‘Rosherville – The Prettiest Gardens in England’

 If you had lived locally during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) and wanted ‘a good day out’, you would only have needed to catch a ‘coach or walk to Rosherville, just within the boundaries of Northfleet, to a former chalk pit where, over an area of 17 acres there was the ‘Kent Zoological and Botanical Gardens’, variously described as ‘the prettiest gardens in England’ and ‘the queen of gardens’. They were designed by George Jones, a London entrepreneur, as a cross between, and rival to, the London Zoological Gardens in Regents Park, and Kew Gardens. The company he formed to raise funds and manage the Gardens had a number of high profile investors, including the later Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli.

When Rosherville Gardens were conceived there were already a number of large pleasure gardens in existence in and around London – the oldest of which was at Vauxhall on the south side of the Thames near Lambeth. However, most of these gardens were designed for ‘common’ people – Rosherville was instead designed to attract the more-wealthy visitor, with more serious tastes.

Rosherville Gardens quickly became a favourite destination for day-trippers, particularly from London, who would travel by paddle-steamer and disembark at a special pier (at the bottom of Burch Road and Pier Road) that serviced the Gardens.

At this time many locals would have been agricultural workers or manual workers and records show that their average pay in 1850 for agricultural workers (if they were in full-time employment) would have been less than nine shillings a week (45p in today’s money). The entrance fee to the Gardens of sixpence per adult (two and a half pence in today’s money), and 3d. per child, would have been a large sum for them to spend from their available income. At this time of course families were generally larger than they are today, which meant that most working people and their families were only likely to go there once a year – if they were lucky.

In their earlier years, the Gardens were therefore the province of the new middle classes, although as time went by their appeal widened. The entry fee was of course just that – a number of ‘attractions’ in the gardens each cost an additional 1d.

The Gardens opened to the public, even before they were completed, on 17 August 1837 (just two months following the accession of Queen Victoria to the throne). In their first few years the Gardens were just that, gardens for visitors to walk round and enjoy, adorned with statues and ‘follies’ and over 8000 specimen trees, but as any entrepreneur knows, to keep visitors returning, new attractions have to be added regularly. A large hotel (the Rosherville Hotel) was built near to its entrance, and an old pier owned by the previous owner of the land, Jeremiah Rosher, was purchased and re-built to take large paddle-steamers. A large number of animals (including bears and a tiger) were purchased, mainly from the Regent’s Park ‘Zoo’. By 1842 the gardens were fully functioning, and 14,000 people (mainly ‘respectable working- class’, mainly clerks and shop workers, from London) visited them.

The ‘Gardens’ were therefore forever changing and expanding in content to make them more attractive to visitors, and were soon supplemented by bands, jugglers, sword swallowers, an archery lawn, gipsy fortune tellers, a mummy, a maze, a conservatory, a lake, tightrope walkers, theatres, magic lantern shows, caves, and a 65 foot whale skeleton. Visitors could watch balloon assents by Lieutenant George Butcher Gale RN, watch Samuel Cody, the American Sharpshooter (possibly better remembered for being an early aviation pioneer) and also see many of the Music Hall stars of their day.  In the evenings, as well as coloured lights and fireworks, visitors could dine and dance in the Baronial Hall.

We know of course that Gravesend and its surroundings enjoy one of the best climates in Britain. Added to that the Gardens were sited within an old chalk quarry which made them a particularly protected environment in which plants survived that could not be seen anywhere else in the country.

In 1857 as many as 20,000 visitors passed through the turnstiles in one week. Although never visited by Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales and his friends apparently often spent days at the Gardens incognito.

Robert Hiscock, in his History of Gravesend says:

They were a place of surprising beauty and a favourite resort of Londoners. Adorned with small Greek temples and statuary set in the cliffs, there were   terraces, and archery lawn, Bijou theatre, and Baronial Hall for refreshments, and at one time a lake. At night the gardens were illuminated with thousands of coloured lights and there were firework displays and dancing. Famous bands such as the American Sousa were engaged during the season,          Blondin, the trapeze artist performed.

From the 1850s onwards, the spread of railways across the country made getting further away from London for ‘the seaside’ easier, quicker and cheaper. More affluent Londoners began to move away from Gravesend as a day-trip destination to coastal resorts further afield, for example Southend, Margate and Ramsgate. Rosherville Gardens progressively had to cater for more ‘working class’ clientele. By 1880 the gardens had reached the peak of their popularity, and The Princess Alice accident in 1878 (more about this in a later article in this magazine) also persuaded many Londoners that trains rather than paddle-steamers were a safer form of travel.

It was the continuing cheapness of access to the coastal resorts that finally saw Rosherville’s demise. In 1901 they were closed, but later re-opened, a poor reflection of their former glory. During a brief revival between 1903 and 1911 they housed some of the early film-makers. The Gardens continued in a rather shabby way until with mounting debts and no money to re-invest into their attractions, eventually

put up for sale finally in 1924, and Henley’s cable works (later AEI) bought the western end of the Gardens to extend their factory complex. In November 1938, with the Second World War looming, and the need to increase cable production, Henley’s bought the remaining, now derelict, part of the site.

The avid readers and theatre goers amongst you may well come across references to the Gardens in amongst other places;

The Newcomes by William Makepeace Thackeray,

  • The Sorcerer by Gilbert and Sullivan,
  • Jeeves Takes Charge by P.G.Wodehouse,
  • The Story of the Amulet by E. Nesbit,
  • Memories of India by Robert Baden-Powell
  • Fanny by Gaslight by Michael Sadler.

You may know of others!

Ian Craig