Book Review: The Story of Queen’s Park: Sussex Gardens Trust Newsletter

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Sussex Gardens Trust Newsletter
Sussex Gardens Trust
Pippa Potts

In her introduction to this new edition of ‘The Story of Queen’s Park, Brighton’, Virginia Hinze highlights how the park began life not as a public amenity, but as a speculative development project

Based partly on a booklet compiled in 1992 by the Friends of Queen’s Park, a group first formed in 1988, the new version relates how John Armstrong, a man with ‘known experience and judgement in landscape gardening’ saw investment potential in a downland valley just outside Brighton’s then perimeter. The town’s population rose more than threefold in the first two decades of the 19th century, triggering a building boom which was when Armstrong conceived the idea of offering 28 plots of land for building upmarket villas around a large central garden or park; indeed, the garden was to be the selling point.

John Armstrong’s vision seems to have been profoundly influenced by John Nash’s own ambitious plans for Regent’s Park which foresaw 56 villas surrounding a vast rounded park with terraces and a lake or canal. However, although Armstrong laid out the grounds with plants and shrubs and leased out an area for a popular ‘German Spa’, he failed to find buyers for the building plots – or enough money to pay the rent on the 50-acre (20.2 hectares) site. A change of ownership was in the offing.

The book follows the fortunes of successive owners, including Thomas Attree who, some time after 1830, commissioned Charles Barry to design him a villa on the site. Then there was George Duddell whose colourful lifestyle seems not to have left any time or resources for maintaining the grounds. Thus the scene was set for a division of the estate, the Brighton Corporation eventually acquiring the gardens and transforming them into the park which was opened to the public in 1892.

The public park movement had by then being going strong for more than 50 years, reformers having campaigned for green spaces which would both combat the spread of disease in rapidly growing urban areas and, in true Victorian spirit, provide morally healthy entertainment for all the family (and in particular bring the men out of the pubs!). In Brighton’s case there was also the relatively new day-tripper population (made possible by the advent of the railway); it was feared they would cause mischief if there was not enough recreation on offer. The Corporation had plenty of incentives for taking over what John Armstrong had begun.

Queen’s Park is still a public space, more than 100 years on, though it has had its share of ups and downs, many of them recorded in this new edition of its history, which also tells the stories of many of the buildings in and around the park. Included, for example, are the Pepperpot which Barry designed for Thomas Attree and the ‘German Spa’ which was set up by Friedrich Stuve in 1824. Today only the neoclassical face of the spa remains.

With its many marginal notes on subjects ranging from the park’s early founders to the management of Brighton in the early 19th century, the booklet makes for a very interesting read, its inserts of oral history bringing the story of Queen’s Park all the more to life. It contains a wealth of illustrations too, including sketches, lithographs, etchings, plans and photos; it is perhaps a shame that two attractive colour prints are split by the binding, but the Brighton Town Press’s publication is nevertheless visually appealing.

Pippa Potts

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