A potted history

Brighton, despite being a major resort, was slow to provide parks and gardens for public use during the nineteenth century. This was partly due to the belief that its sea air, beach and promenade provided all the health, exercise and amusement the town required. Furthermore, parks cost money and the Town Council was reluctant to put up the rates in order to pay for one.

Alternative pastimes
This attitude was not shared by everybody in Brighton. A campaign was launched in 1876 to persuade the Town Council to provide a public park for the town. Campaigners argued that the public park represented a healthy and beneficial use of leisure time, an alternative to the pastimes of drinking and gambling. Parks offered the means ‘to afford the weary workman and his family an opportunity for the enjoyment of rest amidst the surroundings of nature’s loveliest forms.’

Preston Park official opening – 1884
It was not until 1883 that Brighton finally got its first public park, when the Town Council purchased Preston Park from Mr and Mrs Vere Bennett-Stanford for £50,000. The Council then spent another £22,000 in laying out a new park on the site. Preston Park was officially opened on 8 November 1884 by Alderman Cox, Mayor of Brighton. In his opening speech the Mayor hoped that the park ‘would long be a means of enjoyment, recreation and increased health to the inhabitants’.

The site consisted of just over 66 acres of land, which was landscaped to consist of a series of winding pathways set amongst scattered clumps of trees, with flower beds lining its boundary with the London Road. Recreational facilities were also provided with grass tennis courts and bowling greens being laid out at the south end of the park. A cricket ground and cycle track was added to the north east of the park in 1887.

Other public spaces
Other public spaces were opened in Brighton in the following years, including Queen’s Park, 1892 and the Victoria Gardens, 1897. Parks were seen as the town’s ‘lungs’, providing a pleasant landscape in which to relax and walk.

Expansion of public spaces
The years after the First World War witnessed a great expansion of public spaces provided by the Town Council. It was felt that the creation of more parks and gardens would enhance Brighton’s reputation as a resort. During these years more emphasis was put on parks as places for outdoor recreational activities. As such between 1922 and 1930 £142,000 was spent on improving parks and gardens. Improvements included the laying out of the seafront gardens in 1925, which consisted of paved walkways, flowerbeds, lawns and a children’s paddling pool. Preston Park, was substantially re-designed in 1928. The railings and southern entrance lodge were removed, a new rose garden created and a large number of shrubs were uprooted to make room for more recreational facilities such as tennis courts and bowling greens. New entrances to the park, with balustraded walls and dolphin lamp standards, were added in the 1930s. Other additions to the park included the Rotunda Café. This building had originally been an exhibit at the Wembley Exhibition of 1924. It was purchased by Brighton Borough Council and erected in the park in 1929.

Preston Park Rockery
Between 1934 and 1936 the Rockery was constructed on the side of the railway embankment on the opposite side of the road to Preston Park. Designed by Captain Maclaren, Park Superintendent, it consisted of 1,350 tons of Cheddar stone planted with 5,000 trees and 30,000 plants, including 1,000 water plants for a 100 foot (30 metre) waterfall. A picturesque thatched tea room was also built on the site. Brighton Corporation took great pride in the Rockery, the largest municipal rock garden in Britain. The Corporation Handbook for 1938 noted: ‘Brighton Parks and Gardens are justly famed for their wonderful floral displays. The Rockery, opposite Preston Park, contains thousands of different specimens of rock plants and it is the finest of its kind in the country.’

Promoting the town
The policy of using parks and gardens to promote the town’s image continued in the years immediately after the Second World War. In 1954 the Town Council was keen to state that ‘because of Brighton’s position as a leading seaside resort, policy has long kept a proud eye on the prestige and publicity value of the public gardens as an attraction’.

Decline of public spaces
By the 1970s many felt that the town’s public spaces had gone into decline. A combination of vandalism, litter and dog waste had led to the deterioration of many local parks and gardens. In some areas local residents began to campaign to ensure local parks were properly maintained. Out of the campaigns emerged local groups such as the Friends of Queens Park, which monitors the environment and carries out voluntary work to improve the facilities of the park. However, it was the great storm of 16 October 1987 that had the biggest impact on local parks and gardens. Winds of up to 113 miles per hour uprooted over 2,500 trees, 15% of the total in the urban area, dramatically altering the local landscape.

21st century renewal
In more recent years there has been a sustained effort to repair the damage caused by the great storm and to generally improve Brighton’s parks and gardens. New saplings have been planted to replace those lost in the storm, and a major lottery-funded programme to redevelop Preston Park took place from 2000-2002. As such Brighton’s parks and garden can look forward to a period of renewal in the 21st century.

Comments about this page

  • Excellent report. The information is what I have been looking out for since the early 1990s. I have researched elms in the city for nearly 20 years and Preston Park is very significant as the trees there are some of the best left in the world. The two old English elms in the Coronation Gardens, near the Manor House, are the world’s largest examples now.

    By Peter Bourne (31/08/2006)

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