A large part was played by wealthy Victorian benefactors in providing finances and land to be used for educational and leisure facilities, mainly for the underprivileged working classes.
These facilities included libraries, schools, museums, art galleries and parks. Wakefield was fortunate to have Charles Milnes Gaskell (1842-1919), an English lawyer and Liberal Party politician, who provided land from his Thornes House estate to be developed as a public park.
Thornes House was built during 1779-81 by Wakefield cloth merchant James Milnes to the designs of John Carr. The house stood in some 100 acres of land.
Britain’s first public park was the Derby Arboretum in 1840, created by mill owner and philanthropist Joseph Strutt. It was his intention to provide a free haven for textile workers to exercise and relax away from their homes and places of work. Later, the park was one of the inspirations for Central Park in New York.
The area forming Wakefield park was in agricultural use until 1890 when Milnes Gaskell, then MP for Morley, offered to the Wakefield Paxton Society a gift of Lawe Hill, at Thornes Park, and the plateau immediately surrounding it. This was an elevated site where a splendid panoramic view of the city could be seen. He also offered adjoining land for park purposes at its agricultural value and not what it might realise as sites for residential property. The park was vested in a body of trustees and Milnes Gaskell became chairman.
Negotiations were entered into with a number of charity bodies which ended in the purchase of other fields. The extent of the whole estate then acquired was about 28 acres.
Under a headline ‘A Public Park for Wakefield’, the Leeds Mercury of June 4, 1890, reported: “The people of Wakefield have long deplored their lack of a public park, and whatever movement has had its inception in that regard has, so far, come to naught. Now all this is to be changed.’
Sir Edward Green, the MP for the city, promised a donation of £1,000 towards the park scheme. Blackhouse & Son, of York, were entrusted with the work of preparing the estate for use as a park.
On April 30, 1891, the Duke of Clarence and Avondale arrived in Wakefield to perform several duties, including opening the city’s new technical and art school and planting a white horse chestnut tree in the new park which was being laid out.
The prince arrived at the park at about 4.30pm. Wakefield Corporation member and park trustee vice chairman, Percy Tew, addressed the assembled company, expressing his regret at the absence of Milnes Gaskell. Had it not been, he said, for the energy and enthusiasm which he had shown, the park scheme would not have been carried out.
Mr Tew said the park trustees were indebted to the goodwill of the Wakefield public for the funds necessary to complete the scheme – as some £6,000 had been collected by public subscription.
It was proposed to lay out £2,000 in the ornamentation of the grounds, and Mr Tew hoped when the scheme was completed there would be no deficiency. Lady Green then presented on behalf of Milnes Gaskell a handsome inscribed silver spade, with oak handle, to his Royal Highness, and thanked him for the honour done to the town by his presence. The prince accepted the gift, and immediately began planting a young white horse chestnut tree.
In time, the park was laid out to include paths, shelters, a lodge and a bandstand on Lawe Hill. The main entrance to the park was in Denby Dale Road, nearly opposite Thornes church. A pair of wrought iron entrance gates were presented by Milnes Gaskell’s wife, Lady Catherine, a minor author who was on friendly terms with Henry James and Thomas Hardy.
A bandstand, similar in design to that at Woodhouse Moor, Leeds, but built of pitch pine, was fixed at the expense of Colonel Gerald Milnes Gaskell, of Lupset Park. Forty park seats, costing £2 each, were given by various people.
Wakefield Park was opened on July 6, 1893, the same day as the marriage of the Duke of York and Princess Mary; Milnes Gaskell was also granted the freedom of the city of Wakefield. At 2.30pm on the opening day, a long procession marched with a brass band through the city-centre streets, which were thronged with people and colourful bunting. At the park several speeches were made in front of thousands. The afternoon was regarded as a general holiday. Afterwards there were entertainments and sports in the park and Lady Gaskell gave a garden party at Thornes House.
Wakefield Park trustees managed the park until it was conveyed to Wakefield Corporation in another ceremony which took place at the city’s town hall, on October 13, 1899. Members of the public were allowed to attend and the mayor accepted the deed of conveyance from Milnes Gaskell.
Incorporated into the park in 1919 was the adjacent 14-acre Holme Field estate purchased by Wakefield Corporation from owner Alderman WH Kingswell. In 1919, Wakefield Corporation purchased, in a private sale, Thornes House and Park, the former residence and property of Milnes Gaskell. In 1924, 92 acres were added to the public park.
In later years the three chronologically developed parks Clarence Park, Holmfield Park and Thornes Park were grouped together under one title, Thornes Park. All three areas along with their buildings have undergone considerable alterations yet still provide a suitable amenity for the people of Wakefield to enjoy away from their places of work and homes.