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Sydney Gardens were designed by Charles Harcourt Masters, a Bath architect, and opened in 1795. During the final years of the 18th century and the first few decades of the 19th century, the commercial pleasure grounds enjoyed great popularity as a place of entertainment for the residents of the elegant and fashionable town of Bath. They provided a site for public breakfasts, evening promenades, special galas with illuminations and fireworks. This was all set to musical accompaniment. Jane Austen came to live across the road at No. 4, Sydney Place in 1801, and was a keen admirer of Sydney Gardens.

The original features of the Gardens, which remained until about 1840, were a sham castle, a maze, a grotto, swings and a hermitage, which consisted of a miniature hermit's cell. A carriage ride encircled the whole, though this was later divided up into building plots in 1850. There was also a ‘mill-scene', which consisted of a representation on canvas with a wheel turned by water, and a ‘cascade', which consisted of painted rollers with mechanical figures passing over a bridge. From the Sydney Hotel (now the Holburne of Menstrie Museum), a semi-circle of refreshment boxes either side formed the Poultney Street boundaries. Attached to the hotel was a bar and over this the concert orchestra played. The Gardens also had waterfalls, stone and thatched pavilions, alcoves and serpentine walks. Today, the pattern of the original system of paths remains largely intact, and parts of the original planting pattern remains.

The Kennet and Avon Canal was laid through the Gardens in 1810. This was followed in 1840-1 by the railway. An octagonal rustic temple was built at this time, though it no longer exists. In the 1860s a bandstand (demolished 1948) was erected, together with a gymnasium and facilities for croquet, archery and lawn tennis.

The Gardens were taken over by Bath City Council soon after World War 1. In 1924, hard tennis courts were laid out at the top of the Gardens. Entertainments in the Gardens were ended in 1956 because they were running at a loss.

The following is from the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest. For the most up-to-date Register entry, please visit the The National Heritage List for England (NHLE):

www.historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list

HISTORIC DEVELOPMENT

Sydney Gardens were laid out as commercial pleasure grounds between 1792 and 1794. The initial design was by the architect Thomas Baldwin, who, after he went bankrupt, was replaced by Charles Harcourt Masters in 1794. The Gardens were funded by the sale of shares and built on land leased from the local Pulteney family. They were opened on 11 May 1795 as the Sydney Gardens Vauxhall, and rapidly became a popular place of entertainment, providing a site for public breakfasts, promenades, and galas. Jane Austen, who came to live at 4 Sydney Place in 1801, thought highly of them and attended a gala held at Sydney Gardens on 18 June 1799. The walled pleasure grounds were surrounded by a ride or carriage drive, had bowling greens laid out on either side of a central walk, and a Labyrinth (Plan, 1795).

The main building was the Tavern, also known as Sydney House (the current Holburne Museum), which stood at the west end of the central walk and contained tea and card rooms, a ballroom, a coffee room, and a public house.

In about 1799 a section of the Kennet and Avon Canal, adorned with ornamental bridges and tunnels designed by John Rennie, was cut through Sydney Gardens. At the time the introduction of the Canal was seen as a novelty, adding to the 'Picturesque Beauties' for which the Gardens were known (Snaddon 2000).

During the first quarter of the 19th century various new attractions were introduced in Sydney Gardens. These included a Cascade (1810), an artificial rural scene with figures and water falling down a ravine, moved by a clockwork mechanism; an Aviary (1824); a Cosmorama (about 1824), where pictures of distant places or dramatic scenes were lit and then seen through convex glass windows so as to appear life-size; a Hermit's Cot including a robed puppet figure as the hermit; a Watermill or Miller's Habitation, powered by water from one of the natural springs in the upper part of the Gardens; and a Theatre. In 1834, the Bath Horticultural and Floral Society was formed and Sydney Gardens became the venue of their annual shows. In about 1836, Sydney House, a private villa with garden, was built behind an existing loggia, marking the east end of the central walk (outside the area here registered). Subsequently, the existing tavern became known as the Pulteney Hotel.

In about 1839 work started on the section of the Great Western Railway that runs through the Gardens, effectively cutting the Gardens in half. Various garden features and buildings were destroyed including a tea house, part of the Labyrinth, the Castle, and the 18th century perimeter walk. Two new bridges were built over the railway to connect the footpaths inthe Gardens.

In the same year, the Horticultural Society split up following a disagreement and one section formed a separate society which purchased its own garden in Royal Victoria Park in Bath, the current Botanic Garden. The other section remained at Sydney Gardens and in 1840 they introduced a new refreshment room, known as the Octagonal Rustic Pavilion (demolished about 1896). In 1842 the two societies merged again and held annual shows at Sydney Gardens and Royal Victoria Park alternately until 1853. In that year the Bath Proprietary College became the tenant of the former Pulteney Hotel and Gardens. Because of financial difficulties further land was leased out and a pair of private semi-detached villas with enclosed gardens was introduced along Sydney Road, covering the site of the former Labyrinth (outside the area here registered). By 1854, a lodge had been introduced at the north-west entrance, probably for use as a dwelling for a gardener, and a year later a fence was erected to enclose the College grounds separating it from the main Gardens. In 1861 a bandstand or orchestra was built along the central walk; this was demolished in 1950. During the late 19th century a gymnasium and croquet, archery, and tennis lawns were also laid out; these were all cleared away after the Second World War.

In 1891, when the ninety-nine-year lease of Sydney Gardens expired, the site (including the College) was sold. By 1894 plans had been drawn up to replace the College building with a large hotel including seventy-five guest rooms, a dining room seating 150 people, and a Winter Garden overlooking Sydney Gardens. This plan was abandoned, however, and the Empire Hotel was built at Orange Grove in the centre of Bath instead.

In 1908 Bath City Council purchased Sydney Gardens (including the former College), which were subsequently managed by the council's Parks and Cemeteries Committee. The council opened the Gardens to the public in 1913. A year earlier the council had sold the former College and its immediate grounds and following alterations and renovations by the architect Sir Reginald Blomfield in 1913-15, it reopened in 1916 as the Holburne of Menstrie Museum (later called the Holburne Museum), housing the art collection of the late Sir William Holburne.

During the early 20th century and the Second World War, some features and garden buildings fell into disrepair and were subsequently demolished. Between 1952 and 1956 a series of illuminated festivals was held at Sydney Gardens, organised by the Spa Committee who also organised the Bath Assembly, a forerunner of the Bath Festival. In the late 20th century, a formal flower garden, tennis courts, a bowling green, a playground, and new toilet facilities were introduced.

In the early 1990s Bath City Council commissioned a historical survey, and since then proposals have been made for the restoration and renovation of Sydney Gardens. The site remains (2001) in council ownership and is open to the public.

Site timeline

18/06/1799: Jane Austen attended a gala held at Sydney Gardens.

1900 to 1945: Some features and garden buildings fell into disrepair and were subsequently demolished.

After 1990: In the early 1990s Bath City Council commissioned a historical survey, and since then proposals have been made for the restoration and renovation of Sydney Gardens.

People associated with this site

Architect: Sir Reginald Theodore Blomfield (born 20/12/1856 died 27/12/1942)

Surveyor: Charles Harcourt Masters (born 1759 )

Features

structure

Feature created: 1840 to 1841

This feature is the railway. It was built in 1840-41 in a deep cutting. There are shrubs and trees on the northern end of west side of the cutting.

ornamental bridge

This is a canal bridge. It is a single span iron bridge, with ornamental wrought and cast iron balustrades.

Designation status: The National Heritage List for England: Listed Building Designation Grade II

rotunda

The rotunda dates to the 18th or 19th century. It is at the rear of Sydney House looking out over the Gardens. It is a semi-circular open bow.

Designation status: The National Heritage List for England: Listed Building Designation Grade II

garden building

Feature created: 1909

This feature is a garden shelter dating to the early-20th century. It is said to be a reproduction of the Temple of Sul Minerva (which lay beneath the site at Stall Street). It is open-fronted with a portico looking out over the gardens. A bronze tablet on the inner wall reads: 'This building and tablet commemorate the great Historical pageant held at Bath, July 19th to 24th, 1909'. The feature is spolied by graffiti and litter.

Designation status: The National Heritage List for England: Listed Building Designation Grade II

pavilion

Feature created: 1840 to 1850

This is a one storey Italianate ashlar building. It is now rather shabby.

Designation status: The National Heritage List for England: Listed Building Designation Grade II

wall

Feature created: 1840

This feature is the retaining wall west of the railway line. It is a low ashlar wall with balustraded sections.

Designation status: The National Heritage List for England: Listed Building Designation Grade II

bowling green

ornamental bridge

Feature created: 1840

This feature is the railway bridge. It was built around 1840, and is a single span structure built of stone.

Designation status: The National Heritage List for England: Listed Building Designation Grade II

ornamental bridge

This featue is a railway bridge. It has a single span, stone abutments, cast iron arch and ornamental cast iron balustrading.

Designation status: The National Heritage List for England: Listed Building Designation Grade II

ornamental bridge

Feature created: 1800 to 1810

This feature is the canal bridge. It is dated 1800, although the canal was not opened until 1810. It is a single span structure.

Designation status: The National Heritage List for England: Listed Building Designation Grade II

wall

This feature is the garden wall to Ravenswell and Lonsdale, Sydney Road.

Designation status: The National Heritage List for England: Listed Building Designation Grade II

wall

Feature created: 1840

This feature is the retaining wall east of the railway line. It is an ashlar retaining wall with shallow buttress piers, cornice and parapet.

Designation status: The National Heritage List for England: Listed Building Designation Grade II

canal

Feature created: 1810

This feature is the Kennet and Avon Canal, opened in 1810. There is also a tow path.

building

Feature created: 1850 to 1860

This feature relates to Ravenswell and Lonsdale, Sydney Road. These are ornate Italianate paired villas.

Designation status: The National Heritage List for England: Listed Building Designation Grade II

building

Feature created: 1795 to 1850

This feature is Sydney House, which dates to the late-18th or early-19th century. It stands at the opposite end of the Gardens from the Holburne Museum.

Designation status: The National Heritage List for England: Listed Building Designation Grade II