Green memorial to the good, the great … and the tragic

Ever wonder why an attractive set of gardens nestles on the road between Borstal and Rochester?

Opposite Fort Clarence, at the point where Borstal Road becomes St Margaret’s Street can be found Willis Memorial Gardens.

Charles Willis was Mayor of Rochester in the days when mayors looked like mayors. Six feet tall and with a splendid walrus moustache, he cut a dashing and dignified figure. He can be seen in the historic picture taken outside Rochester Guildhall as he proclaims King George V in 1910.

John Cooke, a retired postman and keen historian, wrote to me: “After he had served four successive years as mayor, Charles Willis was for many more years an alderman, during which time he was granted the greatest honour that Rochester could bestow upon him: That of the freedom of the city.

“Charles, his wife and two sons lived in a wonderful house in Borstal Road [near Goddings Drive] then known as the Moorings.”

Willis died in 1943, the house was donated to a charitable foundation — possibly connected with the Salvation Army — and was renamed Greenacres. It went through a number of uses including a home for unmarried mums and then a remand home. It was damaged by fire, demolished, and a modern terrace built on the site.

“But let us turn to greater times and more heroic figures,” Mr Cooke continues. “For this is what Charles Willis was. He had his own firm of solicitors with premises in Chatham, and Rochester. He worked closely with Mr Shippwick [of the Medway Steam Packet Company] to run the paddle steamer fleet upon the Medway and was instrumental in persuading the three Short Brothers to transfer from the Isle of Sheppey to Rochester in 1913.”

Tragedy then cast a long shadow. One of the Willises’ sons, George, died in a plane crash in the First World War. Mrs Willis is said to have kept the propeller of the plane in her bedroom in his memory.

The gardens had been maintained by Mr Willis and were given to the citizens of Rochester as a memorial to George. He also gave the Backfields, behind the Bishop’s Palace, and the part of the Esplanade nearest the bridge was named Willis Avenue in his memory.

He also gave a sack of coal to every Rochester citizen during the Great Depression and also shoes to schoolchildren. My father, then a pupil at Troy Town School, said: “Great bags of shoes arrived. One lad had never had shoes before and got this huge pair of boots. He was so proud — and polished them every day with the sleeve of his jumper.”

The gardens — always know in my family as “the Improvement” — are split by a deep ravine, part of the fortifications leading to Fort Clarence.

Does anyone have any photographs of the gardens in their prime — perhaps at their opening? I’d be delighted to see copies.

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