The late Sir John Betjeman once described Albert Park as “England’s finest example of a Victorian suburb” and the area has been favourably compared with Victorian north Oxford. Its development may be traced back to the Charity Commissioners’ Scheme for the Management and Regulation of Christ’s Hospital of Abingdon, introduced in 1859. This scheme set out, inter alia, to create a “Recreation Ground and Allotments” for the benefit of the townspeople of Abingdon. The Governors of the charity were empowered to set aside ten to twenty acres of their own land for each of these enterprises and were permitted to spend £500 to adapt the land and a further annual sum of £40 towards its upkeep.
The land in question, Conduit Field, lay on rising ground to the west of the town, accessible only by footpaths. Historically it formed part of the Lacies Court farmstead, a former abbey property granted to Christ’s Hospital in its Charter of Incorporation (1553). The Governors, however, did not own all the land that would eventually be required for this undertaking. Footpaths across the field presented a further complication. Landowners and footpaths are clearly marked on the Abingdon Enclosure Award (1842). One of these footpaths, leading to Spring Road via the Conduit House and the Lonesome Tree - two notable landmarks in this area - would ultimately become the New Road, later renamed Park Road. The other major footpath, the Old Shippon Footpath, ran in a south-easterly direction across Conduit Field before exiting in Bath Street. This was a well used route from Shippon to Abingdon and the prospect of its closure obviously met with some opposition. The agreed diversion, skirting the present Park Crescent before striking east to Bath Street is still in use today as the footpath behind Abingdon School.
While negotiations were underway to achieve exclusive rights of ownership, an advertisement was placed in Jackson’s Oxford Journal, The Builder and the Reading Mercury in April 1860 offering a £10 prize “for a design for laying out the pleasure ground in Conduit Field.” The winning entry was submitted by Mr I W Chapman of Dulwich with a design entitled “Commune Bonum”. His layout incorporated elements made famous by Joseph Paxton in the 1840s: winding paths, avenues with vistas, structural planting and a large open area reminiscent of meadowland in the centre. In 1861 advertisements appeared in the local press offering building leases on peripheral plots suitable for “double cottages for the residences of mechanics and artisans” and “villa residences” for the more well-to-do in other parts of Conduit Field. By 1862 the works necessary to prepare and level the site were completed and planting was underway. Native hardwood trees and more exotic species such as giant redwood, monkey puzzle and cedars were supplied by a local nursery, Pritchards.
National events were also to play a major influence on the development. The death of the Prince Consort in 1861 brought calls for a Berkshire Memorial to the Prince’s memory. At that time Abingdon still held its position as county town of Berkshire and once subscription lists were opened a suitable site for the Memorial to the Prince Consort had to be found urgently. The inspired choice of site, an elevated position at the top of the Recreation Ground, resulted in one of the most pleasing vistas of the park across the central green. The unveiling of the 48ft high statue and plinth, the work of John Gibbs of Oxford, was reported in the Illustrated London News on Saturday 1st July 1865. The short article describes the memorial’s location as the “spacious recreation ground known as Albert Park”, probably the first printed reference to the new name. Possibly the first recorded use of the Recreation Ground occurred earlier in May 1865: the Christ’s Hospital Minutes reported that the key to the Recreation Ground was to be given to the Peep O’ Day Cricket Club for the season “to allow them to play before business hours in the morning.” The first park keeper was Oliver Kilby who kept the lawns in trim with a mower pulled by a donkey.
Under the watchful eye of Arthur Preston, sometime Master of the charity, necessary restoration work was carried out by the park keeper Mr Aldworth in the first two decades of the 20th century. At this period bowls, lawn tennis and croquet became established recreations in the park. In 1926 the Abingdon Bowling Club applied for permission to erect a pavilion with a verandah to replace the shed it had used hitherto and the tennis club was reported to be considering laying a third court. In 1970, as part of the town’s Festival 70 programme and in celebration of European Conservation Year, a plan of the mature trees in Albert Park was prepared by the Abingdon Naturalists Society. Thirty-five tree species were recorded at this date, the majority surviving from the original planting. Five years later the Albert Park Conservation Area was created by the Vale of White Horse District Council to give a degree of protected status from unsuitable development. October 1979 saw the loss of one of the area’s prominent landmarks when the Lonesome Tree succumbed to Dutch elm disease and had to be felled.
By the early 1980s, it was apparent that age, disease and a succession of hard winters had taken a severe toll on many of the park’s trees and shrubs. Advice was sought from Dr T H R Hall, Superintendent of the Oxford University Parks whose report was considered by the Park Committee of Christ’s Hospital in May 1982. Dr Hall suggested the replacement of most of the shrubs and the implementation of an immediate planned tree replacement. In addition a new service area for machinery and the restriction of vehicular access to one entry were proposed. The most vital of the recommendations was the appointment of a well qualified Park Superintendent. In September 1982 the position of Park Superintendent was offered, initially for a six month probationary period, to Mr Brian Macdonald whose name had been put forward by the Director of Studies at Kew Gardens. Mr Macdonald would take up his post on 1st November 1982.
Following a meeting in May 1983 with the officer from the Charity Commissioners responsible for Christ’s Hospital, the Master, Mr Kitto and Dr Cherry, a senior Governor, succeeded in obtaining a considerable rise in the level of the maintenance allowance for the park. An architect was engaged to draw up detailed plans for the proposed new service area and park maintenance staff began the work of clearing old shrubs from the border fronting Park Road. A scheme of costings and plantings was successful in attracting a grant of over two and a half thousand pounds from the Abingdon Joint Environmental Trust. On the 4th April 1984 the Mayor of Abingdon, Mr George Lewis, planted a tree specially chosen by the Park Manager, a Prince Albert yew, to inaugurate the replanting programme. A second phase of tree planting was timetabled for the autumn and winter. By December over 47,000 bulbs had been planted, ahead of schedule.
In 1998 Albert Park was placed on the English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens of Historic Interest with a listing status of Grade II on account of its being a “good example of a small mid-Victorian park laid out for public use which largely retains its original layout and structural planting.” Such status, however, brings responsibilities. With the advent of the new millennium the Master and Governors felt that a reappraisal of the planting scheme of the mid 1980’s had become a priority. A major survey and audit of each tree and its structural importance in the overall layout of the park were carried out to determine the areas requiring immediate attention. A 4-5 year programme of restoration work, funded by a private donation, was announced in the local press in February 2009. This project, which is aimed at protecting the remaining mature specimen trees, is being supervised by Roderick Nicholson, an arboriculturist who has advised on heritage parks throughout the country. The first phase, the removal of the dense evergreens and a reduction in volume of the laurel shrubberies, has opened up lost views of the houses in the Crescent. The planned restoration will revitalise the park, continuing the aim of those Victorian pioneers to provide a place of pleasure and recreation for all Abingdon residents.
Jackie Smith, 2010.