I’m pleased to feature another guest post from Jane Kilsby who has previously contributed excellent articles on pre-First World War council housing in Banbury and interwar schemes in north Oxfordshire. Jane worked in housing management for councils and housing associations across the country for over twenty years before settling in Banbury over five years ago. Here she writes on the People’s Park in Banbury, a public park celebrating one hundred years of municipal ownership in 2019.
On 19 July 1919, a Fine Lady on a White Horse led a stunning procession through the streets of Banbury. In a gown of brocaded plush with an ermine border and a veil of valenciennes lace and in pouring rain, the Fine Lady made her way to the People’s Park to celebrate peace and a new beginning for the park. Her horse, a white arab charger, had served throughout the Great War and wore the Mons ribbon on his brow. She was followed by wounded soldiers and sailors, Red Cross hospital nurses, the Fire Brigade, boy scouts and guides, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, the Co-operative Society and many, many more representing the town’s public services and commercial interests.
Unlike a majority of towns in England and Scotland, Banbury did not have a public park laid out in the Victorian period. Banbury’s Aldermen felt that there was so much open countryside surrounding their town that there was no need for one. But, as Banbury’s population and industrial activities grew, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions became more common and a place for fresh air began to be seen as an essential.
There are several People’s Parks in England: some of them have proper names too such as Victoria Park in East London and there are larger and much older People’s Parks in Halifax and Tiverton, for example. Banbury’s People’s Park came about through a combination of late Victorian benevolence, imagination and a sense of public responsibility on the part of the town’s council in the early 20th century. Let’s return to the decorated wagons and the large crowd in the park in July 1919 to hear how the story began.
The Town Clerk read out the will of the late George Vincent Ball. Ball had left a legacy of approximately £3,200 for the Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses of Banbury:
to be applied by them in the purchase of land in some suitable situation near the town as a Park for the recreation of all classes during every day of the week from sunrise to sunset all the year round, to be ornamentally laid out, and called the People’s Park.
Born in Banbury in 1814, George Ball owned a chemists shop from 1844. (1) A borough councillor from 1858 to 1864; the provision of accessible stiles into fields around Banbury was among his achievements. He died in 1892.
In response to his legacy the borough received offers of land but rejected all of them either because they were too small or the locations were not quite right. In any event Ball’s legacy was deferred until his sister’s death. The burgesses were reluctant to raise money via the rates before the legacy was available. It was to be eighteen years before the perfect opportunity presented itself.
The Neithrop House estate came up for auction in October 1910. The lot comprised the house, gardens and pleasure grounds – about three acres – and six and a half acres of rich turf, stabling, gardener’s and coachman’s cottages, and 19 cottages in Paradise Square.
As a site for their people’s park this was irresistible. The Council had no funds to bid and did not expect the Local Government Board to grant a loan; the rules on councils taking on mortgages to buy land at that time only applied to sewage disposal schemes. But, the week before the auction, the Mayor, Joseph Chard, called for the formation of a syndicate. The People’s Park Syndicate was the only one in Banbury which announced, from the outset, its intention to give no interest or profits to its subscribers. (1)
Within days, the syndicate received a donation of £500 and went ahead in the knowledge that there was no better location and price for a people’s park. The estate did not meet its reserve; the syndicate bought the whole lot privately shortly afterwards for £5,250. Ball’s sister, Mrs Luckett, was 83; the syndicate assumed the council would be able to use Ball’s legacy to buy the estate from them before long.
By December 1910, total subscriptions from the great and good of Banbury, including several councillors, were £990 and the final purchase account including conveyancing was £5,305 17s 6d. A bank loan made up the difference.
Syndicate members set about managing their estate with competence and efficiency. They put up sanitary conveniences and did some repairs to the cottages. Members were able to visit the parkland; some were a little resentful of the 2s 6d they had to pay for a key. The park was not open to the public; new fencing protected their investment.
Councillor Brooks, elected Mayor in November 1910 and then Chairman of the People’s Park Syndicate, nevertheless saw the syndicate solely as the park’s temporary caretaker. By February 1912 the syndicate offered the council:
a rent of £80 per annum to include all liabilities… the syndicate will apply any balance of income arising year to year to reduce the ultimate purchase price of the estate.
Councillor Herbert Payne , local housing campaigner, pounced on the syndicate’s proposal. In the council’s debate on it, Payne pronounced: (1)
three things were wanted in Banbury: a public lavatory, a people’s park and a public library…The place could be made a very pleasant outdoor pleasure resort…. It was easy of access and the splendid trees and undulating turf made it a delightful spot and they (the Council) should encourage the present tendency of taking pleasure in the open air. There would be no first class, second class or third class; the youngest and oldest, the richest and poorest could meet here.
His fellow councillors agreed that this was a very good deal; some expressed their embarrassment that Banbury did not already have a public park. With a joint committee of council and syndicate representatives set up the council took on the rent of the parkland.
A ceremony was held on 25 June 1912 to mark this landmark in the park’s history. The Mayoress, Mrs J.Bloomfield, planted an oak tree and, as a symbol of the park’s opening to the public, she was presented with a key.
Only a week later, the Banbury Guardian reported: (1)
The People’s Park is evidently going to verify its name. Ample evidence of this was given on Sunday afternoon when there was a very large number of the inhabitants taking advantage of this charming ‘rus in urbe.’ Strangers from a distance – as well as residents – were loud in their praise of the foresight of the public-spirited gentlemen who had secured such a sylvan spot for the recreation of the people.
The council continued to rent the park from the syndicate until 1918.
Understandably, no action was taken on the option to buy the estate during the First World War. In February 1918 the legacy became available on the death of Ball’s sister and, with a bank loan making up the difference, the council bought the park, Neithrop House and the cottages in Paradise Square for £5,186 18s 2d. The land’s value had doubled during the syndicate’s ownership but no profit was paid to the subscribers. The council anticipated that the rents from the cottages would, over time, clear the overdraft from the bank; the People’s Park came into local authority ownership without any funds from ratepayers. The 1919 procession and garden party to celebrate the council’s ownership of the People’s Park was a huge success.
The Banbury Advertiser in 1932 described the whole process of the acquisition of the People’s Park by the council – with its combination of private generosity and public opportunism – as ‘the brightest spot throughout the whole history of the Borough.’ (1)
Municipal ownership brought in some talented and diligent municipal managers. Recreational facilities, thoughtful planning and ordered cultivation turned approximately eight acres of green fields and trees into a recognisable and well-used public park.
But first there was the need for commemoration.
In municipal ownership from 1919 and open to all, the people of Banbury were not the only occupants of their new park.
The syndicate had tendered for sheep grazers throughout their tenure of the park. Equally loathe to waste money on a lawn mower, the council followed like sheep.
Cicely Bailey describes how much she enjoyed the park during her childhood: (3)
there were sheep in the park then and … we children loved them. They used to wander back and forth, eating the long grass which was sometimes as high as the smaller children.
It was not until spring 1926 that the council enjoyed showing off a new Ransome’s triple mower.
The council wanted to make its presence felt and instil some discipline. Its byelaws for the People’s Park were approved by the Minister of Health in 1920. Drying washing, beating rugs, singing, injuring birds, wading or bathing in the stream and playing any sports or games that needed a dedicated space were all banned with a £5 penalty payable for every offence. (4)
Tom Rawlings was appointed as Park Keeper in November 1926. His wages were £3 a week with free accommodation in part of Neithrop House. Councillors found him an excellent worker and always ‘busily engaged’ (1); children thought him stern and feared his stick. (3)
The 1920s were a period of great interest and increased participation in sport, there was public support for new facilities. The building of ‘homes for heroes’ was putting a strain on council staff’s time and expertise; the borough council needed someone to carry out their plans for the park.
Sidney Hilton was appointed as the new Borough Engineer, Surveyor and Architect in April 1925. Born in 1891, the son of a King’s Lynn builder, the Banbury Guardian welcomed him:
Everyone will be most anxious for his success for upon him largely depends the welfare, development and expansion of the town. His duties are onerous and it will be necessary to exercise some patience before Mr Hilton can possibly obtain a full knowledge of the many problems under his administration.
They needn’t have worried. Hilton was one of the Borough’s most respected and talented employees. Described as one of the old school of ‘dual-qualification’ men, Hilton was a member of the Institute of Municipal Engineers, a Registered Architect, Member of the Royal Sanitary Institute and a Fellow of the Institute of Housing.
Council housing was Hilton’s greatest interest and he designed 24 different types of houses, including houses built in 1933, when the Ministry of Housing demanded the utmost economy, for £260 each, a design used as a model of economical building by authorities across the country. He was responsible for the completion of Banbury’s larger peripheral estates – about 1,200 houses – including the large post 1945 development in Ruscote. Importantly, it was Hilton who designed the layout of these new estates, all with public parks, as well as individual house designs. Hilton Road was named in recognition of his work.
During Hilton’s career Banbury’s population increased from about 13,000 to 20,000. In 1933 he designed an extension to Banbury’s sewage works that doubled the works’ capacity. The Borough’s outdoor swimming pool, opened in 1939, is all Hilton’s work, as was an extension to the public library, town centre public conveniences and a new street lighting scheme. He retired in 1955 after 46 years of local government service as the first Honorary Freeman of the Borough and the last man to wear a silk hat to civic functions.
But what did he do in the People’s Park? A lot, as you might expect. It was Hilton who designed and, as the director of the council’s direct labour force, built almost all of the park’s facilities in the interwar period. He turned what was really a field full of sheep into a classic English well-ordered public park with soft grasses and trees, and plenty more besides.
Council elections in November 1925 threw up calls for action. Councillor Allsopp expressed the public’s demands. (1)
there is a crying need for the provision of further opportunities for recreation for all classes of the community. A bandstand and tennis courts would provide remuneration and an increasing attraction to Banbury without unduly burdening the rates.
If we note that Leeds, for instance, had 150 public tennis courts in its parks by 1924, Banbury’s initial plans – for three lawn tennis courts – seem unambitious. But by the late 1920s Hilton’s comprehensive approach included a bowling green, a putting green, a park shelter, a pay office, new paths, a children’s corner with a swing, see-saw and giant’s stride, new entrances, seating, toilets and cloakrooms. With estimates of £2,000 for these facilities the council received some donations and took on a Public Works Board loan: £1,170 repayable in 10 years and £520 in 20 years. Well received by the public, these facilities were put in place during the next five years.
The tennis courts came first, in 1926. Next, the park shelter, with a buffet at one end and then a new toilet block near Neithrop House. Sanctioned by the Ministry of Health, the new block replaced the syndicate’s conveniences and was built by W & A Collisson of Banbury. Hilton knew the high quality of W & A Collisson’s work – between the wars they built 216 council houses and a further 100 houses after 1945. (5) Hilton’s neat and clever design for the new block, in Banbury brick, incorporates the park’s boundary walls and provided access even when the park gates were closed at night.
The Oxfordshire Surveyors’ Association met in Banbury in July 1927. (1) In reporting on his achievements Hilton added ‘we have no miracles to show you.’ He hadn’t, but the Councillors noted that their new facilities had attracted three times the number of visitors than previously. They wanted more.
Banbury’s unemployment figures in 1930 were not as high as elsewhere but the council, urged on by central government advice, wanted to ease living conditions for unemployed men in their town. With no large unemployment scheme to refer to the Minister of Labour, they set a budget of £1960 for the pool, playground, putting green and bowling green and, very unusually in Banbury, agreed to pay all of it from revenue with the levy of a separate rate. Councillor Monks described the building of the bowling green as: (1)
it was much better to give the men work they could see something for rather than they should be on the dole. About half the money would go in wages; they would employ about 50 men for eight weeks in the park.
Hilton planned the green for the Banbury Borough Bowls Club – founded in 1929. It was built using direct labour. Insisting on best quality turf – Lancashire sea-washed turf – he wanted people to use it. 90 percent of club members’ fees went to the borough council.
The new children’s corner and a pool for toy yachts and paddling, the putting green and a drinking fountain completed this phase of new facilities.
Next week’s post will look at further improvements to the People’s Park and the council’s changing approach to horticulture during the post war period.
(1) Contemporary quotations from the press, unless otherwise credited, are taken from the Banbury Advertiser between 1897 and 1955 held by the British Newspaper Archive.
(2) K Northover, Banbury During the Great War (2003)
(3) C Bailey, Childhood Memories of Banbury 1922-1939 (1998)
(4) Byelaws made by the Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses of the Borough of Banbury with respect to the People’s Park, 31 August 1920 held at the Oxfordshire History Centre
(5) W & A Collisson, builders, Banbury 1874-1967, archive records held at the Oxfordshire History Centre