In 1990, the late Lord Wimborne and his wife, Lady Venetia, came to Poole to unveil a Victorian style fountain which he had donated to Poole Park to mark its 100th anniversary. Lord and Lady Wimborne arrived in a horse-drawn carriage, the Mayor, Sheriff, and Town Clerk by limousine, and a ceremony with speeches took place in front of a flower bed where the fountain was to stand until it could be properly installed. Later the fountain was provided with an elegant pool, surrounded by flower planters and approached by a flight of steps guarded by lions.
Lord Wimborne’s gift was all the more appropriate because it was his great- grandfather’s donation of 33 acres of land to the Borough which had made the creation of the park possible a century before. The chosen site was a stretch of rather muddy farmland near the Sloop Inn on the fringes of Parkstone Bay, conveniently located between the town centre and the growing suburbs of Longfleet and Parkstone. The local tradition that the sea had once come right up to the Sloop was probably correct as old maps show. However, when the railway was built through to Bournemouth in 1874, an embankment was built across the bay, cutting it off from the open sea. This left what was described as ‘a few marshy meadows over which a precarious footpath wound its devious way’. The Corporation acquired some more land in the area and planning began.
The chosen design was produced in house by the Borough Surveyor, John Elford and others in his department. One of the main features of the 109 acre park was the salt water lake, covering 58 acres. There were also two smaller fresh water lakes, a carriage drive from one end of the park to the other and a network of footpaths. The carriage entrances were provided with brick pillars decorated with terracotta plaques, eagles and lamp standards. There were two lodge houses, a single story one at the eastern entrance, (known as Holly Bush Corner) and a two storey one at the Seldown entrance with a stable, store, greenhouses and cart shed. Both lodges contained waiting rooms for ladies.
Other facilities were the cricket pavilion and pitch encircled by a bicycle track, a bandstand, six tennis courts, five urinals, two drinking fountains, benches and a shelter on the mound near the Seldown entrance. An open-air swimming pool was planned near the railway line. Trees and shrubs, including the horse chestnuts alongside the main drive, were supplied by local nurserymen, J.K. Ingram and D. Stewart. At the south east corner, a brick tunnel, the ‘keyhole bridge’ was provided under the railway line in co-operation with the railway company. The whole park was enclosed by ‘unclimbable’ iron railings.
The opening of the park was performed by the Prince of Wales on 18th January 1890 but due to a storm which had wrecked the special pavilion, this turned out to be rather an anti-climax. After a carriage procession through the park and the streets, the ceremony was performed in the station booking office as the Prince departed. Nevertheless, the park was now officially open and could start to play its part in the life of the town. It quickly proved its value as a resource for Sunday strolls, sports and games, boating, feeding the ducks, picnics and public celebrations. Previously, occasions of national importance had been celebrated in the cramped streets of the old town. The defeat of Napoleon, for instance, was marked with a dinner for 5,000 people in Market Street and adjoining streets. Now the park provided the perfect venue for such festivities.
Only seven years after the park’s opening, the nation celebrated Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. A procession three-quarters of a mile long, described as ‘the best ever seen in Poole’, wound through the street to the park, where a gun salute was fired by the Reserve Forces and the Volunteer Band played the national anthem. A dinner was then held for 3,000 ‘aged poor’ (who had to be over 60) in a marquis on the tennis court. The children’s procession also finished up in the park where they sang ‘Victoria Our Queen’ and a verse of the national anthem before sitting down to tea and bread and butter. Seating for the 3,000 or so children was improvised from 5,000 foot of timber supplied by the Poole Baltic and Quebec Timber company. The afternoon was reserved for sports and races, including donkey, wheelbarrow, and three-legged races, tilting the bucket and climbing the greasy pole besides more regular competitions. In the evening the park was illuminated with lamps and fairy lights conveying suitably patriotic slogans. The festivities concluded with a magnificent display of fireworks representing a full scale naval battle. During the course of the day it was estimated that there were between 20,000 and 25,000 people in the park.
Another royal celebration was held in 1911 for the coronation of King George V. Ernest Bristowe remembered assembling with other school children ‘near to the summer house at the Seldown end of Poole Park, standing in rows in the rain to hear the mayor speak. Unfortunately, I was so far away that I had no idea what he said.’ The park had become the obvious venue for such mass public events, but it was also an established part of everyday recreation. New facilities were added such as a refreshment house near the cricket pitch and an aviary. Sports days were held there and the Poole Carnival procession with its decorated floats ended up there after weaving its way through the streets.
After the First World War, a new dimension was added to the function of the park when the war memorial was built beside the salt water lake within a specially designed garden. After much debate about the form of memorial the final slender cross of brick and Purbeck stone was designed by J. S. Allner and unveiled on 16th October, 1927 in front of a crowd estimated at about 10,000. Annual memorial services have been held there ever since and in 2014, an event with images, prayers, poetry and music was held to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of war. It was also the chosen location for flowers following the death of Princess Diana.
During the World War II, the park was selected as the site for a large air raid shelter for 1,000 people and anti-aircraft gun pits were dug there. Some damage was caused when a bomb landed near the swimming pool, failed to explode and had to be detonated where it landed. Another casualty was the rustic bridge between the fresh water lakes which was destroyed by a bomb which also killed two ducks. A few days later, Lord Haw Haw claimed that the Luftwaffe had inflicted serious damage to installations around Poole Harbour. The most dramatic change on the park produced by the war was perhaps the removal of the railings for scrap iron in 1942. Today, one of the few remaining signs of wartime is the solitary ‘dragon’s tooth’ anti-tank barrier perched on the railway embankment near the keyhole bridge, part of Poole’s defences of 1943.
The post-war corporation was keen to develop Poole as a tourist centre and so welcomed the offer of George Vimpany and Southern Miniature Railways Ltd. to set up a miniature railway in Poole. The park was chosen as the best location and the railway was opened on 9th April 1949 with the steam locomotive ‘Vanguard’ which George Vimpany had largely built himself. The attraction was a great success right from the start with long queues forming to take a ride. In the 1970s it converted to a motor driven locomotive in keeping with the times and is now not far off its 70th anniversary.
In 1952, the park was the venue for the Poole Pageant celebrating the town’s long history. The script was written by the historian H. P. Smith and local writer Margaret Scott and a large number of local people took part, including council members. The following year was Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, celebrated with a procession, sports, entertainments and dancing in the park culminating in a torch-light procession and firework display, a sign that life was returning to normal. As prosperity returned the Edwardian tea-rooms were replaced by the modern Swan Lake café, run initially by Anthony Forte. Fresh generations of locals and visitors flocked to the park to enjoy its attractions, natural and man-made.
The park has had problems over the years. A zoo was set up in 1963, incorporating the old aviary, attracting many visitors but also complaints. It finally closed in 1994 after a rather sad history of protest. Not surprisingly with such a marshy site the drainage in the park has always been difficult and modern planners are still trying to find a solution. The shallowness of the salt water lake seems to attract unwanted and hard to shift flora and fauna from mosquitoes to poisonous algae and clogging weed. One of the saddest events was the destruction of trees in the hurricane of 1987.
Having been fortunate to live near the park, I have visited it in all seasons for all sorts of purposes. I have tried to list all the things I have done there with friends and visitors over the years but as I keep thinking of more, the following is not a complete list: boating, children’s playground, crazy golf, eating ice cream and meals, looking at birds, flowers and trees (including a tree trail), memorial services, photography, picnicking, riding on the miniature railway, using the sports apparatus, walking (including health walks), watching Boo Bamboo, bowls, concerts (including the BSO concert for the centenary), cricket, dragon boats, fairs, fireworks, ice skating, majorettes, marathons, model yachts, tennis, zorbing . . . One of my favourite activities is ‘visiting’ different trees at different times of the year (eccentric but harmless) and some of the most memorable events I remember are the World War I commemoration at the war memorial and the BSO concert for the park’s centenary.
In the 126 years of its existence, Poole Park has been a fantastic resource to the town. I’d love to know what you like best about the park and if you have a special experience of it to share.
Main sources: Borough of Poole Report Poole Park – The People’s Park 1989 / Ernest Bristowe, Poole Was My Oyster / Geoffrey Budworth Poole Park / Keith Guy Poole Park Railway The First Fifty years 1949-1999.