by Old Plymouth Society
Published March 2012
Public parks were a Victorian idea, to enable people to take exercise, be entertained and educated. The Public Health Act of 1848 gave Local Authorities the power to establish public walks and means of exercise for middle and lower class people. Devonport Park, now known as The People’s Park, is the oldest formal public park in Plymouth. It has strong links to maritime and military history and is home to historic monuments, fountains and listed buildings. Today it is recognised by English Heritage as a Park and Garden of Special Historical Interest.
From the mid 1700s the land served as a glacis – a part of the Devonport Dock Line defences. These were open fields, kept free of buildings, therefore providing no cover for the enemy. Within a hundred years these lines had little benefit remaining so in 1857, 37 acres of this military land, formerly a brickfield, adjoining New Passage Hill, was rented to Devonport Corporation by the War Department for £65:10 shillings per year. This site was chosen as people had used the land as routes to and from work and home. R N Worth commented that “Its history is singular for the movement which led to its establishment originated in prosecution for trespass brought against persons who deviated from the public right of way across the field.” The park’s subsoil is clay. The area around the Brickfields was known as Lower and Higher Clay Park and was the site of clay pits and brick manufacture. It was estimated that it would cost £900 to transform the area into a park. The Government provided £300 from a special fund set aside to assist public bodies to form parks for its inhabitants. The Corporation voted another £250 from the rates, the Lord of the Manor donated £100 and the 26 members of the Council subscribed £60.The balance had to be raised by subscriptions from the local people.
There is a stone commemorating the opening of the park above the steps at the top entrance to the park in New Passage Hill which bears the inscription: “Opened 1858 Watson, Mayor”. Robert M Watson was twice mayor of Devonport, between 1856 -7 and 1857-8. He was a popular man, Liberal in his politics and “liberal” with his pocket his general disposition is said to have won him high esteem of everyone he met.
Initially the planting and landscaping in the park was restricted, but shortly after the park opened in 1858, an avenue of lime trees was planted it is a magnificent feature today. The park had a bandstand near St Michael’s Terrace. During the summer months the bands of the local volunteers and visiting regiments would entertain the public. The first of 2, it was unveiled in 1863. Although it was demolished in the 1950s, plans are in place to build a new bandstand, which will resemble the old one. Money has been raised to build the base and work is scheduled to start in October 2010.
The Lower Park Lodge situated at the Devonport Road entrance to the park is built in a design resembling a Swiss Lodge. It was designed by Mr. Alfred Norman of Devonport in 1858 and dates from a time when 10 keepers worked in the park. The Park Superintendent lived here. It was Grade 2 listed in 2000. Every conceivable device of Victorian Gothic design is mixed into this colourful gem. It has steep gables with ornate barge boards, corbelled eaves, multi coloured brickwork, Tudor chimney stacks and highly decorative tiling showing the St Aubyn and Morice family initials and reference to the Borough of Devonport. The land around it was the former park nursery. In 1992 this area became a training centre to help disabled students to work in retail, horticulture and woodwork. Some of their woodwork can be seen around the park. The Lodge has recently been beautifully restored to its former glory.
Alongside the Lodge is a memorial garden which contains a stone dedicated to the memory of sea captains. It is in the shape of an urn atop a stone plinth with the names of Drake, Marlborough, Nelson, Chatham and Wellington engraved on its four sides. There are several fragments of stone dotted around the park which came from Blitz damaged and demolished buildings.
Devonport Cricket Club played their matches in the park
from the 1860s and in the 1870s the first rugby match to be played in the area took place in the park between teams of Naval students from Keyham and apprentice shipwrights
who formed Devonport Albion.
The Napier Fountain was erected in 1863 as a memorial to Admiral Sir Charles Napier, known as the “Sailor’s Champion”. He campaigned for reform in the Navy and its administration. He was so popular that his memorial was paid for by sailors and marines who gave up a day’s pay to raise money to build it. The names of the ships and divisions involved in raising the money are inscribed around its base.
In the 1874 Guide to the Three Towns the park was described as follows:
“Devonport Park is being gradually laid out with walks, trees, shrubs, arbours, seats etc. and affords at once a splendid recreation ground, and fine promenade with a beautiful view of the surrounding scenery. Here the grand review upon her Majesty’s birthday is held, when all the troops in the garrison and volunteers from many towns round, assemble, the sight being brilliant and the concourse of people very great.”
Further along the garden area from the Napier Fountain, partly hidden under some trees is another memorial tribute. It consists of two plinths supporting a conical shape piece of stone. This memorial was placed here in 1881 at the request of the Duke of Edinburgh, one of Queen Victoria’s sons. He was a naval captain and was in charge of HMS Galatea for 4 years. The ship was abroad for most of the time and when she returned 8 of her crew had died. The Duke had the stone engraved with the names of those who had died.
Until the 1890s the formal area of the park around what was to become the higher park pavilion was still part of the Dock Lines occupied by the Granby Bastion. At midday on Thursday March 8th 1894 the Mayor of Devonport, Alderman W Waycott, cut the first sod in the laying out and improvement of the park. A procession had left Devonport Guildhall at 11.30am led by the Borough Band and 50 Borough Police under the direction of Superintendent Matters; the Fire Brigade; the Mercantile Association; the Schools Board; the Local Board Commissioners; the Borough Officials and members of the Corporation. It wound its way from Ker Street via St Aubyn and Fore Streets.
The architect responsible for the extension of the park was Mr. S Roberts and the contractor Mr. A N Coles. The first tree was planted in the enlarged park on October 22nd 1894 by the Chairman of the Park Committee, Alderman J May. A further tree was planted during the official opening of the Park to the public by the Mayor, Alderman J B James, on October 28th 1895. The Sicilian Fountain, rose garden and the distinctive Higher Lodge were some of the improvements made after 1894.
The Higher Lodge or Park Pavilion supplied refreshments such as teas, minerals and home made ices. Devonport’s coat of arms can be seen on the front of the building. One of the park keeper’s of the time, Mr. Baker, lived in the building. He was very strict and well respected by the children who played in the park. During WW2 the park served as a Barrage Balloon base, the offices were accommodated in this Lodge. Today, the building is a care home for the elderly. Further along from the Higher Lodge a wall forms the boundary of the park. This was the northern perimeter of Granby Army Barracks. The main walk extends along the length of the old trench that surrounded the Granby Barracks.
The Doris Gun, one of only 3 Boer War “porn porn” guns in the world, was unveiled in 1904 to commemorate the 11 marines and sailors from HMS Doris who died fighting alongside the army in the Boer War of 1899-1902. They had travelled some 800 miles inland to assist the army at the Battle of Paardeberg. Their shipmates paid to have the gun, captured from the Boers, mounted on a granite plinth. It is Grade 2 listed. The First World War Memorial pays homage to the 2,000 Devonport people who died in the fighting. It was unveiled by Lord Methuen on March 14, 1923. Although Devonport and Plymouth were united in 1914 people felt that in addition to the war memorial on the
Hoe, the area needed its own point of remembrance. Public subscriptions were raised to pay for the memorial. The crest of the Royal Flying Corps denotes the airmen as the RAF was not formed until 1918.
During the early 1930s the Child Welfare Clinic was opened at the bottom of the park. It was initially set up to inoculate children against diphtheria. It was also concerned with malnutrition in children and issued cod liver oil and malt. Today it is still a clinic called Headway and deals with people who have suffered head injuries.
The original children’s playground was opened in 1937 and was one of few which boasted a cycle track around it. Today there is a much larger adventure playground made possible by some of the £5million spent on regenerating the park during the last few years.
Underground air raid shelters were dug out to house up to 600 people during WW2. Evidence of these was discovered when the new children’s playground was being constructed in 2009. These shelters have now been covered and filled. However, there is one building in the park remaining from WW2. It is a red brick building built above ground in 1941, as a Cleansing and Decontamination Station, to be used in case of a gas attack. It can be found on the slope where there are views of the dockyard at the Exmouth Road end of the park. Today it houses the Plymouth & District Model Railway Club.
In 1957 the park was split by the advent of the new road, Park Avenue, which cut through it. It was built because of the Dockyard extension. At the time it was said that 99 years previous the War Office released the land to the people and now the Lords of the Admiralty were taking it away!
A new pavilion is being erected, which will give the bowls team a new home as well as providing a cafe and rooms for community events. The People’s Park is certainly a popular place to visit once again.