The history of Hermitage Park

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THE STORY of Helensburgh’s Hermitage House goes back to 1838, when Robert Fulton Alexander, a merchant in Glasgow, feued two sizeable portions of land in the Barony of Milligs from the landowner, Sir James Colquhoun.

These pieces of land were presumably next to each other, and they were included in the same land deed.

The house was probably built soon after, as in 1843 the feu — including mansion house and other buildings — was made over to another family member, also a merchant in Glasgow.

The older Maligs or Millig Mill and associated works within the area did not form part of the sale, and were retained by the landowner.

The choice of Hermitage as the name has caused a good deal of speculation over the years.

There is no evidence of any hermit or grotto on the site prior to the house being built, so the name may have been chosen on romantic grounds, perhaps influenced by some natural or semi-natural hollow that might have existed.

What is known is that in 1914 a grotto was formed under the auspices of the Town Council.

The Alexander family continued their ownership of the property for quite some time, buying more land purchase near the mansion and elsewhere in Helensburgh.

John-Cramb-wThey may have continued to own it until 1876, when John and James Cramb, two sons of retired leather merchant David Cramb, already resident in the town, bought the house and grounds for £11,000.

John Cramb was a key figure. Keenly interested in education, he was an original member of the School Board of the Parish of Row, a body formed in the wake of the important Education Act of 1872.

There seems little doubt that John, and perhaps other relatives, helped clear the way for a portion of their ground to be sold, so that a new school, known as Hermitage Public School, could be built on behalf of the School Board and opened in 1880.

Although John had five brothers and a sister, he and his brothers had all passed away by the dawn of the 20th century, leaving Susannah as the sole survivor of that generation.

She became an important benefactor, and in 1909, conscious of the benefits that proper and accessible playing fields would bring to Hermitage School, donated a piece of land beside the east end of the school.

A brass plaque was erected to mark the event, but Miss Cramb was too unwell to attend the opening ceremony.

Cramb Park, as the new facility was named, was in use until the school was extended with a new Primary School building in 1926, at the expense of the playing fields.

It was a controversial decision, and it was pointed out by critics that Miss Cramb had intended the gift to be purely one of playing fields.

But supporters of the school extension defended their actions on the grounds that the Deed of Gift contained no such stipulation.

After Miss Cramb’s death in May 1911, the trustees of her estate, doubtless acting in accordance with her wishes, enabled the Town Council to purchase the house and grounds quickly for the very reasonable sum of £3,750.

Within weeks of her death, what was already being called Hermitage Park was being used as the venue for Lord George Sanger's Hippodrome, Circus and Menagerie.

This was one of the biggest shows on the road, requiring lots of space, and was a regular visitor to the town.

As a private property, the grounds had been well tended by gardeners, and lawns, parks and pathways, as well as gardens, were already in place.

The Town Council took possession at the beginning of 1912, then moved with impressive speed in implementing plans to transform the grounds into a public park.

Within weeks, a variety of seating had been installed throughout the area, and rustic bridges erected.

By the end of the year, all was ready for the flywheel of Henry Bell's Comet steamship and his anvil to be installed near the Park entrance, complete with brass plaques.

In 1913, a rose garden and a rock garden were formed, a yew hedge planted, paths constructed, and flower borders edged off. The needs of children were not neglected, and a swing park was provided.

By this time, Milligs Mill had ended its days as a mill, and it was agreed that the mill lade and the waterfall be included in the area coming under the Council’s jurisdiction.

Hermitage-Park-bandstand-wA grotto was formed in 1914, along with a hermit's well — sometimes called the wishing well — with water being brought via a lade of gun metal. A rustic bandstand (right) was also erected.

In contrast to what was happening in the grounds, no clear vision emerged about what to do with Hermitage House, and the prospect of large-scale reconstruction costs would no doubt have been a limiting factor.

However it was agreed in 1912 that the ground floor of the building could be used as a museum to house what were called ‘Dumbartonshire exhibits’.

This use was almost certainly strengthened the year after, with the formation of the Helensburgh-based Dumbartonshire Natural History Society.

Dr J. Ewing Hunter was a leading member of the new organisation as well as being a Town Councillor, and probably played a key part in this process. It was decided to leave the upper floor vacant for the time being.

Soon the horrors of the Great War of 1914-1918 overtook any other plans for the house, and the premises were turned over to the Red Cross for use as an auxiliary hospital for war wounded.

In the grounds, plans for the provision of tennis courts, skittle alley, and children's sand pit had to be postponed, and instead large numbers of cabbages and potatoes were planted in the kitchen garden in support of the war effort.

In 1915, the old vinery was sold off for £6 10 shillings, and it may have been this area that was developed the following year as a place for growing medicinal herbs, needed in copious amounts for treating war wounded.

After the final cessation of hostilities, an early priority was to find a suitable site for a War Memorial, and in 1922 a fine monument designed by the distinguished local architect A.N.Paterson was opened within the old walled garden.

After the war Sir Iain Colquhoun of Luss gifted the former mill pond to the Town Council. This was followed in 1922 by the sale to the Council of the mill structures for £420.

The former tenant, Major MacFarlane, received £200 in compensation, and the Council's parks department lost no time in moving matters forward

Within months they had demolished the mill, including a tallnfactory-like chimney, and were selling the stone at 10 shillings per ton. Some stone was retained for use at the Esplanade.

The buttress which had carried the mill wheel proved a tougher nut to crack, and it was not until a year later that it succumbed, thanks to the use of explosives.

The pre-war momentum that had been built up was now regained, and a huge amount of effort went into improving the park, including work around the mill and mill pond.

A main feature was the restoration of the pond, and some unemployed people were drafted in to augment the workforce, but despite much effort and expenditure, persistent growth of horsetail — an invasive, deep-rooted weed — thwarted the enterprise.

A lot more took place in what was called the Millig Mill Scheme, including the formation of a new pool in the burn.

With post-war life returning to normality, one of the bands from the Training Ship ‘Empress’ moored in the Gareloch off Kidston Park was engaged to give regular summertime performances at the bandstand. However as a reminder of the conflict a war trophy — a large German field gun and carriage — was placed in the Park.

Work continued quickly, with allotments being formed, drinking fountains provided, and a number of recreational and sporting features developed.

Two tennis courts were constructed on the site of the old mill pond, complete with pavilion, a bowling green was installed, as was a putting green, all in 1924-25 — a golden age for Hermitage Park.

Once more in contrast to all the activity in the park, Hermitage House remained as something that did not quite fit into the scheme of things.

After the war, hospital use was soon ended. One use found for it was as an overspill facility for Hermitage School. But with the building of Hermitage Primary School in 1926 that this use was much reduced. One suggestion was that the building might prove ideal for use as a public library and reading roomvas the town no longer had such a facility, but this idea was never adopted.

There was a measure of rented use from time to time. Towards the end of the decade, a Voluntary Aid Detachment used an upper flat at a rental of £1 per annum.

Hermitage-House-wThe main use seems to have been as a storage facility for council property, with the outbuildings being used for this purpose as well.

At a Council meeting in 1937, concern was expressed at the increasingly dilapidated state of the main building, and the poor state probably accounts for its apparent lack of a meaningful role during the Second World War, although there was activity within the grounds including Red Cross huts and a bomb disposal hut.

In the post-war years, the building more and more came to form a mere backdrop to the landscape until 1963, when it was demolished and replaced by a small pagoda-like shelter.

The early post-war decades saw the emergence of tensions between allotment holders and the Council which persisted into the 1960's.

The old rose garden was renovated, but the bandstand was deemed unsafe and was demolished in 1951 and not replaced. Nevertheless the park continued to be described rightly as a jewel in the crown of Helensburgh.

A major change took place in 1975, with local government reorganisation, and the dissolution of Helensburgh Town Council. Subsequently there was no longer the same focus on amenities like the park, and in recent years there was increasingly tight funding for local authorities, with cutbacks in manpower and maintenance. Anti-social behaviour also contributed to a general decline.

In 2011 a group of concerned residents came together to set up a new organisation, the Friends of Hermitage Park.

Under the chairmanship of Chris Packard, the Friends are working to reverse the fortunes of the park and restore its former glory.

Much work has already been done by dedicated members working in association with Argyll and Bute Council, for example in clearing out the Millig burn, which had become very overgrown.

heritage-lottery-fund-logoFuture plans include measures such as re-interpreting historic planting, restoring or consolidating remains of the old mill and the well, along with improvements to paths, bridges and walls.

It is also hoped to ensure a future for amenities like the children's play park, the tennis courts, and the bowling and putting greens.

A big step forward in the plans of the Friends took place at the start of 2014 , with the announcement that, working in partnership with the Council, they had been successful in securing a grant of over £2 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The future for Hermitage Park is now one of promise.