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 photos are fabulous!
Vauxhall’s huge success after Jonathan Tyers’s acquisition of the property, which had been in existence for seventy years as the “New Spring Gardens”, can be attributed to the man’s perception that his idealistic dream must be counter-balanced by sound financial practices. An essential element of this was publicity, and of this, Tyers proved to be a master. How did he do this?
He promoted the gardens as a sort of “heaven on earth,” a magical sort of place to lift one’s spirits after a hard day in the real world.
[T]his was achieved through stories in literature and the printed media, through popular songs and through the artworks and music he commissioned. The second was the flattery of his audience; he consistently treated his visitors as special people, always referring to them as persons of quality, ladies and gentlemen, patriots, libertarians, educated people who appreciated fine things and good music. And the last was the simple dissemination of factual information about Vauxhall, its history, its current attractions, and how this pleasure garden should be enjoyed, by means of articles in newspapers and periodicals, of histories and guidebooks and of topographical and satirical engravings.
In truth, of course, Vauxhall fell short of perfection, and that’s where John Lockman came in. He was a sort of early publicist, who wrote poems and songs designed to “underscore Tyers’s transformation of a notorious gathering place for drunks, gamblers and prostitutes into a civilised pleasure garden where anyone could enjoy a decorous evening’s entertainment without risk to their reputation.”
Lockman’s assistance was necessary because it was impossible to exclude troublemakers, particularly if they were respectably dressed. “[I]t was easier to sell an enhanced image of the place to a persuadable public.
Tyers was always careful to make everybody in his clientele feel good about themselves, and in particular about their patronage of Vauxhall. In his press announcements, for instance, he would often start by thanking his visitors for their support, especially if the weather had been bad, and would repeatedly finish by pledging to keep out of his gardens anyone not worthy of their company.
Another tactic was to use magazines and newspapers. Newspapers, of course, were a no-brainer. Letters such as the “S. Toupee” articles published in Scots Magazine may or may not have been instigated by Tyers, but they certainly proved valuable in driving up excitement for Vauxhall. “Of the Luxury of the English; and a Description of Ranelagh Gardens and Vaux-hall, in a Letter from a Foreigner to his Friend at Paris,” supposedly written by Henry Fielding (a friend of Tyers) and commissioned by Tyers, piled on the praise for Vauxhall in comparison to Ranelagh Gardens.
A female audience was enticed to Vauxhall by published songs and by scenes in novels set in Vauxhall Gardens. And then there were the Love at First Sight articles, or “Lonely Hearts” columns, which may or may not have been genuine. Here’s one from the London Chronicle in August 1758:
A young Lady who was at Vauxhall on Thursday night last, in company with two gentlemen, could not but observe a young gentleman in blue and a gold-laced hat, who, being near her by the orchestra during the performance, especially the last song, gazed upon her with the utmost attention. He earnestly hopes (if unmarried) she will favour him with a line directed to A.D. at the bar of the Temple Exchange Coffee-house, Temple-bar, to inform him whether fortune, family, and character, may not entitle him upon a further knowledge, to hope an interest in her heart.
Another marketing tactic was to engage actors dressed as gentlemen to patronize coffee-houses to express their intention to go to Vauxhall and entreat others to meet them there.
Tyers’s Management Style
It goes without saying that if one wishes to have customers return, one has to ensure that their first time is as pleasant and enjoyable as possible. If you knew Jonathan Tyers—and you probably wouldn’t because it was never himself he wanted to promote and therefore took pains to remain in the background—you could see him in the kitchens working as hard as his employees to get the food out to the customers.
Waiters, or “drawers” were freelance employees, who were constrained to work hard in order to earn tips and keep their posts. Since in other venues, “drawers” were known to steal from their employers, “Vauxhall waiters were required to pay for the food on collection from the kitchens, and themselves ran the risk of defaulting customers, especially if they had not been sufficiently polite or efficient in their service.”
Although he had to maintain a strict discipline among his employees, he was a thoughtful employer. When two of his waiters married two of his barmaids, he provided wedding rings and an elaborate dinner at his home in Denbies, with fifty of his staff as guests.
Up until 1736, the admission cost was sixpence, but afterward, the price was doubled to one shilling. Considering the expense of maintaining and improving the gardens and contriving new entertainments, this seems modest indeed; however, there was more to be made from the food and drink once the visitors were admitted. For the visitors, there was also the cost of dressing respectably and the cost of transportation. The one shilling price was fixed until 1792, when it was doubled to two shillings.
In 1737 Tyers initiated a subscription price, or season ticket. The metal tickets were issued to a thousand people at a guinea each, and would admit two people to the gardens for the entire season. Not only did this ensure repeat visits by two thousand people, it provided him with funds upfront to use for maintenance and improvement.
The relief on the obverse usually represented, through classical imagery, a particular aspect of Vauxhall Gardens, often associated with the music. On the reverse was engraved the subscriber’s name, accompanied… by the ticket’s number.
In 1738, the tickets were made of silver and the price rose by three shillings. In 1741, the price was raised to two guineas.
As a comparison, a season ticket for two to the Great Room in Soho was five guineas, while individual concerts were ten and a half shillings, the same price as Handel’s fundraising concert at the Foundling Hospital in 1749. Almack’s (founded in 1765) charged ten guineas for a once-weekly ball over twelve weeks, so Vauxhall tickets were considered quite a bargain.
“S. Toupee” in his letters in Scots Magazine estimated that “not less than one thousand shillings are received each evening of performance during the season,” not including season ticket holders. Special events, such as the rehearsal of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, drew several thousand spectators. Opening and closing nights and royal birthdays also drew large crowds.
The opening night of the 1769 season, for instance, was a remarkably fine evening for the time of year, and it was estimated that ‘there were upwards of twenty thousand of the first nobility present.’
Crime and Disorder
Even though it suffered occasional lean times, there can be little doubt that eighteenth-century Vauxhall Gardens became the most popular single visitor attraction for London… With these numbers of people coming together, especially to a place where alcohol was available, crime, vandalism and disorder were inevitable.
Nor was it just pickpockets and prostitutes his police force (initiated in 1732) had to deal with. While Tyers encouraged his waiters to restrict alcohol consumption, it was difficult for them or even him to police the mischievous London Bucks, who were of a class higher than his. Tyers and his staff managed these problems themselves, even if it meant “eating” the cost of vandalism, not wanting to involve courts, which would draw bad publicity. “S. Toupee,” in one of his letters in 1739, “pointed out that there was ‘a man in the posture of a Constable, to protect the Ladies from any insult, &c.’ at the end of each walk.
Besides the half-dozen or so constables, he employed up to eight men to guard the route from the river and led a (possibly regular) blitz against the pickpockets.
Anyone who has worked in the restaurant industry can tell you how difficult a task it is to prepare food for crowds of people, but how many restaurants have to cater for 500-1000 or more hungry people? This is a logistical nightmare that Tyers managed with aplomb.
Consistent with his insistence on featuring English art and music, the food at Vauxhall was simple and English. There were complaints about the prices, of course. Here are some prices from one of the “S. Toupee” letters in 1739:
- one bottle of French claret: 5 shillings
- one cold chicken: 2-1/2 shillings
- one quarter of cyder: 1 shilling
- one quart of small-beer: 4 pence
- one slice of bread: 2 pence
- one slice of cheese: 4 pence
- dish of ham or beef: 1 shilling, salad, an extra pence
- sweet pastries: 1 shilling
- custards and cheesecakes: 4 pence
- heart cakes and Shrewsbury cakes: 2 pence
- one bottle of champagne and arrack: 8 shillings
- two pounds of ice: sixpence
Even a devoted fan such as “S. Toupee” confessed that the food was expensive. The sliced meats were thin, especially the ham. “This was all part of the fun of the evening—a great joke on fashionable society who were happy to play along.” A well-known verse alluding to this:
Never trouble Ham House, or its inmates at all,
For a ghost, that may be but a sham,
But seek in a sandwich that’s cut at Vauxhall,
For the true apparition of Ham.’
The cost of the food did not alter significantly over the whole period from Tyers’s re-launch until the gardens’ final closure; the prices of wines and spirits, however, were a different matter, rising sharply in the nineteenth century.
Susana’s Vauxhall Blog Post Series
- Vauxhall Gardens: A History
- Vauxhall Gardens: Jonathan Tyers—“The Master Builder of Delight”
- Vauxhall Gardens: A New Direction
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Orchestra and the Supper-Boxes
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Organ, the Turkish Tent, and the Rotunda
- Vauxhall Gardens: Three Piazzas of Supper-Boxes
- Vauxhall Gardens: “whither every body must go or appear a sort of Monster in polite Company”
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Competition
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Artwork, Part I
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Artwork, Part II
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Music, 1732-1859
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Business Side
- Vauxhall Gardens: Developments from 1751-1786
- Vauxhall Gardens: Thomas Rowlandson’s Painting (1785)
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Third Generation of the Tyers Family and the Jubilee of 1786
- Vauxhall Gardens: An Era of Change (1786-1822), Part I
- Vauxhall Gardens: An Era of Change (1786-1822), Part II
- Vauxhall Gardens: An Era of Change (1786-1822), Part III
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Final Years, Part I
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Final Years, Part II
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Final Years, Part III
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Final Years, Part IV
- Vauxhall Gardens: Farewell, for ever