The Man Behind the “World’s Oldest Swing”

In May of last year the BBC reported on the installation of what it called the “world’s oldest swing” at Wicksteed Park in Kettering, Northhamptonshire. The swing, a thick piece of wood attached by chains to a six-pronged frame, was discovered in the yard of a house belonging to the family of Charles Wicksteed, creator of both the park and the swing.

Whle most of the early developers of playgrounds were educators, Wicksteed had an engineering and manufacturing background. He was, thus, far less interested in rules than he was in playground equipment.

Born in 1847, Wicksteed had built a steam plough contracting business when he was only 21. He later founded the Stamford Road Works and invented a number of power tools, including hydraulic hacksaw and circular saw machines. After World War I, which he spent focusing on the manufacture of war materials, he turned his attention to developing what would become Wicksteed Park in Kettering.

He described his approach to building a playground: “The playground should not be put in a corner behind railings, but in a conspicuous and beautiful part of a park, free to all, where people can enjoy the play and charming scenery at the same time; where mothers can sit, while they are looking on and caring for their children.”

Like many before it, Wicksteed Park, which opened in 1921, included a large sand pit for open play. But Wicksteed also filled it with equipment that he designed and manufactured: swings and chutes, see-saws  and roundabouts. One of his inventions was known as the “Witches Hat.” It involved a circular flat swing attached by cables to a central pole. It got its name from the conical shape and perhaps its unpredictability. It was a little too unpredictable for modern sensibilities and has long since been removed from playgrounds as unsafe.

In a book that was published in 1928, “A Plea for Children’s Recreation after School Hours and after School Age,” Wicksteed offered a rosy summary of the impact of his park: “I have direct evidence from mothers how whining, pale-faced children, complaining of any food they get, have come back with healthy faces and rosy complexions, ready to eat the house out after a good play in the playground.”

The Daily Mail on Feb. 1, 2016 offered a different take, suggesting that the “90-year-old book shows how inventor of children’s playground had complete disdain for health and safety.”

One passage in the book describes how Wicksteed overcame the idea that boys and girls facilities should be separate: “I thought I would make a slide: first for the boys. This was so much appreciated that I made a better one for the girls: the boys got jealous of this, so I made a still better one for them. 

“At that time I had a quaint idea that the boys and girls ought to be separated.

“This has been entirely and successfully abandoned, as also any idea of keeping or limiting the playthings to people of a certain age.’

“Let people of all ages and both sexes be admitted; the older ones then take care of the young people.”

Wicksteed committed suicide in 1931, just short of his 84th birthday. His legacy lives on in both the park he created and the playground equipment manufacturing company he founded.

Wicksteed Leisure Limited, now more than 100 years old, continues to be a leading supplier of playground equipment in the UK from its location in Kettering.

Wicksteed Park continues in operation as a theme park, owned by the Wicksteed Charitable Trust which was originally created in 1916. While many new and more modern attractions have been added, the park includes a heritage playground area with replicas of the equipment created by Wicksteed.

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7 Responses to The Man Behind the “World’s Oldest Swing”

  1. Phil Strawn says:

    The old playgrounds in the 1950s at my elementary school were similar, no safety devices or rubber mulch. Yep, we got hurt, sometimes badly, but managed to have fun. Flying out of an out of control swing was one of the favorites, and being thrown from the merry go round.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. retrosimba says:

    I didn’t know about this amazing inventor. Thanks for the insights. I am glad he became enlightened on the benefits of inclusive places for children. Now, nearly 100 years later, that notion still needs to be reinforced and fought for and protected from ignorant thinking.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It hadn’t registered that Witch’s hats had disappeared until I read this. They were an unpredictable ride. I can’t ever relax at a playground with small children running in front and behind the swings! It’s just one narrow escape after another. They are like wasps to a jam pot.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Donna Janke says:

    Interesting article. I never really thought about when the swing might have been created.


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