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.

 
 
 
 

What we're reading: Understanding how the coronavirus spreads in public spaces

Risk assessment: It’s a holiday weekend in the US and UK, and where the weather is nice, people will surely want to go out. Vox has a handy chart for understanding the risks of coronavirus in different settings.

Covid-proofing: Social distancing has proven to be an effective way to slow the coronavirus, but it’s an emergency method that can’t stay in place forever. In order to get the economy going again, offices, restaurants and entertainment venues will need a dramatic overhaul. The Atlantic shares ideas to make that happen.

Vacation ghost town: With no indication of when people can safely travel again, resort towns are bracing for a summer unlike any other. CityLab reports that this weekend is the start of a critical period for vacation hotspots, but residents and businesses there expect tough times ahead.