The area which is now Victoria Park was originally part of the South Field – in 1630 a large area of common land over 600 acres of arable land and pasture to the south of the city walls. The southern boundary of the South Field ran roughly along the line of today’s Victoria Park Road. Following the 1804 Enclosure Act the South Field was fully enclosed by 1811.
In 1806 horse racing started on the land which is now the park. A new grandstand was built in 1866 to replace an older one affectionately known as the ‘dog hole’. This new grandstand became the first park pavilion when the area was designated as a public park. At about the same time the centre of the racecourse was levelled to create a cricket ground which was later to be used by Leicestershire County CC. From 1875 a roller skating rink was situated at the corner of London Road and Victoria Park Road until it moved to the High Street. Horse racing continued until 1883 when the racecourse moved to Oadby but county cricket continued into the later 19th century and club matches until the 1950’s.
The sporting history of the park extends also into football and rugby. Early matches of Leicester Tigers were played on the park from the early 1880s joined by Leicester Fosse Football Club at about the same time. Leicester Fosse moved off in 1889 and Tigers in 1892. The Fosse subsequently became Leicester City FC, returning to Victoria Park as Premier League champions in 2016 to a home crowd of 150,000 – probably the biggest event ever seen on the park.
Looking back into the early history of the park it appears that the area of land was first named as Victoria Park in 1866, making 2016 our 150th anniversary. Not as good as Derby Arboretum opened in 1840 and the oldest public park in the Britain, but still impressive. Victoria Park formally opened as a public park in 1882 and was laid out in 1883 with wide expanses of grass, crossed by mainly straight paths lined with trees, small play areas and ornamental shrubbery, and with trees along the outer boundaries. Most of the mature trees were planted between 1884 and 1904. In 1887 the park was enclosed by ornamental iron railings, which mostly brought to an end the practice of grazing animals on the park although horses, cows, and sheep, can still be seen in photographs from 1895.
Other well-known aspects of park history are the building of the Lutyens designed war memorial of remembrance in 1925, the opening of the lodges, also Lutyens, in 1935 along with the installation of the park gates, and the partial destruction of the old pavilion by a parachute mine in 1940. It is said the good citizens of Leicester were none too keen on the old pavilion and few tears were shed when it was subsequently demolished, and replaced by the current pavilion on a different site in 1958. If those good citizens looked at the pavilion now they might be inclined to shed the tears that were absent 70 years ago.
Probably the main post-war change has been the expansion of the university in the 50s and 60s on to what were playing fields south of what is now Peace Walk. The sports facilities around the pavilion area were constructed to replace facilities lost to the university expansion.
This is a brief outline of the history of Victoria Park. A much longer and more detailed history of the park and surrounding area is ‘The History of Victoria Park, Leicester’ by Helen Boynton, which has been a main source for the above. It’s a fascinating read for those interested in the history of the local area.