I know…it’s just outside the Victorian era, but close enough I thought.
St John’s gardens are situated at the end of the long terrace of houses that run along the start of the main Dorchester Road, known as St John’s Terrace, past St John’s church which stands proud at the end of the sea front, on the opposite side to the old vicarage.
I would think that they are possibly the smallest gardens in the area, and probably the majority of people have driven or walked past them time and time again without ever really noticing them. Only when you stop at the road crossing to let pedestrians cross, you might chance to glance to your left, and see them, but may think no more of it.
We would occasionally go in there on our way home from school, which being St John’s primary school, was only at the other end of the terrace. The school has since been demolished, and now a block of flats stands there (this seems this happens more and more now, demolish one building, and replace with a whole block of flats), not surprisingly these flats were then named as St John’s Court!
Even in those days though, some less than salubrious characters hung around in these gardens, so we would check first to see if it was safe to enter.
As it was such a small park, it never seemed to be somewhere that you would head for with a purpose, just a place that you might stop off in while on your way to other destinations, apart from a few local dog walkers who used it regularly, and it seems still do.
This small, derelict area at the end of the terrace was donated to the Council by Sir Frederick Johnstone, who had already handed over the larger gardens at Greenhill to the town. Though even the beginnings of Greenhill gardens hadn’t been without its problems, with it’s prior legal battles over ownership of the land.
At the same time as these St John’s gardens were under development and construction, the council were in negotiations with Mr. Young, Sir Johnston’s land agent, with reference to purchasing a further piece of land between the existing Greenhill gardens, and the Sluices at Greenhill. these were to later become the area of the bowling green and the Sluice Gardens, which is where the beach huts and sand and paddling pool now are are.
These gardens were started during the boom era of the local Corporations providing open spaces for everyone to enjoy. Of course, even more importantly, in growing seaside towns like Weymouth during the Victorian era, where a large source of their income was from visitors (and of course, still is to this day), they wanted to be able to offer beautiful open spaces that would be added attractions for their visitors. Every tourist was hard fought for with all the new sea side resorts springing up along the South coast.
In the minutes of the Garden and Street Committee of Dec 1902 they were discussing as to what to do with the St Johns plot,a small triangle of derelict land that stood at the end of the terrace. It obviously took them a while to come up with anything, because it wasn’t until eleven months later, in the October of the following year that they finally requested the town surveyor to prepare a plan of this piece of land.
A further sub-committee was then appointed to decide what should be done with it.
This sub committee was then, a couple of months later, instructed to call at the surveyors house to discuss the laying out of the land…. either the poor chap was permanently on call, or it was an excuse for a social evening to decide business.
However, during that time, they had obviously managed to come to some sort of a decision between them because by February of 1904 the surveyor had submitted his plans for the plot to the Gardens Committee, who decreed that the land should now be fenced, and cleared.
When I’ve been reading through the minutes of the various borough meetings, I never cease to wonder at the workings of these committees. Judging by the amount of arguing, wrangling and passing the decisions to others sub committees to make, how on earth any decision ever got taken I’ll never know, in fact, the wonder that anything got done at all!
But get done it did.
Work finally started on the plot in March/April time. First came the rustic fencing which was erected around the site, it was supplied by a Mr. Riley and had been chosen from an illustrated book that contained all his pattern designs. Weymouth had wanted pattern no 181, this came in at the grand total of £48.17s 9d.
Creating parks and gardens, both public and private, were becoming big business in those days. Quick to jump on the bandwagon, many companies that supplied wrought iron work, garden furniture and other necessities to create stunning gardens bought out illustrated catalogues and pattern books that showed their designs and structures such as bandstands, seating, lighting.
Before they could even begin work, they had to bring in 350 loads of soil which were tipped on the site to build up the levels and then the work could start on the little park beginning with the narrow pathways being pegged out.
The sub committee who had finally ended up with the task of creating these gardens from scratch and on a shoe string had been told to work to a budget of £150.00 for the laying out and planting of the gardens.
Luckily for them, major changes were also afoot in one of the Alexandra gardens at the same time, with the thatched shelters being added, and new flowerbeds being cut. So a spot of recycling was in order. The discarded turf, shrubs and flowers were moved to the St Johns gardens. Despite many of them being large mature specimens, and it having been a hot dry summer, it seems the shrubs managed to survive, and did well.
Once the decisions had finally been made, work seem to have proceeded at a pace, because three months later, in July, the gardens were ready for their grand opening as reported by a local paper.
The following article in the Southern Times dated July 21st 1904, gives a more personal view of the opening of the gardens.
OPENING OF ST. JOHN’S TERRACE GARDENS.
THE MAYORESS GRACIOUSLY PERFORMS THE CEREMONY
What his Worship (Alderman Groves) in his brief speech aptly described as an “eye sore” has been transformed into a picturesque open space at the northern end of the borough. In the “good old days,” before Weymouth had extended to anything like it’s present proportions the land at the higher end of “ the Front” and extending in a northerly direction was, in winter gales, swept by seas, and on occasions the waters of the Backwater and sea became united. But with the tides of progress such historical associations have been relegated to a by-gone age, and what was formerly known as “The barrows” has given place to bricks and mortar; and a row of houses have taken a firm foundation upon what originally formed nothing but a quagmire. Opposite St John’s church a commanding line of houses was erected and named after the sacred edifice; and at the northern end for many years has been a waste piece of land running parallel with the terrace which has been fittingly characterized as one of the “undesirables” of the “loyal and ancient” “The old order changeth, wielding place to now,” thanks to the generosity of Weymouth’s ground landlord, Sir Frederick Johnstone, Bart. During the Mayoralty of Alderman John Bragg, J.P., the ground in question was offered to the Corporation by Mr. H A L Young, the local agent to the estate, acting on behalf of Sir Fredrick on condition that the Town Council laid out and enclosed it. The munificence of the worthy baronet was immediately accepted, and the thanks of the town were accorded him for his generous gift. The conditions of the contract were set in motion without undue delay, and after the somewhat wearying period of time necessary for filling up and settling had elapsed, what was eventually to be “a thing of beauty and joy for ever” was turned over to the Garden Committee to effect the necessary transformation. With the advent of the ideal shelters in the Alexandra Gardens, which now forms one of the best improvements carried out during late years in Weymouth, mould, turf, shrubs, flowers, &c., consequently had to be removed, and these proved acceptable material for form-inganncleus to work upon. The Garden Committee, with it’s indefatigable Chairman (Alderman T.H. Williams, J.P.) and an able lieutenant in councilor E. C. Watts, together with the co-operation of other members, with commendable promptitude, took the work in hand, with the result that in an incredible period of time the “eye sore” has been converted into a veritable paradise.
Under the direction of the committee, the town’s head-gardener (Mr. Smith) is to be congratulated on the admirable manner in which the St John’s-terrace gardens have been laid out, and the economy, which has resulted to the town, by utilizing material “salved” from the Alexandra Gardens when ruthlessly pulled up for effecting the construction of the shelters.
The addition of an open space to Melcombe North will not only be warmly welcomed by the inhabitants of that portion of the borough, but will be enhanced in value owing to the picturesque bearing which St John’s-terrace Gardens will lend to the fine avenue of trees bordering either side of the Dorchester-road.
Around the triangular piece of garden a rustic fencing has been erected by Mr. Riley, who constructed the garden shelters, and inside bushy shrubs have been planted which apparently have “struck” remarkably well, notwithstanding the dry season. In the centre of the lawn, flower beds have been made, and the plants being now in bloom greatly add to the enchantment. As the autumn approaches trees, shrubs, and plants will be planted and creepers to perfectly cover the black wall of St. John’s terrace, so that in the course of time the appearance of the gardens will be further improved.
Wednesday afternoon, in glorious summer weather, was fixed for the ceremony of opening and dedicating the newly laid out gardens to the benefit of the public. Shortly before three o’clock the Weymouth Season Band entered the grounds, and the gates which are immediately opposite Lindisfarne, the residence of Miss Dansy, were locked by one of the two Town Sergeants who were present in attendance on Weymouth’s Chief Magistrate. Punctual to the hour fixed for the preceedings the Mayoress and Mrs Selby drove up in a brougham and were joined by His Worship, who had been attending a gathering at Sutton Poyntz.
Amongst those interested in watching the ceremony there were to be seen Aldermen Williams, Welsford, Whettam, Bagg, Councillors Dennis, Watts, Gregory, Evans and De Meric, Sir R. N. Howard (Town Clerk), Dr. Jones (Medical Officer of Health), Mr. W. B. Morgan (Borough Surveyor), Mr. W. R. Wallis (Committee Clerk), Sir John and Lady Groves, Colonel Sanders, Mr. and Mrs. H. A. L. Young, Surgeon=Colonel Lloyd Barrow, of Barrowdene, Misses. Groves, Mrs. R. C, Watts, Mrs. Selby, Mrs. W. B. Morgan, Colonel Russell, &c. Immediately outside the gates.
The MAYOR speaking from his brougham, said; Ladies and Gentlemen, I have a pleasing duty to perform this afternoon, that is to ask my wife, the Mayoress, to open the gates of this new garden. (Applause) For many years past this piece of ground has been a waste and an eyesore to the public. Now, through the liberality of Sir Frederick Johnstone, the Corporation, through the energy of the Gardens Committee, have been able to lay it out as a garden for the service and enjoyment of the residents and visitors. (Applause.) It was during the Mayoralty of my predecessor, Alderman John Bragg, that the fee of the land was conveyed to the Corporation through the kind offices of Sir Frederick’s agents, Mr. Foster and Mr. Young. As recently as the year 1804 this piece of land was washed over by the Backwater, being indeed part of the Backwater. All the houses you see in the neighborhood in a due westerly direction, and in the Park district have been built since that period, and on land reclaimed from the Backwater. This shows that Weymouth has made progress, although perhaps not so fast as some of us may have desired; but I am sure if we can secure open spaces, and lay them out in this way, it will add to the picturesque ness of the town and be a good thing for Weymouth. (Applause.)
All the shrubs and plants you see have been transplanted from our own Corporation gardens, and, as time goes on, we hope to replace many of them with some of a more ornamental kind. (Applause.) I will now ask the Mayoress to open the grounds. (Applause.)
The public either promenaded or were accommodated with chairs, and for an hour, Mr. Howgill’s band discoursed a pleasant selection of music.
I do remember sometimes sitting in these gardens with my Mum as a very small child, probably having a rest while walking to or from town. As I grew older, and began to attend St Johns, I passed by them morning and night, and can vividly remember hiding in there once, too scared to go to school, all because I hadn’t bothered to learn my times tables which we always seemed to have to recite every morning. Some kind soul must have spotted me lurking there, and informed the school, because while I was trying to decide what to do next, a teacher came marching along and hauled me off to stand in front of the headmaster.
It wasn’t until I started researching about the parks and gardens that I realised just how much of the Weymouth I know has been built on reclaimed land. I had always heard tales from my Dad of how the sea and the backwater nearly met along the seafront, called the Narrows. If you study old maps of the town, huge areas that we now live, work, play on, were originally marshy lands, or water.
You could and still can often judge the popularity of a resort or the gardens by how often they appeared as postcards, in peoples photos, or mentioned in the newspapers or guidebooks of the era. I have only ever seen two postcards of the St Johns gardens, both taken around the same time, at the start of the gardens life.
Sadly, these days the gardens seem to have a rather neglected feel to them, the grass looks unkempt, the shrubs and roses look as if they have seen better days, whilst the only people there were a couple of ladies were walking their dogs.
This I would suspect is probably what they are most used for these days, a green space to dog walk, and judging by the amount of dog poo on the grass, not all owners were responsible ones, despite a sign on the gate outside asking people to clear up after themselves. Poor gardener who has to work in this dogs toilets.
The little shelter that sat at the end no longer contains a seat, but from comments made, I suspect that this might be more to do with stopping undesirable people from using the privacy it gave them, from sleeping rough to using and then discarding needles.
The old statue plinths stand there empty, just hinting at a slightly more luxurious past.
Such a sad ending for the little gardens that started out with such big hopes.
Writing a book, blog, short stories or your own family history, then why not make them jump off the page, bring them to life with historical graphics.
I have a huge collection that cover illustrations from numerous Victorian articles about travel, prisons, children’s homes, poverty, philanthropy…
Check out my Etsy site for Victorian illustrations, many local ones being added all the time from my own personal collection.