24 May 2011

What was/is a Winter Garden?

By 1800, doctors had already began to extol the virtues of drinking spa water and bathing in sea-water. Royalty loved their sea holidays and so set a trend for more average families. For residents of Bristol and Bath, Weston-super-Mare was the nearest coastal village within easy reach of a road. In the early 19th century, Weston-super-Mare was still a very small Somerset town, yet it became a thriving Victorian seaside resort of 20,000 people.  So we can confidently propose that Weston’s success came out of the growing Victorian era passion for holidays by the sea.

Construction of Weston’s first hotel, now the Royal Hotel, started as early as 1808. And Howe's spa baths opened in July 1820, complete with lodgings built for the invalids, a refreshment room and reading room. But it wasn’t until the opening of the railway in 1841 that thousands of visitors came to the town from Bristol and beyond, on work outings and bank holidays.

As with other coastal resort towns, Weston needed a pleasure pier, and like the piers at Hastings and Eastbourne, Birnbeck Pier was designed by Eugenius Birch. Birnbeck Pier was completed in 1867, offering everything a holiday maker might want - amusement arcades, tea rooms, rides and a photographic studio.

Weston's Winter Garden Pavilion

The town's Seafront Improvement Scheme of the 1880s developed the sea walls and long promenade that are still in use today. But local businessmen wanted tourists to come right into the centre of town. Business must have been brisk - 15,000 passengers arrived on the steamers on each summer bank holiday! Soon it was decided to build another pier, closer to the town centre; the Grand Pier opened in 1904, offering a large theatre rather than more low brow amusements.

After the devastation of World War I, the town decided they needed new and exciting facilities i.e a Winter Garden and Pavilion complex. What is a winter garden? I don’t think many Australians would have heard of it.

The winter garden dates back to the early modern era where European nobility liked to build a large conservatory. An outside buiding, the conservatory was attached to the main palace, usually featuring large windows and a glass roof. It had two functions: to house luscious plants that wouldn’t normally grow in that climate and to become an extension of the sociable living space.

By the later Victorian era, winter gardens were no longer restricted to private residence; many were built for the wider public, for social gatherings. The Crystal Palace opened in 1851, for example, full of  iron and shaped glass. The gardens still sustained semi-tropical plants and birds through the colder months but they could now include theatres, tea rooms and other commercial outlets.

By the late 19th century, winter gardens had three defining factors:
1. they continued to grow warm-climate plants in a cool country;
2. they had space for music, pleasure and strolling inside the building; and
3. they were made of vast areas of glass to maximise the natural light and the natural views.

So Weston needed a venue specifically designed to provide entertainment and greenery all year round, regardless of the weather. The popular architectural style for seaside facilities in the 1920s was the classical or neo Georgian, and Weston-super-Mare wanted lots of classical pillars. The front façade had to be striking.

In July 1927 the Winter Gardens and Pavilion were officially opened in a very grand ceremony by Ernest Palmer, deputy chairman of the Great Western Railway. The complex could not have been placed in a better location: along Royal Parade, next to the Town Square Gardens and in a prominent position at the heart of Weston's seafront. UK Historical Photos shows how extensive the planted grounds behind the Winter Garden building were.

The gardens behind Weston's pavilion in 1927

These Winter Gardens were expanded and refurbished in 1989. The balls and tea dances still take place, but now the conference market is more important. The piers in Weston were not so fortunate.

Weston-super-Mare was not the only British town that had a winter garden. Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens opened in 1846 as a museum. In 1879 the Museum moved to a new larger building that included a library and winter garden based on the model of the Crystal Palace.

The People's Palace and Winter Gardens in Glasgow is a complex that was opened in 1898. The ground floor  contained reading and recreation rooms, while the upper floors had a museum and an art gallery. The Winter Gardens are in a glass confection at the back of the building.

Morecambe Winter Gardens Lancashire, which were built as the Victoria Pavilion Theatre in 1897, were extended to a grand Winter Gardens complex complete with baths, bars and a ballroom.

People's Palace and Winter Gardens, Glasgow, opened 1898

The Southport Winter Gardens was a Victorian entertainment complex, built under impressive glass domes, in Merseyside Lancashire. The original winter gardens had every entertainment facility possible, a theatre, aquarium, zoo, conservatory, music halls and walk ways. The Winter Gardens were opened in the late summer of 1874, being made up of two connected sections: a] The huge Pavilion and b] the huge, glass Winter Garden. Ever flexible, the Winter Garden was later converted into a ballroom and roller skating rink, and the Pavilion became a cinema.

The Winter Gardens complex in Blackpool was officially opened in July 1878. The original intention was "to place on the land a concert room, promenades, conservatories and other accessories calculated to convert the estate into a pleasant lounge, especially desirous during inclement days". Building went on apace. The Pavilion Theatre came first, then the Opera House Theatre opened in 1889 and the Empress Ballroom was built in 1896. Even during the Inter-War years, bars and halls were being added.

These pleasure complexes, and others, have been greatly changed since their heyday in the late 19th century. Southport might have been Britain’s first seaside Winter Garden, but it didn’t prevent demolition. The Winter Gardens were razed just before WW2 (1933) and the Pavilion after WW2 (1962). The splendid Rothesay Winter Gardens on the Isle of Bute were built in 1924 when Bute was popular with tourists. After decades of dereliction, Rothesay's winter gardens were redeveloped in the 1990s; at least people can use the 90-seat theatre/cinema now.

Southport Winter Gardens, opened 1874


Andrew said...

Blackpool's winter garden still exists and is a multiple theatre venue. I had never heard of wintergarden until visiting Blackpool. Now in Australia it means a glass enclosed balcony as part of a residential apartment.

Hels said...

thank you. Blogging is certainly a great way of learning about otherwise inaccessible topics.

The reason I didn't include photos of Blackpool and Morecambe Winter Gardens was because they look like ordinary theatres from the front. I wanted images of big, glass based, over the top winter gardens like Glasgow. But I will add one or two words about Blackpool's history now.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen:
So very interesting. One wonders if the success of the Winter Garden in so many resorts in Britain was, to a large extent, to provide somewhere under cover for holiday makers frustrated by the inclement weather of a British summer.

Here in Hungary the term is widely used to describe anything from a proper conservatory to an enclosed balcony.

Very recently at the refurbished Savoy in London, about which we intend to post, a large, iron, open sided structure situated in the centre of The Thames Foyer [where tea is taken]and housing a grand piano, was referred to by the staff of the hotel as the Winter Garden!!

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

I am not surprised other capital cities that developed a cafe society culture would want to extend their season into less reliable, colder weather. I was thinking of Vienna, but Budapest would do equally as well :)

What surprised me, therefore, was not the expanse of glass and iron, and not the warmer climate for plants (and people) inside, but the extraordinary range of entertainments. Anything you can possibly think of: a theatre, tea room, opera house, museum, library, baths, bar, reading room, reception room and art gallery.

3d Visualisation said...

Very nice info....thanks for sharing this great topic. Keep posting.

Hels said...

pleasure. Hope you enjoyed the material on winter gardens.

WeTravel said...

King Ludwig II of Bavaria built the Residenz Palace in Munich, and added a glass winter garden onto the roof. Now Ludwig was mad as a hatter, and didn’t like to be in the same room as anyone else, so his idea of entertainment was strange. But apparently he wanted the roof to look like his mountain castles. So he had a lake put in, mountains, a Moorish kiosk and a showy tent. This winter garden was also demolished, after King Ludwig died.

Toyin O. said...

Very informative, the pictures are great, thanks for sharing.

Hels said...

thank you. I had totally forgotten about King Ludwig II.

There was a long tradition of European nobility building a large conservatory for themselves and their closest friends. So in this respect Ludwig was right to call his rooftop glass house a winter garden.

The big difference for Weston, Glasgow, Blackpool etc was that these were for the general public to use and they tended to include much loved forms of entertainment eg theatres and tea rooms.

Hels said...

welcome. The concept of winter gardens had been an unusual one for me to examine at first, but now I love it.

The Job Ware said...

I never been there, I wish I could visit this place before God take me. You had a brilliant idea, of sharing this historical places. Great job!

Hels said...

Job Ware
hopefully the Lord will spare you for a while yet :)

Make a list of places you MUST see, and get on with it. Start with 19th century winter gardes that survived and flourished.

Lord Cowell said...

That was a lovely potted guide to Winter Palaces and Victorian life. Pity so many are no longer in existence.

Hels said...

Lord Cowell

I wonder if winter gardens had not been destroyed in earlier decades, who would be their clients now and what entertainments would they offer. I (an older woman) personally would love tea rooms, exotic gardens and string quartets, but I can imagine they would be given over to noisy computer games and indoor roller skating.

Not surprisingly, Weston Winter Garden Pavilion makes much of its money these days from the conference market.

DesignBuild Source said...

As per Jane and Lance...
So very interesting. One wonders if the success of the Winter Garden in so many resorts in Britain was, to a large extent, to provide somewhere under cover for holiday makers frustrated by the inclement weather of a British summer....

I would tend to agree.

Great colelction of posts on here Hels... I look forward to coming back again real soon.

Hels said...


Great topic :)

If people simply needed to avoid cold and wet weather, they could go to any number of indoor activites eg cafes and skating rinks.

My guess is that cities wanted something classier, more elegant, more integrated to offer to visitors (or to locals, for that matter). They wanted to build warm glasshouses to grow and display plants that wouldn’t normally grow in that climate. And they wanted to offer an elegant space for a wide range of very cultivated activities. This wasn't for your badly dressed, ill-washed bogans.

WeTravel said...

I have seen gorgeous photos of the wintergarden in Nice but probably someone pulled it down or used it as a petrol station. Have you been there?

Hels said...


Spectacular *nod*. I too have seen the Nice casino and winter garden only in photos because the whole complex was pulled down sometime after WW2 ended.

I will write it up in a new post in three weeks.

Hanna Daniels said...

How amazing ! I red that Blackpool's winter garden still exist and it's going in my list of MUST see places! Thank you for sharing! I love how many interesting things can be find in blogs. I'll consider making one !

Hels said...


Like Andrew, I had never heard of winter gardens in Australia and did not see one until spouse and I moved to Britain in 1972. It is an architectural and cultural treasure that needs to be carefully preserved.

Wintergarten Möbel said...

The winter garden dates back to the early modern era where European ... wintergartenmoebel.blogspot.de

Hels said...

Wintergarten Möbel

many thanks! I will back up my poor reading skills in German with a good translation.

Is there a European winter garden you would recommend I visit first?

Kylie said...

Great list of marvelous gardens!Do you know that the Winter Gardens was sold to Weston College for just £1 at a North Somerset Council meeting.The council has agreed to give the iconic seafront venue worth £10million to the college for the minimal fee, so it can be transformed into a university hub.

Hels said...


Weston College will have the best location and the best view in town. Perfect!

But the Winter Gardens were expanded and refurbished as recently as 1989. What will happen to that splendid architecture?

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