The Restoration of Handsworth Park
From the 1970s Handsworth Park, like many across the UK, was increasingly neglected, though needed by, happily remembered, respected and enjoyed by citizens from the diverse communities of Sandwell, Handsworth, Soho & Perry Barr, as well as visitors from further afield. (Source)
Though the character of the park suffered after the war when many of its metal railings and gateways were removed to aid the war effort, the park continued to be a focus for community life right up to the early 60’s. During this period however, visitor numbers declined and staff numbers were reduced as a result of shrinking financial support. By the 1980’s the condition of the park was very poor, due in part, to the overspill of social problems and associated crime that had been prevalent in the surrounding area through the 1970’s and 80’s. There were no park keepers from about 1990, and the fear of crime and lack of management left the park in a fairly derelict state. (Source)
Handsworth Park began a long decline which ended when local people said enough is enough after learning of plans to build “on our park”. Resistance started with the “Save Handsworth Park Campaign” in 1992 begun and chaired by Dick Pratt who first brought together many different and hitherto separate pressure groups from the area to create what went on to become “Handsworth Park Association”, and is now the “Friends of Handsworth Park”. (Source)
In 1994, this group of local people began to campaign against a plan to build on the site of the old swimming pool, demolition of one of the last 'Sons of Rest' building in the city - most others being already demolished with the exception of the one in Cannon Hill Park - and the sale and development of the Victoria Jubilee Allotments site next to the park. (Source)
In 1999 Birmingham City Council published its Parks Strategy document, formally marking the end of a long period of neglect of many local parks. At the begining of a long list of objectives the document says the strategy will ensure that "a network of high quality parks and other green spaces are provided for Birmingham's citizens and visitors". (Source)
As a result of their campaign, Birmingham City Council decided to reintroduce resident park staff. This was clear recognition by Birmingham City Council that the park could play a major role in the lives of people living around the park and indeed the wider city region. This led to the commitment to inject the necessary vision and capital investment to revitalise the park. (Source)
Birmingham City Council and their Landscape Practice Group began the process of regeneration for the park in the late 1990s. They studied the park, consulted local people, and identified what needed to be done. Landscape consultants Hilary Taylor Landscape Consultants were employed to provide specialist landscape advice. Additional external partners included the Police and Groundwork Birmingham and Solihull, as well as representatives from local community groups. Designs were carefully developed to respond to the needs of a diverse, urban community, as well as restore the distinctive historic character of the park. Hilary Taylor’s work included new designs for railings, gates, lake edges, planting and paths, and the development of a colour palette for site furniture, structures, buildings and signage.
Hilary Taylor also worked closely with Birmingham City Council in their preparation of a successful application for Heritage Lottery funding which awarded nearly £5m towards the multi-million pound renewal project. The Council also secured around £1.4m from its Single Regeneration Budget, and a further £1.3m from the European Regional Development Fund and supplied nearly £2m itself, totalling £9.6m and making it the biggest park regeneration project in the West Midlands. (Source)
John Cunnington Architects were appointed by Birmingham City Council as Conservation Architects, initially, to progress feasibility studies for a number of buildings and structures in the Park for a successful funding bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund. The practice then implemented the proposals to include a new visitor centre on the site of the original boat house, alterations and extension of the “Sons of Rest” building as a classroom in the park, a new entrance to an existing 1970s leisure centre, a cricket pavilion and repairs to the bandstand. (Source)
Thomas Vale Construction, one of the City Council's Partnership Contractors, started major works on site in the sunken garden in 2004. Early on in the process there was little to see but mud and mess, but behind this apparent chaos the new park began to take form. The lakes were dredged and the silt removed with the edges being rebuilt and the main board walk renewed and once again being surrounded with lavish plantings of shrubs, perennials and annual plants. As part of the design development process it was decided that the lakes should have a permanent aeration system, to help ensure that the water quality continues to be healthy. The new boathouse was followed by a new ‘Sons of Rest’ Building (a small distinctive building previously used by the 'Sons of Rest' movement founded by Lister Muff in 1927). Improvements were made to the leisure centre (built on the remains of Grove House whose estate was bought to create the original park) and the cricket pavilion, and new play facilities and a multi-use games area were introduced.
All around the park, the historic walls and railings were reinstated. Planting of trees, shrubs and flowers now bring colour and beauty back to the park. The historic gates at Hamstead Road and Grove Lane were refurbished and reinstated and the two fountains, donated by Austin Lines and Charles Palmer, were restored. In 2005 the bandstand was brought back from the Lion Foundry of Kirkintilloch, near Glasgow, where it had been restored.
The nearby St Mary's Church has always had a strong connection with the park, and improvements were made here, too. Some of the walls and railings around the Church have been restored, and a new gate now provides direct access from the park to the churchyard with its numerous and fascinating monuments. (Source)
The completion of a £9.5 million restoration and rejuvenation of Handsworth Park was celebrated with a Grand Re-Opening Celebration led by Councillor Mike Sharpe, the Lord Mayor of Birmingham, speaking from the restored bandstand at 2.00pm on Saturday 8 July 2006, followed by a count down by a large enthusiastic crowd and the release of clouds of confetti. (Source) The park was recently featured on a special parks edition of BBC's Gardeners' World. (Source)
Birmingham Civic Society announced that Handsworth Park was the winner of its Renaissance Award for 2006 after going from one of the city's most neglected green open spaces to a park to be proud of. Coun Ray Hassall, cabinet member for leisure, sport and culture, said: "I'm delighted that the Civic Society has recognised the multi-million pound improvements that have been made. "This grand old Victorian park has been restored to its former glory for the enjoyment of the local community now and for many years to come." (Source)
The project was awarded a Places and Genius Landscape Design Award for Excellence in 2007 and Handsworth Park has also been awarded the Civic Trust’s Green Flag Award. (Source)
The park regeneration received the Birmingham City Design Initiative Award 2007. (Source)
The boats were reintroduced to the lake in June 2009. (Source)
Collecting the History of Handsworth Park
I have been collecting the historical information which has been recorded in various places, especially online, in order to make it accessible to everyone on this website, for The Friends of Handsworth Park. My name is John Hayes and I have been a member of the Friends Of Handsworth Park from 2015, working on this project on and off from that time until the main point of publishing in February 2018.
However, if it were not for the Save Handsworth Park group which formed in 1994, and in particular one of its members, Simon Baddeley, who took on an interest to find out about the history of the park, then there would not have been very much information recorded and I would not have been able to uncover very much myself.
So here are Simon's words about the experience of uncovering forgotten information as part of the process of restoring the park into the wonderful facility we can use as a community again:
It is difficult to recall now how utterly lost was Handsworth Park’s history at one recent stage. I mean that in a public sense, not in the private recollections of many people far and wide who’d grown up knowing Handsworth Park.
In part the recovery of the park’s public history came about because the Heritage Lottery Fund, which came to fund the park’s restoration in the early 2000s, made it a condition that the park’s history be included in Birmingham City Council’s bid for restoration funding. It was also curiosity that led me to start searching the archives of community history in the Central Library. I came to be astounded at my lack of knowledge of how the park ever came about. I can still recall having the minute books of Handsworth Sanitary Board brought down to me from somewhere in the ‘attic' of the 6th floor of the, now demolished, central library. I swear they were coated in Victorian dust! I had to wear gloves to handle them and all readers were asked if they carried pens rather than pencils as they were allowed to sit at a designated desk in the library. I was - gently - watched for fear I might be a page remover or defacer. These minutes were hand written on lined paper in perfect copperplate. I recall copying down the final invoice for the Hamstead Road Park keeper’s house. An astonishing sum of over £600 in the late 1890s.
My 'history’ of the founding of Handsworth park was drawn on by the consultant Dr Hilary Taylor of the Nottingham based Landscape Consortium, who were commissioned by the Council (another shrewd requirement of the Lottery given the utter loss of local history inside the relevant city council service that was to draft the winning bid and oversee the park’s restoration). Hilary, whom those of us who’d been campaigning over many years to ‘save the park’ came to know well, and respect enormously, as we participated in the working group that met for over three years in the city centre to plan the details of the park’s restoration, wrote a more comprehensive history of the park, bringing us to the present day including the doldrums into which the park fell from the 1970s to the end of the Millennium. It was she who dug out one of the winning findings in the eyes of the lottery people - that the design of Handsworth Park had been initially sketched out by the Victorian landscape designer Richard Hartland Vertegans.
I wondered why this crucial piece of information had not been found during my research. Vertegans, his landscape business based in Edgbaston, had won a competition to design West Park Wolverhampton. Hilary dug out his biography and his philosophy of park design. All she could find of his design for our park was a tiny sketch (I have a copy) which was apparently considered by the Park Committee of Handsworth Sanitary Board (then in Staffordshire). They then dispensed with his services (like the Burgers of Hamelin after the rats had been removed?) and let Edwin Kenworthy do the survey and landscaping based on what they’d digested of Vertegans’ principles. These were (as anyone visiting our park but also West Park can see, and sense) was to divide up allocated public space in such a way that a visitor could never quite see the whole, but as they strolled along a few generously broad tree lined metalled paths - intended for processions and promenades - they would come across, of a sudden, completely new vistas, some intimate, some panoramic. For Vertegans, though I’m not sure he ever saw the Victoria Park extension on the Hamstead Road side of our park laid out a decade after the western half, the familiar railway through the landscape - embanked and via cutting - was not a severance but an opportunity! Consider the two views as you exit the wider rail bridge, walking west or vice versa. I’ve still met people from different sides of Handsworth who had not realised that their park continued ‘on the other side of the bridge’. Vertegans would have enjoyed that opportunity for happy discovery. Similar ‘surprises' may be encountered all over the park. You can’t get lost, but if you plan a rendezvous in the park, you need to specify just where.
Vertegan's design principle, upon which Hilary Taylor was strictly insistent, was at variance with the council’s parks management in the latter part of the 20th century. In the interests of security, and park users’ assumed sense of safety in public places, a senior park’s manager in Birmingham City Council had declared that an ideal municipal park would be one in which 'every single part of the park can be seen from wherever you’re standing in it’. Perry Hall Playing Fields come to mind. It was this attitude that led to some members of the public, in the early days of public protest about the state of Handsworth Park, to call for the cutting down of more trees and removal of all shrubbery and the widespread use of the new urban surveillance technology of CCTV. Dr Taylor was adamant in the view that the one sure way to secure the safety of a park was its use by lots of people. A park may be saved by the lobbying of a 'community of interest' spread far and wide, but its permanence as a valued safe and enjoyable space revolves around the sense that its is ‘owned’ by people who live near it. Of course our park is a city resource, venue for city wide events and visits, but its technical recovery - landscaping, railings, draining, pool cleaning, buildings, walkways, gardens and trees, was made secure by its ‘community of place’ - defended by a tiny number of rangers (all praise).
The support for the park’s restoration, and the expressions of loyalty and love for Handsworth Park, plus grief and even anger at its decline, that emerged in the Millennium Lottery Fund’s surveys of over 10,000 people in the area, was probably, along with the Vertegan’s connection, what swung the Lottery people in favour of BCC’s restoration bid.
This picture of a Ministerial tour of the park prior to its restoration shows some of the prime movers in the drive to recover our beloved park - note especially the late Liz England who has a bench dedicated to her revered memory overlooking the pond up near the new boathouse. I am honoured to have known her and been one of her many many friends.