Celebrating the 150th anniversary of Leazes Park

Today (Saturday 23 December 2023) marks the 150th anniversary of Leazes Park – the first purpose-built public park in Newcastle.

Leading heritage and environmental writer, Tony Henderson, has taken a look back at the park’s 150 year history, and what the future holds for the ‘People’s Park’.

(This article is an abridged version of a piece first published on Cultured North East on 07 December 2023)

A city centre park is currently decked in lights as it approaches its 150th birthday later this month.

The Northern Lights trail is the backdrop to how Leazes Park in Newcastle is a shining example of what can be achieved through dedication and determination to a cause.

When the park opened to the public, it was the culmination of a movement which began in 1857 when 3,000 workers petitioned Newcastle Council for ‘ready access to some open ground for the purpose of health and recreation’.

This was at a time when the population of the city was growing fast as industries expanded, and workers sought respite from crowded living conditions and harsh working lives.

In 1858 a committee was set up to find a location for a park. Alderman Sir Charles Hamond was one of the leading lights who took up the challenge.

The result was the first purpose-built public park in Newcastle. Described as the People’s Park, the 43 acre Leazes Park was opened by Sir Charles on December 23, 1873.

A view of the ornamental entrance gates to Leazes Park; taken in 1899.
Image credit: Newcastle City Library Photographic Collection

It had been a long and winding road. In 1863 the architect Thomas Oliver, who designed now listed housing such as nearby Leazes Terrace, was employed to draw up plans for an area which extended across Castle Leazes, over Claremont Road, across the south-west of the Town Moor, to Brandling village.

In 1871, the naturalist and landscape designer John Hancock was commissioned to provide a scheme and he produced a plan along the lines of an 18th-century landscape park.

The Committee next called in John Laing, recently retired as steward to Lord Armstrong, who prepared a design which covered Castle Leazes only, and which provided for skating, bowls and croquet.

His vision consisted of a lake with an island, above the Lort Burn which runs under area, surrounded by a perimeter walk through a ring of woodland planting, with a lawn and pavilion on the north bank, all enclosed by a fence and it was this which was accepted by the committee.

Taken in 1900, this photograph shows the boating lake in Leazes Park.
Image credit: Newcastle City Library Photographic Collection

A bandstand was added in 1875 and a balustrade stone terrace in 1879.

Taken c.1910, this photograph shows a crowd of people gathered around the bandstand in Leazes Park.
Image credit: Newcastle City Library Photographic Collection

In 1893, a second lake was created. It was filled in by 1949 and the area used for a bowling green and tennis courts.

This photograph from 1899 shows the fountain in the lower lake of Leazes Park.
Image credit: Newcastle City Library Photographic Collection

Grand Jubilee gates were added in 1896 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and a Palm House was also built.

A bust of Sir Charles, itself listed, was placed on the park but was stolen in the 1990s. A replica now occupies the spot.

The bust of Alderman Sir Charles Hamond, who had opened the park in 1873
The bust of Alderman Sir Charles Hamond, who opened Leazes Park in 1873.

The park continued to develop with deer, aviaries, tennis, and croquet, but by the 1980s the site was in need of refurbishment, which was achieved through a £3.7 million award from the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2001.

The listed park is now as much needed today as it was in the 19th century. It must be the only park in the UK where 50,000 people arrive regularly on its perimeter as it stands in the shadow of St James’ Park, home of Newcastle United FC.

It also serves the adjacent Royal Victoria Infirmary, Great North Children’s Hospital and Newcastle University.

A programme of creative workshops and artists’ activities take place in Springbank Pavilion in the park. Since it launched in 2022, the pioneering arts and health project has helped hundreds of people connect with nature through a series of creative art workshops.

The creative workshops and self-led artists’ activities at Springbank Pavilion are delivered by Urban Green Newcastle, in partnership with Newcastle Hospitals Charity.
Find out more here

The lake, originally intended for ice-skating and boating and now stocked and fished by Leazes Park Angling Association, was drained as part of improvement works.

That produced a haul which included hundreds of coins, more than 200 Victorian bottles some of which were filled by fresh water mussels which had entered when tiny then grown to meet their end as their size prevented escape.

Other items included toys such as model cars, guns, aircraft, a mouth organ, 19th century marbles, army buttons and badges, cartridges, a tin helmet, a hand grenade, brooches, expensive ladies shoes, an inkwell and one of the park’s original iron drinking fountain cups, several glass Victorian lights and a collection of clay pipes.

Examples were recovered of what at the time was a mystery object – a small iron ball with spikes protruding at different angles. Eventually  these were identified as caltrops, which were scattered by soldiers around defensive positions to maim enemy cavalry and which probably originated from Fenham Barracks.

The objects went on show in what was a highly successful exhibition in the then Museum of Antiquities at Newcastle University.

Taken in 1911, this image shows a small motor boat moored to the side of the lake.
Image credit: Newcastle City Library Photographic Collection

The park is managed by Urban Green, whose chief executive Carol Pyrah, says: “Urban Green Newcastle is still a relatively new organisation. Our charity was only founded in April 2019.

“In a short space of time we’ve achieved a great deal, but because funding for parks and allotments saw a 90% reduction over a 10-year period, we’ve inherited a lot of the problems that come from a significant lack of investment.

“In fact Urban Green Newcastle was set up in response to the lack of public money being invested in the city’s green spaces; a problem that can be seen across the country. We represent a new and innovative approach to caring for parks and allotments.

“Despite the challenges we’ve faced since taking on the management of Newcastle’s parks and allotments, we’ve been able to access new forms of funding to improve the city’s green spaces – from upgrading Hadrian’s Cycleway and the football pitches in Walker Park and Paddy Freeman’s Park, to creating a network of nectar-rich public sites as part of Beelines North East and planting more than 11,000 trees.

“We’ve worked with local communities on crowdfunding campaigns – like the one in Leazes Park – to breathe new life into the city’s park play areas, and in partnership with Newcastle City Council we’ve secured investment from the Lawn Tennis Association to upgrade tennis courts across the city.

“Meanwhile, the growing partnership with Newcastle Hospitals Charity is creating opportunities for people to improve their wellbeing with creative activities at Springbank Pavilion in Leazes Park.

“We want people to feel proud of their local park, and we hope more communities will work with us going forward to help secure the long-term future of these vital green spaces.”

Leazes Park 150th Birthday Fundraiser

Kick-started by Northern Lights Newcastle, we’re working in partnership on a fundraising campaign to help restore the children’s play area in Leazes Park in its 150th year.
We’re incredibly grateful to all the organisations connected to the park that have supported the campaign, including Noughty 90’s who have donated £1,000, and a second organisation that plans to make a sizeable donation in the new year.
Can you help us reach our £20,000 goal and be part of the future history of one of Newcastle’s oldest and most loved parks?

Donate to the 150th Leazes Park Play Area fundraiser today!