11 August 2010

Rosherville: Victorian Pleasure Gardens 1837- WW1

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?

Clock tower

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.

Café Chantant

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.

Gravesend beach

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


YosephWS said...

Great article Helen...very interesting..
I wondered what is main function of these gardens?
Indonesia has many of green gardens,but not all of these gardens planned well... i think garden with a lot of plantation more needed nowadays for better quality of air and increase quality of public space especially in big city...
thanx for share Helen!

Kent Today and Yesterday said...

Hi Hels - you've written a very good post about Gravesend when it was in it's heyday.

The "beach" is still popular in Gravesend today - it has a grandly named promenade and a cafe which has been run by the same family for at least 30 years (my nan used to take me in there for an ice cream when I was little).

As you say, W T Henley built part of their cable factory on the site of the defunct Rosherville Gardens. This is turn has now been demolished to be replaced by riverside housing.

I wrote a post on my blog about the demise of Henleys -

W T Henley AEI Cable Works Northfleet

Best wishes

Bruce said...

Hi Hels

Thanks for a wonderful article. As you note, it does fit with the one on the steamship disaster.


Hels said...

Thanks everyone.

Pleasure gardens were hugely important, but Yoseph, I am not sure that sophisticated families would want to wander around plantations any more, looking at garden beds and listening to music in outdoor cafes and dancing on outdoor platforms. They want high tech gizmos, apparently :(

Glen, it is always a shame when something lovely is closed down. Losing Rosherville was sad enough. But the destruction of Henleys buildings was even worse. Why not adapt buildings, rather than destroying them?

J Bar said...

Sydney - City and Suburbs

Rajesh said...

Loved reading about the history of these gardens.

Anonymous said...

Great article.

I was born round the corner from here and my parents still live there. Over the years I've taken a lot of photos of the cable works (my father worked there) and now photos of it being demolished.

I believe there is still a very elaborately decorated stairway build into the cliffs that goes down to where the gardens were. This is closed at both ends by large gates but I've been told it shows some of the splender that was Roverville Gardens.


Hels said...

Dio, thank you for that.

If there were decorated stairways build into the cliffs, and if they were closed at both ends by large gates, I would be so pleased to see a contemporary photo. I would of course credit your name, before it was published.

ChrisJ said...

Another interesting article.

There is a garden built in an old limestone quarry in Victoria, British Columbia, Butchart Gardens - it's still going strong after 106 years, so somebody still likes pleasure gardens (although I think the focus is on gardens more than on entertainment).

Hels said...

Chris, damn ..I forgot Butchart Gardens completely.

Joe and I went to a large family reunion in Vancouver one July. There our hosts organised a detailed programme to introduce the Australian, Israeli and American cousins to Canadian cultural life.

We had half a day at Butchart Gardens, including a fabulous concert and a wonderful lunch. The entertainment was not as varied as Rosherville, but it was top quality. And at least in July, it continued all day.

Hels said...

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Hels said...

I have added a photograph kindly sent to me by Conrad Broadley of Gravesham Borough Council. He also has an English Heritage Advice Report of the "Cliff top entrance, comprising platform, terrace walls, tunnel and stairs to the former Rosherville Gardens", should any reader like to contact him.

Hels said...

The BBC History Homepage (http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A5951054) said three inquiries were after the collision to try to determine the causes of the accident. They found 3 different, and contradictory findings.

However The Board of Trade's inquiry DID make some recommendation that were accepted: 1. ships should always 'pass each other on the port side.' This standard had been used at sea in 1873 but not used on inland waterways.
2. a limit would be put on the passenger numbers on steamships
3. the provision of adequate lifebelts
4. ships were to be fitted with watertight bulkheads so that if a ship were holed, it would be less likely to sink immediately as the Alice did.

Conrad said...

Hi Helen

I thought you might be interested to learn that we have recently rediscovered the almost completely intact bear pit at Rosherville Gardens and have started a campaign to stop the developer burying it again, any emails of support from Australia would be most welcome, details of the find and who to lobby are at the below link:


It is also most likely that the lower level of the Italian Garden will survive as well which is yet to be dug up, it turns out in 1939 they just covered the site with chalk from the cliffs rather than demolishing the smaller lower level structures which is quite fortuitous for us as it means much of the walkway and Italian garden may survive.

Conrad Broadley
Northfleet Harbour Restoration Trust

Conrad said...

Some fantastic pictures on this Friends of Rosherville Gardens Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/groups/449755325096424/ coma nad have a look and join up.

Hels said...


Many thanks for taking the trouble to write. I cannot get into Facebook, but I did have a look at the page called "8: Rosherville Gardens Bear Pit".