Park research breaks new ground

Posted by pt91 at Oct 19, 2011 11:10 AM |
University of Leicester researcher investigates untold history of public parks
Park research breaks new ground

Dr Katy Layton-Jones in Leicester's Victoria Park.

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 19 October 2011

Image of Dr Katy Layton-Jones available via

Those of us who live in towns and cities may take public parks for granted, but in fact it was only during the growing urbanisation of the Victorian era, between 1840-60, that they were established to enable townspeople no longer living on the edge of the countryside to have open areas of green land where they could walk.

An urban historian at the University of Leicester, Katy Layton-Jones, has been championing the cause of public parks since her undergraduate days. 

Through her research she hopes to keep alive an awareness of their importance to the public and to help protect them as places not just of recreation, but also of importance to the folk memories of communities.

In this context, Dr Layton-Jones cites the ‘Shoe Tree’ in a Liverpool park, into which school students who have just completed their A Levels and GCSEs traditionally fling their footwear. 

In spite of their name and the fierce interest they evoke among local pressure groups when threatened, the provision of public parks is not a statutory obligation, and memories that enrich a community can all too easily be lost, says Dr Layton-Jones.

A primary source for her research is the parks themselves, which reveal their history, for instance of the Second World War era, when their iron railings were removed and many parks were turned over to allotments to help the war effort.

A walk in the park may sound a pleasant research option, but in other ways Katy Layton-Jones’ investigations have been considerably hampered by the lack of any available previous publications on the subject.  

Only one academic book is currently available and many records which did exist up to the Second World War were destroyed in bomb attacks, leaving Dr Layton-Jones with little to go on when she began to investigate parks.   “I did not know where to begin.   I simply had a blank canvas,” she admitted.

That ‘blank canvas’ has begun to fill with some fascinating details.   The design of English parks, it seems, quickly spread far beyond these shores.  Central Park in New York, which opened in 1857, owes its design to English parks, in particular those created by Joseph Paxton, whose parks included the highly popular Crystal Palace.

Nor has the history of public parks proved to be dull – or even uniformly respectable.   Throughout the 19th century parks, as now, they were scenes of sex and vandalism.   Leicester’s Clarendon Park was one of many to offer young people in domestic service their only opportunity for illicit liaisons after dark, well away from the disapproving eyes of their employers.

Other things have not changed.   In Victorian times the proximity of an attractive park would have a major effect on the housing market.

Dr Katy Layton-Jones’ research has been funded by English Heritage and her findings resulted in a book published by them and in the BBC magazine ‘Who do you think you are?’   She produces leaflets for use by city councils and is a frequent public speaker on the subject of parks.

Her work also receives support from Liverpool City Council.

Notes to Editors: Further details are available from Dr Katy Layton-Jones, Centre for Urban History, University of Leicester, email,

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