The gardens were laid out in 1837 by George Jones (a businessman from Islington in north London) in one of the disused chalk pits in Northfleet, covering an area of 17 acres (69,000 m²). Their full title was the 'Kent Zoological and Botanical Gardens Institution’.
They became a favourite destination for thousands of Londoners during good weather, many travelling by paddle steamer down the River Thames to disembark at the pier built to service the gardens.
One of the steamboats from Rosherville Gardens was involved in a horrific accident in 1878. The Princess Alice passenger steamer, after leaving Rosherville pier, was in a collision with the collier Bywell Castle at Tripcock Point, a mile downstream from Woolwich. 640 people died from the collision, 240 being children. An inquest was held at Woolwich, but no conclusive reason was ever established as to the cause of the disaster at the Devils Elbow on the Thames.
At one time the gardens were managed by Barnet Nathan, brother of the musician and 'friend of Byron' Isaac Nathan. Barnet, who was known professionally as 'Baron Nathan' (in mockery of Nathan Rothschild), was renowned for his act of dancing a hornpipe, blind-folded, across a stage laid out with eggs. On his death he merited an obituary in Punch.
In 1886 a nearby railway station opened on the Gravesend West branch railway. However, the advent of the railways led to the Gardens' demise, as Londoners were then able to reach coastal resorts such as Margate and Southend.
Robert Hiscock, in his A History of Gravesend (Phillimore, 1976) describes the gardens thus:
They were a place of surpassing beauty and a favourite resort of Londoners. Adorned with small Greek temples and statuary set in the cliffs, there were terraces, and archery lawn, Bijou theatre, and Baronial Hall for refreshments, and at one time a lake. At night the gardens were illuminated with thousands of coloured lights and there were fireworks displays and dancing. Famous bands such as the American Sousa were engaged during the season. Blondin, the trapeze artist, performed … In 1857 as many as 20,000 visitors passed through the turnstiles in one week. By 1880 the gardens had reached the peak of their popularity … in 1901 they were closed.During a brief revival 1903-1911, they were used in the making of early films.
In 2012 during excavation prior to redevelopment, the original bear pit located at the centre of the gardens was exposed, becoming the subject of a local news story on ITV Meridian. Although the local civic society is pressing for its inclusion in any new mixed housing or light industry, it seems likely to be recovered as one way of future preservation.
There is in 2013 a bit of contention as to how best to deal with the amazingly intact Rosherville Gardens Bear Pit, to bury this rare and unique structure and lose it again denying public access to view is a very poor conservation proposal, especially now in 2014 when this rare structure has been Grade 2 Listed.
Structures currently still surviving at Rosherville Gardens are, The Grade 2 Listed Bear Pit, The Grade 2 Listed Clifftop Entrance and tunnelled stairway through the cliff, the unique Hermit Cave forming a nice chalk grotto, the Italian Garden central feature which also formed part of the Broadwalk and the Grade 2 Listed Enigmatic Cavern, Drawdock and Quay which was the river entrance to the gardens.
It is referred to in Gilbert & Sullivan's 1877 comic opera "The Sorcerer" Act 2. Mr Wells sings "Hate me! I often go to ROSHERVILLE!", to which Lady Sangazure responds "Love me! that joy I'll share!".
It is referred to in P. G. Wodehouse's first Jeeves story, Jeeves Takes Charge: "There is a story about Sir Stanley Gervase-Gervase at Rosherville Gardens which is ghastly in its perfection of detail. It seems that Sir Stanley – but I can't tell you!"
George Gissing's short story Lou and Liz (1893) is almost entirely set in Rosherville Gardens.
It is further mentioned as "the place whereat to spend a happy day" in Chapter XV of R.S.S. Baden-Powell's 1915 "Memories of India".
Mentioned in "Fanny by Gaslight" Michael Sadler, 1940, Constable pp 175–176