During lockdown I have been really wowed by the pictures people have so generously share on social media of the gardens both past and present and one area that particularly seems to inspire mention is the Italian Gardens.

I confess I am not usually a big fan of formal gardens preferring wild meadows and secret wooded paths but the Italian Gardens have a unique charisma that draws me back to them time and again. Whatever the season they are always bursting with birdsong and through the spring and summer the cacophony of colours that erupts from the beautifully tended flower beds can’t fail to bring joy.    They feel like the beating heart of the diverse acres of nature which flow around them.

The Italian Gardens are so fundamental to the identity of the gardens as a whole that I was surprised to learn that they were in fact a much later addition than other features like the Rose Garden and Spa complex. I had images of wealthy Victorians promenading with dainty parasols and flamboyant top hats among the ornately laid out flower beds or resting for genteel conversation on the plethora of terraced seating but in fact the North Shelter is dated to 1914 more than a decade after the death of Queen Victoria.

As I discovered these gardens were the creation of famed Scarborough Corporation Borough Engineer Harry W Smith. Appointed to the role in 1897, at the youthful age of just thirty, Smith was the visionary behind the South Cliff we see today.

Smith already had a strong connection with Scarborough having worked on a number of important projects within the town including the creation of a Sanatorium for infectious diseases and a hospital on the site which we now know as Cross Lane Hospital.

It might seem strange then that after these endeavours he would turn to garden landscaping but Smith had a deep interest in horticulture in particular an appreciation for trees and their potential for legacy even telling his own assistants “If you do nothing else, where you can, plant a tree. It will be there when you are gone.”

The Italian Gardens themselves where part of Smiths ambitious plans to unify the whole vast and complex area as a public space. They were constructed on a site formally occupied by two small rose gardens which were acquired as part of the purchase of 13 acres of land from former Scarborough Mayor and South Cliff resident George Lord Beeforth. 

One of the things that is so special to me about this area of gardens is how they reference other parts of Smith’s inspirational development, with much of the stonework that makes up the spectacular terraces comprised from rocks reclaimed from another of his projects the creation of a tide pool which use to stand where the Star Map can now be found.

Image – Northallerton Archives

The fact that both of these developments were underway during the height of the First World War is also noteworthy and perhaps speaks once again of Smiths sense of longevity and optimism for the future of the town even in the darkest of times, something anyone who has found respite in nature over the past months can surely relate to.

Visitors to the gardens will have encountered the fine statue of Mercury which stands guard over the ornamental pond at its centre. This was a gift from Smith’s friend Alfred Shuttleworth also famed locally for donating the charming Shuttleworth Gardens to the town. Whilst a replica of the led cast original now occupies in the gardens it’s still an intriguing focal point and it must have been quite the sight during its original construction when in order to determine its final placement Smith had one of his team pose on the central pedestal.

Smith’s influence on Scarborough is hard to overstate. Amongst his other achievements were the creation of Peasholm Park and Glen, which involved the total renovation of an underused and unremarkable patch of land which he transformed it into another beautiful and iconic public space. He also oversaw slum clearances and the creation of quality homes for working people who also benefited from the work opportunities his projects brought to the local area.

By the time of Smith’s retirement in 1933 Scarborough had gone from having just 55 acres of public leisure land to an impressive 350 acres with a legacy of tree planting which continues to enrich the town from North to South.

So next time you’re walking through the Italian Gardens perhaps take a moment to remember Harry W Smith, a man of philanthropic vision and renowned modesty who left the gift of the gardens for future generations of locals and visitors to delight in and delight they continue to do.  

Gemma Alexander

Community Engagement Officer


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