The Founding of Handsworth Park
Until 1911 when it was absorbed by Birmingham, Handsworth was an independent urban area in Staffordshire, which had originated as a large parish with scattered farms and cottages. The centre of the parish was St Mary's church, a structure of 13th century origin; nearby, the Grove Brook was dammed to form fishponds (Parklands 1998). In 1761 Matthew Boulton leased the Soho estate immediately south of the parish boundary, and established a factory known as The Manufactory which flourished from c 1775 when he entered into partnership with James Watt, inventor of the condensing steam engine. These developments, coupled with the increasing prosperity of neighbouring Birmingham, ensured the expansion of Handsworth. In the early 19th century this was a gradual process characterised by villa residences; from 1852 when the Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Dudley railway opened a station in the south of the parish Handsworth became a desirable residential suburb, residential development reaching a peak in the late 19th century. (Source)
Handsworth Victoria Park was founded in the 1880s by the Handsworth Local Sanitary Board - a body instituted by the government, and led by locally elected citizens, to oversee the supply of clean water and the laying down of sewers for the growing population of the area. (Source) The Local Board considered the creation of a public park in 1882. The Grove Estate was acquired from the Birmingham and Midland Bank Ltd in April 1887 for £7500. (Source) As the Civic Gospel of municipal improvement spread from centre of Birmingham into the growing suburban estates of Handsworth, its local government leaders saw a public park as a benefit for the district. (Source) But Handsworth Park was not at its inception in the 1880s an immediately popular idea to many practically minded residents. The idea of creating a "lung" in the city was strenuously opposed by a cross-section of the voting community who were ready to pay for a range of other local services—especially better roads and sewers. (Source) Following the purchase of The Grove, R H Vertegans of the Chad Valley Nurseries, Edgbaston, was approached to provide a plan 'shewing the way in which he would recommend the committee to lay out and plant the [estate] as public pleasure grounds' (Local Board Minute 284). Vertegans had already laid out several parks and recreation grounds in and around Birmingham, including, in 1879-81, West Park, Wolverhampton (qv). At Handsworth, the new park incorporated The Grove and its gardens, the former walled garden and tennis lawn becoming a bowling green; a terrace walk and cricket ground were also provided (Birmingham Mail 1888). (Source)
The first part of Handsworth Park was laid out to the west of the original London and North Western Railway and was opened on 25 December 1890 despite initial opposition. At a public meeting in the council offices off Soho Road on 11 January 1887, the Rector of St. Mary's Church, Handsworth Dr. Randall, who could be seen as the voice of receding rural Staffordshire against the spreading metropolis of Birmingham, rose amid the uproar to make what the Handsworth News reporter, with irony, called the speech of the evening: "Allow me to say that from my heart I am the last man in the parish to stand between any object which is for the welfare of the people of the parish. It is because I don't think it is for the well-being that we should have the park that I lift up my voice against it. We have an agricultural parish, and we have some of the finest air in the kingdom, and I believe that the park will be more for the benefit of the roughs of Birmingham." This view was described by the reporter as being received with "a perfect howl of dissent, uproar for at least a minute and cries of 'shame' followed by alternations of groaning and cheering". (Baddeley 1997) (Source) The planting of the park was undertaken by the Sheffield nursery of Fisher, Son and Sibray, and the completed park was opened on 20 June 1888, a year after Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee; by permission of the Queen, the park was known as Victoria Park. In the mid and late C20 the park has been known as Handsworth Park. (Source)
In the late 1880s and early 1890s additional parcels of adjoining land were acquired and added to the park, necessary alterations to Vertegans' plan being made by the Borough Surveyor, Edwin Kenworthy. In 1893 negotiations took place with the Ecclesiastical Commissioners for the acquisition of glebe land to the east of the Soho, Handsworth and Perry Barr railway. The land, comprising a substantial rectory and pleasure grounds which included the remains of a moat and the site of an early manor house, was purchased in 1895 and laid out by the park staff under the supervision of Kenworthy. The rectory was demolished and a new lodge and lake constructed in 1897. In the same year more land was added to the western park, and a further, smaller lake constructed. The eastern park extension was opened to the public on 30 March 1898 by the 6th Earl of Dartmouth. (Source)
The final addition to the park took place in 1901 when a strip of ground parallel to Hinstock Road was acquired; public baths immediately adjoining the park at the junction of Hinstock Road and Grove Lane were built on the site of Grove Farm in 1907. Some £28,000 was expended on the park between 1887 and the transfer of Handsworth to the City of Birmingham in 1911 (Dent 1916); from that year until 1961 control of the park rested with the City's Parks Committee. (Source)
Much thanks has to go to Dennis Neale, local historian and founder of the Handsworth Local History Facebook Group. Without his dedication and preserving instinct it would have been very difficult to have many of the pictures of the park in the past which are on this website. We are also deeply indebted to and give thanks to Simon Baddeley, one of the members of the Save Handsworth Park group who did so much to bring the park back to life. He has dedicated much time to documenting the history of the park, inspiring us to collect as much information as we could to record here. He has compiled a detailed history of the negotiations and disputes surrounding the founding of the park in the late 19th Century, which you can access below. Our knowledge of the past and the present of the park would be very different if it were not for Simon and all of the other members of the Save Handsworth Park group, which formed in 1994 and is the reason we are here as a friends group today.
From Dennis Neale (Handsworth Local History):
There do not appear to be any photographs in the archives, of the opening of the Park, in 1888, only ones dated from the opening of the third extention in 1898. This has led to some confusion, and there are many, who don't know that the Park was constructed in three separate phase's. The first was from Holly Road to the gate in Grove Lane. The second was the aquisition of some land below Grove Farm, ( about 10 acres ) todays Hinstock Road, and the parks boundary. The third was the old Glebe lands belonging to St Marys Church, bounded by Hamstead Road. From the discription of Grove House, there was already an ornamental lake there, when Handsworth Council purchased the estate in 1886, fed by what was called Handsworth Brook, and Grove Brook. The water course's were culveted under Grove Lane, and meandered their way towards Hamstead Road, supplying water to the lake and the old moat around the Rectory.. Around 1895, with the promise of the Glebe Land, a second small Lake appears to have been built on the land aquired in the second expansion, near to the entrance in Grove Lane. This was part of the plan, to link both of these lakes to a larger one, ( a fishing pool ) constructed near to Handsworth Church, and which today is called the Boating Lake. All this work was completed when the Park was rededicated and opened in 1898. It's believed, that due to problems with flooding in the 1920s, ( the small lake not being large enough to cope with both brooks when the other two lakes were full ) the water course was culveted, the pool filled in, ( it became the Sunken Garden ) and a better sluice was constructed near Hamstead Road. The flowing water could be seen via a grating near the Sunken Garden, but I don't know if this is still the case. Three picture's exist in the archives, one taken from the site of the future Handsworth Baths, in 1895, another of the completed small pool in the early 1900s, and one from the Hamstead Road end, showing the construction of the Boating Lake in 1896.