What were the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens?

What were the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, and when did they open? Felicity Day explores a hidden world in 18th century London

The Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in the early 18th century

Where were the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens?

The modern day Vauxhall Gardens, in Kennington in the London Borough of Lambeth, have been the site of a public park since at least 1662. In 1732 the disreputable park was transformed into a place of fashionable – and paid-for – alfresco entertainment, after entrepreneur Jonathan Tyers leased it and opened the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.

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What were the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens like?

A visit to the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens began with a boat ride up the river – the best way to reach Vauxhall until the opening of Westminster Bridge in 1750. Visitors entered through the proprietor’s house, walking down a long and gloomy passage before spilling out into an ‘elysium’ – a space about as far removed from the smelly, noisy streets of the city as it was possible to find.

The cost of admission to the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens was 1s, comparable to the cheapest seat at the theatre or a day’s pay for a labourer. The vast grounds thronged with a crowd of about 1,000 people a night. Everyone from dukes and duchesses to doctors and their wives, actors and shopkeepers passed through the gates during the open season, which (weather permitting) lasted from early May to September. And even though, in reality, lords and ladies rarely mingled with anyone outside their own class, Vauxhall and the “equality it occasions” was a source of pride for writers and a source of interest for foreigners, who noted that it united “both sexes, and all ranks and conditions”.

An admission ticket to the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, 1786
An admission ticket to the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, 1786
The Print Collector/Getty Images

The presence of the fashionable elite in their finery was a draw in itself, but the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens – part rural retreat, part amusement park – offered much more besides. A series of tree-lined and lamp-lit walks opened up invitingly from the main grove, promising picturesque vistas enhanced by obelisks and ornamental arches, and trilling nightingales. They competed with the orchestra in the large octagonal bandstand, and the small ensembles dotted around the grounds.

However, visitors to the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens might also encounter a pickpocket, or a well-dressed prostitute. The admission charge did not deter ladies of the night, and it was well known that they sought their clients in the comparatively private Dark Walks and even conducted discreet trysts amidst the dense trees. They could also be found in the more open areas. “What most astonished me,” said German tourist Karl Moritz of his supper at Vauxhall, “was the boldness of the women of the town, who often rushed in upon us by half dozens, and in the most shameless manner importuned us for wine.”

Visitors to the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens might also encounter a pickpocket, or a well-dressed prostitute

Women, too, might find themselves harassed – by drunken men. “Some bucks, who thought their spirit justified indecency, treated several modest women in a very rude manner,” reported the Morning Chronicle in 1788. The gentlemen in their company flew to their defence, resulting in “a battle royal”. Riotous behaviour was a persistent problem: memoirist Henry Angelo described the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens of the 1770s as “more like a bear garden than a rational place of resort”, a place where quarrels were decided through fistfights watched by a gleeful crowd, and the “riffraff” threw bottles into the supper boxes of respectable families. A riot traditionally broke out on the last night of the season.

What could you do at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens?

There was no cheaper way of hearing high-quality music than at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens – both “vocal and instrumental” and “not too refined for the general ear”, noted diarist James Boswell. Handel’s music was regularly performed, and Thomas Arne was an in-house composer; his works include Rule, Britannia!. There was also contemporary art to be admired, from classical statutes to the history paintings by Francis Hayman that decorated the supper boxes. In these – from which the music was still “very distinctly heard” – visitors could enjoy a light meal, although the portions were notoriously stingy.

Large-scale events at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens were designed to draw crowds, from masked balls (‘ridottos’) like the one held on the opening night in 1732, to concerts. New artworks and attractions were continually introduced, too, one of the most spectacular in a pre-electric age being the cotton-wool fuses that allowed the thousands of glittering glass lamps to be lit simultaneously. “All in a Moment, as if by Magic, every Object was made visible,” enthused novelist Henry Fielding in 1742. Another favourite was the Cascade. This “mechanism of extraordinary ingenuity”, wrote Karl Moritz, was so convincing that “it is not easy to persuade one’s self… that one does not actually see and hear a natural waterfall from a high rock”.

Were other pleasure gardens opened?

Unsurprisingly, the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens’ success spawned copious copycat venues. Bath, the spa resort of choice for the beau monde, had its own Spring Gardens from 1735, eclipsed by the new Sydney Gardens after 1795. The largest example outside London, this had grottos and a labyrinth, and Jane Austen looked forward to “illuminations & fireworks” there in 1799. Norwich, meanwhile, had four pleasure gardens by the 1770s, Liverpool three and Dublin two.

In London, the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens had more than 60 competitors. Most were small-scale gardens or bowling greens, attached to taverns and catering chiefly for our working-class ancestors. Sixpence purchased entry to Bagnigge Wells on the northern outskirts, a favourite haunt of highwayman Sixteen-String Jack, which combined a flower garden and fountains with a skittle alley. Marylebone Gardens, created in the 17th century, was a serious rival after it relaunched in 1738, its fireworks popular with the middling sort; but it was Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea, opened in 1742 and favoured by the wealthy and well-born, that was Vauxhall’s main challenger. It was famous for its vast concert rotunda and lavish masquerade parties, when the aristocratic company paraded in fancy dress around the festively decorated gardens. “Nothing in a fairy tale ever surpassed it,” declared Gothic novelist Horace Walpole in 1749. With no alcohol and a costlier entrance fee it was more exclusive, but less exciting.

Chelsea pleasure gardens The Chinese Hotel and Rotunda at Chelsea's Ranelagh Gardens, 1754
The Chinese Hotel and Rotunda at Chelsea’s Ranelagh Gardens, 1754
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

When did the pleasure gardens close?

Both Marylebone and Ranelagh closed by 1803, as aristocrats began to weary of strolling the same groves, and the growing middle-class audience demanded more for their money. New competitors sprung up, including Cremorne Gardens in Chelsea, a pleasure garden from 1843, and resorts in Manchester and Birmingham.

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Yet the pleasure garden began to seem like a relic of a bygone age, and an expanding London was encroaching on their once-rural idylls. By the 1840s railway tracks ran close to Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens’ border and visitors were treated to a view of nearby gasometers. Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens  closed in 1859, and there is now a park on the site.