The History of the use of Western Park for leisure.
The land on which we enjoy Western Park was once part of the Southern-west border of the ancient Charnwood Forest, and has changed hands over many centuries, from owners John O’Gaunt in the 1560’s until John Mellor who sold 183 acres to the Leicester City Corporation in 1897.
Until the enclosure of New Parks in the 1530’s, the Frith was common land where food and wood would sustain families. According to a survey in 1606, the Farmhouse Pavilion had a ‘fair pool, well stocked with fish’. This pool was probably a tributary of the Dove Brook, and one that the Corporation took advantage of as they met the growing demand for open spaces where the Industrialised city dwellers could escape from the densely populated slums of the city for taking in fresh air, free of city smog.
Leicester City Corporation took pride in providing their citizens with a public park with a majestic entrance and lined avenue of trees. The ‘fair pool’ became the much loved paddling pool, and that, along with tennis courts, the band stand and a play area secured the immediate success of the park with all social classes.
Although now part of Leicester City, when opened the park was a few miles out of the city, so with the arrival of the tram terminal to the park gates, the number of visitors even further. At various stages in the following 100 years, these visitors have had the leisure activities of ever modern play areas, a sand pit, Skateboard Park, fitness equipment, bowls, cricket and the leisure services of a toilet block and café in the farmhouse.
Leisure use of the park is always evolving, and now the park is also used for large events such as charity runs and music events – the band stand still serves the public who seek out the beauty of the landscape and the peace and quiet of the park, 120 years after it opened.
Western Park and the World Wars
Western Park was Leicester’s biggest park for the majority of the twentieth century so it is not surprising that it was used for wartime activities during the World Wars. During the Second World War, air raid drills ran there and military inspections and processions also took place in its grounds.
There was a public air raid shelter in the corner of the park next to Hinckley Road and children recall seeing guns and search lights illuminating the sky above it, with concrete sewer pipes being laid across the grassy areas to prevent enemy aircraft from attempting to land.
In the First World War, the Wartime Ambulance Station trained on Western Park and it was also the training ground for the Leicester Regiment’s volunteers at the beginning of the conflict, when the recruitment drive was at its most popular. Even the grass of the golf course was used for the war effort when it was harvested towards the end of the war to feed horses and cattle when Great Britain’s agriculture was stretched under rationing and wartime conditions.
The Leicester Airplane
On the 3rd of June 1916, an aeroplane was donated by 154 subscribers from the Leicester Chamber of Commerce to Canada as a token of friendship. The fact that the ceremony took place in Western Park at all was circumstantial as it was originally supposed to be in Victoria Park but the pilot, Captain Richardson, was unable to land it there. Kitchener was also supposed to be present for the handover as he lived locally but at short notice was ordered to the Russians but was killed in transit two days later.
Still, the gifting of the plane was witnessed by approximately 30,000 people and it was inspired by other city’s gifts of airplanes to Great Britain’s Dominions, such as a monoplane christened “Britannia” going to New Zealand before the outbreak of war and “Liverpool” going to Australia.
Lord Desborough, the head of the Imperial Air Fleet Committee, which had started this trend, gave a commemorative speech, as did the Major, Alderman Jonathan North. The Canadian High Commissioner, Sir George Perley expressed his thanks for the generosity shown and his wife, Lady Perley, broke a bottle of champagne on the plane and named it the “Leicester.”
In the end, the handover had to be repeated as the Canadians accepted the gift but then redirected it to the War Office where it is assumed the plane didn’t survive the extremely dangerous missions on the Western Front. In fact, when the ceremony again took place in 1919, this time in Hendon, the plane had somehow become a Snipe, which was not invented until 1917! Unfortunately this plane didn’t fare much better as it crashed 20 days after its arrival in Canada in a test flight preparing for an air race from Toronto to New York.