Abbey Park’s Grand Opening
The opening of Abbey Park was a very grand affair. Much was made of the occasion, which was the culmination of an interesting journey to build Leicester’s “premier” park.
The land it is located on was not always the most obvious choice for such an ambitious design. A part of Abbey Meadows, it contained a marsh that was frequently flooded until the Leicester Navigation Canal was constructed in 1791. This brought a flurry of wharfs and warehouses springing up to take advantage of the new waterway. With this commercial growth there was a population explosion and it was soon decided that the crowded inhabitants of Belgrave Gate needed healthy green space, to coincide with Parliament’s Public Health Acts of the time. The Leicester Corporation purchased Abbey Meadows from the Earl of Dysart as part of the Leicester Improvement Act of 1876 and the flooding problem was solved by widening the river and lowering the riverbed.
The Derby-based firm of Barron and Son won the right to design Abbey Park in 1877 and the work was completed within both schedule and budget.
To celebrate the occasion, a grand opening was planned and two very special guests were invited to officially open the park. An address was presented to the Prince of Wales, the future Kind Edward VII on his way through Leicester to visit the Earl of Stamford in Bradgate Park in January 1882. He accepted and it was agreed that he and the Princess of Wales would open the park on Whit Monday, 29th May 1882.
A sum of £3000 worth of subscriptions was raised to decorate the streets along the procession route from Leicester Station to Belgrave gate and the royal couple’s carriage was met by enthusiastic crowds lining the streets (including one intoxicated reveller who got a bit too close for comfort and had to be escorted away by the Police!) They were driven through Abbey Park’s main gates and were walked up the mound next to the lake to enjoy the views, before inspecting some features lost over time, such as the American Garden and the Pavilion, which burnt down in 1959. The Mayor, Alderman Chambers, made a speech thanking all those who had contributed to the construction of the park and then presented the Prince with a large 18 carat gold key, with which he declared that the People’s Park was thereby open. The affair was concluded with more speeches, a presentation gift of a beautifully bound “History of Leicester” and a lavish lunch, with the menu consisting of forty five separate items.
A Royal Tree Planting
Whit Monday was also Royal Oak Day, a festival to commemorate the restoration of the monarchy based on the tale of Charles II escaping the Roundhead army by hiding in an oak tree in 1651. So it was symbolic that the Princess of Wales was invited to plant a young oak tree in Abbey Park. She was presented with an elaborate silver and ivory spade by the Ladies of Leicester with which to plant it and much to the surprise of all present, the Prince of Wales joined in with an ordinary workman’s spade!