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English Pleasure Gardens

It would be very pleasant to be near Sydney Gardens; we might go into the labyrinth every day. – Jane Austen to Cassandra Wednesday, January 21, 180

The English Pleasure Garden 1660-1860 is a small, slim volume that easily slips into my purse. I was rather skeptical that a mere 63 pages could contain very much information but I was wrong.  Sarah Jane Downing, the author, has assembled a large variety of pleasure garden images that I have not seen before, and written about the topic in a clear and readable style that was loaded with information. This book is a must for history buffs and historical romance authors who wish to write a scene set in Vauxhall or Ranelagh gardens, or perhaps in venue that is less well known, for Ms Downing writes about gardens I had not known existed.

While London’s west end boasted clean and spacious streets, the rabbit warren streets in The City were filthy, overcrowded, and dangerous. The possibility of a few hours of escape to a pleasure garden with its broad walks, decorative shrubbery, hidden bowers, music and entertainments, and fireworks drew a large number of crowds. In the 18th century, London and its environs boasted sixty-four pleasure gardens of various sizes. Aside from their obvious attraction, pleasure gardens attracted a variety of visitors from all walks of life. Aristocrats rubbed elbows with the hoi polloi, who could gain entry to even the most luxurious gardens if they could come up with one shilling for a ticket (no mean feat, for an ordinary day laborer made no more than one shilling per week.)

Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens

Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens

There were three kinds of public gardens people could choose from: 1) Bowling greens at pubs or tea gardens with a small but pleasant green space and limited social opportunity, 2) fashionable spa resorts that offered bowling, taking the waters, and pleasant graveled walks, and provided some entertainments, and 3) the great pleasure gardens, which were filled with glamorous and wondrous sights, and acres of lighted paths, music pavilions and private supper boxes, and arranged for a variety of fantastic entertainments, music, and dancing. The best known pleasure gardens were Vauxhall, once known as Spring Gardens, and Ranelagh Gardens, which gave Vauxhall a run for its money. Its spacious Rotunda allowed for large crowds to gather inside. Ranelagh could open in February, whereas other gardens waited until Easter.

View of a lunch party inside Ranelagh garden's famous rotunda

View of a lunch party inside Ranelagh garden's famous rotunda

Vauxhall tickets, British Museum

Vauxhall tickets, British Museum

All good things must come to an end and the gardens’ success at attracting large crowds spelled their doom. Eventually it was hard to tell the aristocrats from the poseurs, or a courtesan from a lady. As the gardens attracted an increasingly larger group of dubious people and fewer of the upper classes, their reputations suffered. Rowdy behavior, vandalism, crime, and prostitution all served to keep the “right” people away, but this development didn’t necessarily spell their death knell. They would eventually close due to competition from a distant source. The advent of cheap and rapid transportation allowed people to seek their pleasures along the grand promenades at sea side resorts, and once again the classes separated during leisure hours, each into their own niche.

This lovely little book also describes pleasure gardens outside of London – Sydney Gardens in Bath, Vauxhall Gardens in Birmingham, Tinker’s Garden in Manchester, etc. At $12.95, The English Pleasure Garden 1660-1860, loaded with color images, is a bargain. Read my post about 18th & 19th Century Pleasure and Tea Gardens in London at this link.

These links lead to more information about pleasure gardens, but they do not match the variety of information to be found in this slim volume.

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Over 200 outdoor pleasure gardens and tea gardens proliferated in London from the 16th to the early 19th centuries.  Primarily frequented by working class people who lived in the city, they were located in the pleasanter parts of London’s suburbs. In days of yore, the countryside was only a walk (or short carriage drive or ferry ride) away from the city center. Tea and pleasure gardens afforded the populace a respite from the sights, smells, and congestion of city life. In his essay on Tea Gardens, William Boulton writes:

“It was the citizens of such a town, sober merchants and shopkeepers, apprentices, sempstresses, and artisans who worked continuously, but leisurely and without much stress, during the week and spread themselves over an area of many square miles on Sundays, who formed the chief patrons of the al fresco entertainment. The lawyers and military men who filled the chief of the few recognised professions of the last century, supplied their quota of course, and the aristocracy came to most of the alfresco entertainments at one time or another, but merely as incidental visitors.”

Even the humblest tea gardens situated in inns and taverns vied for customers by offering special attractions like cake and ale, a bowling green, play tables, or a pond. Larger more luxurious gardens, such as Vauxhall or Ranelagh, offered a myriad of entertainments in the form of musicales, fireworks, illuminated groves, balloon rides, and theatricals. Considered the forerunners of today’s amusement parks, pleasure gardens provided extensive walks, private arbors, supper boxes, rotundas, and Chinese pavilions. Regardless of their size, the competition among these open air recreational gardens was fierce. Open only for a short season, the proprietors had to earn enough income to keep their establishments open and make a decent living.


Text not availableThe London Pleasure Gardens of the Eighteenth Century By Warwick Wroth, … assisted by Arthur Edgar Wroth With sixty-two illustrations By Warwick William Wroth, Arthur Edgar Wroth

Various strata of social classes commingled in these public spaces, although the upper classes tended to visit less frequently. When they did honor an establishment with their presence, they could create a stir.

“In 1733, in the month of May, it occurred to the Princesses Caroline and Amelia to attend [Islington Spa] regularly and take its waters. These royal ladies were duly saluted with twenty-one guns, and all London flocked to the gardens to see a real princess.” – London’s Tea Gardens, An Essay by William B. Boulton

Profits shot up sky high for the owner after these royal visits, making the Islington Spa a commercial success. The White Conduit House, situated just 2-3 miles north of Marlyebone Gardens,  was another popular garden destination. In 1753, the proprietor, Mr. Bartholomew, ran the following enterprising advertisement:

whiteconduit

For the better accommodation of ladies and gentlemen, I have completed a long walk, with a handsome circular fish-pond, a number of shady pleasant arbours, inclosed with a fence seven feet high to prevent being the least incommoded from people in the fields; hot loaves and butter every day, milk directly from the cows, coffee, tea, and all manner of liquors in the greatest perfection; also a handsome long room, from whence is the most copious prospects and airy situation of any now in vogue. I humbly hope the continuance of my friends’ favours, as I make it my chief study to have the best accommodations, and am, ladies and gentlemen, your obliged humble servant, Robert Bartholomew. Note. My cows eat no grains, neither any adulteration in milk or cream.

The White Conduit House, also known as the “Minor Vauxhall”, began to offer balloon ascents, fireworks, and evening concerts. But its popularity gradually waned and the establishment offered its last entertainments in 1849.

Food and entertainments depended on the time of day. In Bagninne Wells, for example, morning visitors tended to be invalids who would drink the mineral waters and partake of an early breakfast.

Bagnigge Wells

Bagnigge Wells

As the day wore on the invalids withdrew and the place was prepared for another class of customers. The citizens, their wives and daughters, came for their afternoon outing; the long room if the weather threatened, and the arbours if the sun shone, were filled with sober parties of shopkeepers or with boys and their sweet hearts, drinking tea and eating the bread and butter and the buns baked on the ground for which the place was famous. Negus was another of the products of Bagnigge held in much favour, and there were cider and ale for the more jovial spirits who smoked under the shade of the Fleet willows and watched the games of skittles and Dutch pins which were played in the eastern part of the gardens during the long summer evenings.

In the afternoon tea was served, as well as stronger drinks, like negus.  Visitors could relax,  drink syllabub, eat cake, and listen to the music of Handel. Or an amorous couple could sit and flirt in a private arbor. At night the pleasure gardens glittered with illuminated walks and fireworks. These public venues weren’t all pleasure. Pickpockets, “frail women”, sharpers, and other less desirable visitors would mingle among the crowds, adding a hint of danger and seaminess.

Rotunda at Ranelagh Gardens, 1754

Rotunda at Ranelagh Gardens, 1754

Towards the end of 1810, Bagnigge Wells was increasingly frequented by the lower classes, or as one late 19th century writer termed, “Cockney Crowds.” By 1813 the gardens were put up for auction. Vauxhall lasted until 1857.  Ranelagh’s famed rotunda closed in 1803 and was demolished in 1805. Today the site provides part of the grounds of Chelsea Hospital where the Annual Chelsea Flower Show is held.

Definition of

A Tea Garden: A tea garden was a place to drink tea and stroll around lawns, ponds and view statues. These smaller versions of pleasure gardens flourished in the late 18th century. Examples were Cuper’s Gardens and the area that became the Caledonian Cattle Market in London, England.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tea_garden

A Pleasure Garden is usually a garden that is opened to the public for recreation. They are differentiated from other public gardens by containing entertainments in addition to the planting; for example, concert halls or bandstands, rides, zoos or menageries.

Learn more about Pleasure Gardens at these sites

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