Celebrating the history and heritage of Victoria Park is central to the revival of Victoria Park. The project is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and we share its belief that understanding, valuing and sharing our heritage brings people together, inspires pride in communities and boosts investment in local economies.
Victoria Park has a long and rich history. Created in 1878 after the old naval city walls were demolished, it turned farmland into an open green space for those living in cramped conditions in Landport and Portsea. The park became a symbol of Portsmouth’s transformation from a garrison town into a modern Victorian city.
You can explore Victoria Park’s past on this page and see the heritage tour of the park on Portsmouth City Council’s Facebook page.
Did you know?
The site of Victoria Park lies outside of the two historic centres of Portsmouth; the old town of Portsmouth and the naval dockyard. For that reason, we know much of the park has never been built on and the shale bed of the tidal creek is just below the surface. Within Victoria Park we have some of the oldest and uninhabited land in the city.
Exploring our history through the project
Our goal is to restore, uncover, respect and celebrate the park’s heritage. We want to preserve, understand, interpret and learn from Victoria Park’s past. There are many aspects of the park’s history that individuals, groups and schools might find interesting, for example:
- What did the opening of the park mean to local people in 1878?
- What does the design of the fountain tell us about the Arts and Crafts movement?
- What are the stories behind the people remembered by the memorials? Can we trace individual servicemen to the streets of Portsea and Landport?
- What do the monuments tell us about why those places were visited? What does that mean to us today?
- What was it like to use the British Restaurant in the park which provided hot food for bombed out families during the Second World War?
An interpretation scheme will help us tell the story of the park using modern and traditional methods.
Click the tabs below to learn about different aspects of the park’s heritage.
Originally Portsmouth was a walled city, built to protect against potential invaders and centred around the port and naval defences. Land outside the city walls, but still on the island of Portsea, was open farmland.
The remains of the old city walls lie under the north western section of the park. Excavations near Ravelin Park as part of the development of the new University Sports Centre uncovered archaeological evidence of the old walls. This enabled us to learn more about the history of the area prior to the park.
The presence of fortifications acted to supress development immediately outside the town. It was important and, in many cases mandated, to retain a clear field of fire within a set distance of the main defensive line. Throughout this time, the site of the park lay well outside the defended and developed areas of the town and dockyard.
The park site as a whole, lay immediately north of a former tidal creek, known to have been converted into a mill pond by the late 16th century. Historic map analysis indicates that by the early 18th century the park site was in use as meadows.
The development of long range guns meant the city could be defended from the hill at Portsdown and the Solent, so the old naval fortifications were demolished. This led the way for the civic leaders to apply to the War Department for a lease of the land to build a people’s park in the 1870s.
By the 1860s the city had out grown the old naval walls and the new civic leaders requested that land around the demolished walls be turned into a park for the people of the city.
The idea for a people’s park, a designated open green space for those living in cramped conditions in Landport and Portsea, was novel in those days. Outside the old walls the land was still mostly agricultural but this was becoming developed as the new city flourished in the Victorian era. The War Department agreed to lease the land to the council for £50 a year, stipulating it must be used only for the intended recreational purpose.
The council commissioned leading landscape Alexander Mackenzie to design the park in the new ‘London’ style and while promenades and a rose garden were a feature of the new park, much of the planting was intended to reflect a more natural environment.
The park was opened in 1878 with a procession of members of the corporation in civic robes, the fire brigade, police, bands of the Royal Marine Artillery and the Portsea Island Union. The mayor presided over the switching on of the central fountain. At that time the park included a bandstand, drinking fountains, a greenhouse, a playground and places to play croquet and quoits. The town’s coat of arms was laid out in floral designs by the park entrances.
Shortly afterwards an aviary was added to the site housing rare birds and animals, linking the people of Portsmouth to scientific exploration and commercial and colonial expansion around the globe. All that many local people knew of this was the sense of the exotic brought to them through the aviary and hothouse. Imagine hearing the call of a peacock for the first time or feeling the wet heat of the rainforest a mile from your home on Queen’s Street. It must have been magical.
As part of our project we will look at the impact of Britain’s expansion around the world on the people of Portsmouth. As well as the impact on the people and places that they went to. The history of British expansion is reflected in the stories of the monuments in the park. Most of these were paid for by public subscription as memorials to family and friends who were lost at sea during campaigns, wars and voyages abroad. Many of the plants and trees in the park contribute to this international tale as well, as scientific exploration went hand in hand with commercial and colonial expansion.
The park has continued to evolve and change throughout it’s history. Attempts have been made to develop on the land but these have always been resisted except in exceptional circumstances during the two world wars and to provide other public facilities like the public swimming baths.
At its height the aviary was a significant attraction, with over 200 birds including peacocks, silver pheasants, budgerigars, canaries and even a monkey. The hothouse was home to over 400 species of plants including citrus fruits, sugar cane and coffee. It also had stepping stones which feature heavily in many people’s childhood memories of the park. Sadly, some years ago the maintenance became too costly and the hothouse had to be dismantled.
The landscape and layout of Victoria Park is of historical interest having been designed by Alexander McKenzie who also created Finsbury Park, the Victoria and Albert Embankment and Alexandra Palace Park. The original design for the 3.5ha site created an excellent example of a late-19th-century ‘London’ style park which had begun to move away from stylised formal gardens towards a more natural planting scheme. McKenzie wrote about this in his pamphlet The parks, open spaces and thoroughfares of London (1869).
Although McKenzie included such features as the Rose Garden and lined avenue of trees, the pathways around the park took people to boundaries planted with bushes, shrubs and trees, as might be found in the natural landscape. He used this to create arbours and area of shade and employed a wide range of plants that tolerated the British climate but also flowered and bore fruit across the year to create seasonal interest.
This was a break with tradition and made the commission of McKenzie a radical choice for a city outside London at the time. To the best of our knowledge Victoria Park is only one of two parks designed by McKenzie outside London, the other being in Maidstone, Kent.
McKenzie’s design proposals were accepted in principle by the council in 1876 but there was some negotiation over the exact layout and cost of the park. McKenzie’s original design, coming in at £2,625 was considered too expensive and he was instructed not to exceed £2,000. As a result, aspects of the original design were omitted.
For Victoria Park, McKenzie specified the following planting:
• The central avenue to be lined with horse chestnuts.
• Groups of shrubs in beds comprising sumac, laburnum, acacia, flowering almonds, double flowering peaches, double and single thorns, copper beech, silver poplar, silver birch, scarlet oak and variegated Acers.
• Single examples of weeping elms, Kilmarnock willows and conifers.
The shrubs for the park were provided by Thomas Short of Southsea, who submitted the lowest of three tenders, at a cost of £265 and grass seed was supplied by Suttons of Reading.
McKenzie was retained to supervise the laying out of the park. The park was laid out under the direction of the council’s Road and Works Committee with Mr Hall, the Borough Clerk of Works, and Mr Adams, the Borough Engineer, acting on behalf on the council. Planting was undertaken in 1876 and included horse chestnut trees to line the central avenue.
The main part of the park, as shown on the 1881 Ordnance Survey map, is similar to the park which exists today. The tree-lined central avenue, running from the Lodge at the Anglesea Road entrance to the railway arch leading to the town centre, as well as axial paths are clearly shown and the shrubberies characteristic of McKenzie’s style are also still present.
The park hosts nine naval memorials commemorating ships, people and international events linked to Portsmouth’s naval history.
The first of these was the Admiral Napier memorial which commemorates “the untiring efforts of a gallant officer and true-hearted man in advancing the welfare of the British sailor” The memorial notes that “This column is erected by petty officers, non-commissioned officers, seamen and marines of Her Majesty’s navy.” The monument was originally sited on the corner of Commercial Road but after the opening of the park it was moved to its present position as it had apparently become hazardous to traffic.
In its first 30 years the park appears to have become a key place of naval commemoration, perhaps precipitated by the moving of the Napier monument. Whilst monuments within Portsmouth were often placed at Clarence Esplanade, the position of the park, immediately between the town centre and the Royal Navy’s dockyard and associated bases, is likely to have been particularly influential in cementing it as the place for naval commemorations and the home for eight further memorials.
The memorials to HMS Victoria, HMS Centurion, HMS Powerful, HMS Active and HMS Royal Sovereign were mostly paid for by public subscription and placed to remember ships that did not return to Portsmouth. Most carry the names of ordinary sailors, many of them locals, who did not return.
Perhaps the most visually striking is the Chinese-themed HMS Orlando memorial hosting a bell which was brought home by veterans of the Boxer Rebellion in 1901. Some years ago the original Fort Taku bell was returned to its home in Tianjin, China and a replica, provided by the Chinese Government, now hangs in its place.
We also know that HMS Shah which stands alone near the aviary fired the first locomotive torpedo used in anger while serving near Peru. It was involved in the Zulu War in South Africa, visited the Pitcairn Islands in the Pacific, and ended up in Denmark where the decking was re-purposed as flooring for a Royal Palace.
The stories of the memorials and the men they commemorate will be explored as part of the project and we will consider how the interpretation of the events they took part in has changed over time.
For further details please see the Memorials of Victoria Park page here
The fountain is part of the original landscape of the park and is a Grade II listed building.
It is made up of an ornate cast-iron fountain with moulded base supporting four swans seated above a large ornamental tray featuring numerous leaves and plants and sitting on a random stone rubble. The Arts and Crafts naturalistic motifs were very popular at the time and matched McKenzie’s more naturalistic landscape style.
Fountain’s were often the centrepieces in 19th century parks and it is believed that this fountain originally featured in the Great Exhibition of 1851 at Crystal Palace. We now know what the Victorians sensed, which is that that the sound of trickling water is actually very good for you, as it reduces stress and anxiety.
The fountain played a key role in the park’s opening ceremony. From a Hampshire Telegraph article of the time we are told:
“In his address the Mayor described the park as ‘for the use of the people of Portsmouth’ and proposed to ‘leave it with them to take care of’. The Mayor then turned on the fountain, and declared the park open.”
The fountain was restored 1978 and formed part of the ceremony to celebrate the centenary of the park.
World War One
During World War One, the park, as the town centre’s principal open space, came to be used for military drills and fundraising events alongside its more usual recreational uses. In June 1916 the park hosted the Battle of Jutland memorial service, commemorating the sea battle in which the German Fleet tried to break the North Sea blockade. This battle saw the single biggest loss of British servicemen in a naval battle, 14 ships were sunk and 6,094 lives lost, many hundreds of them from Portsmouth. During the war the park also housed a TB dispensary for the distribution of advice and medicines to treat the disease.
The southern-most corner of the park under the railway bridge was given over after the First World War to the Portsmouth War Memorial, also referred to as the Cenotaph. This was funded by public subscription and commemorated those Portsmouth citizens who had lost their lives in World War One, it was unveiled in 1921.
Between the world wars
Portsmouth became city in 1926 and the council finally purchased Victoria Park from the War Department in 1932. Thankfully despite much pressure to redevelop the land the park was maintained. Only the area south of the railway line was lost for a technical college.
By 1933, a new entrance from Anglesea Road into the park had been added and a playground constructed. The aviary had been significantly expanded, with further buildings and pens added. At the extreme north eastern tip of the park, a further curvilinear path had been installed. Electricity infrastructure had been installed in the north-eastern corner of the park in the form of a substation which still exists at this location. Some effort was made to blend this structure in to the park and it is designed in a diluted Arts and Crafts style.
By 1939 the bandstand had been removed and the new swimming baths had been built. Plans for further building in the park in the form of a School of Art were shelved with the outbreak of the Second World War.
World War Two
During World War Two air-raid shelters and static water supply tanks were installed in the park. During the devastating weekend of bombing in Portsmouth on 10-11 January 1941 72 people were killed and hundreds made homeless across the city but particularly in Landport and Portsea given their proximity to the city centre and the dockyard. Throughout the war 930 people were killed in air raids and over 6000 properties were destroyed. A British restaurant was established in the park to feed those families that had been bombed out of the homes.
The park itself suffered three direct hits. The bombs destroyed shelters and the park’s summerhouse. It was a difficult time for the park with the staffing levels down from 150 to 44 and the animals housed in the aviary being fed on scraps by staff.
British Restaurants were a wartime initiative, set up by the Ministry of Food in 1940, to ensure workers and those who had been bombed out had access to at least one square meal a day. Most were set up in existing buildings but, where no suitable premises existed, a prefabricated ‘Nashcrete’ hut, made to ministry designs was used, this is likely to have been the case in Victoria Park.
The Civic Restaurants Act of 1947 allowed for these restaurants to continue under the management of the local authority as noted on the 1948/9 Ordnance Survey. The continuation of these restaurants was considered a necessity by the post-war government as the end of the war had not immediately provided the public with regular access to nutritious food. It was recognised as a failing that the return to peace had not brought about the hoped for rapid return to prosperity. Many still struggled with access to housing and food for some years.
The park has undergone some significant changes in the last 50 years, with the loss of some well-loved buildings.
The British Restaurant, later Municipal Restaurant, was finally closed sometime between 1948 and 1952 according to Ordnance Survey evidence.
The summer house was not replaced after being hit by a bomb during the Second World War but the hothouse continued to be a popular favourite until it became too expensive to maintain in the 1980s. Victoria Park swimming baths were where thousands of Portsmouth children to learn to swim until the pool was replaced by new facilities at the Mountbatten Centre in 1979. The current aviary was built in 1987 following the great storm that destroyed its forerunner.
The Workers Day memorial
In 2007 Portsmouth Trades Union Council was given permission to build a Worker’s Day memorial which becomes the focus each year to commemorate those who have lost their lives at work, or from work-related injury and diseases. Workers Memorial Day is commemorated throughout the world on 28th April and is officially recognised by the UN and UK Government.
The memorial reads:
THIS STONE IS DEDICATED TO ALL WORKERS WHO HAVE SUFFERED ILLNESS, INJURY, DEATH OR BEEN KILLED AS A CONSEQUENCE OF THEIR WORK. REMEMBER THE DEAD AND FIGHT FOR THE LIVING.
WORKERS MEMORIAL DAY 28TH APRIL PORTSMOUTH TRADE UNION COUNCIL
Did you know?
The bandstand in Victoria Park was an original feature of the park but audiences were not allowed to dance while enjoying the music. At one time they even considered removing the bandstand as it encouraged too many high spirits among the ‘larrikins’ and plain clothes police were sent in to monitor the crowd. In 1922 dancing was finally allowed, 44 years after the park first opened – just in time for the Charleston craze which swept the world from 1923.
Image courtesy of Portsmouth Museums