UK's oldest theme park Wicksteed Park collapses into administration

UK’s oldest theme park Wicksteed Park which opened in 1921 collapses into administration with the loss of 115 jobs after coronavirus crisis caused ‘huge financial strain’

  • Wicksteed Charitable Trust has blamed ‘months of difficulty and uncertainty’ as a result of Covid-19 pandemic
  • It hopes to create a new smaller company to keep some parts of the park open, including the free playgrounds
  • The trust hopes it can also raise enough money to reopen park for its centenary, due to take place next year
  • Northamptonshire-based site was founded by Charles Wicksteed in 1921 making it Britain’s oldest theme park
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

The UK’s oldest theme park has gone into administration in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic – a year before its celebrated its 100th birthday.  

The trust behind 99-year-old Wicksteed Park in Kettering, Northants, has called in administrators to the leisure site, which first opened in 1921. 

Wicksteed Charitable Trust has blamed the financial strain of the Covid-19 pandemic which it said had resulted in ‘months of uncertainty and difficulty’. 

The trust, which hopes to keep the free playgrounds and parkland open, is aiming to form a new smaller company with the aim of raising funds to re-open the park for its centenary. 

A total of 115 staff, 48 of which are permanent, have lost their jobs as a result of the move. 

The trust behind 99-year-old Wicksteed Park in Kettering, Northants, has called in administrators to the leisure site, which first opened in 1921. Pictured: Visitors enjoy the swing ride at Wicksteed Park in 2019

Wicksteed Charitable Trust has blamed the financial strain of the Covid-19 pandemic which it said had resulted in ‘months of uncertainty and difficulty’. Pictured: Visitors enjoy the carousel at Wicksteed Park

The trust, which hopes to keep the free playgrounds and parkland open, is aiming to form a new smaller company with the aim of raising funds to re-open the park for its centenary. Pictured: Two young girls enjoy the Carousel at Wickstead Park in 2017

The new smaller company has been set up to try to raise funds to keep the park operating until next spring in time for its 100th birthday. Pictured: Children enjoy a slide at Wicksteed Park

A total of 115 staff, 48 of which are permanent, have lost their jobs as a result of the move to put Wicksteed Park into administration

Wicksteed Park was the brainchild of Charles Wicksteed, who was the son of a Unitarian minster and one of 21 children. It was set up in 1921. Here people enjoy a ride in 1923, two years after the park opened

Oliver Wicksteed, chairman of the trust, said: ‘We are all devastated by what has happened and the effect this will have on our staff, their families and our visitors.

‘We fully appreciate the effect this decision will have on staff members who have already been through months of uncertainty and difficulty due to Covid-19 and we are working hard to ensure they have access to the support and advice they need at this time.’

Wicksteed Park: Theme park in Kettering opened in 1921 with the world’s first slide and has a large lake dug by hand

Wicksteed Park was the brainchild of Charles Wicksteed, who was the son of a Unitarian minster and one of 21 children.

He set up a Charles Wicksteed & Co. Ltd in 1876, in Digby Street, Kettering, which produced tools and wooden toys.

A keen inventor, in 1913 Charles bought a piece of land in Kettering meadowland with the intention of developing a model village.

The large lake, a significant feature of the park, was dug by hand and steam ploughs in 1916.

He wanted to create an open space and safe parkland for local families and opened the park in 1921.

In 1922 what is thought to be the world’s first slide was installed at the park. It was made from wooden planks.

In 1922 what is thought to be the world’s first slide was installed at the park. It was made from wooden planks.

To celebrate the end of the First World War, his factory took some central heating pipes from its factory and used them to build swings for children, creating the first commercial playground.

Its success led to the founding of Wicksteed Playscapes, the world’s first playground manufacturing company, which is still operating supplying play equipment to 80 countries. 

On the death of Charles Wicksteed, the board of trustees was determined to continue his work and kept the children’s playground as the largest free facility of its kind in Europe.

The park’s Water Chute, built in 1926 is the oldest working ride in the UK.

The Wicksteed Park Railway is one of the most iconic features of the park today and ore than 15 million people have taken to its rails since it first opened in 1931. 

The park has added a host of new features in the past decade including a log flume, a zip wire experience, a climbing centre and soft play.

It is also home to an annual firework’s display, the local parkrun, the Crazy Hats Walk, and annual puddle jumping contest and an annual soap box derby.

Last year, its pavilion also underwent a £2.5m renovation and is now an award-winning wedding venue.

The new smaller company has been set up to try to raise funds to keep the park operating until next spring in time for its 100th birthday.

Local residents have also set up fundraisers to support the cause and one Justgiving page has raised over £1,500 in less than 24 hours. 

The trust said it will try to keep the free playgrounds and parkland open and the pavilion for forthcoming bookings, when government guidelines allow indoor events.

Mr Wicksteed, who is the grandson of Charles Wicksteed, who opened the park 99 years ago, added: ‘The new company, funded by the trust, is a much streamlined business aimed at getting the park through to next spring when it can hopefully start to re-open fully.

‘But we need people’s help, support and understanding in order to try and make that happen.

‘The costs of the old business were crippling and could not be sustained with the huge loss of revenue already suffered this year.

‘Even if park rides opened in July, the costs of social distancing measures and the reduced capacity at which the park would have had to operate, would have meant it was unlikely to be financially viable.’

The park has struggled to make money in recent years as 400,000 out of 850,000 annual visits generate no income for the park because it is free to access.

It has been closed since lockdown and was facing a summer without visitors paying for rides and attractions, events and reduced numbers paying for parking.

The business had been left with no income for months apart from the small parking revenue which generated a loss of £820,000 in 2018/19.

He added: ‘Ultimately, Wicksteed Park is a private park which costs a great deal of money to maintain if we are to continue to open for people to use free of charge, as we have for the last 99 years.

‘The Trust receives no regular external financial support or public funding unlike other national or council owned parks, but still makes a contribution to the local economy of at least £11 million each year.’

Mr Wicksteed added that, apart from the furlough scheme, ‘there has been no meaningful government support for charities such as ours’.

He said: ‘We now need people, not least the Government, to recognise all we have done for the many millions of people who need our park and our work supporting the community.

‘If we want it to stay for many millions of people in the future to enjoy then we need to find a way to protect and preserve it.

‘The sacrifices that people are having to make during the current crisis are extraordinary and in some ways Wicksteed Park and its future are nowhere near the top of people’s priorities, as they become ill, lose loved-ones and struggle to make ends meet financially.

‘But millions of people across the country and generations of families love Wicksteed Park and have scores of happy memories made here.

‘It is a touchstone in their lives and a representation of the fun times they have had – and when the country comes out of the other side of this crisis, as it inevitably will, it will be one of the places that people will want to return to as a sign that normality has returned.’

A letter sent to staff by accountancy firm Grant Thornton LLP on Monday (19/6) was titled ‘Wicksteed Park Limited – In Administration’.   

It said: ‘As discussed on our call today, the leisure park and events business of the Company has been critically impacted by the Covid-19 outbreak and has been unable to trade over its peak summer period.

‘The financial impact of this lack of trading has led to the administration of the company.’

The trust, which hopes to keep the free playgrounds and parkland open, is aiming to form a new smaller company with the aim of raising funds to re-open the park for its centenary. Pictured: The world’s first slide recreated at Wicksteed Park

Last year, the park introduced a witch’s hat – one of Britain’s best-loved piece of playground equipment – which disappeared from playgrounds 30 years ago over concerns it was too dangerous for children

The original rides (such as this one pictured in an inner city playground in 1938) ‘had a high risk of inflicting lethal injury’, according to a 2011 report by the Children’s Play Advisory Service

In a statement, Wicksteed Park said: ‘Wicksteed Park Ltd has been unable to avoid going into administration, with the loss of 48 permanent staff and 67 part-time and other jobs, due to the huge financial strain caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

‘The decision to call in administrators comes after the government announced the closure of the hospitality and leisure industry, hitting seasonal businesses particularly hard.’

Last year, the park introduced a witch’s hat – one of Britain’s best-loved piece of playground equipment – which  disappeared from playgrounds 30 years ago over concerns it was too dangerous for children. 

A modified version of the ride – which is correctly known as the ocean wave – was installed at Wicksteed Park last year.  

The conical swing is balanced on a central pole which wobbles unpredictably.

But whereas the original rides ‘had a high risk of inflicting lethal injury’ – according to a 2011 report by the Children’s Play Advisory Service – the new version has a mechanism which keeps the ride spinning but prevents crushing into the pole.

And in case a child should take a tumble, soft flooring was placed beneath the ride to cushion their fall.

In 2016, a 90-year-old book written was unearthed, which contained illustrations of all of Charles Wicksteed’s inventions including photographs of dozens of youngsters perched perilously on them.

The book, first published in 1928 and was named a ‘Plea for Children’s Recreation after School Hours and after School Age’, was discovered gathering dust in the park’s archives,

THE PIONEER OF THE PLAYGROUND: WHO EXACTLY WAS CHARLES WICKSTEED?

Born in Leeds in 1847, the son of a clergyman, philanthropist Charles was a highly successful businessman who settled in Kettering and made his fortune from engineering.

Wicksteed Park was the brainchild of Charles Wicksteed (centre), who was the son of a Unitarian minster and one of 21 children

He bought the land that is now named after him at the start of the Great War and at the end of the conflict he decided to fulfil his dream to give something back to the town that he loved and to its people.

Wicksteed, an engineer by trade, initially made swings and slides for his park, then went on to sell them around the world.

As an early entrepreneur Charles Wicksteed started his factory in Kettering in 1876 and he designed and manufactured such varied items as the original automatic gearbox, sawing machinery and the first hydraulic hacksaw.

Charles Wicksteed & Co. Ltd. developed other products such as power drills and wooden toys.

The company also manufactured a machine used extensively on board ships and large establishments for the slicing and buttering of bread.

Source: http://www.wicksteed.co.uk/

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