SWISS GARDENS – A HOLIDAY RESORT by Roy Sharp
It may even surprise many local inhabitants to learn that throughout the second half of the last century humble Shoreham-by-Sea in West Sussex was a veritable mecca for many thousands of people. They came from all age groups, from all walks of life, from near and from far; and all intent upon one thing – pleasure:
Daily, hundreds, even thousands of visitors would arrive by train and tram, by boat and bus, aboard coach or carriage, on bicycles and on foot. It has been said that on occasions as many as five thousand ‘pleasure seekers’ spent the day in Shoreham. This is all the more remarkable when records reveal that at the tine in question this figure was equivalent to twice the residential population of the town.
How was it that this modest harbour township was chosen as their destination by such a large number of those who embarked upon pilgrimages to the many shrines of pleasure situated along the south coast? Why did people from as far away as Portsmouth and London descend on Shoreham rather than say, Brighton or Worthing? What was the attraction that caused these Victorians to come in droves on their ‘cheapday’ excursions, their Sunday school treats, their family picnics, their firms’ outings, or even their clandestine appointments?
It is, of course, true that Shoreham, in common with many other small towns, has had an interesting and on occasions even a glorious past. Without doubt, en the national scale, Shoreham’s past status certainly would outshine that of its present. Any town, whatever its amenities, will naturally hold different attractions for different people and be capable of sustaining a steady throughput of casual visitors. However, for over half a century the vast army of ‘day trippers’ which flocked to Shoreham, came eager to sample the delights of a single emporium renowned throughout the South of England for its entertainments – namely the ‘Swiss Gardens’.
The Swiss Gardens were opened in 1838, the year of Queen Victoria’s coronation, by a local shipbuilder and dignitary by the name of James Britton Bailey (who, incidentally, is occasionally incorrectly referred to as ‘J B Bailey’ in some works of reference). The Gardens quickly became popular with local people who would frequently gather there for a dinner or luncheon to mark or celebrate some important event, such as the ceremonial launching, earlier in the day, of a new ship from one of the builders’ yards – perhaps even from one of Bailey’s own. On such occasions it became usual to round off a day of festivities with a gala-ball in the magnificicant ballroom which the Gardens boasted. Henry Cheal, the revered Shoreham chronicler and historian, considered that the ballroom, which had a floor area of over eight thousand square feet, was probably the finest on the South Coast.
Some years before his death in 1863, J B Bailey sold the Gardens to a Mr Edward Goodchild, for what at the time was reported to be ‘a very large sum’. Under the new management of Mr Goodchild, aided by his wife, the Gardens went from strength to strength. The Goodchilds’ greatly improved the facilities and ran the Gardens very successfully as a family concern for many years.
The Swiss Gardens Lake (of which only a small section remains to give pleasure to the residential ducks and visiting Venture Scouts) boasted a little steam-boat called the ‘Basilisk’ of about half a horse-power which was capable of carrying up to ten ‘Trippers’ at a time. In addition, at various times, there have been several other forms of floating craft, albeit mostly man-powered, such as punts, rowing boats and Indian canoes. Naturally a hire charge was usually made for some of these boating pleasures, but a Railway Poster dated 1856 clearly shows that patrons of the day could obtain really good value for their money at the Gardens. Similarly, an old photograph shows a plaque on the outside of the Swiss Garden advertising that: “No charge is made for any of the amusements in the Gardens except a small one for: Billiards, Rifle Shooting and American Bowls,’ and ‘Admission One Shilling, Children under ten years 6d.’.
Included in the price of admission, in addition to the lovely ornamental lake and tastefully laid out and well kept gardens themselves, were the facilities for such diverse pastimes as fishing in the lake and dancing the gavotte to a Prussian Band. Around the ornamental trees and shrubs of the gardens freely strutted the equally ornamental peacocks. An aviary containing many exotic and colourful birds from all over the world was well placed among the flower beds and trees. There were many paths for both young and old to follow between the boughs and blooms, with delightful arbours and little summer-houses to offer rest to the eldery, privacy to the- young at heart, and playgrounds for the juvenile. There were well kept mazes to provide additional interest for al] age groups, together with the furniture and fittings without which any self-respecting recreation ground would be incomplete, namely: swings, roundabouts, seesaws, slides and countless other sickness – and shriek-provoking apparatus. Not only were these provided in the ‘Children’s corner’, but being the Victorian era, they were also available to the ‘grown-ups’; separate Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s swings were available for those who desired them, naturally.
The catalogue of free amusements available in the Gardens at one time or another is almost unbelievable by the financially orientated standards of the British Amusement Park Industry of to-day. In his ‘History of Brighton and Environs, 1871’, Alderman Henry Martin said that: ‘ … the Swiss Gardens … presented as great a variety of amusements as could be met with in any other place of its kind in England’.
A Grotto containing a Chalybeate Spring surrounded by fragrant roses and overflowing with sweet smelling Honeysuckle and other odouriferous plants and shrubs lay in a secluded part of the garden, the entrance to the grotto being guarded by large stone effigies of those legendary British giants, Gog and Magog; cleverly apt perhaps, as these huge guardians of the overgrown entrance of this ‘magic cave’ were supposed to be the wicked draughters of the Emperor Diocletian, who were captured and kept hidden and chained by Brute. However, if the visitor baulked at the thought of entering the grotto it could at least be externally viewed to some extent from the safe distance of the picturesque ‘Bridge of Steps’ spanning the stream. Close by, those who wished could pass through a low door covered with more mystical characters, to consult with the discreet and esoteric ‘Lady of the Temple of the Oracle’ – but only between 11.00 a.m. and 1.00 p.m. and 2.00 p.m. and 6.00 p.m.:
A battery of six carronades, a kind of ship’s cannon, would occasionally sound off to start an event on the sports field such as a balloon ascent, or the beginning of a firework display; or simply as an additional entertainment for the crowds.
The whole Gardens and surrounding area could be viewed from the top of an observatory which took the form of a high observation tower shaped rather like a lighthouse, and with just as many steps to climb to the top.
To cater for the sporting types there was a bowling green, an archery field and a cricket pitch, where, in addition to the playing of matches, the previously mentioned firework displays and balloon ascents took place.
We are told that even during the winter months the Gardens were well attended. At weekends, large numbers of both sexes would gather at the lakeside, in order to partake of the ‘healthful and agreeable exercise’ of skating on the frozen lakes. However, whatever the season, if the weather was unkind or the patrons were disposed to occupying their tine more sedately, the many indoor facilities provided may have been more to their taste.
Dotted around the grounds there were various small pavilions in which young and old could sit sheltered from the elements. Then there was the famous ‘Main Pavilion1, in which a visitor might choose to ‘take tea’ or simply ‘be seen’ with his many like minded companions. This Pavilion is reported to have been able to seat a thousand people.
Two museums were advertised. One contained a gallery exhibiting photographs taken by Mr W Lane (who, it is believed, was also in business at 213 Western Road, Brighton, during this period). Copies of the photographs on show were available for sale; or should the customer prefer, Mr Lane or his assistant, would execute a postcard sized photographic portrait of the subject, at the modest price of one shilling.
In another pavilion Kr George Ruff, a local watercolour artist, showed ‘Dioramas, Cosmoramas and Panoramas’. The Dioramas consisted of a series of spectacular paintings exhibited in a darkened room with light thrown onto the pictures in such a way as to produce an optical effect which gave appearance. of reality. The forerunner of the three-dimensional cinema perhaps? Without the necessity of wearing special eyeglasses! The effects could be varied so as to represent both day and night scenes. One popular exhibit by Mr Ruff was entitled: ‘The Castle of Falkenstien’. This was probably a series of scenes aimed at recreating those spine chilling sensations which the Victorian viewer may have experienced when reading of the more famous ‘Frankenstien’ of Mrs Shelley.
Also showing were Panoramas consisting of continuous scene pictures projected around the inner walls of a circular room, which were viewed from the centre by a promanading audience, (a for« of entertainment still able to draw the crowds a century or so later to the Lawns in nearby Hove).
The Cosmaramas or “Fairy Chromatropes’ showing in yet another pavilion (not necessarily at the sametime), were a constantly varied presentation. They seem to have consisted basically of coloured slides projected onto a large screen, the most popular subjects being dissolving views of scenes of the ‘Holy Land’ and other well known ‘wonders’ of the world. Other cosmaramas frequently shown were slides of Houses and Gardens, such as: Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, and other Stately Homes, which are still much in demand by the holidaying public of the present, although nowadays they actually drive through the wrought iron gateways in person. Other highly revered places visited daily on screen by the humble populace included such splendors as the twelfth century Abbeys of Kirkstall in Yorkshire, and of Dryburgh, Scotland, thus adding an ecclesiastical flavour to the proceedings ensuring its respectability; especially for Sunday afternoon performances. At other times the cosmaramas mlight show the night skies, with the relative positions of the stars and planets – a sort of early Planetarium} Whatever was shown would be accompanied by an ‘interesting and entertaining diologue’ spoken by Mr Ruff. In addition to coloured slides, the chromatropes employed various and diverse paraphernalia to obtain special optical effects, including that of a fountain ‘playing real water1.
A Library and Reading Room containing ‘scrap books and albums’ for the visitors perusal, was housed in yet another pavilion. Here there were also provided (all free of charge): “many seated tables’ with chess sets draughtsmen and boards, for those who cared to use them, with an adjacent saloon containing facilities for bagatelle and Chinese billiards, and other “scientific games’.
The Theatre at the Swiss Gardens was said by a reporter to the Illustrated Times in September 1858, to be: ‘Both neat and commodious’. It contained private boxes, a pit and a large gallery. Other than the boxes there were no reserved seats and ‘first come first served’ was the rule of the House.
The first performance daily on stage began at two o’clock in the afternoon. This usually took the form of a ‘Vocal and Instrumental Concert’, frequently including items known to be popular with the regular clientele such as: ‘The Smirking Maid’, featuring ‘The Garden’s very own, Mrs W Cooke!’ At three o’clock, a “laughable farce” was presented. Between four and five in the afternoon coloured slides; (of the type previously mentioned! were invariably shown on a large screen, while musicians played in accompaniment.
The Ballroom, the immenseness of which has already been referred to, was probably (especially in the later years of the Gardens history) the roost famous of the pavilions. It was about one hundred and fifty feet long and over fifty feet in breadth and was renowned for its tasteful appointments. There one could dance the night away to a “Quadrille Band’ under the direction of the resident ‘Master of Ceremonies, Mr E Marshall’.
Local organisations such as the Brighton Mechanics Institute, would organise a ‘Fete and Days Outing’ to the Swiss Gardens, followed by a •Grand Ball1 in the evening. George Moore’s novel, ‘Easter Waters’, part of which is set in and around Shoreham, was first published in 1894, and in its early chapters the Swiss Gardens are referred to several times simply as: ‘ … the Gardens …’ or ‘ … the Pleasure Ground …’. In the book, one character says:’ … Ah, she must have gone to the Gardens. … those Gardens, … Dancing-Hail, theatre, sorcerers – every blessed thing. … the jollifications culminated in a servants’ ball … a great number had come from West Brighton, and Lancing, and Worthing »• altogether between two and three hundred … ‘. References of this kind tend to imply that the Gardens were solely the haunt of the ‘lower orders’. Whilst that might have been increasingly so in the 1890’s, when the Gardens were gaining a reputation of becoming the favourite gathering place of a somewhat rough element, it was definitely not the case forty or fifty years earlier when the Grounds were catering for thousands of visitors daily.
Sadly, in the early nineties, the Gardens quickly became considered a place at which it was not ‘the thing’ to be seen. They survived a few years more, but the knell was tolled, and at length this popular entertainment centre was closed. From time to time the theatre was re—opened for concerts and entertainments by local amateur groups, but never again did it throng with the noisy joyful masses as it once had done. Ultimately the entire Gardens were closed to the public, and for a time Mother Nature had her own way there. Some have said that at that time the Gardens were even more beautiful than when tended and manicured by a multitude of gardeners. Gradually though the brambles grew over the pavilions, windows were smashed, and roofs caved in. Thus, the spirit of the place seemed determined to survive for as long as possible, being even in its ruined state a paradise playground for the local urchins. Then came the Council School and the property developer ……
The Swiss Gardens Public House still stands at the original entrance to the Gardens and is at the time of writing (1982) having a ‘face lift’; the pond has been dredged and restocked with fish and its surrounds landscaped. Although the Gardens car} be but a shadow of their former self, it is pleasing to know that they continue to be a pleasure resort nearly one hundred and fifty years from their conception.
Written and researched by Roy Sharp