There were more than sixty pleasure gardens in the London area by the mid-eighteenth century, with many more to be found in the larger towns or spa towns of England. They grew out of fashionable society’s desire for a sanctuary from city living, places free of the pungent odours, overcrowding and other city hazards where they could promenade and gossip. Good health was also keenly sought and spas and springs became fashionable as their waters were used as a cure for almost everything.
The smallest pleasure gardens were of modest size, usually a public house with an outdoor bowling green and tea garden. If a spring or spa was discovered and could be claimed to have curative powers, that was a bonus – patrons could enjoy themselves and treat their ailments at the same time. The second, slightly larger variety not only offered tea and bowling, but other entertainments too. Their attractive spaces were larger, incorporating gravelled walks.
The third form of pleasure gardens offered the greatest decadence. Through artful design, the finest pleasure gardens offered entertainment amid a romantic landscape that appeared natural and unspoilt. Visitors could an escape to the pleasurable delights of an exotic, magical world with lantern-lit walks, grottos, triumphal arches, artificial ruins and cascades. Here they could see and be seen by fashionable society and for the first time, entrance was not by invitation according to title or class, but for everyone who could afford the entrance fee. Royalty paraded alongside debutantes and courtesans. Famous figures such as Pepys, Walpole, Dr. Johnson and Admiral Nelson partook of the pleasures of the gardens and attending them became a vital part of the London Season. Here's more detail on some of the most popular London pleasure gardens:-
Sadler’s Wells 1684-1698
In June 1683, Dick Sadler, surveyor to the King, built a ‘Musik-House’ near a country footpath leading from Clerkenwell to Islington. By chance that summer he had discovered a medieval well in the grounds of his house. The enterprising Mr. Sadler was quick to promote the water's health-giving properties, believing it could rival the popular spa at Tunbridge Wells. The gardens were extended and Sadler’s Wells soon became a fashionable attraction. People flocked there to stroll in the gardens and enjoy the entertainment. Jugglers, tumblers, rope-dancers, ballad-singers, wrestlers, stage-fighters, dancing dogs, a tightrope walking monkey and even a singing duck performed there.
It became a theatre after 1698.
Cuper’s Gardens, Lambeth 1686-1753
It was Boydell Cuper, gardener to the Howard family, who first visualized a resort on the south bank of the Thames. Vistors approached from the river via a landing stage (known as Cuper’s Stairs) next to an octagonal gazebo. A lane led down to the entrance of the Gardens, beyond which lay winding pathways, a central walkway (lined with some of salvaged antiquarian marble statues and busts that Thomas Howard, the Second Earl of Arundel had brought back from his foreign travels eighty years earlier), a bowling green and a lake. It opened in 1691 and in the early days the Gardens were mainly a place to stroll and relax. After Cuper’s death, others developed the gardens, introducing orchestras and firework displays and they soon became popularly known as Cupid’s Gardens, perhaps because of the amorous and dissipated overtones that they became renown for! The resort closed in 1753 and was subsequently bought by a wine and vinegar manufacturer. The National Theatre now stands on roughly the same site.
Marylebone Gardens 1668-1778
After Vauxhall and Ranelagh, Marylebone Gardens was the most famous pleasure garden of the 18th century. Marylebone Gardens originally consisted of two bowling greens adjoining the Rose Tavern. Its size was increased by the acquisition of land in the grounds of Marylebone Manor House (once one of Henry VIII’s hunting lodges) and it became a recognized pleasure garden in 1738, when Daniel Gough, the proprietor of the Rose of Normandy tavern in Marylebone High Street made it a venue for concerts and other entertainments. An organ was installed, a bandstand built and an admission fee was charged. Many of the foremost musicians and composers of the day, including Handel and Hook performed works at Marylebone Gardens.
Caterer John Trusler, who took over the management circa 1756, presented public breakfasts and dinners and his daughter made the popular Marylebone tarts and cakes. From 1763 to 1768 the Gardens were run by Thomas Lowe, with the musical management undertaken by Samuel Arnold who took over the ownership and management with the violinist Thomas Pinto which continued from 1769 to 1774.
During the height of its popularity, splendid fetes, balls and concerts were given, including one, for the King’s birthday on June 4 1772, which featured a representation of Mount Etna and a grand fireworks display. The Duke of Buckingham held an end of season dinner at Marylebone Gardens, offering the same toast each year: 'May as many of us as remain unhanged next spring meet here again.'
Unable to complete with Vauxhall and Ranelagh because it was by then said to cater for the gentry rather than the haut ton, Marylebone Gardens declined and finally closed in 1776. The area was built over in 1778.
Ranelagh Gardens 1741-1803
James Lacey, co-owner and manager of Drury Lane theatre, along with his fellow shareholders, acquired the former grounds of Lord Ranelagh's house (near the river in Chelsea and next to the Royal Hospital) to create a pleasure resort. After some delays, work began early in 1742 on a ‘noble structure’ which excited great interest and curiosity. The promoters wanted to create something unusual which would allow the resort to be used all year round.
The ‘noble structure’ was the Rotunda. Five hundred and fifty five feet in circumference, one hundred and fifty feet in diameter, the Rotunda was modeled on the Pantheon in Rome but on a larger scale. It held fifty two supper boxes on two floors, each of which was illuminated by lamps and able to accommodate eight people. The domed ceiling was lit by chandeliers. The orchestra was originally intended to be at the centre, but it was moved to the side and a massive central fireplace was installed, around which the crowds could promenade (as can be seen in this 1751 painting by Canaletto). The gardens featured a Great Walk, several other gravel walks, a circular temple, a canal and the Chinese Pavilion, added in 1750.
Horace Walpole, in attendance at the opening of Ranelagh in 1742, wrote: ‘You can’t set your foot without treading on a Prince or Duke of Cumberland. Nobody goes anywere else…My Lord Chesterfield is so fond of it that he says he has ordered all his letters to be delivered thither.'
Ranelagh was famous for its regales of tea or coffee with bread and butter, included in the admission price and also for its Masquerades, for which it became best known. The ‘Grand Jubilee Masquerade in the Venetian Taste’ on 26th April 1749 was described by Walpole as ‘the prettiest spectacle I ever saw; nothing in a fairy tale ever surpassed it.’ For the Ranelagh Regatta and Ball - the social event of 1775 - the Thames became a floating town with over 2,000 pleasure boats offering all manner of entertainments and an octagonal temple was built in the gardens.
Ranelagh fell into decline in the late 1770’s and finally closed its doors in 1803. The organ was sold to Tetbury Church in Gloucestershire and the name only survives in Ranelagh Gardens which borders the modern Chelsea Bridge Road.
If you’d like to know more about Pleasure Gardens, including those in the provinces, I’d recommend Sarah Jane Harding’s excellent book The English Pleasure Garden 1660-1860.
Mr. Deputy Dumpling and & Family enjoying a Summer Afternoon by Robert Dighton 1781
A view of Sadler's Wells at Islington from 'The Pleasure Gardens of London by H. A. Rogers 1896
A view of the Orchestra with the Band of Music, the Grand Walk &c' engraving from a drawing by J. Donowell 1761
The Chinese House, the Rotunda and Company in Masquerade, engraving by T. Bowles 1754
Next time, Vauxhall Gardens….
On a vaguely related 18th century note, I’m keeping everything crossed for a second series of the excellent BBC history drama, Garrow’s Law, which was recently shortlisted for a Royal Television Society award. Tony Marchant is working on scripts, and Mark Pallis, the legal and historical consultant, has said that he’s working on a second series too. Let’s hope we get official confirmation soon.
In the meantime, here’s a great fanvid from YouTube featuring the Garrow’s Law ensemble and set to The Clash’s version of ‘I Fought the Law'.
Jane Austen Christmas by Rachel Dodge
1 day ago