The Whitworth Park Community Archaeology and History Project

by Siân Jones, Hannah Cobb, Ruth Colton and Melanie Giles.

Whitworth Park was opened in 1890 towards the tail end of the most prolific park building period the country has ever known. It cost £69,000, and was filled with features designed for the recreation and health of the surrounding neighbourhood. The park became extremely popular on its opening, ‘abundantly visited’ by the local population (Manchester Courier, 5th July, 1890), with some ‘six to eight thousand’ people present on a Sunday afternoon in April 1893 (Manchester Courier, 15th April, 1893). In its Victorian and Edwardian hey-day, Whitworth Park boasted many typical features, such as a bandstand, a large boating lake, an observatory, various shelters, extensive formal flowerbeds, statues, and a covered walkway. However, many of these were removed in the post-war period; a common fate reflecting changes in urban park management and funding cuts.

An Edwardian postcard of Whitworth Park (Source: private collection of S. Jones)

An Edwardian postcard of Whitworth Park (Source: private collection of S. Jones)

The origins of public parks like Whitworth lie in the nineteenth century park movement, which was a response to the immense changes associated with industrialisation and urbanisation. Parks were designed to address many of the problems with this new urban environment, by providing access to nature, healthy pursuits, clean air, beauty and a sober venue for recreation (Conroy 1991). Indeed the public park was seen as a panacea to the ills of the urban condition and in its idealised form it embodied many of the social concerns of the Victorian period. As a specific kind of urban space, parks embodied a number of philanthropic and ‘improving’ ideals, as well as providing an arena for social control and the inculcation of middle class values (Wyborn 1994). Once part of the urban landscape, they quickly became sites of social encounter, tension and exclusion through which class, gender, civic, national and imperial identities were negotiated (Brück 2013). And despite significant changes, they remain important sites for the negotiation of memory, identity and place, as well as a focus for ideas associated with health, improved air quality, and other environmental concerns.

 

The Whitworth Park Community Archaeology and History Project aims to investigate the long-term social, material and natural histories of the park alongside its changing meaning for local communities. It also aims to use archaeology as a way of engaging contemporary residents with their heritage and to increase the social value of the Park. The project involves archival research, a small-scale oral history programme, and two seasons of excavation, with a wide-ranging volunteer programme and a series of school workshops. There are also public outreach events during the excavation seasons, and other forms of engagement such as newspaper articles, public talks and a project blog. Towards the end of the project we will produce a public leaflet about the Park’s history, a new display board in the Park, and a temporary exhibition in Manchester Museum.

Hannah uncovering the foundations of the bandstand 4th July 2012 (Photograph: S. Jones)

Hannah uncovering the foundations of the bandstand 4th July 2012 (Photograph: S. Jones)

 

Some of the Whitworth Park finds (Photograph: University of Manchester)

Some of the Whitworth Park finds (Photograph: University of Manchester)

The success of the project depends on a number of partnerships. It is led by the Archaeology Department at the University of Manchester and involves postgraduate and undergraduate students as well as academic staff. We hope to connect University-led research with the future of the local community: breaking down the barriers of ‘us’ and ‘them’, to link the hopes and aspirations of local people with those of the University. Our main community partner is the Friends of Whitworth Park, a group formed in 2005, with the aim of promoting the revival of the park for the benefit of the public, especially children, as well as updating ‘the historical infrastructure to make it relevant to contemporary life within a multicultural city’ (Shone 2005). Our other project partners, the Manchester Museum, the Whitworth Art Gallery and the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre have forms of expertise and skill that support the public and school components, as well as established community relationships that we can draw on. A close relationship with Manchester City Council is also a key component both in terms of providing resources, and facilitating and promoting our work in the Park.

 

Volunteers participating in the Whitworth Park excavations in 2011 (Photograph: M. Giles)

Volunteers participating in the Whitworth Park excavations in 2011 (Photograph: M. Giles)

The excavations provide a remarkable catalyst, drawing the interest of park users. The physical remains of former park features such as the lake and the bandstand stimulate people’s imaginations and memories. Objects like marbles and other children’s gaming pieces, the remains of clay pipes, items of personal attire, like jewellery and buttons, all offer a powerful means of engagement. They connect people viscerally and emotively to the lives of previous generations of Mancunians and tell us about the unspoken aspects of daily life: the unwritten history of working and middle class lives. This gets to the heart of why the project provides such a rich context for combining research and community engagement. It also underlines why participation in the process of investigating Whitworth Park’s past creates enormous social value in the present. By exploring the park’s past, we hope to raise aspirations for its future, and to engage people in caring for their urban green spaces.

A lunchtime tour, July 2013 (Photograph: S. Jones)

A lunchtime tour, July 2013 (Photograph: S. Jones)

For more information about the Whitworth Park project visit our blog: http://whitworthparklife.wordpress.com/

The second season of excavation will take place 1st – 12th July 2013, Whitworth Park.

There will be an Open Day on 6th July in Whitworth Park.

Manchester Museum will hold a Big Saturday event on 13th July to coincide with the Festival for British Archaeology (http://festival.britarch.ac.uk/). For more information please visit Manchester Museum website: http://www.museum.manchester.ac.uk/whatson/

Acknowledgements:

The Whitworth Park Community Archaeology and History Project is funded by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, with additional funding from the University of Manchester and Manchester City Council. The Project is led by the Department of Archaeology at the University of Manchester, in association with the Friends of Whitworth Park, Manchester Museum, the Whitworth Art Gallery, and Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre. All of these organizations have committed considerable resources to the project. We would like to thank all of the above, alongside our volunteers, students and project staff for making the project a success. Finally, we would like to thank the residents of Manchester who have engaged with the project and shared their memories and aspirations with us.

 

References

Brück, J. 2013. Landscapes of desire: parks, colonialism, and identity in Victorian and Edwardian Ireland. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 17(1): 196-223.

Brück, J. and A. Tierney 2009. Landscapes of desire: parks, colonialism and identity in Victorian and Edwardian Ireland. UCD School of Archaeology/Heritage Council Archaeology Grant Report, Dublin. [http://www.ucd.ie/archaeology/staff/drjoannabruck/publications/]

Conroy, H. 1991. People’s Parks: The Design and Development of Victorian Parks in Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shone, K. 2005. Whitworth Park Future Planning Document.

Wyborn, T. 1994. Parks for the People: the development of public parks in Manchester, c1830-1860. Manchester: University of Manchester.

 

Newspaper sources:

The Rambler in Manchester. Manchester Courier, 15th April, 1893.

Trees and Shrubs for Town Planting. Manchester Courier, 5th July, 1890.

 

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