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Parks, Playgrounds and Allotments


Parks in towns and more particularly cities have been around for a long time in one form or another. Many started out as private lands, often fenced off, set aside by the owner for sports such as hunting, others were patches of open land once reserved for some agricultural purpose (such as dairy herds) parts of which were then set aside as public parks in the modern sense.

In the later eighteenth century the practice of landscaping parks became popular and many such parks were then opened to the public, Regents Park in Central London was originally part of a private hunting forest set up by Henry VIII. It was landscaped in the early nineteenth century (by the city planner and architect John Nash) initially for the private use of the Royal Family but was opened to the public in about 1840. Some of these parks were donated by individuals, the Arboretum in Derby (opened to the public in 1840) was donated by one Joseph Strutt after he was made Mayor. The design adopted, by a chap called John Claudus Loudon, was subsequently used as the basis for Central Park in New York. It used raised banks of earth and trees to hide the design and give a sense of space, no two trees are the same.

Following the 1835 Municipal Reform Act each town set up a Health Boards, many of which encouraged the provision of public parks, with the subsequent introduction of Borough Councils (for whom civic pride was a major driving ideal) the number of public parks in the towns and cities increased. Municipal parks are very much associated with larger towns, where the dense housing of the industrial revolution left little open space for people to enjoy. I believe the town of Stockport, south of Manchester, still holds the record for having the largest proportion of its land set aside for public parks.

Prior to the development of public parks there had been areas of land set aside for the use of 'commoners' (ordinary folk). In the feudal post Norman invasion all the land was technically owned by the crown, parcels of it were then handed out to the 'nobility', some of this land had no practical use and became 'common land' or a 'common'. This land was used by commoners to graze their cattle and cut firewood, although the Lord of the Manor had a right to “approve” (i.e., appropriate for his own use) any of his lands he was still required to leave enough land to support the commoners' livestock. The system worked fairly well until the later 18th century when people began abusing the commons, over grazing with too many cattle and cutting wood in an unsustainable way. In the 19th century the government took control of the land but faced with the deteriorating state of common land they largely abandoned the system, selling the land into private ownership for agriculture and housing. This was known as the tragedy of the commons. Some commons did remain, although they were not used for grazing cattle or cutting firewood, they were retained as areas of open country for recreational use.


All parks operated by the local council had their park keeper, issued with (at the least) a hat and charged with keeping order, clearing rubbish and opening and closing the park gates at the set time of day (most parks closed at about dusk). The park keeper would have a 'hut' in which he could keep his equipment (and often the equipment used by the gardeners who mowed the grass and maintained the flower beds), this was often a rather large and imposing building but almost always a single storey structure. The example shown below is in a park in Edgley, south of Manchester, and overlooks the two bowling greens (note the almost continuous run of park benches for the spectators). Just behind the hut is the separate building housing the public toilets.

Fig ___ Park keepers hut
Park keepers hut photographed in 2006

Bowls had been a common pastime in Britain for many years and a bowling green was often set up and maintained by the local council as a public amenity. In smaller towns this might often be a small independent entity, quite a few were operated by pubs, in larger towns and cities such a green would often feature as part of a public park. The game is simple in theory, a mat is placed in one corner on which the bowlers must place on foot. A small ball is rolled across the grass as a target and the bowlers try and roll their balls as close to it as possible, knocking the opposition balls out of the way if possible. The target ball or Jack is about four inches (10cm) in diameter, the bowling balls are about five inches (13cm) in diameter, until about 2001 all were black, since then yellow and occasionally red jack balls have been introduced (I believe as of 2006 a coloured jack became a requirement under the rules of the game). There is no set size to a bowling green, most are square and a minimum size would be about seventy feet (21m) to a side, there is a gutter about six inches wide all round the edge to catch balls which roll too far. It us common to see a team in each corner of the green, playing diagonally across the grass.

There are two types of bowling green, one is simply a flat rectangle of grass, this type is seen all over the world, the other is the 'crown green' on which the entire area of the green bulges upwards toward the centre, the crown green is only seen in central England and North Wales (right across the country roughly from just north of Birmingham to the Lake District)

Fig ___ Crown Bowling Green
Crown Bowling Green photographed in 2006

Not all bowling greens were in parks (the example above is in my local village) and not all parks had them, many town parks were simply open spaces surrounded by trees with flower beds, meandering paths and often an open area of grass. Parks usually had several wooden slatted benches set at intervals alongside the pathways. Facilities such as tennis courts were added to town and city parks in the 1930s, and for a time in the 1950s and 60s the 'putting green' (a golf course where all the holes were close together, requiring only a putting iron to play, were quite popular.

Tennis courts in parks have a tarmac surface marked as shown below with white lines. The standard size for a tennis court is 78 feet (23.8m)long by 27 feet (8.2m) wide, a doubles court is slightly wider at 36 feet (11.0m), there is an additional space around the court, typically about four feet wide in the case of a public park court. The net is 3 feet high, the support posts are set a couple of feet outside the court. Each court (there are usually two or more in a public park) is surrounded by a high (9 or 10 feet) chain-link wire fence.

Fig ___ Tennis court markings
Tennis court markings

Where such facilities existed it was normal for the park keeper to have a selection of equipment for hire such as tennis rackets or putting irons. These were usually hired from the park keepers hut (the example shown above covered the tennis courts, bowling green and a putting course), in larger parks a secondary hut, manned by an assistant park keeper, might be provided close by such amenities. The example shown below is a small secondary hut associated with a pair of bowling greens in a small town park (I believe one of the greens was formerly a tennis court). The metal shutters replaced the traditional wooden shutters, many of which were of the lift-off and store-inside type.

Fig ___ Park keepers hut for renting of bowls equipment
Park keepers hut photographed in 2006

In the later 1960s and 1970s park keepers largely disappeared and the small cottages that went with the job were sold off. The councils sent teams of gardeners round at intervals to try and keep up the flower beds but by the mid 1990s the park keepers were widely reintroduced as people increasingly complained about the deplorable condition the parks had fallen into.

One common complaint about public parks in built up areas in the 1980s was that they were often littered with dog droppings, a hazard to children playing in the park (prior to this dog owners generally allowed their animals to do their business beside roadside trees on the streets, the move into the parks seems to have followed the departure of the park keepers). From the later 1990s rules were introduced that provided special bins for dog droppings, the owners being subject to a fine if they did not clear up after their animals.

Fig ___ Park dog-droppings bin
Park dog-droppings bin photographed in 2006

Public parks of this general type define a location as being within a town and offer considerable potential for modelling. For a time I lived in a place called Edgley, south of Manchester, and our local park had a set of tennis courts, a couple of bowling greens, ornamental flower beds, paths wending through wooded areas and a small lake on which people were allowed to sail model sailing boats (motor boats were banned). In the summer an ice cream van would be parked up and a gentle grassy hill by the lake was a good place for kite flying.

Some parks offer unusual amenities, at one of my local parks there is an elevated track, dual gauge for three and five inch gauge trains on which rides for children are provided every Sunday. As I understand it the council maintains the track on the basis that the local model engineering club provides kiddies rides during the summer. The track is supported on concrete posts (A) and has a metal strip on either side supported by angled metal bars (B), the passenger coaches live on-site in special sheds and have dropped sides with rollers that run on the metal strips.

Fig ___ Park railway
Park railway photographed in 2006

The engines are brought in on special trailers, there is a comprehensive preparation area complete with a traverser system which also serves as a turn-table. Most of the engines are steam but a few diesel electrics are also regularly used. The photographs below show part of the preparation area and the traverser-turntable.

Fig ___ Park railway preparation area
Park railway preparation area photographed in 2006

Each loco will normally pull two 'coaches' and as so many engines are on the line, which twists and curves through the trees, a comprehensive four aspect colour light signalling system is employed. The station area is equipped with a water hose for topping up the tanks on the steam engines.

Fig ___ Park railway station and signals
Park railway station and signals photographed in 2006


On old maps dating from the period shortly before the First World War you will see areas described as 'Gymnasium', these were simply areas where roundabouts, slides and (most commonly) swings were set up by the local council for the use of children. Swings were fairly standardised, two one inch wide chains supporting a metal frame carrying a simple wooden seat. The supporting gantry could be wood or metal, by the 1980s the wooden type seem to have disappeared. From about 1880 to the 1930s tubular metal posts were more expensive the girders, so park swings were quite often made using a 10 inch high I girder supported on five inch H girders, the two secured with bolted-on triangular plates. Typically a wooden frame would carry just two swings, on the metal type there would be three swings per section, but a long girder carrying six or nine swings, with supports between each set of three, were common.

By 1950 play equipment in parks was fairly standardised and most utilised tubular metal supports roughly three inches in diameter with purpose made fittings equipped with grub screws to connect them together. Standard kit for such a play area would include a set of swings, some fitted with retaining bars for very small children, a slide, a see-saw and at least one roundabout. Larger facilities might include a climbing frame (often a simple rectangular structure of tubular metal), a rocking horse, a multi-seat rigid armed 'plank swing' and a 'witches hat', a cone shaped metal frame supported on a central post which could swing from side to side as well as go round. The plank swings and witches hats were introduced in about 1930 and I believe all were removed in the early 1980s as they were considered too dangerous. Hence an older park modelled in 1980s would have a long rectangle and a circular patch of concrete where these once stood.

Fig ___ 1930s-1970s children's play equipment
Childrens play equipment for a park

Up to the 1950s most of this equipment sat on grass, with bare earth where children's feet had worn the grass down. By the mid 1950s the equipment was often set on a concrete or tarmac base, harder wearing but tougher on kiddie's knees. In the late 1970s a new form of covering was added to the concrete, particularly around the slides, a brownish red soft rubbery material with a rough surface that was slip resistant but unlikely to allow a child to come to harm. This material is said to have saved several lives each year as children fell of the top of slides or landed awkwardly after coming off the swings.

There was then little change to the basic playground equipment, the only new toys I have seen are the 'rocket' or 'aeroplane' made from tubular metal as a climbing frame, introduced in the mid 1960s, and a small spring mounted horse for younger children which came along in the mid 1980s. The examples shown below are typical, the spring toy is one with a tractor on top but rabbits and horses seem most common.

Fig ___ 1960s and 1980s play equipment
Childrens play equipment - sping ride from the 1980s

The 'adventure playground' appeared in the mid 1970s, equipped with sturdy structures, usually built of wooden poles with climbing nets, motor tyres suspended on ropes and the like. They proved popular and over time purpose built equipment appeared, by the later 1980s metal structures painted in bright primary colours were regularly featured. The ground in an adventure playground was initially plain earth and grass but by the later 1990s a covering of tree bark was common, providing a softer landing for children falling off things. By the time the adventure playground appeared the uniformed 'park keeper' was a very rare animal and as children often played unsupervised a higher degree of safety was designed-in to the facilities.


Allotments date back over 200 years, they came about as result of the loss of common land under the various 'enclosure acts'. This land had been used for growing food and the General Inclosure Act 1845 required that provision should be made for the landless poor in the form of 'field gardens' limited to a quarter of an acre. At the time this was aimed at people in rural areas who had been using the commons.

With the industrial revolution people poured into the towns and the idea of providing a plot of land to grow food was seen as having value and small parcels of land were set aside as allotments. The standard size of 10 poles (around 300 sq yards) was established on the basis that it would provide enough food for a family of four throughout the year.

During the two world wars the allotments provided valuable additional food and parks and other land was converted to allotments for the duration but with the development of modern agriculture the cost of food fell in the post war era, leading to a decline in allotments. Much of the land was sold off by the local council for housing development, nearly half the allotments had gone by the early twenty first century, leaving only about a quarter of a million and a wait of several years for the average applicant. There was then a resurgence of interest, mainly from people wishing to grow their own organic foods

Fig ___ Typical allotments
Typical allotments

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