Another glory on the Mersey’s side:
    A town springs up as from a magic wand.
Behold these noble docks — the merchant's pride,
    And the fair park extending o’er the Strand....

A New Venture

"Opening of the Park" ("Opening of the Birkenhead Docks and Park," 229).

On Monday 5 April 1847, a grand plan came to fruition, with the formal opening of new docks and a park at Birkenhead, on the Wirral peninsula in north-western England. Hopes ran high for the docks, located at a key point on Merseyside opposite Liverpool. But the park was even more special: it was the very first in the country to be provided for the public by the public — that is, by the municipal authorities, from the public purse. As Robert Lee and Karen Tucker have pointed out, it had a "wider significance in terms of the history of urban green space provision" (64-65), representing a whole new development in town-planning. It also laid the groundwork for (and showed the responsibilities involved in) the management of such parks in the future.

Once the decision was made to include recreational open-air space for a community that was already growing, and was now set to expand considerably, the project moved rapidly. Under the provisions of an act of 1843, 226 acres of land were purchased, some of it set aside for housing, and the rest, a generous 125 acres, earmarked for public use (see McInnis 13). Unfortunately, this was an area of dreary marshland, but the authorities then approached the very man best suited to taking up the challenge of re-imagining it: Joseph Paxton.

Joseph Paxton and Birkenhead Park

Paxton who had first established himself as the head gardener at the Duke of Devonshire's Chatsworth House, was now turning forty. As it happened, he had not long completed work on the Prince's Park in Liverpool, undertaken for the wealthy private developer, Richard Vaughn Yates. This earlier park might well have pipped Birkenhead to the post as the first publicly-funded public park, but Yates had been unable to persuade Liverpool Corporation to invest in the land, and had financed it himself. The park therefore became a community resource by an act of philanthropy. Birkenhead would now take its place in history as a pioneering green space, acquired by and for the people, within an urban project.

Sensing an opportunity, Paxton went to spy out the acres set aside on the Wirral. He wrote to his wife Sarah, "I think I must have lost a lb. of perspiration for I walked at least thirty miles about to make myself master of the locality and it is not a very good position for a park.... The land is generally poor ... but of course it will be more to my credit and honour to make something handsome and good out of bad materials" (qtd. in Colquhoun 114).

How the park took shape: "Birkenhead, the young town, 1858" with the park clearly shown at the edge of the housing development. In a column on the left-hand side of this map, the authors note that the "large park" was "a really fine achievement for the period" (Reilly and Aslan 2).

Starting the following year, a fleet of workmen, under the immediate and capable supervision of Paxton's assistant from Chatsworth, Edward Kemp (1817-1891), converted the flat soggy land into two attractive areas either side of what came to be called Ashville Road. Both areas had large lakes. In the Upper Park, the excavated earth was used to create an undulating landscape; in the Lower Park, the slopes were less gentle. Within this broad general design, Paxton carried over some of his ideas from Prince's Park, such as "the opposition of open and intimate spaces. Groups of trees on raised mounds with luxuriant underplanting and pedestrian walks cutting across the expanse of the park were set against sinuous lakes with bridges and boat- houses, a small rockery, and narrower, winding paths," while, as in the earlier park, "formal bedding around the edges of the land was designed to link it to the proposed houses on the perimeter" (Colquhoun 115).

Edward Kemp, Park Superintendent

The binding of one of Edward Kemp's books on gardening and parks, in this case an American edition (see bibliography).

A large amount of the money allocated to the project went on the trees alone, with Kemp, a fine landscape gardener who made a name for himself with books on the subject, choosing evergreens like Scots firs and stately cedars, "mixed with the broader shapes of hardwoods and native trees, with exotic specimens added for interest and individuality, to provide a finely crafted tapestry of form, colour and texture" (Colquhoun 115). All in all, Birkenhead Park came in at a cost to the public purse of £127,775 ("Opening of the Birkenhead Docks and Park"). But, in this way, the area was completely transformed.

Although some mature trees were planted, the whole effect would not have been achieved by the grand opening. What the original visitors would have found most striking were doubtless the architectural structures, especially the grand entrance designed by Liverpool architect Lewis Hornblower (1823-1879), not entirely to Paxton's approval (see Colquhoun 130), and the water features. The Illustrated London News described it as "a splendid enclosure.... vast and picturesque," with "serpentine lakes" (230) — although its report focussed mainly on the 170-foot long refreshment tent erected for the occasion, and the various activities and entertainments on offer, such as pig-chases and bell-ringing. One might not have expected an avid gardener like Kemp to countenance sports on these carefully nurtured and tended acres, but, in fact, when discussing parks in and around London, he had noted with approval Queen Victoria's provision for cricket matches in the Little Park at Windsor (The Parks, Gardens, etc., 21). This kind of "liberality," as he terms it there, was part of the democratic vision for this new kind of space.

The Far-Reaching Influence of Birkenhead Park

"Entrance to the Park" ("Opening of the Birkenhead Docks and Park," 229).

Probably the most eloquent testimony to the park's success was its influence, particularly on the American park designer Frederick Law Olmsted, who, with his architect Calvert Vaux, came over to visit this and other parks when working on Central Park in New York. Olmsted was deeply impressed by the "thick, luxuriant and diversified garden," and "the manner in which art had been employed to obtain from nature so much beauty," admitting "that in democratic America there was nothing to be thought of as comparable with this People’s Garden. Indeed, gardening had here reached a perfection that I had never before dreamed of" (I: 96). Noting its impeccable maintenance, and all the recreational facilities it afforded, even the bucolic scene of sheep resting under the trees (there was a shower!), he was particularly struck by the democratic spirit that prevailed, with people of all classes taking the air, and evincing pride in the ownership of such a facility.

Frederick Law Olmsted in 1850, as the frontispiece to Olmsted, Vol. I.

Credit was not entirely one-way: Olmsted noted that one of the bridges his party crossed "was of our countryman Remington’s patent, an extremely light and graceful erection" (I: 97); but there is no doubt that Olmsted was greatly inspired by the various features of the park and all that it provided for its visitors. As he explained to the Board of Commissioners of the park in 1859, he "obtained full particulars of its construction, maintenance and management" before touring other parklands in England, Ireland, France and Belgium, and implementing his own refinements (II: 55; see also Colquhoun 130).

In another way, too, the park had its far-reaching effects: this was the first time that a management role like Kemp's had existed, and, of course, Kemp himself had had no experience of filling such a role. So park superintendence was what Kemp made of it, and the range of his activities from his initial appointment in 1843 established guidelines for future superintendents. As Lee puts it, "a landscape gardener and horticulturalist, he had been instrumental in laying out the park within the design framework specified by Paxton. He had assumed responsibilities for managing a large work force and for securing the protection of the park; he had fulfilled his duties to his employer by providing regular written reports to the Road and Improvement Committee and by offering his professional advice on a wide range of issues relating to the management of the park" (177). In such ways he established a protocol for future such officials within the civic body.

The Park Today

The park in modern times, in a photograph © Ian Greig originally posted on the Geograph website and kindly made available for reuse on this CC BY-SA 2.0 Deed Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic licence.

Birkenhead Park marked a turning point. Parkland, once the preserve of the wealthy on large country estates, was now on the town-planning drawing-board, a feature of urban life to which all would have free access. In this, as in so much else, the Victorians led the way. It would not be a far cry from this to the whole Garden City Movement. As for the establishment and day-to-day running of the green space itself, inevitably, there would be many new practical considerations; but its importance to the quality of life of future generations was now beyond question. In its own community, Birkenhead Park remains a deeply valued amenity, and is currently on the UK's Tentative List for potential nomination to the UNESCO World Heritage List (see "The People's Garden").

Links to Related Material


Colquhoun, Kate. "The Busiest Man in England": A Life of Joseph Paxton, Gardener, Architect, and Visionary. Boston: David R. Godine, 2006. Review.

Kemp, Edward. How to Lay out a Garden.... From the 2nd London edition. New York: John Wiley, 1860. Internet Archive. Web. 12 April 2024.

Kemp, Edward. The Parks, Gardens etc. of London and Its Suburbs. From the 2nd London edition. London: John Weale, 1851. Internet Archive, from a copy in the New York Public Library. Web. 12 April 2024.

Lee, Robert. "The Challenge of Managing the First Publicly Funded Park: Edward Kemp as the 'Fixed' Superintendent of Birkenhead Park, 1843–91.” Garden History 46 (2018): 155–82.

Lee, Robert, and Karen Tucker. “‘It’s My Park’: Reinterpreting the History of Birkenhead Park within the Context of an Education Outreach Project.” The Public Historian 32, no. 3 (2010): 64–97.

McInnis, Jean. Birkenhead Park. Birkenhead: Countyvise, 1984.

Olmsted, Frederick Law. Frederick Law Olmsted, Landscape Architect, 1822-1903. Edited by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and Theodora Kimball. 2 Vols [Vol. I and Vol. II]. New York: Putnam's, 1922. Internet Archive, from copies in Boston Public Library. Web. 12 April 2024.

"Opening of the Birkenhead Docks and Park." Illustrated London News. Vol. 10 (10 April 1847): 228-230. Internet Archive. Web. 12 April 2024.

"The People's Garden." Web. 12 April 2024.

Reilly, Sir Charles Herbert, and N. J. Aslan. Outline Plan For The County Borough Of Birkenhead. County Borough Of Birkenhead, 1947. Internet Archive. Web. 12 April 2024.

Created 12 April 2024