History of the Park

Newsham Park: Outline History and Significance

Reference to a dissertation prepared by a local historian ( Newsham - A Victorian Park and it’s Environment  by John C. Hughes ) lead to research of source documentation highlighted by Mr. Hughes’ report.

Minutes from the Liverpool Finance Committee confirm that Edward Kemp, as a prominent local landscape architect and then incumbent park superintendent of Birkenhead Park prepared the original draft design for Newsham Park. A copy of  Kemp’s initial plan and a transcript of his design comments, as presented to the Borough Finance Committee, 25th November 1864, are attached.

Furthermore, after this Committee had referred Kemp’s  “ preliminary sketch”  for consideration by the Borough surveyor (Mr Weightman) and Architect (Mr Robson) Kemp revised his plan. This amended design was reported to committee on 16th December 1864 by Robson - the revision being largely driven by financial considerations - a desire to limit construction costs (hence the unfortunate deletion of an “architectural bridge” ) and maximise potential income from sale of building plots).

This Committee resolved to approve Kemp’s revised the plan on the recommendation of Robson who commented that “the arrangements now proposed are probably as good as any that could be devised”.

Finally on 2nd March 1865, the Finance Committee resolved to approve the works which had been estimated to total between £28,000 - £30,000.

Although subsequently the park was enhanced and embellished with additional features such as the bandstand and ornamental fountains there is no doubt that the overall design intent and layout were Kemp’s - arguably his first solo venture into landscape design.

Minutes of the Finance Committee, 25th November 1864

A report from the Real Estate Sub-Committee considered a letter received from  Edward Kemp, Birkenhead Park, 24th November 1864, viz: -

Dear Sir

With this letter will come to you the plan which I have prepared for laying out part of the Newsham House Estate as a public park for Liverpool and I have now to beg that you will lay it before the Real Estates Committee at their meeting on Thursday afternoon next with the following explanations.

1. I must repeat my earnest regret that the preparation of the plan has from causes previously made known to you been so long delayed. I will not waste the time of the Committee by further apologies except to say that as I am obliged to leave home this morning to fulfill a number of engagements in Scotland that will detain me there at least a fortnight I have had to finish the plan very hurriedly and it therefore bears marks of haste in the mechanical execution which I must ask the Committee kindly to overlook.

2. Not having had the advantage of a personal interview with the Committee and being thus in utter ignorance of their wants and wishes in this matter except generally  that they desired to have my views as to the best mode of  laying out this land for a public park I must beg that the Committee will regard the plan now submitted as a preliminary Sketch to be modified or elaborated if necessary and all the details more carefully and clearly indicated.

3. I have assumed that as a matter of finance the Committee would wish a portion of the marginal land reserved for building purposes . And I have so planned the roads as to leave an irregular border plot roughly cut up into Building sites around such parts of the land as are really eligible for this purpose. I need hardly state that some of the lower ground is quite unfit for building objects and has been rendered additionally unsuitable by the Railway embankment which comprises about one half of the eastern boundary. The ground I have allotted to building sites may be ( roughly ) about 45 acres.

4. I have thought it better to ignore altogether the mansion and other buildings now on the Land as they could not be conveniently adapted to any really satisfactory arrangement.

5. Having been told by Mr Weightman that a public road across the lower part of the ground must be an essential feature of any scheme I have provided that road connecting the West Derby with the present lines of Highway. But I have also ( and this is a leading element in the plan I suggested that all the roads and drives through the park should be public roads open at all times. This indeed would be a positive necessity as regards giving access to some of the Building plots ( the land being only partially surrounded with open thoroughfares ) while it dispenses altogether with the
lodges and Carriage Gates and renders all the entry to the park by smaller wicket gates more easily controllable. This is virtually the same plan as applied to St. James’
Park London. And I have supposed that a neat wrought iron made as light as would be compatible with strength would be placed on either side of the roads within the
necessary small gates into the interior of the park at the points where walks are provided. 

6. The roads on my plan are all meant to be 44 feet wide including a footpath 10 feet in width on each side.

7. A lake of about 6 or 7 acres in lower ground connecting a series of small existing ponds would be the principal ornamental feature of my plan, and on this should rely mainly for effect , accompanying it with an angular piece of dressed or pleasure ground to be enclosed with iron hurdles and kept more or less highly finished and decorated. As it seems really necessary that public recreation ground should have some distinctive feature and as water is always pleasing and productive of immense variety and as the spot chosen for it in this instance is a very favourable one ( apparently ) I attach considerable importance to this characteristic. I have treated it ( as well as the whole place ) in the more natural manner because the ground is best adapted for this kind of arrangement and the result produced from the same outlay of money is far more remunerative in the way of pleasure than that which would follow from a more formal appreciation. There would be several islands with bridges crossing one of them; and the water would pass under the principal drive where a more architectural bridge would be required with side arches to connect the different parts of the dressed ground by footpaths.

8. It will be easy to introduce a boat house, shelter houses, refreshment rooms, conveniences, a working yard and sheds for the proper carrying on of ordinary operations, a superintendents house or any other structures that may be required and which will naturally fall into the arrangements of a more detailed working plan.

9. Anything in the shape of a playground or gymnasium can readily be provided if it should be desired but probably this could be much better arranged in the adjoining plot on the other side of Sheil Road.

10. This disposal of the existing footpath across the land (  by no means an unimportant question ) has been considered and a continuation of the path across Sheil park suggested. By being fenced off from the Building land this path would lead onto the main drive with another path across the park for use during the day and the drive itself ( always open for passengers at night , the whole conducting to a proposed level crossing which I understand Mr Weightman the Railway company are to make about the point shown on my plan.

Should the Committee desire it I shall be happy to wait upon them after my return from Scotland to give them further explanations or to offer further suggestions I trust however that what I have now written will render the plan sufficiently intelligible for the present object.

I am Dear Sir
Yours very truly   
Edward Kemp

That it be referred to Mr Weightman and the Architect & Surveyor to report upon this subject.

Minutes of Finance Committee, 16th December 1864 :

Newsham House Estate

The Architect and Surveyor begs to report to the Real Estate Sub-Committee that after a conference with Mr Weightman and himself Mr Kemp has amended his plan
for the laying out of the Newsham House Estate and that the same is now presented for approval.

By altering the original arrangements in a variety of ways about 11 additional acres of building land have been attained making a total of 55 acres and even this quantity might be increased if thought desirable. One of the methods of gaining building sites shown on the plan is to place a double row instead of a single line of sites on the side next Sheil Road and this has been dine in supposition that it is the intention of the Corporation to retain Sheil Park permanently as a park.

The ornamental water has been shortened at the end towards West Derby Road so as to avoid the necessity of building a bridge for the carriageway.

If it is the wish of the Corporation really to lay out a park and not merely to lay out building sites ornamentally the arrangements now proposed are probably as good as
any that could be devised.

Town Hall  December 15th 1864                                                 E.R. Robson


That the Report and alterations suggested on the plan be approved and recommended to the Finance Committee for their confirmation and that the subject of draining and surveying the land be reported upon to a future meeting by Mr Weightman and the Architect and Surveyor.

A “ribbon of parks”

Liverpool in the mid nineteenth-century was a city in flux, The rapid expansion of its economy had attracted workers from the rural heartland, leading to over-crowding in the historic city centre. Many of these new inhabitants lodged in infamous cellars, where light was dim and the air polluted. Such conditions brought with them grave threats to public health, in 1832 and 1846 Liverpool fell victim two particular severe outbreaks of cholera. The worst affected areas were in the city’s slum districts, where open space and clean water were in short supply.

In response to these terrible visitations of disease, the Corporation resolved to improve the health of its citizens. The programme of improvements included the rationalisation of water supplies and construction of new drains, but perhaps most ambitious of all was the proposal to secure and preserve substantial open green space across the city. The scheme, known as the “ribbon of parks”, entailed the creation of three major parks on undeveloped land to the east, north and south of the city centre.

Newsham Park (1868) was the first of these sites to be officially opened to the public, followed by Stanley (1870) and Sefton (1872). Throughout the following century, these public parks were to improve the health of the city and the daily experience of thousands of its inhabitants

Newsham Park

In 1846 the Corporation of Liverpool bought a 240 acre estate from the Molyneux family for the sum of £85.000. The land included a substantial dwelling. Newsham House, and its surrounding parkland. In 1850 it purchased a neighbouring estate, and so brought a large expanse of parkland into public ownership. The intention was always to create an extensive public park. However, governmental restrictions on funding such a scheme meant that the land lay fallow for over a decade. In 1862 the land was divided by Sheil Road, and the remaining parkland was further reduced by the arrival of the Bootle railway line in 1863. However, in 1864 it was finally resolved to transform what remained into a substantial park for public recreation.

Newsham Park was designed by the famous architect, Edward Kemp, a protégé of Joseph Paxton who had laid out Princes Park in 1844. It was intended that the cost of laying out and maintaining the Park would be subsidised by the sale of neighbouring land to property speculators, who would then erect large prestigious villas.
Sefton Park shows the marriage of speculation and public use to perfection, for here the substantial parkland, in the wealthy southern suburbs of the city, is surrounded by the mansions of the commercial classes. However, at Newsham, the less prestigious location and an economic recession deterred investors. Consequently, the first land auction in 1867 resulted in the sale of 5 of the 91 building plots available. Subsequently land auctions were similarly disappointing and it was finally resolved to permit the construction of smaller, more modest villas on the land.

The disappointing profits realised through the land sales had a direct impact upon the Park’s design and the plans were revised to reflect the small amount of capital available. Failure to sell off plots for house building led to the unsold land being incorporated into the Park, and economies were made with the size and design of some of the features, including the lakes, fountains and gates. Even those features that were built were delayed.

Although Newsham officially opened in 1868, the lodges and gates were not in place until 1871. Nevertheless, whatever problems challenged the designers; the horticultural displays in Newsham were widely celebrated. The nearby Wavertree Botanic Gardens ensured that the city’s parks benefitted from a relatively skilled and educated workforce and by the early twentieth century Newsham had its own complex of maintenance sheds and glasshouses, Such intensive propagation was  crucial to ensuring a ready supply of the brightly-coloured annuals that have come to symbolise Victorian metropolitan parks.

The design of the Park.

The land originally set aside for public use forms a roughly rectangular block, fronting Sheil Road to the west. The Park was intended to provide the inhabitants of this part of the city with an extensive open area for exercise, leisure and entertainment. The western side of the Park received minimal planting and was left as largely open ground for games and walks. However, to the east an intricate and intimate landscape was created. Described in a C20th guidebook ”as a placed oasis of wood and water amid dusty highways” (1934), it provided terrain for both passive enjoyment and active pursuits. Entirely man-made, this naturalistic section of the Park includes two lakes, designed for different purposes. The larger lake was primarily decorative and is now popular among anglers, while across a short cast iron bridge sits a boating lake. Although smaller than Kemp had originally envisaged the lakes were constructed during the initial laying out process.

It soon proved difficult to control water levels in the lakes and within 5 years an ingenious solution was devised to tackle the problem. Newsham Mill was completed between 1869 and 1874 and is reported to have maintained water levels by pumping water between the lakes, releasing it into the higher ornamental lake by way of a decorative waterfall.

The mill was constructed by the building firm James Burroughs and Son of Liverpool, with the internal machinery being provided by Owens and Company of London. Although its purpose was practical, the mill provided an attractive and unusual feature, it remained in use until the 1920’s and was finally demolished in 1954.

Some of the earliest structures to appear in the Park were the “pavilions” for pedestrians, Although these were most likely cast-iron shelters or small huts, they would have contributed significantly to the visual interest of the park in its early years. Unfortunately none of these structures survive.

Boulevard and fountains.

A central component of Kemp’s original design was a grand boulevard, punctuated by a series of elaborate and expensive fountains. The funding crisis halted temporarily the realisation of this plan and when the Park officially opened it was without these ambitious and decorative features. Over the following 30 years building plots were gradually sold off, releasing funds for the park. In 1899 a smart, tree-lined boulevard, Garner’s Drive finally opened’ leading from Prescot Drive to Sheil Road. A year later, four fountains were installed along its route. Although three of them were simple drinking fountains, the fourth was to become the jewel in the boulevard scheme. The Della Rabbia fountain was designed bin the Italian style and named after a family of Italian Renaissance sculptors. Its dramatic arrangement of horses seated on a faux rockery proving a popular spectacle.


Close to the intersection of Prescot Drive and Gardner’s Drive, on a small green that is now almost entirely annexed from the wider parkland, stands the Newsham Park bandstand it is of typical construction, with decorative ironwork pillars supporting an oriental-inspired roof. The ironwork is probably the work of a Scottish foundry, many of which existed to supply Victorian pleasure seekers with the numerous glasshouses, pavilions and piers they demanded.
Like the neighbouring bowling greens, the bandstand was not part of Kemp’s original scheme. It arrived thirty years after the park was officially opened, when the popularity of Sunday afternoon band music was at its height. Similar music pavilions were erected at Sefton and Stanley Parks and each venue attracted a host of military and voluntary bands. Although now badly in need of repair, the decorative qualities of the building can still be appreciated today.


Introduced in 1902, the aviary was a late addition to Newsham. The birds on show included a collection of brightly coloured parrots, making it a particularly popular attraction among children. Located close to the boating lake and mill, the aviary added to the appeal of the eastern section of the Park as a place of quiet recreation and visual novelty, in contrast to the sporting culture that was developing in the western parkland. The Newsham aviary was finally dismantled in the 1930’s and the birds relocated to Sefton Park.

The Royal Liverpool Seamen’s Orphanage Institution.

In 1870 permission was granted to erect a substantial orphanage on an unsold piece of land on the eastern edge of the park. This area had proved particularly unpopular with developers due to its close proximity to the railway line. The Seamen’s Orphanage was designed by the local architect Sir Alfred Waterhouse, who would later design Manchester Town Hall (1877) and the Natural History Museum in London (1881), in the same distinctive Gothic Style. A fantastic array of parapets, turrets and gables on the outside, internally the building comprised dormitories and school rooms to house hundreds of children. The impact of the orphanage extended beyond its architecture and the main thoroughfare through the Park was renamed “Orphan Drive”, a name it retains today; Now unoccupied, this Grade II listed building is at high risk from weather and vandalism. Nevertheless its striking silhouette continues to command attention.

The street scheme.

Housing was always an important aspect of Newsham Park. Sale of land for houses was the means of both raising capital and bringing residents to the area. The Park is encircled by a huge range of residential properties, most of which originate from the late C19th, facing into the park from from the north and south are large detached and semi detached villas, while smaller terraced houses fill the streets behind. Despite the apparent abundance of housing, the original intention was to designate a larger portion of the land for speculative development. Had the original plans been realised, the southern section of the Park now occupied by the bowling greens and bandstand would be a residential street of substantial detached villas. Fortunately for those who benefit from the open space, in 1896 the fall in demand for housing plots led to the incorporation of all this “spare “ land into the wider parkland. There is still evidence of this abandoned road scheme in the strange road layout surrounding the former Prescot Drive drinking fountain and bandstand.

Newsham House.

Newsham House on the North West boundary of the Park, was “inherited”  by Liverpool Corporation from the previous Landowner. Built in the mid C18th, it is a smart double fronted residence situated on a small rise overlooking the Park. Kemp proposed to demolish the house but in 1868 it was instead designated as the official residence for judges sitting at Liverpool Crown Court. Numerous prestigious guests stayed at the house over the following decades. In 1874, the Duke of Edinburgh lodged there while visiting the city to lay the foundation stone for the walker Art Gallery. However, the most famous guest was Queen Victoria, who stayed in Newsham House in 1886 during her visit to Liverpool to open the International Shipperies Exhibition at nearby Wavertree Park. It is now enclosed by high trees and so is only partially visible from the Park, but the road names testify to the occupation of its inhabitants.

It was not mearly as guests at Newsham House that the rich and the famous came to Newsham Park. In July 1891 the park hosted Buffalo Bill’s first rodeo in the city. Bill’s “Wild West representation of Indian and Frontier Life” took place in a showground one mile long and an immense grandstand provided seats for an audience totalling 4,000 Although Newsham has since played host to numerous sporting and entertainment events, this was the first and last time that lassoing and “bronco-busting” were to appear on the Park’s calendar.

The Park today.

Throughout the twentieth century, Newsham Park followed a similar path to many British public parks. The two world wars had a disastrous impact upon Liverpool’s green spaces, as they suffered not only from a shortage of funds in the post-war reconstruction period. Neglected structures fell quickly into disrepair and many of the original features were lost. Nevertheless, the survival of historic structures such as the bandstand and Orphanage mean there is still hope for the future of this historic landscape. The Park and surrounding villas were designated a conservation area in 1982. In 2001 the Park was allocated grade II status and admitted to English Heritage’s Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest.

The Park has an active Friends Group and successful restoration schemes like that in nearby Sefton Park may well set a precedent for a future scheme here. Furthermore, as well as maintaining its historic features, it is important that Newsham Park continues to serve the people of Liverpool. In 2006 the Academy of St. Francis of Assisi opened on Gardner’s Drive, bringing a new generation into the area, and redefining that corner of Newsham Park. The Academy has instigated an annual festival in the Park and as the school’s specialism is “the environment and a commitment to sustainable ways of living”, there is good reason to be hopeful for the future of this and many other parks across Liverpool.