Tag Archives: Vauxhall Gardens

Perambulations Through Late Georgian London or, All the Best Sights in One Week. Day Four

It’s Thursday, the fourth day of the London sightseeing programme proposed by Nathaniel Whittock in 1836. By now the tourists are either on their knees with exhaustion or getting their second wind after the itineraries described in my previous three posts. They might be relieved to find that there is a fair amount of riding around involved in today’s expedition. This itinerary illustrates more clearly than any of the others how close to the Victorian era these visitors are as they experience engineering marvels and improvements in public transport.

Get into the omnibus or coach that goes to Blackwall.

Mr Whittock informs us that “Omnibusses [sic] now run through the leading thoroughfares: their charge is generally stated on the outside of the carriage. At the present time it is as cheap as the most rigid economist could desire as a person may ride in a handsome vehicle from the Bank to Paddington, a distance of four miles, for sixpence.”

George Shillibeer brought horse-drawn omnibuses (shown in the print above) to London in 1829, having seen them operating in Paris. At first they operated with a conductor who took the fares but did not issue tickets. He recorded all the transactions on a waybill, then paid his own, and the driver’s, wages from the money collected and handed the rest over to the bus owner.

An account of the new service was given in the Morning Post of 7 July 1829. “Saturday the new vehicle, called the Omnibus, commenced running from Paddington to the City, and excited considerable notice, both from the novel form of the carriage, and the elegance with which it is fitted out. It is capable of accommodating 16 or 18 persons, all inside, and we apprehend it would be almost impossible to make it overturn, owing to the great width of the carriage. It was drawn by three beautiful bays abreast, after the French fashion. The Omnibus is a handsome machine, in the shape of a van. The width the horses occupy will render the vehicle rather inconvenient to be turned or driven through some of the streets of London.”

see the East and West India Docks

 

The London docks must have been a spectacular sight, teeming with a mass of sailing ships from all parts of the world. The print is a detail from a painting of 1802, looking west across the neck of the Isle of Dogs towards the City, and showing the West India Dock, opened that year. The import dock is on the right, the dock on the left is for export. The canal on the left later became the South Dock. The East India Docks were slightly to the east at the top of the northward bend of the Blackwall Reach of the Thames. Surrounding the docks were huge secure warehouses with walls thirty feet high and their own guards, an effective protection against the menace of ‘limpers’, ‘water pads’ and ‘water sneaks’ who preyed on the craft moored in the river itself.

The map shows the docks in 1849.

A short walk thence will take you to the Ferry-House. On crossing the Thames, see Greenwich Hospital.

These days an entire day can easily be spent in Greenwich but Mr Whittock merely invites his readers to admire the exterior of the buildings (he doesn’t even mention the Queen’s House), enter the Great Hall and look up the hill to the Observatory – ‘a conspicuous and celebrated Object.’

Ride on the Railroad as far as Bermondsey;

This would have been a real highlight for visitors – the first railway line in London. It was intended only for passengers and was built from London Bridge to Greenwich on a viaduct twenty two feet above the ground and supported on “nearly a thousand arches…intended to be converted into dwelling-houses or places of business.” It cut the journey time from London Bridge to Greenwich from an hour to ten minutes and was the forerunner of all the London commuter lines.

 walk to Rotherhithe, devote an hour to the examination of the Tunnel.

Interestingly, Mr Whittock seems more excited about the Thames Tunnel than he does about the railway. It was certainly an epic piece of engineering, during the course of which Marc Brunel (father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel) invented the tunnel shield which is the basis of all tunnel-boring today. Made essential by the development of the docks, and the problems of building bridges over the Thames to bring the workers from south of the river, it was intended for carriage traffic but instead became a footway and a major tourist attraction. It was converted to take the East London railway line in 1869. The print is from 1835.

Dine at Rotherhithe, and afterwards ride to the Surrey Zoological Gardens.

The Surrey Zoological Society Gardens were founded in 1831 and occupied a site now under Penton Place in Walworth, just north-east of the Oval cricket ground. Impressario Edward Cross sold them the contents of his menagerie at Exeter Change which I blogged about here. It must have been some improvement for the animals who were housed in cages under a circular domed glass conservatory 300 feet (90 m) in circumference. There were lions, tigers, a rhinoceros and giraffes (shown here in 1841) and, for a time, the gardens were more popular than London Zoo in Regent’s Park. However, that was subsidised, and cheaper (the Surrey Gardens cost one shilling admission), so gained in popularity. The gardens, which were lavishly planted and dotted with pavilions, were used for large public entertainments from 1837 – re-enactments of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the Great Fire of London, or the storming of Badajoz – and spectacular firework displays. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was the final nail in its coffin and it closed in 1856.

Towards the evening return to dress, and at eight o’clock go by water to Vauxhall.

Vauxhall Gardens lay where the modern park is still situated, close to the Thames and Vauxhall Bridge. Going by water was the traditional way of visiting, even though the first bridge had opened in 1816.

I have blogged about Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens here and also in comparison with their rival, Ranelagh. The print by Cruickshank shows the Gardens in the 1830s, just as our tourists must have seen them.

They would have staggered back to their lodgings late and perhaps a trifle tipsy. Hopefully they get a decent night’s sleep, because Friday will be devoted to the West End, London Zoo, shopping and the theatre.

If you are interested in more of the slang used for London’s criminal classes, including the river thieves, you can find that, and much more, here

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July in Vauxhall Gardens

It is July , so time for another of George Cruickshank’s delicious monthly ‘snapshots’ of London life from his London Almanac. This month we have a view of Vauxhall pleasure gardens with the orchestra playing and a female singer at the front of the box, music in hand.

Vauxhall 19
Vauxhall Gardens had been a London institution since at least 1661 when the first mention is in John Evelyn’s Diary for 2nd July of that year. They reached their peak of fashion in the 18th century as a haunt of both the fashionable and of anyone else who could afford the admission. Music, promenading, entertainments, dancing, dining on the famous wafer-thin shaved ham with champagne – and all kinds of naughtiness in the secluded groves – made up the Vauxhall experience, starting with the boat trip across the Thames to the candle-lit gardens.
The undated colour print shows the Gardens in their 18th century elegance and several of the features can be picked out in Cruickshank’s depiction of perhaps fifty or sixty years later. The orchestra stand has changed a little but it is just possible to see the tops of the arcades lining the sides of this part of the grounds.

Vauxhall 18
The company is rather more mixed in this view of the 1830s. In the centre, raising his top hat, is Mr C H Simpson. He became the Master of Ceremonies in 1797 and kept control for thirty eight years. He was a definite “character” and was always dressed in the black knee breeches, stockings and coat and frilled shirt as he is depicted here, carrying his elegant cane. He is greeting the Duke of Wellington, distinguished by his prominent hooked nose and with, predictably a young lady on each arm. A much less fashionably-dressed crowd looks on in wonder at these celebrities, with the prominent figure of, perhaps, a merchant with his wife in the centre. Other sightseers rush to view the scene while a waiter hurries along with a bottle and glasses – perhaps for the victor of Waterloo himself.

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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.

Ran int

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

Ran ext

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