Wavertree Playground The Mystery

Showjumping at the Liverpool Show ©Joe Neary
Bob Edwards is the author of the book Liverpool In The 1950s and created the www.LiverpoolPicturebook.com website which currently has in excess of 3 million viewers worldwide. In this column Bob aims to bring you some of the wonderful history of our great city along with some photographs that illustrate our past, we hope you enjoy it!

WAVERTREE PLAYGROUND, also known locally as The Mystery was one of the first purpose-built public playgrounds in the United Kingdom. In May 1895, a stately home called “The Grange” was demolished and it looked inevitable that the estate it was based within would used as building for the increasing suburbs of Liverpool. Much to the surprise of Liverpool society, it was however announced that an anonymous donor had purchased the Grange

The donor had levelled and grassed the area – eradicating the ornamental lake that was once a feature of the grounds – and suggested the name ‘Wavertree Playground’. It was to be a venue for organised sports, and a place for children from the city’s public schools to run about in, not a park for ‘promenading’ in the Victorian tradition. He expressed the hope that the City Council “might approve of giving it a fair trial for this purpose … before appropriating it for any other use”.

The mysterious donor’s offer was accepted by the Council; the Playground was opened by the Lord Mayor of Liverpool amid great celebrations on 7 September 1895. There was a march past of 12,000 children, after which, the Daily Post reported, “the children were liberally regaled with cakes and milk”. Juvenile sports, a gymnastics exhibition and Morris Dancing followed, and finally “for upwards of two hours, the sky was brilliant” with a fireworks display watched by an estimated 60,000 people. Typical in Liverpool, the playground earned a nickname. When the word was out that the benefactor was unknown the locals christened the playground ‘The Mystery’ (or ‘Mizzy’).

Over the following century the area became one of Liverpool’s most popular open spaces as the venue for a number of great civic events, most notably including a Grand Pageant to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the town charter (1907) and from 1949 throughout the fifties, sixties and early seventies, Wavertree Playground was home to the Wavertree Show / Liverpool Show. The show attracted displays from 1000s of organisations including the firm of John Mason removals, founded in Wavertree in 1887.

Ronald Shephard Collection’ held by The West Sussex County Council Record Office.

In 1930 the Liverpool and Manchester Locomotive “Lion” was at the Liverpool and Manchester Railway Centenary Celebrations held in Wavertree. ‘Lion’ drew a specially constructed replica of a train of 1830 round a circular track on the Wavertree Playground. The railway servants were dressed in the uniform of the period. Fares were 1/- 1st class; 6d. 3rd class.

As well as these displays there were also displays of horse jumping, vintage cars and of course brass bands performing in the central arena. The Liverpool Show was also a well respected horticultural, agricultural and civic occasion with attendances over the three day event in the 1960s often exceeding 100, 000 (129,409 in 1965).

The park today

It subsequently emerged that the donor was Philip Holt, of a wealthy ship owning family. However, the Playground retains popularity as the Mystery and today is a major city attraction as both venue for large events including fairs, and sport – the latter as home to Liverpool Athletics, Tennis and the recently opened Liverpool Aquatics Centre which features an Olympic standard pool.

The PH Holt Foundation, incorporating the Holt Education Trust continues to this day as an independent grant-maker supporting local communities, education, the arts, heritage and environment on Merseyside.