The entrance fee controversy at the Nottingham Arboretum

Nottingham Arboretum, West Entrance c.1930 Courtesy of F W Stevenson and

Nottingham Arboretum, West Entrance c.1930
Courtesy of F W Stevenson and

Victorian urban parks are often described as ‘public’ institutions however many were not straightforwardly ‘public’ and placed some restrictions upon who could visit, especially those founded up to the 1850s. This was partly because the legal basis for providing parks paid for by local taxation was not established but also because many were donated by private benefactors who placed conditions upon how they were to be managed. Some Victorian parks were also developed by private companies as profit-making ventures like pleasure gardens such as Cremorne in London and charged for admission. The Nottingham Arboretum, established in 1852 as the centrepiece of an interconnected series of public walks and green spaces, initially charged for admission and was not unusual in doing so. The Derby Arboretum (1840) for instance, which helped to inspire the venture, also relied upon subscription and entrance charges for five days per week continuously (apart from one or two experiments) until 1881, and the Nottingham Arboretum admission charges were based upon these although a minority of the Enclosure Committee (spelled Inclosure in the sources) who projected and managed the venture were opposed from the beginning (Nottingham Journal, 19 March, 13 February, 1852). The Nottingham Arboretum was opened gratis for three days per week except for special fete days when a charge was levied. The subscription for individuals was 5 s a year and for boarding school pupils, 2/6 annually with other schools and parties being admitted ‘by special arrangement’. On non-free days the admission charges were 6d for adults and 3d for children under 14, children under the age of 9 being admitted only when accompanied by an adult. Families (including household members and guests) were encouraged to visit at any time on payment of a pound annually, and the park did not open until 12.30 on Sundays to allow church or chapel attendance (Regulations for the Nottingham Arboretum, 15 March 1852, Records of the Borough, IX. 89).

There were contradictions inherent in the original plan for the Nottingham Arboretum between its functions as a public park and its role as a semi-private institution with a systematic labelled collection of trees and shrubs intended to encourage botanical education and promote middle-class Victorian values. Furthermore, the fact that the park was established on part of what had once been the town common lands through the terms of the 1845 Enclosure Act was not forgotten.

Waverley Street entrance lodge plaque commemorating the circumstances of the opening of the Arboretum Image: P Elliott

Waverley Street entrance lodge plaque commemorating the circumstances of the opening of the Arboretum
Image: P Elliott

Enclosure of the common lands was long vehemently opposed and the provision of public walks in the Act was intended to provide some compensation to Nottingham citizens who believed they had lost out (P. Elliott, C. Watkins and S. Daniels, ‘The Nottingham Arboretum (1852): natural history, leisure and public culture in a Victorian regional entre’, Urban History, 35 [2008], 48-71; J. Mills, ‘The transformation of green space in old and new Nottingham’, Transactions of the Thoroton Society, 118 [2014], 93-114). The Tory Nottingham Journal led opposition to the charges carrying letters and editorials attacking the Liberal-dominated council’s decision to fund the venture through the rates and private subscriptions. The Liberal Nottingham Review on the other hand was much more supportive. In February 1852 the Journal described the proposal to charge for entry to this ‘people’s park’ as ‘anything but a fair and proper proceeding’ and carried correspondence arguing that there was no legal basis for these. The wealthier inhabitants had ‘plenty of opportunities of enjoying themselves without monopolising a public recreation ground formed at the expense of the community at large’ (Nottingham Journal, 13 February, 1852). Just before the opening the newspaper carried a letter from ‘A Lover of Equity’ which argued that as the ‘public property of the inhabitants of all classes equally’ and ‘a place set apart amongst others for public recreation in lieu of ancient and extensive privileges formerly enjoyed by all classes’ the park ought to be always open to all gratis. The ‘lower classes under proper police and other necessary regulations – by being from time to time brought into more immediate contact with their superiors’ would ‘through the influence of example’ be elevated in the tone of their moral and intellectual conduct and condition and the ‘superior classes’ would be ‘as salt to preserve from moral corruption the masses of our teeming population’. The ‘Lover of Equity’ argued that levying entrance fees went against the terms of the 1845 Enclosure Act and that the comparison with the Derby Arboretum was spurious as ‘it was strictly a private affair’ rather than a municipal project created by act of Parliament which also provided something ‘in return for the entrance fee’ namely ‘in its collection of rare plants and trees’ for ‘both instruction and recreation to the scientific botanist, as well as to his more unlearned brother’. At Nottingham however, there was as yet ‘nothing save the mere promenade’ because the trees and shrubs were so small (Nottingham Journal, 1 May, 13 February, 1852).

Original descriptive tally: Common Lime Tree Image: P Elliott

Original descriptive tally: Common Lime Tree
Image: P Elliott

The quarrel came to a head in 1857 with opposition led by the Nottingham Journal and some local Tories and so many placards and bills being produced that it was likened to an election campaign. Of the other three local newspapers, the Nottingham Review was sympathetic to the Liberal council but neutral on this issue whilst the Guardian opposed the charges and the Nottingham Weekly Times supported them. The opposition campaign was supported by some legal opinions and the example of a growing number of free parks elsewhere, but there were also letters in support of the corporation’s actions including one from a legal professional who argued that the terms of the 1845 act gave the council discretion to undertake charging if it thought necessary (Nottingham Journal, 2, 30 April 1852). After hundreds had signed a petition against charges, a meeting was held in April 1857 chaired by the mayor. Speakers against the charges included Dr. Thomas Wilson and Rev. William Butler who spoke dramatically of being turned away at the gates without tickets. It was argued that far more women and children would use the park if free and the working class would gain a taste for natural history, an argument supported by ‘all classes of the clergy…all classes of surgeons, by the respectable portion of the attorneys, and by the greater proportion of the merchants and manufacturers of the borough.’ However the Enclosure Committee insisted that the arboretum was no mere public recreation ground akin to the Forest or the cricket grounds but in fact an ornamental and botanical institution of a ‘higher class’. It served as a ‘people’s garden’ for all classes, a ‘source of health and pleasure’ which ‘no other towns’ enjoyed and a ‘place to which the young and old of all ranks can resort’, a buttress to civic pride and ‘honour and ornament to the town’ which would degenerate and cause policing problems if subscription income ended. They asserted that opponents of charges were behaving like chartists with their dubious petitions replete with false signatures whilst they in turn were accused of being akin to Corn Law protectionists (Nottingham Review, 1 May 1857; Nottingham Journal, 1, 8 May 1857).

Legal opinion on the whole was against fees and ruled that repair and maintenance was only a valid charge on borough funds if luxuries such as the ‘ornamental gardens with costly shrubs, flowers, greenhouses’ and objects of art were not included. The Enclosure Committee reported that according to counsel no inhabitant could be legally refused admission for refusing to pay as all inhabitants were entitled to free use of the grounds. The result was that embellishments and staff numbers were reduced, all water fowl were returned and the supervision of the Arboretum was placed in the hands of the police (Records of the Borough, XI, 28 April, 28 May, 1857, 120). However, a petition was presented by Edwin Patchitt the solicitor to the Improvement Commissioners in June 1857 in favour of the Arboretum being kept as a self-supporting pleasure garden, signed by 1,655 working men, 6,572 from the staple trades, 2,994 ratepayers and 156 bankers, merchants and manufacturers (Records of the Borough, 8, 30 June, 1857, 121, 124). The solution appeared to be to confirm the arboretum funding arrangements by including them in another improvement act and a committee was appointed with Patchitt’s support. As part of their recommendations, the Improvement Committee suggested that there should be powers to charge for admission to the Arboretum for three and half days per week as part of a broader bill empowering the council to undertake measures relating to sanitation, water supply, markets and smoke consumption. Whilst the council retained the powers to charge for admission in practise this was only used on special occasions (Records of the Borough, 7 September 1857, 125).

Blue Cedar next to Refreshment Rooms, 2006 Image: P Elliott

Blue Cedar next to Refreshment Rooms, 2006
Image: P Elliott


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