For nearly two hundred years, Vauxhall was the most celebrated pleasure garden in London and the most favoured al fresco entertainment haunt of Londoners. That Vauxhall Gardens remained ‘an excellent place of amusement’ for so long and standards remained so high is extraordinary, as is the universal appeal and praise that it seems to have enjoyed.
It began life as New Spring Gardens which opened in 1661 on the south side of the Thames. New Spring Gardens featured several acres of trees and shrubs, and attractive walks hedged with fruit and vegetables such as raspberries, cherries, asparagus and beans. John Evelyn described it in July 1661 as ‘a prettily contrived plantation’ and Samuel Pepys, in a diary entry for May 1662, compared it favourably with the Old Spring Gardens, another public garden which occupied an adjacent site until the late 1660s:
'and there walked long, and the wenches gathered pinks. Here we staid, and seeing that we could not have anything to eat, but very dear, and with long stay, with went forth again without any notice taken of us….Thence to the New one, where I was never before, which much exceeds the other…and here we had cakes and powdered beef and ale, and so home again by water with much pleasure.’
New Spring Gardens were also known as Faulkes Hall, Faux Hall or Fox Hall until the end of the seventeenth century and Vauxhall appears to have emerged from these names. The venue enjoyed fluctuating fortunes, being renown for its music and its natural beauty but also gaining a reputation for illict and sometimes rowdy behaviour.
In 1728 New Spring Gardens were taken over by Jonathan Tyers. Tyers came from a relatively humble background, but he was an astute businessman and entrepeneur. He began an extensive programme of remodeling and took as his inspiration John Milton’s, the Masque of Comus – a very apt choice considering the theme of the play. Comus is the god of festivity, revels and nocturnal dalliance and described as being the son of Circe and Bacchus. The Pan-like Comus disguises himself as a villager and, using magical powers, urges a young lady who finds herself alone in the woods to drink his magical potion and thereby introduce her to the pleasures of the flesh. Tyers built the Temple of Comus in the New Spring Gardens knowing visitors would understand and appreciate the message.
Success was still not assured, however, and legend has it that the gardens’ greatest period of success began with a chance meeting between Tyers and the engraver William Hogarth. Hogarth, encountering Tyers in 1732 in a suicidal mood after a period of mixed fortunes, is supposed to have begged him ‘Don’t hang or drown yourself today, my friend,’ before outlining an ambitious plan. Hogarth suggested a grand re-opening of the gardens which would take the form of a ridotto al fresco (which roughly translated means a dancing party held outdoors). It would be an evening party to attract fashionable society to the Gardens and Hogarth brought all his artistic flair to the project, arranging among other things for a series of paintings for the supper party boxes to be created by Francis Hayman and artists from Hogarth's own academy in St. Martin’s Lane.
Tickets were expensive at one guinea per person, but 400 people attended the opening of the renamed Vauxhall Gardens on 7th June 1732, including Frederick, Prince of Wales. Wearing legal gowns, domino masks and masquerade costumes, the guests banqueted, promenaded and danced until 4 am. It was a huge success and as a result Vauxhall’s future was secured. Prince Frederick became a regular visitor and continued to attend throughout his life. The admission price was subsequently set at a more affordable one shilling per person. For those wanting to visit regularly, season tickets could be purchased for one guinea. These were usually made of silver with a figure from classical mythology on one side and the subscriber's name engarved on the other. This is Mr. Wood's ticket for the 1750 season. Tyers presented Hogarth with a gold ticket in return for his help.
A gentlemen visiting the Gardens in 1752 wrote:
The garden strikes the eye prodigiously; it is set with many rows of tall trees, kept in excellent order, among which are placed an incredible number of globe lamps, by which it is illuminated, and when they are lighted the sound of the music ravishing the ear, added to the great resort of company so well dressed and walking about, would almost make one believe he was in the Elysian fields.
In the middle of the garden are two semicircles which appear like an amphitheatre, in which are placed a great number of small booths which may contain about six or eight people apiece, where they commonly refresh themselves with sweetmeats, wine, tea, coffee, or suchlike. The backs of these boxes or booths are adorned with curious paintings, all which are enlightened to the front with globes. They are all numbered, and very just attendance is given by a vast number of warders kept for that purpose. Near to this is a grand orchestra, where the music plays in fine weather; but this night the concert was held in a magnificent hall neatly furnished. At one side of the orchestra is a noble statue of Handel. The music no sooner began than we entered the hall, where fifty-four musicians performed. Mr. Lowe soon sang, whose character I need not here mention, and after him the inimitable Miss Burchel.
In June 1750, Horace Walpole visited Vauxhall. Walpole tells his friend Montagu that Lady Caroline Petersham made up a party, including himself, Lord March, Mr. O'Brien, the Duke of Kingston, Lord Orford, Mr. Whitehead, Harry Vane, the "pretty Miss Beauclerk," the "foolish" Miss Sparre, and Miss Ashe, a lively girl of high parentage on her father's side, known in society as "The Pollard Ashe":
We marched to our barge, with a boat of French horns attending and little Ashe singing. We paraded some time up the river, and at last debarked at Vauxhall . . . Here we picked up Lord Granby, arrived very drunk from Jenny's Whim . . At last we assembled in our booth, Lady Caroline in the front, with the vizor of her hat erect, and looking gloriously jolly and handsome. She had fetched my brother Orford from the next booth, where he was enjoying himself with his petitie partie, to help us mince chickens. We minced seven chickens into a China dish, which Lady Caroline stewed over a lamp with three pats of butter and a flagon of water, stirring and rattling and laughing, and we every minute expecting the dish to fly about our ears. She had brought Betty the fruit girl, with hampers of strawberries and cherries from Roger's and made her wait upon us, and then made her sup by us at a little table . . In short, the whole air of our party was sufficient, as you will easily imagine, to take up the whole attention of the Garden; so much so, that from 11 o'clock till half an hour after one we had the whole concourse round our booth; at least, they came into the little gardens of each booth on the sides of ours, till Harry Vane took up a bumper and drank their healths, and was proceeding to treat them with still greater freedom. It was 3 o'clock before we got home.'
Before the building of Westminster Bridge in 1749 (which enabled increased numbers to come by carriage), visitors to Vauxhall arrived by water at Vauxhall Stairs.Like Cuper’s Gardens, approaching Vauxhall from the river added to the sense of excitement and anticipation for the visitor that they were about to enter an exotic world. The entrance gate in the brick wall was plain, perhaps to enhance the contrast with the wonderland beyond. Once ashore, visitors paid their shilling entrance fee or showed their embossed silver passes before going through a passage to emerge into the glittering gardens. The trees were hung with thousands of oil lamps and Handel’s music, frequently performed at the gardens, floated through the night air. Handel's reputation was so great that his statue by Roubiliac was installed in the Gardens in his homage, an honour then unknown in a person’s lifetime. The statue is now in the V&A museum. The orchestra played popular tunes of the day as well as premiering new pieces by Handel of course, Thomas Arne and William Boyce.
In this 1751 engraving by Samuel Wade, the entrance gate can be seen at the front. The Grand Walk was lined with elm trees and stretched 300 yards to the western boundary. The South Walk ran parallel to the Grand Walk and was spanned by three triumphal arches with a painted view at the end of the ruins of Palmyra. The building with the roof on the left was the Rotunda which was used for concerts on wet evenings. The Grand Pavilion can also be seen. The two crescents of supper boxes are beyond; the one on the left included the Temple of Comus. The Cross Walk cut through the gardens at right angles and an elaborate ruined folly at its north end. Also at its north end, it met the Lovers’ or Druid’s walk, popularly known as the Dark Walk. Any visitors enjoying an illicit tryst in these ‘dark walks’ were treated to birdsong from nightingales, blackbirds and thrushes.
Walpole wrote again in June, 1750:
I had a card from Lady Caroline Petersham to go with her to Vauxhall. I went accordingly to her house and found her the young bloods lying in wait for unprotected females on the lesser avenues, known as the Dark Walk, the Druid Walk and the Lover's Walk.'
These dark walks accounted for much of Vauxhall's attraction. The behaviour of some guests in them led magistrates to order Tyers to fence them off in 1763. Young men often ogled the ladies as they passed and newspaper advertisements were taken out by bucks and bloods who had taken a fancy to a certain lady. Even John Keats entitled one of his works, "Sonnet to a Lady Seen for a Few Moments at Vauxhall."
This report from The Gentleman's Magazine of Friday, 21 April, 1749 gives a clue to the popularity of the gardens:
'Was performed at Vauxhall Gardens the rehearsal of the music for the fireworks by a band of 100 musicians, to an audience above 12,000 persons (tickets 2s 6d). So great a resort occassioned such a stoppage on London Bridge that no carriage could pass for three hours. The footmen were so numerous as to obstruct the passage, so that a scuffle happened, in which some gentlemen were wounded.'
Thackeray’s Vanity Fair has this description of Vauxhall:
And the truth is, that of all the delights of the Gardens; of the hundred thousand lamps, which were always lighted; the fiddlers in cocked hats, who played ravishing melodies under the gilded cocked hats, who played ravishing melodies under the gilded cockle-shell in the midst of the gardens; the singers, both of comic and sentimental ballads, who charmed the ears there; the country dances, formed by bouncing cockneys and cockneyesses, and executed amidst jumping, thumping, and laughter; the signal which announced that Madame Saqui was about to mount skyward on a slack-rope ascending to the stars; the hermit that always sat in the illuminated hermitage; the dark walks, so favourable to the interviews of young lovers; the pots of stout handed about by the people in the shabby old liveries; and the twinkling boxes, in which the happy feasters made-believe to eat slices of almost invisible ham;—of all these things, and of the gentle Simpson, that kind smiling idiot, who, I daresay, presided even then over the place—Captain William Dobbin did not notice.
Vauxhall was as famous for its good food and wine as it was for its entertainment and décor. Food was brought to the numbered tables by numbered waiters who hurred from the service window across the gravel walk to waiting customers. Chickens no bigger than a sparrow were served and in the excerpt above Thackeray comments on the ‘almost invisible ham’. For about a hundred years there was a running joke about the thickness of the ham slices sold at Vauxhall - they were supposedly cut so thin that you could read a newspaper through them! It was also said that one carver could cut enough slices from a single ham to cover the whole twelve acres of the gardens. Thomas Rowlandson's illustration from 'The Tour of Dr. Syntax though London' shows Dr. Syntax holding up a wafer thin slice of ham. The food was costly. In 1817, a minute portion of ham and two tiny chickens cost eleven shillings, assorted biscuits and cheese cakes were another four shillings, sixpence and a quart of Arrack fetched seven shillings
Everyone who visited Vauxhall wanted to sample the famous, or infamous, Arrack or rack punch*. Here’s an excerpt from the ‘rack punch’ incident in Vanity Fair, when Jos Sedley drinks, rather to excess, on his visit to the gardens with Becky Sharp, George Osborne and Amelia.
The two couples were perfectly happy then in their box: where the most delightful and conversation took place. Jos was in his glory, ordering about the waiters with great majesty. He made the salad; and uncorked the Champagne; and carved the chickens; and ate and drank the greater part of the refreshments on the tables. Finally, he insisted upon having bowl of rack punch; everybody had rack punch at Vauxhall. “Waiter, rack punch.”
That bowl of rack punch was the cause of all this history. And why not a bowl of rack punch as well as any other cause? … so did this bowl of rack punch influence the fates of all the principal characters in this “Novel without a Hero,” which we are now relating. It influenced their life, although most of them did not taste a drop of it. The young ladies did not drink it; Osborne did not like it; and the consequence was that Jos drank up the whole contents of the bowl; and the consequence of his drinking up the whole contents of the bowl was, a liveliness which at first was astonishing, and then became almost painful; for he talked and laughed so loud as to bring scores of listeners round the box, much to the confusion of the innocent party within it; and, volunteering to sing a song (which he did in that maudlin high key peculiar to gentlemen in an inebriated state), he almost drew away the audience who were gathered round the musicians in the gilt scollop-shell, and received from his hearers a great deal of applause.
After Tyers died, his sons took over in 1767 and Vauxhall continued with little change until 1792 when the entrance fee was doubled to 2 shillings, although tickets for the gala nights and masquerades cost more.
During the early years of the 19th century Vauxhall underwent further changes and improvements. By this time, the mood of the public had changed and Vauxhall could no longer rely on the charm of the gardens and the excellence of its food and music to attract customers. They wanted more for their money and this was duly delivered. Acrobats, jugglers, circus horses, tightrope walkers, along with man-made caves, grottos and waterfalls all made an appearance and fantastic firework displays from the specially built tower became permanent fixture from 1813. There was even a Hermit's Cottage where a hermit could be seen studying by lamplight.
In 1797, CH Simpson became the master of ceremonies at Vauxhall. Simpson – the gentle Simpson, that kindly smiling idiot – as Thackeray refers to him in the first excerpt above – presided over the gardens for thirty eight years. Simpson was a larger than life character and became one of Vauxhall’s institutions. He appeared in a Cruickshank drawing greeting the Duke of Wellington, dressed in his usual garb of black silk knee breeches, frilled shirt, black coat and carrying a cane. A 45 foot effigy of Simpson adopting his welcoming pose was exhibited in the gardens from 1833.
The Prince Regent loved Vauxhall and often entertained there. His parties were not always a resounding success though. The fete given by the Prince to celebrate the victory at Vittoria in 1813 was a fiasco. Billed as the most 'splendid and magnificent' fete to be held in England, it began with a dinner for over a thousand guests including all the Royal dukes. But when the public began to arrive, it soon became clear that the number of people the gardens could accommodate had been overestimated by the organisers. The demand for tickets had been so heavy that the price had rocketed on the black market; even so, many of those with tickets never got into the gardens. The Duchess of York had to wait outside in her carriage for two hours before a passage could be forced through the crowds. The ladies, who had been summoned to arrive at 9 o'clock, either could not get in or found no places had been reserved for them. To complete a disastrous evening, the Princess of Wales arrived and was refused a seat in the royal box. She departed in a rage.
Vauxhall also led the way in spectacular re-enactments. In 1814 at the end of the Grand Walk, a Sea Battle Enactment was built. Cannons were fired during the display and burning ships sank amidst clouds of smoke. In 1827, the Battle of Waterloo was re-enacted by one thousand soldiers.
Daytime balloon ascents began in 1836, but without the cover of darkness to give a frisson of excitement, Vauxhall was not the same. Its popularity was fading fast and closure was announced in 1841. There were several reprieves and attempts to maintain interest, but Vauxhall’s glory days were over. In the late 1850's, a Mr. Timbs wrote this rather sad account of a decayed Vauxhall:
'Though Vauxhall Gardens retained their place to the very last, the lamps had long fallen off in their golden fires; the punch got weaker, the admission money less; the company fell off in a like ratio of respectability, and grew dingy, not to say "raffish" - a sorry falling off from the Vauxhall crowd a century before. Low prices brought low company; the conventional wax lights got fewer; the punch gave way to fiery brandy and doctored stout. The semblance of Vauxhall was still preserved in the representation of the orchestra printed upon the plates and mugs, and the old firework bell tinkled away as gaily as ever; but matters grew more and more seedy; the place seemed literally worn out; the very trees grew scrubby and shabby, an looked as if they were singed; and it was high time to say, as well as to see in letters of lamps Farewell."
The final concert was held on Monday 25th July 1859 and by 1864 the Vauxhall site had been built over.
What a pity so little survives of this extraordinary place, one of the fore-runners of modern entertainment parks. But rather than end on a downbeat note, we’ll leave the last word to a London guide book of 1815 which describes Vauxhall at the height of its popularity. This should have inspired even the most jaded tourist to visit and includes a description of the famous cascade which could be seen every evening at 10pm for fifteen minutes only :
This delightful and much frequented place of summer amusement, which has so long been the resort of the gay world, is situated about a mile and a half from London, on the south side of Lambeth. These gardens are beautiful and extensive, and contain a variety of walks, brilliantly illuminated with transparent paintings, and disposed with so much taste, that they produce an enchanting effect on first entering the gardens.
Facing the west door is a large and superb orchestra, decorated with a profusion of lights of various colours. The whole edifice is of wood, painted white and bloom colour. The ornaments are plastic, a composition something like plaster of Paris, but only known to the ingenious architect who designed and built this beautiful structure. In fine weather the musical entertainments are performed here by a select band of the best vocal and instrumental performances. At the upper extremity of this orchestra, a very fine organ is erected, and at the foot of it are the seats and desks for the musicians, placed in semicircular form, leaving a vacancy at the front for vocal performers. The concert is opened with instrumental music at eight o’clock, which having continued about half an hour, the company are entertained with a song; to these are added several other songs, with sonatas or concertos between each, till the close of the entertainment, which is generally about eleven o’clock though the company seldom depart till midnight, or early in the morning.
A curious piece of machinery has of late years been exhibited on the inside of one of the hedges, which is announced at ten o’clock by the ringing of a bell, situated in a hollow, on the left hand side, about halfway up the walk. By raising a curtain, is displayed a most beautiful landscape, in perspective, of a fine open hilly country, with a miller’s house, and a water-mill, all illuminated by concealed lights; but the principal object that strikes the eye is a cascade or waterfall. The exact appearance of the water is seen flowing down a declivity, and turning the wheel of the mill…this moving picture, attended with the noises of the cascade, has a very pleasing and surprising effect on both the eye and the ear. About ten o’clock the curtain is drawn up, and at the expiration of ten or fifteen minutes let down again....Fireworks of the most ingenious kind have lately been introduced on gala nights, to increase the allurements of this charming spot….The best refreshments are provided with the utmost attention, and charged according to the bill of fare. From five to sixteen thousand well-dressed persons are occasionally present. The gardens open about the middle of May and close about the end of August.
*Rack punch, or Arrack punch, was a heady liquor made from mixing grains of the benjamin flower with rum.
List of images shown:
View of the Grand Walk, Vauxhall Gardens by Canaletto, 1751
Engraving of Vauxhall Gardens by Samuel Wade, 1751
Vauxhall Gardens as drawn by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin for Ackermann's Microcosm of London (1808-11).
An Entertainment in Vauxhall Gardens by Thomas Rowlandson, circa 1789
Tom and Jerry and Logic Making the Most of an Evening at Vauxhall, by Cruickshank circa 1822
For further information, see The English Pleasure Garden 1660 -1860 by Sarah Jane Downing and David Coke's excellent web-site at www.vauxhallgardens.com