Town Hall Gardens, Chatham, Rochester, England
Record Id: 3285
The Town Hall Garden, Whiffens Avenue, Chatham, was previously the burial ground for St. Mary's Church. Late-19th-century legislation allowed the conversion of disused burial grounds into public gardens. These green areas were particularly valuable to the elderly and the very young in the congested inner city areas, and nowadays they offer a quiet retreat from urban hustle.
The following text is taken from the Kent Compendium of Historic Parks and Gardens for Medway:
CHRONOLOGY OF THE HISTORIC DEVELOPMENT
The site, formerly the Rope Works, was developed as a burial ground and opened in May 1828 when the existing churchyard at St Mary's in Dock Road became overcrowded due to the growing civilian and military population. The land was acquired by the parish of Chatham as a gift from the Board of Ordnance. By the mid-1860s (1st edition 25" OS map 1862-1875) the site is known as Chatham Burial Ground and includes boundary walls, an entrance gateway on the north-western boundary, some building(s) in the north west corner and a central pathway leading from the entrance towards the south east plus two side paths linking to a lower path also running north-west to south-east. Burials continued until 1870 when a new cemetery opened in Maidstone Road.
Following the erection of the Town Hall (adjacent to Rope Walk in central Chatham) in 1900, the closed burial ground was considered for use as open space and the Town Council minute book for 1902 refers to a list of the tombstones and monuments being deposited for inspection at the Town Clerk's office. On 8 April 1903 the Town Council's minute book records a resolution that the: "corporate seal be affixed to the petition of the Rector and Church wardens of Chatham and the Town Council to the Lord Bishop of Rochester for a faculty for the conveyance of the disused churchyard to the Corporation for the laying out as open space and this was duly sealed." The space was conveyed from Chatham Parish to Chatham Corporation on 9 September 1903 for its preservation and use as a public recreation ground under the Open Spaces Act 1877.
Various initial plans attributed to Charles Day, the Borough Surveyor, the Vestry Clerk, the Chairman of the Vestry and the Town Clerk show the proposed improvements (Medway Archives) including one showing ‘lavatories for Ladies and Gentlemen' and a fenced ‘short cut' path leading directly to the Great Lines, presumably to facilitate access when the Gardens were closed. Another dated 31 March 1903 shows a structure in the centre, a central path and two curved ones at the south-east end. None of the plans appear to be a final version; however the central path and two curved paths were implemented, as shown on the 3rd edition OS map (1907 -1923). This also shows deciduous and coniferous tree planting, two greenhouses and a building in the north-west corner.
The minute book for the Highway and Works Committee records on 14 January 1905 the name was changed from the Old Burial Ground to Town Hall Gardens; they were formally opened on 14 June 1905, the event being recorded on the inner western wall of the entrance gateway by an inscription recording the names of Chatham Corporation's Mayor, Town Clerk and Borough Surveyor. The ‘Chatham News' also records the opening under its editorial "Jottings By the Way": ‘Visiting the Old Burial Ground at Chatham or the Town Hall Gardens as they are popularly known, I was impressed by the neatness of the beds and the brightness of the flowers - in spite of Thursday's heavy rain. The benches looked stately and the hedges well cared for in contrast to the derelict headstones and the paths which have subsided.' For the opening most of the gravestones were moved to the two walled boundaries on the north-east and south-east sides.
The layout of the Gardens is first recorded in 1907 (3rd edition 25"OS map 1907-1923). The only obvious entrance, through a gateway on the north-west boundary, and larger buildings on the south-west boundary, were both shown on the earlier OS maps and are likely to have been used in connection with the management of the burial ground. The 1907-1923 map also shows for the first time two greenhouses near the north-western corner and a layout of paths comprising a perimeter route within the boundary walls, a central one and linking cross paths to form a diamond shape, plus two linking, curved paths towards the south. An adjacent, military burial ground (to its north-east) is marked as disused at this date and by 1929 (4th edition OS map (1929-1952) is not labelled so presumably any remains were transferred elsewhere by then and the site closed sometime after the mid-1950s (OS 4th edition). This site is now, 2014 a public car park.
The Corporation's Burial Committee which also managed the parks and open spaces records in the minutes for 10 July 1950 that one of the greenhouses is surplus to requirements; it seems that up to that date both greenhouses were used for all the Corporation cemeteries and parks horticultural work. However the 4th edition OS map (1929-1952) still shows two greenhouses so presumably their removal didn't happen until later.
Since the early 1950s (OS map 1929-1952) the following changes have taken place: the western arm of the southern curved paths has gone, as has the south-west boundary path and boundary wall; there are now two sets of steps leading down to Rope Walk. On the southern boundary, a new path links the Gardens with mid/late C20 housing at the north end of King Street. The entrance gateway structure and railings survive on the north-western boundary.In June 2008, supported by the Chatham World Heritage body and facilitated by local artist Fiona Watt, a time capsule, containing local residents' mementoes of the meaning of Chatham's heritage, was buried. Medway Archives hold the capsule key which is not to be opened for at least 30 years.
The site is owned and managed by Medway Council which was formed in 1998 from the City of Rochester, Borough of Chatham, Strood Rural District and Gillingham Borough Council.
Detailed history added 09/09/2015