In the edition of the Bucks Free Press on December 8, reader Elizabeth Beckwith reflected on how the newspaper helped her to relive many happy memories of her childhood, and ‘relate these to my children, grandchildren and now great grandchildren’.

She attended St Augustine’s school and specifically remembered being taken across the road after school one day to the children’s playground and the “huge slide, or ‘butterslide’ as we called it”.

This prompted one of my regular correspondents Marise Morland-Chapman to contact me to say ‘one of your current correspondents was reminiscing about the Rye playground, in the days when there was some proper playground equipment! She mentioned the butterslide. Just prior to that I was telling my home help about my trips to the playground. I mentioned the butterslide and she looked blank, but I still don’t know the origin of the name’.

I too remember that in my childhood we used to call a playground slide a ‘butterslide’, and Marise’s comment about not knowing the origin of the name presented me with a challenge which I could not resist!

The origin of the name ‘Butterslide’

Before the invention of the metal or plastic slide as we now know it, there was only the natural ‘slide’ of ice or frozen snow, so this was only possible in the winter. How then did our forebears make a slide in the warmer months of the year, or indoors when one was required as part of a pantomime for example.

Reports in the press provide the answer. For example, an inquest into the death of a boy in Dundee in September 1903 was reported in the local newspaper with the heading ‘Slide made in summer’ and read ‘It was stated at the inquest into the death of a Hoxton schoolboy that he had fallen on a slide made with butter, fat, and candle-grease in a Board School playground’. Another example is from an article in a Manchester local newspaper from April 1909 ‘Children inherit mankind’s love of the horrible naturally, or else how can we explain why their sympathies are always with the hardened reprobate, Mr Punch, and the sausage-stealing , redhot-poker wielding, butter-slide making clown in the pantomime’.

The invention of the elevated slide

As might be expected the elevated slide was first developed in America. The earliest known playground slide was made of steel and erected in the playground of Washington DC’s ‘Neighbourhood House’ in 1902/3, with an image of the slide being published on August 1, 1903. A book called ‘Playground Technique and Playcraft’, first published in 1909, gave full instructions for the construction of a metal playground slide.

The first elevated slide in England was built by Charles Wicksteed in 1922 at Wicksteed Park in Kettering, which was the first park of its kind in the UK. The slide was 30ft long, it was not made of metal, but polished planks of wood! In those days there were separate slides for boys and girls. It is not clear when the first steel slide appeared in England.

We now have slides made from plastic materials as well as metal, and slides can be flat or wavy, have curved sides, or even be of tubular construction. Smaller slides, generally made from a plastic material, are also available for use indoors.

The first local playground slide

The first local playground containing an elevated slide was that which was erected beside the river Wye on the northern side of the Rye in High Wycombe. It was adjacent to the paddling pool which had been donated by Mr John Gibson a few years earlier. Opened in 1933, the playground was a gift for the enjoyment of children from prominent Wycombe citizen Henry J Cox. He was a hairdresser and tobacconist, with a shop in Church St then Castle St, and was Mayor of the town in 1910-11.

When Mr Cox had first approached the Town Council to explain that he wished to make the gift of the playground equipment, the choice of the best location caused them a great deal of soul-searching before coming to a decision. They must have anticipated that there would be objections to their decision, and true enough when people saw the playground equipment being installed on the Rye the letters flooded into the Bucks Free Press.

Under the heading Vandalism on the Rye the newspaper reported ‘Now that the apparatus is on view, and the effect on the appearance of the Rye is apparent, there is an outcry against the Wycombe Corporation’s choice of the site of the children’s playground. A typical letter read “I see the most beautiful spot in High Wycombe disfigured by the apparatus now going up on the Rye and the pandemonium of sound which will accompany the use of it”.

The Corporation did respond to these concerns and held a special meeting to consider the letters to the paper. They concluded that their decision regarding the site had been the correct one, and released further information that the playground was part of ’a scheme for the extended use of the Rye for recreation’. Perhaps surprisingly, this seems to have settled the matter.

The opening ceremony on Thursday April 12, 1933 was attended by a very large crowd, which included hundreds of children. These all surged forward to have a go on the various attractions after the Mayor, Cllr W S Toms, formally declared the playground open. The items of equipment included ‘a large plank swing, a joy wheel, an “ocean wave”, a rowing seesaw, a set of four playing swings, a rocking horse, a merry-go-round, a set of six swings, a junglegym, and a forty-foot slide’.

The most popular attraction proved to be the forty-foot slide. A BFP reporter commented ‘The biggest thriller of all is the long slide, the top of which is reached by a stepway.’ When the reporter again visited the playground a few days later he observed ‘All day long a queue of kiddies waits before the steps waiting to climb them and fling themselves down the slippery slope, at the bottom of which a mass of diminutive humanity is always to be seen sorting itself out’. He asked one boy ‘How many times have you been down’, the answer being ‘This will be my sixty third!’ His mother had foreseen that this would happen and protected his backside by tying a length of sacking around it. Not many mothers did this however, so the BFP reporter commented ‘The trouser seats of the High Wycombe’s youth are becoming distinctly shiny.’

Over the next twenty years or so children’s playgrounds were constructed in many other places around the district, some examples are shown on the facing page.