In the mid-19th century, the inhabitants of the rapidly-expanding town of Nottingham could spend their leisure hours at the Radford Grove Tavern and Tea Gardens. Here they could row on the lake, attend dances, and admire the view from the roof of a very pretty ‘Octagonal Pleasure House’.
The ‘delightful place of public resort’ started life as the gardens of William Elliott (1707-1792), a successful dyer and hosier, who created the small estate as a suburban retreat towards the end of the 18th century. In 1790 the Nottinghamshire historian Throsby called Elliott’s grounds a ‘little paradise’ where ‘almost everything you could wish to see in extensive pleasure grounds, you see here in miniature’. Throsby noted the water, planting and temples before concluding that ‘this place must be delectable to the owner’.
Sometime after Elliott’s death in 1792 the pleasure grounds were opened to the public as a commercial undertaking, and the name Radford Folly became attached to the summerhouse and also the whole attraction. Radford was a village about a mile out of Nottingham, so the pleasure grounds were easily accessible to the townsfolk. The earliest known view is in The Stranger’s Guide through the Town of Nottingham (above), published in 1827. The engraving shows the lake and summerhouse, and the recently rebuilt church of St Peter to the left. The smoke from the factories, from whence workers flocked to the gardens to relax, can also be seen. (These working-class revellers were dismissed rather haughtily by a writer in 1836: he commented that their ‘dances are supported with spirit, at least, if not with gentility and grace’.)
The summerhouse stood on an island in the lake, which was accessed via an ‘elegant Chinese bridge’ From the ‘observatory’ that topped the summerhouse there were extensive views of the town and surrounding countryside, including the magnificent mansion and park at Wollaton, the seat of Lord Middleton. Engravings of the gardens were in circulation, and a view of the folly and bridge featured on items of chinaware.
Refreshments were served in the gardens (although strictly no beer or spirits on a Sunday), and visitors could relax in the beautiful gardens where there were ‘numerous bowers and seats’. Cashing in on the changing seasons, the proprietors, of which there were a number over the years, opened the gardens for ice-skating in winter when conditions allowed.
The gardens were at their most popular from around 1820-1870 (although the house did return to being a private residence for a period), when attractions included a firework display by Mr Gyngell from the ‘Royal Gardens, Vauxhall, patronised by the King’. In 1839 there was ‘ANOTHER GRAND TREAT’ with transparencies (painted sheets illuminated from behind) showing the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and fireworks, which display was ‘on a scale of UNPRECEDENTED MAGNIFICENCE’.
In 1863 John Poole took over the gardens and hired the famous funambulist Blondin, who crossed the lake on a high wire. Actors, musicians and magicians performed in the gardens and there were further illuminated tableaux, but Poole couldn’t make ends meet and he was adjudicated bankrupt in May 1865. And that seems to have been the end of the pleasure gardens.
In 1928 local historian J. Holland Walker wrote that it was ‘hard to believe that the dirty and derelict brick building standing amidst dreary surroundings […] was once a popular pleasure resort’. The lake had been filled in, and the surrounding area was gradually developed for industrial use, but the dilapidated summerhouse held out until the 1950s when the last remnants were demolished. Houses now stand on its site.
N.B. early OS maps show the summerhouse standing in the grounds of The Grove, but just north-east is something marked the ‘Folly’. The identity of this building remains a mystery.
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