The history of Clifton Park

If you grew up in or around Rotherham, your childhood memories are probably etched with days spent at Clifton Park.

For over 130 years, Clifton Park has been more than just your average park.

How lucky we are to have such a gem right here on our doorstep. You might have had caravan holidays or even been fortunate to go abroad, but it’s holidays at home, the summers spent in Clifton Park, that stick in your mind.

A place you could spend all day exploring, armed with just a picnic and a towel. A place with a sunshine corner, a Whit walk and lots of secret gardens. A place you could ride donkeys, see a wallaby and climb a camel tree.

You can still remember grazing your feet on the paddling pool’s sandpaper floor or the feel of those itchy mats as you flew down the Helter Skelter. And you never could quite master how to work those up and down bikes.

But none of that mattered. The sun always seemed to shine, it never cost a lot, and families were happiest together.

This new generation of kids might not have gotten to witness the glory days of the mini zoo and paddling pool, but there is still so much fun to be had.

There is a free splash zone, a big sandpit, the brilliant museum, crazy golf, year-round funfair rides, and the largest free outdoor playground in Yorkshire. Covering over 50 acres, the parkland’s natural beauty is a haven for sensory, nature and wellbeing walks.

In celebration of the summer months ahead, we look at Clifton Park’s long and detailed history as the jewel in Rotherham’s crown.

We must say thanks to Elaine Humphries, chair of the Friends of Clifton Park group, who shared many old photos and archive material with us. She wrote a 96-page book, published in 2015, becoming the first person to collate the park’s history.

Now 82, her whole life has been shaped by Clifton Park. She grew up on Clifton Avenue, opposite Herringthorpe Playing Fields and some of her earliest memories are of hearing the donkeys in a morning. Since the 1960s, she and her family have lived top end of the park near the school.

After retiring from a career in midwifery, Elaine set about writing her book about Clifton Park, using information gathered from Rotherham Archives as well as memories and photographs kindly shared by other people.

The birth of Clifton Park

In the 1780s, industrialist Joshua Walker bought land belonging to the Earl of Effingham. He built a large family seat, Clifton House, designed by John Carr and surrounded the estate with a stone wall.

It was a declaration of his wealth, power and status; the Walker family had made their money in iron and steel production. The original parklands had walled gardens, pleasure grounds, a fishpond, an ice house, stables and grazing land. They only planted trees that were rare and expensive, such as horse chestnuts.

When Joshua died in 1815, his eldest son, Henry, inherited the estate and lived there until his death in 1860. After that, the heirs had no interest in keeping Clifton House, so the estate was auctioned off.

It was bought by another iron and steel manufacturer, William Owen. When he died in 1881, it was put up for sale again.

After ten years on the market, it was bought by Rotherham Corporation in 1891 for use as a municipal park. They paid £23,000 – much more than the £18,5000 price they’d refused four years earlier.

The corporation spent £5,000 improving the parklands, adding new walkways and planting 100 each of chestnut, lime and elm trees.

Clifton Park was officially opened on 25th June 1891 by Edward VII, Prince of Wales. Edward was joined by his wife Alexandra and their daughters, princesses Maud and Victoria. The royals were treated to a grand celebration which included a balloon ascension and fireworks display.

Waterside fun

Many people will have fond memories of the paddling pool at Clifton Park. It was THE paddling pool in the region and adored for generations.

But before it opened in 1939, its predecessor was a lake that provided the public with waterside pastimes such as angling and ice skating for 45 years.

The lake started life as a pond that supplied the Walker family with fish. It was enlarged by Rotherham Corporation in 1892 to a depth of three-foot with an island in the centre and three fountains.

Around £5 worth of fish was added to the lake. In 1902, King Edward VII gifted a swan from the Thames. The following year, Billy, the 7th Earl Fitzwilliam, gave two Canadian geese, along with water lilies from Wentworth Woodhouse.

By the 1930s, the lake was unsanitary and it was drained in 1937. It was replaced by the paddling pool which opened in 1939 at a cost of £3,500 which included a new drainage and filtration system.

The pool was 100-foot in diameter, got gradually deeper towards its centre and had enclosed tiered steps around its circumference. Sadly, when its pump blew in 2007, it was closed for good after almost 70 years.

It was replaced by a new splash zone in 2009 which has a shallow paddling area and fountains, surrounded by grassed areas to sit.

Playtime at the park

As well as the famed paddling pool, Clifton Park has always been well-known for its wide choice of attractions.

The roundabouts opened in 1939 at the same time as the paddling pool on part of the old lake. You could ride on Cinderella’s carriage, a stagecoach or a motorcar. You might also remember the Helter Skelter and swing boats.

If you were old enough, you were allowed to ride the up and down bikes, the crazy contraptions that bounced when you rode them. What a sight they were!

For younger visitors, a donkey ride was a must. They donkeys were introduced to the park in 1942 until they were retired in 1997.

In 1974, a pet’s corner was opened. There were peacocks, canaries, parakeets and geese, as well as small animals like rabbits and goats. There was even a wallaby, with Rotherham folklore about it being spotted at a nightclub in town in the 1980s. The mini zoo closed in the 1990s.

A roller rink was added in 1984, followed by a crazy golf course up by the museum the following year. Up there, there were also tennis and basketball courts, along with four bowling greens.

Back down at the Doncaster Road end of the park, a new 100-yard mini railway was added in 1989 to replace a small land train from the 1930s. The track was removed in 1997.

By 2004, Greenspace Leisure had taken over the rides. They relocated the mini golf in 2009 and added a new land train, the Clifton Express. Over the last 20 years, Greenspace Leisure has invested over £1million into their fun park, making it a memorable and affordable place to visit for families from near and far.

As well as the paid-for rides, Clifton Park is home to Yorkshire’s biggest free outdoor playground. It runs the length of Doncaster Road and was built in the 2008 redevelopment works. There’s a sandpit, zip wire, swings, slides and a smaller toddler area up towards the car park.

For those of you who remember the old domed climbing frame and slide which had sand underneath it, you might get flashbacks just from looking at the ten-foot tower slide!

Events and entertainment

This July, The Reytons will make history as 20,000 people descend on the park for the sell-out hometown gig. But music at the iconic Clifton Park bandstand has always been something to draw in the crowds.

An original cast iron bandstand was situated near the lake. It opened in 1894 but was moved to Ferham Park in 1919.

The current domed roof bandstand was installed in 1928. It cost £1,660 and originally had sliding curved glass doors. It regularly held concerts where visitors could pay for a seat around the bandstand or sit on the hillside for free.

It was also used for parades and big celebrations like royal births and coronations. But what most people remember about the bandstand is it being home to Sunshine Corner.

How many of you still sing this merry little tune?

“Sunshine Corner it’s so jolly fine, it’s for children up to ninety-nine. All are welcome, seats are given free. Clifton Sunshine Corner is the place for me!”

Children and adults would join ‘Uncle’ Archie Biddle and his fellow church members for a singsong. Did you ever get a sweet for singing so loud and clear?

Whitsuntide walks were also popular. The crowds would set off from Main Street and parade through the town, past Doncaster Gate Hospital and up to the park. Children all had their new Whitsuntide clothes on and there would be trophies for the best float and Sunday school.

During the Second World War years, holidays at home were started in the park. There were concerts, sports tournaments, high wire acts, motor bike racing, Punch and Judy, and the Alfresco theatre. Sand was shipped in from Filey beach to make it a real holiday at home.

In 1949, the annual agricultural and horticultural show began. This was incorporated into the Rotherham Show in the late 1970s, adding the vintage car rally in 1993. This year’s show will be on Saturday 7th and Sunday 8th September.

Over the years the park has welcomed Lambretta clubs, cross country championships, miners’ demonstrations, and the circus. Were you in the audience in 1971 when Marc Bolan and T-Rex held a concert with tickets just 60p?

The annual fireworks and bonfire night was started in 1974 and ran every year until 1993. It was then reintroduced in 2003.

On Saturday 20th July, RDaSH NHS Trust is hosting a family fun day between 10am and 4pm. There will be walking dinosaurs, a games and soft play area, dance machine, giant LEGO, face painting and much more.

Landmarks and gardens

The museum is the most recognised of all Clifton Park’s buildings. No matter what era you grew up in, you’ll remember marvelling at Nelson the lion, cowering away from Marco the bear’s big teeth, or playing in the Victorian kitchen.

The Georgian house was opened as a museum in 1893 to tell the story of Rotherham’s rich heritage. Inside there are industrial artefacts, archaeological finds, military items, fine art natural science, and the striking Rhinoceros Vase from the world-famous Rockingham Pottery in Swinton.

Another building erected by the Walker family is the Birdcage Lodge, which was demolished in the 1940s after becoming unfit for purpose. It was built in the 1830s by Henry Walker as an entrance to the estate from Doncaster Road. Previously known as Walker Lodge or Clifton Lodge, the birdcage name came from a house across the road that looked like a birdcage.

When the park was bought by Rotherham Corporation, the Doncaster Road entrance was changed and the lodge became a park keeper’s house. The area of the park is now known as the Dell and has a small skatepark close by.

At the turn of the 20th century, more improvements were made around the park. Work began on the 26-foot-high cenotaph in 1919 at a cost of £50,000. It was made from Bolton Woods sandstone from Bradford, the steps from Huddersfield Shepley Hill stone. It was unveiled in 1922 with an original list of 1,304 men killed during WWI.

The surrounding remembrance garden wasn’t opened until WWII in 1948, with flowerbeds and a central water fountain. Can you remember it had goldfish in it?

Sticking with the military theme, there was once three WWI canons and an army tank in the park. The tank, which was used in the Somme, was at the base of the bandstand and was broken up for scrap in 1927, while the canons were behind the museum and were scrapped in 1937.

In 1922, original stone columns from a Roman granary at Templeborough were relocated to Clifton Park. They had been excavated in 1916 when planning was underway for the new Steel, Peech and Tozer melting shop. They’re still there today behind the museum, along with the town’s stocks dating back to the 16th century.

Opposite the Roman granary used to be a sunken garden which was established in 1936. The Walker sundial was moved into there in the 1970s. In the 1990s, it was turned into a sensory maze until it was removed in 2008.

In the early 1950s, the memorial garden was opened at a cost of £2,000. Around 800 tonnes of stone from Hooton Levitt were used to make the cascading waterfall. The area was edged in acers which is a sight to behold in all seasons with the different coloured leaves.

Behind the museum is the new garden building that was built in 2008 on the site of the old bowling pavilion and crazy golf. It has meeting and function space as well as a community walled garden.