Story: Richard Belbin
The world was a rapidly changing place in 1909, though one that would be, in many ways, still very familiar to us. A ‘brave new world’ was under construction, with Louis Bleriot making the first flight across the English Channel, and work on the Titanic being started.
Meanwhile, the USA was extracting itself from one foreign intervention in Cuba but starting another in Nicaragua, Britain was coming out of a serious recession, a liberal government was about to be forced into an early election by the conservatives, Manchester United won the FA Cup, and Burngreave’s reputation across the rest of the city was poor.
Many families were feeling the pinch in those times, and not just the poor. One of the better off ‘sufferers’ was the family of a local solicitor called Bernard Wake (after whom a ward in the old Royal Hospital on West Street was named), who owned Abbeyfield House and the surrounding grounds.
Built in the 1840s, and originally called Pitsmoor Abbey, Abbeyfield was five and a half acres of land which first belonged to William Pass, the owner of a local colliery. Wake then turned it into a family home, adding the sundial, conservatory, greenhouses, a tennis court and outhouses in the 1890s. The gardens were redesigned and a boating lake created.
By 1909, however, the family had had enough of the ‘changed conditions of the neighbourhood’ and wanted to sell up, and so offered the house and grounds to the City Corporation for £10,500, an amount from which they would not budge, despite many requests from the council. Meanwhile, a rather more generous benefactor had simply ‘presented’ Norfolk Park to the city.
£10,500 was a tidy sum in those days (equivalent to almost £850,000 today) and so the corporation debated the question for some time, as did residents in the pages of the local press. Various correspondents thought it would be a waste of money, especially since there were already facilities at Firth Park and Burngreave Recreation Ground, and that the corporation simply could not afford it. So, at the first meeting of the General Purposes & Parks Committee, the offer was rejected.
The government of the day was supporting a series of public works across the country as a way of alleviating the poverty caused by the recession, and investment in parks was one of the ways they had of achieving this (in the same year they also introduced the first Old Age Pensions, and a minimum wage act). As well as the purchase of Abbeyfield, just over £1000 was spent improving the grounds at the Burngreave and Nottingham Cliffe Recreation Grounds.
The local MP, Liberal Henry J Wilson, supported the purchase, and offered £1000 from his own pocket ‘fearful lest by any chance [Abbeyfield] should be lost to the city.’ Writing to the local press he said that it would make an ‘excellent pleasure ground’ and that “Firth Park is so far out that practically none can properly avail themselves of it unless they have at least two or three hours to spare. Even then they must have a long walk or the expense of a tram.” His offer was supplemented by one of £1,500 from the Town Trust, which left the council with just £8,000 to pay, plus £250 fees. On January 4th the Finance sub-committee approved the plan, and it was passed to a full council meeting for approval later that month. Even then there were objections from councillors from Broomhall and Ecclesall, but the majority were happy with the plans put forward by Councillors Sir Charles Skelton and Mr Carter and the purchase was approved, with a loan to be repaid over the following sixty years. On July 15th Mayor Lord Fitzwilliam, formally opened the park to the public.
Abbeyfield has gone through many changes since then, with the house being used as a ‘work-room’ for the unemployed, training domestic servants, and then a school, as well as a dwelling house for the park workers. The boating lake was filled in and the playground moved to where the lake was, but whatever its design, the park has been immensely popular with residents from Burngreave and further afield and has always been as well loved as Henry Wilson thought it would be. What are your memories of Abbeyfield Park? We hope to print some people’s stories next issue.
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