Unearthing a Victorian day-trippers theme park in Northfleet
PUBLISHED: 09:00 25 October 2012
The recent discovery of a bear pit has dug up the memory of Rosherville Gardens, one of the premier attractions in Victorian England, as Anna Dubuis finds out…
News of a world-class theme park in Swanscombe has excited people in north Kent, but few know that just down the road is the site of one of the Victorian-era’s greatest pleasure parks.
Rosherville Gardens was the brainchild of Jeremiah Rosher, a local industrialist who was keen on the burgeoning fashion for taking day trips by steamboat from London to Gravesend.
A local businessman, George Jones, formed the Kent Zoological and Botanical Gardens Co and leased a disused chalk pit by Crete Hall Road in Northfleet to Rosher in 1837.
The gardens were lavish, featuring epic cliff top walks, a maze, flowerbeds, a theatre, a lake, cafes, a lookout tower and many winding paths.
Charles Dickens Jr, the novelist’s first son, remarked in his Dictionary of the Thames in 1881 that: “The peculiar situation of Rosherville - it being an old chalk quarry - has lent itself admirably to the landscape gardener’s art, and the result is a really pretty and remarkably diversified garden.”
Initially the gardens were designed to appeal to the wealthy with high-brow tastes, but they weren’t in high enough numbers, so entrance prices were lowered and more mainstream entertainments were brought it – tightrope walkers, fortune-tellers and fireworks - bringing in the crowds en masse.
From aboard a paddle streamer, the tourists would enter Northfleet from a pier and walk the short distance to spend the day in the pleasure park.
“Rosherville was a rival to Kew Gardens,” says local conservationist Conrad Broadley. “You could do archery, go to the theatre, there were displays, dancing, a whole range of things, and there was a bear pit.”
However as the railway kicked in at the beginning of the 20th century, Northfleet struggled to attract the London crowds who were enticed by the south-east coast.
Eventually Rosherville Gardens were forced to close just before the First World War, with industry coming in to fill the void.
In 1924 Henley Telegraph and Cable Works were established at this site and by 1940 had extended south into the former Rosherville Gardens, burying the bear pit for next 70 years.
It wasn’t until recently that, when the cable works at Crete Hall Road were shut down, the memory of the park was dug up.
“Three years ago Rosherville Gardens were written off as not existing anymore. We thought there were no remains left,” Conrad says.
In January 2011, following Conrad’s appeal, English Heritage decided to make the cliff-top entrance to the park and the quay grade II listed structures.
Conrad was keen to find more traces, and on another walk he saw a dip in the ground in a perfect circle.
“I put the map of the area against the map of Rosherville Gardens and it showed it was the bear pit,” he says. “Now it has finally been dug up and the surviving structure is amazingly intact.”
The bear pit, which is 6.5m in diameter and 2m deep, would contain one bear on show to the public, who could watch him like in a zoo.
Conrad is campaigning for any regeneration in the area to preserve the bear pit.
It is down to the Homes and Communities Agency who own the land to make that decision.
“We had millions of tourists coming to visit the gardens and we have lost that now. We have the potential to bring some of the heritage back. It would be quite a focal point for the new development,” he says. “I’m hoping the public will really be behind this and call for it to be restored.”
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