"The appearance of the country around Wolverhampton and Bilston is strange in the extreme. For miles and miles the eye ranges over wide-spreading masses of black rubbish, hills on hills of shale, and mashed and muddled coal dust, extracted from beneath and masking, as it were, the whole face of nature."

This description of the area, written in the middle of the 19th century, paints a vivid picture of an unpleasant, unhealthy place in which to live and work - the harsh reality for many of the working classes living in the industrial areas of England.

Lives were hard and short, and the people found their entertainment and leisure where they could, more often than not in the public houses, of which, in Bilston, it is said that, at the end of the 19th century there was one for every 140 inhabitants, including children.

The desperate need for public open spaces to provide those living in the rapidly growing towns with opportunities for health recreation, was recognised by the early years of the 19th century but it did not become a reality until the 1840s when the first public parks were opened in Derby and Manchester. Birmingham was not far behind, opening their first park in 1856, but in Wolverhampton, the people had to wait until the summer of 1881 for the opening of what became known as West Park.

West Park Conservatory built in 1896.

The council had first set its sights on the town's race course as the ideal location for a park as early as the 1860s, but it was not until 1879 that terms were agreed with the Duke of Cleveland who owned the land, when he finally agreed to a 63 year lease of the site with an option for the council to buy the land at the end of the term. 

From the outset the council was determined that the first park in the borough should be state of the art. 

A special sub committee toured the country looking at the best examples, and advice was sought from the leading experts in the field.

The eventual design of the park was the subject of a national competition, won by Richard Hartland Vertigans, a landscape designer and nurseryman with premises in Malvern and Edgbaston. His task was not an easy one. To begin with the site was described at the time as a "treeless swamp" so a lake would be essential to help drain the land.

The council also specified that the park should be surrounded by stout railings, and two lodges for park keepers were to be provided.

Boating on West Park Lake.

In keeping with the latest trends, Vertigans made provision for archery, cricket, bowling and volunteer drill in his design, as well as the planting of trees and shrubs. Many gifts were made to the park in the early years, including ducks and swans for the lake, several glacial boulders, a four faced clock, which still overlooks the flower beds at the centre of the park, and at least two drinking fountains. But the most generous gift was that of Charles Pelham Villiers, MP for Wolverhampton, who was unable to attend the grand opening of the park, but, instead, gave a beautiful cast iron bandstand.

West Park entrance. From an old postcard.

The park's crowning glory, the conservatory, was built in 1896, with the proceeds of the town's Floral Fete, held every year in the park. It was designed by Thomas Mawson and his architect partner Dan Gibson, who were advising the council on their second park at the time.

Other improvements in the early years included new paths around the lakes, the erection of the lakeside shelter and a tea room called The Chalet, which was opened in 1902.

While the park gradually evolved over the first 20 years of its existence, Vertigans' original design of 1897, a plan of which is held in the council archives, remains virtually unaltered to this day.

The new park soon proved itself a huge success and a great benefit to the people of the town. However, its location on the more affluent west side of the town meant that it was of limited use to those living in the more heavily industrialised areas to the south and east.

East Park

There was rising political and public pressure for a comparable park to serve the east end of town and in 1892 Sir Alfred Hickman and the Duke of Sutherland offered a gift of 50 acres of land, just off the Willenhall Road, to the Corporation.

It was, however, a difficult site consisting largely of collapsed and exhausted mine workings of the former Chillington Colliery which would require considerable reclamation in order to create a park.

Once again the council held a competition for the design, but all the entries far exceeded the budget allowed for the project.

One design did, however, catch the eye of the judges - that by Thomas Mawson, who had recently completed two public parks in the Potteries, and was to become recognised as one of the outstanding landscape designers of his time.

The council decided to use his basic concept and retained his services to assist the Borough Surveyor in development of the plans.

Mawson seems to have remained closely involved with the park and attended site inspections during works, and the opening ceremony.

The Mayor at this time was Charles Mander, and Mawson so impressed the family that he was later commissioned to remodel the gardens at Wightwick Manor.

East Park bandstand.

The final design, a copy of which is held in the city archives, shows 11 acres of sports grounds, a children's play area, an open air swimming pool, a lodge, toilets and areas of shrubberies and flower gardens. However, the main feature was a 10 acre boating lake with a promontory on the east shore which was to be the location for an eyecatcher.

The Lysaght Memorial Clock Tower was erected on the site in 1887. Although not shown on the borough surveyor's plan, a bandstand was also erected in the park, paid for from the proceeds of the annual floral fete. Implementation of the scheme proved to be both difficult and expensive, and the budget was soon exceeded, but eventually all was completed and on September 21, 1896, crowds gathered on a rainy afternoon to witness the grand opening by the Mayor and Mayoress.

The East Park, as it became known, was beset with problems from the outset. The main entrance was 200m from the Willenhall Road across rough ground, reported to be ankle deep in dust in the dry weather and deeper in the wet. Both the Duke of Sutherland and Sir Alfred Hickman had retained ownership of the surrounding land, no doubt hoping to reap the benefits of any new developments which would be attracted by the new park, but this did not materialise and well into the 20th century the park remained surrounded by open land.

The lake, however, proved to be the biggest problem. Even during construction there were problems with leakage into old mine workings and, despite efforts to retain levels, by pumping water from a specially bored well and numerous repairs, the lake gradually disappeared. Efforts to save the lake ceased during the 1914-18 war and by 1922 the area was reported to be covered with grass. The East Park was never the huge success its western counterpart had been.

The area surrounding the park was not developed with housing until the middle years of the 20th century, and the loss of the lake as an attraction was a major blow to its popularity, but there was a revival in its fortunes in the post war period when a paddling pool and new sports facilities were introduced to serve the new housing which had grown up around the park.

Hickman Park

After Wolverhampton had celebrated the opening of its second municipal park a campaign was launched in neighbouring Bilston to raise funds to open a park, by public subscription. However, by 1910 only £600 had been raised. It was then that the family of the late Sir Alfred Hickman offered, as a memorial, to purchase a site and layout a public park.

The site chosen was that of Springfield House and grounds, just a mile to the west of the town, plus an adjoining field which, together comprised 12 acres. The design was drawn up by the Borough Surveyor. The original drive through the estate was retained but a new grand entrance was constructed off Broad Street.

Lawns and paths were laid out and trees and shrubs planted. At the centre of the park a cast iron canopied drinking fountain was erected which was paid for by public subscription to commemorate the Coronation of George V. Opposite this a timber shelter was erected next to a grotto, complete with a pool and fountain.

Hickman Park.  From an old postcard.

Lady Hickman made a special gift of a new and rather unusual bandstand constructed of reinforced concrete.

As with many parks, Hickman Park continued to evolve over the years. The most significant changes were in the inter-war years when sports facilities were laid out and an indoor theatre built with funds raised by Bilston Horticultural Society.

Studying the history of our parks we become aware of how hard ordinary people and politicians battled to provide public parks at a time when our towns were growing at a faster rate than ever before and pressure on land was enormous.

Their role in providing opportunities for recreation and access to green open spaces is just as valid today as it was a hundred years ago. But today, they must be valued as part of our heritage, comparable to those examples of Victorian architecture which provide some of our most treasured landmarks.

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