In Haunt

Dr Emma Liggins (Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Manchester Metropolitan University) interviews Dr Carole O’Reilly (Senior Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Salford) about her new book, 'The Greening of the City: Urban Parks and Public Leisure, 1840-1939', the significance of urban parks and some Greater Manchester examples.

Heaton Park

Pictured above: Heaton Park. Credit: Carole O'Reilly

Many of us have spent more time in parks this year than we ever imagined possible in pre-Covid times, as being outside has become a key aspect of the new normal. But what’s the story behind the rapid development of the public park from the Victorian period onwards, and what did city-dwellers want from their new green spaces? I wanted to find out more about how parks might have operated as places of pleasure and danger, entertainment and transgression.

So I spoke to Dr Carole O’Reilly, Senior Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Salford about her new book, a revealing history of parks, leisure and public behaviour in the urban environment. An expert in urban heritage, journalism and architectural history, Carole’s work is based on archival research encompassing broader concerns about the environment, public health, municipal government and popular entertainments. She has recently collaborated with the landscape architect and urban parks expert Paul Rabbitts on an architectural and photographic study, Salford in 50 Buildings (2019) which considers different building types and styles from Ordsall Hall to Salford Precinct. The book was partly inspired by the need to celebrate forgotten architecture, including synagogues, pubs, churches and theatres; as Carole explains, ‘Manchester is all very well, but poor old Salford gets overlooked and overshadowed’.

The Greening of the City: Urban Parks and Public Leisure, 1840-1939 (Routledge, 2019) continues this exploration of the overshadowed and the invisible histories behind public spaces, with a welcome emphasis on Northern cities, including Manchester, Salford, Liverpool, Preston and Hull. It takes as a starting point the idea that parks were places where ‘conflicting ideas about public behaviour, leisure and citizenship all emerged and were debated’, examining cross-class interactions, violence, political protests and the development of the garden city movement, as well as the park as a site for entertainment and exercise. Photographs include the iconic Victoria’s Arch, in Peel Park, Salford (pictured below left - credit: Salford Local History Collection), memorialising the visits of the Queen and Prince Albert in the 1850s (but demolished in 1937).

Peel Park Arch

So, Carole, I really enjoyed reading this book which clearly resonates with current concerns about the green agenda, the importance of walking for mental health and urban regeneration. You argue that ‘urban parks meant different things in different locations’. What are some of the key differences you identified between Victorian and Edwardian parks, or parks in different areas of the city?

"The main difference is in how the spaces were used. Victorian parks were quite limited in their ideas about what people would want to do – stroll, look at flowers, play bowls or cricket or listen to music. The Edwardian park greatly expanded the amount and variety of activities – different kinds of music (not just religious but more popular and classical music); the number of sports was increased – tennis, baseball and football were added. Parks tried to offer more entertainment-based amenities – dancing, theatrical performances and open-air swimming and sunbathing also. They also tried to offer more for children – playgrounds and summer camps and summer schools with activities supervised by teachers.

"With the larger parks like Heaton Park you had different parts of the park being used for different pursuits – political meetings, sports, leisure – as the size allowed for this. Also, we see smaller parks and recreation grounds emerging – so-called ‘pocket parks’ - in more deprived districts as an acknowledgement that not everyone lived near the flagship parks. These were very basic but nonetheless allowed for a small space for recreation."

You’ve talked about the particular affinity between parks and cemeteries in your study and the ways in which they were considered side by side in this period. Could you tell us a bit more about this affinity? 

"Yes, parks and cemeteries in many cities were managed by the same department. This was because parks were viewed as places of quiet contemplation much like cemeteries – many cemeteries resemble parks with pathways and benches where people are encouraged to linger and enjoy nature."

Your book is focussed primarily on urban areas which had ‘suffered most from industrialisation’, where people arguably ‘had most to gain from the provision of open space for recreation’. What are the class resonances of visiting the park in industrial cities?

Carole O'Reilly"Really everyone who could access the parks could gain from them in different ways. The problem was that many early parks were aimed at the working classes but were not located near to where they lived so they missed their target, so to speak. There is quite a bit of evidence that middle-class people did not really want to see the poorer class of people in the parks – they complained about the homeless and the vagrants that often used parks as places to sleep. Many middle-class people wanted to only see people like themselves in these spaces. They were also put off by courting couples who also often made use of the park benches for romantic reasons!"

The chapter that I found most compelling explores the park as both a political space and a space of violence and transgression, with secluded corners and unsupervised zones. What were some of the dangers of the park as a space open to the public?

"Yes, the larger parks were very difficult to manage. Everyone was aware of the dangers posed by such generally accessible spaces for women and children particularly. Young men targeted young women – followed them around, whistled at them, cat-called at them. Many young people had few opportunities to encounter the opposite sex indoors so a public park provided an ideal opportunity to ‘size each other up’ at least informally.

"Sometimes this got more sinister in that women were sexually assaulted in parks, as were children. Parks attracted paedophiles as many children went there and some were unsupervised. This created great concern for parks administrators such as William Wallace Pettigrew, the Parks Superintendent of Manchester. Park-keepers were given powers of arrest and sworn in as special constables but even they were unable to prevent this kind of thing from happening. Prostitution was also common in parks as there were many hidden spaces and often public toilets where ‘customers’ could be found. This emphasises the complexity of these public spaces and the fact they concealed many dangers for users."

(Pictured above left: Dr Carole O’Reilly. Credit: Brainne Edge)

Was the tradition of locking park gates at night-time always in place, or was it a response to some of these dangers?

"This was really an attempt to regulate the spaces. One of the problems is that the municipal rhetoric told people that these parks belonged to them (‘parks for the people’ and ‘people’s parks’ are two of the most commonly used phrases used about the parks by the local authorities and in the newspapers). Not unnaturally, many people took this literally and did not always want to leave ‘their’ park at sunset. There are many accounts of arguments and even instances of the poor park-keepers being physically assaulted as they attempted to clear people from the park before closing."

Heaton Park, in North Manchester, gets a lot of coverage in the book. I was particularly interested in its animals and the transferral of the Greek classical portico from the Old Town Hall (built in 1822 – 25) in Manchester city centre to the park in 1912. Can you tell us about this park and the significance of transferring architecture?

"This is an interesting park as it had belonged to an aristocratic family (the Earls of Wilton) so many features of the public park were already in place before it was sold to Manchester City Council in 1901. This fact made it more attractive to the city as it meant that less money had to be spent on it and the Wiltons were pretty desperate to sell so the price was good too – 600 acres for £230,000 was a bargain for that time. It also enabled Manchester to extend its city boundary to the north-west which was attractive for an expanding city also. The Old Town Hall façade was controversial as there was a feeling within the City Council that it should be saved (although not all members shared this idea) but they did not really know what to do with it or where to put it. They thought about putting it in Platt Fields Park in Rusholme but eventually decided on Heaton Park as it had plenty of space. They wanted to connect people with the history of the city and to remind them of it while they were in the park. Sadly, today the façade is regularly targeted by vandals and many people do not even realise that it is there until they stumble on it."

Golf Club Pond

Pictured above: Heaton Park. Credit: Carole O'Reilly

What do the existing photographs and newspaper accounts that you looked at tell us about women’s uses of public spaces like parks? You suggest that women were articulating their leisure needs more forcefully in the Edwardian period and beyond – is that also to do with more women, like Hannah Mitchell the Manchester suffragette, getting involved with local government?

"Yes, more women like Hannah and Sarah Laski were making their mark in public life and were viewing recreation and leisure more differently. They were always arguing that women’s and children’s needs were not especially served very well by the larger public parks and they contained amenities that many women could not afford. For instance, the tea rooms at larger parks were often too expensive for women with young families and Sarah Laski was always pointing out that there should be special offers available for families in the tea rooms that would allow them to have a treat. She was thinking about park visits rather differently to the male-dominated parks committee!

"It may be worth noting that when women were first elected to City Councils they were often allocated to ‘softer’ committees such as education and parks (rather than the powerful committees such as Finance) so they ended up being able to influence the agendas quite considerably. This aspect is something that I hope to return to in future research."

Your research has uncovered a huge range of sporting and recreational activities taking place in parks, from dancing and bowling to circuses and concerts. What are some of the more unusual events or activities which took place in Northern parks before the 1930s? Which were the most popular and why?

"These kinds of recreational facilities were very much subject to the fashions of the time – many parks spent quite a lot of money providing open-air dancing which did not last very long (weather being one issue). Baseball was very popular for a period in the 1930s. The real problem was competition from cinemas, dancehalls and theatres. Parks were now just one form of leisure. Funfairs were also very popular despite concerns about the types of people they attracted (the ‘wrong’ sort of parks visitor!). Later on, motorcycle racing featured in many parks but with very detrimental consequences for the landscape.

"William Grimshaw started doing gramophone concerts in Heaton Park in 1909 – he wanted to share his love of classical and operatic recordings with the general public so he began to play his favourite gramophone records for the public with a specially adapted gramophone horn."

Heaton Park Arch

Pictured above: Heaton Park facade. Credit: Friends of Heaton Hall postcard collection

And, finally, with our current lockdown in mind, what should visitors to parks look out for - do you have any particular recommendations for how to amuse children, or the most beautiful or arresting architecture to look at, in the parks of Manchester and Salford? What’s your favourite park for an autumn walk?

"Unfortunately, many activities have been curtailed because of the pandemic. Treetop Trek at Heaton Park is great and gives a very different perspective on the landscape; Heaton also has the Manchester and District Beekeepers and the Astronomy group (although neither are running meetings at the moment).

"I love Heaton Park of course but I also recommend Peel Park, Buile Hill Park and Langworthy Park in Salford (known as Chimney Pot Park) for its great views over the rooftops."

If you’d like to hear more about Carole’s research on the greening of the city, she is giving a talk later this month as part of the Invisible Histories online programme at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford. The talk will take place online on Wednesday 25 November at 2.30pm, titled 'Carole O'Reilly, The Greening of the City' [note later start time]. Find the link here

Full details of all the above talks are available at, with details about how to join each talk online available on the day on the relevant event Web page. The talks will also be online for viewing later on the Library’s YouTube channel.




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