Fringe Box



Guildford’s Victorian Pleasure Gardens

Published on: 27 Feb, 2012
Updated on: 27 Feb, 2012

by David Rose

Once again the summer bedding at Guildford Castle Grounds is looking a picture – make sure you find some time over the next few weeks to go and enjoy it.

It was an inspired idea of our Victorian forebears to transform the ‘castle ruins’ into a pleasure ground that could be enjoyed by all.

The colourful summer bedding at Guildford’s Castle Grounds. Picture by Martin Giles.

In fact, the layout of the flower beds is very much the same today as it was when they opened to the public in 1888. And if, like me, you have an eagle eye, you can still find fragments that include pieces of glass and other odd things left behind by Guildfordians more than 100 years ago.

Unfortunately, the grand opening of the Castle Grounds on June 28, 1888, was beset by rain, but it didn’t stop the town enjoying themselves. More than 20,000 people braved the weather to take a stroll there on that opening day.

The opening of the Castle Grounds in 1888. Picture courtesy of Guildford Museum.

Lord Grantley sold the castle ruins and grounds to the corporation in 1885 for £4,490. A competition was held for suggestions as to the design of the pleasure grounds. The first prize of £30 was awarded to Littlewood & Aston of London.

The then borough surveyor, Henry Peak, worked them into a scheme using some of the features already in place. Local firm G. & R. Smith were contracted to lay the stonework while Filmer & Mason, whose iron foundry was on the site of today’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, provided the ironwork. When the landscaping was completed, cart loads of plants were ordered from the well-respected Horsell nursery owned by Henry and Carmi Cobbett.

The Surrey Advertiser of July 2, 1888, said the grounds “cover about three acres and that nearly a mile of pathways have been laid out with Farnham gravel”. The project cost the corporation a modest £2,500.

The day the Castle Grounds were opened was also the 50th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Victoria and the town was in the mood for a party. Led by the band of The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment), and the town crier, a procession of dignitaries walked down High Street, into Quarry Street and then up Castle Street to the Castle Grounds.

Once there, the mayor unlocked the gates and declared the grounds open.

The crowds surged in and the grounds were kept open until 8pm so that everyone could marvel at Guildford’s latest attraction.

Streamers and flags were hung from buildings and across streets. The Surrey Advertiser reported that there were also “many fairy lights and Chinese lanterns”.

Fairy lights like these were used to illuminate the Castle Grounds when it was opened. David Rose collection.

These fairy lights were delicate lamps of coloured glass that held candles or what we know call ‘tea lights’. They would probably have been stung up on wires throughout the Castle Grounds. Lamps such as these were common in those days, but due to the glass being very thin were apt to break very easily.

As the gardeners tend to the flower beds in the Castle Grounds today, the soil they turn over can often reveal tiny fragments of coloured glass – almost certainly from fairy lights used in days gone by and which eventually became broken.

David Rose finds some fragments dating back to Victorian times. Picture by Martin Giles.

Recently, a quick search by me around the edge of a flower bed soon turned up some pieces of coloured glass along with part of the stem from an old clay tobacco pipe – a kind of instant flashback to the people of yesteryear who enjoyed the Castle Grounds as much we can today.

Below are some picture postcards from the turn of the 20th century. See if you think it has changed much!

Close-up of pieces of glass from fairy lights and a fragment of the stem of a clay tobacco pipe. Picture by Martin Giles.


Picture postcard from about 1910. David Rose collection.


Picture postcard showing the ornamental pond. David Rose collection.


Summer bedding from about 100 years ago. Postcard from David Rose collection.

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