By MERVYN EDWARDS, Local Historian and Burslem History Club Speaker Secretary

Burslem’s 22-acre municipal park opened in 1894.  Much has been written about how Burslem Council, in reclaiming industry-ravaged land, effectively turned a sow’s ear into a silk purse.  In creating order from the chaos of old cinder heaps, abandoned colliery workings and rough farmland, the local authority did a sterling job that has stood the test of time, notwithstanding all manner of geological and environmental challenges.

But how has the park entertained visitors over the years?  To find out, we can consult the parks committee minutes – an invaluable source of information – or we can trawl through local newspapers.  We might consider the view of Arnold Bennett, who wrote about how patrons of the park used it in the 19th century.  Anna of the Five Towns (published in 1902) is particularly revealing about Bennett’s angle on the park as a municipal amenity.

The facility was certainly an appropriate stage for multifarious events that raised money for the park or for charitable causes.  These included the Burslem Horticultural Fetes, which not only constituted a celebration of green-fingered skill, but also offered more general entertainment in the form of Pat Collins’ fair and various sideshows.  Also popular was the Burslem Park Carnival, which came to incorporate the Haywood Hospital Queen competition.  The cream of female beauty from companies such as George Wade and Son, H. and R. Johnson and Burslem Co-op entered these contests.

Some structures in the park were specifically built to amuse the public, including the bandstand and the bowling greens.  The park aviary was first conceived in 1899, and a tender of William Cooke, amounting to £120 for the erection of the structure, was accepted in September, 1900.  The aviary housed exotic or unusual birds such as Australian grass parrakeets, Virginian nightingales, and redpolls as well as a throstle and a barn owl.

One who saw the gradual decline of the aviary in the 1930s was Philip Oakes.  In his excellent book, From Middle England: A Memory of the Thirties (1984), he wrote:
“A green-painted aviary overlooked the lake.  It smelled of dusty radiators and bird droppings and comprised one long cage which contained several canaries and budgerigars, a sulphur-crested cockatoo and, for a short time, a toucan.  One Sunday on our way to chapel I looked through the window and saw it lying dead on the floor.  My uncle called at the park-keeper’s lodge to report the casualty.  ‘I’m not surprised,’ said the park-keeper.  ‘I caught some lads feeding it toffees yesterday.’”

In 1995, it was reported that the aviary had closed down after more than half of the birds had either been shot, stolen or released into the wild.  It was consequently demolished.

In 1919, a new point of interest in the park was a captured German gun, displayed for all to see – and on the subject of War, the park really came into its own during the 1939-45 conflict.

Along with other Potteries parks, it staged Holidays At Home entertainments.  These were not only a release from the cares of war, but were an attempt by the authorities to persuade pleasure-seekers to stay at home during the holiday period rather than to risk long journeys in what were unsettling times.  During August of 1944, Burslem Park offered amusements such as a baby show, a rabbit show (it being the case that people were encouraged to eat rabbit meat during World War Two) and performances from the Home Guard Band and the Royal Marines Band.

In recent years, the Burslem Park Partnership has been in the vanguard of efforts to restore the park and to provided entertainments and facilities for the 21st century.

I’ve even helped to provide amusement in Burslem Park myself, for in the Burslem Festival Bank Holiday procession of 2001 – which began at Burslem Park – I appeared as one of the costumed characters.  If you must know, I was the one dressed as a banana.

© Burslem History Club 2016-2019
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