The ‘jewel in the crown’ of Walsall town is, perhaps, its famous Victorian park, The Arboretum, and the setting of that jewel is entered through the historic gateways of a fine old Victorian building – the main Arboretum Lodge, with its distinctive clock tower.
Once home of the legendary Walsall Illuminations festival of lights enjoyed annually by millions since its inauguration in 1952, Walsall Arboretum itself has its origins in another much more ancient activity in the town – limestone mining.
The area now occupied by the Arboretum was originally part of Rushall until 1876. Limestone had been quarried in the vicinity since at least the late 18th century, with the Persehouse family demolishing Reynolds Hall so that the very profitable quarrying could continue. However, operations had ceased by the 1840’s, leaving two great pits to fill up with water, both from the nearby stream and from springs and general drainage. The larger of the two pits, now lakes, was named Hatherton Lake by 1845, and the fine old row of houses now known as Victoria Terrace just to the north was in fact built as Hatherton Lake Villas by the early 1850’s.
In 1858, demand was growing for a public park to be made in the area, and indeed the lakes and surrounding land had been informally in use for fishing and walking for many years. From 1868, Lord Hatherton’s agent began to support the idea of a park to improve the locality and encourage development.
In 1870, the Walsall Arboretum & Lake Co. Ltd was formed, as a commercial company leasing the land from Lord Hatherton and Sir George Mellish in 1873. The area leased comprised the two lakes and seven acres of land, which was to be laid out as an arboretum (tree park) or pleasure grounds and gardens.
The park, with lodges and boundary wall designed by Robert Griffiths of Stafford, County Surveyor, was opened in 1874, charging a 2d admission fee, but failed to become a commercial success, and it was taken over in 1877 by a committee which was able to make the park pay its way at last.
Many attractions brought people to the Arboretum over the next few years, including a band of Zulu warriors, a steam launch (The Lady of the Lake, which later sank in heavy rain and was raised by Henry Boys for use on his New Mills Boating Lake) and Captain Matthew Webb, the famous Channel swimmer, who braved the icy waters of Hatherton Lake, as well as Captain Boynton, who demonstrated his remarkable life-saving suit on the lake.
However, pressure grew for the Borough Council to take over, and in 1881 they obtained a 3 year lease of the land and opened Walsall Arboretum as a free public park. The town purchased the freehold in 1884, and so it was to become part of our local heritage.
The Arboretum Lodge had been opened as the main entrance to the park in 1874. Built with a tall clock tower in dark red brick, central to a symmetrical composition, flanking bays contain gates below a depressed gothic arch and slate saddle-back roof, linking to two storey bays below a stepped gable with stone dressed tripartite windows. Chimney stacks are at the extremities, with that on the right showing its original crenellated pot. Low single storey end bays stand below slate saddlebacks, with stepped gable ends and double lancets stone dressed. All in all, this was, and is, a fine and imposing entrance to such an impressive park.
However, the Lodge, like the under-funded facilities of the park, became the subject of some criticism over the ensuing years. At one time it lost its pinnacles, which had been blown off the gable, and the four-faced clock which had long been promised was not in fact installed until 1886. Prior to this, the four round holes in the tower had been blanked off with black boards, and this was not seen as a satisfactory situation, especially as trams began to run regularly along Lichfield Street towards the end of the 19th century and a public timepiece was now seen as a necessity.
In June 1886 the Town Council resolved to carry out some minor improvements, and a drinking fountain was installed just inside the lodge gates at a cost of £8. On 5th August the Mayor duly turned on the fountain and drank the first cupful. Plans were finally made to install a clock in the lodge tower, but with only two faces, one facing the park, the other Lichfield Street, at a cost of £35.
However, the townspeople felt that this was penny-pinching, and at their next meeting the Council resolved to fund the full four dials, at a further estimated cost of £15. This now-familiar clock was formally started by the Mayor on 30th September 1886, and within a few months it was illuminated by gaslight. The lodge, and its fine new clock, were to symbolise Walsall Arboretum from then onward.
In 1900, local architects were invited to submit plans for a pavilion to include
refreshment room accommodation. Mr H E Lavender’s plans were chosen. The Pavilion opened in May 1902, and that year tennis courts and bowling greens were built on the northern side of the brook in the extension. The park became a venue for sports days, school fetes and hot air balloon events.
In 1924 the current bandstand was built, opening in April. Constructed by Walter Macfarlane and Co, it replaced the previous bandstand, dating from 1874. Plans had previously been laid for an enclosure facing the bandstand, where seating was later provided on ledges stepped into the hillside.
The Arboretum was to be extended several times over the years, and between 1891 – 1952 it stretched south-eastwards, gradually increasing to cover 145 acres. This gave room to hold much larger events such as fun fairs.
Today, the park is best known as the one-time home of Walsall’s famous Illuminations (now sadly closed) and as the host to many other wonderful public events throughout the year. It is currently undergoing an occasionally controversial, but generally much-needed, major refurbishment by Walsall Council, which has shattered the peace within its walls for a while.
But it will soon be possible to once again walk in peaceful solitude through these tranquil gardens, beneath the ever-watchful four eyes of the Arboretum Lodge tower, and to contemplate the foresight of our Victorian ancestors who bequeathed us all this great gift so many years ago.