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.

 
 
 
 

London’s rail and tube map is out of control

Aaaaaargh. Image: Getty.

The geographical limits of London’s official rail maps have always been slightly arbitrary. Far-flung commuter towns like Amersham, Chesham and Epping are all on there, because they have tube stations. Meanwhile, places like Esher or Walton-on-Thames – much closer to the city proper, inside the M25, and a contiguous part of the built up area – aren’t, because they fall outside the Greater London and aren’t served by Transport for London (TfL) services. This is pretty aggravating, but we are where we are.

But then a few years ago, TfL decided to show more non-London services on its combined Tube & Rail Map. It started with a few stations slightly outside the city limits, but where you could you use your Oyster card. Then said card started being accepted at Gatwick Airport station – and so, since how to get to a major airport is a fairly useful piece of information to impart to passengers, TfL’s cartographers added that line too, even though it meant including stations bloody miles away.

And now the latest version seems to have cast all logic to the wind. Look at this:

Oh, no. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

The logic for including the line to Reading is that it’s now served by TfL Rail, a route which will be part of the Elizabeth Line/Crossrail, when they eventually, finally happen. But you can tell something’s gone wrong here from the fact that showing the route, to a town which is well known for being directly west of London, requires an awkward right-angle which makes it look like the line turns north, presumably because otherwise there’d be no way of showing it on the map.

What’s more, this means that a station 36 miles from central London gets to be on the map, while Esher – barely a third of that distance out – doesn’t. Nor does Windsor & Eton Central, because it’s served by a branchline from Slough rather than TfL Rail trains, even though as a fairly major tourist destination it’d probably be the sort of place that at least some users of this map might want to know how to get to.

There’s more. Luton Airport Parkway is now on the map, presumably on the basis that Gatwick is. But that station doesn’t accept Oyster cards yet, so you get this:

Gah. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

There’s a line, incidentally, between Watford Junction and St Albans Abbey, which is just down the road from St Albans City. Is that line shown on the map? No it is not.

Also not shown on the map: either Luton itself, just one stop up the line from Luton Airport Parkway, or Stansted Airport, even though it’s an airport and not much further out than places which are on the map. Somewhere that is, however, is Welwyn Garden City, which doesn’t accept Oyster, isn’t served by TfL trains and also – this feels important – isn’t an airport.

And meanwhile a large chunk of Surrey suburbia inside the M25 isn’t shown, even though it must have a greater claim to be a part of London’s rail network than bloody Reading.

The result of all these decisions is that the map covers an entirely baffling area whose shape makes no sense whatsoever. Here’s an extremely rough map:

Just, what? Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

I mean that’s just ridiculous isn’t it.

While we’re at it: the latest version shows the piers from which you can get boats on the Thames. Except for when it doesn’t because they’re not near a station – for example, Greenland Pier, just across the Thames to the west of the Isle of Dogs, shown here with CityMetric’s usual artistic flair.

Spot the missing pier. You can’t, because it’s missing. Image: TfL/CityMetric.

I’m sure there must be a logic to all of this. It’s just that I fear the logic is “what makes life easier for the TfL cartography team” rather than “what is actually valuable information for London’s rail passengers”.

And don’t even get me started on this monstrosity.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.