Sefton Park and Princes Park, are the last reminders that Toxteth was once a huge Royal Park and that this whole area was open countryside. The incorporation of Toxteth into Liverpool in the 19th century and the subsequent rapid expansion of the housing, which eventually covered the area, meant that this countryside was rapidly being swallowed up. By the 1860s there was a demand of public parks to counter the spread of unbroken streets of close packed terraced housing.
In 1862 the Borough Engineer, James Newlands, (who was incidentally, the country’s first borough engineer) recommended a site for this development. In 1864 Parliament granted powers to allow councils to borrow money and this in turn enabled the purchase of land and planning of several parks in Liverpool.
Sefton Park was the largest of these new parks and in 1867 when the purchase of the land was completed, Liverpool Corporation had purchased 387 acres of land from the Earl of Sefton, at a reputed cost of £250,000. Some of the land, (estimated at 110-160 acres) was set aside for the building of houses and mansions around the perimeter of the new park. These houses were to be sold to offset the development costs of the park itself. This followed the financial model established when Richard Vaughn Yates built Princes Park as a private venture earlier in the 19th century.
Once the purchase of the land was underway the Corporation held a public competition for the design of the park, with a first prize of 300 guineas and second prize of 150 guineas. 29 entries were received varying in cost from £13,000 to £158,000. The winners were Edouard André and Louis Hornblower.
The Frenchman Edouard André had previously designed the Tuileries Gardens in Paris and had been a pupil of Alphand, a great landscape gardener for Napoleon III. Local architect Louis Hornblower was involved in the design of park features such as gates, bridges and buildings at Birkenhead and Princes Park.
Hornblower was responsible for the buildings and features whilst André’s designs for the geography and layout featured the circles and curves characteristic of existing French park designs but he provided a host of features to suit the tastes of the time. The original design shows a Cricket Pavilion, a Croquet lawn and Archery field, an aviary , a pavilion, summer house, a swan hut, cast-iron fountains, a sheep pen, arbours for tea parties, a music pavilion and a restaurant. A deer park also featured, but it is doubtful if it ever actually contained any deer, unlike Kings Johns deer park here.
The cricket ground, plantings and rockeries were completed to the original plans but many of the other features became the casualties of an original estimate of £85,00 which spiralled to £250,000, causing a rethink and a less grand design costing £150,000.
The lakes and connecting streams took advantage of the existing streams (the Lower Brook and Upper Brook) which had their confluence within the park and the design utilised the two natural valleys of these streams.
The largest lake, the boating lake was 5 acres in extent and featured a landing stage and boating house towards the Otterspool end. Both ends are shown here, left and right. Boating, fishing and sailing of model yachts were all to become popular pastimes on the new lake. The boat house and shelter in these pictures is useful to orientate yourself
The park was officially opened to the public on 20th May 1872 by H.R.H. Prince Arthur, First Duke of Connaught and Strathern, the third son of Queen Victoria. The great day was figured in the Illustrated London News in 1872. (right).
Prince Arthur left the Town Hall in a mile-long procession made up of 77 carriages containing dignitaries and guests. He was to be greeted at a grandstand built to accommodate 5,000 people, sited at the gates of Sefton Park (opposite Princes Park).
The columns of these gates were themselves salvaged from St Georges Hall when they were removed to facilitate the installation of the Great Organ. (Mull Granite yet again) The following day the Prince opened the Royal Southern Hospital which was itself partly financed by a fair at Sefton Park. Some years later, in 1886, Queen Victoria herself visited the park travelling along Ullet Road according to newspaper reports of the time.
The Illustrated London News of 1867 has a rather gloomy, woodcut of the newly opened park, in which the new trees and young plantings shown, result in a very stark vista which was to soften gloriously with time. The lakes, sculptured from the exiting landscape and the valleys of the two rivers, also appear to be only partly filled
Even after the opening, development continued. The Iron Bridge at the head of the Fairy Glen (spanning the valley and waters of the Upper Brook) near the Queens Drive entrance was completed in 1873. Picture postcards of this area seem very popular and are frequently found.
Development of the perimeter housing also continued after the park opened – 50 houses and villas being completed by 1882 and full development as late as 1890. The total number of houses built fell short of the original plan but these houses, each built to the owners own plans, form a delightfully eccentric backdrop to the park. As wealth has shifted, so many have now become flats, hotels, nursing homes or have simply fallen into disrepair, through lack of care, including one which I was involved with many years ago which was allowed to decay as part of a University study into the spread of dry rot. The infected building was barred, locked and literally left to rot, under observation!
The Palm House
This was not an original feature of André and Hornblower’s plans but was a gift, at a cost of £12,000, to the city, from Henry Yates Thompson, the grand-nephew of the founder of Princes Park. It was designed by the Edinburgh firm, Mackenzie and Moncur and was completed in 1896.
The Palm House is 100 feet wide and 82 feet high, consisting of an iron frame supporting a glass dome similar in style to The Crystal Palace and the Palm House in Kew Gardens in London. It stands on a base of red granite from the Scottish island of Mull. The Mull Granite is also found in columns at the Ullet Road entrance to the Park and it is the material used for the obelisk in nearby Princes Park.
Opened in 1896 the ‘Great Conservatory’ as it was then called took the place of the band pavilion, shown on the plan above, and with its exotic plants and marble statues; it became the centrepiece of Sefton Park. The statues are a feature of the Palm House and are detailed below. It also featured a large ornamental bench in commemoration of Henry Yates Thompson.
At the outset of WW2, in 1939, the Liverpool Records Office states that the Palm House was camouflaged in case the glass reflected moonlight and acted as a guide for enemy planes. Matt, oil-based paint was used and grey, simulated ‘paths’ were painted over the dome. The remainder was coloured green to blend in with the surrounding parkland, where barrage balloons and anti-aircraft guns were stationed. During the Blitz in May 1941, a bomb fell close by, shattering almost all of the glass, but the ironwork survived.
The bomb damage suffered in the Blitz was the start of the decline in the fortunes of the Palm House. Although the glass was replaced (at a cost then exceeding £6,000) expansion and contraction of the different types of iron in the building and shrinkage of the glazing putty, led to the gradual deterioration of the glazed canopy. Accelerated by weather damage and vandalism, the spiral of decline increased. This was aided by the antagonistic attitude of the council during the ‘looney left’ political era in Liverpool in the 1970’s and 1980’s. A period which also saw the closure and demolition of the Harthill greenhouses at Calderstones Park, after union intimidation failed to produce a walkout of the dedicated staff. The largely derelict Sefton Park Palm House was now closed to the public on grounds of safety and for a long time it was threatened with demolition.
In 1991 a campaign was organised and 800 people attended a public meeting to support the rescue of the Palm House. A ‘Sponsor a Pane’ programme and fund-raising enabled its partial restoration and re-opening within two years. The award a £2.5 million Heritage Lottery Grant ensured a completion of the restoration. Work on this began in 2000 and on 6th September 2001, the Palm House was officially re-opened.
The Palm House is now listed as a Grade 2 building of architectural and historic interest. Today it is managed by Sefton Park Palm House Preservation Trust, their website tells you more.
The cafe and aviary
The original cafe in the centre of the park is shown here. Just behind was the aviary and a rare early shot of the aviary, soon after construction is shown here. In later years this was altered but certainly into the 1960s, perhaps later, it still contained rather sad looking birds. I am told it is due for demolition soon.
A statue of Peter Pan was added close to the Cafe and Aviary at the heart of the park.
The statue was made by Sir George Frampton and donated to the park by George Audley, a wealthy businessman from Birkdale. In the spring of 1927 Audley had visited Frampton’s studio with members of the Liverpool Arts Committee, in connection with the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition and had seen there the original cast of Peter Pan (which is in Kensington Gardens in London).
Audley persuaded Frampton to cast a replica for the children of Liverpool. In total just four castings were made and these are now in Australia, Canada, Kensington Gardens and Sefton Park.
The replica casting was one of Frampton’s last works as he died on 21st May 1928, just weeks before the unveiling of Peter Pan in Sefton Park on 16th June 1928 by a relative of Sir J M Barrie, (the author of Peter Pan.) thought to have been either a cousin or a niece,
Nearby were a Wendy Hut and Jolly Roger ship which were unveiled on the same day. Although these no longer exist in the park this postcard (right) shows the second Pirate ship with Peter Pan visible in the background. The original is below and was built by Cunard. I have been told that it was a converted lifeboat. The history is complicated by the two Jolly Rogers and one cannot always be certain to which of them the descriptions, or stories, attach. One Jolly Roger was reportedly to be found outside the Merseyside Police HQ in Canning Place although a recent search failed to locate it. I have since learned that this report was associated not with the Sefton Park ‘ Jolly Roger’ at all but was a left-over from the Liverpool Garden Festival site.
There were apparently also two cannon guns in the same area which came from a ship named The Albert Victoria (or visa versa as my source was not 100% certain which was correct).
To celebrate the unveiling a pageant took place. A slim booklet was produced to mark the occasion entitled “The Pageant of Peter Pan on the Occasion of the Presentation of the Statue, the gift of Mr. Geo. Audley”. Pageant in Sefton Park, Liverpool, 16th June 1928, Written & produced by Percy F. Corkhill, C.B.E. by permission of Sir James Barrie, O.M. Music by James Crooks, Illustrated by T.J. Bond”. I now have a copy and details of this will be added after editing.
Celebrations were later held around Peter Pan, in 1937, to mark the coronation of King George VI and the statue became a the centre of interest for generations of Liverpool children, myself included, (left, 1954). The later history of the statue mirrors that of the Liverpool Parks themselves – it was neglected and vandalised, parts were broken off and other bits were stolen.
In August 2001 the statue was removed by a team from the Merseyside Conservation Centre. I gather that it has been conserved and cleaned, corrosion removed and stolen parts replicated in bronze and re-attached. The eventual aim was to return it to a secure location within the park. The detailed story can be found at the Liverpool museums website. Plans were to place it near, or within, the newly refurbished Palm House. When I tried to enquire at the Conservation Centre the centre itself was closed pending redevelopment.
January 2005 – I am able to complete the story for you, the statue has been replaced in the park but re-sited close to the Palm House.
There were at least two fountains on one of the lakes many years ago. As a child I seem to remember that they were never working, but clearly they did at some stage, as shown here, left.
The Shaftsbury Memorial Fountain (right) was, like Peter Pan, a gift from George Audley. It was a copy of the London Eros fountain created in bronze and Aluminum by Sir Alfred Gilbert. It was opened in Sefton park in 1932, George Audley was by this time, dead, but Gilbert himself attended the unveiling.
A statue of politician and reformer William Rathbone (1787 – 1868) stands above the head of the main boating lake.
A 60 ft granite obelisk at the city-centre-end of the Park is a memorial to Samuel Smith who died in 1906. Smith was a cotton broker and councillor. The Samuel Smith obelisk was linked to the Eros fountain by an avenue of elm trees. Unfortunately Sefton Park was one of the first areas in the country to suffer from the ravages of Dutch Elm Disease.
Palm House sculptures
‘One whom the Gods Loved’ by P. Park;
‘Two Goats’ by Giovita Lombardi ( here shown left, within the original palm house, on an old postcard )
‘Europa’ by V. Luccardi;
‘The Angel’s Whisper’ and ‘Highland Mary’ by Benjamin Spence.
The corners of the octagonal Palm House are each marked by eight figures chosen by Thompson. Four depict great mariners and explorers – Cook, Columbus, Mercator, and Prince Henry the Navigator. Four are of men of science Charles Darwin, Carl Linnaeus, and the apothecary John Parkinson. After these three men, I cannot help but wonder if the decision to include Frenchman, Andre le Notre as statue number eight, may have been influenced by the nationality of Edouard Andre. Though a notable French garden designer, he hardly ranks among the greatness or notability of the other statues.
Finally a few odds and ends, still to be placed within the text
The Island in the lake showing the bandstand and stepping stone bridge
The bandstand, located on the island served by the bridge shown left and right.
One of the lakes and the bridge to the bandstand island
the emergence of the Lower Brook
The postcard says ‘Children’s Garden, Sefton Park’ – this is in fact Newsham Park
The Fairy Glen
from the bridge
The Fairy Glen
as the Upper Brook joins the lake
The renovation of Sefton Park :
A splendid site illustrating the recent renovations and restorations