Who was Charles Wicksteed?
Charles Wicksteed was born in 1847 in Leeds, the son of a clergyman and lived in Leeds. When his father’s health deteriorated they moved to Wales where Charles spent his school days.
At 16 he began a 5 year apprenticeship with Kitson & Hewitson following his passion for engineering and then at 21, with investment from his family and friends he set up a steam plough contracting business.
He worked firstly in Norfolk for gentleman farmers on huge estates making £3 per acre. It was at this time an accident crushed his leg leaving him with a limp for the rest of his life. Undeterred his business continued to grow working at times for the Prince of Wales on the Sandringham Estate. The Earl of Leicester described him as 'the hardest working man he had ever met'. He did not drink and did not enjoy sport.
He was single - minded working 16 hours a day in pursuit of success and in 1871 his ploughs arrived in Kettering for the first time, preceded by a man with a red flag as was required by law. Shortly after his arrival he stopped by the bridge over the ‘ISE brook’ on Barton Road to take on water. This upset the owner of Barton Seagrave Hall who promptly threw him off the land, little did he realise that Charles would later own the Hall and most of the land around it!
Despite this welcome Charles decided to settle in Kettering and he was described by one local as a “very nice young man who knows too much” Charles met, and fell in love with, Mary Jean Gibb but would not marry until he was free of debt – how times have changed. In 1877 they married and had two sons and 1 daughter.
In 1876 Charles had set up an engineering workshop – The Stamford Road Works – to maintain his engines and at the time he rented a small house in Silver Street. The business continued to thrive and in 1894 he sold his ploughing business to concentrate on engineering.
He became a popular local figure, a staunch Liberal, and keen churchgoer. He loved children and animals and was a generous and gentle man with a great sense of humour.
In 1907 he took another major gamble and at the age of 60, he invested heavily in “the Wicksteed Speed Change Gear” a form of automatic transmission (a forerunner to the gearboxs now used in Grand Prix Cars). It was described at that time in the Daily Mail as “the very thing for lady drivers”. Unfortunately, however, car manufacturers did not want to modify their cars, and Charles was ahead of his time - few were made and he became close to financial ruin.
At this time another of his inventions, 'a hydraulic hacksaw', was exhibited at Olympia. It could cut steel in 5 mins instead of 1 hour, it was an instant success and the works was modified for its mass production. Success followed.
Special note: One was recently tracked on eBay - it is an enormous machine – still working in Thailand and up for sale at £600 plus postage and packing.
1914 saw the beginning of ‘The Great War’ and for Charles was personally a year of contrast. He purchased the first land that is now Wicksteed Park, his factory started to make shells for the army and sadly his beloved wife Mary passed away.
After the war Charles still successful and financially secure decided that it was time to give something back to the town that he loved. His initial vision was a Village Estate for the poor with parkland and lakes to promote healthy living, however the plan was soon modified when the government introduced Council Housing.
Charles pressed on with the development of his park and reinvented himself yet again becoming a manufacturer of play equipment initially for the park. Another legacy – this equipment especially swings can still be seen all over the world and is made to this day. Most people in this country have sat on a Wicksteed at some time in their lives. Photographs are on display of some hair-raising swings and slides - Health and Safety would have a fit these days but in those days people took responsibility for themselves. If you fell off a slide and tore your trousers you would get a clip round the ear from your dad, not a six figure payout!
By 1916 the Wicksteed Village Trust was formed to carry out his work after his death and to keep his dream alive. The development of the park continued with many ambitious works that would never pay for themselves, Charles would often walk around the park with his beloved dog Jerry inspecting the latest developments. He also would be seen driving around in his open topped Humber – which is remembered in our new ride “Mr Wicksteeds Cars” at the bottom of the park.
Charles was not only a manufacturer but an inventor with many patents. He designed
- Seating to suit the human form.
- Prefabricated buildings.
- The fantastic bread buttering machine (a working version is still owned by the Park) managing up to 400 slices an hour and was later purchased by ‘The White Star Line’.
By 1921 the construction of the Wicksteed Park Lake began, he was very naughty as he did something then that you would not be allowed today by redirecting the ‘ISE Brook’. The Lake holds 25 million gallons of water and created many happy memories for visitors to the Park. It is rumoured that the creation of the Lake nearly made him bankrupt and Charles had to sell of some land to make himself solvent. Upon its completion it was said that Charles walked across the Lake leaving his hat floating as he emerged from the other side.
In 1926 Charles introduced one of the first water based rides in the world with the installation of the water chute. This was the Park’s first ‘White Knuckle Ride’ and it has been described as being a bit like sitting in a skip and being thrown into a river. The ‘Waterchute’ at Wicksteed Park is one of only 3 still remaining in operation (the others being in ‘East Park in Kingston – Upon – Hull’ and ‘Peasholme Park in Scarborough’) and remains hugely popular, 80 years on.
The ‘Waterchute’ was followed in 1928 with a cycle track (now known as the Arena) and the Pavilion with many more attractions added in the following years.
The 'Wicksteed Railway' was begun in 1930 and was to become Charles' last legacy for the Park. Sadly days before it could be opened in 1931 Influenza and Pneumonia took his life.
At his funeral days afterwards the streets of Kettering were lined with people saying goodbye to Charles, thousands wanted to say thank you for all that he had done for Kettering.
He was an extraordinary man that loved people.