Following World War II (1939-1945) the town was little better than a bombsite, however, people were determined to get back to normality as quickly as possible. In May 1947, an application was submitted for a garden fete at Connaught Park from the Dover Deanery Personal Endeavour Campaign on behalf of the Church of England children’s society. The garden party was a success and this gave the impetus to other organisations to hold garden parties there even though the Park was still in a sad state of neglect. In 1949, the Electrical Contractors’ Association held their annual conference in Folkestone and they too chose to hold their celebration garden party in Connaught Park. This gave the town the major confidence boost it needed and locals volunteered to make it as splendid as possible. In 1954, money was finally set aside by the council for the formal restoration to begin. Two years later this was completed just in time for the Scouting movement’s silver jubilee.
Again this was a great success such that the Dover and District Boy Scouts’ Association held their annual fete at the Park for the next few years. However, in 1961, the Rural Dean and Vicar of St Mary’s Church, the Reverend T Ewart Roberts, used the occasion to deride the then popular form of dance – jiving. He called it a ‘dervish of decadence’ and then made scathing remarks about the lifestyles of young people that centred on coffee bars, gramophone records and dancing. He finished by saying that ‘Everything Scouting stands for is opposite to these kinds of things when taken in excess.’ This, appeared to have the opposite effect to what the Reverend wanted as it led to friction between local teenagers.
The National Sweet Pea Society held their annual exhibition at the Park in 1955, in conjunction with the annual Dover Flower show. The event was even reported in national papers where it was recognised that the exhibition contained blooms was of the highest quality seen since the War. The Dover Cup for the best trade exhibit went to Messrs Robert Bolton and Son of Warton, Lancashire, while the Daily Mail Cup for 12 vases of distinct varieties of sweet pea went to the Society’s president, J.C.P.M Davis of Radlett, Hertfordshire. Following this the Park was a favoured venue for many events and celebrations. Sometimes the flowerbeds were designed to reflect an event.
Up until 1974 and the Local Government Reorganisation that created Dover District Council (DDC), the Park was well kept and retained its popularity. However, following the Reorganisation the Park was allowed to deteriorate. The spectacular flower beds were replaced with plants requiring less attention or allowed to become over-grown. The cafe only occasionally opened and the tennis courts were allowed to deteriorate. All of this enabled DDC to claim that the townsfolk no longer used the Park and that the area would better serve if used for other purposes. As the existing covenants forbid development a tourist caravan park was proposed. This was immediately seen as a stepping stone towards redevelopment when the covenants lapsed, a public outcry ensued and the Park was saved.
Mike McFarnell reintroduced the Dover Pageant in 1983, based on the Louis N Parker Pageant held in 1908 at Dover College. Connaught Park was the venue and over the next alternate years the spectaculars were held on May Day Mondays. The event quickly caught the town’s imagination when Dover’s colourful history, acted by an ever-increasing number of locals, unfolded to an increasing larger crowd. The weather threw everything at these Pageants from deluge to burning hot sunshine but enjoyed regardless. However, there was a number of problems in holding the event, namely the increasing costs due to tighter health and safety legislation and people sneaking into the Park without paying. In 2001 the event was moved to the grounds of Dover College.
In the 1990s Dover town centre, already a precinct, was transformed by cobbles, flagstones, attractive lamps and a fountain in the Market Square. To finish this off it was decided to move the ancient horse trough there. This had been found in the abandoned nursery at Connaught Park there and had been bought for the town 1884. Mr & Mrs Johnson, who ran the People’s Café in Snargate Street gave the council, that year, £100 to purchase a horse trough and drinking fountain. The trough was originally placed on a triangular piece of ground near the cottages at Elms Vale junction but was later declared obsolete and dumped. In 1992, when the Connaught Park nursery was cleared out the old horse trough was found. Restored, it still has pride of place in the Market Square where, in the summer, it is filled with flowers. The trough bears the quotation taken from Matthew‘s Gospel, ‘Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.’
Not long after the horse trough was given a new home the stone drinking fountain, given by Dr Astley when the Park first opened, was declared to be an asset to the town and was restored. The Park was given a face-lift and on 6 May 1994, the day of the official opening of the Channel Tunnel, 500 Dovorians took part in the Pageant at Park. The spectacle was watched by 3,000 and televised on a French State television network and although the prospects for Dover looked bleak, the Park looked well loved. Indeed, it was being well used by a number of groups for a variety of activities and from 1990 the Lions had put on a fireworks display there every year.
However, in 1991, following an ‘audit’, DDC declared that there was no need for a park keeper as the nursery had closed and so the Lodge was declared surplus to requirements and put up for sale. It was also decided that there was no need for the refreshment kiosk or the crazy golf course. The latter was allowed to dilapidate and when this was successfully achieved, the area where it had stood was dug over and turfed. As the decade progressed, it became increasing apparent that the costs of what DDC had deemed, as a catalyst for rejuvenation of Dover, the White Cliffs Experience in Market Square, was becoming a financial burden. The decision was taken to close, make major financial cut backs or sell what had been considered essential ‘tourist’ assets in the town. For Connaught Park, it was stringent cut backs. In the summer of 2000, retired businessman and Dover Society member, Peter Collins called for urgent action to protect the Park saying that ‘Dover needs to portray itself as well-run, efficient area to attract inward investment‘ (Dover Mercury 14.09.2000)
Two years later little had been done so Councillor Dean Watson organised a petition, which 1,500 people signed. This called for the Park to be saved from further neglect, for more facilities to be provided and for improvement to its upkeep. The council reacted by installing five-a-side football posts, erecting four picnic tables and draining the pond, refilling and replanting it. Ornamental signs from the town centre pointing visitors to the Park were considered.
In 2003 the Lions annual fireworks display was moved to the Crabble football ground and although this was due to an insurance problem, it was used by some to justify the closure and selling the Park for development. DDC undertook what they called a ‘regeneration’ of the Park, in 2006, but at the same time the decision was made to close the long established aviary. Nonetheless, overgrown areas were cleared and there was talk of the Park being taken back to how it had been in Victorian times. August that year saw the Park transformed into an open-air cinema – the film shown was Ice Age 2. Park-and-ride buses were put on from the town centre and the event proved very successful.
The impetus, however, quickly fizzled out and the sad state of the aviary became a major concern to the town’s folk. In March 2007 it was announced that the aviary was to be closed as a cost saving measure. At the time trees and shrubs were neglected and if perceived as dangerous, dug up. The pond was aptly described as a green putrid mess. There were calls to set up a ‘Friends of Connaught Park,’ to raise funds through subscriptions in order to finance improvements. Graham Wanstall was appointed to the voluntary role of Connaught Park Officer, by the Dover Society. He wanted to mark the 125th Anniversary celebrations of the Park’s opening with a major refurbishment but all that was agreed to was the planting of a holm oak tree. Jacksons Fencing provided the tree’s protection saving the Society £1,800 but there were those on the committee that believed that the Park was no longer as asset to the town. The council in the meantime drained and cleaned the pond and restored and reinstated the water fountain.
The 125th Anniversary of the Park’s opening celebrations took place on 20 July 2008 with special guests including two of Dover Society’s oldest members, Lillian Kay and Jack Woolford. Miss Kay was formerly the headmistress of Dover Girls’ Grammar School and Jack was the long time Chairman of the Society. The occasion was marked with a planting of a tree by the chairman of DDC, Cllr Bernard Butcher and witnessed by Loren Selby – Miss Dover – and her Court. The Anniversary year coincided with the Elizabeth II 60th Wedding Anniversary and to mark the occasion, Graham Wanstall – the Chairman of the Friends of Connaught Park – arranged for the flag pole to be erected, which can be seen at the entrance to the Park.
The following year DDC announced that the Park was to have a £95,000 face-lift. Leisure contractors Wicksteed Playscapes re-built the children’s playground with wheelchair access and included a climbing rock, sandpit in the shape of a teddy bears head, tree house with a tube slide, swings, roundabout and zig-zag benches. At about the same time the Friends of Connaught Park had several metal seats installed at the top of the Park. They also proposed that the derelict nursery should refurbished as a car park for disabled drivers and a place for cyclists to leave their bikes in order to enjoy the Park as a quiet haven. Graham looked into the possibility of repurchasing the Lodge in order for it to be converted into an Educational Office and café.
DDC and Town Council (founded in 1996) appeared to take a negative stance against any aesthetic / cultural improvements put forward, indeed, the latter turned down an application for a grant to install a proper notice board! By 2012, although the aviary was still there and looked after, flowerbeds remained empty except for weeds while the once beautifully manicured lawns were left uncut. The refurbished fountain was again looking in need of care and the tennis courts appeared to be in the last stages of decay. Some councillors were openly talking of selling the top part of the Park for a luxury development and using the money raised to bring the remainder up of the Park up to standard. Graham made it clear that the Friends of Connaught Park would fight such a proposal.
Colette Boland, a frequent user of the Park over the previous 13 years, was so distressed about its neglected state that in September 2012 she wrote on the Dover Forum website: ‘Every time I come home after the walk I feel quite upset at the state of this once beautiful park and it’s getting worse by the week … The once well-kept tennis courts have been left to decay, there are no flowers throughout the summer, the grass is left to grow knee high over the rolling hillside of the park, the pond with its beautiful sculpture/fountain is completely grubby, in fact almost everything is grubby.’ Colette asked, ‘Why is this park so neglected?
The general response was that due to government cuts there was no money available. In November 2012 Colette formed the Connaught Park Appreciation Group (C PAG), under the umbrella of the Castle Forum. The role and function of which is to ‘improve and enhance all areas of the park both with new ideas and hopefully to implement some old ideas.’ With a core group of 12 volunteers they set to work straight away and by the summer of 2013 twelve benches had been refurbished, weeding and general maintenance of shrubbery had been taken in hand, the flower beds had been cleared and replanted. The volunteers had also helped with the clearing of the pond and refurbishment of the Victorian shelter.
On 11 August 2013, Colette and C PAG, in association with the Castle Forum, held a splendid ‘Pimms in the Park‘ celebration that attracted nearly 300 Dovorians and raised over £100 towards further upkeep of the Park. C PAG has also raised funding from elsewhere and with positive publicity from both Dover local newspapers the Group is successfully maintaining awareness of their projects. Besides clearing and replanting flowerbeds their projects for 2014 include painting of the toilet blocks and maintaining or replacing signs where necessary.
Volunteers wanting to help maintain Connaught Park Contact:
Colette Boland, The Moorings, 81 Castle Avenue, Dover
- Dover Mercury: 01 & 08 May 2014