Thames Estuary

From pioneering daytripper resort to “vulgar little place”: Discovering the rise and fall of Gravesend

With numerous attractions on the banks of the Thames, Rosherville Gardens promised Londoners that it was the “place to spend a happy day”. Visitors would arrive in Kent by paddle steamer at the specially-built landing pier and within a few minutes they would find on offer everything from theatres and dancing to archery and zoo animals.

Rosherville Gardens was opened on the outskirts of Gravesend by George Jones in 1837 in a disused chalk pit owned by Jermiah Rosher. Rotherhithe-born Rosher, who lived in the adjoining but now lost riverside residence of Crete Hall, created the ‘new town’ of Rosherville, which was intended for businessmen who would commute to London by steamboats.

Position of old Rosherville Gardens pier entrance

As for Rosherville Gardens, local boy Charles Dickens described the site in his 1881 Dicken’s Dictionary of the Thames as “a really pretty and remarkably diversified garden”:

“Besides the tea and shrimps so dear to the heart of the Gravesend excursionist, other refreshments of a more substantial and stimulating character can be obtained at very reasonable rates… There is a conservatory about 200 feet long, a bijou theatre, a maze, museum, “baronial hall,” occasionally used for dancing, but more often for purposes of refreshment. There is a very good fernery and a bear-pit, and some to miles of walks are held out as additional inducements to the excursion public.”

Postcards dating back to when Rosherville Gardens was operating show that it was a place heaving with people. We know from advertising that numerous special events were held over the years, which incorporated fetes, galas, famous bands and fireworks. Surviving contemporary plans of the site, including those held by the British Library, show the scale of the pleasure gardens, which would have covered 17 acres.

Sadly the lake at Rosherville Gardens was filled in around 1887 and the overall venture closed for the last time in 1910. By that stage the area was starting to change following the building of HT Henley’s Telegraph Works in the grounds of Crete Hall in 1906.

As Henley’s plant on the banks of the Thames was expanded between 1924 and 1938, Crete Hall, with its fine riverside views, was demolished. Remnants of the old Rosherville Gardens were also lost during this period, not least the red-brick tower, which featured a clock with a musical chime that played tunes of French carillon and had stood at the main entrance to the site in London Road since 1864.

But Henley, which had by then been taken over by TT Electronics, finally ceased production on its site on the outskirts of Gravesend in 2008 and most of the buildings were subsequently demolished. There is however, a white-painted art deco office block surviving, which although scrawled with graffiti has a number of wonderful original features including the Henley name inscribed on the facia.

What happens to the rest of the former Henley site, which has been levelled, is more contentious given that traces of Rosherville Gardens were found in the demolition process. Plans have been unveiled for the creation of hundreds of new homes and a shopping complex as part of the Ebbsfleet Garden City development, but history enthusiasts worry what will happen to a brick-built pit, even though it was given Grade II-listed status in 2014.

Photographs survive that show a bear called Rosie in the circular brick pit, which was surrounded by iron railings to protect visitors. More than 200 people have signed a petition calling for the structure to be “unearthed, restored and made accessible.”

Other re-discoveries from Rosherville Gardens include the entrance to a hermit cave, as well the Cavern Tea Room. The actual pier where visitors arriving from London landed disappeared a long time ago, but the steps to it remain (on the gates enclosing them there is a plaque to Rosher and the venture). Three imposing buildings from the time of the pleasure gardens survive in nearby Landsdowne Square, but the Rosher hotel was demolished in 1968.

Given the open expanse of flattened land, exploring the area is today quite a surreal experience. Close to the very spot where daytrippers once arrived on steamers from London, the only people I came across when I visited were three young-ish men sitting on a bench drinking beers. The fact that it was starting to rain, didn’t seem to bother them.

But Rosherville Gardens was by no means the only place on this part of the Kent-bank of the Thames where tourism took off in the 19th century. The nearby town itself needs to be explored.

First and last port of call

Gravesend was a bustling maritime town long before daytrippers started to arrive in large numbers. For centuries it was the first and last port for vessels heading to and from London – and on to the wider world.

The process of river pilots boarding in-bound and Trinity House pilots for outbound voyages out over the Estuary was explained in a 1893 publication called Thames: ‘Waterway of the World’: A Literary, Commercial and Social Review, Past and Present:

“At Gravesend all foreign-going vessels are compelled to stop and embark pilots, while homeward-bound ships take aboard a customs house officer. The Thames narrows to half a mile width, day and night the channel is full of every class and description of shipping – from stately and majestic ironclad to the fussy little steam tug; from the clean-cut China clipper to the Dutch galliot, schooner yacht, deep-laden hay and cool barge.”

Given that many a captain of a foreign vessel has stopped off in Gravesend – to wait for favourable tides, unload / offload goods or bring on fresh crews – it is perhaps not surprising that goods from all over the world have been unearthed over the years in the town. When ships were so big, such as some of those of the East India Company – which traded in silk, cotton, opium and tea – this is the furthest inland they would go. Company soldiers and sailors would live in the town when they weren’t on voyages to and from India or China.

And in the mid-19th many agricultural workers left Gravesend for Australia, New Zealand and Canada in search of a better life. Many a migrant has arrived in the country at this point as well, not least in the 1960s when people came over to Britain from the Commonwealth.

Perhaps one of the most remembered people to come to the town though was the Native American Indian known as Pocahontas, meaning “the playful one”. Born in 1595 in Virginia as Matoaka to a father who ruled over 40 tribes, she spent a year in the England and then arrived in Gravesend in 1617 hoping to set sail for home. But she became seriously ill soon after leaving and was hurriedly rushed back to shore where she spent her last few hours. Pocahontas was buried at the old St George’s Church (which burned down in 1727) and there is a statue to remember her.

In the heart of the town, the old Gravesend Town Hall dates from 1764 and was added to 1836 with the installation of an impressive new entrance. From 1969 to 1999 it housed the Magistrates’ Courts, but is now where you head to reach the charming and newly refurbished indoor Borough Market (1263). It’s here that you can find the town’s tourist information centre, where friendly staff (if you can hear them over the loud DJ music) will give you all the leaflets you need about the town.

Old Gravesend Town Hall

But it’s not just the market that’s been here for a long time. The Three Daws dates back more than 500 years and is the oldest pub in Gravesend. There are references to it in 1488 when it was called the ‘Cornish Chough’ and it is know for its secret tunnels, as well as tales of press gangs and smugglers. Given that it’s right on the riverside its also a very pleasant place to head on a warm summer’s evening as you can drink on the outside terrace.

Daytripper resort

Visiting Gravesend today it seems hard to imagine that this was a popular resort for daytrippers from London. When you get off the train and wander onto the high street, the shopping precincts you encounter are particularly drab.

But head down to the waterfront and there is plenty of history waiting to be discovered. The Town Pier is the oldest cast iron-pier in the world, built in 1834 as a replacement for a 1831 wooden one which was burnt down by protesting boatmen.

Town Pier

Gravesend was granted sole rights to ferry passengers to and from London in special ’tilt’ sailing boats in 1401. Boatmen charged a ha’penny for the four hour journey to Billingsgate and awnings were installed to protect those on board from bad weather.

The arrival of the first paddle steamers in the 19th century angered the existing operators, but the new vessels had a dramatic impact on the number of people visiting Gravesend. Records show that in 1821 some 27,291 people landed or embarked at the resort from London. Just 10 years later that figure had increased to 240,000 thanks to the popularity of the steamers.

Many of those arriving by boat landed at Town Pier, where the Tilbury to Gravesend ferry also berthed. From the mid-19th century the service was operated by the railways and there is a wonderful photograph from the late 1920s showing the structure’s entrance, with ‘London, Midland & Scottish Railway’ written on its facia.

When passenger ferries transferred to West Street Pier – where the Tilbury to Gravesend service continues to leave from today – a short distance along the front from Town Pier, the latter fell into disrepair. Much has been invested in its restoration it in recent years, although it is now completely occupied by an enclosed bar and restaurant, with fine views over the Thames. There is a small pontoon at the end where boats can dock.

When the Town Pier was built it quickly gained a rival in the form of Royal Terrace Pier and adjoining Terrace Gardens. Built in 1842, it was used by Star Company (competitor to Diamond Company at the former) bringing daytrippers from London. Princess Alexandra arrived here in 1863 to marry the Prince of Wales, later to become king Edward VII. Royal Terrace Pier is now owned by the Port of London Authority (there is no public access) and is used by pilot boats serving Tilbury and London.

Bathing machines, brought from Margate, were first provided in the town in 1796 and became popular with visitors. To the west of the Town Pier, the Clifton baths offered immersion in sea water at three different temperatures (in 1824 warm cost three shillings, while a dip in the cold was one shilling). In 1834, the complex was expanded with the opening of the Clifton Hotel and the adjoining oriental-style indoor swimming pool. The site is now occupied by riverside apartments.

Daytrippers also enjoyed a stroll on the promenade which was the place to be seen. Initially the embankment was little more than a walkway on the marshy riverside, constructed using bags of cement. But the landscaping was improved over time and in the 1890s opened as the Gordon Promenade (later expanded to also include the Gordon Gardens), named after the famous British General Charles George Gordon who was a regular teacher at the Sunday school held in the still-standing Mission House when he was stationed in Gravesend.

Gordon Gardens today forms part of the so-called ‘Riverside Leisure Area’, which also contains remains of the 18th century New Tavern Fort, which was built in response to the threat of invasion from France. From 1865 to 1871 it was run by Gordon who extensively re-built the site and the earthen ramparts are open to be explored. But the attractions in this landscaped space – a funfair and downmarket cafe – are a long way from the glamour of late Victorian and Edwardian times.

“vulgar little place”

Towards the end of the 19th century, Gravesend popularity with daytrippers began to wane as trains allowed them to reach fashionable seaside towns further afield. The American author Henry James describes how far the “very shabby resort”, which “seemed dingy and dreary”, had fallen in his 1878 travel piece “London in the Dead Season”. He said:

“It is an extremely dirty and most ingeniously vulgar little place, close upon the river, whose bank is adorned with a row of small establishments, half cottage and half shop, devoted to traffic in shrimps and tea. The doors of these little tea-houses are garnished with terrible maidens – very stout and robust, high colored and loud-voiced – who dart forth at the wayfarer, tea-pot in hand, and vociferating in his ears certain local formulas, almost hustle him into their unapetizing bowers.”

James visited Gravesend just days after a horrific accident involving the Princess Alice steamboat which collided with the collier Bywell Castle at Tripcock Point. It was on its way back from Rosherville Gardens and 640 people perished, 240 of whom were children. The pleasure garden carried on trading for some years after James’s visit, but like Gravesend as a whole its luck as a destination for daytrippers would eventually run out.

Gravesend is today far from the daytrippers’ destination that made it the place that it was in the 19th century, but there are more than enough attractions to keep visitors entertained for a day out. As for the future, the nearby Ebbsfleet Garden City will make or break the town. Either it will bring floods of new visitors to the high street or existing residents will merely abandon the centre to enjoy the new attractions being built. What will happen next for Gravesend is hard to predict.

Baorded up shops in Gravesend town centre

Art deco Henley building

Steps that would have led down to Rosherville Gardens pier

Landsdowne Square


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