So What Was Wrong With Ranelagh?

Roque map

Above: Ranelagh Gardens in Roque’s map of London 1741. The Rotunda is the black circular feature and it can be located exactly with modern maps because the outline of the buildings of the main wings of the Royal Hospital have not changed.

Last week, with friends, I attempted to visit the site of Ranelagh Gardens next to the Royal Hospital Chelsea – only to find them off-limits with the marquees of the Chelsea Flower Show being erected there. A helpful Chelsea Pensioner directed us to the lovely scale model of the Hospital and the Gardens that shows them in their heyday and that whetted my interest to discover why they closed so much earlier than their rival, Vauxhall.

Vauxhall Gardens and Ranelagh Gardens were the most famous of the London pleasure gardens and the two whose name many people can still remember. The Ranelagh Gardens today – simply a small park – is of about the right size and in the same position, and so the name lives on.

The first clear reference to the Vauxhall Gardens, or New Spring Gardens as they were at first, was in John Evelyn’s diary on 2 July 1660 – ‘I went to see the new Spring-garden at Lambeth a pretty contriv’d plantation.’ “New” because the old Spring Gardens, dating to the reign of Elizabeth I, were at the eastern end of St James’s Park. Admiralty Arch now sits in the middle of the area.

By the 1690s these early pleasure grounds were being referred to as “Vauxhall” from the proximity of the old manor of Vauxhall. The name comes from the house of the 13th century Falkes de Breuté – Falkes Hall became Fauxhall, Fox Hall and Vauxhall.

In 1729 an ambitious young tradesman from Bermondsey called Jonathan Tyers obtained a sub-lease on “Vauxhall Spring-Gardens” and set about creating the Vauxhall Gardens that became London’s premier attraction until its sad decline during Victoria’s reign. It closed on 25 July 1859, 199 years from Evelyn’s visit.

Pleasure gardens of various sizes and degrees of sophistication were dotted throughout London and its surrounding area in the 18th century. Many were as simple as a landscaped garden or a bowling green next to a good public house. Marylebone Gardens, the main competition to Vauxhall after Ranelagh, was located next to the Rose of Normandy Tavern (in the area bounded today by Marylebone High Street, Marylebone Road, Weymouth Street and Harley Street) and began as a bowling green and gaming house. The fact that Dick Turpin visited in the 1720s may well be reflected in the fact that Gay used it as a haunt of his highwayman Macheath in the Beggar’s Opera (1728). This reflects the early tone of the place and, even after 1738 when the new proprietor of the tavern, Samuel Arnold, improved things – introducing a sixpence entrance fee, shelters, music and fireworks and increasing its size to eight acres – it never entirely shook off its early reputation and became notorious for gambling and card sharping. It closed in 1778.

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Above: Canaletto. The Interior of the Rotunda at Ranelagh (c1751)

Ranelagh Gardens were set up in 1741 in direct competition to Vauxhall and opened in April 1742. The proprietors, a syndicate of businessmen, had clearly studied Vauxhall, learned from its problems with the weather, and set out to rival, if not surpass it.

The site was promising, located in the village of Chelsea with direct river access. The centrepiece, from the beginning, was a vast Rotunda, an epic space modelled on the Pantheon in Rome. It measured 185 feet (56.4 metres) in diameter and, with the landscaping, cost £16,000. It became a tourist attraction even while it was being built and at night it looked like a giant lantern, blazing light across the gardens. It was immediately obvious to Tyers at Vauxhall that this was the major competition and he responded by buying up the  field that the Ranelagh proprietors had wanted to buy to expand into.

The Ranelagh lessee, William Crispe, was declared bankrupt in 1744, which must have pleased Tyers, but an issue of shares rescued the project and at first it was a huge success, a fact reflected in falling takings at Vauxhall. So what went wrong? The sad truth was, Ranelagh was just not naughty enough.

Horace Walpole was initially enthusiastic. Shortly after it opened he wrote “It has totally beat Vauxhall… You can’t set your foot without treading on a Prince, or Duke of Cumberland.” Yet the novelty soon waned. In June that year Catherine Talbot wrote to a friend that “…it is quite vexatious at present to see all the pomp and splendour of a Roman amphitheatre devoted to no better use than a twelvepenny entertainment of cold ham and chicken.” It probably didn’t help that the structure in the centre of the Rotunda, intended for the musicians, proved to have dreadful acoustics. Nor were the grounds very exciting, with a well-lit (probably too well-lit) circular walk which soon became monotonous.

There was no strong drink available and no gambling. The admission fee of half a crown kept away the riff-raff, as was intended, but it also created a far less exciting ambiance than at Vauxhall. It was favoured by the older, staider visitor but with the Hospital grounds on one side and the field strategically purchased by Tyers on the other, there was little scope for development and change.

To get to Vauxhall one needed to ‘take boat’ and cross the river. As my fellow author Sophie Weston pointed out to me, at night this must have seemed almost transgressive, an exciting, slightly clandestine, beginning to the evening’s adventures. Once there the walks were a mixture of secluded and well-lit, with plenty of opportunity for promenading – or for getting up to something rather naughtier. Tyers learned from Ranelagh’s strengths and weaknesses and adapted constantly, giving his customers a diet of novelty with an edgy frisson, yet within a safe and familiar setting.

Over at Ranelagh you could enjoy your tea and coffee, a safe and brightly lit gardens and the impressive Rotunda – but these were no attraction for the fashionable or the younger sets, despite the addition of a Chinese Pavilion. Ranelagh found it hard to weather the problems of the 1780s with riots in London and the rather more sober mind-set towards frivolous activities engendered by the war with France. Vauxhall survived this period, but Ranelagh gave up the struggle and finally closed in 1803, after sixty one years of operation. The Rotunda (largely built of wood) was demolished in 1805. The organ was moved to All Saints Church in Evesham, but even that was replaced later. Ranelagh has vanished.

Below: Ranelagh House and Gardens with the Rotunda (1745) T. Bowles after J. Maurer

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Filed under Architecture, Buildings, Entertainment, High Society

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