Amusements of Old London
William B. Boulton, 1901
“… an attempt to survey the amusements of Londoners during a period which began… with the Restoration of King Charles the Second and ended with the accession of Her Majesty Queen Victoria.”
An “unbroken tradition of al fresco entertainment in London over a period of two centuries*
After perusing through old publications, letters and memoirs, advertisements, diaries, and even through the records of police courts and licensing authorities, Boulton concludes that the heyday of the outdoor entertainment in London was from the time of Charles I to the end of the 19th century.
…the fireworks and the “twenty thousand additional lamps” of the Vauxhall and Cremorne… had less to do with the success of those famous institutions than the bad food and worse liquor, which Londoners are ever ready to pay for at exorbitant rates if only served out of doors.
When George the Third came to the throne, London, including Westminster, was bounded by Oxford Street and Holborn on the north, by the river on the south, by the outer boundary of the city on the east, and by Hyde Park, Arlington Street, and St. James’ Street on the west. All the rest of modern London was suburban merely, or open and pleasant country interspersed with wild heaths, and dotted with ancient villages.
It was in and about a town of such dimensions then, and with such surroundings, that the al fresco entertainment took origin and developed, a town thickly populated and stuffy, it is true, the bulk of whose inhabitants lived and died with the limits of their own streets, but still a town whose innermost slum was within easy walk of a delightful country…
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… supplied their quota of course, and the aristocracy came to most of the al fresco entertainments at one time or another, but merely as incidental visitors. [He mentions that Vauxhall and Ranelagh were the favorites for the aristocracy, but that they will mentioned in another chapter.]
Spring Garden at Charing Cross was “practically a part of [Charles I’s] own gardens at Whitehall. In 1634, the bowling green was a major attraction, and apparently one could pay six shillings and drink wine and eat cold meat all day under the trees. Plagued by quarrels and other scandalous behavior, the Spring Garden was finally closed down by the Puritans in 1654, although it opened up almost immediately following the death of the Lord Protector.
This collation, indeed, was the great attraction of the place. It was difficult in those days to get a meal anywhere away from home, the coffee-houses had not yet arisen, and most of the taverns lay far eastward of Charing Cross. Great people then lived either in the city or just out of it, and Spring Garden, with its luncheon, was a convenient halting-place for refreshment on the way to, or returning from Hyde Park, where the promenade of the ring, the foot and chariot races, were at this time great attractions.
Apparently Charles II’s ministers decided the property could be made more profitable by building houses there, so “the name Spring Garden was adopted by the New Spring Gardens at Lambeth” (which became Vauxhall Gardens).
The Mulberry Garden, which covered the site of the present Buckingham Palace and Gardens, was “of the true class of open-air entertainment… Half the dramatists of the Restoration make their characters move in its walks and arbours, and eat its tarts and cakes…” The Mulberry Garden was closed in 1674, when Vauxhall took charge of London’s al fresco tradition.
Islington Spa (New Tunbridge Wells)
In earlier times, the area around Holburn was bubbling with springs “charged with ‘chalybeate’ or ‘sulphate,’ as the doctors of that day believed and provided an excuse for a dozen or more of ‘spas,’ and ‘waters’ or ‘wells,’ each with its gardens and long room and special body of patrons… who certainly enjoyed the diversions of the place.”
Starting in around 1685, Islington Spa became a popular watering-place. Besides the medicinal attractions of its waters and a doctor to administer it, it offered “the amusements of a tea garden,” including lime trees, coffee-house, dancing saloon, raffling shop, and gaming tables. Patrons ranged from seamstresses to aristocrats, and, of course, the pickpockets and prostitutes followed. Its popularity rose further after the Princesses Caroline and Amelia became regular visitors.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote: “New Tunbridge Wells is a very pretty and romantick place, and the water much like Bath water, but makes one vastly cold and hungary.”
Islington Spa ended in 1840 when it was overtaken by construction of streets and buildings.
Bagnigge Wells began as Bagnigge House, the country residence of Nell Gwynn, “where King Charles the Second and his brother James delighted at times to take breakfast with that lady.” In 1759 the current owner, a Mr. Hughes, discovered that the reason his pansies and carnations did not thrive was due to the mineral content of two springs of water underneath the surface. Apparently, the water produced “a kind of giddiness, and afterwards a propensity to sleep if exercise not not interposed.”
The programme of amusement at this cockney paradise was very typical of the London al fresco in its prime. In the morning the place was chiefly at the disposal of the invalids who believed in the efficacy of its waters, and who, at the height of its vogue, were to be found at Bagnigge in hundreds. Many of these partook of the early breakfast which was provided for the austere ones who drank the waters in an orthodox manner on an empty stomach. A good organ, presided over by Mr. Charles Griffiths, provided music in the pump-room for the gouty and the lame: the pump-room with its panelled walls, low ceiling, its armorial bearings, its bust of Nell Gwynn in a niche in the wall… and its general pleasant flavour of antiquity. 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 sweethearts, 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…
Its nearness to the city, however, made it “the paradise of the city matron” on Sundays.
Thy arbour Bagnigge, and the gay alcove
Where the frail nymphs in amorous dalliance rove,
Where ‘prentice youths enjoy the Sunday feast,
And city madams boast their Sabbath best,
Where unfledged Templars first as fops parade,
And new made ensigns sport their first cockade.
Mr. Churchill, 1779
There was some attempt at a promenade in fine dresses on Sundays, where aspiring young men about town, who were not quite the mode, graduated in deportment for the brighter glories of Ranelagh and Vauxhall. There came of course the usual hangers-on of respectability, the ladies of doubtful reputation, the “bloods of humour,” copper captains, and even on occasion famous highwaymen, like the eminent John Rann, or Sixteen-stringed Jack, who was wont to display his hectoring graces in the gardens. Such incidents, however, gave a pleasant adventurous interest to a visit to Bagnigge; a highwayman, so long as he escaped the justices, was a not unpopular character, and the ordinary citizen lost no caste in taking a glass with one of these heroes at a tea garden or tavern.
The Rose of Normandy began as a small tavern famous for its bowling-greens. Samuel Pepys and Sheffield, the Duke of Buckingham frequented the place in the late 17th century. The Rose also occasionally featured concerts on the king’s birthday, illuminations, acrobatic exhibitions, and other attractions. In 1738, the proprietor re-named it Marylebone Gardens and styled it as al fresco entertainment, building a large orchestra, an organ, and a building for balls and suppers. Marylebone had a reputation of being a pleasant and respectable place to enjoy the outdoors, eat, and listen to the music of Handel and Arne.
Harmony and decorum were the features of Marylebone Gardens at its prime, broken rarely by a quarrel under the trees, or the rudeness of a royal visitor like the burly Duke of Cumberland… the gentry who had country houses in the village… could send their children and their nursemaids in the summer days and evenings without fear of untoward molestation… Not that Marylebone was without its mild excitement on occasion. It is recorded that pretty Miss Fountayne, a relation of “Dr. Fountayne’s, a dean of the Established Church,” was one day taking the air in the gardens when she was saluted by a young man of a gallant bearing, who boldly kissed her before all the quality. The lady started back shocked and surprised, as in duty bound. “Be not alarmed, madam,” said the gentleman, “you can now boast that you have been kissed by Dick Turpin.”
White Conduit House
…had its “pleasing walks prettily disposed, its “genteel boxes,” with paintings in the Flemish manner, its alcoves let into its clipped hedges, and its avenues of shady trees, and was the delight of numbers of Londoners for a century.
In 1754, Mr. Bartholomew, the proprietor, “provided bats and balls for his customers” to play the game of cricket in the adjoining meadow and therefore laid “the foundations of the vast organisation of the modern game.”
…was a country mansion opened in 1720, “with a park wilderness and garden a mile in circumference ‘filled with a variety of birds which compose a most melodious and touching harmony’… Cakes and ale were much in evidence… and foot and galloway races ‘six times round the course.’ In 1726 they ‘hunted a fat doe to death with small beagles,’ when sportsmen were invited ‘to bring their own dogs if not too large.’
was famous for its wells and gardens, and even had a clergyman available for marriage-minded couples who could not afford a trip to Gretna Green. Mr. Samuel Rogers “danced minuets in his youth and met a great deal of good company.” In those days, a Londoner required a stage coach to arrive there.
“The attractions of the South London districts were less simple and less respectable. With an unconscious humour, many of them advertised their mineral waters in competition with the spas of the north,” although it was more likely the waters pumped came from a huge marsh. “But their main attractions were more or less feeble imitations of the glories of Vauxhall, and their patrons were, speaking gnerally, of a less innocent cast of mind and less easily amused than the citizens who flocked northward to Islington or Hampstead, or westward to Marylebone.”
Some of these were Cuper’s Garden, Finch’s grotto, Bermondsey Spa Gardens, Helena Gardens, Belvidere Gardens, the Dog and Duck, St. George’s Spa, Strombolo House. and Florida Gardens.
The decline of the tea gardens
Many of these places fell victim to the urban growth of the city, exchanging the country meadows for buildings of brick and mortar. However, Mr. Boulton opines that their decline:
followed a change in the taste of the people themselves, that taste itself an inevitable consequence of an increasing population and an increasing prosperity. The simple pleasures which satisfied the London of Charles the Second left the London of George the Third unmoved, and the pleasure-seeking citizen of the London of William the Fourth had a soul altogether above the placid joys of the London of George the Third.
The longevity of Vauxhall can be attributed to the proprietors’ constant upgrading of attractions. While later visitors might not be enticed so much by the walks among the shrubbery, they could be attracted by the balloon ascensions and other circus-like events. Venues whose programs did not change with the times eventually failed and were taken over by urbanization.
The careers of the less famous gardens of the south and the west were almost invariably concluded in even less reputable circumstances, where the conduct of the raffish audiences attracted by their debased pleasures brought upon them the interference of the authorities.
*Vauxhall and Ranelagh Gardens are not included here, since the author deems them worthy of a chapter of their own.