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Amusements of Old London: Sundry Diversions

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.”

“Modern” folks less brutal and more sophisticated

People of condition in the reigns of Anne and the Georges flocked to the Strand or to Covent Garden to see waxworks at Mrs. Salmon’s, or puppet-shows at Mr. Powell’s, or to watch Mrs. Saraband’s dogs and monkeys going through the operations of a siege with toy cannons and scaling-ladders.

Side by side with these innocent simplicities flourished the brutalities which we have examined in our inquiries into the humours of Hockley, the cockpit and the prize-ring, the last two at least of which famous institutions depended upon the support of well-to-do people for their prosperity and development. So too with the great mass of the people, separated in those days much more sharply from the classes than to-day. They delighted, as we have seen, in the primitive joys of Bartholomew’s Fair or the tea gardens, and were always ready to see much fun in the spectacle of a man grinning through a horse-collar. From such innocent diversion they would turn with joy to the horrors of the duck hunt or the cockshy; and a good place of vantage from which to see old Lovat’s head roll on the scaffold at the Tower, or Jack Rann swing into the air at Tyburn Tree, was held worth while spending the previous day to secure.

Whatever else may be said of the modern entertainments which appeal to the tastes and the purses of the London of to-day, it will not be contended that they lack humanity or err on the side of simplicity in execution or design.

“Simple and curious entertainments”

The naïveté of the audiences of the early part of the last century, and the ease with which they were amused, appear very plainly, we think, in the success which rewarded some very simple and curious entertainments of a spectacular character, which, by reason of that success, became serious competitors of the legitimate drama at Drury Lane.

Puppet Shows

Great people flocked to Mr. Powell’s establishment under the Piazza in Covent Garden in numbers which seriously reduced the takings of the patent houses, and hampered the progress of the exotic opera, then lately introduced into England.

These included marionette plays mixing biblical stories with Punch and Judy characters, such as “Punch and Judy dancing in Noah’s ark, Punch subsequently seating himself on the Queen of Sheba’s lap, fighting the Duke of Lorraine, and selling the King of Spain a bargain.”

Mrs. Salmon’s waxworks in Fleet Street near Temple Bar, foreshadowed Madame Tussaud’s.

Mrs. Salmon’s Waxworks

M. Bisset astonished the town… with his Cats’ Opera and troupe of other animals; monkeys taking wine together, riding on horses, and dancing minuets with dogs. One of M. Bisset’s hares walked on its hind legs and beat a drum… [He] also induced his six turkeys to walk through the steps of a country dance.

Pantomime, like Opera, crept into England at the beginning of the eighteenth century, “comique masques in the high style of Italie” were announced, and a ballet at Drury Lane of the Loves of Mars and Venus, where the whole story was told by gesture… foreshadowed the real pantomime which soon followed. Rich at Lincoln’s Inn Theatre produced a piece called “Harlequin Executed” in 1717, which is accepted as the first real pantomime by historians of the stage… Even Garrick himself found the pantomime a serious rival, and was wont to reproach his audiences in the prologues and epilogues which he turned so neatly.

GHL33155 Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, 1811

In the “modern” Victorian era, Boulton cites the “silly performances of the medical mountebank. Katerfelto

…took advantage of an epidemic of influenza to work upon the nerves of audiences with magic langterns and fearsome images of microbes and animalculae. His darkened rooms, black cats, and electric machines impressed his visitors hugely, instead of anticipating the fairly obvious fact later established by a magistrate, when his fire balloons set haystacks alight, that he was a rogue and a vagabond.

Dr. Graham, with the help of the lovely Emma, advocated mud-baths and lectured on “perpetual youth and beauty,” with the illustration of “blooming nursemaid… as the ‘Goddess of Health.'” The Celestial Bed held “great attractions for those wanting heirs, the ‘rosy Goddess of Health assisting at the celestial matters… and that sacred Vital Fire over which she watches.’ “With such attractions as these, Dr. Graham contrived to fill his rooms with a mob of silly people at five shillings a head.”

Philip Astley of Astley’s Amphitheatre was a “true pioneer” in the equestrian entertainment business “and should be canonised as the patron saint of all ringmasters. Astley saved George III’s life on Westminster Bridge and received a royal license. See more about Astley’s Amphitheatre in a previous post.

Like Heidegger, Tyers and others, Philip Astley and his son “claim mention here as men whose fortunes were made by devoting their energies to the amusement of the London of their day.”

Then there was cudgel-playing at open spaces like Spa Fields that drew large crowds. In 1768, “an extraordinary battle was fought in the Spa Fields by two women against two taylors for a guinea a head, which was won by the ladies, who beast the taylors in a severe manor.”

At Spa Fields and other places, grinning matches were popular attractions. In 1779, the authorities took advantage of “such assemblies of British manhood” by offering “an ox roasted whole and unlimited beer to the “friends of their king and country,” hinting at the advantages of enlistment. “Some men were enlisted, but more were impressed, as the bloodhounds were on the scent, and ran breast high.”

Boulton feels that Londoners came late to appreciate the value of the Thames as a source of entertainment, although its value for transportation exceeded London roads as late as the Regency.

People did swim in the Thames from Stuart times to George IV, however. “Mr. Benjamin Franklin, has left record of a swim which he took through London from Lambeth to London Bridge in the reign of George the Third.” In 1807, Lord Byron swam from Lambeth three miles with the tide.

The Thames appears to have been used as an opportunity for the common people to express their views without fear of retribution. People of fashion who traveled to Vauxhall by boat would hire musicians, not just for the entertainment value, but also for protection from unruly hecklers. “It was the pride and joy of the average boatload of apprentices from the city to unite the vulgarity of their whole company in an epithet of suitable brevity, and fire it off upon every passing boatload of their betters they encountered on the voyage.

The Folly, the only floating place of entertainment of which there is record, a large hulk moored off Somerset House in the days of the Restoration, and fitted up as a musical summer-house for the entertainment of the quality, sank from a resort of the fashionables “to a receptacle for companies of loose and disorderly people for the purposes of drinking and promiscuous dancing.”

The Ranelagh Regatta of 1775 was the first of many such functions. Later on, the proprietors of Vauxhall Gardens began offering prizes for sailing races, and that spurred on more interest in leisure sailing on the Thames.

Vauxhall Sailing Match, engraving, 1800 (Minet Library, London, Lambeth Archives Department, V. fo. 57). This appears to be the only surviving image of one of the Vauxhall sailing matches.

Then there was the cock-shy, or cock-throwing, which was celebrated on Shrove Tuesday.

On that holy day you might see, in all open parts of the town, cocks or hens tied by the leg, their owners offering sticks at twopence a throw at a range of a chain, or twenty-two yards, just, in fact, as one used to throw at cocoa-nuts at a country fair. The cock had a certain length of strong in which to manoeuvre, and his master had trained him to avoid the knock over, which him the property of his assailant, as long as possible, and so to earn may twopences.

The duck hunt, however, was not limited to a season.

The duck-pond was a small affair, and boarded to the height of the knee round its edges to prevent the excited spectators from falling in in their eagerness to follow the incidents of the sport. These all arose from the movements of a pinioned duck which was put into the water and hunted by a spaniel or spaniels. “It escaped,” we are told, “as long as it was able by diving.”

Survival of the Fittest

Of the amusements of our ancestors in London which we have examined in our inquiry, how many have survived to our times. Practically one, and one only, the theatre, which to-day perhaps fills a greater place than ever amongst the diversions of the town… Parks, of course, remain, but they are no longer the playground of fashion which London made of them in the days of the Ring or the Mall. The tea gardens and Vauxhall were features of the London of other days, which all who have studied their old delights must regret… We may congratulate ourselves upon the change in taste and manners which has rendered the excsses of the play tables impossible in these days. No one regrets the disappearance of Hockley in the Hole, or the closing of cockpits and prize-rings… Speaking generally, Londoners of all ranks have exchanged most of their former joys for diversions in which bodily exercise takes a chief part; the man who formerly lost his fortune at hazard or faro at White’s or Brooks’s now spends it in healthy forms of sport which take him over the country, and indeed, over the globe for its gratification. Men of a lower station play cricket and football or ride bicycles when they are young, and look on at others doing the same when age overtakes them. And London and England have surely gained by the change.

Amusements of Old London series

Vauxhall Gardens: The Final Decades, Part II

vauxhallbook

Vauxhall Gardens: A History

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!

C.H. Simpson: Master of Ceremonies

C.H. Simpson had held this office since 1797, but it wasn’t until 1826 that the decision was made to promote him as a “character” in the Gardens. “Thackeray described him as ‘the gentle Simpson, that kind smiling idiot.'”

He was renowned for his excessive politeness, servile manner and elaborate bows. With his top hat and silver-mounted cane, trademarks from the beginning his time at Vauxhall, he could easily be seen as a figure of fun. In his later years he came to be regarded as one of the great attractions of the place, greeting all visitors with his special brand obsequious courtesy.

George Cruikshank, with C.H. Simpson in the center raising his hat

George Cruikshank, with C.H. Simpson in the center raising his hat

Simpson’s exaggerated and hyperbolic style is amply demonstrated in the flowery language of his autobiography, The Life and Adventures of C.H. Simpson, Master of Ceremonies at the Royal Gardens, Vauxhall, from his Earliest Youth to the Sixty-fifth Year of his Age (Written by Myself, London, 1835)… He stated that…he was saved from drowning in a bathtub, aged three, by the family’s Newfoundland dog (called William Tell). In 1781 he joined the Royal Navy and took part in a major naval engagement in the Caribbean, the Battles of Saintes. He then enlisted as a second mate on a merchantman and sailed to New Zealand. Another voyage took him to China, but a terrible storm on the return passage determined him not to go to sea again. When he was twenty-one, already working at Vauxhall, he was set to marry a girl called Julia…; on discovering her with another, he broke off the engagement and remained a bachelor all his life.

Since almost every visitor to Vauxhall was met by Simpson there are many descriptions of him.

The appearance of this gentleman was in keeping with the oddity of his character. He was a short man, with a large head, a plain face, pitted with the small-pox, a thin thatch of hair plastered with pomatum and powder. His body and limbs were encased in black cloth of antique cut, and occasionally his head was covered with a hat as heavy as a coal-scuttle, or a life-guardsman’s helmet. This awkwardly constructed piece of felt was more often in his hand than on his head. He was continually bowing to everybody he met […] he was the very climax of obsolete politeness; the most obsequious and painstaking man to oblige everybody and express his gratitude for their condescension in giving trouble, that I ever remember to have met with.

According to another writer: ‘the moment he hears the faintest hum of an uproar, he glides away to the locus in quo, and it is miraculous to see how soon he gets to the core of the commotion. He pierces through the mob like an eel in mud.’

Robert Cruikshank, C.H. Simpson Esq.' M.C.R.G.V., engraving, 1833 (Lambeth Landmark 1301). The Master of Ceremonies is shown welcoming the Duke of Wellington, 19 August 1833, on the occasion of his benefit night. Cruikshank drew this scene in the gardens on the spot; the huge illuminated figure of Simpson was one of the special effects created for the event.

Robert Cruikshank, C.H. Simpson Esq.’ M.C.R.G.V., engraving, 1833 (Lambeth Landmark 1301). The Master of Ceremonies is shown welcoming the Duke of Wellington, 19 August 1833, on the occasion of his benefit night. Cruikshank drew this scene in the gardens on the spot; the huge illuminated figure of Simpson was one of the special effects created for the event.

Simpson’s obsequious manner was also put to use in diffusing difficult situations that arose in the gardens. If he was jostled by drunken diners, or had port splashed over his white gloves and waistcoat, he would ‘bow himself dry again’ and smile upon ‘the boorish Bacchanalian’ as though conferring the highest honour upon him.

The Battle of Waterloo

Although Vauxhall had frequently held military-themed galas and fetes, these were nothing like the stunning re-enactments performed at Astley’s Amphitheatre. Based on a play by Henry Amherst, the battle re-creation had three acts and up to the 90 riders, in addition to a huge cast of soldiers and impressive special effects.

Unsurprisingly, the Vauxhall proprietors figured they could do the same at Vauxhall, with more space and a more realistic setting.

In preparation for the show an area was cleared on either side of the firework tower, with shrubs and ornamental trees removed. The firework gallery itself was enlarged for viewers, and several supper-boxes were removed to give a clearer view from the walks in 1827. The Battle of Waterloo was to be performed by Mr Cooke’s stable of horses and his own troupe of equestrians; Cooke, a rival and imitator of Durrow based at the Royal Amphitheater in Liverpool, claimed that his Vauxhall show would involve more than a thousand performers. Every detail of the action was acted out and the performance concluded with a huge firework display, int he course of which Cooke promised to mount

His celebrated Charger, Bucephalus, and, at full speed, ride up a nearly perpendicular Rock, to the Temple of Fame, at the summit of the Fire-Work Tower, and there deposit the British and French Colours as an Emblem of Amity, in the Temple of Concord, a Feat unequalled in the Annals of Horsemanship.

This indeed took place and all were impressed by the fact that after the fiery ascent Cooke’s mount remained perfectly docile, despite the huge explosions of fireworks all around.

A review from The Times of 19 July 1827:

These Gardens presented the fullest attendance of visitors on Monday evening which we ever remember to have witnessed in that favorite scene of amusement. The leading attraction on this occasion consisted of a grand spectacle representing the Battle of Waterloo. […] We were by no means prepared to anticipate so high a degree of illusion as the exhibition of last Monday occasionally produced in the mind. […] As near a resemblance of the field of action as possible, with the various buildings of the farm-houses of La Belle Alliance, Hogomont &c was effected, aided by the trees, which, without much effort of imagination, where converted into the original wood that covered the rear of the British line. Here several hundred soldiers, horse and foot, personated the French and British troops; and after going through numerous evolutions, which were somewhat tedious, commenced the engagement, by the former attacking the wood and chateau of Hugomont, the walls of which were loopholed by British soldiers. The various features of the great battle of Waterloo were then successively presented, some of which were managed in a way that excited feelings of considerable interest. Others were, as might be expected, rather feeble, but the general effect was certainly striking; particularly when the chateau was in flames and the hostile armies furiously engaged in front of it; while here and there detached objects, such as an ammunition wagon blowing up, various single combats on horseback and on foot, Buonaparte flying from the field in his chariot, together with the roaring of the artillery, the continued discharge of musketry, and the dense clouds of smoke in which the whole scene was occasionally enveloped, imparted to it an appearance of reality, that almost rendered it independent of any effort of fancy for the moment to produce a strong illusion. The spectators seemed very much delighted with the spectacle, and from time to time loudly applauded the performance.

Of course, not everyone was so complimentary. Older folk lamented the days when one could go to Vauxhall for a pleasant evening of music and social discourse. The younger generation tended to think it was fabulous. Twelve-year-old Albert Smith:

The Battle of Waterloo was being represented on the firework ground, and I could not divest myself of the idea that it was a real engagement I was witnessing, as the sharpshooters fired from behind the trees, the artillery wagon blew up, and the struggle and conflagration took place at Hougomont. When I stood years afterwards at the real battle-field, I was disappointed in its effect, I thought it ought to have been a great deal more like Vauxhall.

Susana’s Vauxhall Blog Post Series

  1. Vauxhall Gardens: A History
  2. Vauxhall Gardens: Jonathan Tyers—“The Master Builder of Delight” 
  3. Vauxhall Gardens: A New Direction
  4. Vauxhall Gardens: The Orchestra and the Supper-Boxes 
  5. Vauxhall Gardens: The Organ, the Turkish Tent, and the Rotunda
  6. Vauxhall Gardens: Three Piazzas of Supper-Boxes
  7. Vauxhall Gardens: “whither every body must go or appear a sort of Monster in polite Company”
  8. Vauxhall Gardens: The Competition
  9. Vauxhall Gardens: The Artwork, Part I
  10. Vauxhall Gardens: The Artwork, Part II
  11. Vauxhall Gardens: The Music, 1732-1859
  12. Vauxhall Gardens: The Business Side
  13. Vauxhall Gardens: Developments from 1751-1786
  14. Vauxhall Gardens: Thomas Rowlandson’s Painting (1785)
  15. ‎Vauxhall Gardens: The Third Generation of the Tyers Family and the Jubilee of 1786
  16. Vauxhall Gardens: An Era of Change (1786-1822), Part I
  17. Vauxhall Gardens: An Era of Change (1786-1822), Part II
  18. Vauxhall Gardens: An Era of Change (1786-1822), Part III
  19. Vauxhall Gardens: The Final Years, Part I
  20. Vauxhall Gardens: The Final Years, Part II
  21. Vauxhall Gardens: The Final Years, Part III
  22. Vauxhall Gardens: The Final Years, Part IV
  23. Vauxhall Gardens: Farewell, for ever

Philip Astley: Equestrian, Showman and Entrepreneur

Philip Astley: Equestrian, Showman and Entrepreneur

Philip-Astley

Philip Astley: Early Life

Philip Astley was born in Staffordshire (about 150 miles from London) on January 8, 1742. When he was around eleven years old, his family moved to London, where his father had a carpentry shop near Westminster Bridge. In 1759, he went to be trained in horsemanship in Wilton at Lord Pembroke’s estate, where he showed extraordinary promise. Soon after, in search of excitement, he left his family and joined a regiment of light dragoons called Eliot’s Light Horse, later the 15th Light Hussars.

Astley’s Military Service

Astley was assigned to care for and train the horses to be “bomb-proof”, i.e., not to take off in fear at the sound of gunshot. His unit was soon shipped off to Hamburg, Germany to assist the Prussians in fighting the French in the Seven Years’ War. The 15th distinguished itself by being instrumental in capturing sixteen colors (flags) from the French, and one of them was taken by Philip Astley. Losing one such flag would be considered a disaster, so losing sixteen of them was humiliating for the French. The tactics and riding skills of the 15th were too much for the French to overcome. The 15th was awarded the country’s first ever Battle Honor and nicknamed “The Fighting Fifteenth.”

That same year, Astley earned the lifelong gratitude of royalty when he single-handedly rode through enemy lines to rescue Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, the Duke of Brunswick. A prince of the Holy Roman Empire, the duke was married to George II’s daughter and was the father of Princess Caroline, who would become the wife of George IV.

duke of brunswick

Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick

Astley continued to prove himself throughout the remainder of the Seven Years’ War. In 1766, he was discharged from the army and given a white charger called Gibraltar as a token of appreciation from his commander. Having married and become the father of John Philip Conway Astley, he took a job at a nearby riding school that demonstrated tricks as well as teaching riding skills. After a year, Astley obtained some property and started his own establishment.

Astley’s Amphitheatre: The Beginning

It was around 1768 when people would come around to watch Astley and his pupils perform equestrian tricks. A collection bucket was sent around, money started to pour in, and Astley began to hire musicians. He’d stand on his head on the back of a horse, straddle two cantering and jumping horses, and often be joined by his wife Patty, also a talented performer. Even at this early stage, Astley knew that variety was the best way to keep his audience happy, and he was never satisfied to keep performing the same tricks over and over again.

Mr. Astley, Sergeant-Major in His Majesty’s Royal Regiment of Light Dragoons. Nearly twenty different attitudes will be performed on one, two, and three horses, every evening during the summer, at his riding school. Doors to be open at four, and he will mount at five. Seats, one shilling; standing places, sixpence.

amphitheatre

It wasn’t long before Astley mysteriously found a diamond ring on Westminster Bridge and was able to lease (and then acquire) a piece of property south of the bridge. He cut down the timber and constructed the first Astley’s Amphitheatre, although it was first called The British Riding School. The fenced-in compound was in open-air, but had a covered standing area for visitors and a central viewing platform. Eventually, a dome-shaped roof covered the entire ring, and there was a room above the horses’ stables where wealthy visitors could sit.

The Licensing Act of 1737

Censorship was alive and well in England for more than two centuries due to this law that gave the Lord Chamberlain the power to approve or ban public performances. The only two theaters authorized to perform plays were Covent Garden and Drury Lane. Any other performances could get raided and their employees thrown into prison. Astley fought public officials trying to shut him down for many years, often using his upstanding military background and royal connections to keep his business going. At one point, George III himself came to his defense, perhaps because a dozen years earlier Astley had saved him from injury on Westminster Bridge when a horse pulling his carriage became uncontrollable. It didn’t hurt that Astley celebrated the King’s birthday on June 4th every year with a fireworks demonstration over the Thames either.

Astley’s Goes on Tour

As other performers—jugglers, rope-walkers, tumblers, clowns, etc.—were added, Astley’s role became more producer, artistic director, marketer, and business manager.

In the autumn, Astley used his army training to take his show on tour, where he would perform at fairs and gardens, in fields, and borrowed theaters, with staging and fencing loaded on wagons, as far away as Edinburgh.

It was, perhaps, inevitable that he would conquer the French with his extraordinary show. He charmed Marie-Antoinette, who called him “le plus bel homme d’Europe”, and in 1802, during a brief period of peace with the French, he achieved an audience with Napoleon and was granted reparations for the theater that was appropriated by the republican army during the revolution. Brussels, Vienna, and Belgrade were among the European capitals he captivated prior to the French Revolution

Astley’s After Astley

Rendell, Mike. Astley's Circus: The Story of an English Hussar. 2014
Rendell, Mike. Astley’s Circus: The Story of an English Hussar. 2014. Amazon

Following Philip Astley’s death in 1814, his son John managed the circus. After he died in 1821, Andrew Ducrow, son of the “Flemish Hercules” took over management of the Amphitheatre. Ducrow was the first performer to ride six horses at once. After Ducrow died (following a devastating fire—the third in its history—the property was rebuilt by William Batty. After Batty came a long a long line of new owners, but by the second half of Queen Victoria’s reign, Astley’s was long-since its prime. It was closed in 1893 and demolished two years later.

Astley’s Accomplishments

  • The first ringmaster. Astley went around in military costume announcing the acts in his booming voice, cracking the whip, and generally serving as Master of Ceremonies.
  • Pioneered the idea of the circus parade to create enthusiasm for his performances
  • Astley propagated the idea of a ring with a diameter of 42 feet as the optimal for circus acts.
  • Although he is often called the “Father of the Modern Circus,” he never called his venue a circus.

“…everything was delightful, splendid, and surprising!”

Charles Dickens, Master Humphrey’s Clock

For a detailed list of some of the “attitudes” offered in Astley’s performances, click here.