Gazetteer of War Memorial Parks and Gardens
Article written by Dr Paul Stamper, Historic England (formerly English Heritage)
As the First World War neared its end, communities across the land began to consider how best to remember those who had died. Many had fallen overseas, some to be buried in the new cemeteries of the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission, while those with no known resting place were commemorated instead by name on memorial walls. Whichever, a focus for remembrance close to home was important to families.
While many cities, towns and villages favoured a traditional sculptural or architectural monument, many others (often with ex-servicemen taking the lead) discussed and opted for a memorial which, instead of focussing on the dead, would serve the needs of the living. These included homes for bereaved service families or for ex-servicemen, cottage hospitals or hospital wings, public baths, libraries, reading rooms, club rooms and memorial halls; even road improvements and bridges were proposed as a form of war memorial.
Memorial parks, gardens, playing fields and avenues of trees were among the more popular types of living or useful memorials. These offered, in the words of one dedicatory speech, a place where ‘all people, young and old, could enjoy the beauties of nature in lovely surroundings, near to the centre of the town’.
More research remains to be done on memorial parks and gardens as a type, which has received surprisingly little notice in either the literature of war memorials, or in surveys of 20th-century landscape and garden design. However, a recent preliminary survey for English Heritage by David Lambert has shown that while their geographical spread is wide, it is largely restricted to areas where land, unless gifted, was available for purchase. Few memorial parks were laid out in older urban areas where land was short, and larger towns and cities often favoured instead substantial building projects such as a museum or hospital as a war memorial.
Memorial parks are generally, though not always, modest in terms of design and materials, and were often laid out by the borough surveyor working with a local nursery. But at least a few were more ambitious, and at a national level, Fleetwood Memorial Park in Lancashire and Coventry War Memorial Park are both included on the English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest at Grade II, as is Rowntree Park, York, which was originally dedicated as a memorial park after the First World War.
However, the modesty of most in no way diminishes their local significance, commissioned as they were as a place’s principal war memorial to the fallen. Numbers are still unclear: there are currently 339 gardens and 212 parks or playing fields listed on the Imperial War Museum War Memorials Archive, but it appears likely that there are still more to be recorded. Parks & Gardens UK has compiled a national gazetteer which will give us a much better idea of the full extent of this form of memorialisation, and encourage the better appreciation and management of these poignant designed landscapes.