As we saw in last week’s post, Sidney Hilton, Banbury’s multi-disciplined and talented Borough Surveyor from 1925 had turned the People’s Park in Banbury into a well-used and popular green place for fresh air, recreation and light exercise. While the council totted up their expenditure on and income from the tennis courts, the putting green and the bowling club annually – and acknowledged their overall losses – they knew that the park offered invaluable green space.
Neithrop House, part of the Council’s purchase from the syndicate in 1918-19, became vacant in 1929. The Education Committee took on a lease of the first floor at £100 per year as an Infant Welfare Clinic and a school clinic. In the 1940s this included the treatment of cases of scabies and pediculosis. Countless schoolchildren went to Neithrop House for eye tests, vaccinations and to the dentist – and to the playground and paddling pool afterwards. Parents collected orange juice, dried milk, cod liver oil and gas masks.
The cottages in Paradise Square, also part of the original Neithrop House estate, were more problematic. Paradise was a misnomer. There were many cases of drunkenness and breaches of the Elementary Education Act, one tap served about 20 households. (1) The Council had other rental streams by then and Hilton had no time for it. Soon after the Medical Officer had issued closing orders he saw to it that the cottages were demolished and the tenants rehoused in brand new council houses. Paradise was lost when a new shrubbery and a car park was created on the site of the square.
The design and execution of Hilton’s plans for new walls and paths perhaps best demonstrate his understanding of what the People’s Park is for and how it is used. The outer boundaries of the park are encircled by paths. Those in a hurry can walk the length of the park without being distracted by flowers and trees. Hilton put in dwarf stone walls along the edge of these paths in place of the old high walls and fencing that had surrounded the Neithrop House estate. Barely noticeable now, it is easy to think that they serve no purpose. I don’t see it as an exaggeration, however, to say that Hilton’s provision of these walls was the physical confirmation that the park was open for everyone to enjoy. Originally there were railings set into the top of the walls and some now have privet or hawthorn hedging alongside them. Even when the park gates were locked, the people of Banbury could see into their park.
Hilton demonstrated great foresight too in his provision of paths within the park. There are no muddy ‘desire lines’; people in 2019 use the same routes provided by Hilton. He respected the old footpaths in place before the Enclosures – The Leys, for instance – and his paths take people where they want to go: to each exit, to the aviary, to the playground.
And, since 1912, people have treasured the park as a convenient route to the town centre; a pleasant short walk accompanied by birdsong. What makes the People’s Park so useful to local people then and now is its dual function: a place for leisure and recreation and a quick cut through to work or into town.
As Hilton’s new houses and streets added substantially to the residential population to the north-west of the park, the greater the value of its location. The Banbury Advertiser in July 1939 carried a headline ‘The Quickest Way to work from King’s Road District’. (2)
Plans for a new path across the park were described as a plea for something that would save 60 yards and cost £60. Councillor Jones had carried out his own informal census one sunny afternoon and found that 348 people had walked across the grass. He felt his research proved that: (2)
the majority of people living in that district were of the working class, who had only a limited time to get home to meals and back to their place of business …..unless a footpath is made there will always be the present eyesore of a mudpath across the field.
The new path went ahead quickly.
People had enjoyed listening to bands playing in the park since the early days of the syndicate’s tenure. The council acknowledged public pressure for a bandstand and there were, of course, numerous others up and down the country. The People’s Park bandstand was opened in June 1932. A rather grand affair, the money for it was donated by a charitable trust. Hilton’s design was tailored to the site – on falling ground that forms a natural amphitheatre near the centre of the park.
Hilton supervised the entire construction by the council’s direct labour force. The rectangular bandstand with a bow-shaped front could house 40 musicians.
Fete after fete, rally after rally, parade after parade, a war time nursery and a British Restaurant kept spirits up in World War II. With little physical damage in Banbury, a shortage of deckchairs in the People’s Park kept the council busy.
With its new facilities in place, the People’s Park was, by the late 1930s, well established as a place of leisure and relaxation. The reduction in average working hours during the 1930s through to the 1960s only increased its popularity; Hilton’s facilities in the People’s Park are good examples of well-designed facilities provided by local councils to meet a need for local, safe and ordered recreation.
The People’s Park had become Banbury’s most popular outdoor venue.
The post-war borough council’s thoughts turned to horticulture. In the gloomy and cold late 1940s there was a new appetite for municipal horticulture and landscaping. Mindful of the extent of Hilton’s new housing estates under construction, the council asked the Institute of Landscape Architects for an outline scheme to improve all of their present and proposed parks and recreation grounds, the People’s Park included. For a fee of 100 guineas the Institute sent a Miss Crowe of London to produce a report. (3)
In April 1947 the council considered her more detailed recommendations and decided that
having regard to the abnormality of the times and the fairly heavy capital expenditure likely to be involved … the further consideration of (Miss Crowe’s) report be adjourned and … that the matter must probably lay in abeyance for a period of at least two or three years.
Miss Crowe’s report is not included in her archives and we do not know her thoughts on the People’s Park. She had a reputation for producing rushed scruffy sketches bursting with ideas; we can imagine her sketching plans for new trees and flowerbeds in the park, perhaps with Hilton in tow.
Sylvia Crowe was born in Banbury. From the 1930s and in private practice she took on many commissions including projects for nuclear power stations, hospital grounds, colleges and new housing estates. In 1948 she was the landscape consultant for Harlow New Town bringing Sir Frederick Gibberd’s masterplan for urban green spaces to life. With an international reputation she is considered one of the great landscape architects of the second half of the 20th century. She wrote several books; The Landscape of Power (1958) is her best known.
The 1950s was to see a shift in policy: the Council made a specific decision to designate the People’s Park as an ornamental flower garden while investment in new playing fields went on elsewhere. The Council appointed a superintendent of horticulture in 1953: an expert gardener with planning and administrative capabilities to take charge of all of their parks. Tommy Jackson from Winsford, FRHS, was their man.
The People’s Park became the nerve centre of Jackson’s responsibilities. A new mess room, potting shed, and greenhouses were built. New lighting and heating systems meant that work would not stop during the winter. He asked for and was provided with a Land Rover and a garage for it was built next to the potting shed.
Jackson soon had a staff of 17 looking after Banbury Borough Council’s 69 acres of parks and recreation grounds, verges and 16 acres of land in the cemetery. Three of the men were qualified horticulturists. In 1958, 4500 geraniums and 32,000 annual bedding plants were grown from seed. They created extraordinary flower displays in the town’s libraries, public buildings and for the tables at council meetings. Still something of a blank canvas, thousands of bulbs were planted in the People’s Park.
An expert horticulturist and perfectionist, by 1965 Jackson needed more skilled gardeners to grow top quality flowers for public displays. The council received numerous compliments for his spectacular floral displays in the People’s Park. His influence on the Borough’s housing policy was such that new council housing was offered to three green-fingered applicants to join Jackson to ‘keep Banbury blooming’. (2)
The Council never did revisit Sylvia Crowe’s work. Her naturalistic designs may have proved more durable and cheaper in the long run but is unlikely to have been as popular as Jackson’s colourful, high-maintenance style during the 1950s and 1960s.
Local Government reorganisation in 1974 put the People’s Park in the hands of Cherwell District Council. The national government’s Standard Spending Assessment excluded spending on parks and the district council’s approach appears to have been one of damage limitation only; with a scaled down presence in the park there were no real improvements to speak of. (4)
By then there had been a sea-change in the nation’s leisure habits. Like other medium-sized towns within reach of London, Banbury had become an expanded town; a high proportion of the 1960s suburbs’ first occupants were either from sub-standard or bomb-damaged housing in North London or beneficiaries of slum clearance schemes in Solihull and Coventry. Households had sole occupancy, security of tenure and good sized gardens. People enjoyed spending their spare time at home, took up gardening and enjoyed sport and music on television. A trip to the shopping mall on a Sunday afternoon became, in many cases, a new walk in the park. (4)
Hilton’s facilities had a lifespan of roughly fifty years. The paddling pool proved too expensive to clean, the timber shelter was torched, some incidents took place in and around the public toilets leading to their closure. Bands played to smaller audiences and the council demolished Hilton’s graffiti-strewn bandstand in 1988.
The new Banbury Town Council took on the People’s Park from 2000. A Green Flag was awarded in 2001 but has since lapsed. The Town Council appears to dislike anything too contemporary; there is no coherent policy on the planting style or the provision of facilities. CCTV was installed in 2015. Hilton’s walls and paths are intact; the quality of the infrastructure he laid out for the park in the 1930s is borne out by the hundreds of people who crisscross the park as part of their daily routine.
Financially speaking, Banbury Town Council has no difficulty maintaining the People’s Park at present. (5) Whether this is publicly acknowledged or not, the park is able to play its part in increasing biodiversity and mitigating the effects of air pollution and, in an era of growing concern about the nation’s physical and mental well-being, it has a positive impact on local people’s health in encouraging short walks with or without the dog, and as a meeting place that can foster social ties. (6) Above all it is still a place for relaxation – as important to people now as it was to those who joined in the celebrations in 1919.
On 14 July 2019 a Fine Lady on a White Horse will once again make her way through Banbury’s streets to the People’s Park. A small and peaceful market town in the middle of England will celebrate the park’s 100th birthday. It has a name that someone could have come up with yesterday; a name that has never been a nickname but one that was set by its first benefactor, George Ball. Let’s celebrate the achievements and generosity of its founders and designers.
(1) Banbury Museum Trust’s Reminiscence Group on memories of the People’s Park, October 2018
(2) Contemporary quotations from the press, unless otherwise credited, are taken from the Banbury Advertiser between 1897 and 1955 held by the British Newspaper Archive.
(3) Banbury Borough Council Baths, Parks and Markets Committee minutes, 18 November 1946
(4) Travis Elborough, A Walk In The Park (2016)
(5) Heritage Lottery Fund report, The State of UK Public Parks (2014), warned that local authorities faced larger budget cuts for parks than in the late 1970s.
(6) CABE Space, The Value of Public Space (2004)