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What did our park look like?

What did our park look like?

What did our park look like?

1) Background information

Public parks were designed according to the size and terrain of the land and the vision of the designer. Some had geometric plans; others were curvilinear. The facilities they offered depended upon the budget and the will of the council. Nevertheless, parks soon evolved into a relatively standardised form owing to the expectations of the local population and the need to accommodate large numbers of people.

Plants, trees and shrubs were the major element of park landscapes. The Victorians were keen collectors and, through exploration, many new species of plants were discovered throughout the Empire. Advances in transport enabled them to be more quickly exported back to the United Kingdom for show, while kept in small, sealed portable glasshouses called Wardian cases. More delicate plants and trees were displayed in glasshouses, but several could adapt to the British climate and were planted in the open.

To shut out the grim urban surroundings in which many people lived, parks were often screened by trees, shrubs or mounds of earth to create an oasis of beauty and peace within. These perimeter trees also provided shelter for less hardy trees inside. Tall shrubs were used to divide the park into smaller spaces and to screen paths for more intimate walks. In some parks, trees were planted in clumps, in others in avenues. Some parks even had displays of topiary, shaped into forms for the amusement of visitors.

Footpaths were carefully planned to take visitors around the park, not necessarily in the most direct route. Some were open, whilst others were more secluded. Paths were often used to divide the park into distinct areas, each with different planting schemes or recreational activity. Most nineteenth-century parks were planned to ensure that not everything was visible at the same time. This encouraged visitors to explore the park, coming across different features along the way.

Footpaths near flower beds were often bordered with low fences, kerbing, clipped hedges and shrubs to deter people from stepping on the carefully manicured lawns and getting too close to the beds.

What did our park look like?

2) Sources of information

Aerial views will give children an overview of your park’s layout.

aerial view of mowbray park 1879

Aerial view of Mowbray Park © Sunderland Council / Mowbray

Old plans will show the overall layout and circulation spaces, along with any features that have since been demolished.


© Liverpool Record Office


© Liverpool Record Office

The following section describes some of the main natural features created or introduced into parks. Your park may not have all of these or it may have others not described. Descriptions of others can be found in the Illustrated Glossary .



Most parks were contained within railings and closed at night. Some had very grand entrances to show visitors that the park was an important civic investment. They would often have large ornamental gates emblazoned with the town’s coat of arms or its benefactors. Just inside, the park’s regulations would be prominently displayed, and nearby would be a lodge for the park keeper or superintendent.

Image: Birkenhead Park entrance © Glyn Holden.

Flower beds


Flowers and plants were the main attraction for most people. Formal, geometric arrangements were popular and changed seasonally and visitors came to expect increasingly spectacular and colourful displays. These would be presented on raised mounds for better show, in linear arrangements at the edges of footpaths or as flat areas of carpet bedding. Strips of lawn, low fences and clipped hedging prevented people from walking on them. Flower beds often had stone features amongst them, such as statues, urns, troughs and sundials.

Parks vied with each other for more elaborate and ostentatious displays with staff eager to demonstrate their skill and ingenuity. Designs often included the name of the town or its shield, as well as commemorative schemes for events such as Royal jubilees, coronations, Empire Day or St George’s Day. When park gardeners started using hardy foliage, they could create more sculptural displays using wire frames.

Image: © Wolverhampton Archives & Local Studies

Floral clocks

floral clock

These became one of the most impressive novelty features of parks. Their working mechanisms were placed below ground.

Image: © EH/NMR

Alpine gardens & rockeries

Birkenhead Park rockery

Alpine gardens, rockeries, fern dells and heather beds
These were created to display different species of plants from other continents or to display specialist collections. They were usually built in sheltered positions, to recreate the natural conditions that allowed the plants to thrive - damp, shady or dry. Many included large rocks and boulders, streams, small cascades and ponds, to simulate these natural environments. Rustic features, such as bridges, were built to create idyllic scenes to be admired by the visitor. Such gardens added to the variety of planting schemes, and proved very popular.

Image: Birkenhead Park rockery © Glyn Holden



These were often a major central feature in larger parks. They encouraged waterfowl and fish, but also provided healthy recreation that included rowing, fishing and model boat displays. Some allowed swimming to enable people to keep clean in areas where there were no bath-houses nearby. Lakes might have fountains or jets of water in the centre. In winter, water levels of some lakes were lowered so they could freeze over for safe ice skating. Smaller, separate children’s paddling pools were created in some parks, and later, some built outdoor swimming pools.

Image: © Liverpool Record Office.



Pets’ corners, aviaries and butterfly houses were some of the ways that parks introduced animals for the delight of their visitors. Some larger parks would have pens for animals, and some even had roaming wildlife, such as deer.

Image: © EH/NMR.

What did our park look like?

3) Activities in School

Look at where your park is in relation to other areas of the town when it was built?

Look at an old plan of your park. Describe its layout. How is the land subdivided? What shape are the different areas? How many different areas are there in your park and what are they used for? Compare an old plan with a modern one. Is the layout still the same? Have any areas changed use? Have any features disappeared? Look at old photographs or postcards of your park. What shapes and arrangements are the flower beds? Describe them. Explain why they were created and photographed or made into postcards. Look for special floral displays. Do any have a special significance? Recreate floral designs, either by using real bedding plants in the school garden; chalk designs on the school playground; or copying and repeating designs using ICT.

What did our park look like?

4) Activities during your visit

Sketch or photograph different areas of your park to show the range of planting schemes. Which are annual or perennial? Are there any commemorative displays in your park? Take copies of old photographs or postcards on your visit to identify what is still there and what has disappeared. Photograph special trees or plants, or record their species from plaques or labels. Research their origins on your return to school. How many are native to this country or were imported? Look at the entrance to the park. Is it the same as it was when first built? What has changed and why? Look for evidence of change.