by Siân Jones, Hannah Cobb, Ruth Colton and Melanie Giles (University of Manchester)
Whitworth Park was opened in 1890 towards the tail end of the most prolific park building period the country has ever known. It cost £69,000, and was filled with features designed for the recreation and health of the surrounding neighbourhood. The park became extremely popular on its opening, “abundantly visited” by the local population, with some “six to eight thousand” people present on a Sunday afternoon in April 1893.  In its Victorian and Edwardian hey-day, Whitworth Park boasted many typical features, such as a bandstand, a large boating lake, an observatory, various shelters, extensive formal flowerbeds, statues, and a covered walkway (Fig 1). However, many of these were removed in the post-war period; a common fate reflecting changes in urban park management and funding cuts.
The origins of public parks like Whitworth lie in the nineteenth century park movement, which was a response to the immense changes associated with industrialization and urbanization. Parks were designed to address many of the problems with this new urban environment, by providing access to nature, healthy pursuits, clean air, beauty and a sober venue for recreation. Indeed the public park was seen as a panacea to the ills of the urban condition and in its idealized form it embodied many of the social concerns of the Victorian period. As a specific kind of urban space, parks embodied a number of philanthropic and ‘improving’ ideals, as well as providing an arena for social control and the inculcation of middle class values. Once part of the urban landscape, they quickly became sites of social encounter, tension and exclusion through which class, gender, civic, national and imperial identities were negotiated. And despite significant changes, they remain important sites for the negotiation of memory, identity and place, as well as a focus for ideas associated with health, pollution, and the environment.
The Whitworth Park Community Archaeology and History Project aims to investigate the long-term social history of the Park and its changing meaning for local communities. It also aims to use archaeology as a way of engaging contemporary residents with their heritage and to increase the social value of the Park. The combination of research and community engagement can be challenging, but we see both elements as not just complementary, but integral to one another. Through archival, archaeological, oral historical and social research, the project explores the changing role of the urban park in terms of class, consumption, citizenship, leisure, memory and place, whilst at the same time engaging people in these issues. Community volunteers participate in the archival and archaeological research. At the same time they often bring specific forms of knowledge and understanding (oral histories, personal images, knowledge of both formal and informal events and practices) that make an invaluable contribution to the project. Finally, we also see the project itself as a focus of research, contributing to current ideas and debates in the field of community archaeology, and providing an arena for the production of various forms of memory.
The project involves archival research, two seasons of excavation, and a small-scale oral history programme, with a wide-ranging volunteer programme and a series of school workshops. Biodiversity surveys provide another important component connecting the original ideal of access to nature with current concerns about urban green spaces. There are also public outreach events during the excavation seasons, and other forms of engagement such as newspapers, public talks and the project blog. Towards the end of the project we will produce a public leaflet about the Park’s history, a new display board in the Park, and a temporary exhibition in Manchester Museum. The success of the project depends on a number of partnerships. It is led by the Archaeology Department at the University of Manchester and involves postgraduate and undergraduate students as well as academic staff. Our main community partner is the Friends of Whitworth Park, a group formed in 2005 with the aim of promoting the revival of the park for the benefit of the public, especially children (in the spirit of the Park’s founders), as well as updating “the historical infrastructure to make it relevant to contemporary life within a multicultural city”. Other partners include Manchester Museum, the Whitworth Art Gallery (located in one corner of the Park and part of the original vision of its founders), and the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre. These organizations, all part of the University of Manchester, have forms of expertise and skill that support the public and school components, as well as very well-developed community relationships that we can draw on. A close relationship with Manchester City Council is also a key component both in terms of providing in kind resources, and facilitating and promoting our work in the Park.
We began the first of two seasons of excavation in the park in September 2011 (the second will take place in July 2013). The excavations so far have targeted some of the major Victorian and Edwardian park features, including the boating lake, pavilion and band stand. Work to date has been incredibly successful in unraveling the many uses and social spaces created and recreated over the park’s history. Some of our volunteers are drawn from the local, ethnically diverse community, with a particular emphasis on the unemployed. As well as learning how to dig, the archaeology provides a connection to the local area and an opportunity to become part of a team, learning important transferable skills (Fig 2). Working alongside them are other volunteers from the Friends of Whitworth Park who bring both age and experience to the project, and a great deal of enthusiasm for connecting
what we find out about its past, to its future. We also worked with local schools: primary, secondary and college level. School groups had the opportunity to excavate, process finds (Fig 3), and participate in drama-based or archival-inspired workshops, in the nearby Whitworth Gallery (see Colton et al, for a special article on the school programme). In addition, our local Council for British Archaeology Young Archaeology Club came to excavate with us during our Excavation Open Day, which attracted many visitors. A ‘Memory Tent’ staffed by Manchester Museum Youth Board at the Open Day also provided an opportunity to obtain vivid and insightful oral memories of the park and how it has changed since the 1950s. Daily lunch-time site tours, chats over the fence and impromptu hands-on sessions attracted further stories, which will provide the framework for more in-depth oral history interviews adding to this archive of memories (Fig 4).
There is no doubt that community projects of this kind are hard work and often involve eking out funding from a number of different sources. The main funding for our project takes the form of a Heritage Lottery Fund Your Heritage Grant, but that doesn’t cover existing staff time (there’s no FEC component!) and the success of the project relies on a large number of people across the Archaeology Department and our partners, as well as the hard work of our volunteers. Other small amounts of funding come from the University of Manchester allowing us to juggle various direct costs. Partnerships and good relations with volunteers and the wider local communities are also key to the success of such projects but require good co-ordination and communication. Sometimes it can be difficult to mobilize community interest and we are often at the mercy of the weather! But, the excavations themselves provide a remarkable catalyst, drawing the interest of park users. The physical remains of former park features such as the lake and the bandstand stimulate people’s imaginations and memories. Objects like marbles and other children’s gaming pieces, the remains of clay pipes, items of personal attire, like jewellery and buttons, all offer a powerful means of engagement. They connect people viscerally and emotively to the lives of previous generations of Mancunians and tell us about the unspoken aspects of daily life: the unwritten history of working and middle class lives. This gets to the heart of why the project provides such a rich context for combining research and community engagement. It also underlines why participation in the process of investigating the Park’s past creates enormous social value in the present. By exploring the Park’s past, we hope to raise aspirations for its future, and to engage people in caring for their urban green spaces.
For more information about the Whitworth Park project visit our blog.
The second season of excavation will take place 1st – 12th July 2013, Whitworth Park
There will be an Open Day on 6th July in Whitworth Park
Professor Siân Jones specializes in the archaeology of identity and the conservation of cultural heritage. She has published extensively on ethnicity, authenticity, memory, identity and place. She has also carried out applied research on archaeology, communities and the social significance of heritage. Her co-authors are also based at the University of Manchester. Dr Hannah Cobb’s research explores the relationship between materiality, identity and place, with a focus on the Mesolithic. She has also published on the practice of archaeology. Dr Melanie Giles specializes in the late Bronze Age and Iron Age in Britain and Europe. She has published widely on identity, memory, death and burial and has worked closely with museums and schools. Last, but by no means least, Ruth Colton is a PhD student studying the role of the late-Victorian Public Park in creating, defining and challenging notions of childhood (supervised by Professor Siân Jones and Dr Julie-Marie Strange). She is also the Whitworth Park Project Assistant.
Corresponding author: Siân Jones, School of Arts Languages and Cultures, Mansfield Cooper Building, University of Manchester, M13 9PL, UK.
The Whitworth Park Community Archaeology and History Project is funded by an Heritage Lottery Fund grant, with additional funding from the University of Manchester and Manchester City Council. The Project is led by the department of Archaeology at the University of Manchester, in association with the Friends of Whitworth Park, Manchester Museum, the Whitworth Art Gallery, and Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre. All of these organizations have committed considerable resources to the project. We would like to thank all of the above, alongside all our volunteers, students and project staff for making the project a success. We’d like to thank the residents of Manchester who have engaged with the project and shared their memories and aspirations with us.
 “Trees and Shrubs for Town Planting” Manchester Courier, 5th July, 1890
 “The Rambler in Manchester” Manchester Courier, 15th April, 1893
 H. Conroy, People’s Parks: The Design and Development of Victorian Parks in Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)
 T. Wyborn, Parks for the People: the development of public parks in Manchester, c1830-1860. (Manchester: University of Manchester, 1994)
 J. Brück, Landscapes of desire: parks, colonialism, and identity in Victorian and Edwardian Ireland. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 17(1): 196-223 (2013)
 “A Gift to Whitworth Park” The Manchester Guardian, 6th May, 1895
 K. Shone, Whitworth Park Future Planning Document (2005)