History of Ashton Park

Plans and Proposals

The first time a park was mooted for West Kirby was in 1890 when a group of local landowners proposed the provision of a park (on the current Ashton Park site) comprising walks, grass and flower beds in association with a commercial housing development like Birkenhead Park. A plan was drawn up by a local man, Joseph Brattan, an architect and surveyor heavily involved in the development of Birkenhead.

It was not until 1896 that the Hoylake and West Kirby District Council held a public meeting on 3 possible sites for a park, one on the hill by the Waterworks, one between Banks Road and the shore (no promenade had been built at this stage) and the current Ashton Park site.

The site chosen lay between the old village and the new town centre and was bounded by Westbourne Road, Church Road and Carpenters Lane.

It was bisected by the Hooton – West Kirby railway line and comprised a sloping meadow above the railway and marshy ground below: through which ran the diminutive River Birket.

The marshy ground was seen as ideal for the creation of a lake which today is the focal point of the park.  It was the latter location that, in the face of divided opinion and loud protests, was selected.

The Growth of West Kirby

West Kirby originated as a small rural community clustered round St Bridget’s Church and Village Road (the Old Village) with a population of 330 in 1841.

As the village grew, encouraged by the arrival of the Wirral Railway in 1878, a new centre began to grow around the station on Grange Road, Dee Lane and Banks Road.

The town started to attract new residents – people of independent means, merchants, manufacturers, the professional classes, people working in Liverpool and Birkenhead and those providing goods and services to the expanding population.

By 1891, the population had reached 2,400. Development was encouraged by infrastructure funding by the new Urban District Council and Development Board and commercial development was attracted.
The Hydropathic Hotel had been built on West Kirby front in 1890 and was extended and relaunched in 1896.

As the name suggests, it was built to attract visitors seeking the healthy sea air as a preventative and a cure for ailments. Shops were built such as those on the Crescent and small hotels and boarding houses sprang up. West Kirby promenade and Marine Lake were opened in 1901 with the intention of attracting more visitors and create a resort for visitors.

The provision of a town park was a natural addition to this growing town and it was an important part in its role as a seaside and health resort.

Parks were considered to be integral to developing towns and cities to promote the health and well-being of residents, provide entertainment and activities and generally attract visitors.

The opening of Birkenhead Park in 1847 provided inspiration for the opening of parks in West Kirby and Hoylake and elsewhere across Wirral.

The Hoylake and West Kirby Urban District Council logo 

Mary Ashton, painted by Louis William Desanges

Manor Farm on Village Road

Land and the Ashton Family

Most of the land for the park (9.8 acres) was leased from Miss Emma Mary Ashton, with the addition of 3.1 acres of Church glebeland, along the Church Road boundary, from Canon Blencowe, Rector of the adjacent St Bridget’s Church.

Initially both areas of land were leased but on the death of Miss Ashton in 1935, then resident in London, the Hoylake Urban District Council purchased this land. In 1843, Ralph Ashton (Emma Mary’s father) had owned about 80 acres of land in West Kirby, making him the largest local landowner at that time.

He was the son of Henry Ashton who, it is believed, at some stage in the 1830 – 1840 period bought the land in West Kirby, including Manor Farm on Village Road, where he is recorded living in 1841.

Henry Ashton was born in Wigan but, it seems, moved to Liverpool to seek his fortune as a merchant. Ashton family members settled on the Island of Dominica in the West Indies, trading with the port of Liverpool.

Henry Ashton also owned, some jointly with his cousin, Ralph, two coffee plantations and 67 slaves reflecting this dark and shameful period in Liverpool’s history. Emancipation of the slaves in Dominica took place in 1834.

Henry died in 1842, a wealthy man, and passed his wealth and extensive lands in West Kirby onto Ralph, his son, but Ralph, in turn, died aged just 30 in 1850 leaving his daughter, Emma Mary Ashton, inheriting at the age of 6 years.

Miss Ashton lived to the age of 90, for many years in a huge town house in Marloes Road, Kensington, London and supported charitable work in poor areas of Victorian and Edwardian London.

Bit by bit, she sold land for housing development in West Kirby over the years, Ashton Drive being named in her memory.

She was painted, in her early years, by a prominent artist, Louis William Desanges, better known for painting military portraits and scenes.

The new park

The Borough Surveyor, Thomas Foster, was authorised to proceed in April 1901 with a budget of £2150 for works in the Lower Park and the bridge over the railway line to connect with the Upper Park (which was to be a separate phase of works).

Soon the work hit problems, delays and overspending on the works and planting. Progress was slow due to the work required to drain the marshy land and excavate the lake to the depth required.

The park was opened in September 1901 without ceremony and still not fully completed. To save money it was opened without shelters or fountains and there was no bandstand as envisaged at one stage.

There was no work in the Upper Park except the footbridge but approval for laying out the Upper Park as grassland as a play area for children was granted in October 1901.

Also in 1901 the lodge for the park keeper and his family was constructed and the first Head Gardener, Joseph James Stanley, was appointed. It was to take another 3 decades for the park to be fully developed and laid out as we know it today with pavilions, shelters, bowling greens and tennis courts and, of course, a children’s playground.

Initially the park opened as a place to promenade without any provision for sports reflecting the original plans. It changed greatly over the early years as the Upper Park was laid out, shelters, bowling greens and tennis courts were provided and quoits and croquet also introduced.

The park was opened as West Kirby Park but even in 1909 a local map marked it as Ashton Park  and by the 1970s it seems that the name “Ashton Park” was commonly used and the old name forgotten.

Other smaller parks in West Kirby followed – Victoria Gardens in 1916, Sandlea Park and House (to become West Kirby Library for many years) were purchased in 1936, Coronation Gardens in 1938 and Newton Park in 1971.

Early Years

In the early years of the park, we were blessed with a profusion of postcards printed and sold for visitors to West Kirby to send to friends and relatives. These provide a good record of the development of the park, a supply which over time dried up.

Over the Years

The public were first admitted to the Lower Park in September 1901 when it was laid out for local residents and visitors to promenade and enjoy the flowers.

It was only in the next few years that sporting and other activities were allowed and facilities provided: bowling, tennis, quoits, croquet, tennis, entertainment and in 1928, at last, a children’s playground.

The park was still at its peak in 1969: thereafter there was a steady decline in resourcing and standards coinciding with the restructuring of local government which set up Wirral Council and subsequent waves of expenditure cuts running up to the “austerity” of recent times.

The garden in front of the lodge in 1969

Park Keepers

The park was laid out, planted and maintained under the supervision of park keepers who reported to the Borough Surveyor.
Thomas Foster, the then Borough Surveyor, was responsible for the design, construction, laying out and planting of the park.

John James Stanley

The first park keeper was Joseph James Stanley (1901 – 1911) who was transferred to other duties by the Council after a series of disputes.

Edward Hadwin

Stanley was succeeded by Edward Hadwin (park keeper 1911 – 1939). Hadwin came from Cark in Cartmel to the south of the Lake District and is believed to come down from there to fish off the Wirral and North Wales coast but stayed to work for the Council on the building of the promenades. As a good worker and foreman, he gained his position when J. J. Stanley was moved on by the Council. His brother was believed to have been the Head Gardener at Holker Hall.

Bowling 

There was soon pressure for a bowling green but the unsettled nature of the ground in the Lower Park (formerly marshland where the existing green lies) in addition to Council worries about the level of debt incurred in the development of Hoylake and West Kirby led to the postponement of plans.

The (lower) green was finished in 1905 but it appears it was rushed, done on the cheap and the ground not properly consolidated. For the time being it was used for quoits and croquet and a replacement green built in the Upper Park (the green that still exists at the St Bridget’s Church end).

This site was originally sloping meadowland which required considerable excavation to enable the new green to be laid in 1906. This was used by the West Kirby Park Bowling Club initially:  they were joined by the newly formed West Kirby Ladies Club in 1928.

Tennis

Tennis was first provided for when 2 courts were built in the Lower Park in 1904 (where the children’s playground is today), followed by 2 more 1905 when changing tents were provided for the lady players. 2 more courts were to follow on this site.

Gallery

The West Kirby tank

Following the First World War, tanks were gifted to towns across the UK to say “thank you” for the monetary contribution of communities to the war effort.

West Kirby received its Mark IV Female tank in 1920 and it was located in the raised area at the top of the steps in the middle of the Upper Park.

It was poorly maintained by the Council and by 1928 people had grown weary of this rusting reminder of the horrors of the war and it was removed for scrap in 1929. Only two photos of the West Kirby tank survive.

The only two known remaining pictures of the West Kirby tank

The playground in 1962. Note the “parkie” supervising!

Children’s playground

There was no provision for children’s play until 1927 when 16 new tennis courts were built in the Upper Park and space for the construction of a playground was liberated in the Lower Park (where today’s playground still stands).

Other facilities for older children have been added into the playground and a football field and Multi-Use Games Area (MUGA) both in the Upper Park.

Diagonal pathways and rosebeds

In the late 1920s a pathway had been built to provide a direct link from the footbridge to the St Bridget’s Church entrance. The exact date of construction is unclear. This left the park with the layout we know today.

Buildings

Initially the park contained no buildings but these were built over the years starting with shelters and pavilions for the bowlers and passers-by caught in the rain.

The original pavilion on the Lower Green was probably constructed in 1921 when the green was re-laid. Another pavilion was provided for the Upper Green. Neither of these provided toilets! It seems the first toilets were provided near the park keeper’s lodge close to Westbourne Road.

With the construction of the 16 tennis courts in 1927 there was demand for facilities, including toilets, for tennis players and tournaments at the north end of the courts.

Strong protests ensued as bowlers had struggled without toilets for many years and requests were made for construction nearer to the green by the middle gate onto Carpenters Lane.

These were ignored and the current tennis pavilion was built in 1928 but eventually toilets on the path above the Upper Green followed (probably as a result of the creation of a Ladies bowling team in 1928!!). A further building was built where the top of the Cherry Avenue now.

This is nicknamed “The Old Police Shed” by the FOAP and is used for storing chairs and tents for the band concerts. 

Eventually new flat-roofed rendered brick bowling pavilions were built for the Upper and Lower Greens, probably in the 1930’s. Toilets were provided in the one by the lower green. These pavilions still exist.

The park in 1969

The park looked at its best under the care of the old West Kirby and Hoylake Urban District Council before transfer to the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral in 1974.

After 1974 the pride and care shown by the local Council was replaced by a more distant authority based on the other side of the Wirral.

The onset of austerity in recent years has further reduced standards and our park looks a pale shadow of what it used to be. These photos, donated by a local family, show the park at its height in 1969.

Tennis tournaments at the park

The first tournament was held on the 6 Lower Park courts in 1924.

The construction of the 16 tennis courts in the Upper Park facilitated years of Council underwritten tennis tournaments starting in 1930: initially these were limited to locals living within 10 miles of Hoylake Town Hall and visitors staying locally but gradually the scope and competitors playing expanded.

By the early 1930s the best players from Cheshire and Liverpool were competing attracted by new competitions with cups and prizes donated by local worthies. The pleasant situation attracted players to the “blue riband of local tennis” with a week of competitive matches.

During the Second World War tournaments were suspended between 1940 and 1948.

From 1949 tournaments continued till 1975 when international tennis ceased due to the withdrawal of Rothmans, the sponsors, competition from other tournaments across the world, the weather and the advent of professionalism in tennis.

By the early 1950s, international players (like David Samaai, a black player from South Africa but excluded from playing there by apartheid, who also played Wimbledon) were being attracted, initially from South Africa, Poland, Malaya and China.

West Kirby took over the North of England Championships from Scarborough around 1960 and the tournament turned “open” in 1970 and professionals were welcomed to play.

In 1967 John Newcombe, Roger Taylor, Mike Sangster and Tony Roche all played while renowned women’s players (Evonne Goolagong, Billie-Jean King, Margaret Court, Virginia Wade and others) were to follow as the women’s tournament grew strongly in profile.

International tennis returned in 1988 and hosted some amazing players (including Boris Becker and John McEnroe) but thereafter these tournaments always struggled to sign up the top players and sponsorship and tournaments finally died out in 1996.

A 1930 advert for the upcoming tournament

Model boating

Model boating was to be viewed on Ashton Park lake from the early days.

However, it was only in 1991, 90 years after the opening of the park, that the Wirral Model Boat Club, based in Ashton Park, was set up.  

In 2008, the lake hosted the launching of a huge model boat for Claire House Hospice.

The park lake displays a themed display of model boats at each of their weekly summer meetings.

The Cherry Avenue

The Cherry Avenue was only planted in 1986 replacing the rose pergolas along the diagonal pathway. The avenue and the adjoining rose beds have been a popular feature of the park for many years.

The Green Flag scheme

The Green Flag Award scheme was introduced in 1997 to address the parlous state of the parks sector across the U.K. The aims were to promote access to parks and green spaces, improve management of these areas, promote good practice, raise standards and reward staff and volunteers for their efforts.

Ashton Park was successful at its first entry into the Green Flag competition in 2004 since when the award has been achieved every year since then. Friends Groups are now questioning the value of the award, now run by the Tidy Britain Group, as the annual assessment of the standard of UK parks is not recognising the fall in maintenance standards across many of our council parks, including Ashton Park.

Substantial budget cuts over the years are depleting our dedicated and hardworking gardening and management staff who are no longer able to maintain the standards the public both need and deserve.

Woodcarving

In 2012 the Friends of Ashton Park engaged John White, a local woodcarver, to do the first of a series of carvings in the park: in this case using a felled holm oak in the new “Glade” by the Lower Bowling Green. This included a new character in the park “The Olde Man”.

Sadly, woodcarvings, (being made of wood!) don’t last for ever and have to be replaced in due course.

Popular views from today

Ashton Park is a popular place attracting locals from West Kirby and visitors from across the Wirral. It is estimated that 10,000 people use the park each week. Everybody has their favourite corners or activities.

Here are a few scenes not covered in the sections above.