architecture, belvedere, eyecatcher, Folly, garden history, landscape, Nottinghamshire, Summerhouse

Radford Folly, Nottingham, Nottinghamshire

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. By 1783 the Villa’s grounds were admired for their ability to ‘induce the smile and create admiration’. 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.

Mid 19th century plate featuring the folly. Sold by David Duggleby Auctioneers, Scarborough, July 2021. The view is after an illustration by Thomas Allom from Noble & Roses’s ‘The Counties of Chester, Derby, Nottingham, Leicester, Lincoln  and Rutland’, 1836. Photo courtesy of David Duggleby Auctioneers & Valuers, Scarborough.

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.

A pair of Rockingham Pottery ‘stork-handled’ vases featuring Chatsworth and Radford Folly, both taken from Allom’s drawings as above. Image from Dennis G. Rice’s comprehensive ‘Rockingham Pottery and Porcelain’, 1971.

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.

The dilapidated remnants of the folly in 1928, as illustrated in J. Holland Walker’s ‘Links with Old Nottingham’, which was reprinted from the ‘Nottingham Evening News’.

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.

Ordnance Survey 25 inch, revised 1899 and published 1901. Courtesy of the National Library of Scotland. CC-BY-NC-SA

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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14 thoughts on “Radford Folly, Nottingham, Nottinghamshire”

  1. Gwyn says:

    Bless my eyes another wonderful discovery of which I knew nothing. And octagonal too! Great research, lovely illustrations, as always. Well done you!

    1. Richard says:

      Excellent article. Well researched and a pleasure (no pun intended) to read. I’ve done some research on this place myself – it’s fascinating. I wish I’d known about that plate auction. Any idea how much it went for? I’ve been on the lookout for that kind of thing.

      1. Editor says:

        Hello Richard. The plate went for £95. I think there are a lot of us who are sorry to have missed it! Thanks for sharing the post.

    2. Editor says:

      Thanks Gwyn. I hoped you’d enjoy adding another octagonal tower to your collection!

  2. Sjoerd says:

    I’m alway delighted to receive your e-mail and read your stories. Not just because it is about a favourite subject, but because each story is so eloquently written. Well done and long may you continue!

    1. Editor says:

      And I am always delighted to received such kind messages! Thank you so much, and I will do my best to keep finding a weekly story to tell.

  3. John Sanders says:

    Thank you for this. Its interesting that this is illustrated on urns and plates. The place looks like an attempt to realise an illustration on a willow pattern plate. If the first picture were in blue and white it would be very willow pattern. I can not claim that this is an original thought – a long time ago I was working on the restoration of the Hercules Garden at Blair Castle and Chris Dingwall (I am sure that you know him) pointed out the whole garden was a willow pattern garden designed to be appreciated from one initial viewpoint. I look forward to your posts which brighten my Saturday mornings.

  4. Editor says:

    Hello John. Yes, I’m sure the vogue for chinoiserie, including willow pattern china, was an influence on the (unknown) designer of the original garden. I’m very pleased you enjoy my posts, thank you for taking the time to let me know.

  5. Gand says:

    Great article. Tis a shame one of the new houses on the site was not octagonal to reflect a little bit of the history of the gardens.

    1. Editor says:

      Afternoon Gand. That would have been fun, but sadly not.

  6. Melissa Gallimore says:

    Morning, great article as ever. Do you know which factory made the plate? The border design is similar to a tea/coffee set that we have in the collection (no folly images though). They aren’t marked though. Thanks

    1. Editor says:

      Thanks Melissa. Sadly there’s no maker’s mark on the plate, just the wording ‘Radford Folly’. Shame no follies on yours – although I’m confident you would have told me by now if there were!

  7. Peter says:

    Just read this article with interest.
    My mum who was born in 1926 and lived on Dorset Street told me about the Radford Folly.
    She said all the children in her day always avoided it because it as they believed it was haunted!

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Peter. It’s always good to hear from people who have heard about the folly. Having seen photos of it in its later days I can see why children found it spooky. Thanks for sharing your memories.

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