The Place to Spend A Happy Day.
A History of Rosherville Gardens
The Gravesend Historical Society, 2006
Paperback, 48pp., 5.60 [pounds sterling]
Students of Victorian popular entertainment may be aware that, as a twelve-year-old local lad playing a tin whistle, Little Tich commenced his distinguished career at Rosherville Gardens in Gravesend, whilst Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiasts will be familiar with a somewhat scathing reference to that resort in The Sorcerer.
Apart from that the place is almost entirely forgotten nowadays. This neglect has now been put right by Lynda Smith in a delightful little book. There is more information and interest packed here into a mere forty-eight pages than there is in many a book ten times this length.
With its sixteen acres Rosherville was larger than both Vauxhall and Cremorne pleasure gardens, but was of a somewhat later date than the London venues. Opened in 1837 and effectively closed by the early 1920s, the final vestiges of Rosherville Gardens disappeared in 1938.
The gardens were created in the workedout chalk pits which had created the fortunes of the Rosher family. In 1837 the family sold off, on a 99-year lease, that part of their estate to a company formed by George Jones, who remained its Chairman and Trustee for life. Jones's original intention was to create a purely botanical garden, on the lines of Kew, but with the addition of a few animals and birds, and to this end the grounds were well laid out and were stocked with a good range of rare plants and 8000 specimen trees from around the world. At first the only buildings were the entrance lodge and the Gothic Hall (later the 'Baronial Hall'). Aimed at a highclass clientele, for whose convenience a hotel was built near the Rosherville Pier, admission charges were high and the only other entertainment provided was in the archery ground with benefit of a professional instructor.
However it soon proved that, to make the venture a going concern, additional entertainments had to be provided to appeal to a wider public. Gala days were held in September 1841, with a varied selection of performers. In the following year regular entertainments were provided in the 'Baronial Hall,' firework displays were introduced and soon the first of many balloon ascents were made from Rosherville.
From 1842 until his death in 1857, 'Baron' Nathan was the somewhat eccentric Master of Ceremonies at the Baronial Hall, his most famous accomplishment being 'the egg hornpipe', but this entertaining spectacle was eventually abandoned due to over enthusiastic 'audience participation'.
During the 1840s and '50s, the pyrotechnic displays were developed in spectacular fashion under the direction of Signor Gellini, and in 1850 a tightrope walker was introduced to the proceedings by Mr. Mottram, whilst in 1857 Hutchinson Brothers' Circus provided the added attraction of equestrian thrills and acrobatics.
In 1858 a 'Drawing Room Theatre' was added as an extension to the Baronial Hall and Frederick White's 'superior band' replaced the old 'German' band. Ballets and farces were performed by a resident company led by Charles Steyne and his wife. In 1863 the rights were purchased to exhibit 'Pepper's Ghost', the current rage of London, in the burlesque Ill-treated Il Trovatore.
In 1866 a new theatre, The Bijou, opened with a burlesque, Ernani. Actor and music hall singer, James Hillier was introduced to enliven the resident company. One of his songs was 'Rosherville--the Place to Spend a Happy Day'. Other songs about Rosherville include W.B. Fair's "Tommy make Room for your Uncle'. Rosherville also found its way into numerous works of fiction, notably F. Anstey's Tinted Venus.
On the death of George Jones in 1872 the leasehold estates were sold and 'The Rosherville Gardens Company Limited' took ownership for the remainder of the nineteenth century. Arthur Williams took over the Bijou Theatre and Alfred Lee, composer of 'Champagne Charlie,' was installed as musical director. Elsewhere in the Gardens balloon ascents were restarted and Fraulein Laura rode a bicycle along a high wire, and, along with other significant additions, an outdoor stage, replacing an earlier simple platform, was built 'something like forty feet wide and thirty feet high, with side wings and trap doors ... for dancing troupes, gymnastic performances, grand ballets and comic singing'.
The fortunes of Rosherville were dealt a severe blow in September 1878. The paddle steamer, Princess Alice, returning from Southend to London, had picked up additional passengers at Rosherville when she collided with a large collier near Barking. Over six hundred people were drowned, many of them children. The shock of this disaster, felt throughout the land, began the gradual decline in the attraction of Rosherville.
After 1880, touring companies, including the likes of Ada Blanche and William Poel, replaced the resident company at the Bijou, which resulted in the loss of local support for their regular favourites. Elsewhere, Little Tich made his first appearance on the openair stage, an 'African Blondin,' Carlos Trower, and a 'Blondin' goat made separate appearances on the rope.
Despite the appointment of a new manager, Henry James Cochrane, in 1886, Rosherville continued in slow decline. Even the appearance of the D'Oyly Carte Company failed to revive much interest in performances at the Bijou Theatre. Cochrane struggled on until 1900. When the Gardens were put up for auction there were no bids, but the fixtures and fittings were sold off. However sporadic events still occurred until as late as 1938, when the remnants of the grounds went for redevelopment.
This little book is well illustrated throughout, in black and white, with maps and photographs, many from rare postcards and the cover is adorned with two delightful full colour images.
Although itemised source notes are not given in the text, the author appends an account of the main sources of information, which indicates the extensive range of her research and directs the reader to collections and displays where ephemeral items from Rosherville may be examined and studied. Regrettably, in view of the number of individuals involved in this fascinating history, there is no index. However this work is a model record of local history and a study of value to all those interested the development of popular entertainment and the history of leisure pursuits.