Prior to the Christchurch Inclosures Act of 1802, the area of central Bournemouth (then in Hampshire) was uninhabited heathland around a small stream, the Bourne, which discharged into Poole Bay at the head of a small chine. The result of the Act was that some 240 acres of the heath were given over to the then lord of Christchurch Manor, Sir George Ivison Tapps (1753-1835). Soon after his acquisition, in 1809 he built perhaps the first building on the heath, The Tapps Arms (later the Tregonwell Arms, demolished 1885).
Even after Lewis Tregonwell had established himself in the area with the building of his mansion in 1812, traditionally cited as the ‘beginning’ of Bournemouth, there was little planned development of the town centre until the succession of Sir George William Tapps-Gervis, 2nd Baronet (1795-1842) to his father’s estate. Tapps-Gervis commissioned the Christchurch-born architect Benjamin Ferrey (1810-1880) to develop the area as a seaside resort, undoubtedly influenced by contemporary success of resorts such as Weymouth and Brighton. Ferrey commenced with the laying out of the Westover estate (1836, demolished early C20), a string of large Gothic holiday mansions along what is now Westover Road. Ferrey’s work at the time also included the Royal Bath Hotel (1837-8) and the Belle Vue Boarding House (1837-8, demolished 1928).
To complement the Westover development, Ferrey laid out the Westover Pleasure Grounds, located on the opposite side of Westover Road, for the private use of the villas. Dr A. B. Granville, author of the influential The Spas of England (1841), suggested that the whole area beneath the bridge over the Bourne (then located in what is now The Square) should be laid out as a ‘promenade-garden’, as he saw the nascent town as ‘the very first invalid sea-watering place and winter residence for the most delicate constitutions’. After this vote of encouragement, Tapps-Gervis employed Decimus Burton (1800-1881) to lay out part of the site. The Pleasure Gardens, which comprised a strip either side of the Bourne stream running over a mile inland, were completed under the aegis of the Bournemouth Improvement Commission by 1873. Burton’s designs for the Lower Gardens were added to by Philip Henry Tree (1834-1914) at this time and the finished article reflecting the ‘Gardenesque’ style.
The buildings in the Lower Gardens were intended to increase the grandeur of the resort and so its appeal to well-heeled visitors. In 1875 a glass pavilion was built on a site on the south of the Bourne, which would become The Winter Gardens. The designer was undoubtedly mindful 0f Paxton’s Crystal Palace (1850-1) and Burton’s Palm House (1844-8) and Temperate House (1859-63), the latter two at Kew Gardens. Sadly, the building was demolished in 1935 and replaced by a far inferior brick-built hall (itself demolished in 2006).
The south-eastern end of the Gardens had, until the early 20th century, been marked by Ferrey’s Belle Vue Hotel and adjacent Assembly Rooms, but in 1928 these were demolished to make way for the Pavilion Concert Hall (now Theatre), completed in 1929 in a somewhat restrained Beaux-Arts design by G Wyville Home and Shirley Knight. The theatre survives and dominates the beach end of the Gardens, particularly following extensions of the 1930s (notably the huge fly tower above the stage) and 1950s, the latter conceived in a sympathetic Empire style.
In essence, Bournemouth’s Gardens, which are now Grade II-listed, represent a well-preserved example of 19th century civic garden design as part of a master-plan of high-quality development of the town as a resort. In a town where, it must be said, successive Local Authorities have been, and occasionally continue to be, remiss in their preservation of the town’s Victorian (and later) heritage, the gardens stand testament to the pride and ambition with which the town was conceived from its earliest days.