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Changing face of historic West Bromwich park

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: January 28, 2014

By Mike Fenton

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THE industrial character of our region has been commented upon in excess and it is on occasions a comforting respite to divert our attention to stories and images of a more sedate pace and of a time when the greener areas of our 'Black' Country were perhaps more appreciated and seemingly more used than it appears today.

The quickening steps we take today amid the choking fumes of congested traffic and the unhealthy rush from workplace to home may serve to remind that we still indeed have our greener pastures and that as part of our heritage it is our duty to both preserve and promote them wherever we are able.

The story and imagesw of Dartmouth Park in West Bromwich is just but one example in many that dot our varied landscape.

The story begins in June 1876 and with the mention of an individual many readers, especially those in West Bromwich, will be more than familiar with, Alderman and several times Mayor, Reuben Farley, a local dignitary commemorated by the erection of the clock tower at Carters Green.

Alderman Farley had had discussions with the then wEarl of Dartmouth with a view to establishing an area of recreation for all the people of West Bromwich. After much planning and submissions for designs, Cooper's Hill was chosen for the future development of the park.

By 1877 the typically Victorian and wonderfully named Exsuperius Weston Turnor, a landscape gardener and estate agent from Lichfield, was chosen to judge further designs for the park's interior. Work evidently moved at some pace, the park opening in June 1878, a huge crowd of 40,000 witnessing the unlocking of the gates, the view of the shrubs, freshly planted plane and lime trees, cricket ground and other facilities a much welcoming sight to many whose daily lives would have been entrenched in the grinding and back-breaking toil of the furnace, pit and foundry.

A degree of pomp and unapologetic splendour had been deemed requisite in advance of the public being allowed entry to the park, as at midday on June 3, the Earl of Dartmouth drove from the railway station to the Town Hall, where he was met by Alderman Farley.

A procession then followed to the park headed by the Fire Brigades of the country's premier and iconic glass manufacturers, Messrs Chance Brothers.

These in turn were followed by 6,000 school children and many brass and fife bands and bringing up the rear was the carriage of the Earl of Dartmouth. Part of Reuben Farley's opening address paid due reverence to the industrial history of the town and recognised the importance of recreation to working people.

When referring to the opening of the grounds, he said: "No doubt it would do something to promote the cause of temperance and tend to the social advancement of the industrial class of West Bromwich."

With speeches concluded local inhabitants were entreated to undertake in full all the new amenities that now lay at their disposal.

By 1887, a boating pool had been provided. However, a later and more ambitious plan to include an open-air swimming bath was put aside indefinitely due to geological concerns.

Whatever adjustments were being undertaken, others were not so cognisant of the park's importance and focused upon less legal activities, as on July 9, 1887, 17-year-old Caleb Firkin from Hill Top, along with three accomplices, were charged with breaking into the park's refreshment room, stealing a 'quantity of ham, biscuits, lime juice and sweets'.and fined several shillings between them.

An August Bank Holiday in 1888 provided an excuse for Dartmouth Park to stage a summer fete of a type certainly not seen in the town for many generations or indeed since. There were military tournaments, Highland flings and wrestling on horseback and a high wire act by 'Menotti' and the entertainment provided by 'Leonati', a self-styled 'spiral ascentionist' (an act I will leave readers to ponder and speculate as to its specifics). Later in the day a football match took place between Preston North End, and naturally, West Bromwich Albion, the two teams that in the previous March had contested the FA Cup Final, Albion becoming the victor. The thronging crowds were also party to balloon races and the musical prowess of the Royal Artillery & Shropshire Yeomanry military troupes. `

Despite the growing affection with and success of the park, minor encroachments continued unabated. In August 1894, teenagers Isaac Jones and William Jesson were caught and charged with stealing three peahens' eggs in the park's grounds, valued at 3 shillings.

A year later and Mother Nature unleashed its unrelenting power and anger, leaving little in the park unscathed. Newspaper reports recorded the uprooting of trees, considerable damage inflicted upon the greenhouse and the keeper's house being partly unroofed. The wall around the Four Acres Cricket Ground 'for a distance of 50 yards' was blown down, bricks falling into the street, knocking down a lamp pillar and injuring a 'man called Oliver'.

Dartmouth Park moved forward when a bowling green was laid and opened in 1900. By 1923 the deeds of the park had been 'handed to the people' at the original instigation of the 6th Earl of Dartmouth four years earlier. Later the same year the town's war memorial had been unveiled thanks to public subscription .

A paddling pool made its first appearance in 1928, followed five years later by a new bandstand, a miniature golf course being built by 1938.

Decade upon decade saw the park attracting hundreds of thousands each year. But sadly by the early 1970s, man's unhealthy obsession with 're-development' led to the destruction of the tennis courts and golf course. The downward spiral of the park appeared terminal, the refreshment room closing and being destroyed in a fire in 1983. The boating pool became increasingly unpopular with the boat house itself becoming engulfed in flames in 1993.

Restoration and improvements are however underway. A picnic area is now available, new sites for children's recreation are welcome supplements to the park, new benches have been positioned and a replica drinking fountain is now in place. These amenities have been designed for us, not just to utilise but to safeguard and maintain as part of our local heritage.

What do you remember of Dartmouth Park? Send us your memories by email to editor@blackcountry bugle.co.uk, or log on to www.black country bugle.co.uk or write to us at The Bugle, Bugle House, 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.

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