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The land was formerly part of the ancient manor of Hammarsh, owned by Westminster Abbey for some 800 years and largely used for grazing from the late Middle Ages onwards. Prior to 1847 much of the area west of North Woolwich had been marshland. In 1847 a steam ferry began running to the south bank (although there had been a ferry here by the C14th) and a rail link between Canning Town and North Woolwich was established 'across (the) lonely, malaria-infested marshes'. During the 1840s the North Woolwich Land Company, owned by railway engineer and promoter George Parker Bidder, purchased land from the Abbey and promoted the new railway and ferry, which led to industrial development at North Woolwich. Curiously, North Woolwich was a detached part of Kent until 1899 due to the land having been in the ownership of Hamon, the Sheriff of Kent in 1086. The growing industrial activity along the river included the waterproofing works of S W Silver that gave Silvertown its name, established in 1852, and the Victoria Docks, which opened in 1855.
In 1850 William Holland, the proprietor of the Pavilion Hotel at North Woolwich, had begun to expand the hotel and lay out the gardens, which he opened as the Royal Pavilion Pleasure Gardens in 1851, attracting visitors who had come to see the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. A great showman himself, he apparently escaped from his creditors by leaving the park in a balloon. The Pleasure Gardens attracted large numbers of people, particularly at weekends and holidays, and among the popular entertainments were trapeze artists, hot air balloons, fireworks, open-air dancing, and 'monster baby shows' at the adjoining Pavilion Hotel. By 1853 the features included an esplanade, bowling green, rose gardens, walks and a maze. From the mid-1850s the Royal Pavilion Gardens had a number of managers who improved the facilities, although the growing industrialisation of the area brought with it pollution, and the Thames had became an open sewer. By 1859 some £20,000 had been spent on the gardens and an article in the 'Stratford Times' mentioned the long riverside terrace backed by winding walks among green turf and gay flowers, a maze, gypsy's tent, rifle gallery, large ballroom and refreshment room. There was also an Italian garden with scarlet geraniums, a Chinese dancing platform and a stage beyond the lake. In 1868 Lord Napier visited a staged representation of his victory at Abyssinia. Visitor numbers increased in 1870 as a result of an agreement with the Woolwich Steam Packet Co. to bring passengers from all its piers to North Woolwich, and again in 1871 with the new Bank Holiday Act. As other pleasure gardens closed down in London (Vauxhall in 1859, Highbury Barn in 1871, Cremorne and Surrey Zoological Gardens in 1877, St Helena Gardens c.1878) the Royal Pavilion Gardens became the lone survivor of this type of open-air entertainment.
However, from 1882 events became less ambitious and the gardens began to deteriorate and to make a loss. In 1884 the North Woolwich Land Co. proposed to use part of the site for building, but there was pressure to acquire the gardens as 'a breathing space for the occupants of these very dreary localities which are without anything of the sort'. The Bishop of St Albans, the Lord Lieutenant of Kent and the Bishop of Rochester petitioned the City of London Court of Common Council to purchase the gardens and maintain them as a public park. The North Woolwich Acquisition Fund was set up with the Duke of Westminster as Chairman, who was also Vice Chairman of the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, and an appeal was launched. Although by September 1888 £16,700 had been raised, the North Woolwich Land Co. had already sold some of the land and threatened to sell more if they did not receive the balance of £2,300. This was finally raised in 1889 through the Charity Commissioners and a £50 donation from Queen Victoria. The Duke of Westminster informed the LCC that he was willing to hand over the gardens to them if they would maintain them, and they were thereby re-opened in 1890 renamed the Royal Victoria Gardens by royal permission.
The gardens were completely redesigned and little remained of the original pleasure gardens apart from the riverside terraces and central walk. The area between the southern terrace and the central walk was divided into a series of square or rectangular cells each with a different character or activity, such as the bowling green in the east, and swimming pool and tennis courts in other areas. A bandstand stood in the centre of the southern terrace. Royal Victoria Gardens suffered bomb damage during 1940 and little of the 1890 design remains today, except for the bowling green and a garden enclosed by trees and shrubs at the western end. There are a number of newer recreational features including sports and play area with a paddling pool, and a modern café next to the bowling green. A steam hammer from a ship repair yard in Royal Albert Dock, built by R Harvey of Glasgow in 1888, was installed near the bowling green. Maintenance had passed from the LCC to the GLC and in 1971 the park became the responsibility of Newham Council. Although the park deteriorated over the C20th, it was later renovated, and in 2011 Newham Council was consulting on a Masterplan for the park's future development, subject to funding being raised.
Lt Col J J Sexby, The Municipal Parks, Gardens and Open Spaces of London (1898); H Bloch, 'Everything Extra and Everything Extraordinary: the History of the North Woolwich Pleasure Gardens' in Theatrephile, vol 2 no 7, Summer 1985; Landscape Design Associates Report on Heritage Value of 9 Parks, for LB Newham, July 1997; John Archer/Ian Yarham, Nature Conservation in Newham, London Ecology Unit, 1991; Ben Weinreb & Christopher Hibbert, 'The London Encyclopaedia' (Macmillan, revised ed. 1993); Elizabeth Williamson & Nikolaus Pevsner, 'The Buildings of England: London Docklands', Penguin 1998.