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parks and recreation grounds

parks and recreation grounds. There was little need for public parks until the great urbanization of Victorian Britain, since before then most towns were small and green fields not far away. London, by far the largest town, had the royal parks, particularly St James's, Green Park, Hyde Park, Greenwich, Richmond, and, later, Regent's Park. But access to the parks was severely limited. They had walls, with lodges and janitors, and only respectable citizens were allowed in. Railings did not replace walls until the mid-19th cent. The great pleasure gardens, Vauxhall and Ranelagh, were far too expensive for ordinary people. Outside London, some large towns were fortunate: Bristol had its incomparable downs, Edinburgh its meadows, and Newcastle upon Tyne its Town Moor, protected by an early Act of 1774. But as the industrial towns doubled and redoubled in size, the need for action to provide open spaces and to preserve existing commons became obvious. Robert Slaney, MP for Shrewsbury, obtained a select committee in 1833 and, though a very modest affair, it opened up the subject, reporting that provision in Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds, Hull, Wolverhampton, and Blackburn was bad. It also drew attention to the urgent need to preserve Primrose Hill in London and Parliament responded by purchasing the site in 1836 for £300. In 1841 Parliament voted £10,000 for public parks on a matching financial basis, but by 1849 only five towns—Dundee, Arbroath, Manchester, Portsmouth, and Preston—had taken advantage of the offer. The Public Health Act of 1848 allowed corporations to raise funds for ‘public walks and pleasure grounds’. A further Act of 1855 extended permission to London, with Finsbury Park the first to be created. These cautious approaches had been reinforced by many examples of philanthropy or self-help. Victoria Park (Bath), west of Royal Crescent, was started in 1829 to revive the fading glories of the spa; Joseph Strutt gave Derby its arboretum in 1840; Birkenhead, Manchester, and Liverpool all opened parks in the 1840s. In the later 19th and early 20th cents. the pace quickened, assisted by another Public Health Act of 1907. Manchester was said to have 57 parks by 1920. The late 20th cent. saw retrogression. Few new parks were created, though a good deal of landscaping was carried out, particularly in new towns and on motorways. But roundabouts, car parks, motorways, and sports centres have all encroached on parks, public and private. Desperate town-planners have often seemed less enlightened than their Victorian forebears, and no jewel, not even Petworth, is safe. The combination of rising maintenance costs, straitened budgets, and persistent vandalism has made some parks dismal places, the pavilion roofless, the bandstand gutted, and the lavatories boarded up.

J. A. Cannon

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