In Search of Rosherville Gardens

Rosherville Gardens – The Pleasure Lawn, c1840 (Image owner: Gravesend Library; taken from http://www.thamespilot.org.uk)

When he was writing his short stories Lou and Liz and Our Mr Jupp (published in 1893 and 1894 respectively), little did the Victorian author George Gissing know that he would be helping the cause of tourism in Gravesend some 125 years later (seemingly little aided by the local authorities, but we shall come to that shortly).

It was while reading Our Mr Jupp that I first became aware of the existence of Rosherville Gardens, to which passing reference is made in the story. Ever curious, I investigated further and learned that Rosherville Gardens was a Victorian pleasure garden in the Gravesend/Northfleet area that opened in 1837 and had many successful years before its eventual demise in the early 20th century. In the present day, the site has been marked out for housing.

Rosherville Gardens was, by all accounts, a wonder of its age. Initially pitched at wealthy visitors from London, but becoming increasingly working class as the years went by, the beautifully laid-out Gardens – created in a chalk pit close to the Thames – came to include such attractions as archery, a bear pit, dancing, refreshment rooms, firework displays, a maze, theatrical performances and much more besides.

In Lou and Liz, Rosherville Gardens provides the main setting for the story. According to Paul Delany’s biography of George Gissing, the editor of English Illustrated Magazine had asked Gissing for a ‘bank-holiday short story’, which prompted Gissing to visit the Gardens himself and set his story there.

The initial description of the Gardens in the story summons up  a wonderful picture in the mind’s eye:

‘The grounds at Rosherville were a pretty show in this warm spring weather. Fresh verdure had begun to clothe the deciduous trees, and the thick−clustered evergreens made semblance of summer against a bright blue sky. From the cliffs of quarried chalk hung thick ivy; up and down and all about wound the maze of pathways, here through a wooded dell, there opening upon a lawn of smooth turf, or a terrace set with garden shrubs and flowers.’

However, we soon find out these sylvan scenes contrast rather sharply with the atmosphere elsewhere within the grounds:

‘… in front of them was the Baronial Hall… Within was the high scene of Rosherville riot. A crowd filled the long room from end to end, a crowd that sang and bellowed, that swayed violently backwards and forwards, that stamped on the wooden flooring in wild fandangoes, and raised such an atmosphere of dust, that on her attempt to enter, Liz began to cough and felt her eyes smart.’

Lou and Liz is indeed a riotous tale and provides, as with so much of Gissing’s fiction, some fascinating insights into the social environment of the time.

The more I found out about Rosherville Gardens (Lynda Smith’s book, The Place to Spend a Happy Day was a superb resource in this respect), the more determined I became to visit the site of the Gardens for myself, and, on Tuesday 17 September 2019, having travelled from Nottingham to London the night before for an event, I caught a train to Gravesend and commenced my explorations.

I stepped out of the station into a warm and sunny day and was immediately reminded by my stomach that it was lunchtime and that I hadn’t had anything to eat. An all-day breakfast became an immediate and pressing priority, and I soon discovered The Marlin Plaice on Windmill Street, which, in spite of its name, offered a wide variety of dining options. It proved to be a comfortable, welcoming place (or Plaice), and I polished off the bargain-priced meal in short order  before purchasing a deep-fried Mars bar to take away with me.

The first stop in my pursuit of Rosherville Gardens was the library, where I enquired as to the location of a semi-mythical model of the Gardens that I had read had been on display there at some point. Alas, the staff members I spoke to, though friendly and helpful, were unable to assist in the matter, though they seemed to think that the model might well be in the possession of Gravesham Borough Council, languishing unloved in an archive somewhere.

I also learned that there was no longer a museum in Gravesend and, to add insult to injury, I discovered that the Visitor Information Centre was  essentially a stall in the Borough Market and was only manned from Thursday to Sunday. Cursing myself inwardly for having the temerity to visit Gravesend on a Tuesday, I bade farewell to the library staff and continued on my quest.

I decided to visit the Borough Market anyway, because a) it sounded like an interesting location and b) I still held out some small hope that it might offer up some form of assistance to an outsider who was curious about the area’s history. And so it was that, after a brief diversion to pay my respects to Pocahontas, I emerged into the splendid, light-filled interior of the market and began to peruse its slightly underwhelming contents.

But wait! What have we here? Some boards with photos and other ephemera relating to local history! God bless you, Gravesend Historical Society. Overcome with gratitude, I perused the boards and saw that a number of the images related to Rosherville Gardens and the Princess Alice tragedy (the Princess Alice was a paddle steamer that sank in 1878 with the loss of between 600 and 700 lives after being struck by a collier. Its last call before the accident had been Rosherville, predominantly to pick up people who had been visiting the Gardens).

As an added bonus, the Visitor Information stall, though not occupied by humans, had a number of brochures and leaflets available, including one about ‘Gravesham’s riverside heritage’ that mentioned Rosherville Gardens. Eagerly gathering up a few, I left the sun-dappled yet inadequately-patronised splendour of the market and began to make my way towards the Town Pier.

Another acknowledgement of the historical existence of Rosherville Gardens awaited me in a lovely little store called Forget-Me-Not Vintage & Crafts, whose website tagline announces a laudable mission statement that Gravesham Borough Council would do well to adopt: ‘Keeping Memories Alive for Generations to Come’. There were many interesting items for sale (including some books about the local area), but  I was particularly delighted to see that postcards and prints of  local views were available, including, amazingly, a postcard featuring Rosherville Gardens.

Not having given up entirely on the idea of tracking down the model of the Gardens, a chat with the two extremely affable ladies behind the counter added weight to the theory that the model lies unseen in a council storage facility. What a shame. In fact, the phrase, ‘It’s such a shame’ is one that I’ve heard more than once over the course of the day in relation to the loss of Rosherville Gardens (not to mention the model).

Buoyed by my visit to Forget-Me-Not, and now the proud owner of four postcards and a fridge magnet, I carried on down the last stretch of High Street and arrived at the Town Pier, where I treated myself to a brief return trip on the Tilbury ferry – partly to see if I could see the site of Rosherville Pier from the boat (I couldn’t), but also for a close-up glimpse of the famous Tilbury Cruise Terminal. The ferry’s skipper gave us an added bonus (or cause for heart failure, depending on your point of view) when we took a slight detour in the direction of a freight ship that happened to be passing by, its sides towering above our small craft as we moved towards our destination.

After leaving the boat on its return to Gravesend, and pausing to look at some reproductions of works by the late Gravesend artist Gerald Vaughan that were on display next to the Town Pier, I started to make my way along the riverside in the direction of Northfleet.

After all of my reading and internet research, seeing the place at which steamship passengers would disembark for Rosherville Gardens was a real thrill. The pier no longer exists, but two gatepiers stand sentinel, with the quay walls, steps and drawdock (as well as a World War II mine watching post) all being Grade II listed. Unfortunately, gates made access to the quay (and the space that had been used as a refreshment room and ticket office) impossible without a series of gymnastic manoeuvres that I didn’t feel inclined to perform.

Instead, I turned my attentions towards Burch Road and the former location of the entrance to the Gardens, which had been only a short distance away from the pier. Of the entrance there was now no trace, although an intriguing pair of rusted metal gates sat behind a fence in a car park, apparently at the top of the chalk cliff, at approximately the point where visitors would have gone through into the Gardens.

Walking to the top of Burch Road, I turned right onto London Road towards the former location of a second entrance to Rosherville Gardens. After reaching Fountain Walk, it didn’t take me long to locate the section of wall and railings behind which I knew were the remains of a cliff top terrace and a tunnel  that visitors once used to make their way down into the Gardens. In fact,  the Grade II listed remains were so close that I could actually see part of them through the railings.

I hadn’t intended to do anything particularly adventurous, and had dismissed the idea of climbing over the railings on account of my lack of desire to be impaled upon them, but… to be so close!

Then I noticed it. Between the railings and the low wall to which they were attached, a smallish gap had been created by the removal of several bricks. Glancing behind me to make sure that no-one else was around, before you could have said, ‘Hey, look, there’s a bloke stuck beneath the railings!’, I chucked my backpack through the gap and propelled myself, feet and torso  first, in the same direction.

Endeavouring to scramble through the undergrowth and overgrowth before anyone could clap eyes on me, I came to a rapid halt almost immediately, upon encountering  a small open space a metre or two away from the cliff edge. If seeing the site of Rosherville Pier had been a thrill, it was nothing compared to this. To my left and right lay the crumbling remains of the cliff top terrace,  while in front of me were stunning views over the former site of the Gardens, with the Thames and Tilbury beyond.

After pausing to take everything in, I turned to my right and walked down the steps towards the tunnel, wondering why this marvellous and important site was simply being left to fall into rack and ruin. Turning right again, I entered the tunnel and descended the steps until I reached the point at which it leads out into the open. At this juncture, when Rosherville Gardens was still in existence, the visitor would have followed a path into the Gardens, but the exit is now stranded several metres above ground level. The area that was once the site of one of the greatest pleasure gardens in the country, and that was eventually taken over by industry, has since been cleared and levelled (with the remains of the bear pit just beneath the surface) and is now awaiting the construction of the proposed housing.

Ill-prepared for any descent to ground level, and wary in any case of site security, I climbed the stairs back up to the cliff top and took a last look at my surroundings before turning around and making my way back out onto Fountain Walk, relieved that there was no one present to witness my somewhat ungainly emergence.

Suitably invigorated by my experience, I spent some time walking around most of the rest of the perimeter of the Rosherville Gardens site, before time, tide and train schedules dictated that I make my weary way back towards the railway station.

What exactly  is it that makes Rosherville Gardens such a compelling subject for me, and that prompted me to go to all that trouble to visit the place where it once existed? It’s the buzz of being in the same physical space as a remarkable attraction that ceased to exist many years ago, but of which there are still a few remaining traces. In a quiet moment, it’s even possible to imagine that some of the thoughts, emotions, laughter and conversation of those who visited the Gardens linger here still. Rosherville Gardens may have gone, but its spirit remains. As a local person who heard about my interest put it, ‘Even though the Gardens are long gone, there is still an atmosphere down there, as if the place itself still remembers what it used to be.’

Site of Rosherville Pier
Steps down to Rosherville quay and drawdock
Looking towards the former site of the Burch Road entrance to Rosherville Gardens
Looking towards the former site of the London Road entrance to Rosherville Gardens
Sign, Fountain Walk
Ah, it would be rude not to…
Approaching the site of the Grade II listed cliff top entrance to the former Rosherville Gardens site
Terrace wall. From its location, this appears to be the remains of the wall shown on the right hand side of the historic image below (the one with a statue on its right hand plinth)
The statue is no longer on its plinth in the present day. However… (Image owner: Gravesend Library; taken from http://www.thamespilot.org.uk)
It seems fair to assume that this part-statue, located on Fountain Walk, a short distance from the remains of the cliff top entrance to Rosherville Gardens, is what survives of the statue at the top right of the previous image
A historic image (c1900) showing the cliff top platform, an Ionic temple (beneath the platform) and (to the right of, and slightly beneath, the temple) the exit from the tunnel that leads down from the cliff top entrance (Image owner: Gravesend Library; taken from http://www.thamespilot.org.uk)
View of the western part of the former Rosherville Gardens site from the cliff top entrance
View of the eastern part of the former Rosherville Gardens site from the cliff top entrance
View showing (next to the excavators) the fencing that marks the site of the Grade II listed Rosherville Gardens bear pit, much of which survives beneath the surface
Looking down the steps that lead towards the tunnel entrance
The tunnel that once led to Rosherville Gardens…
…but now opens out onto…
…this
The view down from the tunnel exit
The view back up the steps
A far more sensible way of having a peek at the former Rosherville Gardens site (Fountain Walk)
A view of the site from behind the railings on Fountain Walk
Another view of the site, this time from Crete Hall Road