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.”
The “New” Spring Gardens
As mentioned in an earlier post, the original Spring Gardens was adjacent to Charles I’s gardens at Whitehall, which gave it an almost royal flavor. Naturally, its popularity was enough to convince the Puritans to shut it down, although it opened up almost immediately after the death of Cromwell. However, Charles II’s ambitious building plans put an end to it, leaving the name to the sole use of the Spring Gardens that had been established earlier in Lambeth along Kennington Lane.
Established around 1660, the “New Spring Gardens,” which, confusingly, ran alongside the “Old Spring Gardens” (the two were eventually combined), charged no admission, but made its profits solely on the sale of food and beverages. “Balthazar Monconys speaks of the place as “lawns and gravel walks dividing squares of twenty to thirty yards enclosed with hedges of gooseberry trees within which were planted roses.” No doubt the coincidence of the name being the same as the former royal gardens added to its popularity, as did the fact that it could best be accessed at the time by the highway of the Thames, there being no bridge between London Bridge and Kingston.
The fares on the Thames were extraordinarily moderate. There are regulations of the Corporation extant which tell us that the citizen wishing to go by Vauxhall by water could take a pair-oared wherry at Whitehall for sixpence, or if he was content with sculls for half that moderate fee. Then the journey by water was itself an attraction which brought advantages to the gardens. The place was in the country, and a visit in the heat of summer was something in the nature of an expedition to the substantial merchant from the city and his family. They were apt to stay longer and eat more after the little voyage, in which their appetites were sharpened by the fresh air of the river.
The name Vauxhall took its name from a famous manor in South Lambeth called “Fulke’s Hall,” Faukeshall, Foxhall, Vauxhall.
The Gardens After the Restoration
The humours of Spring Gardens at Charing Cross were removed to Spring Gardens at Vauxhall, with little maiming of their rites; there are the same rumours of syllabubs and cheesecakes, the same wandering of damsels through the close walks of the wildrness, the same whispering of gallants in love-locks to ladies in masks and flame-coloured gowns. Spring Gardens appear in the pages of Wycherley and Congreve, and Vanbrugh and Sedley, as a spot upon which much of the glitter and revelry of that reckless society, lately released from the bondage of the Puritans, displayed itself to the best advantage. The historical evidence of Mr. Samuel Pepys, too, is to the same effect. Samuel was there often, and in many moods; with the maids, with his wife, and without his wife but with other people’s at times. The vice of the age as exhibited by the company in the gardens, would shock him one day, and on another, he would kiss Knipp [actress Mary Nepp] in the arbour, “it being darkish.” But that quaint sinner can speak best for himself. “Thence to the new one,” he says in May of 1662, speaking of the Old and New Spring Gardens, “where I never was before, which much exceeds the other; and here we also walked, and the boy crept through the hedge, and gathered abundance of roses, and, after a long walk, passed out of the doors, as we did at the other place.”
Jonathan Tyers: The True Genius
It wasn’t until Jonathan Tyers took a lease on the place, added some acreage, and spent four years transforming the place that Vauxhall Gardens began to rise above all other such entertainments, in England, and also all of Europe (the capitals of which were damaged by war at one point or another). He saw Heidegger making a fortune on masquerades in the theatre and took the idea one step further by bringing them out-of-doors in the fresh air. His ridotto al fresco of 1732 was a great success.
It requires little imagination to recall the famous Ridotto al fresco of 1732; the river still without bridges, boat-loads of happy people in fancy-dress going up-stream, as the evening closed in, in boats preceded by others playing music, the lights of the flotilla and the fancy dresses and the music giving a touch of Venetian gaiety to the lovely but sober reaches of the Thames. There were some hundreds only of the élite of London Society admitted to this fête, as we are told, and Prince Frederick, Prince of Wales, came down the river in his barge from Kew. The night was fine, and they kept it up till the birds sang and the daylight came at four o’clock the next morning.
The success of the ridotto notwithstanding, the financial side of the gardens was precarious at first. At one point, when Tyers was feeling almost suicidal, he ran across William Hogarth, who was living across the street at the time. That began a longstanding friendship between the two. Hogarth lent his abilities to the enterprise by donating a painting to one of the saloons, as well as designing the silver or bronze season tickets. He himself received a lifetime ticket “to admit a coachful”, inscribed with “in perpetuam beneficii memoriam.”
The Physical Layout
The place was a parallelogram, and its main features were groves of trees which eventually assumed the dignity of forest timber, intersected by gravel walks crossing each other at right angles. It was entered by a gateway through an ordinary-looking house of brick of three storeys, which with a high brick wall enclosed the gardens on the western side bounded by Kennington lane. On the three other sides its borders were the hayfields of the open country. As you entered the place from the gateway through the manager’s house you looked up the Grand Walk, planted with a stately avenue of elms, and extending the whole length of the demesne. Parallel to the Grand Walk on the right hand ran the South Walk, an avenue of much the same length and dimensions, which was crossed by three triumphal arches of a rather debased Renaissance design. A third avenue, the Grand Cross Walk, ran across the whole garden at right angles to the two avenues we have named. On the right the Grand Cross Walk gave access to the Dark Walks, the Druids’ Walk, or the Lovers’ Walk, the secluded alleys of Vauxhall which gave the place much of its fame and not a little of its attractions for some of its patrons. On the left the Grand Cross Walk led to the Wildernesses and Rural Downs, more open shrubbery-like spaces which afforded a view of the country towards the river. The whole place covered about twelve acres…
The secret to Vauxhall’s long popularity was Tyers’s dedication to constant improvements to the grounds and attractions. He had sculptures of Handel and Milton made and placed them prominently in the gardens, as well as building an impressive orchestra in what he called the “Grove,” “a space of nearly five acres near the entrance on the right, where bands of the ablest musicians in London played good music in most imposing cocked hats, and tenors and prima donnas trilled and quavered for half a century.”
Round and about the Grove were clustered the temples, the pavilions, the rotundas, the great rooms, the music rooms, the picture rooms, the covered colonnades for wet weather, above all the famous supper boxes built in straight rows or curving sweeps. In those famous supper boxes, where generations of Londoners ate the noted Vauxhall chicken and ham, were the paintings which gave a quaint interest to each, every picture displayed by its own little oil lamp… Above all, Mr. Tyers lighted up the darkness of his groves “with above a thousand lamps so disposed that they all took fire together, with such a sudden blaze as was perfectly surprising.”
The illuminations of Vauxhall were undoubtedly arranged with much taste, and the sudden lighting of the lamps, with a simultaneous crash of music from the orchestra, had a considerable effect. Moreover, the illuminations of Vauxhall gained greatly by contrast with the aspect of the town of that day. Long after the general use of gas, London after nightfall was a dull and gloomy place. The streets were generally narrow and ill lighted… Vauxhall was really the only place where the citizen could see anything of the beauty of artificial light intelligently employed.
Vauxhall After Tyers
The great period of Vauxhall Gardens lasted, as we believe, until the year 1791, when the ordinary price of admission of one shilling was doubled by a new management, and a series of entertainments were begun… which marked the inevitable period of decline. Jonathan Tyers died in 1767, was succeeded by his son of the same name, and the old traditions of his management lasted until the year we have named.
Although there were still nearly seventy years of life, and perhaps half that number of prosperity, in store for Vauxhall, its history after 1791 interests us less… The old social features of the gardens are much less in evidence during its later history, the spectacular and the sensational much more… The taste of Londoners progressed if it did not improve, and the new views of life and its opportunities, which began to prevail after the Revolution in France, were no longer satisfied with the placid joys which had delighted earlier generations… There was a firework platform erected at the eastern end of the grounds, a firework tower, and a mast sixty feet high, fright which the “ethereal Saqui” descended on the tight-rope in a blaze of blue flame and Chinese fire… As the present century ran into its teens, there were changes which may have caused old Jonathan Tyers to turn in his grave. They cut down many of the trees in his grove, and two sides of that pleasant enclosure and a geat part of the Grand Walk were covered in by a colonnade with cast-iron pillars… The later Vauxhall of dancing-floors and balloon ascents, of spectacular panoramas of Arctic regions, if Indian jugglers and Mr. Ducrow’s equestrian entertainments—above all the Vauxhall of Mr. Simpson, the wondrous master of the ceremonies, the “gentle Simpson, that kind smiling idiot,” whose personality is preserved in the wonderful etching by Robert Cruikshank… The stout at Vauxhall grew muddier, the slices of ham, if possible, thinner, the chickens more skinny, and the company more raffish as modern England became transformed by railways and Reform Bills. There was no place in London for an entertainment which in anyway represented the old pleasant tradition of the al fresco.
For more information:
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 (11786-1822), Part I
- Vauxhall Gardens: An Era of Change (11786-1822), Part II
- Vauxhall Gardens: An Era of Change (11786-1822), 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