Tag Archive | Henry Fielding

Bow Street: Henry Fielding and the War Against Crime

A House in Bow Street

Crime and the Magistracy

London 1740-1881

Anthony Babington, 1969

Henry Fielding at Bow Street

Henry Fielding

From Wikipedia:

Henry Fielding (22 April 1707 – 8 October 1754) was an English novelist and dramatist known for his rich, earthy humour and satirical prowess, and as the author of the picaresque novel Tom Jones. Additionally, he holds a significant place in the history of law enforcement, having used his authority as a magistrate to found (with his half-brother John) what some have called London’s first police force, the Bow Street Runners.

At the time of Fielding’s appointment, the position of magistrate was lowly regarded, as a large number of magistrates enriched themselves by taking bribes, charging fees, and running bail bond services.

A lampoon from the journal, Old England:

Now in the ancient shop at Bow,

(He advertises it for show),

He signs the missive warrant.

The midnight whore and thief to catch,

He sends the constable and watch,

Expert upon that errand.

From hence he comfortable draws

Subsistence out of every cause

For dinner and a bottle.

No. 4 Bow Street

In spite of the fact that the basest motives had been attributed to him in becoming a magistrate, Fielding himself regarded his appointment as something of a challenge—perhaps the greatest and the final challenge of his whole life. He was finished as a playwright, he had failed as a barrister; his only novel had been cordially, but unenthusiastically received; he was burdened with poverty and ill health.

Fielding, already an acting justice for Middlesex, was granted properties valued at £100 a year by the Duke of Bedford for the purpose of fulfilling the property qualification for the position. At some point he was sworn in as a justice for Westminster—which had no property qualification—as well. In the autumn of 1748, he took cases in his home near Drury Lane, then to Meard’s Court, St. Anne’s, and by December had moved to the Bow Street Office.

By sheer good fortune Henry Fielding was brought into contact at that time with two honourable men, Joshua Brogden and Saunders Welch, both of whom shared his views and were ready to join to the utmost in his endeavours. Brogden, who became his clerk at the Bow Street Office, had been a magistrate’s clerk before.

[Saunders Welch] had occupied the position of High Constable of Holburn for about a year when Fielding came to Bow Street.  The office of High Constable was a part-time function which usually lasted for a duration of between one and three year. As a rule, it was performed by a successful tradesman—Saunders Welch was a grocer—and carried no official remuneration apart from a limited scale of allowances, although there were, of course, ample opportunities for illicit profit. Considering the period in which he lived, Saunders Welch was a high constable of quite exceptional honesty and skill. In fact, after working with him for six or seven months, Henry Fielding said he was ‘one of the best officers who was ever concerned in the execution of justice, and to whose care, integrity, and bravery the public hath, to my knowledge, the highest obligations.’

Initial Reforms

In order to provide for his own financial maintenance—and being unwilling to participate in the unscrupulous methods of boosting income used by his predecessors—he managed to get the government to pay him a regular salary out of public service money.

One of his first actions was to keep accurate reports and publish them in the newspapers.

Before Henry Fielding arrived at Bow Street there could have been very few, if any, full and authentic reports of the proceedings which took place at a magistrate’s house or his office. However, from the outset, Fielding arranged for the details of his cases, written by his clerk, Joshua Brogden, to be published regularly in certain newspapers. His object was not self-publicity, but rather to inform as wide an audience as possible of the types of offence then prevalent, the steps he was taking to overcome them, and to give an occasional dissertation on the requirements of the criminal law.

The following appeared in the St. James’s Evening Post in mid-December, 1748.  This account of a committal to prison of a man who had attacked and wounded a young woman with a cutlass ended:

It is hoped that all Persons who have lately been robb’d or attack’d in the Street by Men in Sailor’s Jackets, in which Dress the said ones appeared, will give themselves the trouble of resorting to the Prison in order to view him. It may perhaps be of some advantage to the Publick to inform them (especially at this time) that for such Persons to go about armed with any Weapon whatever, is a very high Offence, and expressly forbidden by several old Statutes still in force, on Pain of Imprisonment and Forfeiture of their Arms.

This was one of the earliest of Fielding’s celebrated ‘admonitions’ to the public which were to play such a large part in his campaign against crime during the next few years.

Henry Fielding’s Charge

A month after his election to the Chair of Westminster Sessions, Henry Fielding was called upon to deliver a Charge to the Grand Jury of Westminster. This event took place on the 29th June, 1749, and it must have been a significant occasion for him as it was the first time since becoming a magistrate that he had been given the opportunity of making an official pronouncement. Fielding’s fellow justices were so impressed by his Charge that they passed a resolution asking him to have it printed and published, ‘for the better information of the inhabitants and public officers of this City and Liberty in the performance of their respective duties.’ The Monthly Review commented: ‘This ingenious author and worthy magistrate, in this little piece, with that judgment and knowledge of the world, and of our excellent laws (which the publick, indeed, could not but expect from him) pointed out the reigning vices and corruptions of our times [and] the legal and proper methods of curbing and punishing them…’

The War Against Crime

The 1740’s in London was a time when the highwayman, the footpad, and the house-breaker ran rampant over weak and ineffectual peace-officers, and even when a criminal was captured, there was insufficient room in jails to accommodate them.

Henry Fielding was possessed of certain qualities which would have enabled him to become an outstanding magistrate… He had a fearless  independence of spirit, a complete impartiality of approach, a breadth of human understanding, and an infinite knowledge of law and procedure. He felt very little emotional affinity with his own social class. In 1743 he wrote that, ‘the splendid palaces of the great, are often no other than Newgate with the mask on’: and added, ‘a composition of cruelty, lust, avarice, rapine, insolence, hypocrisy, fraud and treachery, glossed over with wealth and title have been treated with respect and veneration, while in Newgate they have been condemned to the gallows’.

…under Henry Fielding the Bow Street Office, whilst remaining a private room in a magistrate’s ordinary residence, was conducted on the lines of a superior court, in an atmosphere of judicial dignity and according to the strictest principles of legal propriety. The office continued to be maintained solely out of the fees which were recoverable by law and by custom from arrested persons, prisoners and applicants for process.

Fielding’s office dealt with serious crimes such as burglary, assault, riot, coining, brothel-keeping, and smuggling as well as minor ones such as drunkards, gamblers, prostitutes, vagrants and beggars.

The justice administered by Henry Fielding was a sagacious blending of sternness, understanding, and compassion. He respected the life and property of the law-abiding citizen, and he knew how easily the delicate structure of society could be imperilled by the forces of disorder; therefore, he wasted little sympathy on the robber, the armed thug, the vandal or the rioter. On the other hand, he felt the deepest pity for the neglected victims of an economic system founded upon inhumanity and self-interest.

Fielding, while he had no qualms about sending juveniles and first-offenders to prison, advocated for less severe penalties for small thefts. He particularly criticized the sentencing of vagrants to houses of detention for the wantonly idle.

What good consequence can there arise from sending idle and disorderly persons to a place where they are neither corrected or employed, and where with the conversation of many as bad, and sometimes worse than themselves, they are sure to be improved in the knowledge, and confirmed in the practice of iniquity?

Employing the assistance of the law-abiding

With no centralised police force, and no effective liaison between the peace officers of the various parishes, it was extremely difficult to achieve even a limited co-rdination of effort. To overcome this obstacle Fielding decided to make a direct appeal to the public.

NOTICE AND REQUEST TO PUBLIC

All persons who shall for the future suffer by robbers, burglars, etc., are desired immediately to bring or send the best description they can of said robbers etc., with the time, place, and circumstances of the fact to Henry Fielding,Esq. at his house in Bow Street, or to John Fielding Esp. at his house in the Strand. [John was his brother, who continued Henry’s work after his death.]

Fielding insisted on the cooperation of the law-abiding, not only for the purpose of making reports, but also in attending his examinations of prisoners in order to make identifications.

Fielding’s thief-takers

The pre-cursors of the force later known as Bow Street Runners, Fielding’s “thief-takers” was a group of six ex-constables under the command of his lieutenant, Saunders Welch. These men were on call to be summoned to pursue villains at any moment.

After a robbery or a house-breaking, a message would be rushed to Bow Street, and the thief-takers, or as many of them as were available, would set out in immediate pursuit. Strangely enough, the system worked remarkably well. This was due partly to the fact that the London criminal had never before been confronted by an organised opposition, and also to the ever-increasing knowledge and proficiency of the thief-takers.

Jack Sheppard, a celebrated criminal of the age, is imprisoned in the gate house at the door of which sits a figure, thought by some to be Jonathan Wild besieged by a crowd of people seeking the return of their stolen property.

Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers

A treatise published by Fielding in 1751 stated bluntly that

“The streets of this town and the roads leading to it will shortly be impossible without the utmost hazard.” He claimed that even if the robbers were arrested, they would likely be rescued by their own gang, or by bribing or intimidating the prosecutor.

He asserted that the first cause of crime was idleness and public diversions, such as music and dancing halls. Later that year, an Act was passed bringing these entertainments under the supervision of the justices of the peace.

Next, he denounced drunkenness as “the odious vice, indeed, the parent of all others.” “He elaborated on the appalling consequences of the continued vogue of spirit-drinking, and suggested higher taxes on gin, and a much firmer control over the places where it was sold. Many of the provisions of the Gin Acts of 1751 and 1753 were based on his proposals.”

He also criticized rampant gaming and lotteries, and the application of the Poor Law, as well as defects in the criminal law and criminal procedure. A month later, “a Parliamentary Committee was set up… to revise and consider the laws in being, which relate to felonies and other offences against the peace. The Lloyd Committee… was strongly influenced by Henry Fielding’s views and made a number of recommendations which accorded closely with his suggestions. As a result, several statutes were enacted during the next few years which profoundly affected the future development of the British criminal law.”

Another of his proposals was a law be passed making it illegal to receive stolen property, thus making it more difficult for thieves to dispose of their booty. An effort was made to require pawnbrokers to obtain a license, but this was passed.

Fielding condemned the system by which criminal prosecutions had to be brought by, and in the name of, a private individual, for this resulted in a large number of known offenders never being charged at all. The victim of a crime might be deterred from charging the culprit by threats or intimidation; he might be too indolent to embark on legal proceedings; he might be tender-hearted and, in an era when every felony was nominally a capital offence, averse to taking away the life of a fellow-being; above all, he might be unable or unwilling to bear the costs involved in a prosecution [which might mean traveling great distances for himself and potential witnesses]. … The answer to this, Fielding suggested, was that the county or the nation should pay the expenses of all prosecutions. [This proposal was adapted in part and later became implemented more fully in the development of criminal prosecutions financed out of public funds and presented in the name of the Crown.]

Fielding was intensely critical of the frequency of executions, and of the method in which the hangings were carried out. Fundamentally, a public execution was supposed to produce an atmosphere of terror and shame amongst the onlookers, but ‘experience hath shown that the event is directly contrary to this intention’. The triumphal procession from Newgate to Tyburn, the huge crowds; the condemned prisoner’s final speech from the scaffold; the veneration, the excitement, the acclaim—all these tended to turn a day of infamy into a day of glory.

He suggested that executions should be conducted with much greater solemnity and should be witnessed by as few spectators as possible. Further, they should take place very soon after the crime itself, ‘when public memory and resentment are at their height’. At the end of a trial, he said, the court should adjourn for four days, and then the prisoner should be brought back, sentences to death, and executed forthwith just outside the court, ‘in the sight and presence of the judges’.

Fielding’s proposal for speedier executions was “put into effect in 1752 in respect of executions for murder, by an act which provided that, unless the judge knew of reasonable cause for delay, the condemned murderer was to be hanged two days after the passing of sentence.”

Accolades at last for Henry Fielding

The Enquiry was received with interest and with praise; even Horace Walpole, no friend to Henry Fielding, described it as ‘an admirable treatise’. The Monthly Review in January 1751, paid this glowing tribute:

The public hath been hitherto not a little obliged to Mr. Fielding for the entertainment his gayer performances have afforded it, but now this gentleman hath a different claim to our thanks, for services of a more substantial nature. If he has been heretofore admired for his wit and humour, he now merits equal applause as a good magistrate, a useful and active member and a true friend to his country. As few writers have shown so just and extensive a knowledge of mankind in general, so none ever had better opportunities for being perfectly acquainted with that class which is the main subject of this performance.

Bow Street: Thomas de Veil’s London

A House in Bow Street

Crime and the Magistracy

London 1740-1881

Anthony Babington, 1969

Thomas de Veil’s London

Some time in 1740 Colonel Thomas De Veil, a justice of the peace for the Count of Middlesex and for the City and Liberty of Westminster, decided to move his magistrate’s office from Thrift Street, now called Frith Street, in Soho to a house at Bow Street in Covent Garden.

Thomas de Veil

The Covent Garden area was once pasture land owned by the Abbots of Westminster. Later, it became the site of Inigo Jones’s famous Piazza, with fashionable terraced houses and a small church. The nobility and the gentry scrambled to build homes here.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century the character of Covent Garden was undergoing a perceptible change. It was, perhaps, inevitable that the ultra-fashionable Piazza and the locality all about it should attract a swarm of tradesmen, artisans and others who were needed to cater for the requirements of the wealthy. At the same time the narrow passages, the darkened alleys, and the secluded courtyard which separated the streets and the houses drew in a far less respectable segment of the community. Another factor affecting the type of inhabitant settling in the neighbourhood was the continual tendency of the nobility and the aristocracy to drift westwards as other areas were developed further and fruther from the walls of the City. Soon after the Restoration the newly-built St. James’s Square superseded the Piazza as the centre of fashion, and in the early days of the eighteenth century Mayfair was further developed with the setting up the palatial mansions of Cavendish Square, Hanover Square and Grosevenor Square. However, one of the major factors which contributed to the transformation of Covent Garden was that it was becoming the principal artistic and theatrical locality of London.

Covent Garden in 1737, by Nebot

Actors and actresses and their audiences flocked to theaters such as Drury Lane, the Opera House, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and Covent Gardens. Literary folk and ‘wits’ flocked to the coffee-houses such as Will’s, Buttons’s, and Tom’s. When Tom King died, his widow turned his coffee-house into a brothel. And so it was that “the streets of Covent Garden and the Strand became the chosen haunts of the prostitutes.”

Royal Opera House

“An age of lawlessness and disorder in which the power of the mob and the violence of the criminal were ever paramount”

It was becoming obvious that the current system of policing was inadequate. Streets were especially dangerous at night due to the lack of a proper lighting system.

Pickpockets

A guidebook of the period warned its readers: “A man who saunters about the capital with pockets on the outside of his coat deserves no pity.” As shown by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist, young boys and girls could be very deft at this particular offense. Richard Oakey would trip up a woman from behind and remove her pocket (pockets dangled from the waist on the outside of a woman’s dress) before she hit the ground. Mary Young had a pair of artificial arms made so that she could sit primly in a church pew with the artificial arms folded on her lap while she used her real arms to rob from those sitting next to her.

Footpads

Henry Fielding said that the alleys, courts and lanes in London were “like a vast wood of forest in which a thief may harbour with as great security as the wild beasts do in the deserts of Africa or Arabia.” And not just at night either. Fanny Burney complained about footpads and robbers before breakfast.

Criminals operating in gangs made the situation even worse. In 1712, a band of thugs called the Mohocks would greet people in the streets and if they responded, beat them up. They attacked the watch in Devereux Court and Essex Street; they also slit two people’s noses, and cut a woman in the arm with a pen-knife. One night about twenty of them stormed the Gatehouse, wounded the jailor, and released their confederate from the jail.

No person was safe and equally no home was secure. Madam Roland… said that when the wealthy left London in the summer they took with them all their articles of value or else sent the lot to their bankers, because ‘on their return they expect to find their houses robbed.’

Highwaymen

The highwaymen were regarded both by the public and amongst the criminal fraternity as being the princes of the underworld. It is difficult to understand why they had so glamorous a reputation in the eighteenth century and, indeed, why their image has been so romanticised ever since. By and large they were simply robbers on horseback and many of them had deplorable backgrounds. Dick Turpin’s gang, for example, was well-known for violence, terrorism, rape, and even murder.

Their favorite hunting-grounds were the roads just outside London. For that reason, dwellers of the suburban areas organized vigilante patrols, and in some areas, squads of soldiers were used to escort travelers in and out of town. Horace Walpole told of an attack on a post-chaise outside his home in Piccadilly, and also of a personal encounter with two of them in Hyde Park.

Why the mounting lawlessness?

Some blamed it on the “large numbers of disbanded soldiers and sailors roaming the country without work and without subsistence. Others held that it was due to drunkenness and cheap gin. A few—but a very few—saw a possible cause in the harsh administration of the Poor Laws and the way in which homeless and the destitute were hounded from parish to parish, coupled with the terrible social conditions of the poor.”

Whatever the reasons, the precincts of the capital and its approaches were deteriorating into a state of lawlessness which bordered on anarchy, and the machinery for preserving the peace was becoming increasingly impotent. The ancient system with its corner stones in the amateur magistrate and the part-time constable, had worked comparatively well throughout the ages in the rural areas of Britain but had proved completely unadaptable to an expanding urban community. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the basic problem remained unsolved—and barely appreciated.

It was in a London such as this that Colonel Thomas De Veil opened his Office at Bow Street.

The Four Times of the Day

The Four Times of the Day, a series of paintings by Hogarth in 1738, illustrated the sort of place Covent Garden had become. Read more about it here.

Amusements of Old London: The Fairs

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.”

In a country such as England that drew much more of its income from agriculture than manufacturing in this time period, it is interesting to note that the most popular time for holidays and festivities was late summer and autumn, when farming activities intensified. Just at the time when gentlemen itched to be in the country at their hunting and field sports, the peers were called to London for the rise of Parliament.

And yet it was in those months that this instinct of the English taught them to lay aside their cares and get what enjoyment they could from the means nearest at hand. Before the era of railways and cheap travelling the great mass of the population of London never went twenty miles from St. Paul’s, and the sport they enjoyed took the form of the delights provided by Hockley in the Hole, the Ducking Ponds, and the Cockpits… And yet, as the summer passed away, and the dog-days raised a heat from the cobblestones which drove the dogs themselves into the shade of alley and entry, the common people of London, instead of panting for the water-brooks or the sea-shore, prepared themselves for the great carnivals which were prepared for their delight in one or other of the great fairs of the town.

These annual gatherings followed each other in quick succession in the hot months of the year in the not very promising surroundings of Smithfield, or Southwark, or Westminster. The glory of these entertainments was at its zenith at the beginning of the eighteenth century…

…[T]heir origin was religious, their development commercial, and their apotheosis an unrestrained indulgence in pleasure or license…

The St. Bartholomew Fair

(see more on the origins of the fair on another blog post)

In the late seventeenth century, amidst all the rope dancers, jugglers, and puppet shows, a well-known actor by the name of Penkethman set up a theatrical booth. A plethora of theatrical entertainers followed, including Doggett (a comedian famous from the annual waterman’s race on the Thames), Miller (from Drury Lane), Bullock, Simpson, Colley Cibber (poet laureate and member of White’s), Quin, Macklin, Woodward, Shuter, and many more. “The theatrical movement, in fact, became so pronounced that as time went on most of the favourite actors of the day did not disdain to tread the boards in the temporary booths of the fair.”

Colley Cibber, bust now at the National Portrait Gallery

Colley Cibber, bust now at the National Portrait Gallery

The dramatic entertainments which were in fashion at the fairs… consisted almost invariably of some prodigious long-winded scheme dealing with such portentous subjects as “The Loves of the Heathen Gods,” “The Creation of the World,” “The Siege of Troy,” “Jephthah’s Rash Vow,” “Tamerlane the Great,” lightened up with much comic relief, in which an eccentric English character took a part totally irrelevant to the particular epic comprised in the plot. These productions came to be called “drolls,” and you may trace int hese drolls the germs of many forms of variety entertainment popular to-day, including, perhaps, that of English pantomime… The puppet-shows… followed the dramatic taste set by the actors.

Bartholomew Fair indeed became so great a nursery of dramatic talent that many actors afterwards famous obtained their first chance at Smithfield. The fair became a sort of theatrical exchange, where managers during their annual visits were often able to find the valuable recruits, and where strolling players from the provinces were accustomed to attend in the hope of engagements with regular companies.

Henry Fielding

Henry Fielding

…[T]he managers of the great theaters found it profitable to close their houses altogether… and take their companies to Smithfield, where they found they could earn more money from the audiences who flocked to their shows during the whole day than from the single performances of the patent theatres… Mr. Henry Fielding, for instance, fresh from Eton and Leyden, but without a guinea in his pocket… set up a booth, and for ten years provided an entertainment for the people at the fair… Fielding produced “The Beggars’ Opera” at Smithfield, occasionally trod the boards himself, and received the honour of a visit from the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1732, who were much delighted with his historical drama of “The Fall of Essex.”

Unfortunately, the activities of the fair were periodically harassed by “persecution from the puritanical busybodies… [who] frequently succeeded in closing the booths, and left the fair to the gin-stalls, gaming-tables, and jugglers, diversions which were presumably less vicious in their eyes…” Sometimes the “puritanical spirits” would persuade the city government to disallow the booths on the night before the fair. “The ordinary attractions of the fair would then be enlivened by a riot of first-class dimensions, which always resulted in assault and battery, and sometimes in sudden death.”

The end of the theatrical entertainments at Smithfield came about when the powers-that-be limited the fair from fourteen days to three. Three days didn’t pay an actor or manager enough to make it worthwhile. At that point, the attractions changed to such things as menageries of wild beasts, or spectacles such as the “double-cow” or the “mermaid.” As the nineteenth century approached and the audiences became less naïve, the entertainments became slightly more sophisticated, with lion tamers putting their heads in the lion’s mouth, rope-dancing, magicians, peep-shows, etc. Just the chance of rubbing shoulders with nobles and even royalty was enough to draw people to St. Bartholomew’s.

It was no uncommon sight at St. Bartholomew’s, to see an exquisite like Chesterfield, or a great minister like Sir Robert Walpole, with his star on his breast, tasting the diversions of the fair alone and on foot. Parties of bloods from White’s and Almack’s were not above exchanging humorous badinage with the fruit-sellers, or the prettier of the strollers or acrobats, or even chucking them under the chin.

Southwark Fair

The Southwark Fair, on St. Margaret’s Hill near Southwark Town Hall, originated in the year 1550 and continued for more than two hundred years.

As the 7th of September came around in each year, the same gin stalls, gaming-tables, gingerbread stalls, and theatrical booths which had delighted Smithfield were packed up, taken across the river, and displayed in all their attractiveness to new audiences of South Londoners at Southwark.

Although smaller in scale than the fair in Smithfield, the acrobat and rope-dancing acts excelled at Southwark, primarily because of the more laissez-faire attitude of the local government. Mr. Cadman, who used to swing his way on a rope across the street from St. George’s Church tower to the mint, eventually “came to a sad end in attempting a bold flight across the Severn at Shrewsbury.”

southwarkall

The humours of Southwark Fair inspired Mr. Hogarth in one of his finest efforts, wherein are reflected so admirably the life of his times, and that excellent plate of Southwark Fair is as good an illustration as need be of the importance of the festival among the popular diversions of the middle of the eighteenth century. The greatly daring acrobat on the rope stretching from the church tower to the Mint, which is out of the picture, is the great Mr. Cadman himself; the artist on the slack rope on the other side of the picture is a back view of the Violante. Mr. Figg, the famous “Master of the Noble Science of Self-defence,” displays his honourable wounds on the right. His booth is round the corner and he is riding through  the fair with very martial aspect to gather clients to witness a set-to between himself and some other bald-pated hero of the sword or quarter-staff. On the right of the pretty girl with the drum and the black page, who is effectively advertising the show which she represents, is Tamerlane the Great in full armour, being arrested by a bailiff. The enormous posters of the background, which almost blot out the church, and display the attractions of the Fall of Troy, the Royal Waxworks, and the wonderful performance of Mr. Banks and his horse, are all quite typical of the London fair, and Mr. Hogarth’s grim humour appears to perfection in the title of the show which he represents as tumbling into the street on the right, with its actors and orchestra and monkey on the pole, the “Fall Bagdad.” Note too the peep-show and the hag presiding over the gaming-table, and the pleasant glimpse of open country between the houses.

May Fair

See more about the May Fair here:

The End of the Great Fairs

These fairs mostly came to an end around the mid-eighteenth century, when the crowd became wilder, the entertainments more tawdry, and the patrons (such as the “great people of St. James’s”) harder to find. The days of when people could be entertained by simple things like tea gardens and fairs disappeared into the annals of history.

Vauxhall Gardens: The Organ, the Turkish Tent, and the Rotunda

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!

The Organ Building

In 1737, the Organ Building was built, after numerous delays related to “the acoustics and audible range of the organ in this outdoor setting, as well as the damping of the building itself to ensure that no structural vibrations spoiled the sound.”

This square structure was the same width as the Orchestra, and was on three levels; a heavy lower storey supported the first floor where a short bridge joined the two buildings together. This first floor, at the same level as the first floor of the Orchestra, was partly taken up by the organ console and pipes, and partly by a covered open space running all around it. The building then rose to the ‘belfry’, which had louvred semicircular openings on all four faces to project the sound of the organ around the gardens… The lower storey, totally unrelieved by any surface decoration, was pierced by a triple arch on each of its four plain faces, one taller arch flanked by two smaller; the taller central arch on each face was a hybrid triform arch which gave the building a real visual strength and presence.

organ005

Vauxhall and the Weather

The typical rainy English weather, especially on opening day every spring, was a significant problem for an outdoor business such as this one. In 1740, due to the loss in business caused by the poor weather of 1739, Tyers announced “several considerable Additions and Improvements,” which were later described as “Conveniences for receiving Company in cold or rainy Weather,” whatever that means.

Weather-related jokes at Vauxhall’s expense were commonplace; especially popular was the one about a farmer waiting to see when the gardens were going to open, so he would know when to plant his crops, a good few days of drenching rain being assured.
The regularity of rain on Vauxhall’s opening night increased in the nineteenth century; so much so that, at one stage, announcements advertising the forthcoming opening were carried around town printed on umbrellas.

The Three “Tents”

In 1742 Henry Fielding described his impressions on entering the gardens. The first structures he saw there were ‘two similar Tents’ under the trees of the Grove, ‘of such a Contrivance and Form, as a Painter of Genius and Judgement would chuse to adorn his Landscape with.’ If these were, in fact, the shelters that Tyers had announced two years earlier offering protection from cold and wet weather, their position was certainly appropriate, between the Orchestra and the Prince’s Pavilion, and only a few yards from the entrance and the servery. The word ‘tent’ did not specifically apply to a canvas structure; indeed, it could refer to almost any temporary building, especially in a garden.

A “Turkish Tent” was built as an undercover dining area for visitors who could not get a supper-box or wanted to have a more entertaining party. “Its exotic style, more closely associated with Venetian festivals… allowed visitors to act the part of Eastern potentates relaxing on their magnificent bed under a grande baldacchino.

The design of this structure is clearly more informal and frivolous than the strictly classical styles favored by Tyers in his earlier buildings.

The Rotunda

In the 1740’s, other entrepreneurs jumped into the pleasure gardens business, the most successful of which were Ranelagh and Marylebone Gardens.

In the face of serious competition from such places and in view of the unreliable British summer, Tyers was under constant pressure to introduce regular improvements whenever adequate funding was available. At the end of the 1740s he went one step further, and, playing the proprietors of Ranelagh at their own game, installed a major new structure as a grand assembly room and concert hall for use by the band when the weather was too wet or windy.

Variously called the ‘Umbrella Room’, the ‘Music Room’, the ‘Great Room’ or simply the Rotunda, Tyers’s building, with its orchestra stand and organ, was capable of accommodating as many musicians as its outdoor equivalent.

rotunda006

The most remarkable feature of the original Rotunda was undoubtedly the chandelier described by Lockman as having been designed by a gentleman amateur. This chandelier, 11 feet across and with 72 candles, must have been one of the largest in the country, a hugely impressive piece of furniture, and its grandeur was considerably enlightened sometime later by the addition of a plaster sculpture, the Rape of Semele by Jupiter.

The Rotunda was redecorated at intervals… The modelled floral decoration of the ceiling was stripped out in 1765, and the roof re-painted ‘in the resemblance of a shall. For the opening gala of Tuesday 18 May 1790, the Rotunda, growing ever more exotic, was fitted up in imitation of a Persian divan. It was then redecorated several times, becoming by turns a garden tent, a Roman military pavilion, an Indian garden-room and, finally, a circus hippodrome, with two tiers of audience boxes, a proscenium stage and a central ring for displays of horsemanship and circus acts.

 

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

Vauxhall Gardens: Jonathan Tyers— “The Master Builder of Delight”

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!

“The Master Builder of Delight”

In 1729, the site of the “Vauxhall Spring-Gardens was leased to a twenty-seven-year-old entrepreneur called Jonathan Tyers, whose goal was to transform it from a sort of seedy rural tavern to a respectable venue for all social classes.

A fellmonger (dealer in animal hides or skins) by trade, Jonathan was not content to continue the family business, successful though it was. Driven by a desire to raise his family’s status—and improve the world as he did so—Tyers believed that culture and pleasurable entertainments should not be the sole prerogative of the upper classes, but that the middle and lower classes deserved to find some enjoyment in their lives as well.

tyers family

Family portrait by Francis Hayman, Jonathan Tyers and his Family, 1740. Left to right: Elder son Thomas, Jonathan, daughter Elizabeth, son Jonathan, wife Elizabeth, daughter Margaret.

Jonathan Tyers was a very complex character, with more than his fair share of contradictions and eccentricities. Upright, intelligent and self-assured, he also exhibited strains of arrogance and ambition. However, his ambitions were clearly projected chiefly upon his business rather than himself, while his personal aspirations were driven by a wish to raise his own status and that of his family to gentry, an object in which he succeeded at a remarkably early age. (p.35)

Through his association with The Wits’ Club, a social club for freethinkers, scholars, libertarians, and writers, Tyers became good friends with Charles Burney, Henry Fielding, William Hogarth, Harry Hatsell, Edward Moore, Thomas Cooke, Richard Dawson, and Leonard Howard. The club first met at Vauxhall Gardens later moved to a nearby tavern. Many of the ideas behind his development of the gardens came from the discussions at this club.

Although he never managed to mix with fashionable society in his lifetime, he was held in great respect and admiration by his peers, so much so that he was elected to the Royal Society of Arts in 1757, where he would have met many other prominent people, including Benjamin Franklin, when he visited London.

He and his creation were even featured in his friend Henry Fielding’s work of fiction, Amelia (1751).

The extreme Beauty and Elegance of this Place is well known to almost every one of my Readers; and happy is it for me that it is so; since to give an adequate Idea of it, would exceed my Power of Description. To delineate the particular Beauties of these Gardens, would, indeed, require as much pains and as much Paper too, as to rehearse all the good Actions of their Master [Tyers], whose Life proves the Truth of an Observation which I have read in some Ethic Writer, that a truly elegant Taste is generally accompanied with an Excellency of Heart; or in other Words, that true Virtue is, indeed, nothing else but true Taste.

The_Works_of_Henry_Fielding_Amelia_v2_1000373134

Tyers’s Mission

Besides his goal of cleaning up the gardens’ reputation, Tyers hoped to use the venue to improve people’s lives “through contact beauty and quality.” In other words, he planned to provide the lower orders with both art and beauty, and also expose them to “polite society,” who would educate them by example.

His influence on the manners and morals of eighteenth-century society was to be far-reaching, and his patronage of artists and designers would change the face of British art. But it was his ideological beliefs and priorities, his egalitarianism and his conviction that the pursuit of pleasure was a basic human right, and a vital element of the balanced life, that would really motivate his proprietorship of Vauxhall Gardens.

The Ridotto al Fresco

Tyers’s first event at Vauxhall was a masquerade ball in the manner of the Italian carnival in the spring of 1731. Not much is known of this event, except that there was outdoor dancing in masquerade costume and was restricted to the upper classes.

The Ridotto in Venice, Pietro Longhi, 1750's

The Ridotto in Venice, Pietro Longhi, 1750’s

By contrast, his second event in April of 1732, was attended by the poorer class of people, including “an oyster girl, a barber’s apprentice, a lawyer, an army captain, a doctor, a vicar and a number of prostitutes…”

The third event, considered to be the opening ceremony of Tyers’s Vauxhall Gardens, took place on 7 June 1732 and included the presence of Frederick, Prince of Wales. Under the guidance of John James Heidegger, Tyers created an extraordinary event that was talked about for years. A hundred armed soldiers were employed for the security of the distinguished guests, and he “hired the Westminster and Lambeth ferrymen for the whole night to carry his guests across the river and back.” Even with an admission fee of a guinea—which only the wealthy could afford—“between three and four hundred people actually attended the ridotto.” Besides the Prince of Wales’s entourage, the guests included politicians and their friends, “lawyers, bankers, printers, brewers, churchmen, military men and aristocrats.” The party broke up at around four in the morning. “The principal entertainments…were dancing and feasting, combined with the social intercourse between masked guests.”

The Ridotto in Venice, Pietro Longhi, 1750's

The Ridotto in Venice, Pietro Longhi, 1750’s

While by most accounts—particularly in the view of the Prince of Wales—this event was a great success, other accounts indicate that there was a distinct theme of preaching and moralizing via buildings set up to show the misery and pain that result from excessive self-indulgence that may have not gone over too well with the party-minded guests.

In any case, his final ridotto, which was held two weeks later on 21 June, likely at the request of the Prince, who was having the time of his life, was attended by only half as many, which, considering his expenses, would likely have completely wiped out any profits from the four events. No doubt this is the reason Tyers held no such events during 1733 or 1734, although the gardens themselves likely continued to be open to the public.

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