Montpellier Gardens were established soon after the opening of the Montpellier Spa in 1809, originally only a wooden pavilion with a colonnade, established by Henry Thompson. By 1817 the spa became so popular that a stone building was built by G. A. Underwood and later on the dome, after which the building was called The Rotunda, was added by J. B. Papworth. The gardens, at first called Montpellier Grounds, were used to provide ‘ornamental pleasure grounds’ for the visitors to the spa. By 1820 two terraces known now as Montpellier Spa Road and Montpellier Terrace in the north and the south edge of the gardens were built, today many of them are Grade 1 listed buildings. In 1893 the Gardens were purchased by Cheltenham Borough Council and new features were added, including 6 tennis courts, which has been recently resurfaced.
The bandstand, which is now the focus of a series of summer events Bands in the Park, a part of Cheltenham Music Festival, dates from 1895. It has elaborate cast iron panels, a unique system of construction as well as unusual history. Its base originally served as stabling for horses, it later housed targets used by the Archery Club and during the Second World War it gave shelter for the winch of a barrage balloon.
The building behind the bandstand uses the base of what used to be the auditorium of the Open Air Theatre, the stage of which was between the two towers. Seating could be turned round the other way for bandstands concerts. Today it is the home of The Gardens Gallery, Cheltenham's Community Art Gallery for local artists to exhibit their work to the public, and for other arts-related activities
As opposed to the neatly laid out flower beds of Imperial Gardens, the main feature of Montpellier Gardens is the tree-lined broad walk framed with lime trees. Shrubberies and low-growing foliage plants contribute to the informal look of the gardens. Montpellier Gardens creates the background to several annual events including the Cheltenham Music Festival, the Bands in the Park events.
At the end of the broadwalk, the statue of William IV, who was King of England from 1830 to 1837, can be found. An inscription states that it was originally erected in Imperial Gardens to mark the passing of the Reform Bill in 1833 - important for Cheltenham's parliamentary representation - and that it was paid for by public subscription. The sculptor is reputed to have been a self taught artist and the statue was moved to Montpellier Gardens in 1920.
Ascent of the Great Nassau Balloon, Montpellier Gardens, 3 July 1837
Always a focus for the social life of the town, the Gardens were a venue for many events, including a number of balloon ascents, which were very popular during the 1830s and 1840s. In this respect, Montpellier Gardens hold several records.
3 July 1837 Montpellier Gardens were packed with spectators eager to witness a balloon ascent when the Great Nassau Balloon arrived to town.
22 Sep 1837 Montpellier Gardens were witnessing another, this time a rather strange spectacular. When the balloon took off, carrying in its main basket Mrs Graham and a landlord of a local pub the White Lion, Mr Garrett, a smaller basket was suspended from the main one and in it was a chimpanzee named Mademoiselle Jennie. When the balloon was flying above Lansdown, the smaller basket was cut, and everybody watched as the chimp parachuted to the ground. Mademoiselle Jennie was indeed equipped with a parachute designed by Robert Cocking who just a week before died demonstrating it. As he fell from 1700 m his cone-shaped parachute disintegrated.
In the evening celebrations were held in the Beehive pub and the landlord was reunited with his chimpanzee friend. Mademoiselle Jennie thus became the first creature to successfully parachute from a baloon on to the English soil.
History was also made 3 Oct 1838, when John Hampton performed first successful parachute jump by an English person from a balloon into Montpellier Gardens.
The first locally recorded ascent and flight by a powered balloon took place in July 1910, when Birmingham born E. T. Willows took off from Montpellier Gardens in his gas filled, cigar shaped air craft. Powered by a single propeller, he made his way first to Gloucester where he circled around the cathedral tower and then to Cardiff.