Tag Archives: Sophie Weston

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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A Sea Journey, Regency Style

I don’t usually host guest blogs, but I couldn’t resist sharing the research fellow historical novelist Joanna Maitland has done on travel by packet boat. There’s more about Joanna at the end of her post . Over to you, Joanna –
It’s 1811, it’s wartime (pesky Bonaparte), and you have to go on a sea voyage. To Buenos Aires. Perhaps you’ve been sent there, like Sir Horace in Georgette Heyer’s wonderful story The Grand Sophy, but, unlike Sir Horace, you don’t have the luxury of travelling in peacetime).
How do you go about it?packet routes
First you get yourself all the way down to Cornwall, probably by mail coach, unless you’re so rich you can afford to travel post. By mail coach, it will take you 18 hours from London to Exeter plus another 14 or so to Falmouth. Quite a trip and that’s only the start!
Packet ships carry the mail, and passengers, from Falmouth to all sorts of places. Buenos Aires is one of the routes they are offering.
Your trip to Buenos Aires is expected to take 35 days out (and 52 days back, assuming you make it there in the first place). Your passage will not be cheap. You can travel steerage for £46 but you probably won’t enjoy it. If you want the “luxury” of a private cabin, the price is £86 one way (and £107 to come back).
The ship is very small and the passenger cabins aren’t exactly spacious. That blacked-in space on the plan will be yours!packet shp plan
Cabins have no portholes and they open onto a communal dining room. You’ll need to open your door to the dining room if you want any natural light. If you prefer privacy, you’ll need to light your candle or feel your way around in the dark.
Facilities are somewhat basic, too (see below right), but at least you won’t have to provide your own food and you’ll even get to eat with the officers! You will have to provide your own bedding, though, part of your 400 lb baggage allowance. And on the way back, in spite of that hefty price hike, you will have to provide your own food as well.facilities
During your 35-day voyage, you might have a run ashore at Madeira, but probably nowhere else, and you’ll have to take your exercise on the deck, trying to thread your way through the guns, and the ship’s boats, and the livestock (which you’ll be eating later). Remember, there’s to be absolutely no fraternising with the crew while you’re on deck. No climbing the rigging, either.
But, hang on, it’s wartime. What if your ship is attacked? What happens to you then? Just in case you’re wondering, these are your captain’s orders (and – sorry – they don’t mention you, the passenger, at all):
“You must run where you can.You must fight when you can no longer run and when you can fight no more you must sink the mails before you strike [your colours].”
So your ship will run from the enemy and you’ll get away, will you?
Well, you might. During the French wars, from 1793-1815, 68 packet ships were captured by enemy ships or by privateers. Three or four a year, on average. Since the total packet fleet in 1808 was only 39 ships, that’s OK-but-not-brilliant odds for your forthcoming trip. Still, some packet captains are stout fellows who are prepared to fight. Like Captain John Bull, shown here.
capt john bullCaptain Bull’s packet ship, the Duke of Malborough (see below), did fight in 1814 off Cape Finistere against a privateer. Sadly, one passenger was a casualty. Even more sadly, it transpired that the attacking ship was not a privateer at all, but a ship of the Royal Navy! They do indeed call it the fog of war.ship D of Marl
Bon voyage, intrepid traveller!
All information and exhibits from the splendid displays at the The National Maritime Museum, 

Joanna Maitland’s latest Regency ebook novella, His Silken Seduction , does not include a packet voyage but it does take readers as far as war-torn France and the excitement of Napoleon’s Hundred Days. It’s available for preorder at a special price until publication day.

joannapic6After many years publishing Regencies with Harlequin Mills & Boon, Joanna is very excited about branching out into new fields as an independent author with His Silken Seduction: His Silken Seduction Cover MEDIUM WEBher second book will be a timeslip, Lady In Lace. Details of all her books are at Liberta Books the site that Joanna and fellow author Sophie Weston, Joanna have just set up. Here readers and writers can meet and share enthusiasms and Joanna hopes to welcome fans, old and new, and readers of all sorts of fiction to the website.

 

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Filed under Transport and travel, Travel