A fact that most Americans seem unable to grasp, is that Central Park in New York was modelled on the
once opulent Birkenhead Park in the mid nineteenth century.
The Select Committee on Public Walks published a report in June 1833 that would lead to one of
Birkenhead most interesting features. The committee had been appointed "to consider the best means of
securing Open Spaces in the vicinity of populous towns as Public Walks and Places of Exercise, calculated
to promote the Health and Comfort of the Inhabitants". Other parks had been developed in Manchester,
Derby and Liverpool but none of these were municipal parks open to the public.
In 1841, alarmed by the exploding population figures, the idea of a public park in Birkenhead was first
raised by Mr Isaac Holmes, a Liverpool Councillor. Two years later, empowered by another Improvement
Act, the Birkenhead Commissioners created history by purchasing land on which to construct the world's
first publicly funded park. The site chosen for the park was part of the Birkenhead Estate, owned by Mr F R
Price. The land was low lying, a mixture of fields, marsh and commons, and contained a small farmhouse
which was a known beer den where illegal gambling and dog fighting took place.
The land was purchased cheaply because of its poor quality. 125 acres were designated for public use,
the remaining 60 acres were to be sold for private residential development. The proceeds from the sale of
the building plots was sufficient to recoup all the costs incurred by the purchase of the land and the
construction of the park. An Improvement Committee chaired by William Jackson was set up to supervise
the development of the park. Joseph Paxton, a Landscape Gardener whose work in Liverpool had brought
him to the attention of the Committee, was approached and in August 1843 he was engaged to design
and construct the park at a fee of £800.
In 1843 he wrote to his wife ...
"It is not a very good situation for a park as the land is generally poor but, of course, it will rebound more
to my credit and honour to make something handsome and good out of bad materials".
In November 1843 the completed plan of the park and the preliminary sketches for the lodges (drawn up
by Paxton's assistant, John Robertson) had been approved. Preparatory work began on the site under
the supervision of Edward Kemp - later the Park Superintendent. A young Liverpool architect, Lewis
Hornblower, was engaged to supervise the construction of the lodges, and to design and oversee other
artifacts and building work within the park. There concept was to create an idealised countryside
landscape of open meadows and naturalistic woodland belts. In order to do this they created man made
lakes, shaped to appear as sinuous rivers with views across them to features such as the Boathouse and
Major planting of trees and shrubs was carried out during the planting season of Autumn 1844 & 1845.
Attention was then directed to the establishment of grassland areas. Sixty acres of peripheral land were
divided into building plots and sold for private development at two auctions and through estate agents. In
order to ensure a degree of uniformity and consistent high standard of development, strict rules were laid
down regarding the construction of the dwellings. Any unsold plots of land were eventually absorbed into
the public area of the park. For example, the area now known as the Bowling Greens on Park Road North
was laid out for bowls and quoits in 1880. The Boothby Ground was purchased from the Boothby Estate
as late as 1903.
Work was virtually complete by Autumn 1846 but the official opening of the park was delayed until 5th April
1847, in order to coincide with the opening of the Birkenhead Dock Complex. The park was opened by
Lord Morpeth and visited on that day by an estimated 10,000 people. The strength and flexibility of the
original design were revealed over the years by the ease with which the park evolved to satisfy the
changing demands of its users. From an almost entirely passive function the park absorbed facilities for
active sports and large scale events. Commemorative trees were planted, unemployment relief schemes
undertaken. Two World Wars intruded onto the park, different buildings and structures erected and then
removed or demolished. Some areas such as the area known today as The Sunken Garden changed their
nature and their name.
It is widely accepted that, after visiting Birkenhead Park in 1850, American landscape architect Frederick
Law Olmsted incorporated many of the features he observed into his design for New York's Central Park.
He wrote about the strong influence of Birkenhead Park in his book Walks and Talks of an American Farmer
in England, and commented:
"Five minutes of admiration, and a few more spent studying the manner in which art had been employed to
obtain from nature so much beauty, and I was ready to admit that in democratic America there was nothing to
be thought of as comparable with this People’s Garden".
Olmsted also commented on the "perfection" of the gardening:
"I cannot undertake to describe the effect of so much taste and skill as had evidently been employed; I will only
tell you, that we passed by winding paths, over acres and acres, with a constant varying surface, where on all
sides were growing every variety of shrubs and flowers, with more than natural grace, all set in borders of
greenest, closest turf, and all kept with consummate neatness".
Olmsted described Birkenhead as "a model town” which was built "all in accordance with the advanced
science, taste, and enterprising spirit that are supposed to distinguish the nineteenth century".
Other parks influenced by Birkenhead Park include Sefton Park in Liverpool. Paxton's original design
remains largely intact. In 1977 the park was designated a Conservation Area and in 1995 declared a
Grade 1 Listed Landscape by English Heritage.