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Canaletto's view of Vauxhall Gardens and the Grand Walk

Vauxhall Gardens opened in 1661. The most famous of London’s diarist’s, Samuel Pepys, recorded in his diary that he visited Vauxhall Gardens no less than twenty four times. The first time he recorded a visit to the gardens was on 29th March 1662, when Vauxhall it really was just a country inn set within a pleasant garden setting with walks and flower beds. It was approached from a path from the Thames and the Vauxhall stairs. Visitors would cross the Thames in a boat from the north bank. They generally would bring their own picnics.

Map of Vauxhall Gardens in 1800. Click on image to enlarge. Image @Ideal Homes: History of South East Suburbs (see link below).

Amateur musicians would perform in the gardens and sometimes the visitors themselves would provide their own entertainment.  This was the first time that ordinary people could enjoy gardens like this, which was a unique social aspect at the time of Pepys. It was a freeing of social codes. Such gardens were usually found in the country estates of the nobility.

A view of the Temple of Comus at Vauxhall Gardens. Image @1st Gallery.com

People from different levels of society could meet freely and strangers could meet within the gardens. In the usual course of their lives there were strong social codes about friendships and who could talk to whom. The gardens were a place to be free of many social constraints, where males and females could meet. It was also an ideal place for the business of prostitutes.

Interior view of the elegant music room at Vauxhall Gardens. Engraving by H. Roberts, 1752. Image @1st Gallery.com

Over the centuries various owners and managers oversaw Vauxhall gardens . The greatest of these was Jonathan Tyers. He came from a family of fellmongers from Bermondsey in the east End. Fellmongers were dealers in leather hides.

Jonathan Tyers and his family by Hayman. Image @Wikimedia Commons

Tyers was a shrewd businessman and understood how to advertise and popularise the gardens. He was also good at reinventing himself as a gentleman, landowner, wit, urbane host, and patron of the arts. He owned the gardens from 1729 to his death in 1767 and saw Vauxhall gardens at the height of its fame and popularity. His most important guest was The Prince of Wales, who had his own booth within the gardens.

Pleasure gardens poster at The Museum of London. Image @Tony Grant

All of society, from the aristocracy, to landowners, to the ordinary working people came to Vauxhall. For special events Tyeres would raise the price to attract only certain people but generally the price was one shilling and this price remained the same for sixty years. He offered season tickets for a guinea.

Vauxhall Garden silver pass, c. 1760

The season ticket comprised a metal tag embossed on one side with a scene of classical mythology and the other side was printed with the ticket holders name. There is quite a selection of these season tickets in various collections.

Water gate entrance to Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens

In 1740 a Vauxhall evening would begin at 7pm.The visitors would get into a boat from Westminster and alight at the Vauxhall Stairs on the south bank, very close to where Lambeth Palace, the home of the Archbishop of Canterbury, was located. Visitors would walk through the main entrance which fronted the River Thames and proceed along The Grove with the supper boxes lining the walkway on either side.

Chinese Pavillions at Vauxhall

In front of the boxes stood the orchestra building.

Statue of Handel by Louis-François Roubiliac, 1738. Image @V&A Museum

A statue of the composer Handel could be seen in front of this. The gardens were famous at this time for giving performances of new pieces composed by Handel or other composers well known at the time, such as Arne and Boyce.

The orchestra at Vauxhall, Canaletto.

Visitors would have the chance to see wealthy people promenading through the gardens wearing the latest expensive fashions.

One of the surviving Vauxhall genre paintings. Image @ V&A

The fifty large supper boxes were able to entertain up to ten people to supper. Each box was decorated with an original painting. Surprisingly fourteen of these paintings still survive.

Vauxhall Gardens, Rowlandson

The Grand Walk led to the golden statue of Aurora or the Rural Downs where there was a life size statue of Milton. This reminds me of the 18th century gardens at Painshill in Surrey which have been restored very much to their former glories. At Painshill there are grand vistas, a Turkish tent, mysterious grottos near the lake, a ruined Abbey, a hermits lodging and a Roman temple as well as many large statues from Greek mythology set within groves.

Tom and Jerry at Vauxhall

The Vauxhall experience therefore is still possible to experience. If Vauxhall was intended, as the gardens at Painshill were, then each setting was meant to create a different mood or spiritual experience. There is no record of Jane Austen visiting Vauxhall but she obviously knew about it. She stayed with her brother Henry at Hans Place which is almost directly across the Thames from Vauxhall.

Vauxhall pleasure gardens by Cruikshank, 1813

It is about half a mile from the river bank but the lights, the sounds of the music and fire works exploding would easily have been noticed from miles around. In Mansfield Park the walk in the park at Sotherton owned by Mr Rushworth have echoes of Painshill and Vauxhall.

Night scene in a supper box at Vauxhall

The Vauxhall Supper began about 9pm as dusk fell. It comprised of Vauxhall ham, cold meats, salad, cheeses custards, tarts, cheesecakes and other puddings. As night fell during the supper a whistle was blown. Servants lit thousands of lamps positioned strategically about the gardens and illuminated the scene. The effect was sensational.

The installation at The Museum of London recreated how the costumes in Vauxhall would look at night. Hats in this exhibit by contemporary milliner Philip Treacy.

By the mid 18th century semi circular piazzas had been opened in the north and south ranges of boxes. Behind the north range of boxes Tyeres had the Rotunda built. This was a covered concert room for wet weather.

Costumes of the Vauxhall pleasure gardens, installation at The Museum of London

More costumes from the pleasure garden. This man is obviously a waiter.

Female costume. Note how the yellow light (from oil globes or candles) affected the colors of the costumes. Some colors would not show up well. People kept this effect in mind when choosing evening wear. Image @Tony Grant

Costume of one of the entertainers. Image @Tony Grant

Exotic costume from the exhibit. Image @Tony Grant

Later a Pillared Saloon was added to the eastern side of the Rotunda. Within the Rotunda, Tyers got Francis Hayman to paint four huge canvases showing Britain’s victories in the Seven Years War. Each canvas was 12 feet by 15 feet. Only two oil sketches remain of the originals and an engraving is still in existence. The paintings have disappeared. Jonathan Tyers and Francis Hayman gave British art in the 1760’s its direction.

Vauxhall was also famous for its music. Many famous songs, some still known and sung today, were commissioned for the gardens. The most famous of which is, Lass of Richmond Hill. The singers became the superstars of their day, Thomas Lowe, Cecilia Arne, Joseph Vernon and Charles Dignum.

Miss Leary singing at Vauxhall, 1793-4

In 1758 the orchestra building was replaced by a neo gothic structure. The famous architect, Robert Adam, wrote to his brother:

“ I am now scheming another thing, which is a temple of Venus for Vauxhall which Mr Tyers proposes to lay £5000 upon……”

David Coke, author of a recent book on Vauxhall Gardens, wrote that this building was probably never built. Jonathen Tyers died in1767 and his children took over who themselves were followed by their children until 1822.

Photograph of Vauxhall in 1859. Image @The Guardian

The gardens closed finally closed on 25th July 1859. By this time Vauxhall had become run down and dilapidated. Its popularity had waned. Vauxhall railway station is situated opposite to where the entrance to Vauxhall gardens was. It epitomises the changes that were occurring in the world and society. People were able to travel about the country easily. The ordinary people preferred to go to the seaside and the new entertainments that were provided at these holiday resorts. If you go to Brighton on the south coast in Sussex you can experience the delights of Brighton Pier.

Brighton Pier. Image @Tony Grant

It is a Victorian construction and many of the buildings on it date back to Victorian times. The pier has more than an echo of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. These Victorian piers built at popular resorts have been described as Vauxhall piers.

Map in Vauxhall Station showing the pleasure gardens. Image @Tony Grant

Recently I was looking at an old map showing the layout and design of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. I could see Kennington Road marked clearly on the map bordering the southern border of where the pleasure gardens had been. It showed the road curving slightly. It struck me that I know that part of Kennington Road well. Vauxhall is part of the London Borough of Lambeth. My wife Marilyn worked for over ten years in schools in Lambeth and often got off the train at Vauxhall and walked to her inner city school in Walnut Tree Walk next to the Lambeth Walk that is of Charley Chaplin and that song, fame. We decided that we would go for a walk around Vauxhall and see if we could find any signs or remains of the pleasure gardens.

Marilyn and Abi reading the information board in the gardens

Marilyn, myself and Abigail, our youngest daughter, got off the train at Vauxhall and walked across the road to a pub which has its windows blacked out. This pub is now famous for the performance of strippers. This must be reminiscent of the courtesans who sold their bodies in the pleasure gardens of the 18th century perhaps.

Looking across where the gardens were situated. Image @Tony Grant

Behind the pub is a small park called Spring Park. This area was covered in Victorian terraced housing up to the second World War and then during the Blitz on London many were destroyed. After the war, to commemorate the old pleasure gardens, Lambeth Council decided to make the area into a park again. This was the site of the original pleasure gardens. We had found it. To one side you can see the green glass and concrete structure that is MI6.The entrance to the park announces that this is Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, although it is officially called Spring Gardens. When I researched the old gardens I discovered that indeed it used to called Vauxhall Spring Gardens when it first began. There is a large sign board as you walk into Spring Gardens which provides a display of old pictures of the gardens and a history of the site.

Tyers Road along the top of the present Spring Gardens

To the north of the park is Tyers Road commemorating Jonathen Tyers. There is a city farm called Vauxhall City farm on the site where the battle of Waterloo was re-enacted. In the far right eastern corner there is situated St Peter’s Church, which is reputedly on the very site of the Neptune Fountain that was placed at the end of The Grand Walk.

St. Peter's Church, Kennington Lane, on the site of the Neptune Fountain at the end of the Grand Walk. Image@Tony Grant

There are no remains of the actual pleasure gardens to be seen in the new park. Because it is an open area with walkways and grassy mounds within the park you can get a sense of the size and feel of the original pleasure gardens.

Vauxhall city farm; the site of the Waterloo grounds

Here are some quotations from people who visited the gardens at different times during its existence.

An article in The Spectator 1712:

We were now arrived at Spring-Garden, which is exquisitely pleasant at this time of the Year. When I considered the Fragrancy of the Walks and Bowers, with the Choirs of Birds that sung upon the Trees, and the loose Tribe of People that walked under their Shades, I could not but look upon the Place as a kind of Mahometan Paradise. Sir Roger told me it put him in mind of a little Coppice by his House in the Country, which his Chaplain used to call an Aviary of Nightingales.

Fireworks Vauxhall Gardens, 1800

A letter to a Lord describing the Spring gardens in 1751:

These Gardens, containing about twenty Acres and a Half, make part of a Mannor, belonging to His Royal Highness the PRINCE OF WALES, as Earl of Kennington; the famous black Prince, son to our immortal Edward III, having anciently had a Palace there. —But leaving Antiquity, I shall proceed to the present State of the Spot, which is the Subject of your Lordship’s obliging Command; after observing, that the Hint of this rational and elegant Entertainment, was given by a Gentleman, whose Paintings exhibit the most useful Lessons of Morality, blended with the happiest Strokes of Humour.
Being advanc’d up the Avenue, by which we enter into the Spring-Gardens; the first Scene that catches the Eye, is a grand Visto or Alley about 900 Feet long, formed by exceedingly lofty Sycamore, Elm, and other Trees. At the Extremity of this Visto, stands a gilded Statue of Aurora, with a Ha ha; over which is a View into the adjacent Meads; where Haycocks, and Haymakers sporting, during the mowing Season, add a Beauty to the Landskip. This Alley (a noble Gravel Walk throughout) is intersected, at right Angles, by two others. One of these Alleys (at the Extremity whereof, to the Left, a [p.3] fine Picture of Ruins is seen) extends about 600 Feet; being the whole Breadth of the Garden, or Spring-Gardens, as they are commonly called, which Terms I shall use indiscriminately.

These are the thoughts of a German Prince in 1827:

Yesterday evening I went for the first time to Vauxhall, a public garden in the style of Tivoli at Paris, but on a far grander and more brilliant scale. The illumination with thousands of lamps of the most dazzling[157] colours is uncommonly splendid. Especially beautiful were large bouquets of flowers hung in the trees, formed of red, blue, yellow, and violet lamps, and the leaves and stalks of green; there were also chandeliers of a gay Turkish sort of pattern of various hues, and a temple for the music, surmounted with the royal arms and crest. Several triumphal arches were not of wood, but of cast-iron, of light transparent patterns, infinitely more elegant, and quite as rich as the former. Beyond this the gardens extended with all their variety and their exhibitions, the most remarkable of which was the battle of Waterloo.

Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens entrance today. Image @Tony Grant

Here is part of a satirical poem written for the PUNCH magazine in 1859 and depicts the decline of the gardens before they were finally closed:

Comrades, you may leave me sitting in the mouldy arbour here,
With the chicken-bones before me and the empty punch-bowl near.
‘Rack’ they called the punch that in it fiercely fumed, and freely flowed:
By the pains that rack my temples, sure the name was well bestowed.
Leave me comrades, to my musings, ‘mid the mildewed timber-damps,
While from sooty branches round me splutter out the stinking lamps.
While through rent and rotten canvas sighs the bone-mill laden breeze;
And the drip-damp statues glimmer through the gaunt and ghastly trees.

And the ode goes on and on. It has become a depressing place.

Vauxhall Park looking towards the Thames. Image @Tony Grant

Written by Tony Grant, London Calling

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The Parks of London by Mary Elizabeth Brandon, 1868, on Dandyism.net discusses the dandies parading up and down London’s fashionable parks. After visiting that site, return to read some of my older posts about Hyde Park and the pleasure gardens.

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English Pleasure Gardens

It would be very pleasant to be near Sydney Gardens; we might go into the labyrinth every day. – Jane Austen to Cassandra Wednesday, January 21, 180

The English Pleasure Garden 1660-1860 is a small, slim volume that easily slips into my purse. I was rather skeptical that a mere 63 pages could contain very much information but I was wrong.  Sarah Jane Downing, the author, has assembled a large variety of pleasure garden images that I have not seen before, and written about the topic in a clear and readable style that was loaded with information. This book is a must for history buffs and historical romance authors who wish to write a scene set in Vauxhall or Ranelagh gardens, or perhaps in venue that is less well known, for Ms Downing writes about gardens I had not known existed.

While London’s west end boasted clean and spacious streets, the rabbit warren streets in The City were filthy, overcrowded, and dangerous. The possibility of a few hours of escape to a pleasure garden with its broad walks, decorative shrubbery, hidden bowers, music and entertainments, and fireworks drew a large number of crowds. In the 18th century, London and its environs boasted sixty-four pleasure gardens of various sizes. Aside from their obvious attraction, pleasure gardens attracted a variety of visitors from all walks of life. Aristocrats rubbed elbows with the hoi polloi, who could gain entry to even the most luxurious gardens if they could come up with one shilling for a ticket (no mean feat, for an ordinary day laborer made no more than one shilling per week.)

Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens

Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens

There were three kinds of public gardens people could choose from: 1) Bowling greens at pubs or tea gardens with a small but pleasant green space and limited social opportunity, 2) fashionable spa resorts that offered bowling, taking the waters, and pleasant graveled walks, and provided some entertainments, and 3) the great pleasure gardens, which were filled with glamorous and wondrous sights, and acres of lighted paths, music pavilions and private supper boxes, and arranged for a variety of fantastic entertainments, music, and dancing. The best known pleasure gardens were Vauxhall, once known as Spring Gardens, and Ranelagh Gardens, which gave Vauxhall a run for its money. Its spacious Rotunda allowed for large crowds to gather inside. Ranelagh could open in February, whereas other gardens waited until Easter.

View of a lunch party inside Ranelagh garden's famous rotunda

View of a lunch party inside Ranelagh garden's famous rotunda

Vauxhall tickets, British Museum

Vauxhall tickets, British Museum

All good things must come to an end and the gardens’ success at attracting large crowds spelled their doom. Eventually it was hard to tell the aristocrats from the poseurs, or a courtesan from a lady. As the gardens attracted an increasingly larger group of dubious people and fewer of the upper classes, their reputations suffered. Rowdy behavior, vandalism, crime, and prostitution all served to keep the “right” people away, but this development didn’t necessarily spell their death knell. They would eventually close due to competition from a distant source. The advent of cheap and rapid transportation allowed people to seek their pleasures along the grand promenades at sea side resorts, and once again the classes separated during leisure hours, each into their own niche.

This lovely little book also describes pleasure gardens outside of London – Sydney Gardens in Bath, Vauxhall Gardens in Birmingham, Tinker’s Garden in Manchester, etc. At $12.95, The English Pleasure Garden 1660-1860, loaded with color images, is a bargain. Read my post about 18th & 19th Century Pleasure and Tea Gardens in London at this link.

These links lead to more information about pleasure gardens, but they do not match the variety of information to be found in this slim volume.

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st-helena-tavern-and-tea-gardens-2
Over 200 outdoor pleasure gardens and tea gardens proliferated in London from the 16th to the early 19th centuries.  Primarily frequented by working class people who lived in the city, they were located in the pleasanter parts of London’s suburbs. In days of yore, the countryside was only a walk (or short carriage drive or ferry ride) away from the city center. Tea and pleasure gardens afforded the populace a respite from the sights, smells, and congestion of city life. In his essay on Tea Gardens, William Boulton writes:

“It was the citizens of such a town, sober merchants and shopkeepers, apprentices, sempstresses, and artisans who worked continuously, but leisurely and without much stress, during the week and spread themselves over an area of many square miles on Sundays, who formed the chief patrons of the al fresco entertainment. The lawyers and military men who filled the chief of the few recognised professions of the last century, supplied their quota of course, and the aristocracy came to most of the alfresco entertainments at one time or another, but merely as incidental visitors.”

Even the humblest tea gardens situated in inns and taverns vied for customers by offering special attractions like cake and ale, a bowling green, play tables, or a pond. Larger more luxurious gardens, such as Vauxhall or Ranelagh, offered a myriad of entertainments in the form of musicales, fireworks, illuminated groves, balloon rides, and theatricals. Considered the forerunners of today’s amusement parks, pleasure gardens provided extensive walks, private arbors, supper boxes, rotundas, and Chinese pavilions. Regardless of their size, the competition among these open air recreational gardens was fierce. Open only for a short season, the proprietors had to earn enough income to keep their establishments open and make a decent living.


Text not availableThe London Pleasure Gardens of the Eighteenth Century By Warwick Wroth, … assisted by Arthur Edgar Wroth With sixty-two illustrations By Warwick William Wroth, Arthur Edgar Wroth

Various strata of social classes commingled in these public spaces, although the upper classes tended to visit less frequently. When they did honor an establishment with their presence, they could create a stir.

“In 1733, in the month of May, it occurred to the Princesses Caroline and Amelia to attend [Islington Spa] regularly and take its waters. These royal ladies were duly saluted with twenty-one guns, and all London flocked to the gardens to see a real princess.” – London’s Tea Gardens, An Essay by William B. Boulton

Profits shot up sky high for the owner after these royal visits, making the Islington Spa a commercial success. The White Conduit House, situated just 2-3 miles north of Marlyebone Gardens,  was another popular garden destination. In 1753, the proprietor, Mr. Bartholomew, ran the following enterprising advertisement:

whiteconduit

For the better accommodation of ladies and gentlemen, I have completed a long walk, with a handsome circular fish-pond, a number of shady pleasant arbours, inclosed with a fence seven feet high to prevent being the least incommoded from people in the fields; hot loaves and butter every day, milk directly from the cows, coffee, tea, and all manner of liquors in the greatest perfection; also a handsome long room, from whence is the most copious prospects and airy situation of any now in vogue. I humbly hope the continuance of my friends’ favours, as I make it my chief study to have the best accommodations, and am, ladies and gentlemen, your obliged humble servant, Robert Bartholomew. Note. My cows eat no grains, neither any adulteration in milk or cream.

The White Conduit House, also known as the “Minor Vauxhall”, began to offer balloon ascents, fireworks, and evening concerts. But its popularity gradually waned and the establishment offered its last entertainments in 1849.

Food and entertainments depended on the time of day. In Bagninne Wells, for example, morning visitors tended to be invalids who would drink the mineral waters and partake of an early breakfast.

Bagnigge Wells

Bagnigge Wells

As the day wore on the invalids withdrew and the place was prepared for another class of customers. The citizens, their wives and daughters, came for their afternoon outing; the long room if the weather threatened, and the arbours if the sun shone, were filled with sober parties of shopkeepers or with boys and their sweet hearts, drinking tea and eating the bread and butter and the buns baked on the ground for which the place was famous. Negus was another of the products of Bagnigge held in much favour, and there were cider and ale for the more jovial spirits who smoked under the shade of the Fleet willows and watched the games of skittles and Dutch pins which were played in the eastern part of the gardens during the long summer evenings.

In the afternoon tea was served, as well as stronger drinks, like negus.  Visitors could relax,  drink syllabub, eat cake, and listen to the music of Handel. Or an amorous couple could sit and flirt in a private arbor. At night the pleasure gardens glittered with illuminated walks and fireworks. These public venues weren’t all pleasure. Pickpockets, “frail women”, sharpers, and other less desirable visitors would mingle among the crowds, adding a hint of danger and seaminess.

Rotunda at Ranelagh Gardens, 1754

Rotunda at Ranelagh Gardens, 1754

Towards the end of 1810, Bagnigge Wells was increasingly frequented by the lower classes, or as one late 19th century writer termed, “Cockney Crowds.” By 1813 the gardens were put up for auction. Vauxhall lasted until 1857.  Ranelagh’s famed rotunda closed in 1803 and was demolished in 1805. Today the site provides part of the grounds of Chelsea Hospital where the Annual Chelsea Flower Show is held.

Definition of

A Tea Garden: A tea garden was a place to drink tea and stroll around lawns, ponds and view statues. These smaller versions of pleasure gardens flourished in the late 18th century. Examples were Cuper’s Gardens and the area that became the Caledonian Cattle Market in London, England.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tea_garden

A Pleasure Garden is usually a garden that is opened to the public for recreation. They are differentiated from other public gardens by containing entertainments in addition to the planting; for example, concert halls or bandstands, rides, zoos or menageries.

Learn more about Pleasure Gardens at these sites

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