The History Anorak

The History Anorak

Monday, 15 June 2015

Bringing history to life

Ghosts in the Park
Derby Arboretum is celebrating 175 years this year. It's the oldest public park in Britain and was the inspiration for New York's Central Park. As part of the celebrations photographer Howie Johnson has staged an exhibition of pictures that show off the park in a different way.

One of Howie's merged photos
He has merged old photographs with modern shots, in a series he has called Ghosts of the Park. And he has created life-sized images on mesh, which are on show throughout June among the trees, as if the ghosts have come to life. Some of the ghosts are from original pictures of the park, but some are photographs he has created using modern models in Victorian costume.

For one day only, people were invited to dress in Victorian costume and take a picnic to the park, to see the ghosts and be part of its ongoing history. There was a good turnout, and people of all ages and races joined in. Derby is a multi-cultural city and the history of some ethnic groups in the town is as long as the park's.

Ghosts in the park The arboretum was the brainchild of industrialist Joseph Strutt. The silk merchant and cotton mill owner gave the land to the town in 1840 because he was concerned about the lack of fresh air for residents of the increasingly industrialised area. Ironically, pollution levels killed many of the 1,000-plus species that were planted in the park.

Strutt wanted the arboretum to be both a place for exercise and recreation, and educational. His instructions were that no species was to be repeated across the 11 acres, to encourage people to walk all the way around it.

The layout was designed by Joseph Claudus Loudon, a 19th century horticulturalist who had strong views on social responsibility. He felt rich factory owners of his time had a duty to look after their workers, and had already expressed a desire to create a public park.

The current exhibition clearly attracted a lot of attention and local people were engaged with it. Wandering around the park, seeing the translucent figures of Derby residents past and present walking alongside, was a great way to consider the park in a new light. Many of the visitors to the picnic event had never been to the park before.

Ghosts in the Park
He's offering peppermint
cough preventative!
It's likely that the majority of Derby residents don't even know the park exists (it's not central) let alone its historical significance. It's to be hoped that this exhibition goes a long way towards letting the town know what it has and how much it should value it.

By the end of the 20th century vandalism and neglect (and WWII bombing) had taken their toll on the arboretum and it was very much the worse for wear. However, a Heritage Lottery Fund grant enabled the city council to make an investment in it. Much of the park was restored, including a replica of the Florentine Boar (see photo above). According to an information panel in the park, Strutt commissioned sculptor W J Coffee to make a ceramic replica of a boar statue to be found in Florence, Italy.

Strutt originally had the work at his own home, but donated it to the park for the official opening. The boar survived until a bombing raid in 1941 caused severe damage, then it was taken away. The current boar is a bronze replica, of the replica!


  1. What a super exhibition and such a good idea, I'd love to see it. It looks similar to the one we saw at Clumber Park recently. Using old and new photos merged is such an imaginative way to bring the place alive and creating the 'ghosts' of the past. We visited the arboretum a few years ago and I thought it was a great place, if a little neglected. I love the boar photo:)

  2. What an fascinating way to engage local people's interest in the Arboretum. I'm glad that it's been restored after so many years of neglect. It's surprising how many people aren't aware of things that are on their own doorstep including me. Until fairly recently I had no idea of the existence of an ancient wood that is on the edge of the area where I live. I knew and used the much larger and well known Ecclesall Woods but had never even heard of Gillfield Wood until a Friends group was formed. I joined it and discovered a lovely place that is awash with bluebells in the spring and that has a long and interesting history.

  3. I love those melded 'ghost' photographs. What an interesting post. I'm researching Joseph Paxton's contributions at the moment, same period and not far away at Chatsworth.

  4. By the way, thank you for the info about transporting glass for the Crystal Palace. That will definitely go into the book.

  5. Thank you so much for a wonderful write up, it has been wonderful to engage people with this magical place. The Arboretum needs to have more attention and help.


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