Black Country Muse


History of Handsworth Park.

This is a brief history of the making of a Victorian Park, now listed as Grade II historic garden. I wrote this piece some years ago, as a School project for my Grand children, and have now bought it up to date with some more Illustrated photographs and postcard scenes, from the past and present.


In the beginning, concerned about the ever growing loss of open land, and the rapidly spreading industry and houses, the old Handsworth District Council, around 1882, formed a Committee to discuss the aquisition of a public park. They were well aware, that the year before, Wolverhampton had opened " The Peoples Park ", which had attracted great praise.The first attempt was concentrated on the former home of a very famous resident of Handsworth, James Watt. His estate at Heathfield, in the hands of Trustee's, was however proving to be difficult to purchase. It was later leased to George Tangye, the Cornish born engineer, who had long admired James Watt. He later added a great deal, to the items kept in Watts former workshop, including many items used by Matthew Boulton and James Watt. This collection can now be seen in the Science Museum, in London.

The Committee, whose plans for a museum and pleasure gardens were rapidly disappearing, finally stopped  all negotiations in 1886, and began talks with the Birmingham and Midland Bank, for the purchase of the remains of the Grove Estate. Although the land was bordered by a Railway line, access to the house and grounds were better situated, and it had two small streams, Handsworth Brook, and Grove Hill Brook. It also had the potential for expansion.

A great deal of land, between Grove Lane and Rookery Road, had already been sold to developers for private housing, the very reason for which the Committee had been formed to resolve. Some ratepayers where very unhappy about the use of their money in this way, concidering it an extravagance to far. Objections had previous been voiced about spending £14,000 on the Council House and Library ( rising to some £25,000 ) some years before. The new Park, including the two major extensions, was eventually, from 1887 to 1911, to cost a total of £28,000, and both have since proved to be money well spent. When taken over by Birmingham City Council in 1912, Victoria Park had a staff of 16, all then to be employed by the Parks Department.

What was on offer, comprised 21 acres of land, Grove House, a walled garden, fish ponds, tennis lawns, and a selection of trees and walks. The deal was finally struck later that year, and it cost the council £7,500. Work began almost as soon as the ink was dry, the land being made ready for the paths and walks. Richard Hartlands Vertegans, from the Chad Valley Nurseries in Edgbaston was hired to design the Park, the same man who had designed, and laid out, the magnificent Peoples Park, ( now called West Park ) in Wolverhampton, which opened in June 1881. These are some postcards, of the early years of this part of Victoria Park, and you can see the care Vertegans took in the design. They were taken from the vista created, near the old Grove House, and looking down the slope.

Most of the existing features were retained, including the Aviary, after some repairs, but the walled Kitchen garden was transformed into a Bowling Green, with flower borders added to each side, and the far end. A drinking fountain with canopy, and a second Bandstand was installed on the more level section near Holly Road. Sunday concerts were a regular feature in the Park during the summer months, and well attended. It may have been this, that led to the Rector voicing his concerns, at the later use of the old Church Glebe lands to the wetern side of the park.

A Cricket Pitch was constructed, not shown on an early map, but a early photograph suggests that it was carved out of the sloping ground from the Holly Road end, just above Grove House, which later became known as Park House. This was later re-located near the Ornamental Pond, and the Bandstand. A Water Fountain and Canopy, ( see picture below ) donated by Councillor Austin Lines, was installed just beyond the flower beds at the end of the Bowling Green, making a very pleasent vista from the house.

Sadly, they are now seperated, The Canopy stands in the Eastern side of the Park, near Hamstead Road, but the original drinking fountain has long gone. There is another Fountain, also a gift from a Councillor, this time Charles Palmer, who resided at Park Hill House, and manufactured Bicycle wheels, as well as being a prominent Spotsman himself. This now stands on a path, adjacent to the Boating Lake, and not far away from the Canopy.

Recently restored, the Canopy, it's proper name being ' The Umbrello ', ( Listed as a Grade II building in 2000.) now features regularly in many Wedding photographs, being only a short distance from St Mary's Church. Bounded by Grove Lane, Holly Road, the railway line, and the boundry of Grove Farm, this then was the original version of Victoria Park, which was official opened on 20th June, 1888, the Queen having given permission for her name to be used. It was soon realised that it wasn't big enough, and plans were made for an expansion, and the second phase of Victoria Park began.

 The buildings, in the picture below, are often mistaken for the Public Baths, but are in fact Grove Farm.( Kents Farm ) They were later demolished and the new Public Baths built on the site, just below the old Farm buildings, bordered by Hinstock Road.

 When, in 1889, the first extension to the Park was aquired, it comprised about 10 acres of land, from the gate on Grove Lane, up to the walled boundry of Grove Farm, ( called by the locals, Kents Farm ) and the Railway Line embankment. Hinstock Road was later constructed just to the right of the picture below, The Public Baths being on the opposite side of Hinstock Road..

This time, and with less design work involved, the work was entrusted to Edwin Kenworthy, The Urban District Councils Surveyor. He turned out to more than capable with what was required. The picture below, taken from near the junction of Albert Road and Grove Lane,shows the start of the landscaping work in1889.The gravel for the paths, can be seen piled up, ready for the weather to improve, and the old Ornamental pond of Grove house, can just be made out in the center of the picture.

 The original walls were retained, paths and flower beds added, some of which are still there today. A new Cricket Pitch was added, ( the old one reverting back to Tennis lawns ) with banking to provide a good view for the spectators.The Park became very popular, holding events such as Flower shows and Sports meetings and it soon became apparent, that it was again too small. The picture below has puzzled many over the years, but if you are aware that this was site of an early Cricketground, bordering Holly Road, it's easy to work out. This was a gathering of all the local school children for the celebration of the Coronation of King Edward in 1911.

On the other side of the Railway Line, were some Glebe Lands, belonging to St Mary's Church. It was decided to approach, in 1893, the Church Commisioners, with a view to obtaining the virtually unused Glebe land below St Mary's Church, and up to the Jubilee Allotments. The old Rectory, which stood in this area, complete with the remains of the moat, and a Ha-Ha wall from a previous Manor House, was already in a state of disrepair

It came as something of a surprise, when the Rector, and some local supporters raised objections, as to the nature the land would be put too. He felt that the local inhabitants, most of whom payed no rates, would abuse the previlege afforded to them, and it would end up a complete shambles. ( To be fair, Handsworth, or some parts of it at least, had a rather unsavoury reputation. Drinking, gambling, and women with loose morals, being at the forefront ) As the Distrct Council believed that everyone should benefit from the new Park, the petition raised by the Rector, was dismissed, and the plan was put into effect. It very quickly became the residents pride and joy, a situation which exists to this day.

This then, the third extension, was purchased in 1895. Edwin Kenworthy was once again given the task of the design and work. and, with the Rectory demolished, work began on what was to become a main feature of the park, The Boating Lake.This greatly increased the size of the park to almost 71 acres, although the Park was now in two sections, split by the railway line, but there was a footbridge in good repair. Grove House, two other ponds, a Boating Lake, Boat House, Tennis Courts, a Bowling green, a Cricket pitch, and a stunning lodge and Gates at the Hamstead Road entrance, made it a favourite place to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Sadly, there is no memorial to Edwin Kenworthy, for he had plenty to do with Victoria Parks success, as he designed the new Gates for the Hamstead Road entrance, designed and built the new Lodge, ( 1897 ) designed and built the Boat House, and laid out more flower beds and paths.

Another addition of land in the same year, ( a strip from Grove Farm ) made room for two extra pools. A small one, now covered by an Iron grill, and a larger ornamental pool. The rest of the strip, with Grove Farm demolished, was used for Handsworth Baths, and the construction of Hinstock Road, and which would now form part of the northern boundry of the now completed Park.

So when it was all opened in 1898, By The Earl of Dartmouth, the old Rectory had gone, a large pool had been built by daming the Grove and Handsworth Brooks, a Boathouse, two Bridges to connect both east and west sections, walks, paths, flower beds, gates and Lodge had all been constructed, the total cost being in the region of £29,000. Odd bits of land were added as time went by, a strip right up to the Railway embankment, and a strip by the embankment in Holly Road, which enabled the inclusion of another Gate into the Park. The rather ornate iron railings, and at least two gates, were melted down for the War effort in 1940, and although the Gate was replaced, the railings never were. In 1967, the old Park House was demolished, and replaced, in 1976, with a brand new leisure centre and swimming pool. Various Councils over the years, sadly neglected our Parks, but in 2005, restoration began, which included the Boating Lake, the 1930s ' Sons of Rest Building ' the Bandstand, the Umbrello, and many other features, which had made the Park so attractive in the first place. Lets hope it stays like it is for many years to come.