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!
The early 1830’s marked a low period in Vauxhall’s fortunes. The weather was often poor, causing cancellations of particular events, especially fireworks. There seems to have been a lack of cash for either further investment or spectacular displays.
Among the newer attractions were Michael Boai, the ‘celebrated Chin Melodist’; Joel, the ‘Altonian Siffleur’, who imitated birds; the Singers of the Alps; Don Santiago, the Lilliputian King, only 27 inches high; the great Boa Constrictor and Anaconda. Forty thousand attended on September 8, 1830 when the gardens were free all day to celebrate the coronation of William IV.
In 1832, charity events, flower shows, and other special events were held as a way of increasing income. “Many of these events were run under the leadership of aristocratic or even royal patrons and attracted wealthy visitors.” These included a Ladies Bazaar and Fete Champetre in aid of the Royal Dispensary for Diseases of the Ear; a Fancy Fair sponsored by the Duchess of Kent for the cause of restoring the Lady Chapel at St. Saviour’s Church, Southwark; a fete for the abolition of slavery (1834), and the ‘Superb Gala for the benefit of the Distressed Poles’.
Balloon ascents had been taking place at Vauxhall since 1802, but it wasn’t until the 1820’s and Charles Green that regular balloon ascents and rides were held, generating much-needed income to keep the gardens a viable enterprise.
Green’s first flight was from Green Park on 19 July 1821 in honor of William IV’s coronation. Green’s balloons were larger because he used coal gas instead of hydrogen, which was easier and safer to inflate, as well as cheaper and less harmful to the silk canopy. Green’s
first flights from Vauxhall took place in July 1826. These were the first ever night ascents in Britain and were the climax of the firework displays. The aeronaut could be observed launching rockets and other incendiary devices from the car of the balloon beneath the main canopy.
Not only was Green a serious scientist, but also a skilled showman, which was a winning combination for Vauxhall. “In 1832 he and a ‘scientific gentleman’ went up at 6 p.m. To measure air pressures and carry out other experiments with barometers.”
Balloon ascents were the main reason for daytime opening. For the afternoon openings, Green staged balloon races with his brother and other family members, also giving rides to members of the public. Dickens went to see the spectacle and left a vivid description:
So we retraced our steps to the firework-ground, and mingled with the little crowd of people who were contemplating Mr. Green.
Some half-dozen men were restraining the impetuosity of one of the balloons, which was completely filled, and had the car already attached; and as rumors had gone abroad that a Lord was ‘going up’, the crowd were more than usually anxious and talkative. […] Just at this moment all eyes were directed to the preparations which were being made for starting. The car was attached to the second balloon, the two were brought pretty close together, and a military band commenced playing, with a zeal and fervor which would render the most timid man in existence but too happy to accept any means of quitting that particular spot on earth on which they were stationed. Then Mr. Green, sen., and his noble companion entered one car, and Mr. Green, jun., and his companion the other; and then the balloons went up, and the aerial travelers stood up, and the crowd outside roared with delight, and the two gentlemen who had never ascended before, tried to wave their flags, as if they were not nervous, but held on very fast all the while.
The Royal Vauxhall balloon
The proprietors of the gardens financed part of this balloon, which was intended by Green to be three times bigger than any previous gas ballon.
Measuring 150 feet in circumference and 80 feet high when inflated, it consisted of 2000 yards of raw Italian skill, dyed crimson and white and made up by Mssrs Soper of Spitalfields. Alternate 90-foot lengths were then stitched and glued together, producing a striking striped effect. The whole surface was coated in a varnish devised by Green himself and encased in a net of ropes. The car… was made of wickerwork, oblong in shape, with a bench seat all round the inside. On the exterior there were large gilded eagles at either end, and the sides were draped with purple and crimson velvet, richly embroidered. The cost of the whole machine was put at £2100, but since members of the public were charged for flights at the rate of £21 for gentlemen and £10 10s for ladies, this was soon recouped… Despite the cost, the public demand for flights was insatiable, as Benjamin Disraeli commented in 1837: ‘There is no news today: everything is rather flat and the room is thin as the world have gone to see the monster balloon rise from Vauxhall.
The Great Balloon of Nassau
John Hollins, A Consultation prior to the Aerial Voyage to Weilburgh, oil on canvas, 1836. Green is seated on the right, discussing the voyage with Robert Holland; between them stands Thomas Monck Mason, while the group by the window comprises (left to right) Walter Prideaux, Hollins himself and Sir William Melbourne James. The balloon is visible in the gardens behind them. (c) National Portrait Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
On 7 November 1836—without any prior notice—Thomas Monck Mason, Robert Holland, and Green took off in an attempt at a long-distance record. Financed by Holland, the provisions included 40 pounds of ham, beef and tongue, 45 pounds of fowls, as well as preserves, sugar, bread, and biscuits—not to mention two gallons each of sherry, port and brandy, and a device for heating coffee using quicklime.
Carried along on a north-westerly breeze, they passed Canterbury at 4 p.m., dropping a message for the mayor by parachute. Night fell after their Channel crossing between Dover and Calais so they sat down to a substantial supper.… Once it was light Green began seeking a landing site and brought the balloon safely to earth at 7:30 a.m., near the town of Wilbur in the Duchy of Nassau. The aeronauts had flown 480 miles in eighteen hours, easily setting the world record for the longest balloon flight.
Balloons with parachutes had been done since the 1790’s, and Robert Cocking developed a theory of aerodynamics that unfortunately led to his death. Besides the fact that his theory was faulty, the parachute was far too large and heavy. Green and others tried to dissuade him, but he was adamant, and when the parachute was detached from the balloon, it sunk like a stone, and Cocking died within ten minutes of landing from a serious head wound. Vauxhall held a benefit night for Cocking’s widow and Queen Victoria sponsored a public subscription to raise funds for her as well.
The tragedy of Cocking’s upside-down parachute
The plan for a lion tamer and a Bengali tiger to ascend never came to fruition, banned by the magistrate. “In 1850 Green went up on horseback, with his unfortunate mount locked onto a wooden platform by its hooves.
Handbill advertising Green’s ascent on horseback, 31 July 1850 (Museum of London, A8955). This appears to be a complimentary ticket issued by Green himself. The flight did take place, with the horse firmly locked in place by the hooves.
George Cruikshank’s Comic Almanac for 1851
Would you want to have lived near Vauxhall with all these stunts taking place? The following piece purports to be from a disgruntled local resident:
Sir, I reside near a place of popular amusement ‘al fresco’. I am of a cheerful though quiet disposition, and should be perfectly happy but for one circumstance. During the entire summer season I am in a continual state of terror from balloons.
It was in my front garden that the Ourang-outrang descended in a parachute in 1836. I then said nothing of the annoyance caused by the mob rushing into my lawn and scrambling for fragments of the machine, of the destruction effected among my crockery by the animal attempting to escape through my scullery, nor of the alarm which his sudden appearance in the Dining room excited in the bosoms of myself and my family. I thought the balloon mania had reached its highest pitch—no such thing, Sir. After that came the Nassau Balloon which used to take a dozen people up at once exactly over my house, about once a week; till a terrible dream haunted me of seeing the whole party discharged into my premises.
Then Balloons with fireworks, waking me up every other night, and gazing at one of which, out of a window, I received a sudden blow in the eye from a firework case, descending fifteen hundred feet perpendicularly. My next alarm was occasioned by a hamper of champagne, which during a ‘perilous descent’, when a valve gave way, some intrepid aeronaut pitched through my roof at midnight.
Now folks go up on horseback. Can I walk at ease in my garden and know that the veteran Green is three miles above me, performing equestrian feats in the air? Pray, Sir, exert your influence in my behalf, or we shall shortly hear of a ‘Terrific Ascent in a cab,’ to be eclipsed by ‘First ascent of the Monster Balloon, taking up the Pimlico Omnibus.’.
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