Before 1875, the site of St Annes was a wilderness of sand hills and rabbit warrens sandwiched between the rapidly developing seaside resort of Blackpool and the fishing village of Lytham.
But seeing how Blackpool was developing, a consortium of east Lancashire businessmen obtained a lease on what would become the central area of St. Annes-on the-Sea from the Clifton family of Lytham Hall.
These businessmen formed the Saint Annes on the Sea Land & Building Company Limited to develop an up-market residential town and seaside resort.
Well before the advent of Town and Country Planning, they mapped out the new town and its surrounding areas.
This 1876 plan (below right) shows the first subdivision of the land - divided up into building plots the Company would sub-lease to builders in the central part of St Annes.
The idea of this was that the Land and Building company would make a profit between what they paid the Clifton
Family for the whole of the leased area, and what was paid to them by various builders - who in turn leased the property to individual householders to generate the income to pay the builder's leasing costs to the Company.
This map also shows the site
of what would become Ashton Gardens but which was then going to be called St Georges Gardens.
The Company constructed a pier, built shops and houses and provided the town with St. George's Gardens
Initially, the gardens were approximately 12 acres in extent, and they were laid out by Mr. Edward Thomas, who
originated from Hopton Village, Shropshire. He had started work as a Garden Labourer in Welshpool, before becoming Head Gardener at Southport's magnificent Pavilion and Winter Gardens and moving on to St Annes as a Landscape Gardener to lay out St Georges
Gardens between August 1875 and 1877.
At this time, the gardens were a rectangular area of land running from Garden Street to where Beach Road is now. They were narrower than at present, and did not reach Clifton Drive. The area between them and Clifton Drive was a wood yard and depot, and the area to their East appears to have been undeveloped except for a few isolated buildings.
The gardens were laid out mainly to attract visitors to the town. They had some areas of natural sand dunes, but there were also lawns, flower beds,
vineries, greenhouses, ponds and avenues of trees. The gardens were a favourite spot for picnics and as a tea garden.
But after building the gardens, the Company experienced difficulty in making them cost-effective. They tried to cover their costs
by charging sixpence
admission to the Gardens, but not enough people came, so the Company leased the Gardens to several commercial operators, including Robert Wild, Ferguson's Nurseries, and Cartmells Nurseries.
But it seems that whatever was tried, the Gardens could not be made profitable.
In 1896, the Company admitted defeat and offered the Gardens to a forerunner of the local council, saying that if they did not take the gardens over, the Company would look to develop housing on them.
But even this proposal was not without its problems.
There were concerns on both sides. The company was worried that the Council would move the gardens down-market and fill them with amusements that would challenge the income generating ability of their pier,
and the Council thought they should spend on improving the town's drainage system not on Gardens.
They also feared the effect on the rates.
So in 1896, the Company leased the gardens to Oliver Porritt, (grandson of W J Porritt, who was the main
builder of St Annes).
He immediately stopped maintaining them and started to build on them.
His first houses were built as St Georges Square, and he planned this to be the first of four quadrants, leaving only a small patch of green in the middle.
the gardens were said to be 'running to waste.' The rustic bridge had fallen down, the ponds were silted up and overgrown.
They were spoiling the look of the developing town that was trying to attract people.
The Town Clerk (Thomas Bradley) decided something must be done, so he went to see Oliver Porritt at the Imperial Hydro Hotel (Later the Majestic Hotel
now the majestic flats), with Councillor J H Taylor
They agreed to pay Porritt what he had paid in leasing costs since he took over the gardens (£15,537),
and the Land and Building Company wanted £5,813 for their interest. This made a total cost of £21,350.
J H Taylor was key
in convincing the Council to acquire the gardens, but it was not an easy ride. The Company sought to restrict what the Council could do with the land to preserve its own income stream for the Pier.
But the Council worried that if it agreed
that pleasure and recreational activities should be forbidden in the gardens, this would cut income generation opportunities, and put an additional financial burden on the ratepayers.
Because the Council was not able to agree terms with the Company, they sought a Parliamentary Bill that would give them the power to acquire the land free of restrictions.
The Council's ambition for the gardens was extensively reported in the local newspaper (then The St. Annes Express). The Council said it would be
" . . . . acting criminally for the future if the Council allowed that beautiful space to be built up".
In January 1914, the chairman of the Council was reported as saying "The ratepayers of the next generation would very seriously blame the present Council and the ratepayers of the present generation if they ever allowed the desecrating hand of the builder to fall upon St. George's Gardens".
However, a huge row blew up in the Town because some people were worried about having to pay extra rates to buy the gardens, and a poll of ratepayers (a sort of referendum of voters) was called for. On the eve of the poll, Lord Ashton stepped in with an offer to buy the gardens for the people of St Annes.
He was a successful linoleum manufacturer with a business based in nearby Lancaster. He had previously bought land on the sea front in St Annes and built a holiday bungalow there, and developed a considerable affection for the new town.
He wrote to the Council
"My Dear Sir,
Someone has been good enough to send me, anonymously, two St Annes newspapers dated the 9th and 16th instant, containing an account of a scheme for the purchasing and laying out of St George's Gardens.
There appears to be a difference of opinion amongst the ratepayers as to the desirability of carrying out the scheme, many of them fearing the effect upon the rate, and a poll of ratepayers is to take place.
Feeling as I do, an interest in the welfare of St Annes it would give me much pleasure to contribute to its prosperity and to the enjoyment of its residents and visitors. I shall, therefore, be glad to bear the cost of purchasing St. Georges Gardens, the price of which is, I see, £21,350, if the Urban District Council and its ratepayers will allow me.
Yours very faithfully
St Annes was overjoyed. Church bells were rung throughout the town, and the Council resolved: "That this Council in accepting the munificent offer of Lord Ashton desires to place on record its sincere appreciation of his magnificent gift to the town, which will ever remain as a monument of his benevolence and consideration for the present and future inhabitants of St Annes on the Sea".
Then he went even further and bought the 2.5 acres of
'Woodyard' - an area between St Georges Gardens and Clifton Drive North (now the main entrance to the Gardens) for a further £4,526.
He also bought a strip of land to the East, where the greenhouses and Ashton Institute stand to day. Later he provided another £5,000 which was to be spent on the War Memorial and £10,000 which was to be spent on whatever the Council saw fit.
In total, these gifts amounted to a value of £40,876 (The modern day equivalent is approximately £5 million).
The Council had arranged a competition to re-design what would, in future, be known as the Ashton Gardens, and the winning
entry was from Fred Harrison, a Manchester based Architect who lived in St Annes.
But in the end, the huge concert hall that was to be the centrepiece of his design proved too expensive, and his layout plan was not proceeded with.
Pulham and Sons, a London-based landscaping firm were engaged to remodel the
lake area. They also offered to also prepare a plan for a rose garden and a circle garden.
The Council accepted Pulham's plans and commissioned them to build the features.
It is likely that Pulham and Sons undertook most of the revamping of the landscape side of the gardens.
The local paper of 4 Feb 1916 said: "The whole design of the Rock and Water Garden is more admired the more it is seen.
The name of Mr Stracey, of Messrs Pulham and Son, will ever be associated with this remarkably fine piece of landscape gardening."
And the Council meeting of 6 July 1916 said ".... the question of forwarding a congratulatory letter to Messrs Pulham, on the admirable way they have laid out the Ashton Gardens, be left in the hands of the Chairman, Vice-Chairman, and
Chairman of this (Parks and Pleasure Grounds) Committee.";
it's likely that Pulham did the landscaping and it was the Council's new and brilliant Surveyor: J Stanley Sawdon, who undertook the hard surfacing and building work. He moved the Ashton Institute from Between the Lodge Houses to the rear of
the Empire De-Luxe Theatre, and embellished it with a veranda and extended roofing
Sawdon also designed the Greek style monument to Lord Ashton's generosity in the Rose Garden which SOAG has recently restored.
The gardens were re-landscaped and opened on 30 June 1916. The Chairman of the Council said "Lord Ashton has done a service to St. Annes which will be cherished in increasing measure by the inhabitants as the years roll by. For all time when the town has expanded north, south and east there will be one cheerful sylvan spot in the very heart of the community where the people will have full liberty to enjoy communion with nature and participate in healthy, outdoor recreation."
The chairman of the Parks & Pleasure Grounds Committee said: "It falls to my lot to call upon the revered chairman of the Council to declare open for all time those beautiful gardens, the generous gift to our town from Lord Ashton."
For many years, the gardens grew and were cherished by the inhabitants of the town. In 1924, the War memorial was added, and in 1947 the Ladies Bowls Pavilion
was also added.
More recently, they were accorded "Conservation Area" status by the Council and are also a Grade II Registered Park because of their historic importance.
Their recent past has been a time of trouble. In 1998, Mark Dransfield promoted the re-development of the Safeway store that would have taken about a quarter of the gardens for a car park. The "Save Ashton Gardens" campaign
(see Campaigns) was born and 44,000 signed a petition opposing the sale of the gardens. St Annes had its first ever protest march when over 1,000 people of all ages took to the streets to demonstrate. In the end, the council narrowly decided not to sell the land.
Then Safeway came back with another smaller plan, which foundered when the
of Safeway was announced, and this was followed, closely by a plan from Newfield Jones to build a convenience supermarket with apartments above it in the southeast corner of the Gardens.
They did not proceed with this scheme, but they applied for outline planning permission to build a four-storey apartment block on the same space. This application was granted. SOAG moved back into
campaigning mode and appealed for funds for a specialist charity law barrister's opinion. It said Lord Ashton's gift created a charitable trust. SOAG has taken steps to ensure the Council register the land with the Charity Commission.
Sadly however, this could not stop the Council selling part of the gardens so long as they re-invested the proceeds for the exclusive benefit of the gardens.
In 2005, Newfield Jones Homes was granted two separate planning permissions, and the Council sold the land
under the Ashton Institute to the developer. More details of this aspect are available in the
Campaigning section of the website.
In 2011, the Council completed its most recent revamp of the Gardens using a Heritage Lottery Grant part match funded by the income from selling the land under the Institute. Part of that scheme was to add a replica of the former Ashton
Institute in a more commercially attractive location so as to garner cafe and restaurant trade from the St George's Road entrance of the gardens.
The replica of the former Ashton Institute
And in 2012, SOAG restored the Lord Ashton Monument with the help of our own grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
monument had fallen into disrepair and a fundamental refurbishment was required.
Cracks in the plasterwork had allowed water to get into the brickwork curved back, and frost damage was evident to bricks, and the plasterwork was being forced
There was spalling damage on the pillars. SOAG undertook work to repair the monument and we restored the original wing walls.
This was the culmination of several years work and SOAG's members were justly proud when the
restoration was completed
You can also see some old pictures of the gardens in the Old Pictures section of the website