In Praise of Our Parks : Part Two
The 18th century landowners were playing an important part in plant production. Many surplus plants from their estates found their way to the many large nurseries which existed then, with the result that more and more species became increasingly available. The estate gardeners were instrumental in this cultivation, and some new discoveries were made.
An example of this, close to home for myself, was the discovery in the late 1830s of a new species of tree. David Taylor, Head Gardener on the Earl of Camperdown’s estate near Dundee, found a contorted elm sapling, which he grafted onto a wych elm, and created the “Camperdown Elm”. This unusual elm, with its contorted weeping branches, became much sought after for its appearance, especially in the USA, where many can still be seen in parks, university campuses, and the like. Others reached Australia, mainly the southern State of Victoria. Taylor’s original tree still grows in what is now Camperdown Country Park. I’ve tried several times to get a good photo of it but, so far, the lighting has been wrong.
By now, larger towns and cities in the UK were heavily polluted from the manufactories which sprang up as a result of the Industrial Revolution. The health of the population became an area of great concern. The year 1833 saw the beginning of the “Park Movement”, with a report produced by a Select Committee on Public Walks set up to “consider the best means of securing Open Spaces in the vicinity of populous towns as Public Walks and Places of Exercise, calculated to promote the Health and Comfort of the Inhabitants”.
In 1839 a report by the Registrar General commented on the well-above average mortailty rate in London’s East End, compared with other areas, and suggested the need for a green open space there. The following year, a local Member of Parliament collected a petition containing 30,000 signatures, which was delivered to Queen Victoria. The Crown Estates purchased an area of land and so Britain’s first designated public park – Victoria Park in Tower Hamlets – was created.
West Lake, Victoria Park
The creation of urban public parks was gathering pace all over the country, however. On Merseyside, Birkenhead Park became the world’s first publicly-funded civic park. The money raised was used to buy nearly 200 acres of land with poor-quality soil. Some of the land was then sold off for property development, the income from which fully paid for the park’s creation. Birkenhead Park, designed by landscape gardener Sir Joseph Paxton,was visited in
1850 by the American landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, who was so impressed by many of its designs and features, that he incorporated them in his (and co-worker Calvert Vaux’s) design and construction of New York’s Central Park (opened 1859). They then followed up on this with their creation of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park (1867).
This where I loop backwards, to David Taylor’s “Camperdown Elm”. A specimen of this tree was donated to this park in 1872, and became very popular with visitors. By 1967 it was falling into a state of great decay, giving rise to a campaign for its restoration by the Friends of Prospect Park. The American poet, Marianne Moore (1887 – 1972), wrote a poem about it, titled simply “The Camperdown Elm”, to raise awareness of its plight and the campaign. The final words of this poem refer to the tree as “Our crowning curio”, which directly echo the curiosity this tree has always attracted (how I wish that I could get a decent pic of the original one – I’ll keep trying).
The rest of the 19th century saw the creation of the vast majority of our urban public parks, with their floral clocks, carpet bedding schemes, bandstands, boating lakes, water fountains, tree-lined avenues, etc.
The Burdett-Coutts Fountain (1862), Victoria Park, London
Many resulted from funds bequeathed by local landed gentry, or from donations/gifts by wealthy businessmen. Again, close to my home, is a good example of this. Andrew Carnegie, the late 19th- early 20th century businessman and philanthropist, donated Pittencrieff Park to the “toiling masses” in his hometown of Dunfermline, Fife. As a young boy, Carnegie, who was the son a poor weaver, used to scale the walls of what was a private estate to steal apples. He could never have imagined then that he would later find himself in a position to purchase that estate and give it away as a public park!
The Floral Halls Glasshouse, Pittencrieff Park, Dunfermline, Fife
PS. 6 July 2009. I have finally managed to locate and get a decent photo of the original Camperdown Elm (Ulmus glabra “Camperdownii”), and have added it below.
- 17 Aug, 2008
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