• Created to provide a healthy green space for the nearby residents, many of whom lived in cramped slums in the 1880s
  • Opened by the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) in 1881
  • Named after Leicester Abbey, the ruins of which are located inside the park

From soggy marsh to historic park

Today the grounds of Abbey Park consist of green and pleasant spaces but during the 18th century the area was a damp and dingy marshland that was frequently flooded by the nearby River Soar. The introduction of Leicester Navigation Canal in 1791 helped reduce the effects of flooding, however the entire area remained a swamp even after people began to move and settle on the surrounding land.

Conditions for these residents, drawn to the area by work at the canal’s wharfs and warehouses, were grim even by 19th century standards. The density of the population settling in Belgrave Gate as well as their lack of access to open spaces and recreation grounds made many people’s lives both difficult and dirty. Concerns over public health were raised in the 1870s when it became apparent that the frequent flooding was causing sewage to contaminate the local water supply. The crowded Belgrave Gate desperately needed a healthy green space.

Gardeners working near the Cavendish House Ruins in Abbey Park, circa 1900. This section of the park was a plant nursery until the 1930s

A royal blessing

In 1879 the Leicester Corporation purchased Abbey Meadows from the Earl of Dysart as part of the Leicester Improvement Act and solved the issue of flooding by widening the river and lowering the riverbed. One stipulation for the sale of the Meadows to the corporation was that it should later become ‘a public park or recreation ground for the enjoyment of the inhabitants of Leicester’. The Leicester Corporation created a competition to design the layout of the park which was won by the Derby-based firm Barron and Son in 1877.

The project faced much public scepticism, with fears that the site would be so waterlogged that boats would be required to get across it during winter. Despite concerns, the project was completed within schedule and budget with the project culminating in a royal opening. The Prince of Wales and future King, Edward VII, along with his wife the Princess of Wales, were invited to officially open the park on Whit Monday, 1881. The ceremony itself was an event of much pomp and circumstance, with £3000 worth of subscriptions raised to decorate the royal procession route from Leicester Station to Belgrave Gate. Thousands turned up to celebrate the event, lining the route from the Railway Station to Abbey Park

 

The Prince and Princess of Wales and Princess of Wales passing by crowds in Leicester Market on the way to open Abbey Park, 1881. Leicestershire Record Office

Whit Monday was also Royal Oak Day; a celebration of Charles II’s escape from the Roundhead Army by hiding in an oak tree in 1651. The Princess of Wales was therefore invited to plant a young Oak tree in the park and was presented with an elaborate silver and ivory spade by the Ladies of Leicester. Much to the surprise of all present, the Prince of Wales also joined in the ceremony using an ordinary workman’s spade. The ‘People’s Park’ of Leicester was now officially open to all.

Crowds enjoying a performance at the 1987 Abbey Park Festival

Something to see all year round

The park itself would have looked somewhat different to its present iteration with original features, such as the American Garden and the Pavilion (lost to fire in 1959), no longer part of the current landscape. Another iconic feature of the 19th century Park was the City of Leicester Show which was designed to celebrate of the park’s horticultural splendour and was recognised as one of the best provincial shows in the UK.

In the 1980s the park also hosted the popular Abbey Park Festival which showcased the best local bands and music as well as acts from further afield. The annual Abbey Park Bonfire and Fireworks Display draws crowds of 1000s every year.

Today a visitor to Abbey Park can enjoy a variety of activities such as the boating lake, miniature railway, animal corner, exploring the ruins of Leicester Abbey and various playgrounds for children young or old.

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Roman Leicester

(47- 500) A military fort was erected, attracting traders and a growing civilian community to Leicester (known as Ratae Corieltauvorum to the Romans). The town steadily grew throughout the reign of the Romans.

Medieval Leicester

(500 – 1500) The early years of this period was one of unrest with Saxon, Danes and Norman invaders having their influences over the town. Later, of course, came Richard III and the final battle of the Wars of the Roses was fought on Leicester’s doorstep.

Tudor & Stuart Leicester

(1500 – 1700) The wool trade flourished in Leicester with one local, a former mayor named William Wigston, making his fortune. During the English Civil War a bloody battle was fought as the forces of King Charles I laid siege to the town.

Georgian Leicester

(1700 – 1837) The knitting industry had really stared to take hold and Leicester was fast becoming the main centre of hosiery manufacture in Britain. This new prosperity was reflected throughout the town with broader, paved streets lined with elegant brick buildings and genteel residences.

Edwardian Leicester

(1901 – 1910) Electric trams came to the streets of Leicester and increased literacy among the citizens led to many becoming politicised. The famous 1905 ‘March of the Unemployed to London’ left from Leicester market when 30,000 people came to witness the historic event.

Early 20th Century Leicester

(1910 – 1973) The diverse industrial base meant Leicester was able to cope with the economic challenges of the 1920s and 1930s. New light engineering businesses, such as typewriter and scientific instrument making, complemented the more traditional industries of hosiery and footwear manufacturing.

Modern Leicester

(1973 – present day) Industry was still thriving in the city during the 1970s, with the work opportunities attracting many immigrants from all over the world. While industry has declined in recent years, excellent transport links have made Leicester an attractive centre for many businesses. The City now has much to be proud of including its sporting achievements and the richness of its cultural heritage and diversity.

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