Public parks offered many attractions to Victorian Londoners: natural beauty, healthful fresh air, facilities for sports and socializing, and grounds for civic pride. The efforts of individuals, private groups, and government officials increased the number of public parks in the metropolis from about a dozen at mid-century to more than 200 in 1898. Parks became integral parts of city life and stimulated the development of a diverse community of park users. These citizens did not hesitate to express their views about appropriate behavior for public space, demonstrating their role in the public sphere. While park users differed in class, gender, age, religion, and politics, most agreed that the city's public spaces should encourage “respectability” and good citizenship, especially as an example to children. When these values, vaguely defined though they were, seemed threatened by specific park behaviors, the community displayed a remarkable consensus. Two particular types of park use—public displays of affection by “courting couples” and the presence of “verminous persons” (mostly vagrants)—aroused public opinion in the 1890s and early 1900s to moral panic. Reluctant royal and municipal park authorities were pressured into passing more restrictive park laws in both cases, though the “problems” themselves did not disappear.
This article explores how these crises developed and why public reaction to them was so vehement. The material reality behind the “courting couples” and “verminous persons” crises, as far as can be determined, seems not to justify the level of outrage that occurred. The strength of public reaction must reflect the extreme sensitivity of a culturally unstable community in the process of redefining itself and its values. Public parks changed patterns of social interaction in the late Victorian city, bringing diverse citizens into proximity by creating new common spaces. Early nineteenth-century class discrimination against workers and the poor in public space then gave way to a new form of exclusion that emphasized individual behavior rather than inherited status.