Park Life: A brief history of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens

An entertainment in Vauxhall Gardens in about 1779, by Thomas Rowlandson. Image: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons.

We can date the park in its modern form to the 19th century. But the idea of a greenish-space for various kind of recreation is considerably older (e.g. probably: a hunter chasing a wooly mammoth passes a nice bit of grassland on a sunny day and decides to sack it off).

In the 17th and 18th centuries in particular, many of the functions of a modern park were fulfilled by “pleasure gardens”: sort of early modern theme parks that promised the finest recreations and entertainments. Very few of these have survived in anything approximating their original form – although sometimes portions survive as small city parks, and associated public houses linger, if only in name.

The big daddy pleasure garden, probably most famous and widely imitated, was Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. Originally opened in 1660 as the New Spring Garden, basically just a nice bit of garden to walk around in, it initially generated cash by flogging refreshments. Early blogger Samuel Pepys was apparently fond of the lobster.

Over the years, its business model evolved. By the 1700s, it was charging for entrance and was making its name as music venue, the proprietors having constructed a concert hall (with its own organ, organ fans). People of all classes flocked to Vauxhall – “even Bishops (we are assured) have been seen in this Recess without injuring their Character”, records a contemporary guidebook.

A prospect of the gardens, c1751. Image: Samuel Wale/1751. 

As they hadn’t bothered to build Vauxhall Bridge yet, visitors’ first experience would typically involve arriving in a boat to find “a crowd of people bawling, and swearing, and quarrelling”, which you had to fight your way through to hand over a shilling and enter the gardens. At night these were lit by thousands of lamps, which was itself enough excitement for most people back then who didn’t need a Nintendo GameBoy like you awful millennials.

After walking about for a bit you’d head to the concert, then at half-time spent 4 pence on a quart of beer or 8 shillings on a bottle of champagne. The food was legendary, but not necessarily for the right reasons. Chickens were apparently “sparrow-sized” and slices of meat were reputed to be so thin you could read a newspaper through them. One legend stated that the carver earned his job after covering the entire gardens in slices of a single ham.

With competition hotting up – Royal Surrey Gardens and Cuper's Gardens within walking distance, and Ranelagh and Cremorne Gardens over the river in Chelsea – the range of attractions increased. Fireworks had become one of the era’s most popular attractions, so a 60-foot high tower was constructed for the purposes of important firework deployment.

In 1827 the park restaged the Battle of Waterloo with 1,000 combatants. The “battleground” was subsequently reconfigured into the “North Pole”, and then ‘Venice’. One flyer promises an EXTRAORDINARY NOVELTY: a Mr Green will ascend in a balloon while riding a horse, and if you wouldn’t pay to see that recreated you are either a fool or a liar.


The gardens even got royal approval. As a prince, King George IV had been a big fan, so when he finally got the big chair, they became The Royal Gardens, Vauxhall. It was famous enough that some imitators really didn’t bother to disguise what they were doing. Copenhagen’s Tivoli, the world’s second oldest theme park, started life as the Tivoli & Vauxhall pleasure garden (the owner’s pitch to Denmark’s king: “When the people are amusing themselves, they do not think about politics”). There was also a Vauxhall Gardens in Birmingham, though it’s unclear whether it made up for being in Birmingham.

As times moved on, the original struggled to maintain a profit, and in a prescient turn it even started generating noise complaints from the neighbours who had all definitely lived there since 1660. It was flogged off, and after one final firework display in 1859, building developers moved in and obliterated it.

After slum clearances a small park was developed on part of the original site, behind the  railway lines at Vauxhall it. It was given the name Spring Gardens, the original name of the Pleasure Gardens, but clearly in 2012 someone at the council thought “fuck it” and cut to the chase, so Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens lives again in name. In the 1990s you could even go up in a balloon to see what London looks like when you go up in a balloon (because they hadn’t invented the London Eye yet). And then go to the strip club.

Extant ‘entertainments’ include a small city farm (home to some unlikely alpacas, shoved in with the sheep) and a theatre (which replaced the strip club; sorry nudity fans) that went viral for 3 minutes after insulting potential applications in a job advert. And in a way, isn’t “viral content” the “pleasure garden” of the 21st century? Really makes u think.

 
 
 
 

“You don’t look like a train buff”: on sexism in the trainspotting community

A female guard on London’s former Metropolitan Railway. Image: Getty.

I am a railway enthusiast. I like looking at trains, I like travelling by train and I like the quirks of the vast number of different train units, transit maps and train operating companies.

I get goosebumps standing on a platform watching my train approach, eyeballing the names of the destinations on the dot matrix display over and over again, straining to hear the tinny departure announcements on the tannoy.  I’m fortunate enough to work on the site of a former railway station that not only houses beautiful old goods sheds, but still has an active railway line running alongside it. You can imagine my colleagues’ elation as I exclaim: “Wow! Look at that one!” for the sixth time that day, as another brilliantly gaudy freight train trundles past.

I am also a woman in my twenties. A few weeks my request to join a railway-related Facebook group was declined because I – and I quote here – “don’t look like a train buff”.

After posting about this exchange on Twitter, my outrage was widely shared. “They should be thrilled to have you!” said one. “What does a train buff look like?!” many others asked.

The answer, of course, is a middle-aged white man with an anorak and notebook. Supposedly, anyway. That’s the ancient stereotype of a “trainspotter”, which sadly shows no sign of waning.

I’m not alone in feeling marginalised in the railway community. Sarah, a railway enthusiast from Bournemouth, says she is used to funny looks when she tells people that she is not only into trains, but an engineer.

She speaks of her annoyance at seeing a poster bearing the phrase: “Beware Rail Enthusiasts Disease: Highly Infectious To Males Of All Ages”. “That did bug me,” she says, “because women can enjoy trains just as much as men.”


Vicki Pipe is best known as being one half of the YouTube sensation All The Stations, which saw her and her partner Geoff Marshall spend 2017 visiting every railway station in Great Britain.

“During our 2017 adventure I was often asked ‘How did your boyfriend persuade you to come along?’” she says. “I think some found it unusual that a woman might be independently interested or excited enough about the railways to spend sixteen weeks travelling to every station on the network.”

Pipe, who earlier this year travelled to all the stations in Ireland and Northern Ireland, is passionate about changing the way in which people think of the railways, including the perception of women in the industry.

“For me it’s the people that make the railways such an exciting place to explore – and many of these are women,” she explains. “Women have historically and continue to play an important part in the railway industry – throughout our journey we met female train drivers, conductors, station staff, signallers and engineers. I feel it is important that more female voices are heard so that women of the future recognise the railways as a place they too can be part of.”

Despite the progress being made, it’s clear there is still a long way to go in challenging stereotypes and proving that girls can like trains, too.

I’m appalled that in 2019 our life choices are still subjected to critique. This is why I want to encourage women to embrace their interests and aspirations – however “nerdy”, or unusual, or untraditionally “female” they may be – and to speak up for things that I was worried to speak about for so long.

We might not change the world by doing so but, one by one, we’ll let others know that we’ll do what we want – because we can.