Extract from “Historic Public Parks – Bristol” by David Lambert, published in 2000 by Avon Gardens Trust*
A rival to Durdham Downs
The 1845 Report on the Sanitary Condition of Bristol stated that the worse conditions in what by 1850 was recorded as the third most unhealthy city in England were in the four oldest parishes. These included Bedminster, where a dense population had been established in the first half of the nineteenth century. Pressure grew steadily for a park in south Bristol, and although Victoria Park was not included in the first group of public parks and gardens reported in 1884 (Greville Smyth Park was of course), on 19 January 1887 there was a report to the Local Board of Health that the City Surveyor was investigating a piece of land on the ‘southward side of the Great Western Railway, between St Luke’s Road and Windmill Hill’ and trying to find out who the owners were.
On 9 August 1887, the Sanitary Committee reported to the Local Board of Health that the land on Windmill Hill which comprised 37 and a half acres could be bought for £350 per acre, concluding ‘Your Committee consider that this piece of land affords a very desirable site for a Pleasure Ground’. The Bristol Times and Mirror report on that meeting spoke of the eager response to buying this land. Councillor Davies had itemised the advantages: on three sides was a dense population; ‘It was easily accessible from all parts and would be as much a park for Redcliffe as for East Bedminster’ – an exaggeration that rankled in St Philips – and ‘So far as the views were concerned they rivalled Durdham Downs and it would be especially appreciated by the working classes’.
The paper’s editorial for 10 August endorsed the proposal although it warned that ‘it remains, in fairness as well as in expediency, that the needs of the East end of the city should be taken into consideration. It should be bourne (sic) in mind that this is not only a question of amusement and recreation, but also one of health. It is important that, in every city, especially in a growing city like Bristol, some spaces be kept open which can never be built upon. Delays in such matters may be dangerous. The land, for instance, at Windmill Hill would be built upon in a few years’ time, in the ordinary course of things’.
With public and Council support the Committee when ahead with the purchase and preparation of a plan by the City Surveyor. The transfer of the bulk of the land, 39 acres from the trustees of Sir John Greville Smyth, was made in May 1889, with the other parcels acquired soon after. In all, 51 and a half acres were acquired for a total of £20,678.
Windmill Hill had long been a place of public resort and also a place for public meetings: in 1887, the Committee had received a request for a drinking fountain there. And on 20 September 1888 a resolution from the Meeting of the Ratepayers reported to the
Committee suggests something of the conflict underlying the gentrification of this tract of land: ‘This meeting desires to call the attention of the Sanitary Authority to the extensive use of the land on Windmill Hill, and trusts that an endeavor may be made to hasten
the purchase of the same in order that it may be brought under proper control, and that those who are so anxious to enjoy the use thereof shall have the right to do so’.
Significantly the same group also urged that the land’s name be changed, to Victoria Park.
Ashmead’s plan met with approval and on 23 May 1889, he was asked to prepare a specification and estimate for laying out Windmill Hill in accordance with the plan
produced and already approved. He also went ahead with letting the tenders for the initial work: drainage, forming paths, removing hedges, erecting temporary fences, walling, planting and so on. In August, the Liberal Councillor for Bedminster, William Terrett,
presented a drinking fountain of his own design, depicted in many views of the park (Fig. 32).
Progress on Victoria Park was swift compared to other parks. A bandstand was erected in March 1890 and a ranger, Mr John Cleak, was appointed in April, when the Open Spaces Committee made a site inspection. The Western Daily Press of 14 April reported on the visit and said the councillors were pleased with progress: ‘The need for a recreation ground in the neighborhood was shown by the large number of children making use of the park at the time of the committee’s visit’.
Despite progress, money was obviously tight for the Council as on 13 October 1891 authorisation was sought from the Local Government Board for a loan of £7,200 for providing entrance gates, seats, urinals, shelters, etc. and for planting, laying out, and fencing Windmill Hill, Eastville Park, St Andrew’s Park and Gaunt’s Ham. The Committee stated that they ‘are now of the opinion that by an increased expenditure the appearance of the Parks may be considerably improved, the access thereto made more convenient, and better accommodation provided for the public as regards fountains, shelters and urinals’. Approval came through in April 1892 and more contracts, for dwarf walls, gate piers, gates and railings were promptly let.
The creation of the park spurred on the developers who owned the neighbouring land. From 1891 the Smyths, William Vowles and George Pearson all developed streets around or near the park. Nutgrove Avenue is a good example of the kind of higher quality housing which could be introduced given open views over a public park. The construction of the schools in 1885 probably coincided with the first expressions of interest in laying out Windmill Hill as a park.
The expanse of grass posed problems for management and, after receiving only one tender for a mowing contract, the Committee let the park for grazing for 3 years at £50 per annum, restricting the stock to sheep.
By 1897 the City Engineer could report that ‘Victoria Park, Bedminster had been very much improved by the erection of iron fencing to flower beds and shrubberies, and by the laying of tar paving beside 372 yards of gravel paths laid where the gradient is too steep for tar… Swings, see-saws and horizontal bars have been erected in this Park, which are in constant use and much appreciated by the public.
By 1898 the park had four permanent rangers. As well as the bandstand, its features included two drinking fountains and a Crimean cannon sited near the Somerset Terrace entrance (Fig 33). There was a railed circular pond inside the St Luke’s Road entrance. An open air pool was built in 1905 at the same time as those at Eastville and Greville Smyth Parks, but was demolished after the second World War. Between 1905 and 1918 tennis courts and a bowling green and even a quoit ground were added. The layout continued to develop: for example, the cannon, once acquired, was made the focal point of new straight paths including a second east-west route; and the north-western part of the park, above the old Rope Walk beside the railway, was planted up, perhaps in order to screen the new vicarage. Flower beds were laid out inside the western entrance between the gates and the cannon, ornamented with rockeries (Fig 34) and ‘stumperies’ (constructions of upturned stumps with flowers planted among the exposed roots) were also created here (see Fig 33)
The park has lost some important elements of its planting, such as the trees that were massed around the entrances on Hill Avenue and the perimeter planting along this road, although the surviving London Planes are impressive. The railings along this fine border wall have also been removed. Where the south side of St Luke’s Road was demolished it has been replaced with a newer Pennant stone wall with concrete caps. The path system has been simplified throughout the park, and the feeling of an overall structure has been reduced. The huge curved double row of what seem to have been Limes around the bandstand, recorded in 1905, seems already to have been thinning out by 1918; the best bit of formal tree-planting remains the double row of Limes along Nutgrove Avenue, although incomplete in places now.
All the free-standing built features have disappeared: the urinals, the drinking fountain, the cannon (although the stand of the lamp which stood beside it survives), the bandstand and the pool. However, the complex of school buildings, retaining walls and steps on the north side is a remarkable piece of townscape, despite the absence of railings along the school boundary. From the site of the cannon the eastward walk is lined with Robinia, and there is also a good group of London Planes as the end of Vivian Street. The Somerset Street entrance still has the keeper’s lodge and four gate piers although its gates are missing.
Modern features include the pond and wildlife area near the children’s play equipment and, much more interesting, the water maze designed by Peter Milner and Jane Norbury and built by ACCES and the City Engineers department in 1984. Th design is based on one of the roof bosses in the church of St Mary Redcliffe, water is supplied by a spring on Knowle Hill and it was built to mark the end of sewage discharge into the River Avon. This is a notable addition to Bristol parks in recent years, genuinely in the spirit and character of the municipal ornamentation and a real pleasure to users.”
*Reproduced with permission from Avon Gardens Trust – a registered charity promoting and protecting Avon’s historic landscapes and creating public awareness of the huge value of its parks, gardens and other designed landscapes. As well as publishing interesting books they work with schools and community gardens and organise private garden tours and lectures by garden history professionals. For more information see: https://www.avongardenstrust.org.uk/
For a more social history of the park, see “Victoria Park – The People’s Park” by Barb Drummond, published online in 2008.