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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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