Derby Arboretum may be the most modest stop on Olmsted’s itinerary, an 11-acre neighborhood park surrounded by middle-class brick houses in the city of Derby, less than an hour’s drive north of Birmingham.
Built in 1840 by a wealthy local mill owner, the arboretum nonetheless holds an important title: the first public park in Britain. (Birkenhead, which opened in 1847, is careful to note it is the first park built with public funds.)
The mill owner, Joseph Strutt, who had been Derby’s mayor, commissioned it as a gesture of thanks to his employees. He hired Joseph Loudon, a Scottish botanist who had already designed the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, to create a botanical garden. Loudon instead planned an arboretum, focused on trees and laced with winding paths and ringed by a handsome wrought-iron fence.
On opening day, Derby declared a holiday so residents could enjoy their new park. It would be more than 40 years before the park actually felt like a gift, however, since the Town Council, once it took control of the property, charged an entrance fee of sixpence on most days.
Over the decades, the park slid into disrepair, but was recently restored with money from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Today it is a peaceful oasis, scattered with large urns of geraniums and begonias, where couples stroll after work and children practice riding bicycles.
Olmsted’s visit to Derby reinforced his conviction that all towns deserve a park.
In the same article in the New American Cyclopaedia, he said there was “scarcely a finished park or promenade ground deserving mention” in the United States, where, he pointed out, residents resorted to socializing in cemeteries. In comparison, he said, “every large town in the civilized world now has public pleasure grounds in some form.” Derby, he wrote, “is provided in the same way with an arboretum.”
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