A full twenty years before steam trains started arriving at the new station of King’s Cross, a small suspension railway had operated on the opposite side of the road. Not only was it an early form of suspension railway – it was also human powered – by a man spinning a wheel at the front of each carriage.
In use for barely two years, it has been seemingly lost to common knowledge – this was the Suspension Railway at the Royal Panarmonion Gardens.
King’s Cross station stands on what was at the time a Smallpox Hospital, and opposite it sat a great “dust heap” of rubble and burnt cinders from the coal fires. There also appears to have been another unrelated dust heap sited behind the hospital as well – according to this painting.
In fact, a description in The Antiquary magazine (Vol XLIV 1908) suggests the area at the time as having several “huge cinder-hills that formed a small alpine range”. The site, described in the magazine as 277 Gray’s Inn Road, and bounded to the west by Argyle Street, was sold in 1826 for £15,000 to the Panarmonion Company.
A guide to Marylebone and St Pancras by George Clinch, published in 1890 also makes mention of nursery grounds belonging to, or occupied by a Mr Collins. It would seem that the whole area bought by the company comprised of some 10 acres of land. You can see the “dust ground” in the lower right of this map.
This company, largely promoted by Professor Gesualdo Lanza, described as a master of elocution who aimed to rise £20,000 in £100 shares to provide “extensively ornamented gardens which will be judiciously planted and pleasingly interspersed with Fountains, Cascades, Temples, etc.,a neat and elegant Theatre, a Botanical Bazaar, Bathing Rooms,and even an Hotel.”
It would seem however that of the buildings, only the Theatre was built. The gardens were laid out – as was the premier attraction – Thorrington’s Suspension Railway – described in the magazine as half a mile in length, and also lost to history, the only hints of its existence being the illustrated handbills that were handed out (a copy above).
The prospectus cited by Clinch noted that “The amusements in the Gardens, independently of the ingenious Rail-way already constructed, will comprehend Concerts, Reading Rooms,” etc. Worth noting then that at the time, the railway already existed and was presumably pulling in enough visitors to make the rest of the Pleasure Garden development seem viable.
The railway seems to have consisted in suspending a boat-shaped car from a substantial level bar, along which it travelled upon small wheels. The motive power was supplied from the car by means of a wheel which was worked by hand, and by which means the rate of progression was regulated.
“No one can believe,” says a contemporary account, “that this Car travels with such ease and rapidity without being a witness of the fact. The idea is a very ingenious one, and does great credit to Mr. H. Thorrington, who is the inventor.
The gardens opened on the 4th March, 1830, and entry cost One Shilling, which included a ride in the railway.
The Morning Post of the 19th July 1830 wrote that “Since we last notices this tasteful erection, the proprietors have substituted an elegantly decorated boat or car, capable of containing eight persons, for the chair, which was intended for only two.”
“The person who manages the crank is concealed under a cover in the stern of the car, and when going at the rate of seven or eight miles an hour, it slides gracefully along without any visible propelling power, and produces a very agreeable effect.”
I would presume that the illustration given at the top of this blog post is possibly a slightly earlier version, between the small 2-person chair and the version described with the man hidden behind the carriage.
Certainly to sit at the front of the carriage and to be propelled along without noise or discomfort must have been a wondrous sight to Victorian visitors.
However, despite much admiration, the Gardens were not a commercial success. On the 28th February, 1832, a notice was published announcing the sale of the assets of the Garden, and their demolition followed within a few weeks.
A brief note in the Bury and Norwich Post of December 1831 notes that many London Theatres are to be shut down due to censorship of their plays. That may have also played a part in the demise of the whole project.
A reminiscence of Beer Gardens in the October 1920 issue of The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser waxes about several of the Pleasure Gardens in London, but barely mentioned the Panarmonion Gardens – and only in reference to its former life as a dust heap. Maybe the area’s unsavoury history was also still a deterrent to visitors.
The area was was divided up into streets – or seemingly more accurately, side streets that lead to the gardens were extended into the land. A Victorian garden square was laid out, and genteel houses built around it.
The houses still exist, as does Argyll Square Gardens, but there is no record of the remarkable railway on the site.