Walsall Arboretum is one of the finest public parks in the Black Country. It has many attractive features including two large lakes, a variety of landscapes, sporting facilities, and children’s play areas. The area chosen for the arboretum has been a recreation area since the mid 1830s when the limestone mines closed.

Early History

The land on which the Arboretum was built belonged to the Reynolds family, and once formed part of the extensive grounds of Reynolds Hall. In the 15th century William Reynolds had a large estate in Walsall on which the family’s home was built. In 1488, after his death, his grand daughter Elizabeth Pearte of Darlaston inherited the estate. She had a son, Richard Walker, by her second husband, William Walker also of Darlaston. By 1528 she had died, and Richard inherited the estate, which was later passed-on to his daughter Elizabeth, who married John Persehouse. By 1575 the house had become known as Reynolds Hall, and would remain in the hands of the Persehouse family for several generations.

Reynolds Hall had a typical medieval layout with a hall, a parlour, a kitchen, and several outbuildings, which were improved and extended by the Persehouse family. During the Civil War the Persehouses were Royalists, and so when the war ended, their estate was taken from them. In the early 1660s after Charles II became King, John Persehouse regained the estate, which passed-on from one generation to another until the last Persehouse, Richard, left the estate to his godson, John Walhouse.  

In 1588 and 1589 a three storey, jettied and timber framed building was added to the hall. It had a porch at either end and included a kitchen, a larder, two upstairs rooms with dormer windows, and a cock loft with three 'clerestories'. The buildings contained at least 30 rooms and was listed in the hearth tax returns as having nine hearths.

The hall stood on the slope to the north of the Arboretum and was approached from the lower end of Rushall Street by a long drive with an avenue of trees. It was surrounded by large gardens, lined with ancient fruit trees, and massive garden walls. The house remained occupied until the late 18th century when John Walhouse decided to demolish the hall, and destroy the gardens in order to exploit the limestone beneath.

Hatherton Lake in the 1880s.

Mining began in about 1800 to exploit the vast amount of Lower Wenlock Limestone deposited there. The workings became the largest open limestone quarry in the town, which remained in use for around 35 years. There are no traces or records of lime kilns in the area, so the limestone was probably used in the local ironworks.

In 1835 John Walhouse died, and the estate was left to his nephew Edward, who later became the first Lord Hatherton. By this time most of the limestone had been removed, and the workings were becoming uneconomical to run. Mining ended, and the steam pumps were turned off, so the workings soon flooded, and the lakes quickly formed. Around this time the lakes began to be used for fishing, boating, and ice skating in the winter. On Saturday 12th July, 1845 tragedy struck when the Mayor of Walsall, John Hyatt Harvey drowned in Hatherton Lake whilst taking an evening swim. He often bathed there in the evening because although it was a dangerous place, it was near the road and in sight of several houses. Some people bathed there because it was believed that the lime rich water had some kind of medicinal value.

Sadly a second man drowned after falling from his boat whilst searching for the body. Diving apparatus was brought from London to help in the search, but the bodies were not found. On the following day one of the bodies floated to the surface. Although Hatherton Lake is still up to 40 feet deep in places, it was much deeper when the accident occurred. For many years afterwards the area remained wild and untouched.

A Public Park

The Arboretum was founded in 1870 by the Walsall Arboretum and Lake Company, in order to turn an area of flooded limestone pits into an arboretum, public, and pleasure grounds. The company had a starting capital of £4,000, and in March 1873 took a 99 year lease from the landowner Lord Hatherton for the lakes above the flooded mine workings, and seven acres of adjacent land. The area was to be developed into an arboretum and gardens, with facilities for amusements such as boating, fishing, archery, and croquet etc. There would be a lodge, a boat house, a bandstand, toilets, and an ornamental garden through which visitors could walk.

The arboretum in 1914.

The grand opening ceremony took place on 4th May 1874, when the park was officially opened by Lady Hatherton in front of 4,000 people. The original park consisted of two lakes, a boathouse, a bandstand, two lodges, and several summerhouses. There was a tree-lined promenade, space for dancing, croquet lawns, and a cricket ground.

Despite an admission charge being made in the first year, the company made a loss. The company then attempted to improve its financial position by organising a series of events in the Arboretum including fêtes, brass bands, illumination by candles, balloon ascents, and firework displays.

Visitor numbers soon began to fall due to a lack of sporting facilities, and activities for children. There were no refreshments, and many of the plants had died because of poor planting. In an attempt to boost visitor numbers, a cycle track was built in 1876. Unfortunately the venture was not a commercial success, and the company went into liquidation in 1877. Although Lord Hatherton and a group of local businessmen took over, after the company’s demise, the venture was still unsuccessful. In 1878 a steam boat called "Lady of the Lake" began to sail on the lake, and in 1880 the first park keeper Thomas Everton was appointed. He lived in the main lodge. In October of that year, heavy rain badly damaged the cycle track.

The lodge, entrance, and clock tower.

In 1881, due to public demand, the Council agreed to take the Arboretum over as a public park on a three year lease, and in 1884 purchased the freehold for £4,000. It officially reopened on 21st July, 1884. In the following year, because of safety concerns, the Council banned fishing, bathing, boating, and skating from the lakes, which were badly affected by flooding in May 1886. The heavy rain also caused the "Lady of the Lake" to sink. In August a drinking fountain was installed, and in September the clock was installed in the tower. By this time the Arboretum was becoming very popular. On Whit Monday 1888 there were 10,000 visitors.

In 1889 improvements were made to the flower beds, the lodges, the greenhouse, and the cycle path. In 1890 the council acquired another 13 acres from Lord Hatherton to extend the park, which were opened to the public in 1892. Boating was reinstated on Hatherton Lake, and a brick bridge was built over Hoar Brook to replace the old timber structure. An outdoor gymnasium for young people also opened, and in 1899 a new bandstand was built.

The Early Twentieth Century

Further improvements soon took place. In May 1902 the pavilion opened, and in 1904 the old stocks were moved from High Street to the lake area. In 1905 waterfowl and swans were obtained for the lakes, and in 1908 new turf was laid, and part of the course of Hoar Brook was concreted. Two years later another tennis court was added, and in 1912 an outdoor swimming pool opened beside the brook.

Hatherton Lake.

The new Head Gardner, Mr. Wall, appointed in 1915, oversaw a lot of new projects including the cutting back and removal of some trees, the planting of new flower beds, and the creation of a space for the Walsall Floral and Horticultural Society Show.

During the First World War, dances were held near the bandstand, and the Women’s Volunteer Reserve helped with park maintenance, and the growing of vegetables and potatoes, which along with timber, were supplied to the Walsall War Agricultural Committee. Some of the waterfowl were sold to raise money, and competent swimmers were again allowed in the lake. Changing facilities consisted of dressing tents which were erected beside the lake. In 1919 a victory show and gala was held in the Arboretum to celebrate the end of the war.

The Inter-War Years

In 1922 the park was extended by 20 acres, mainly thanks to the generosity of Mr. Featherstone-Dilke who gave much of the land on the understanding that the new development would provide work for the unemployed. In the following year the Prince of Wales visited the park to pay tribute to the ex-servicemen.

The bandstand.

The old stocks. From an old postcard.

1924 was another landmark year for the Arboretum. In April a new bandstand, built by Walter Macfarlane & Company, at a cost of £1,550 opened, and two tubular swings, two giant strides and a merry-go-round were acquired from Johnson Brothers. Other new features included a second children’s playground, a putting green, more tennis courts, new footpaths, and new rock gardens. Finally another five acres were added to the park for informal recreation and additional playing fields. It had been purchased from Mr. Mellish’s trustees.

A new Park Superintendent’s lodge opened behind the pavilion in 1925, and the ‘glacial erratic’ boulder known as ‘The Devil’s Toe’ was placed near the bandstand. In 1930 the park was extended again when Mr. Featherstone-Dilke gave 20 acres of Calderfields Farm to the Arboretum. Because jobs were found for the unemployed, who carried out most of the landscaping, the Ministry of Health provided a loan of £8,000. Work on the new extension was completed in 1932.

Two years later the open air swimming pool received a new filtration plant. Unemployed people were allowed to swim there free of charge. In the same year the Richard B. Sutton Shelter was built.

The Pavilion.

The pavilion. From an old postcard.

From an old postcard.

In 1935 a further 50 acres were bought from Mr. Fred Smith to extend the Arboretum eastwards along the river valley, and celebrations were held for the Jubilee of King George V and Queen Mary. In the following year the pavilion was renovated, and became the Joseph Leckie Sons of Rest for retired men. Cricket and Football pitches were laid out on the Grange Farm extension in 1937, and work began on the George V Avenue.

The Second World War and Beyond

During the Second World War, over 100 allotment plots were provided in the extension, and the water level in Hatherton Lake was raised in preparation for fire fighting, which would be necessary after bombing raids.

An important event, which would have a great impact on the Arboretum occurred in 1951 when the first Walsall illuminations were held to celebrate the Festival of Britain. The popular annual event would continue to attract large numbers of visitors for nearly sixty years.

Walking in the park.

In 1952 the Council purchased 15 acres of land to link the Grange Farm Extension to the Rushall Canal, and in 1953, to celebrate the Coronation, the Coronation Rock Gardens were added, the children’s play area was replaced with a lido, more tennis courts were added, along with a miniature golf course.

From a newspaper cutting dated 4th August, 1953.

Day to be Remembered at Walsall. Opening of Children’s Lido

Records for attendance, gate receipts and entrants in all sections marked the opening of Walsall's two day annual horticultural show and fete in Walsall Arboretum extension yesterday. Probably the most welcome of all the records, however, was the weather, for this was the first occasion in 13 years that rain did not mar the event.

The number of people paying for admission was 30,780, compared with the previous record figure of 28,000 in 1948, and gate receipts were £2,489, against the previous highest of £1,850.

It was all the more appropriate that the weather should have been so kind on this day for it saw the opening of the first instalment of the children's lido, towards which the funds of the event have been devoted in post war years.

If there was ever any question as to whether the lido was needed or not it was answered within seconds of Belita, the ice skating artist, officially opening the two children's paddling pools. Hardly had the tapes been cut than hundreds of children rushed for the pools and stayed there uutil near closing time.

In 1956 the open air swimming pool closed and was filled-in. The changing rooms were converted into an aviary, and a small café and tea garden was built on a new concrete terrace. Two years later a garden for the blind opened on a former bowling green.

Due to the long cold winter of 1963 the lake froze over, and ice skating was allowed on the lake for the first time since 1941. It was so popular that floodlit evening sessions took place. In 1970 an artificial ski slope was built, and in 1974 the Arboretum’s centenary was celebrated with ten days of festivities.

In about 1974 the army put on a large display at the Arboretum, which attracted a lot of visitors. Photo taken by Richard Ashmore.

The army display included a high wire, a large gun, and parachute jumps. Photos taken by Richard Ashmore.

A large crowd watches the spectacular ski-diving display. Photo taken by Richard Ashmore.

Another of the parachute jumps. Photo taken by Richard Ashmore.

Travelling at speed on the high wire. Photo taken by Richard Ashmore.

Some of the lovely flower displays near the greenhouse. Photo taken by Richard Ashmore in the mid 1970s.

The Hoar Brook and one of the bridges. Taken in the 1970s by Richard Ashmore.

Another view of the bridge, also taken in the 1970s by Richard Ashmore.

During 1975 ‘Paris in the Park’ art exhibitions were introduced around the lake, and in the following year the miniature railway opened. Trains started running on the 7¼ inch gauge line at Easter 1976. Passengers were carried on 'sit astride' coaches along the quarter of a mile or so of single track. Initially it only operated on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. There were at least thirteen engines including the following live steam locomotives: an LMS Princess Elizabeth, an LMS Duchess (Duchess of Buccleuch), three LMS Black Fives, an LNWR 2-4-0 (Sister Dora), two BR 9Fs, an LNER pacific, and four battery electric locomotives. The line continued in operation until the late 1990s. By 1999 it was overgrown and derelict.

Going for a stroll in the park in the 1970s. Taken by Richard Ashmore.

Looking over Hoar Brook to the greenhouse. Taken in the 1970s by Richard Ashmore.

The greenhouse and flower beds. Taken in the 1970s by Richard Ashmore.

A closer look at the flower beds. Taken in the 1970s by Richard Ashmore.

Looking from the flower beds to Hatherton Lake. Taken in the 1970s by Richard Ashmore.

The old stocks that were removed from High Street in 1904. Taken in the 1970s by Richard Ashmore.

Hatherton Lake in the mid 1970s. Taken by Richard Ashmore.

The illuminations in 1967.

The Illuminations. From an old postcard.

Part of the children's play area and lido in the 1970s. Taken by Richard Ashmore.

Another view of the play area from the 1970s. Taken by Richard Ashmore.

The paddling pool. Taken in the 1970s by Richard Ashmore.

The Hoar Brook. Taken in the 1970s by Richard Ashmore.

In 1984 the original part of the Arboretum and the surrounding houses were designated as a Conservation Area, and in 1987 the Grange Extension became a privately managed golf course. In 1992 the aviary was removed and replaced by a wooden gazebo, which provided visitor information. Two years later the lido became a combined playground and paddling pool called ‘Treasure Island’.

In 1995 a Charter Mark was awarded to the Arboretum for the excellence and diversity of the services it provided. It was awarded again in 1999 when the 125th anniversary celebrations included a big summer party. In the same year, new walking trails opened and a rare species of white-clawed crayfish was discovered in Hatherton Lake.

In February 2009 Walsall Illuminations temporarily closed for three years due to financial constraints. In March 2011 it was announced that the illuminations would be scrapped.

Boating on Hatherton Lake. From an old postcard.

The Illuminations. From an old postcard.

The illuminations in 1973.

There are now many and varied activities in the park for children. The new £180,000 skate park built in September 2010 provides excellent facilities for children of a mixed range of ages and abilities, and is suitable for BMX’ers and skaters. The new facilities include a multi-use games area, a shelter, and a graffiti wall.

The old lido has been revamped and brought up-to-date by the building of a 440 square metre slashpad with an amazing array of 28 water play features suitable for children of all ages. There is a splash pool for the smaller children and interactive water jets for the older children.

Other work has included an impressive decked viewing area over the lake, a refurbished bandstand, refurbished tennis courts, refurbishment of the Grade II listed boathouse, resurfaced footpaths, new bins and benches, repainting of the Sons of Rest building, a neat and tidy rose garden, and a lot of planting work.

The restored boathouse in 2014.

The showpiece of the multi-million pound revamp of the Arboretum is the new visitor centre which includes a café, a classroom, changing rooms, a meeting space, toilets, and offices. The contractors, Willmott Dixon Limited have also installed lighting along the pathways near the lakes. The £7.9m revamp of the Arboretum has been made possible thanks largely to the Heritage Lottery Fund.

On March 28th, 2015 boating returned to Hatherton Lake after an absence of almost twenty years. The swan-shaped pedaloes will operate over part of Hatherton Lake, leaving an undisturbed area for wildfowl. The boats are operated by Dunton Stables from Sutton Coldfield.

The Arboretum today

The Arboretum is still a popular destination for people from Walsall and the surrounding areas. Every year millions of visitors greatly enjoy the facilities, and the lovely parkland. Concerts are held in the bandstand, and a wide variety of events are held in the park. Over the years it has been a great success, and has a wonderful reputation, second to none. It is greatly appreciated by much of the local population, and hopefully will continue to provide the excellent facilities for years to come.

The Pavilion in 2015.

The entrance lodge and clock tower in 2014.

The splendid bandstand that was restored in 2011.

A concert at the bandstand on 29th June, 2014 featuring Sophie-Rose.

Another view of Sophie-Rose in the bandstand.

A final view of Sophie-Rose in concert at the Arboretum.

The swan-shaped pedaloes on Hatherton Lake.

A close-up view of a swan-shaped pedaloe on Hatherton Lake.

A winter's sunset over Hatherton Lake.

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