Dundee Society in the 19th Century

The Baxter Park


The February 1995 meeting of the Friends heard Christopher Dingwall of the Garden History Society, talk on the history of Baxter Park in Dundee.

Baxter Park is a very significant piece of Scotland's garden heritage. As many will be aware there is currently a plan for redevelopment of the park, a restoration of aspects of it, as it has become subject to problems over recent years. As part of this, efforts have been made to trace the history of the park. Among those documents which relate to it are the various trust deeds and such like, some of which are in the Dundee Archives.

The origin of the Parks movement merits consideration and a Scot deserves mention in this connection: the creator of what is regarded by many people as the first public park in Britain, John Claudius Loudon, who was responsible for setting up the Derby Arboretum on what was then the outskirts of Derby. This was in the 1840s and the public parks movement was a broadly based movement trying to bring some areas of open space to the growing industrial centres all over Britain.  It operated sometimes through benefactors but in other ways as well.

In the case of Baxter Park the person most concerned was obviously Sir David Baxter with his two sisters who, in 1860 or thereabouts, decided they wanted to give a gift to Dundee in the form of a public park. A statue of Sir David used to stand in the pavilion of the park but is now in the Museums Department's McManus Galleries in Albert Square.

In 1863 the title deeds of the park say Sir David and his sisters 'resolved to present to the inhabitants of Dundee a public park in the immediate vicinity of the town with the view of affording to the working population the means of relaxation and enjoyment after their hard labour and honest industry and the common ground where all the inhabitants of that large and busy town may meet in mutual acknowledgement of their dependence of one upon the other'. In pursuance of this wish they negotiated the purchase of the ground consisting of two fields to the north of the Arbroath Road on the outskirts of the town. They negotiated the sale of the land with Sir James Guthrie of Craigie and Sir David and his sisters, Eleanor and Mary Ann, purchased some 37 acres of the two fields and began to have ideas about this layout of the park.

They chose to employ one of the most prominent landscape designers of the period, Sir Joseph Paxton, who, in the late 1840s, had laid out Birkenhead Park in Liverpool, one of the first public parks after the Derby Arboretum. His experience of laying out parks in other towns and cities throughout the country made him an obvious choice for the laying out of a new park in Dundee. After discussions with the Baxters, in Dundee, he produced a design for the park.
At the same time as all this was going on there were various meetings to try to raise interest in the park. A testimonial by W C Leng in July 1862 which extolled the imagined benefits of the park, with the slope running down towards the river, then open land with much more open views down towards the river, and big villas to the south of the park with their gardens stretching down to the riverside.  Talking of the weavers coming out from their work, he writes "northwards he looks, sees the swelling plain showing like a sea of verdure breaking against the dusky sides of the frowning Sidlaws.   Seawards he casts his eye and sees the dwarfed ships flecking the sea like a flock of sheep pastured on a sapphire plain.   Westward he gazes from the foot of the noble hill on which our town is built, the wooded gorge where the Tay ripples under the crags of Kinfauns and back again to the Ochils, his eye commands the whole scene.   Southwards he turns and there, snuggled like a nest of fledglings built in a leafy nook, lies Newport, St Andrews Bay, the twin peaks of the Fife Lomonds, the far reaching East Neuk of the Kingdom and the vast distant sea shining like a sea of pearls on a robe of blue satin. The Tay dimpling and smiling between the arching branches of the trees; the birds showering down music, the bright cheery sky, frolicksome play high in the clouds.  Long deep cracks of flowers dressed like coquettes waiting to be seen, which tends to make our weaver forget his dingy close for a while and cry out with that other weaver in Midsummer Night's Dream 'Bless thee, bless thee Bottom, thou art translated'".

As laid out, the Baxter Park consisted of two parts.   The lower part was a parade ground or playing field to the south of a long terrace which runs along the line of the old farm road which ran between the two fields.  The upper part of the park was devoted to a series of winding walks or promenades which people could enjoy, and within the park in the north eastern corner there was a little hill and ground rising quite steeply up to the north side at Stobsmuir.   It is still there but the present access from the sides came later. The focus of the park was the Pavilion on the terrace with the parade ground to the south. The main entrance into the park at the south end was near to the Old Toll House on the Arbroath Road.  The park became the focus for other developments: the areas which had been cultivated were laid out later as terraces of houses with a view over the park, the park bringing added value to these lands. Craigie Quarry was still operating when the park was laid out.

The cost of the park is recorded as being £40,000 and Sir David and his sisters gave an endowment of £10,000, which was to be used by a Board of Trustees for the management of the park. Sir David sought to get a range of people on the Board of Trustees.   Among those mentioned in the titles to the land were the Lord Lieutenant, the Member of Parliament for Dundee, Sheriffs of Forfarshire and Dundee, the Lord Provost, three bailies, the Dean of Guild, representatives of the Nine Trades and Three Trades, members of the Seaman's Fraternity, Ministers of the Parish Church of Dundee, of the Free Church, of the United Presbyterian Church, and of the Congregational Church, President, Vice-President and ex-President of Dundee Chamber of Commerce, and a mechanic and a tinsmith to represent the working classes of Dundee.
On 9th September the park was opened with great celebrations, although it was barely begun with some trees planted along the new paths on the slopes of the hill.  A triumphal arch was erected at one end of the park and some 70,000 people attended the opening. Present were Earl Russell, the Prime Minister, the Earls of Dalhousie and Camperdown and a two mile long procession came out from the City, led by military bands and with representatives of all the public bodies, trades, and volunteers.

The Italianate Pavilion in the middle of the park, an “A” listed building, was designed and built by George Stokes who was Paxton's son-in-law. He was involved in a number of other parks which Paxton laid out - but we don't know a great deal about Stokes.

The main terrace had seats at either end but there were no gates at the ends as there are now. Planting consisted of regularly spaced trees with a shrubbery alongside the bank. The pavilion, with Sir David Baxter's statue in a niche at the back, was the focus of the new gardens and had a gardener's room at one end and conveniences and a refreshment room, which became an Italian cafe, at the other end.

At the back was a six-foot cast iron fountain which was acquired from the ironworks at Coalbrookdale. This was described by one of the early writers about the park: "Water flows from a font of Sicilian marble carved in the shape of a shell, surrounding it are emblematic figures, on the right is a massive figure of Moses with rod in hand as if preparing to strike at the rock from which the water gushes out, on the left a Jewess holding a cup to the lips of her young child while immediately below is the appropriate inscription 'he opened the rock, the waters gushed out, it ran in dry places like a river'".

The opening of the park was welcomed by many. Up on the north end on the hill with the little rockery walk was "a secluded spot, reached by a walk winding between fern covered heath clad rocks, an ornamental drinking fountain, in this sequestered nook local philosophers and sages can retire to meditate and amorous swains can whisper sweet nothings in willing ears of female musers".

Right from the very moment of its opening, this great magnanimous gesture by Sir David and his sisters was condemned by some, particularly representatives of the kirk. In 1864, the year after the opening of the park, the Rev John McPherson was so offended by the opening that he wrote an open letter to Sir David Baxter. A whole series of pamphlets went back and forth between the ministers of the kirk and the supporters of the park.

"Fellow travellers to the Land of Promise would leave the Sabbath, its hallowed exercising and heavenly calm, which afford us foretaste of that more excellent glory for which we all await.  Look around to see the motley company of infidels, heartless professors of religion, ribald and profane talkers are making too successful encroachment on the Lord's day. In the interests of morality and religion, love to never dying souls and some concern for the law and honour of the most high God, I presume to address you that your park, your noble gift is now open on the Lord's day. There thousands of the young assemble to see and be seen, the park is become a trysting place for multitudes of both sexes, where carnal mirth and profanity make bold to appear. Unblushing crowds are encouraged to trample on the laws of the Eternal God and are invited by the open gates to parade gaily. The opening of these gates, Sir David, is the opening of the floodgates of irreligion and sin. Will green fields and flowers charm the serpent of depravity, transforming it into the dove of holiness? Not thus have men, and especially Scotchmen been successfully trained for the stern duties of this life and the dread realities of the life which is to come".

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Him who heals all manner of diseases on the Sabbath day, prevent those who are this situated from enjoying the pure air of heaven for a few hours on the only day which they can get it?   Have you only the ritual of the Pharisee, to offer?".   People of Dundee are determined "not to be deprived of their Christian privileges by blind unreasoning fanaticism and bigotted zeal which do more to alienate people from clergy and church than all the writings of the infidels put together. For the enlightenment, elevation and recreation of people on Sunday, I remain sir, your obedient servant".

Another pamphlet came back from 'An Elder'. "Such as is the profanity of your letter to Rev John McPherson that I am sure he will not defile his fingers with it. I beseech you, as well as working men and women who walk in the park on the Sabbath to reflect" etc., etc., " the Sabbath should be spent in the service of God who has created you, in order that you may drive yourself again to the work and service of man in the following week regardless of if there is a God; you have a soul to be saved, a heaven to lose, a hell to gain and a judgement seat where you must meet face to face with that God which you disregard".

When Mr McPherson attempted to preach in the park his ears were greeted with oaths by those who walked on the Sabbath there because he attempted to encroach on their pleasure seeking recreation by the preaching of the gospel. It generated a good deal of heat but Sir David and his trustees were determined that the park would stay open on Sunday and soon it became a very important part of everybody's recreation on a Sunday.

The park continued. Gradually, villas and terraces of houses were built overlooking the park, the quarry was closed down, and access was provided from Dalkeith Road and from Baxter Park Terrace.   New facilities were introduced like the bowling green at the north end.
By the turn of the century the park was beginning to suffer from serious problems. The trustees could no longer afford the maintenance of the park even with the generous endowment given by the Baxter family and they were in serious difficulties. Sadly the park had always been subject to vandalism, particularly Stokes pavilion. In the 1870s the Parks Department of the Town Council introduced some regulations regarding parks as a whole in Dundee, including prohibition of “unaccompanied dogs, climbing on the railings, damaging and defacing flower beds and buildings, furious riding, horse breaking, lectures or preaching, bird nesting, and people not dressed in clean and decent clothes”.
A report made to the Cemeteries Committee of Dundee Town Council in 1903, when the Town Council agreed to take over the park, reflected on the present condition of the park. "The manner of laying out has been very good indeed, combining ornamental planting and ample space for recreation in such a way as left nothing to be desired. While the want of sufficient labour to keep the ground in proper order for some years past may have accounted for some of the falling off, I would respectfully point out the abuses to which the park has been subjected by the public have contributed largely to its present unsatisfactory condition. The problems are detailed, like the gaps in the railings with people climbing in the park, the removal of park rangers and regards the east side as having received the most abuse. “Walks around the park are in a very rough condition, so much so one could almost sympathise with those who walk on the grass edges for their own comfort". Everything about the park, even in 1903, was in a pretty dire state.

So the Town Council took it over, overcame some of the problems, and have been responsible ever since for the management of the park. A diagonal path was put in where people had taken a short cut over the grass. The drinking fountain, which had been in the rocky dell at the top of the park, was removed because of vandalism and put in a more public place. The park continued to evolve, still retaining many of its features but with a new children's' playground and a bandstand. In the space of 140 years since the park was made, it really retains pretty well all its major features that were designed and laid out by Sir Joseph Paxton in the early 1860s. It has a significant place in the history of Gardens in Scotland. Paxton did very little other work in Scotland: laying out Kelvingrove Park and another, which has since more or less disappeared, in Dunfermline. Together with Kelvingrove Park, Baxter Park is one of the best examples of its kind of a public park with its promenade, its parade ground and its playing field.

The Account of the Opening of the Baxter Park from the Minute Book of Lodge Operative No.47


Iain D. McIntosh, 2022