's grotto, fairy glen, and stepping stones will always hold a facination for children. The Park will always be a 'Park for the People'. I hope that Liverpool City Council listen to the people and improver their upkeep of Sefton Park before it becomes beyond redemption.


Margaret Putt (1999)



Bibliography


The Sefton Park Civic Society: (1984)
Paul Booth: The background
Margaret Jackson: The Competition
Karen Campbell: The Architecture of the Area
Margaret Jackson: The Park Today
Richard Baker (Park Ranger): Information obtained through various research by the Park Ranger Service (1999)
The City Engineers and City Planning Office: Maps and Photographs - Figures 1, 2, 3.


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