Moor Park – the first municipal park?

Preston proudly lays claim to having created the first municipal park in 1833 when it enclosed the final piece of Preston Moor to the north of the town and named it Moor Park. [1] The claim was recognised in the park’s listing as Grade II* in 1994, [2] but the claim did not go unchallenged. Prof Richard Hoyle in a valedictory article in which he said farewell to the town where he had lived and workedfor nearly two decades argued at length that the actual date of the park’s creation was 1867, long after other municipalities had opened their parks.[3]

The reasons for listing the park, which recognise an 1833 creation date, are set out on the Historic England website:

Moor Park, Preston, laid out 1833-5 and improved by Edward Milner in the 1860s, is designated at Grade II* for the following principal reasons:
Date: the park is an especially early example of a municipal park;
Design: although enhanced, the park’s design is essentially unchanged from its C19 layout;
Designer: Edward Milner, who in the 1860s enhanced the park and laid out two others in Preston, was a leading designer of parks in England;
Historic interest: the first municipal park laid out by an industrial town;
Structures and features: the park retains numerous features of C19 date;
Planting: Moor Park retains much of its C19 planting.

The website describes Preston Corporation’s 1833 vision for the park:

The ‘Plan of improvements on Preston Moor’, published in the Preston Chronicle (1833), shows the boundaries and basic design of the site remain unchanged. The moor was drained at great expense to provide an open central area labelled ‘Green Pasture’ (let as grazing until 1865), lightly planted with trees and surrounded by a perimeter walk, serpentine along the northern boundary. A lake was formed towards the north-west corner of the site and Ladies’ Walk (Moor Park Avenue) was laid out along the southern boundary.

Hardwick, writing in 1857, listed Moor Park along with other public spaces in the town. He described the park thus:

The Moor Park [which] was enclosed in 1834 … already possesses something of an ornamental character. The fine straight avenue, from west to east, called “the ladies’ walk,” is adorned by plantations, and picturesque entrance lodges. The “Serpentine-road,” across the northern side of the moor, is likewise varied by some planting. A small lake and picturesque lodge also add to the variety and beauty of the park. Much, however, is yet required in the shape of landscape gardening before the corporation can be said to have carried out their original purpose. The air is very salubrious, and the situation admirably adapted to meet the growing wants of the town on the north. Even in its present condition, Moor Park is much frequented, and will doubtless, in a short time, become so general a promenade, that further additions to the planting and laying out of the ground may confidently be anticipated. [4]

Hardwick recorded that a ‘committee of taste’ appointed in 1846 was soon assigning funds for the improvement of Moor Park. [5] Further improvements came in the 1860s as the Historic England website records:

During the Cotton Famine of the early 1860s, the Town Council commissioned Edward Milner (1819-94) to prepare a report on Preston’s parks. This was part of a wider scheme to assist out-of-work cotton operatives by employing them to carry out public works, financial support coming from the Public Works Loan Commissioners. Milner submitted proposals in February 1864 and was subsequently invited to design and oversee the building of two new parks, Avenham and Miller Parks, and to improve Moor Park. At Moor Park, Milner retained all the features of the original plan of 1833, adding roads across and round the site, enhancing the tree cover and plantings of ornamental shrubs and landscaping the north-west quarter of the site, including the addition of a rockery and cricket ground. The total cost of these improvements was £10,826 7s 9d and the park was formally opened on 3 October 1867 …

The figure of £10,826 7s 9d seems to have been taken from Hewitson. But he treats the sum as the amount spent on the creation rather than the improvement of the park, noting that, ‘The forming of Moor Park cost £10,826 7s 9d.’ And earlier he writes, ‘… the park has, since its opening, in 1867, been in various respects attractive and enjoyable.’ [6] This raises the question of when Moor Park came into being: in 1833 or 1867. And, if the latter, does Preston have to surrender its claim to park primacy?

The question is answered firmly in the negative in the article on Moor Park by Prof Richard Hoyle. [7] The article was described by Prof Hoyle as his ‘valediction to Preston, and to Lower Bank Road in particular’, where he lived for nearly 20 years, and from where he had a clear view from his office over Moor Park. In the article he challenges the claim that Moor Park was the world’s first municipal park.

He traces the claim to the 1991 publication that forms the key text on the subject of municipal parks, Hazel Conway’s People’s Parks,[8] noting that she ‘identified Moor Park as “the first [municipal park] to be established in an industrial town”. In her chronological listing of park foundations, Moor Park is placed third after Regent’s Park in London and the Royal Victoria Park in Bath, the last not technically a municipal park as Bath only rented the land.’ [9]

Prof Hoyle argues that this claim might not have been recognised by 19th-century Prestonians, ‘In 1860, a correspondent in the Preston paper [Chronicle] complained of the lack of space for recreation in the town, pointing out that Moor Park was in the hands of a tenant and there was no public access to it, save for the footpath which crossed it. He suggested that Preston had been left behind in the provision of recreational space, and pointed to the example of Blackburn which had just spent some £17,000 in the provision of a public park.’ [10] He argues that the town had to wait until 1863 for plans to be drawn up to turn the enclosed moor into a proper municipal park: the Moor Park which was opened in October 1867, along with Avenham Park.

Prof Hoyle seems to suggest that in its early incarnation Moor Park should be filed under public walks rather than parks, basing his distinction on quotations from Conway’s book, although it is difficult to see from his quotations why the early Moor Park should not be classified as a park:

Parks are to be distinguished from public walks. J. C. Loudon described the walk ‘as promenades or roads amongst trees “and such other verdant scenery as the situation may afford, heightened and rendered more interesting by art”’ [11] … Parks, on the other hand, were areas of some extent, ‘varied by wood, water, rocks, buildings and other objects’. [12]

Prof Hoyle concludes:

Having reviewed the evidence of the council’s own minutes, one is bound to comment that the status of the Park has been very much misunderstood. Initially, it was seen as a cow pasture for the freemen’s cattle. This idea seems to have been quietly dropped when it became clear that the freemen had no right to compensation but were also slow to defend their entitlement. When the reformed corporation came into office in 1836, it saw the Moor largely as an income-earning asset. Whilst one would not rule out the possibility that some of the Moor Park was sometimes used for sport, it seems most likely that the overall effect of the enclosure of the Moor was to privatise open ground which was then placed in the hands of a grazing tenant. The public provision made in 1833-35 was for public walks or promenades along the edge of the Moor. The intention was that these would be fringed by high quality housing which would overlook the park. There are references to the aspiration that the Park should be public recreation space, but these were not followed through, and overall the financial imperative seems to have weighed more heavily than public provision. The establishment of Moor Park as a park must be dated to 1867, and so we must disallow any claim that it is the oldest municipal park in England – or the world. [13]

Preston Council could, of course, contend that Prof Hoyle was making the issue far more complicated than it need be. The corporation in 1833 owned the land, so it was municipal, and they were landscaping it to make it a pleasant place of recreation for the town, so it was a park: therefore, it was a municipal park, on the basis that if it quacks then it’s a duck. Also, Prof Hoyle, in arguing that the ‘establishment of Moor Park as a park must be dated to 1867’, seems to be excluding the earlier creation date because the park of that date did not emerge fully fledged with all the refinements of a late-Victorian park. But expecting the pioneering park of the 1830s to conform exactly to the designs of an Edward Milner is rather like expecting Stephenson’s Rocket to have incorporated all the subsequent advances in steam engine design. The corporation itself clearly saw it as a park for, as noted above, in 1846 its ‘committee of taste’ was raising funds for ‘the improvement of the Moor park’. [14]

Prof Hoyle maintains that the enclosed common had to wait until 1867 to become a municipal park, along with Avenham Park. And yet comparing Moor Park in the 1840s with Avenham Park in the 1890s, as shown on the relevant OS maps, they seem remarkably similar in their layouts. They both had pleasant walks, attractive lodges, an ornamental pond and a large area of open grassland in the centre with a single path across it. Of course, Avenham Park did not have Moor Park’s grazing cattle (the northern equivalent of Richmond Park’s deer herd?). So what did Avenham Park in the 1890s have that Moor Park in the 1840s did not that made the former a municipal park and the latter merely an enclosed common? The surveyors of the 1840s clearly saw it as a park, labelling it Preston Moor Park on their map.

The map at the top is that of Moor Park surveyed for the Ordnance Survey in the 1840s, the one below is taken from the OS map showing Avenham Park in the 1890s. If the two were unnamed and undated, could Professor Hoyle say which was park and which merely landscaped walks?

Prof Hoyle’s valedictory article provides a detailed account of the influence of local politics on the development of parks and public spaces in Preston, drawing on a wealth of source material in newspapers and council reports, but in the end he does not manage to undermine Preston Council, Historic England and Helen Conway in their advocacy of the primary position of Moor Park in the history of municipal parks. The 1833 enclosure to form Moor Park may not have been marked with the civic ceremony that marked the completion of Milner’s improvements in 1867: but in 1833 Preston clearly created a park.

* Somewhat disappointingly, Prof Hoyle’s article in Northern History is not available online to non-academics since it is enclosed behind a rather expensive pay wall which even JSTOR does not breach. The journal can be found at Lancashire Archives and in the University of Central Lancashire library (open to local residents).

[1] ‘History of Moor Park | Preston City Council’, accessed 29 November 2017, http://www.preston.gov.uk/yourservices/culture-parks-and-events/moor-park/history-moor-park/.
[2] ‘Moor Park’, Historic England, n.d., https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1001309.
[3] R W Hoyle, ‘The Enclosure of Preston Moor and the Creation of Moor Park in Preston’, Northern History 49, no. 2 (September 2012): 281–302.
[4] Charles Hardwick, History of the Borough of Preston and Its Environs, in the County of Lancashire (Preston: Worthing, 1857), 436.
[5] Hardwick, 309.
[6] Anthony Hewitson, History of Preston, reprint of 1883 edition (Wakefield: S. R. Publishers, 1969), 328–29.
[7] Hoyle, ‘Moor Park’.
[8] Helen Conway, People’s Parks : The Development and Design of Victorian Parks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
[9] Hoyle, ‘Moor Park’, 282.
[10] Hoyle, 299–300.
[11] Conway, People’s Parks, 11.
[12] Conway, 11.
[13] Hoyle, ‘Moor Park’, 301.
[14] Hardwick, History of Preston, 309.