Diana, Princess of Wales and Rhyl’s Coronation Gardens
The proposal to plant an Oak Tree in memory of Lady Diana along with a park bench at the Coronation Gardens comes on the 70th anniversary of the creation of those Gardens in 1937.
Despite the title Coronation Gardens this would be the first Royal memorial tree planted there although there are already several ‘Royal’ connections in the adjoining Botanical Gardens, ie in 1937 a King George V Memorial Garden was laid out along with a stone plaque, in 1948 an Oak Tree was planted to mark the birth of Prince Charles, in 1981 an Oak Tree was planted by the Council to mark the wedding of Charles and Diana. The latest tree planting was on July 19 this year when a Monkey Puzzle Tree was planted by the Earl and Countess of Wessex, Edward and Sophie, during their visit to the Botanical Gardens to witness the work of the local Residents’ Association in restoring the gardens. Therefore the possibility of a Memorial to Diana, the former Princess of Wales, will perhaps serve to continue this tradition.
The creation of the Coronation Gardens/King George V Playing Fields in Rhyl dates from the late 1930s and it could easily be thought that it was the act of a munificent forward-looking local authority seeking to enhance the leisure facilities available to its residents and the visitors that in those days flocked to the popular seaside resort. A closer look at the evidence reveals other influences also played an important part in these gardens being established, namely Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich.
An article in the Rhyl Leader in October 1936, headed “A Fitter Nation”, noted that “the nation had been stirred by Chancellor of the Exchequer Neville Chamberlain’s announcement of new measures to improve the physique of the nation and particularly our youth”. In 1938 as Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain has forever been labelled an appeaser of Adolf Hitler at Munich when Britain faced the Nazi threat, but in 1936 when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer he had showed his awareness of the need for some preparation of the British people for the possibility of conflict, albeit Playing Fields. Physical education was no longer to be regarded as a side-issue by the state and local authorities but a necessity.
The Health Minister, Sir Kingsley Wood, was entrusted with the task “of making the ideal of a youth possessed of full health and vigour a reality” and the Rhyl Leader reported that Chamberlain took a swipe at the Nazis by concluding his statement saying “the German ideal of a healthy and vigorous youth may be admired we cannot order our youth into labour camps as Herr Hitler does”.
In March 1936 an appeal for funds was launched in aid of a National Memorial to King George V, who had died on 20 January, 1936. The form of the memorial was to be the provision of playing fields but nothing much happened until October when the Chancellor, in response to the national and international situation, made his announcement about the need for progress on national physical fitness. By 1937 Hitler had rearmed Germany, reoccupied the Rhineland and the Spanish Civil War was in full swing with General Franco’s fascist forces being aided by German Stuka dive-bombers. From then on the call for fitness in the UK became more urgent.
Rhyl’s Coronation Gardens was one of the first of the 426 playing fields that were created across the UK under the auspices of the King George V Foundation Trust. Rhyl Urban District Council enthusiastically took up this national fitness challenge and plans were soon in hand to provide a large playing field as an extension to the rear of the town’s Botanical Gardens which had been established in 1928 in Grange Road. At a meeting in the Town Hall in October 1936 the Chairman of the Council, Joseph Brookes, JP, stated that “he felt confident that the inhabitants of Rhyl would play their part in this National effort.” This appeal was seconded by the Vicar of Rhyl, Rev R H Roberts, who “urged the need of playing fields for the health of children where they would be safe from the terrors of the streets”!!
An Appeal Committee was formed and during the week of October 26 the local press contained large adverts announcing a week-long House to House Collection in Rhyl for contributions to the King George V National Memorial Playing Fields Appeal. Part of Burton’s Gents Outfitters, High Street, was converted into a “Coronation Gardens Depot” where information about trees, seats and playground equipment could be obtained”. The “depot” was to remain open until the end of the 1936 summer season.
Royal Abdication Crisis
All this activity coincided with the Coronation of King Edward VIII planned for May 12, 1937 and initially Rhyl’s new playing fields were to be called the “King Edward VIII Gardens and Recreation Ground”. However, that title soon had to be abandoned when the new King’s romance with Wallis Simpson led to his abdication and he left with her for France on December 11, 1936. So finally the gardens had two names: the pillars at the entrance from Madryn Avenue bear stone tablets, as prescribed by the Trust, with the inscription King George V, 1936. The confusion caused by the abdication crisis was diplomatically resolved by the simple inscription “Coronation Gardens, 1937, RUDC” on the large art deco styled double gates which still remain at the entrance from Vale Road. The Royal uncertainty and the need to get the work done meant that King George VI’s name did not feature and of the two names Coronation Gardens is the name which soon entered the local vernacular or, more commonly, “the Corras”.
A report in the Rhyl Leader dated 31 October, 1936, outlined the detail of what was planned, how the playing fields would be financed and the work carried out. The plans, which had been ably drawn up by the Town’s Surveyor Tom Lomax, showed that ten acres of vacant land behind the Botanical Gardens stretching to Vale Road were to be converted to Gardens and a Sports Ground. This land had come into the possession of the Council in the early 1930s probably for housing development but this had not taken place and it had continued to be rented out for grazing cattle, sheep and horses. A great deal of preparatory work was needed to convert this area to playing fields. 180 yards of hedges and several trees needed to be removed, ditches had to be filled in and the land drained and regraded – a big job.
With the winter before them there was limited time to get this work done and open the Gardens in time for the King’s Coronation the following May as was hoped. Councillors therefore proposed that the “King’s Pals” could be brought in. The “King’s Pals” was a euphemism for the unemployed who were to be encouraged to give of their time free to show their loyalty to the memory of the late King George V. If they could persuade 300 local young men to give two hours service on twelve occasions over three months the job could be done in time. However, the organising zeal of the town’s civic leaders and their cash donations to the project were not matched on a practical level by the altruism of the “Kings Pals” and, as they were not so keen on this kind of a challenge, the work was eventually carried out by the Council’s Parks Department. The World War II slogan Dig for Victory would come later under Churchill’s leadership when the gardens were used as a food resource and allotments for the duration of hostilities.
Cost and Donations
The estimated cost of laying out the gardens and providing the necessary buildings, lavatories, etc was £5000 which would be paid for by voluntary donations and a loan. Seats could be donated with suitable tablets inscribed with the names of the donors. Councillor R L Davies, Chairman of the Parks and Gardens Committee, had donated £50 to start the fund off and the ornamental gates at the Vale Road entrance, costing over £100, were generously donated by Councillor H A Tilby, OBE. The total amount of local donations to the National Playing Fields Memorial Fund was announced by the Lord Lieutenant of Flintshire in April 1937 as a handsome £879. Some of this went toward a public statue of George V which today stands outside Parliament in London but the rest was used for the local gardens. The remainder of the total cost of £5000 was to be met by the local rates and further public donations.
The King George VI Coronation took place on May 12, but of the planned celebrations in Rhyl, none took place at the Playing Fields because they were not ready. Despite considerable effort those planned events that did take place elsewhere in the town on Coronation Day were not very well-attended either, partly because, as often happens on these occasions, the weather did not play its part and it rained for most of the day. One interesting Coronation Day competition was organised by the Rhyl Journal which had offered a prize of one guinea to the mother of the first baby in the local area to be born on the big day May 12. This was won by Mrs Margaret Roberts, Gwylfa, 53 Millbank Road, Rhyl, who had given birth to an 8 1/2 lb boy named John Edward. The only civic event that did occur at the Coronation Gardens during this period was on March 25, 1937, when a Tree Planting Ceremony on Arbor Day took place at the Vale Road entrance to the fields attended by children and teachers from eleven schools in the town. These 11 schools had collected money to pay for trees which “were planted by two chosen scholars from each school” along the sides of the entrance way into the playing fields. At least one of those scholars, Clem Jones, still regularly walks through there with his dog. At this event there was “a good muster” of townspeople and civic dignitaries including Councillor Tilby who had paid for the gates and who expressed the hope that the King and Queen during their expected tour of North Wales in the summer of 1937 might be persuaded to visit Rhyl and formally open the playing fields. (This did not happen and no member of the Royal family had ever visited the Coronation Gardens or the Botanical Gardens until July 2007 when the Earl and Countess of Wessex came to see the work done by local volunteers to rejuvenate the Botanical Gardens). The Chairman of the Council also made a short speech and recalled the planting of trees by the American patriarch Abraham Lincoln and said he regarded this a great day in the lives of the children of Rhyl. Happily on this occasion it was reported that “the sun shone brightly and a display of flags and streamers struck the appropriate festive note”. The ceremony concluded with the singing of God Save the King which was enhanced by Mr R J Jones, Market Street, who provided “broadcasting facilities”.
Park Benches, Bandstand and Garden of Remembrance
The elaborate display, including a model of the proposals, in Burton’s High Street shop window, also included information on specific items which could be donated to the park by individuals or organisations such as rustic seats (£3-£4 each), rustic shelters, other ornamental features and trees costing 10/- (50p) each. All these items were available from Messrs Bees, Landscape Gardeners, Chester. It was hoped to equip a playground for children with swings and slides etc. These, plus a Bandstand, were to be placed in a separate two-acre Garden of Remembrance dedicated to George V, near Madryn Avenue.
Nineteen garden seats were publicly donated in time for the Coronation on May 12, 1937 but at a meeting later that month, after the Coronation, the Chairman of the Council proposed that these seats be temporarily utilised in the Botanical Gardens until the playing fields were completed. This suggestion was adopted by the council and the seats which had been donated by individuals and organisations such as the Rhyl Journal, Burtons Men’s Outfitters, the Conservative Club, the Boys Brigade, the Old Comrades Club and several others, with tablets bearing their names, remain in the Botanical Gardens still awaiting completion of the playing fields 70 years later.
The proposed children’s playground with swings and slides etc was instead later installed on land on Grange Road alongside the Botanical Gardens and later still became a children’s cycle track which was opened in the 1960s. Sadly in the 1980s the Council turned the playground into its current use as a rat-infested Refuse Dump/Depot opposite Rhyl High School. The children’s playground was relocated within the Botanical Gardens and officially opened in August 1985 by Rhyl-born actress Nerys Hughes, star of The Liver Birds.
The grand playing field scheme as originally envisaged at the Coronation Gardens in 1936/37 did not quite materialise and the playing field has always been a large open space used mainly for ball games such as football, cricket and hockey except for the occasional big event. In 1953, following her Coronation, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip visited the National Eisteddfod which was held in Rhyl on the site opposite Sainsbury’s where the Sunday Boot Sale is now held but the Ceremony of the Gorsedd took place in the Coronation Gardens. 2000 people gathered there around the Bardic Stones to witness the initiation of new bards into the Bardic Circle, one of whom was the famous Penyffordd-born playwright and actor Emlyn Williams.
Cemetery and Trim Trail
The people of Rhyl can be justly proud that it was one of the first in Britain to answer the national call and provide a playing field under the King George V Foundation and its future is guaranteed by a covenant now held by the successor to the earlier scheme The National Playing Field Association. This body is the sole trustee and is responsible for ensuring that all King George’s Fields are preserved in perpetuity as open spaces for the purpose of outdoor games, sports and pastimes. This status was threatened at least once in recent years when Denbighshire County Council considered turning part of the Coronation Gardens into a cemetery! Fortunately it was subsequently decided this plan was not practical although test graves were dug.
Today it is the needs of the living that are causing concern and given the regular headlines about obesity and couch-potatoism it seems that the Chancellor Neville Chamberlain’s 70 years old ideal of a “youth possessed of full health and vigour” is yet to be achieved. The Minister for Sport, Richard Clayborn, said on TV recently that 70% of school leavers in the UK do not go on to participate in any kind of sports activity compared to only 20% in France and someone else said “if the body is fit the brain is fit”.
This obesity problem and fitness generally is a problem across the Western world, as well as little old Rhyl, and so the 70 years old Coronation Gardens are ideally placed to make a positive contribution to improving the situation here in Rhyl at least, given that a Denbighshire County Survey last year stated there is an 80 hectare shortage of green space in the town. It is therefore a positive note that after a long period of neglect Denbighshire County Council is in the process of upgrading the playing fields. The original gates at Vale Road are to be refurbished, the fencing is being replaced funded by a grant from Waste Recycling Group Ltd and a Trim Trail and exercise facilities will be added to encourage us all to fight the flab.
A look at the copies of the local papers in the 1930s shows that despite the economic depression and the gathering war clouds Rhyl was booming as a holiday resort. Some Councillors felt that if the town’s rapid growth continued Rhyl should have its own borough status and an airport might be added. The slow decline that has occurred since the 1960s has hopefully been halted and perhaps the new investment now being made will mean that once again Rhyl is Going Forward. Let’s hope so.
© George Owen, BA, President Rhyl South West Central Residents Association.
References: Copies of the Rhyl Journal and the Rhyl Leader held in Rhyl Public Library; Flintshire County Archive, Hawarden; and the author’s local knowledge of the gardens and the surrounding area.