In the 18th century, pleasure gardens were very posh places, well documented in English literature and music. But I wondered whether pleasure gardens were still popular in the second half of the C19th, and if so, what did they look like.
Rosherville Gardens was one of the largest and most popular Victorian pleasure gardens. The gardens were built in a disused chalk pit near the River Thames, just north of London Road in Northfleet, adjoining Gravesend. Land in the area belonged to Jeremiah Rosher, after whom Rosherville was named.
George Jones, a London businessman, formed the Kent Zoological and Botanical Gardens Co. The company leased the chalk pit in 1837 and laid out gardens with a terrace, a bear pit, an archery ground, a lake, maze, flower beds, statues, lookout tower and winding paths. They were intended to appeal to wealthy visitors with serious tastes, but the wealthy visitors never came in enough numbers. To save the gardens, Mr Jones was forced to lower the prices and import more low brow entertainments.
From 1842 the educational aspects were forgotten and the Rosherville Gardens, as they were now called, became an enormous success. Visitors flooded in from London on the steam boats, landing at the nearby Rosherville Pier.
Rosherville rose gardens
But the lowered standards were noticed. Cremorne Garden history snootily noted “There are other pleasure gardens in or about the London district, such as the gardens at North Woolwich, Highbury Barn and Rosherville, but they do not call for any special notice, as, except that their frequenters are drawn chiefly from a lower class, they differ in no material respect from Cremorne”. A lower class?
Baron Nathan, a dancing teacher from Kennington, was permanently installed as Master of Ceremonies in Rosherville's Gothic Hall in 1842. This same Gothic Hall was used as a restaurant, ballroom and theatre. And development continued apace. The hall was extended but was still too small for the crowds of people. An outdoor dancing platform was built outside the Gothic Hall in 1860. A Drawing Room Theatre was built adjoining the Gothic Hall but more space was needed - so the Bijou Theatre was built nearby in 1866.
Conrad Broadley of Gravesham Borough Council sent me a wonderful photo of the new entrance that was made in 1869; it went down from the London Road to the gardens and steps inside a cliff tunnel. This contemporary photograph of the entrance showed a large platform at the cliff top, complete with balustrading which formed the plinth for the classical statuary. A circular temple with domed roof and Ionic columns was shown midway down the flight of steps; lower down was the entrance giving access to the gardens at the base of the chalk cliffs. A large clocktower was built by the side of the gateway.
An open-air stage was built by the dancing platform in 1873-4. Famous performers played in the two theatres and on the open-air stage. Other entertainments at Rosherville included fireworks, tightrope walkers, balloon ascents and a gypsy fortune teller. John Wilson, Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales (1870) said the town was full of day trippers during the summer months, and swarms with them on Sundays. Gravesend had good communication with London, by steamer and by railway.
George Jones died in 1872 and the Gardens passed into the hands of professional managers. In 1873 admission was still only 6d, according to Routledge's Popular Guide to London. If things were going so swimmingly, what went wrong?
On a warm September evening in 1878, according to Caroline’s Miscellany and Victorian History, the Princess Alice paddle steamer was full of pleasure-trippers returning from Gravesend. As it approached North Woolwich Pier where many passengers were to disembark, a much larger collier came towards it. Two ships collided and the Princess Alice was almost cut in half. It sank within a few minutes and even those not trapped inside found themselves in a heavily polluted, raw-sewage-filled stretch of river, in the dark and wearing heavy clothes. Most of them could not swim and 600+ people tragically died.
This great loss of life in 1878 started the decline of the Rosherville Gardens. Note that it was possible that local pleasure gardens would in any case begin to go out of fashion, as soon as Londoners could afford train trips to seaside resorts.
Even so, soon after the ship sank, Charles Dickens Jnr was still writing fondly about leisure time activities was Dickens' Dictionary of the Thames, first published in 1879. Rosherville Gardens, he said, were popular and well-conducted gardens on the high road to the west of Gravesend, reached directly from the steamboat-pier. There was a constant succession of amusement throughout the day; dancing on the circular platform from 2 o'clock to 11 being a favourite feature. Besides the tea and shrimps so dear to the heart of the Gravesend excursionist, other refreshments of a more substantial and stimulating character could be obtained at very reasonable rates.
Harry Relph, who went on to make a sparkling career for himself as Little Tich the music hall comedian, made his very first stage appearance at the Rosherville Gardens at the age of 12. It was 1879. For the next 17 years he was the toast of the old Tivoli Theatre in the Strand. Then there was Drury Lane, his second home.
Dickens added that the extent of the grounds, which were tastefully laid out and produced abundance of flowers, was 20 acres. There was a conservatory c200’ long, bijou theatre, maze, museum, baronial hall, used for dancing and particularly refreshments. There was a very good fernery and a bear-pit, and some to miles of walks were additional inducements to the excursion public. The peculiar situation of Rosherville, being old chalk quarry, lent itself admirably to the landscape gardener's art, and the result was a remarkably pretty and diversified garden, in which it was quite feasible to pass that Happy Day which in the advertisements was always coupled with the name of Rosherville.
In 1900 Rosherville went bankrupt and soon much of the equipment was sold off. In 1903, having been bought by some local businessmen, parts of the gardens were re-opened. The maze and the dancing platform were removed, the Bijou theatre became a restaurant, the outdoor stage was refurbished and called the Café Chantant, a small menagerie started up and most modern of all, films were shown in the Gothic Hall. But nothing could stop Rosherville from losing money and so the pleasure gardens finally closed as soon as WW1 broke out. Eventually the land was sold to W T Henley’s Cable Works.
During the time that Rosherville was hugely popular, people also wanted to visit the beach, maximising the pleasure from their day out in Gravesend. Even after Rosherville was closed down, the beach remained a popular leisure site.
Interested readers should find The Place To Spend A Happy Day - a history of Rosherville Gardens, written by Lynda Smith and published by the Gravesend Historical Society. Also see Kent Today & Yesterday for terrific photos of Gravesend which he kindly shared with me.
Cliff top platform and entrance, built 1869, photographed c1900