From Gutters to Greensward: Constructing Healthy Childhood in the Late-Victorian and Edwardian Public Park

  • Ruth Colton

Student thesis: Phd


The late-Victorian and Edwardian period marked the zenith of urban park construction, spurred on in part by concerns about the physical and moral health of those living in the city. For the middle-class reformers at the time, public parks offered a space through which the unique and complex social issues of the era could be addressed and resolved. The public park was unique in that it made children visible on an unprecedented scale. Their role was fixed at the very heart of discourses on health; of the body, the mind, the nation, and the empire. This research explores these discussions of identity, and how that was negotiated by children in the very specific landscape of the public park.Previous work on the concept of childhood during this period has focused on an adult interpretation of the figure of the child, steeped in nostalgia and imbued with an adult fear and hope for the future. I argue that this ignores the lived experience of the child, and denies them agency in creating their own identity. This thesis uses a methodology inspired by current research in the emerging interdisciplinary field of childhood studies and drawing on the insights of material cultures studies to address this. The park space offers a unique opportunity to study lived experiences of childhood, designed as it was for use by the general public, with children firmly in mind. This work addresses the gaps in our knowledge and understanding of public urban parks in relation to children and explores the idea of a late-Victorian and Edwardian childhood identity as a complex and nuanced phenomenon. Throughout my thesis I use three parks as my primary case studies. These are Saltwell Park in Gateshead, Whitworth Park in Manchester, and Greenhead Park in Huddersfield. All three parks are situated in towns in the north of England that experienced dramatic change as a result of the industrial revolution and so reflect the anxieties present nationwide as a result of this change. By way of contrast I also consider parks in London and elsewhere to understand the uniqueness of these parks but also how they were situated within broader national debates over children and childhood.My investigation is broken down into three major thematic areas, each of which seeking to explore and analyse a particular aspect of childhood identity. The first of the three themes is the 'Natural Child'. I explore the notion that children were thought of having a greater connection with, or affinity for, the natural world, and that they benefitted in particular from access to nature. The second area of research is the 'Playful Child'. Here the idea that children were inherently playful, frivolous and could be shaped through correct play will be discussed. Finally, I investigate the 'Empire Child', exploring the notion of the child as the future of the Empire and the Nation, and the embodiment of concerns over racial superiority, military conquest and economic power. Within each of these sections I examine the way that this idea is expressed in the prescriptive and other literature, before addressing the way in which these notions could be articulated in the park landscape. The material culture of the park and the way in which the parks encouraged or discouraged children's behaviour is analysed in relation to each of these themes. Significantly I also show how children engaged with, or rejected, notions of childhood identity, acknowledging that children were not just passively receiving instruction, but were actively involved in negotiating their own identity.
Date of Award1 Aug 2016
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorSian Jones (Supervisor) & Julie-Marie Strange (Supervisor)


  • Edwardian
  • Material Culture
  • Victorian
  • Landscape
  • Archaeology
  • Childhood
  • History
  • Public Parks

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