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.