The story of Pencester Gardens can be traced back to the time of King John (1199-1216) when the site was part of the Maison Dieu. Later Stembrook tannery was developed on part of the site while on the remainder the wealthy Gunman family built their magnificent residence. This was demolished and before becoming a timber yard, South Eastern Railway Company envisaged building a grand station as part of their Channel Tunnel scheme. The fuller details see Stembrook Tanyard to Pencester Gardens.
In 1917, during World War I, it was reported that the Crundall timber yard on what became Pencester Gardens, had been bombed, but little else was said about the site. At the south end of the timber yard was the ancient Stembrook tannery. On his retirement, in 1922, George Bacon put the tannery up for sale and in November that year the timber yard, called Pencester Meadow, was offered for sale by auction.
The council purchased part of the tannery site for approximately £1,100 and made a bid for the Meadow that was said to be 3½acres. Their bid of £4,500 was accepted but it transpired that the vendors, the heirs to the late William Crundall senior (c1823-1888), had included Pencester Road in their measurements, which was not part of the estate. After heated negotiations with the vendors’ solicitor, in February 1923, the council were refunded £600. Albeit, the purchase of the site was not without controversy in the town, where many saw it as a waste of public money. This view was expressed at a public inquiry, where the Mayor, George Lewis, said that the meadow was needed as a possible future playground because the seafront was likely to be covered with docks and warehouses. The Seafront Railway had been laid in 1918 and industrial development was being considered along its course.
The Inquiry upheld the purchase and it was reported that the site, already known as Pencester Meadows, would be called Pencester Gardens. Even here controvesy reigned for it was said by some that it had been named after John de Pencester, whom, it was said, had come Dover’s rescue when Louis the Dauphin of France (1187-1226 later Louis VIII 1223-1226) seiged the Castle in 1216. Others say that the site was named after Stephen de Pencester, who was appointed the Constable of Dover Castle in 1267 and Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports in 1276 until 1297.
Once the sale was completed two alternative schemes for the site were submitted by the Borough Engineer – as a pleasure and ornamental garden or five hard tennis courts, one of which would be grass plus a children’s playground. The council opted for the first suggestion, estimated the cost at £2,940, which included lavatories, shelters plus the children’s playground. An application was made to the government’s Unemployment Grants Committee for a loan. However, objections were raised as to the need to purchase the site especially as Brook House had only recently been acquired. Nonetheless a grant was obtained repayable over 60-years.
Laid out under the direction of the town’s surveyor, William E Boulton Smith, who had been appointed in 1920, the workers were all unemployed and on Outdoor relief. They were paid a basic wage. late in the day it was decided to lay out an 18-hole midget golf course on the southern part of the gardens. The whole enterprise cost £7,500 and in 1927, the first public fete was held in Gardens to raise money for the Royal Victoria Hospital, then Dover’s general hospital.
Castle Concrete bought the remainder of the Stembrook tanyard for workshops where they made concrete bricks. Their main offices were on Castle Street backing onto the tanyard. At 17.15hrs on Sunday 6 January 1929, a fire broke out in one of the buildings and quickly spread. Following the fire Castle Concrete offered the site to the council to enable them to extend Pencester Gardens, but the offer was not accepted.
The council, in 1930, voted to move the midget golf course to Granville Gardens but then changed their minds. Instead, they allowed it to fall into disrepair and eventually it disappeared. Nonetheless, Pencester Gardens was, by this time, the centre of much activity in the town. It was a favourite meeting place of mums with young children, the annual Hospital fete was held there, other voluntary bodies held their fetes there too and it was where the annual fair was held.
Mary Morrison, in her book Trawling the River of Time (self-published) tells us that ‘Pencester Gardens was a magical place. The magnificent Dover Castle towered over the gardens, on the skyline overlooking all below. The river Dour flowed along one side and there were swings and places to skate and play all manner of ball games. Every year, around August, the fair would arrive with all the excitement and bustle of caravans, side stalls and roundabouts, with brightly painted animals rising up and down to the music from fairground organs’. There were stalls where everyone could try their luck and ‘often children were given a goldfish in a jar as a reward instead of a cuddly toy, if they were fortunate enough to win a prize…’
In 1936 Fyson and Nevill of Castle Street built a large garage on part of the old Tanyard and on 9 September, the council acquired the remainder. This was done by a compulsory purchase order at a cost of £2,400. The Coronation of King George VI on Wednesday 12 May 1937 was celebrated by the town on Pencester Gardens and the Mayor Alderman George M Norman planted commemorative trees.
As the dark clouds of World War II (1939-1945) gathered, preparations were made by digging trench shelters next to the children’s playground. The cost of making them permanent was such that the council, following the Munich Appeasement Agreement of 29 September 1938, was ordered to fill them in! With the renewed threat of war, in April 1939, the trench shelters were re-excavated and extended to accommodate 426 people. They were lined with concrete and covered with two feet of earth. Inside there was seating, chemical lavatories. At the same time, next to the surface public lavatories a decontamination centre was erected.
Following an air raid on Market Square in March 1942, where the buses then terminated, the bus station was relocated in Pencester Road as a temporary measure – it is still there. Shelling and bombing continued with a number of properties in Pencester Road suffering severe damage. In the evening of Sunday 3 October 1943, a shell exploded in Pencester Gardens damaging nearby properties and during the following night more buildings succumbed to shell damage and so it continued. Life during the day tried to reflect a semblance of normality but as children was playing, with Mums and nursery nurses watching, on Sunday afternoon 3 September 1944 a shell burst overhead. They all ran for the shelter and when safely inside another shell burst just outside. Luckily, no one was killed.
War damage in the Stembrook area, south of Pencester Gardens, was such that in 1947 Compulsory Purchase Orders were granted that enabled the corporation to acquire all the properties at site value. Two years later plans to build flats on what had once been the tanyard site, was given the go ahead. Work started in September 1950 and Pencester Court, a block of the 24 flats on four floors, without lifts and incorporating a system of central heating, were completed in early 1952.
The wartime trenches were filled in but it was agreed that the decontamination centre should remained and be converted into an extension of the public lavatories. The resulting building was adapted to form a covered shelter with seating accommodation for persons using the Gardens. The project cost of £1,300 that was raised through a loan from the Ministry of Health.
1955, and crowds listened to the first band concert held in the Gardens since the end of the War. That year a small children’s paddling pool and a putting green were installed and two years later a children’s roller-skating rink. Replacing trees lost during the War was tied in with various commemorations. For instance, in 1962, to mark the Diamond Jubilee of the Girls’ Life Brigade, two copper beech saplings were presented to the Mayor, Alderman Arthur Husk by Mrs D M Cook, captain of the 1st Dover Company and Miss M Wells, captain of the St Martin’s Company. Assisting the Mayor to plant the trees were Janet Grant, a cadet from Salem Baptist Church and Mary Finch, a pioneer of the 2nd Company.
A new, larger paddling pool replaced the post-war pool in 1970, that had fallen into disrepair. Sadly, the pool became the focal point of attacks by vandals. In November 1978, Dover’s former Member of Parliament, John Jacob Astor, by then Lord Astor visited Dover and planted oak trees in the Gardens to mark the 700th anniversary of granting of the Great Charter of the Cinque Ports.
In the mid-1980s, Dover District Council (DDC) voted to upgrade Dover and turn the town into a tourist venue with the White Cliffs Experience (WCE), in the Market Square, as the catalyst. It was envisaged that when visitors ‘flocked into’ Dover, the big names in High Street shopping would come soon after. In order to provide facilities for these new shops and also to help to pay for the WCE, a complex land deal was worked out. On 19 February 1988, DDC earmarked Pencester Gardens for the shopping arcade but changes in government financial legislation made the proposed land deal unlawful and it had to be abandoned.
People did come to Dover to see the WCE but they did not return and on 17 December 2000, it closed. By the end of 1988, DDC voted to lay brick footpaths across the Gardens lit, at night, with the original, ornate, gas lamps – converted to electricity – which once stood in Market Square. Much of the environmental enhancement that can be seen today, including the serpentine walk along the River Dour, took place over the next year. The modern ornate ones we see today later replaced the old gas lamps.
During the annual Fair on Pencester Gardens, in August 1999, riots broke out that left 11 people wounded. The clash was between local youths and asylum seekers and, according to the national press, was fanned by the far right. The following year, on 18 June 2000, 58 Chinese illegal immigrants were found suffocated in the back of a refrigerated lorry at Eastern Docks. Two others were still alive – just. It was said, at the time, that it was an accident waiting to happen as an ever-increasing number of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers wanted to come to the country. The fair returned to Pencester Gardens in 2004 and peace prevailed.
Although the notion of a shopping mall on Pencester Gardens did not leave the drawing board, throughout the 1990s consideration was being given to a retail development on part of the Gardens. In 1998, a decision was abandoned and instead, a skateboard facility opened on the earmarked area. This was upgraded in 2005 and is still very popular, as is the adjacent kiddies play area.
To mark the millennium, Dover Town Council – a parish council – voted to build a bandstand in the Gardens. Costing £80,000 people were invited to buy paving stones inscribed with important dates in Dover’s history at £142 each. The author and her husband bought one commemorating the founding of High Street banking in Dover (the Minet-Fector bank). St Mary’s School placed a Time Capsule in the base of the new Bandstand.
The Gardens remain a popular venue for a variety of local festivities and bands sometimes play in the summer. The commemorative trees are now mature and rooks, probably having moved from the vicinity of Brook House when the car park there was laid, have set up home in the Gardens. This is unusual, as rooks are normally a bird of the country rather than towns.
- 7 October 2013