David Coke & Alan Borg
The Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens is one of the places I’d love to slip back in time to visit, just to catch a glimpse of what it was like. After recently splurging to buy this lovely coffee-table book, I thought it might make a wonderful subject for a new blog series. But do buy the book too, if you can!
The Toupee Letters
Scots Magazine ran a series of articles in 1739-40 purporting to be “from a London correspondent, a certain ‘S. Toupee’, portraying the social scene in London, and at Vauxhall in particular, to the Scottish readership.”
The letters begin by explaining that because ordinary people of the London beau monde in search of simple pleasures were no longer satisfied with the traditional pastime of enjoying the beauties of nature, for their own sake, more fashionable amusements had been brought in from overseas, in particular the ridotto al fresco. Just how popular the gardens had become is illustrated by the fact that, despite the ingrained British dread of damp evenings, and the gentry’s habit of moving to the country in the summer, the average nightly number of paying visitors… was around a thousand. From this, it is possible to calculate that, as the Vauxhall season lasted for about one hundred evenings between May and September, the annual admissions income would amount to £5000 to £6000, a healthy figure that must have been substantially more than the normal revenue expenditure to run such a venture.
The type of entertainment provided was considered to be very new; it was well received, especially by fashionable ladies whose social life hitherto had been restricted to calling on acquaintances or going to the occasional ball, all within a very small circle of friends and relatives. Pleasure gardens opened up a whole new world to these people—a polite and exciting world where they could go with their family or friends, where they were free to entertain and mix socially with an infinitely broader circle than had been possible previously.
A Typical Visit to Vauxhall (from 7-10 p.m.)
The journey usually began with a boat ride from Whitehall or Westminster. On one occasion, Toupee writes about accompanying “a family group including Tom, a young musician who played the latest opera melodies on his French horn, while Miss Kitty was asked by her mother to sing one of the latest Italian songs.”
Others on their way to the gardens in neighbouring boats included ‘Sir John, from Fenchurch-street’, with his wife and all his children, attended by a footman. A Cheapside apprentence called William was on an illicit outing with Sukey, his master’s daughter… ‘An honest old mechanick’ and his wife followed; he was returning to Vauxhall after many years’ absence, to see how it had changed, reassuring his wife that the gardens must be a respectable place for her to be going, because the Prince of Wales himself was a regular visitor. This piece is clear evidence for the type of social mix that Tyers wanted to see at Vauxhall, although it is equally clear that, just because people inhabited the same space and came into direct contact, they did not necessarily interact in any meaningful way.
Pet dogs were not allowed in the gardens, but that did not stop people bringing them along for the ride, maybe to occupy the liveried footman who would not be admitted by Tyers’s gatekeeper, but could walk the dog in the fields of Lambeth. Having entered the tardens, Toupee’s party saw all the sights, listened to the music and strolled around the walks, watching and being watched by the other visitors.
The third letter, concerning the hour before closure at 10 p.m., starts with a detailed description of the dinner, accompanied by music from the Orchestra. The dramatic finale to the letter is the boat trip home, recounting the dangers of the riverside and the traditional ‘Thames ribaldry’, long-winded insults from the occupants of nearby boats that were suffered by voyagers as far apart in time as Addison’s Sir Roger in 1711 and Oakman’s John Gilpin in 1785.
“Sexual freedom was intrinsic to the gardens”
The overriding topic that runs flagrantly throughout the three letters is the meeting of the sexes, and the self-evident truth that human nature takes full advantage of any liberty offered to it. If Toupee is to be believed, Tyers was promoting his gardens as a place for lovers to meet, for initiating and nurturing romantic attachments, for sexual intrigue and adventures, and for illicit affairs; or, if he was not promoting these activities as such, he created an environment that made them possible and, indeed, inevitable. The river-crossing, the music, the paintings, the food, the walks and even the weather were all seen by Toupee as legitimate means to this one specific end.
The focus for most of the licentious activity in the gardens was not the Grove or the surrounding supper-boxes, which were too public, but the Druid’s Walk or Lover’s Walk, an unlit avenue running between and parallel with the Grand South Walk and Kennington Lane. It was distinguished from the other avenues by the fact that the trees met overhead, plunging it into shadow even before dusk. This concealing shade was unrelieved by artificial light until 1764, when magistrates forced Tyers to act against the immoral behaviour that the darkness encouraged, and to install lighting there.
At its eastern end, the Druid’s Walk met the avenue that ran around the eastern and northern edges of the gardens, always known as the Dark Walks; the darkness heightened the receptivity of impressionable young minds to emotional seduction, and no female reputation was safe…
Tyers employed constables to patrol the end of each walk in an attempt to keep such incidences to a minimum, but even they were not able to watch everybody all the time.
“The… cold and miserable spring of 1740”
I was blown through and through, in such a manner, as to drink four full glasses of French wine, before I knew I was alive. And, in that cold condition, as returning by water would have endanger’d my life, I was forced to be shook in a most unmerciful hack, till one half of my joins were distorted, and the other bruised to a jelly.
Indeed, all of the Toupee letters highlight the fact that the pleasures of the evening were never without their discomforts; and that a full enjoyment of the experience was predicated upon a full participation in the inconveniences, dangers and risks, whether perceived or real.
“The outstanding fashionable attraction of the London summer season”
In a sample letter from a young lady in town to her aunt in the country, published in 1741, the novelist Samuel Richardson confirmed that regular visits to the gardens had become an obligatory feature of the fashionable lifestyle, having his subject comment… that ‘I went on Monday last to Vaux-hall Gardens, whither every body must go, or appear a sort of Monster in polite Company.’