Frederick Law Olmsted arrived in England at the port of Liverpool in May 1850. On the opposite bank of the wide Mersey river from that great city lies the town of Birkenhead, which Olmsted described as ‘the most important suburb of Liverpool, having the same relation to it that Charlestown has to Boston or Brooklyn to New York’. In terms of its municipal governance, Birkenhead has always been independent from its better known and larger ‘neighbour’. However, in saying this, Olmsted testified to its importance as an emerging New Town. Unlike in the United States, it was uncommon to see European towns and cities built on a gridiron street pattern – and certainly public parks were not integral to such early town planning schemes. Consequently, Birkenhead remains a planning innovation of the first order, in which its Park has played a pivotal role.
In the early 1830s, Birkenhead’s Town Commissioners had incredible foresight and vision for the growth of the settlement. This included imagining a new park which would serve as an antidote to the poor living conditions commonly experienced in other rapidly expanding industrial cities of the time. So visionary was it that Birkenhead’s Park was constructed before most of the town itself – in anticipation of (rather than as a consequence of) the rapidly growing urban population that was to settle in the town. In addition, Birkenhead’s municipal authority backed up its grand intention for a Park by appointing one of Britain’s most highly regarded horticulturalists and landscape designers of the time. Joseph Paxton, later most famously known for his Crystal Palace design for the 1851 Great Exhibition in London’s Hyde Park, created a ‘landscape masterpiece’ at Birkenhead Park. It was informed by his extensive experience of developing the gardens and estate of Chatsworth House for the wealthy Duke of Devonshire.
Most significantly, Birkenhead Park was to be wholly and freely accessible to all people regardless of their position in society. This democratic aspect had a profound impact on Olmsted when he first visited the Park in 1850. He was amazed by this ‘magnificent pleasure-ground’ which was ‘entirely, unreservedly, and for ever the people’s own’. Paxton’s 1844 plan for Birkenhead Park drew on the concepts of the English Landscape School, and he successfully transferred these concepts into a public park. Paxton shaped an egalitarian approach to landscape design, in which all elements were of equal importance. This revolutionary idea did not escape the American farmer’s notice. He wrote that ‘the poorest British peasant is as free to enjoy it in all its parts as the British Queen’.
In the decades that followed, Birkenhead Park established its position as the ‘People’s Garden’. Over nearly two centuries it has provided a community space where the barriers of social class, age, colour and creed are non-existent. It continues to perform the purpose for which it was created, playing a significant and fulfilling role for the people of Birkenhead and the wider Wirral peninsula, responding to significant situations – wars, political and social crises, financial challenges, epidemics, environmental issues – and adapting as the need has arisen.
F.L. Olmsted was greatly influenced by what he saw during his brief visit to Birkenhead (and all thanks to a friendly local baker – but that’s another story!). As well as the Park’s rather fine design, he was fundamentally challenged by the social and political concepts that it embodied. Such ideas traveled back to America with him and were consequently diffused through his subsequently prodigious work in creating public parks throughout that land. Who knows – if it hadn’t been for Olmsted’s visit in 1850, Birkenhead Park may not have had such an international recognition, and perhaps the development of parks across the US might have taken a different path? As it is, the movement, that Birkenhead Park and the Olmsted firm played a significant part in, changed the way we perceive the form and layout of modern cities.
In recognition of all this, it is Wirral Council’s desire to seek UNESCO recognition of Birkenhead Park People’s Garden as a World Heritage Site. The town’s Victorian Commissioners showed amazing vision in creating the Park in the first place. Today’s municipal authority is exhibiting the same ambition for this very special place.
Learn more about Birkenhead Park here.
Photographs by local photographer Ron Thomas.