A late 19th Century public park designed by R H Vertegans and developed by Edwin Kenworthy, Borough Surveyor, with an extension of 1895 designed by Kenworthy. (Source) Handsworth Park (originally Victoria Park) is a park in the Handsworth area of Birmingham, England. It lies 15 minutes by bus from the centre of Birmingham and comprises 63 acres (25 hectares) of landscaped grass slopes, including a large boating lake and a smaller pond fed by the Farcroft and Grove Brooks, flower beds, mature trees and shrubs with a diversity of wildlife, adjoining St. Mary's Church, Handsworth to the north, containing the graves of the fathers of the Industrial Revolution, James Watt, Matthew Boulton and William Murdoch, and the founders of Aston Villa Football Club. (Source) The site is crossed from north to south by the Soho, Handsworth and Perry Barr railway, which remains in use, while the Handsworth Brook and the Grove Hill Brook flow through the site from west to east. (Source)
The park was incorporated, with the old Handsworth Urban District - successor to the Handsworth Sanitary Board - into Birmingham City Council in 1911 and was the venue, for many years, of the Birmingham Flower Show and other citywide and national events including dog shows, Girl Guides' and Boy Scout Jamboree. (Source)
Various new structures and features were added to the park up to the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1939 iron railings and gates (which were donated by Colonel Wilkinson) were removed for the war effort. By the early 1960s the park was in decline, and in 1967 The Grove, known since the early 20th century as Park House, was demolished and replaced in 1976 by a sports centre. The Grove Lane public baths were demolished in 1990. (Source)
Other great pages of Handsworth Park history: Black Country Muse.
For details of how the park originated as Victoria Park, view our page about the Founding of the Park. For information about the features which are no longer to be found in the park, view our Historical Features page. To find out all about the campaign to redevelop the park and the relaunch of the park in the early 2000s, view our Redevelopment page.
The best stories are sometimes not written and may not even be very well known. We hope to collect memories and stories you have about Handsworth Park on this page. These will be the social stories of the park, an ongoing conversation about a place you may have spent childhood, adulthood or with your family and friends.
As the Handsworth Vandal article suggests, this can be the word of an earnestly spoken person about events there were not many witnesses to and no official confirmation of. But that can be a recurring context of social histories; they are not always fully true or wholly exaggerated but there is often a truth somewhere in there. The park has existed for long enough to hold the stuff of legends and this is the place for them. The official histories are also here for you to read but if you have a tale to tell, from yourself or something passed on by somebody who has used and loved the park, please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org and it will be included here. Also please get in touch if you have anything to add or correct, this is definitely a place for comment and debate.
Suffragette Outrage at Handsworth Park - Tuesday 22 April 1913 - Boathouse Set on Fire
Militant suffragists are supposed to be responsible for a fire outrage which was committed in the early hours of Tuesday morning among the boats in the boathouse of Handsworth Park. Altogether four boats were considerably damaged, half of one being burnt away.
The outrage was not discovered until shortly after six o'clock when Mr. Howard Thurston, who has charge of the boats, opened the premises. He found the place full of smoke, and though it was issuing in large quantities this fact, owing to the hazy conditions of the morning, would be hidden from the observation of the park keepers. On seeing a mass of smouldering fire on the floor, Thurston closed all the doors and windows to prevent the draught fanning up the flames, and gave the alarm to the park keeper, Mr. A. Bailey, who in turn notified the police, and they summoned the fire brigade.
It seems that an entrance was obtained to the building through a small window, the glass of which was broken and the catch removed. A number of the boats were resting on a staging three or four feet from the floor, and under them the perpetrators dragged a box containing seat cushions. They had with them two two-gallon tins of paraffin oil with which they soaked the cushions, and set fire to the whole. While the oil lasted there was a big flame from the box, and more than one half of one boat was reduced to ashes, while the side of another was destroyed, and the stage was almost burnt through.
But when the oil was exhausted the cushions only smouldered, and the women, for the authorities say footprints around the boat-house show that the work was due to them, endeavoured to fire other boats with firelighteers and papers. They were successful in setting fire to two more boats, on which they had poured paraffin, both of which were partly burned away. Fortunately, the staging above remained intact, or more boats would have been ruined. In addition to the cushions used to start the fire, a number of smaller ones were destroyed, and the heat was so intense the sculls several yards away were scorched. When the police took charge of the place, Inspector Lomas discovered three small Suffragist flags, several copies of the "Suffragette", bearing Mrs. Pankhurst's message, two 2-gallon tins which had contained paraffin and a quantity of firelighters, a pocket knife, and some candles.
It is thought that the perpetrators had got into the park in the early hours of the morning by scaling the parish church boundary wall, which adjoins.
On Wednesday morning the boating pool was dragged and a carpet bag containing tools, including wire cutters was found. It is supposed that the bag belonged to the women who set fire to the boathouse for some barbed wire was cut at a point where it is supposed they entered the park.
Latest Shock News, Suffragette's burn the Boats in Handsworth Park. Discovered at 6am on the 22nd of April,1913, by Howard Thurston ( Boathouse keeper ) he immediately called the Police, who in turn called the Handsworth Fire Brigade. Two cans which had contained Parrafin, some ladies footprints, several flags of the ladies movement, and some leaflets were found at the scene. Two windows had been broken, and as well as several boats, a great deal of rowing gear had been damged or lost.
Extract from up the terrace down Aston and Lozells by Ronald k Moore. P. 97-99
We were not too bothered about the “evils of drink” but we did like the annual Band of Hope procession. The horses and carts were all hired from local traders and the tired Old Nags we knew by name in the street were transformed into gleaming new horses for a day, with plaited tails and ribbons, pulling carts decorated with coloured hoops, streamers and trimmings. The dull old street became a blaze of colour as at midday all the side streets spilled into Lozells Road with cowboys and very red Indians, small nurses and missionaries, cardboard Roman soldiers with deadly wooden swords and delicate fairies with wire and Paper Wings. Then the laiden carts were organised into some sort of order and at a given signal, off they all went. (The tableau themselves were all domestic scenes of drunken fathers and cowering children contrasted with happy Families who did not drink.) First up to Bendall's corner (high class confectioner) with its huge clock on the building and the procession wheeled round to the white right into Hamstead Road, a great contrast to our dreary Lozells streets.
White bonneted maid servants cheered from doorsteps and waved feather dusters, trams clanged and upstairs passengers leaned over the rail to shout encouragement as the mob swung noisily down the hill, into the dip to the gates of Handsworth Park. Then turning left through the gates it passed the boating lake, complete with swans, island and boats full of self conscious young men showing how they could feather an oar, in case any girls might be looking on.
At the Far Side of the park on the high Meadow, by the Grove Lane entrance, everything came to a halt. Horses were gratefully unharnessed and taken away to a corner of the meadow for nose bags and water and left to their own devices. Excited children were unshipped, scrubbed trestle tables laid out and stacked with sandwiches, cakes, great gleaming tea urns and huge Brown enamel teapots and then the sports began. This was the usual sort of thing, with the 50 yard dash, egg and spoon race and sack races but with the added interest of many children being in fancy dress, so cowboys dropped their guns in Mid race and had to go back for them, crying, soldiers tripped over their swords and fairies' cardboard wings fell off in all the pushing and shoving at the start.
All the while there was further excitement from trains steaming through the park with passengers leaning out of the carriages and cheering and everyone was aware of the cameraman with his big mahogany and brass plate camera. He was a regular visitor and the slides were shown at the Lozells picture house during the next week so everyone could shriek with laughter at themselves even though the only sound was The Pianist tinkling away on the piano. This, of course, was long before the age of cinema.
Late in the afternoon, the whole procession formed up again, still collecting crowds and chairs along the streets returning home until back at Wheeler Street, parents reclaim tired, dusty children and gleaming colourful steeds became the milkman's cart horse again.
Reproduced with the permission of the author.
Recollections of the Flower Show, which in subsequent years, became the Birmingham Show, by Jenny Ann Nicol:
The first time I remember going to Handsworth Park to attend the Flower Show, which in subsequent years, became the Birmingham Show, was 1947. It was quite an amazing event for a young child to be taken in those years following the Second World War. We would take the No. 11 Outer Circle bus to Church Lane and walk down to Handsworth Park, passing some very large houses that backed on to the Park. The area was rather upscale at that time.
The Park, itself was transformed by huge white Marquees and a large fairground with all kinds of rides, swings, carousels, Dodgems, etc. Since people were very much into growing vegetables and flowers in those days the tents that housed the flowers and produce were very popular. All the flowers and vegetables that had been grown and put on show seemed
to be the essence of perfection. The runner beans were the longest and straightest ever seen, the pea pods full of fat peas, cauliflowers with perfect snow white centres, cabbages.seed catalogue perfect, potatoes all scrubbed and shiny, parsnips golden yellow and nary a mark on them; carrots and many other vegetables also perfectly formed and displayed with such care. These didn't much resemble the offerings of the local greengrocers!!! The exhibitors would stand by their displays for hours and keep an eye on their prize vegetables. There was much competition between regular competitors and many secrets were employed to make sure these vegetables were almost guaranteed to win a ribbon preferably one of a blue colour - First Prize.
The Flower exhibit tent was also a sight to behold. I particularly remember rows of amazing chrysanthemums the size of plates and all colours of the rainbow, roses of many varieties along with many many other types of flowers all exquisitely displayed. There were many stories among the exhibitors of staying up all night to watch their prize winning blooms to make sure nothing befell them before the week of the Show. The dahlias were also very spectacular. Visitors were invited to buy flowers and seeds. With lots of people, dreaming of such horticulutural successes that were spread out before them in these tents, selling seeds wasn't to them wasn't to difficult a task. The prize winning African Violets and miniature ornamental gardens with little pools full of gold fish of all sizes were very popular to view.
I remember the marquee with the Dogs and also the Dog Walking event with so many different types of dogs strutting their stuff with their handlers. There was also a tent with Cats who were judged in their different classes. All pampered and looking bored. I believe they had rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters also. I seem to remember a Cage Bird section also.
In the late afternoon, Ted Heath and his band were playing and everyone sat on the grass above the fairground and listened as the full band played all the favourite tunes of the day. Many people would bring picnics and flasks of tea for sustenance but you could buy tea and cakes at the Tea Tent and Orange Juice and Pop for the kids along with Ice Cream and the inevitable Candy Floss at the Fairground.
In the evening the lights would come on and the lake had lights all around it. The music would seem louder at the Fair and all the lights would twinkle on the rides. The finale of the evening was the fireworks display. Apart from all the rockets, golden showers, etc. I remember a huge display of the outlines of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Phillip all lit up and wishing them the very best. This was the year that they were married and it was a salute to them.
After the fireworks everyone left to catch their buses or walk home. Birmingham Transport would lay on extra buses so no one had to wait very long for a bus.
Handsworth Park, a super place for the Birmingham Show and brings back memories of times spent there in those long ago golden days.
The Handsworth Vandal
This is a story my wife's grandfather shared with her about the park. He lived in Albion Road for many years and loved to walk his dogs in Handsworth Park every day. He told her about his antics to prevent work to drain the boating lake and create a car park. As the Birmingham Mail article shows, this is the story of a person clearing up a mystery that you may not be aware of, with a positive outcome you might not know exists.
A GREAT grandfather has confessed to a spree of vandalism 25 years ago which he claims saved a Birmingham beauty spot from being turned into a car park.
Pensioner Ian Hazelhurst, aged 76, said his family were thrilled by his dastardly past and had urged him to come clean about how he rescued Handsworth Park.
It all started in the summer of 1985, shortly after the large boating lake at the park had been drained for a clean. Retired sign maker Ian said he was walking his German Shepherd when he heard two maintenance men talking about concreting over the Victorian landmark which had fallen into disrepair at the time.
“Over my dead body!” the nature lover thought and so, he said, he began his six-month campaign to save the lake.
“So one night, under the cover of darkness, I slipped down to the park carrying a bucket of sand and cement,” he recalled. “Using bricks from a broken wall in the nearby church I built a wall over the hole and poured cement into the gaps – permanently blocking it.”
The Handsworth Pike
By Simon Baddeley:
One anecdote shared with me by one of the historical societies to whom I was talking recently about the park: At the Memorial Hall I was told a story. Maurice, even older than I, told me a tale his father had told him of the Handsworth park pond before the Great War. There were fewer and fewer fish to be caught by the keen local anglers who fished the pond in the 1900s. A great pike was rumoured to be eating them. A reward was offered of a month's wages - £5 - to anyone who could catch and dispatch it. Many tried and failed, losing their tackle. Eventually a man called Morton, who lived off Holly Road, succeeded in landing and killing the great predator. He got the reward and spent it - plus another £3 - on taking the beast to a taxidermist. The stuffed pike, in a glass cabinet, was displayed with pride in his home. Ever after locals called him 'Pikey' Morton. He'd button-hole people and boast of his catch; how that fish came out of the pond "barking like a dog", "lips full of rusty hooks", "wrapped itself three times round me!" I wonder where Morton's pike might be now.
The Art of the Park - Hurvin Anderson
Turner Prize nominated artist Hurvin Anderson is a world renowned son of Handsworth, and in this article talking about his Reporting Back exhibition in 2013/14, it becomes clear that the park was important to his life in the area and his beginnings in art:
Featuring prominently at the beginning of the show were depictions of Handsworth Park, described as the first landscape to which the artist ‘felt connected’. Migrating from Jamaica in the 1960s, Anderson’s parents settled in this part of Birmingham, which became known for its riots of the mid-1980s – captured in Black Audio Film Collective’s seminal film Handsworth Songs (1986). Initially painting monochromatic, dispossessed scenes, Anderson went on to produce large-scale atmospheric works soaked in colour, such as Lower Lake (2005).
Inspired by the Website
A conversation was sparked online through Facebook when we shared our history pages and appealed for recollections of the park over time. I thought that this (edited) conversation was worth preserving, starting with the picture shared by Christopher Kirwan of himself with his 2 brothers and 2 sisters, by the Hamstead Road gates:
Catherine Grimmett: I didn't see any comments about the military show that was on in the park in about 1962. Maybe there were tanks, guns and a lot of tents.
Alan Price: I remember going to this. If I recall they had the white helmets motor cycle display team there.
Janet Walker: The park was my teenage stomping ground in the 50’s, met my first boyfriend there, I was only 14.
Alan Price: Remember cutting my knee open badly on the trunk of a tree. It was my birthday. I had to be carried home by the friends I was with. I should have had stitches, but refused. Still have the scar.
Judy Last: I spent half my life in Handsworth Park in the 50s. Always on a Sunday after a morning at Grove Lane Baths. Playing tennis with school on a Friday. Meeting friends and boyfriends there. Park Shows and Talent Contests. As kids we would go into the big marquees after the Flower Show and collect the leftover flowers on the ground. Such wonderful memories.
Alan Price: Another not very nice memory thinking about it now. When all the grass had been mown around the park, it all used to be dumped by the wall running from Douglas Road entrance down towards baths. We as
kids used to jump in and roll around all these cuttings. All the dog poo and other disgusting things in it, we never gave a thought about.
Catherine Grimmett: Was that by the glasshouses, beside the big house with the snack bar?
Alan Price: Bit further away from the house. It was by the pathway we used to call the s bend. It was deadly for going down on our go carts. Always seemed to come off.
Catherine Grimmett: If you had come in from Hamstead Road I would probably run you over on the railway bridge with my scooter! I went to the Birmingham Show in 1953 with my older cousins and got stung by a bee watching Pat Smythe show jumping. I was 5 at the time.
Janet Walker: Always used to love the annual flower show, mom would always make a picnic, then I remember waiting till the end of show and help my mom carry ferns and left over large shrubs home....I also remember gathering different leaves and pine cones and conkers...for the nature table at school....and going on a Sunday morning with a net and jam jar on a piece of string, and catching, sticklebacks, from the lake... Such happy memories of handsworth park .... I also remember my dad teaching me to ride a bike there.
Judy Last: Another happy memory of the park was the swings. Even used them as a teenager when one of the boys I knew would push me on them! Look quite tame now in comparison with today's playparks, but we had lots of fun on them.
Alan Price: Was it just the swings there Judy? Think we used to venture to Black Patch and Summerfield Park where they had more rides.
Judy Last: I only remember the swings there Alan. I also remember seeing Ted Heath and his band there one summer. There was always a band show every year and I think they used the bandstand which you can see in the photo of the swings. There was an entry charge of 1/-
Cavin Shakesheave: The scouts rally was a big event back then.
Alan Price: Don't know if this was every year, but I took part in one.
Cavin Shakesheave: And me but more than one.
This exchange led me to think about my own experiences of the park and how I got involved with the Friends of Handsworth Park and the history of the park. So just like the conversation above, I will start with a picture.
I shared at the AGM in 2017 that I felt privileged to have got involved with the Friends of Handsworth Park because I learnt the story of the people who had helped to save the park, and enabled me to use the park with my children, as I had been a child of the park myself. In the picture I'm about 3 years old with my parents and grandmother. I can remember the park being a regular feature of my early childhood, I know it must have been Handsworth Park because there was no car involved to get there and we lived, as I still do, just across the road. The sadness behind this photo is that I can also recall this coming to an end. Not very long after this photo, the park had started to have a very different atmosphere and it was seen as a no go zone. So this photo has become a very rare reminder of what had been a regular visit, and I cannot find a photo with my younger brother as he was born in the late 80s when it was not a park to be visiting anymore.
I think it is priceless, the effort that went on by the people who formed Save Handsworth Park and ultimately brought back a park which now allows vast opportunities to spend time and capture moments with my own children. Yet I would not have known anything about this unless I had got involved as a volunteer myself. For this reason I have become very motivated to share this history with you and to continue the work that they started as a friend of the park.
Even more valuable is the community of Handsworth and Handsworth Wood, surrounding the park, who took it back with open arms when it was reopened in 2006. It is in regular use by the community that
keeps this park safe to use, I was struck by this when I returned to the park and I continue to be struck by the continued use of the park, seeing regulars every week when I visit.