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Rosherville: Victorian Pleasure Gardens 1837 and the tragic sinking of the SS Princess Alice.
During 1700 to 1800, many pleasure gardens were built throughout the country and the beauty of them was such that they were mentioned in the publications of the time. However in the 19th century tastes were beginning to change and more sophistication and entertainment was required.
The first passenger steamboat started sailing between Gravesend and London in 1815, a service which was to bring much prosperity to the area over the next hundred years. With the number of day trippers steadily increasing, over the course of the next ten years several new and rival steam packet services were started. Now with regular sailings offered by the steamers, areas of entertainment for the population of London began to spring up outside of the capital. In Northfleet, to the west of Gravesend the Rosherville Gardens was built in a 20 acre disused chalk pit and became one of the largest and most popular of the Victorian pleasure gardens. The land in this area belonged to Jeremiah Rosher, after whom Rosherville was named.
A London businessman, named George Jones took a 99 year lease on the chalk pit in 1837 and created the Kent Zoological and Botanical Gardens Co. The area was completely landscaped and laid out with terraced gardens, a bear pit (with Rosie the bear), an archery ground & shooting range, a lake, maze, a fernery, magnificent flower beds, statues, lookout tower and beautiful winding paths.
In November 1887 Rosie the bear died and macabrely was then roasted and eaten by the paying guests. When in 1900 the gardens temporarily closed, a young Russian male khaki bear, eight feet tall, was up for sale.
The original idea was intended to appeal to wealthy visitors with high class tastes, but the wealthy visitors did not materialise. In order to save the gardens from closure, Mr Jones was forced to lower the admission price to 6d and use a lower class of attraction.
This was very successful and from 1842 all high class shows were forgotten and the Rosherville Gardens, as they were now called, attracted the public in great numbers. The gardens were very attractive to nearby Londoners, often living in grim conditions and visitors flooded in using the steam boats, landing at the nearby newly built Rosherville Pier, to enjoy a “Happy Day” as the advertisements called them.
There was great rivalry between the various pleasure gardens and the lowered standards were seized upon by Cremorne Gardens who snootily noted that their frequenters are drawn chiefly from a lower class.
A dancing teacher from Kennington, named Baron Nathan was permanently employed as Master of Ceremonies in Rosherville's Gothic Hall from 1842 and he remained in this position until his death in 1856. This hall was also fully utilised as a restaurant, ballroom and bijou theatre so further development was required. The hall was extended but still proved too small for the large crowds of people. To try and overcome the problem an outdoor dancing platform was built outside the Gothic Hall in 1860. A Drawing Room Theatre was built adjoining the Gothic Hall but still more space was needed - so the Bijou Theatre was built nearby in 1866.
There was a delightful new entrance made to the gardens in 1869 which led down from the main London Road to the gardens with steps inside a cliff tunnel. The entrance started with a large platform at the cliff top, complete with balustrades which form a plinth for the classical statues. A domed-roof circular temple with Ionic columns was situated midway down the flight of steps; lower down was the actual garden entrance at the base of the chalk cliffs with a large clock tower built by the side.
In 1873-4 an open-air stage was built by the dancing platform with famous performers playing in both theatres and on the open-air stage. Other attractions at Rosherville Gardens included tightrope walkers, tethered balloon ascents and a gypsy fortune teller. It was reported by John Wilson, Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales (1870) that the town was full of day trippers during the summer months, and hordes of them on Sundays. At night the gardens were illuminated with thousands of coloured lights and there were firework displays and dancing. For many years the firework artist and tightrope walker was Signor Gellini, whose real name was Joseph Gyngell. There were several tightrope walkers – the “Female Blondin” (Selina Powell) in 1862 and “the African Blondin” (Carlos Trower) in 1881/82 amongst others. Famous bands such as the American Sousa were engaged during the season. Blondin, the trapeze artist made a rare appearance and in 1857 as many as 20,000 visitors each week passed through the turnstiles. . Harry Relph, who went on to make a renowned 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. For the next 17 years he was a popular regular at the old Tivoli Theatre in the Strand moving on to Drury Lane, which became his favourite haunt. As mentioned above for some time the gardens were managed by Barnet Nathan, brother of the musician and 'friend of Byron' Isaac Nathan. Barnet, who was known professionally as 'Baron Nathan' (in mockery of Nathan Mayer Rothschild, 1st Baron Rothschild). The audiences loved his act of dancing a hornpipe, blind-folded, across the stage covered with eggs. So popular was he that on his death he merited an obituary in Punch.
The area was well known for its delicious brown shrimps and besides the tea and shrimps, which everyone sought when visiting Gravesend, other refreshments of a “more substantial and stimulating character” was available at very reasonable rates. The visiting steamers were always met by large numbers of shrimp sellers calling their wares and this was huge business for the fishermen of Gravesend.
The gardens were ideally situated as Gravesend had very good communication with London, by frequent railway link and direct steamer service from the capital to Rosherville pier and several other piers in the town.
Following the death of George Jones in 1872 the Gardens passed into the hands of professional managers and by 1873 admission still remained at only 6d, according to Routledge's Popular Guide to London. On the face of it, it seemed that the gardens were very successful but this was not to continue.
The following tragic story was reported by Caroline’s Miscellany and Victorian History.
On September 3rd 1878 during a warm September evening the “Princess Alice” paddle steamer was making what was advertised as a "Moonlight Trip”. This was a routine sailing from Swan Pier near London Bridge to Gravesend and Sheerness. Tickets were sold for 2 shillings for the return journey and the vessel was full of happy pleasure-trippers returning from a day at the Rosherville Gardens. At 1940hrs it approached its first destination at the Devil’s Elbow, North Woolwich Pier, where many passengers were to disembark. Suddenly a much larger deep sea collier the “Bywell Castle” loomed out of the darkness. In an instant the two ships collided and the wooden “Princess Alice” was almost cut in half by the iron hull of the collier. It sank quickly, within four minutes and even those not trapped inside found themselves floundering in a cold, dark raw-sewage polluted, stretch of river, wearing heavy clothes. Things were made worse by the fact that both the main London northern and southern outfall sewers had just opened their gates and released millions of gallons of industrial effluent and raw sewerage. The vast majority of the passengers could not swim and 640 people (240 of them children) out of a total of 700, tragically died, although there could have been many others unknown, as records for these pleasure boats was poor. With the “Bywell Castle” standing by with her sirens wailing mournfully, only about 100 people were rescued, many by the passenger steamer “Duchess of Teck”, but the Thames at this time was one of the most polluted rivers in the world, carrying industrial effluent and raw sewage. Of those rescued a further 31 died from dysentery. When the two halves of the Princess Alice were salvaged, hundreds of the dead were found crowding the exits jammed, in death, into the standing position. Autopsy’s confirmed that most had been poisoned by the effluent and not drowned. Thames “watermen” were paid 5 shillings for each body recovered. Of the victims about 125 of them were never identified, and were buried in a mass grave at Woolwich Old Cemetery, Kings Highway, Plumstead. A memorial cross to the unknown dead is positioned over the grave, the cost of which being paid by voluntary public subscription. The only positive outcome of this tragedy was the establishment of sewage treatment plants along the Thames which began the long overdue river clean-up. The Princess Alice wreck was the greatest civilian nautical disaster in British history.
The sinking of the Princess Alice was the start of the decline in pleasure gardens, as railways now allowed the Londoners cheap access to the seaside, and in 1900 the Rosherville Gardens went bankrupt and the following year many of the fixtures and fittings were sold off. The Gardens remained closed until 1903 when parts of the gardens were re-opened. The maze and the dancing platform were removed, the Bijou theatre became a restaurant, and the outdoor stage was refurbished and called the Café Chantant. To replace the bear pit, a small menagerie was installed including a baby elephant called Kim and really cutting edge, silent films were shown in the Gothic Hall.
In addition the Magnet Film Company set up their studios and made just one film in 1914. It was titled "The King of Crime" and the storyline was "In Paris in 1800 an heiress secretly marries the man framed for the murder of her miserly guardian".It starred John Lawson and Claudia Guillot
But despite all of these modern innovations nothing could stop Rosherville from losing money and sadly the pleasure gardens finally closed in 1914.
After standing derelict for some time eventually the land was sold to W T Henley’s Cable Works and absorbed into their huge site.
Gravesend beach - During the period in which Rosherville Gardens was hugely popular, people also wanted to visit the beach, to complete their day out in Gravesend. Even after Rosherville was closed down, the beach remained a popular leisure site for day trippers, both local and from London. During the construction of the artificial beach advantage was taken of the sinking of the schooner ‘Spring’, loaded with bags of cement. The damaged cargo was purchased and the solidified bags used to face an embankment, allowing the ground behind to be levelled to the required height. Some of the built up cement bags still remained visible until 1978, when work to strengthen the sea wall was carried out. The Countess of Darnley opened the extended western section of the Promenade in August 1886. The schooner ‘Spring’ was repaired locally, refloated and renamed the ‘Gravesend’. The beach is now known as Gordon Promenade, named after General Gordon of Khartoum fame as are the gardens surrounding it.
Adjacent to the landing stage at Rosherville Gardens runs a short street with the sinister name of Slaves Alley.
London had relied on Gravesend as one of its first line of defence but in 1381, despite the erection of a series of warning beacons, a combined French and Spanish force sailed up the Thames as far as Gravesend. They burnt the town and carried off many of the hapless inhabitants into an existence of slavery, working them to death in their many overseas possessions.
Those left in the ruins were both homeless and in such grinding poverty that King Richard II was moved to help them. To give them a worthwhile income he granted to the remaining watermen of Gravesend and their successors the sole right to ferry passengers to and from London. This right, which continued to be confirmed by later monarchs, was the beginning of the “long ferry” and the Gravesend to Tilbury crossing which gave great importance to the growth of Gravesend as a maritime centre and port.
Until the advent of the railways and latterly modern high speed travel passenger would pass through the district on their way by road to or from Dover making the trip between London and Gravesend initially by ferry. Despite the potential hazards of bad weather and overloaded passenger boats the journey by water was safer and more comfortable than the coach route from London where vicious highwaymen roamed the heaths of the great city’s outskirts. Early in the 17th Century public coaches, referred to as "Tide Coaches," were introduced to meet the boats. These were among the first scheduled stagecoaches in the country.
As was usually the case in most seaports, inns and places of refreshment for the travellers abounded. As mentioned previously, in the first half of the 19th Century, with the coming of the steamboats and the construction of the piers at Northfleet and Gravesend, thousands of day-trippers poured in from London. Even as late as the 1860s records showed that within a one mile stretch of the Gravesend riverside there were no less than 11 taverns or hotels, with a further 13 pubs just in the High Street and the alleyways behind. In addition there were many coffee houses, dining rooms and tea rooms in this area.
When the railways came the trippers preferred to go further afield in search of their fun, particularly after the discharge of raw sewerage and toxic waste from London brought pollution, downstream, to the rivers and made "sea bathing" at Gravesend impossible.
Many of the early voyages of discovery started off from Northfleet and Gravesend, which was the port of embarkation for many of the colonial settlers and continued to be so right up to the mass emigration in the 1950s and 60s from Tilbury to Australia. (This was the era of the “Ten pound Poms’’” when it cost just £10 to travel to Australia in order to resettle into a new life (Poms’ being Australian slang for British people)
Rosherville Gardens created much trade and wealth in the surrounding area and to compete with the steamers from London a railway service was started by the London Chatham and Dover Railway on 10th May 1886, with its own station at Rosherville. The line continued to West Street Station on Gravesend riverside where it terminated. Rosherville Station had an island platform which was located in a cutting, with a covered footbridge from the station buildings above with two wide staircases down to the platform to cope with the expected crowds of people going to the gardens. The station house was sited some distance from the main building. Rosherville Station was built primarily to serve the popular Rosherville Gardens but when the gardens closing in 1914 the station was downgraded to an unstaffed halt from June 17th 1928. Today all trace of the station has been removed, the track uplifted and the cutting forms part of a roadway system.
With the final closure of the old Henley Cable Company the site clearance work has unearthed parts of the original Rosherville Gardens. In early 2011 two structures were Listed as Grade 2 buildings these being a cliff top platform and stairwell and the huge Rosherville Quay with its enigmatic cavernous drawdock (an covered inlet for boat repair). In 2012 work has revealed the Victorian bear pit, which while a very simple structure is of historic significance. The top of this structure was found just 2ft underneath a 21ft circular depression in a concrete floor of a recently demolished warehouse, with just the top lip of a circular red brick wall being exposed. During October 2012 the bear pit was finally dug up and the surviving structure found to be amazingly intact, it is 21ft in diameter and is 6½ft deep with its slate floor and the doorway with its white paint, completely intact.
Also likely to be still there are some walkways remains of two garden bridges and four staircases, all part of the Italian Garden grand entrance.
Unfortunately the Homes and Communities Agency want to rebury these rare and unique Rosherville Gardens structures to make a clear development platform so all traces of this important structure will be lost forever.
The site clearance has also revealed a honeycomb of tunnels cut deep into the chalk cliffs which most recently were used as air-raid shelters during the last war. I will be writing an article on the labyrinth of tunnels in the Gravesend area, many of which started life as smugglers routes from the river to avoid the excise men.
Surreal Jezreel's Tower
- Surreal Jezreel's Tower and the prophet Joanna Southcott
In 1885 a striking structure was built in Gillingham Kent by James Jershom Jezreel leader of a religious sect. Much of his teachings were influenced by the prophet Joanna Southcott.
The Biddenden Maids
- The Biddenden Maids - Famous Siamese Twins from Medieval times
In 1100 ad a pair of Siamese twins were born in a small Kent village of Biddenden. They were named Eliza and Mary Chulkhurst and lived for 34 years. On their death they left land to provide an income to support a food charity.
© 2012 Peter Geekie