EXTRA EVERYTHING AND EVERYTHING
A HISTORY OF THE NORTH WOOLWICH PLEASURE GARDENS
by Howard Bloch
Up until 1963 Woolwich extended across the river to the area now known as North Woolwich. When Greenwich Industrial History Society was set up we decided to take in this area and work to the historic boundaries of the area. Both Newham Local History Society and Howard Bloch, the author of the following article have sent us interesting material on the industries of the area - and these will follow in due course. First, the scene is set by this article which describes what was in the mid-nineteenth century our nearest local pleasure resort - but one set up by the industrialists who hoped to exploit the area in more than one way.....
Before the railway reached North Woolwich in 1847 the area was largely marshland where cattle were grazed and fattened for market and by the river front a few houses, a public house and a ferry which carried passengers across the river to Woolwich.
During the 1840s a large piece of land along the river bank including 34 acres at North Woolwich owned by the Westminster Abbey estates was purchased by the North Woolwich Land Company, a syndicate whose principal shareholders included George Bidder, Samuel Morton Peto and the Kennard family. In 1846 the Stratford and Thames Junction Railway, also promoted by Bidder, opened its line from Stratford to Canning Town. In the following year this was extended to North Woolwich where with a steam ferry boat service to Woolwich it was hoped to provide the main route to the City from south of the river.
With the opening of the South Eastern Railway from Greenwich to Woolwich on 50th July 1849 the North Woolwich line lost a major portion of its traffic. In order to compensate for this loss Bidder, who had by this time sold the North Woolwich line to the Eastern Counties Railway; proposed to the Company on 15th August that North Woolwich should be developed as a residential area and that people might be encouraged to build houses there by the offer of annual season tickets entitling them to travel between London and North Woolwich at reduced fares Ist class £2.l0s. 2nd class £l.5s. As an additional inducement to residents and visitors the proprietor of the Pavilion Hotel proposed in October 1850 to spend £150 on laying out gardens, if the Eastern Counties Railway would agree to contribute £250. Although his request was refused, he nevertheless laid out the garden and built a new wing to the Hotel. These he was able to use to advantage during 1851 to attract visitors who had come to London to see the Great Exhibition. Among them a party of workmen and their wives from Norwich who were treated to a dinner in the Hotel on 11th July 1851 by their M.P Samuel Morton Peto.
After a successful season in 1851 the Pavilion Hotel and the gardens were opened in 1852 as the Royal Pavilion Gardens.
A description written in 1853 indicates that they had many of the usual features found at the other London pleasure gardens. 'The gardens are most luxuriant abounding in flowers and plants of the choicest kind and in a high state of cultivation The magnificent esplanade, beautiful walks, bowling green, maze, rosary and a variety of natural attractions which alone would repay a visit'.
During the summer season thousands of 'respectable visitors travelled there by railway and steamboat to enjoy a day out and a programme of entertainment's such as those advertised on 12th September 1855. During the 1850s many of these would also have seen some of the leading music hall stars of the day perform there including Sam Cowell, E.W. Mackney and J.W. Sharpe. From 1852 the aeronaut Henry Coxwell was engaged to make balloon ascents and perform aerial feats. After he left North Woolwich in 1859 to become aeronaut at the Crystal Palace, balloon ascents became a less frequent part of the programme. Instead, freelance aeronauts were hired to make ascents at special events.
Since most of the traffic on the North Woolwich line consisted of visitors to the gardens during the summer the Eastern Counties Railway was eager to encourage their promotion. In November 1854 they agreed to an arrangement with the North Woolwich Gardens Company under which they would divide the receipts from visitors, pay one-third of their advertising costs, build a new ballroom and be represented on their board of management.
This decision was criticised a year later when a Committee of Investigation examined the Company's financial affairs. In its report it drew attention to the low profits from the North Woolwich line and the unnecessary expenditure of £1,500 on a ballroom which had been built on land not owned by the Company.
The Eastern Counties Railway's interest in the gardens waned as a result of the large amount of new traffic which was generated by the opening of the Victoria Dock in 1855 and the movement to the area of a number of 'noxious' industries. These, in addition to the 'stink' from the polluted Thames were soon to make North Woolwich an extremely unpleasant place to visit
This piece appeared in the January 2000 GIHS Newsletter