Old and New London: Volume 6. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.
"Those green retreats
Where fair Vauxhall bedecks her sylvan seats."—Loves of the Triangles.
First recorded Notice of the Gardens—The Place originally known as the Spring Gardens—Evelyn's Visit to Sir Samuel Morland's House—Visit of Samuel Pepys to the Spring Gardens—Addison's Account of the Visit of Sir Roger de Coverley to Vauxhall—The Old Mansion of Copped Hall—Description of Sir Samuel Morland's House and Grounds—The Place taken by Jonathan Tyers, and opened for Public Entertainment—Roubiliac's Statue of Handel—Reference to Vauxhall in Boswell's "Life of Johnson"—How Hogarth became connected with Vauxhall Gardens—A Ridotto al Fresco—Character of the Entertainments at Vauxhall a Century ago—Character of the Company frequenting the Gardens—A Description of the Gardens as they appeared in the Middle of the Last Century—How Horace Walpole and his Friends visited Vauxhall, and minced Chickens in a China Dish—Byron's Description of a Ridotto al Fresco—Fielding's Account of Vauxhall—Sunday Morning Visitors to Vauxhall—Vauxhall in the Height of its Glory—Goldsmith's Description of a Visit—Sir John Dinely and other Aristocratic Visitors—How Jos Sedley drank Rack Punch at Vauxhall—Wellington witnessing the Battle of Waterloo over again—The Gardens in the Last of their Glory—Hayman's Picture of the "Milkmaids on May-day"—Lines on Vauxhall, by Ned Ward the Younger—Balloon Ascents—Narrow Escape of the Gardens from Destruction by Fire—Closing of the Gardens, and Sale of the Property.
We are now on gossiping ground, and therefore we can scarcely be severely blamed if we dwell for a short space on the stories of past times. Quitting the precincts of Lambeth Palace, and following the course of the river for a short distance northward, we arrive at Vauxhall Bridge Road; and then, after passing under the South-Western Railway, we reach the spot where, till about 1860, stood the grand entrance to Vauxhall Gardens—that paradise of enchantment, with its houris in the illuminated walks, and the lamps and the fireworks, and the water-works, and the hermit in his cave, and the Rotunda, and Madame Saqui on the tightrope, and fowl and ham and rack punch in the boxes, and poke bonnets, and scanty skirts, and roll collars, and swallow-tailed coats;—all these have passed away, and left not a vestige behind. Times have indeed changed. If there were now a Prince Regent and a batch of Allied Sovereigns, and a Duke of Wellington and a Field-Marshal Blucher, they would not go to Cremorne to show themselves to the people; and yet, in the great days of Vauxhall, those renowned personages did pay the gardens an evening visit, and were duly and right loyally cheered and mobbed by the crowd who had paid for admission. When such great persons were not present, there were songstresses by the score—Mrs. Bland, the sweet-voiced, dumpy little ballad singer; and Dignum the mellifluous; and Madame Vestris; and sometimes, if we mistake not, the queenly Kitty Stephens and glorious Incledon. But we are anticipating the order of events, and must return to plain historical details.
The first authentic notice of these gardens occurs in a record of the Duchy of Cornwall, dated in 1615, at which time the property was vested in Jane, widow of John Vaux, one of whose daughters subsequently married Barlow, Bishop of Lincoln. The residence belonging to the estate was then called Stock-dens, or Stoc-dens, and the grounds about it were known as "The Spring Gardens," a name which they retained in theory and in official documents to the very last, though popularly known as "Vauxhall Gardens." The exact date at which these grounds were first opened to the public is now involved in obscurity. Wycherley, about the year 1677, speaks of taking "a syllabub at the New Spring Garden."
The place, however, is mentioned by John Evelyn in his "Diary," under date 2nd July, 1661, as "the new Spring Garden at Lambeth, a prettycontrived plantation." Two years later it is described as being laid out in squares "enclosed with hedges of gooseberries, within which are roses, beans, and asparagus;" from which it may be inferred that in the early part of the reign of Charles II. these gardens were practically useful, and not a mere resort of pleasure-seekers.
Manning and Bray, the historians of Surrey, ascribe the origin of the gardens to the ingenious Sir Samuel Morland, who certainly had a mansion in this neighbourhood in 1675. Evelyn, in 1681, mentions a visit which he paid to Sir Samuel here "to see his house and mechanics." A foot-note is added, stating that in his house here Sir Samuel had built and fitted up a large room, which he had furnished in a sumptuous manner, for concerts and other gatherings, on the top of which was a "punchinello holding a sun-dial." He had constructed also some fountains in his gardens. He was much in favour with the king for services he had rendered to him while abroad; and his house bore the reputation of being the place across the water to which the "merry monarch" and his gay ladies would often repair on fine evenings.
Notwithstanding that when first opened, these gardens were commonly called "The New Spring Garden at Lambeth," so far as we know, they bear no trace of a "water spring," or jet d'eau, such as we have described in our account of the Spring Gardens at Charing Cross. (fn. 1) The idea of the place being borrowed, however, from the gardens at Charing Cross, it would seem that a similar name was given to it, though meaningless.
Samuel Pepys, in his "Diary," under date May 28th, 1667, mentions these gardens in the following terms:—"Went by water to Fox (sic) Hall, and there walked in Spring Gardens. A great deal of company; the weather and gardens pleasant, and cheap going thither: for a man may go to spend what he will, or nothing at all: all is one. But to hear the nightingale and other birds, and here fiddles and there a harp, and here a Jew's harp, and there laughing, and there [to see] fine people walking, is very diverting."
In the space at our disposal it would be impossible to quote half the passages to be found in our modern classical writers which refer to these gardens in their hey-day of fashion. That they existed as a place of public amusement soon after Evelyn made the above-mentioned entry in his "Diary" is clear from the Spectator, No. 383, dated May, 1712. Readers of that delightful work will not readily forget Addison's account of Sir Roger de Coverley's visit with him to Vauxhall; how he "took boat" at the Temple Stairs, and was rowed thither by a waterman with only one leg; how sadly, on his way up the Thames, he contrasted the many spires of the City churches with the scantiness of such edifices westward of Temple Bar, and what badinage he had to put up with from the other Thames watermen en route for his destination. They will not forget his description of the place:—"The Spring Gardens are exquisitely pleasant at this time of the year. When I considered the fragrancy of the walks and bowers, with the choirs of birds that sang upon the trees, and the tribe of people that walked under their shade, I could not but look upon the place as a kind of Mahometan paradise;" nor will they forget how the gardens put Sir Roger in mind of a little coppice by his house in the country, which his chaplain used to call "an aviary of nightingales." And they will also call to mind how the worthy knight and his companion concluded their walk with a modest glass of Burton ale and a slice of hung beef, the fragments of which he ordered the waiter to carry to the waterman that had but one leg.
Such is our earliest notice of Vauxhall as a public garden, written, most probably, not long after its opening. The name of the place was originally Faux Hall, which in process of time has become corrupted into the better known appellation of Vauxhall. In the days of King John, Fulk, or Faulk de Brent, a stout Norman knight, held a manor on this spot; and the house was afterwards known as Copped, or Copt Hall. It is so called in Norden's "Survey" (1615), where a residence is described as being "opposite to a capital mansion called Fauxe Hall." The latter, Lysons imagines, was the ancient manor-house, which, being afterwards pulled down or otherwise lost, the name was transferred to Copt Hall. This house was the residence of Sir Thomas Parry, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and was held by him of the Manor of Kennington. Here the ill-fated Arabella Stuart, whose misfortune it was to be too nearly allied to the Crown, remained prisoner for twelve months, under the custody of Sir Thomas. (fn. 2) In the Parliamentary Survey taken after the execution of Charles I., the mansion is described as "a capital messuage called Vauxhall, alias Copped Hall, bounded by the Thames: being a fair dwelling-house, strongly built, of three storeys high, and a fair staircase breaking out from it of nineteen feet square."
In the sixteenth century it is asserted that the place belonged to the family of Fauxe, or Vaux. The name of Thomas, the second son of Lord Vaux (1520–60), is not unknown as a poet; he is mentioned in Johnson's "Lives of the Poets;" but whether he ever lived here we have no authority for deciding. Pennant, with more rashness than is his wont, considers that "Vauxhall" was a corruption of "Faux Hall," and that it was called after the celebrated Guy Fawkes, of gunpowderplot celebrity, who lived here, and, as Dr. Ducarel imagined, owned the manor. Following up this mistaken idea in all the simplicity of good faith, Pennant adds, with a touch of bitterness, "In foreign parts a colonne infame would have been erected on the spot; but the site is now (1790) occupied by Marble Hall and Cumberland Tea Gardens, and several other buildings." Mention is made of the place by Pepys in 1663, when he tells us how that, on his return from Epsom to London, he and his companion "set up" their horses at "Fox Hall," and returned home by water from Lambeth Stairs.
There does not appear to be any foundation for the tradition that the renowned Guy had anything to do with Faux Hall; but the story received some support from the fact that the gunpowder conspirators had a house in Lambeth where they stored their powder, as we have stated in a former chapter. (fn. 3)
The mansion was sold in 1652, but subsequently reverted to the Crown at the Restoration. After passing through various hands, in the year 1675 Sir Samuel Morland obtained a lease of Vauxhall House, as it was then called, made it his residence, and considerably improved the premises.
Aubrey, in his "Antiquities of Surrey," informs us that Sir Samuel Morland "built a fine room at Vauxhall, the inside all of looking-glass, and fountains very pleasant to behold; which," he adds, "is much visited by strangers. It stands in the middle of the garden, covered with Cornish slate, on the point whereof he placed a punchinello. very well carved, which held a dial, but the winds have demolished it." "The house," says a more modern author, Sir John Hawkins, "seems to have been rebuilt since the time that Sir Samuel Morland dwelt in it; with a great number of stately trees, and laid out in shady walks, it obtained the name of Spring Gardens; and the house being converted into a tavern or place of entertainment, it was frequented by the votaries of pleasure."
From this period to that of the visit of Addison and Sir Roger nothing appears to be known concerning Vauxhall; nor again from that time till the year 1732, when the house and gardens came into the possession of a gentleman named Jonathan Tyers, who opened it with an advertisement of a "ridotto al fresco"—a term to which the people of this country had till that time been strangers. These entertainments were several times repeated in the course of the summer, and numbers resorted to partake of them, which encouraged the proprietor to make his garden a place of musical entertainment for every evening during the summer season. To this end he was at great expense in decorating the gardens with paintings; he engaged an excellent band of musicians, and issued silver tickets for admission at a guinea each; and receiving great encouragement, he set up an organ in the orchestra; and in a conspicuous part of the gardens erected a fine statue of Handel, the work of Roubiliac. With reference to this piece of sculpture, a writer in the Mirror (1830) observes:—"The first work which can with certainty be ascribed to Roubiliac is that statue of Handel made for Vauxhall Gardens. He wished to give a lively transcript of the living man, and he fully accomplished what he undertook. He has exhibited the eminent composer in the act of rapturous meditation when the music had fully awakened up his soul. His gladness of face and agitation of body tell us that the sculptor imagined Handel's finest strains to have been conceived amidst contortions worthy of the Cumean Sybil. Though every button of his dress seems to have sat for its likeness, and every button-hole is finished with the fastidiousness of a fashionable tailor, the clothes are infected with the agitation of the man, and are in staring disorder. It did not remain long at Vauxhall, but the cause of its removal has not been stated. 'It stood,' says Smith, 'in 1744, on the south side of the gardens, under an enclosed lofty arch, surmounted by a figure playing the violoncello, attended by two boys; and it was then screened from the weather by a curtain, which was drawn up when the visitors arrived. The ladies then walked in these and Mary-le-bone Gardens in their hoops, sacques, and caps, as they appeared in their own drawing-rooms; whilst the gentlemen were generally uncovered, with their hats under their arms, and swords and bags. The statue, after being moved to various situations in the gardens, was at length conveyed to the house of Mr. Barrett, of Stockwell, and from thence to the entrance-hall of the residence of his son, the Rev. Mr. Barrett, Duke Street, Westminster.' From Mr. Barrett's hands the statue found its way, after various vicissitudes of fortune, to a house in Dean Street, where it awaits a fresh purchaser."
The son of the original proprietor of these gardens, Thomas Tyers, having been bred for the bar, became one of Dr. Johnson's friends, and, indeed, published a biographical sketch of him, which is now forgotten. He likewise published sketches of Pope and Addison, and a work of higher pretension, "Political Conferences." He is pleasantly, though somewhat contemptuously, described in No. 48 of the Idler, under the sobriquet of "Tom Restless."
Considering that Dr. Johnson was so frequent a visitor at the gardens, it is astonishing that there should be so few allusions to them in the burly Doctor's life by Boswell.
"That excellent place of amusement," writes Johnson, "which must ever be an estate to its proprietor, as it is peculiarly adapted to the taste of the English nation; there being a mixture of curious show, gay exhibition, music, vocal and instrumental, not too refined for the general ear, for all which only a shilling is paid; and, though last not least, good eating and drinking for those who choose to purchase that regale."
Boswell, in his notes, tells us that in the summer of 1792, additional and more expensive decorations having been introduced, the price of admission was doubled, and adds his own disapproval of the plan, on the ground that a number of the honest commonalty were thereby excluded. Mr. J. Wilson Croker, in his edition of Boswell, adds that the admission was subsequently raised to four shillings, "without improving either the class of company or the profits of the proprietors."
Among Tyers's numerous friends was Hogarth, who, as we have already seen, had a residence in this neighbourhood, (fn. 4) and who, to add to the attractions of the place, advised Tyers to decorate the boxes with paintings. For the following account of the way in which Hogarth, as a painter, became connected with the gardens, we are indebted to a selection of anecdotes published under the title of "Art and Artists:"—"Soon after his marriage, Hogarth had summer lodgings at South Lambeth, and hence became intimate with Jonathan Tyers, the proprietor of Vauxhall Gardens. On passing the tavern which stood at the entrance, one morning, Hogarth saw Tyers, and, observing him to be very melancholy, asked him, 'How now, Master Tyers? why so sad this morning?' 'Sad times these, Master Hogarth,' replied Tyers; 'and my reflections were on a subject not likely to brighten a man's countenance. I was thinking which is the easiest death, hanging or drowning.' 'Oh!' said Hogarth, 'is it come to that?' 'Very nearly, I assure you,' replied Tyers. 'Then,' said Hogarth, 'the remedy that you think of applying is not likely to mend the matter; don't hang or drown yourself to-day, my friend. I have a thought that may save the necessity of either, and will communicate it to you if you will call on me to-morrow morning at my studio in Leicester Fields' (fn. 5) The interview took place, and the result was the concocting and getting up of the first 'Ridotto al Fresco,' which was very successful; one of the new attractions being the embellishment of the pavilions of the gardens by Hogarth's own pencil. Thus he drew the 'Four Parts of the Day,' which Hayman copied, and the two scenes of 'Evening' and 'Night,' with portraits of Henry VIII. and Anne Boleyn. Hayman, it should be stated here, was one of the earliest members of the Royal Academy, and when young was a scenepainter at Drury Lane Theatre. Hogarth at this time was in prosperity, and assisted Tyers more essentially even than by the few pieces which he painted for the gardens; and in return for this good service Tyers presented the painter with a gold ticket of admission in perpetuity for himself and his friends, which was handed down to Hogarth's descendants—the ticket admitting six persons, or, in the current language of the day, 'one coach'—that is, one coachful."
Malcolm, in his "Anecdotes of London," tells us that the first notice of the gardens which he had been able to find in the newspapers, was in June, 1732, when the "Ridotto al Fresco" is mentioned as having been given here. The company were estimated at 400 persons, in the proportion of ten men to one woman; and he tells us that most of them wore dominos, lawyers' gowns, and masks, and other disguises, though many were without either. "The company," Malcolm adds, "retired between three or four in the morning, and order was preserved by 100 soldiers who were stationed at the entrance"—a precaution which seems to explain very significantly the character of the company whom the worthy proprietor was led to expect.
Though Pepys tells us that a visit to these gardens was not expensive, yet Bonnell Thornton furnishes a ludicrous account of a stingy old citizen loosing his purse-strings in order to treat his wife and family to Vauxhall; and Colin's description to his wife of "Greenwood Hall, or the pleasures of Spring Gardens," gives a lively picture of what this modern Arcadia was something more than a century ago.
Grosely, in his "Tour to London," writes (with reference to Vauxhall and Ranelagh (fn. 6) ):—"These entertainments, which begin in the month of May, are continued every night. They bring together persons of all ranks and conditions; and amongst these a considerable number of females, whose charms want only that cheerful air, which is the flower and quintessence of beauty. These places serve equally as a rendezvous either for business or intrigue. They form, as it were, private coteries; there you see fathers and mothers, with their children, enjoying domestic happiness in the midst of public diversions. The English assert that such entertainments as these can never subsist in France, on account of the levity of the people. Certain it is that those of Vauxhall and Ranelagh, which are guarded only by outward decency, are conducted without tumult and disorder, which often disturb the public diversions of France. I do not know whether the English are gainers thereby; the joy which they seem in search of at those places does not beam through their countenances; they look as grave at Vauxhall and Ranelagh as at the Bank, at church, or a private club. All persons there seem to say, what a young English nobleman said to his governor, 'Am I as joyous as I should be?'"
When we endeavour to re-people these gardens with the gay crowds which a century ago frequented them, so light of heart and buoyant of spirit, we cannot help remembering the words of Dr. Johnson on the subject of their rival, Ranelagh, uttered in one of his gravest moods—"Alas, sir! these are only struggles for happiness! When I first entered Ranelagh, it gave to my mind an expansion of gay sensation such as I never experienced anywhere else; but as Xerxes wept when he viewed his immense army, and considered that not one of that great multitude would be alive a hundred years afterwards, so it went to my heart to consider that there was not one in all that brilliant circle that was not afraid to go home and think."
Perhaps the best defence of such places of public resort as Vauxhall is to be found in the well-known words of Dr. Johnson, though spoken of another place. Having come from the Pantheon, Boswell said there was not half-a-guinea's worth of pleasure in seeing that place. Johnson: "But, sir, there is half-a-guinea's worth of inferiority to other people in not having seen it." Boswell: "I doubt, sir, whether there are many happy people here." Johnson: "Yes, sir, there are many happy people here. There are many people here who are watching hundreds, and who think hundreds are watching them."
Vauxhall Gardens would appear at first to have served as a substitute for the old Spring Gardens at Charing Cross, when, thanks to the Puritans, the latter ceased to be a place of public entertainment, and began to be covered with private residences. After the Restoration, builders invaded Spring Gardens, and its name, and its "good-will" too, was transferred to Vauxhall. Except the "spring," the amusements were nearly the same as in the old garden. The "close walks" were an especial attraction for other reasons than the nightingales, which, in their proper season, warbled in the trees. "The windings and turnings in the little wilderness," observes Tom Brown, "are so intricate that the most experienced mothers have often lost themselves here in looking for their daughters."
In the time of Addison, as we have already seen, these gardens continued to be noted for their nightingales, and for their sirens; and Sir Roger de Coverley is represented as wishing that there were more of the former and fewer of the latter, in which case he would have been a more frequent customer. In our day, and, indeed, during the last half century of their existence, the gardens grew worse off for nightingales than ever, while the undesirable element showed no tendency to diminish in numbers.
It appears from a notice by the proprietor, in 1736, that, "being ambitious of obliging the polite and worthy part of the town," at first he admitted the public by shilling tickets, in order "to keep away such as were not fit to mix with those persons of quality, ladies and gentlemen, and others, who should honour him with their company;" but that owing to the misconduct of his numerous servants, and also for other reasons, he had resolved to abandon the plan, and to take the shillings at the gate. But two years later the ticket-system was revived; for in March, 1738, the following notice was issued by the master of the gardens:—"The entertainment will be opened at the end of April or the beginning of May (as the weather permits), and continue three months, or longer, with the usual illuminations and bands of music, and several considerable additions and improvements to the organ. A thousand tickets only will be delivered out, at 24s. each; the silver of every ticket to be worth 3s. 6d., and to admit two persons every evening, Sundays excepted, during the season. Every person coming without a ticket to pay 1s. each time for admittance. No servants in livery to walk in the garden. All subscribers are warned not to permit their tickets to get into the hands of persons of evil repute, there being an absolute necessity to exclude all such." The Watermen's Company gave notice at the same time that two of their beadles would attend at Vauxhall Stairs from five till eleven nightly, to prevent impositions by members of their society.
In the absence of bridges, the chief access to
the gardens, at that period, was necessarily by
water, and a gay and animated scene the Thames
must have presented at such times. The author
of "A Trip to Vauxhall," published in the year
1737, describes his start from Whitehall Stairs in
the following terms:—
"Lolling in state, with one on either side,
And gently falling with the wind and tide,
Last night, the evening of a sultry day,
I sailed triumphant on the liquid way,
To hear the fiddlers of 'Spring Gardens' play;
To see the walks, orchestras, colonnades,
The lamps and trees, in mingled lights and shades.
The scene so new, with pleasure and surprise,
Feasted awhile our ravished ears and eyes.
The motley crowd we next with care survey,
The young, the old, the splenetic, and gay,
The fop emasculate, the rugged brave,
All jumbled here, as in the common grave."
This poem is worth reading, not on account of its intrinsic merits, but for the sake of the satirical allusions to the company which it contains, and which, being of a contemporary date, gives a graphic account of the manners of the place and time. The frontispiece, too, is curious, representing the gardens and the orchestra, with waiters wearing badges, and carrying bottles of wine to the company.
Vauxhall Gardens, until about the year 1730, must have resembled one of the tea-gardens of our own time, being "planted with trees and laid out into walks;" and it was not until the above date that it became exclusively a place of evening entertainment; for Addison refers to it as the "Spring Garden," and speaks of "the choirs of birds that sang upon the trees." A fuller account of the gardens is given in a letter professedly written by a foreigner to his friend at Paris, and which was published in the Champion of the 5th of August, 1742. The writer had previously visited Ranelagh, and in reference to that place says, "I was now (at Vauxhall) introduced to a place of a very different kind from that I had visited the night before—vistas, woods, tents, buildings, and company, I had a glimpse of, but could discover none of them distinctly, for which reason I began to repine that we had not arrived sooner, when all in a moment, as if by magic, every object was made visible—I should rather say, illustrious—by a thousand lights finely disposed, which were kindled at one and the same signal, and my ears and my eyes, head and heart, were captivated at once. Right before extended a long and regular vista. On my right hand I stepped into a delightful grove, wild, as if planted by the hand of Nature, under the foliage of which, at equal distances, I found two similar tents, of such a contrivance and form as a painter of genius and judgment would choose to adorn his landscape with. Farther on, still on my right, through a noble triumphal arch with a grand curtain, still in the picturesque style, artificially thrown over it, an excellent statue of Handel (Roubiliac's) appears in the action of playing upon the lyre, which is finely set off by various greens, which form in miniature a sort of woody theatre. The grove itself is bounded on three sides, except the intervals made by the two vistas which lead to and from it with a plain but handsome colonnade, divided into different departments to receive different companies, and distinguished and adorned with paintings which, though slight, are well fancied, and have a very good effect. In the middle centre of the grove, fronting a handsome banqueting-room, the very portico of which is adorned and illuminated with curious lustres of crystal glass, stands the orchestra (for music likewise here is the soul of the entertainment); and at some distance behind it a pavilion that beggars all description—I do not mean for the richness of the materials of which it is composed, but for the nobleness of the design, and the elegance of the decorations with which it is adorned."
Perhaps there was not often a gayer or more lively evening spent at Vauxhall than that of the longest day in June, 1750, when, as Horace Walpole tells his friend Montagu, Lady C. Petersham made up a party, including himself, Lord March (afterwards the Duke of Queensberry, "Old Q."), Mr. O'Brien, the Duke of Kingston, Lord Orford, Mr. Whitehead, Harry Vane, the "pretty Miss Beauclerk," the "foolish" Miss Sparre, and Miss Ashe, a lively girl of high parentage on her father's side, known in society as "The Pollard Ashe." The gossiping Walpole narrates the sallies of wit and fun with which they passed the time pleasantly away, and adds: "We minced seven chickens into a china dish, which Lady Caroline stewed over a lamp with three pats of butter and a flagon of water, stirring, rattling, and laughing, and we every moment expecting to have the dish fly about our ears. She had brought Betty, the fruit-girl, with hampers and strawberries and cherries, and made her wait upon us, and then made her sup by us at a little table." It was on their way home on this memorable night that they "picked up Lord Granby, arrived very drunk from Jenny's Whim," as related by us in our account of Chelsea. (fn. 7) We should much like to have formed one of the party on this occasion, or at all events to have occupied a box hard by, as we should have been sure to have been highly amused by the wit and repartee of the sprightly demoiselles.
Walpole has also described, in another letter to
his friend Montagu, an evening which he spent
with Mr. Conway in the next season at a ridotto
al fresco at Vauxhall, for which the entrance was
ten shillings. He describes the crowd of visitors
and of coaches, and of men masquerading in the
dress of Turks, &c. In explanation of the term
"Ridotto," we may refer our readers to Lord
Byron, who in his "Beppo" thus covertly satirises
"They went to the Ridotto—'tis a hall
Where people dance, and sup, and dance again;
Its proper name, perhaps, were a masqued ball;
But that's of no importance to my strain.
'Tis, on a smaller scale, like our Vauxhall,
Excepting that it can't be spoilt by rain.
The company is mix'd—the phrase I quote is
As much as saying, 'They're below your notice.' "
The "illuminated saloons and groves of Vauxhall," as they are styled in "Merrie England in the Olden Time," are thus celebrated by Fielding in his "Amelia:"—"The extreme beauty and elegance of this place is well known to almost every one of my readers, and happy is it for me that it is so, since to give an adequate account of it would exceed my power of description. To delineate the particular beauties of these gardens would indeed require as much pains, and as much paper too, as to rehearse all the good actions of their master, whose life proves the truth of an observation which I have read in some other writer, that a truly elegant taste is generally accompanied with an excellency of heart; or, in other words, that true virtue is indeed nothing else but true taste." The gardens, no doubt, were made not only an elegant place of enjoyment, but also as innocent as the manners and customs of the times would permit; but, nevertheless, the season of 1759, and again that of 1763, appear to have been notorious for the bad behaviour of the company, in spite of the proprietor's laudable efforts to keep the place decent and respectable. In the latter year, complaints having been made on the subject on the day fixed by the magistrates for licensing the public places of amusement, the proprietor pledged himself that the dark walks should thenceforward be lighted, and that a sufficient number of watchmen should be provided to keep the peace.
The gardens are described in a very dry and matter-of-fact manner by Northouck, who wrote in 1773. From him it appears that the visitors were always most orderly and "respectable," and that the illuminations, &c., were almost always over by ten o'clock. In respect of early hours it is to be feared that we have not much improved on our grandfathers.
Angelo, in his "Reminiscences," published in the reign of George IV., thus describes the gardens as he had known them in his youth:—"I remember the time when Vauxhall (in 1776, the price of admission being then only one shilling) was more a bear-garden than a rational place of resort, and most particularly on the Sunday mornings. It was then crowded from four to six with gentry, girls of the town, apprentices, shop-boys, &c. Crowds of citizens were to be seen trudging home with their wives and children. Rowlandson, the artist, and myself have often been there, and he has found plenty of employment for his pencil. The chef d'æuvre of his caricatures, which is still in print, is his drawing of Vauxhall, in which he has introduced a variety of characters known at the time, particularly that of my old schoolfellow, Major Topham, the 'macaroni' of the day. One curious scene he sketched on the spot purposely for me. It was this. A citizen and his family are seen all seated in a box eating supper, when one of the riff-raff in the gardens throws a bottle in the middle of the table, breaking the dishes and the glasses. The old man swearing, the wife fainting, and the children screaming, afforded full scope for his humorous pencil.
"Such night-scenes as were then tolerated are now become obsolete. Rings were made in every part of the gardens to decide quarrels; it now no sooner took place in one quarter than, by a contrivance of the light-fingered gentry, another row was created in another quarter, to attract the crowd away.
"Mrs. Weichsell (Mrs. Billington's mother) was the principal female singer. The men were Joe Vernon, of Drury Lane Theatre, &c.; Barthelmon, leader of the band; Fisher, hautboy; and Mr. Hook, conductor and composer. The dashers of that day, instead of returning home in the morning from Vauxhall, used to go to the 'Star and Garter' at Richmond. . . . On week-days I have seen many of the nobility—particularly the Duchess of Devonshire, &c.—with a large party, supping in the rooms facing the orchestra, French horns playing to them all the time."
Vauxhall in its best days was frequented by all the successive generations of humorists, from Addison down to Hogarth and Oliver Goldsmith; and by literary men, from Dr. Johnson down to Macaulay, George Hanger (Lord Coleraine), Captain Gronow, Lord William Lennox, Mr. Grantley Berkeley, Douglas Jerrold, Leigh Hunt, Thackeray, and Dickens.
Goldsmith, when he had achieved his first successes in literature, and in those lucid intervals when he had a good coat on his back and a few shillings in his pocket, especially in the last year of his life, was often a visitor here, along with Dr. Johnson and Sir Joshua Reynolds, dressed in a suit of velvet, of course. Goldsmith, describing a "Visit to Vauxhall," about the year 1760, having praised the singers and the very excellent band, continues:—"The satisfaction which I received the first night [of the season] I went there was greater than my expectations; I went in company of several friends of both sexes, whose virtues I regard and judgments I esteem. The music, the entertainments, but particularly the singing, diffused that good humour among us which constitutes the true happiness of society." The same author's account of these gardens in the "Citizen of the World" contains some interesting passages. This occurs in the description of the visit of the shabby beau, the man in black, and one or two other persons, in company with the Chinese philosopher. The beau's lady, Mrs. Tibbs, has a natural aversion to the water, and the pawnbroker's widow, being "a little in flesh," protests against walking; so a coach is agreed on as the mode of conveyance. "The illuminations," says the philosopher, "began before we arrived, and I must confess that upon entering the gardens I found every sense overpaid with more than expected pleasure; the lights everywhere glimmering through scarcely-moving trees; the full-bodied concert bursting on the stillness of night; the natural concert of the birds in the more retired part of the grove vying with that which was formed by art; the company, gaily dressed, looking satisfaction; and the tables spread with various delicacies; all conspired to fill my imagination with the visionary happiness of the Arabian lawgiver, and lifted me into an ecstacy of admiration. 'Head of Confucius,' cried I to my friend, ' this is fine! this unites rural beauty with courtly magnificence.'" A dispute between the two ladies now engages the philosopher's attention. "Miss Tibbs was for keeping the genteel walk of the garden, where, she observed, there was always the very best company; the widow, on the contrary, who came but once a season, was for securing a good standing-place to see the water-works, which, she assured us, would begin in less than an hour at furthest." The cascade here referred to had been but recently introduced into the gardens, and was then doubtless a great attraction. A few years later the "water-works" were greatly improved, and called the Cataract. The effects then produced were very ingenious and beautiful; and at the signal for their commencement—the ringing of a bell at nine o'clock—there was a general rush from all parts of the gardens.
Garrick was a frequent visitor here, as also were the fair Gunnings, who made a greater noise in the world of fashion than any women since the days of Helen. "They are declared," writes Walpole, "to be the handsomest women alive; they can't walk in the park, or go to Vauxhall, but such crowds follow them that they are generally driven away."
Another frequenter of Vauxhall Gardens was that eccentric person, Sir Henry Bate Dudley; and amongst the regular visitors here towards the close of the last century was the equally eccentric baronet, Sir John Dinely, so well known for his matrimonial advertisements. It was his habit to attend here on public nights twice or three times every season, when he would parade up and down the most public parts; and it is said that whenever it was known that he was coming, the ladies would flock in shoals to the gardens. He wore his wig fastened in a curious manner by a piece of stay-tape under his chin, and was always dressed in a cloak with long flowing folds, and a broad hat which looked as if it had started out of a picture by Vandyke. In spite, however, of his persistent efforts to gain a rich wife by advertisement, he died a bachelor, an inmate of the poor knights' quarters in Windsor Castle, in 1808. Here is one of his advertisements, taken from the Ipswich Journal of August 21st, 1802:—"To the angelic fair of the true English breed. Worthy notice. Sir John Dinely, of Windsor Castle, recommends himself and his ample fortune to any angelic beauty of a good breed, fit to become and willing to be the mother of a noble heir, and keep up the name of an ancient family ennobled by deeds of arms and ancestral renown. Ladies at a certain period of life need not apply. Fortune favours the bold. Such ladies as this advertisement may induce to apply or send their agents (but no servants or matrons), may direct to me at the Castle, Windsor. Happiness and pleasure are agreeable objects, and should be regarded as well as honour. The lady who shall thus become my wife will be a baroness [query, baronet'ess], and rank accordingly as Lady Dinely, of Windsor. Goodwill and favour to all ladies of Great Britain! pull no caps on his account, but favour him with your smiles, and pæans of pleasure await your steps." It should be added, that though his "ample fortune" was moonshine, his title was genuine, and not a sham.
Another frequent visitor to the gardens was Lord Barrymore, whose pugilistic and other freaks are related in amusing detail by Mr. Angelo in his "Reminiscences." They are not, however, sufficiently edifying to bear repeating here.
Apparently the Princess of Wales was an
occasional visitor here during the time of her
long-standing rupture with her husband; such, at
all events, is the inference to be drawn from an
epigram on "a certain unexpected visit to a late
fete," in the Morning Herald for July 24, 1813:—
" 'Since not to dance, since not to quaff,
Since not to taste our cheer,'
Says tipsy Dick, with many a laugh,
'Why comes the P*****ss here?'
'I ken,' says Sober, 'at a glance,
What brings her to Vauxhall;
She means, although she does not dance,
Still to keep up the ball.' "
The following jeu d'esprit will be found in the Morning Chronicle, 1813, headed, "Reason for Absence from the Vauxhall Fete, given by an Alderman to a Lady:"—
"'The Regent was absent, because, my dear life,
He did not like meeting the world and—his wife.'"
Theodore Hook was a visitor to these gardens till the end of his life; and Samuel Rogers tells us, in his "Table Talk," that he could just remember going to Ranelagh or Vauxhall in a coach with a lady who was obliged to sit on a little stool placed on the bottom of the vehicle, as the height of her head-dress did not allow her to occupy the regular seat.
Readers of Thackeray will not have forgotten the visit paid—out of the season—to Vauxhall by Mr. Pendennis, when he meets Captain Costigan, and gains admission at the entrance for Fanny Bolton, the pretty daughter of the porter of "Shepherd's" Inn, and who, having never before seen the gardens, is equally affected with wonder and delight at the lamps and the company. And those who have studied "Vanity Fair" will equally well remember the "rack punch " which Mr. Jos Sedley drank here, rather in excess, on his memorable visit to the gardens, in company with Rebecca Sharp, George Osborne, and Amelia Sedley, the party who came in the coach from Russell Square; how Jos, in his glory, ordered about the waiters, made the salad, uncorked the champagne, carved the chickens, and, finally, drank the greater part of the liquid refreshments, insisting on a bowl of rack punch, for "everybody has rack punch at Vauxhall." They will not have forgotten Thackeray's amusing sketch of the "hundred thousand extra lights that were always lighted;" the "fiddlers in cocked hats, who played ravishing melodies under the gilded cockle-shell in the midst of the gardens;" the singers both of comic and sentimental ballads, who "charmed the ears;" the country dances formed by bouncing cockneys and cockneyesses, and executed amidst jumping, thumping, and laughter; the signal which announced that Madame Saqui was about to mount skyward on a slack rope, ascending to the stars; the hermit that always sat in the illuminated hermitage; the dark walks, so favourable to the interviews of young lovers; the pots of stout by the people in shabby old liveries; and the twinkling boxes, in which the happy feeders made believe to eat slices of almost invisible ham."
Vauxhall Gardens, down to a very late date, still attracted "the upper ten thousand"—occasionally, at least. We are told incidentally, in Forster's "Life of Dickens," that one famous night, the 29th of June, 1849, Dickens went there with Judge Talfourd, Stanfield, and Sir Edwin Landseer. The 'Battle of Waterloo' formed part of the entertainment on that occasion. "We were astounded," writes Mr. Forster, "to see pass in immediately before us, in a bright white overcoat, the 'great duke' himself, with Lady Douro on his arm, the little Lady Ramsays by his side, and everybody cheering and clearing the way for him. That the old hero enjoyed it all there could be no doubt, and he made no secret of his delight in 'Young Hernandez;' but the battle was undeniably tedious; and it was impossible not to sympathise with the repeatedly and audibly expressed wish of Talfourd that 'the Prussians would come up!'" It must have been one of the old duke's last appearances in a place of amusement, as he lived only three years longer.
A description of the gardens as they appeared about this time, by a writer who frequented them in the last decade of their glory, may not be out of place here:—"The mode of entrance into the gardens, which extend over about eleven acres, is admirably calculated to enhance their extraordinary effect on the first view. We step at once from the passages into a scene of enchantment, such as in our young days opened upon our eyes as we pored over the magical pages of the 'Arabian Nights.' It were indeed worth some sacrifice of time, money, and convenience to see for once in a lifetime that view. At first, one wide-extended and interminable blaze of radiance is the idea impressed upon the dazzled beholder. As his eyes grow accustomed to the place, he perceives the form of the principal part of the gardens resolve itself into a kind of long quadrangle, formed by four colonnades which inclose an open space with trees, called the Grove. On his right extends one of the colonnades, some three hundred feet long, with an arched Gothic roof, where the groins are marked by lines of lamps, shedding a yellow-golden light, and the pendants by single crimson lamps of a larger size at the intersections. The effect of this management is most superb. Near the eye the lines or groins appear singly, showing their purpose; farther off, they grow closer and closer, till at some distance the entire vista beyond appears one rich blaze of radiance. In front, the visitor looks across one of the shorter ends of the quadrangle, illuminated in a different but still more magnificent manner by a chandelier of great size, formed of coloured lamps, and by various smaller chandeliers. Still standing in the same place (at the door of entrance), and looking across the interior of the quadrangle called the Grove, midway is seen the lofty orchestra, glittering all over with the many-coloured lights diffused from innumerable lamps. This was erected in 1735, and has itself many interesting memories attached to it. Beneath that vast shell which forms the roof or soundingboard of the orchestra many of our greatest vocalists and performers have poured forth their strains to the delight of the crowded auditory in front—Signor and Signora Storace, Mrs. Billington, Miss Tyrer (afterwards Mrs. Liston), Incledon, Braham, and a host of others, at once rise to the memory. The Grove is illuminated not only by the reflected light from the colonnades on either side and by the orchestra, but by festoons of lamps, gracefully undulating along the sides of the colonnades from one end to the other. Among the other attractions of the Grove, we find immediately we step into it some beautiful plaster-casts from the antique, the light colour of which forms a fine contrast with the blackness of the neighbouring trees and the solemn gloom of the sky above, which assumes a still deeper tinge when seen under such circumstances. Immediately opposite these, at the back of the short colonnade which forms this end of the Grove, with elevated arches opening upon the colonnade, is the splendid room originally called the Pavilion, now the Hall of Mirrors, a title more appropriate as marking its distinctive character, the walls being lined with looking-glass. This is the principal supper-room. Turning the corner, we enter upon the other of the two principal colonnades, which is similarly illuminated. A little way down we find an opening into the Rotunda, a very large and handsome building, with boxes, pit, and gallery in the circular part, and on one side a stage for the performance of ballets, &c. The pit forms also, when required, an arena for the display of horsemanship. At the end of this colonnade we have on the right the colonnade forming the other extremity of the Grove, hollowed out into a semi-circular form, the space being fitted up somewhat in the manner of a Turkish divan. On the left we find the more distant and darker parts of the gardens. Here the first spot that attracts our attention is a large space, the back of which presents a kind of mimic amphitheatre of trees and foliage, having in front rockwork and fountains. From one of the latter Eve has just issued, as we perceive by the beautiful figure reclining on the grass above. Not far from this place a fine cast of Diana arresting the flying hart stands out in admirable relief from the darkgreen leafy background. Here, too, is a large building, presenting in front the appearance of the proscenium and stage of a theatre. Ballets, performances on the tight-rope, and others of a like character, are here exhibited. The purpose of the building is happily marked by the statues of Canova's dancing-girls, one of which is placed on each side of the area at the front. At the corner of a long walk, between trees lighted only by single lamps, spread at intervals on the ground at the sides, is seen a characteristic representation of Tell's cottage in the Swiss Alps. This walk is terminated by an illuminated transparency, placed behind a Gothic archway, representing the delicate but broken shafts of some ruined ecclesiastical structure, with a large stone cross—that characteristic feature of the way-sides of Roman Catholic countries. At right angles with this walk extends a much broader one, with the additional illumination of a brilliant star; and at its termination is an opening containing a very imposing spectacle. This is a representation, in a large circular basin of water, of Neptune, with his trident, driving his five sea-horses abreast, which are snorting forth liquid streams from their nostrils; these in their ascent cross and intermingle in a very pleasing and striking manner. The lustrous white and great size of the figures are, like all the other works of art in the gardens, admirably contrasted with the surrounding features of the place. Passing on our way the large building erected for the convenience of filling the great balloon, and the area where the fireworks are exhibited, we next enter the Italian Walk, so called from its having been originally decorated in the formal, exact style of the walks in that country. This is a very noble promenade, or avenue, of great length and breadth, crossed every few yards by a lofty angular arch of lamps, with festoons of the same brilliant character hanging from it, and having statues interspersed on each side throughout. On quitting this walk at its farthest extremity, we find ourselves in the centre of the long colonnade opposite to that we quitted in order to examine the more remote parts of the gardens." The inner side of each of the long colonnades was occupied by innumerable supperboxes, in some of which, down to the very last, remained the pictures of which we have spoken above.
"One of the subjects selected by Mr. Jonathan Tyers for the artists who decorated the supper-boxes in Vauxhall Gardens," writes Mr. J. T. Smith, in his "Book for a Rainy Day," "was that of 'Milkmaids on May-day.' In that picture (which, with the rest, painted by Hayman and his pupils, has lately disappeared) the garland of plate was carried by a man on his head; and the milkmaids, who danced to the music of a wooden-legged fiddler, were extremely elegant. They had ruffled cuffs, and their gowns were not drawn through their pocket-holes, as in my time; their hats were flat, and not unlike that worn by Peg Woffington, but bore a nearer shape to those now in use by some of the fishwomen at Billingsgate. In the 'Cries, of London,' published by Tempest, there is a female, entitled 'A Merry Milkmaid.' She is dancing with a small garland of plate on her head, and probably represented the fashion of Queen Anne's reign."
May-day is little observed in London at the present time, except that the omnibus-drivers and cabmen ornament their horses' heads with flowers or rosettes, and their whips with bits of ribbon, while Jack-in-the-Green and Maid Marian are to be seen in the streets. Not so very long ago, however, certainly within the present century, says Robert Chambers, there was a somewhat similar demonstration from the milkmaids. "A milch cow, garlanded with flowers, was led along by a small group of dairy-women, who, in light and fantastic dresses, and with heads wreathed in flowers, would dance around the animal to the sound of a violin or clarionet. In the old gardens at Vauxhall there used to be a picture representing the May-day dance of the London milkmaids. In this Vauxhall picture a man is represented bearing a cluster of silver flagons on his head (these flagons used to be lent by the pawnbrokers at so much an hour); while three milkmaids are dancing to the music of a wooden-legged fiddler, some chimney-sweeps appearing as side figures."
"Ned Ward the Younger" wrote in the London
Magazine, many years ago, the following verses,
descriptive of the scene at that time to be witnessed
in these gardens:—
"Well, Vauxhall is a wondrous scene!
Where Cits in silks admirers glean
Under innumerous lamps—
Not safety lamps, by Humphry made:
By these full many a soul's betrayed
To ruin by the damps!
"Here nut-brown trees, instead of green,
With oily trunks, and branches lean,
Cling to nine yellow leaves,
Like aged misers, that all day
Hang o'er their gold and their decay,
'Till Death of both bereaves!
"The sanded walk beneath the roof
Is dry for every dainty hoof,
And here the wise man stops;
But beaux beneath the sallow clumps
Stand in the water with their pumps.
And catch the oiléd drops.
"Tinkles the bell!—away the herd
Of revellers rush, like buck or bird:
Each doth his way unravel
To where the dingy Drama holds
Her sombre reign, 'mid rain and colds,
And tip-toes, and wet gravel.
"The boxes show a weary set,
Who like to get serenely wet,
Within, and not without;
There Goldsmith's widow you may see
Rocking a fat and frantic knee
At all the passing rout!
"Yes! there she is!—there, to the life;
And Mr. Tibbs, and Tibbs's wife,
And the good man in black.
Belles run, for, oh! the bell is ringing;
But Mrs. Tibbs is calmly singing,
And sings till all come back!
"By that high dome, that trembling glows
With lamps, cocked hats, and shivering bows,
How many hearts are shook!
A feathered chorister is there,
Warbling some tender grove-like air,
Compos'd by Mr. Hook.
"And Dignum, too! yet where is he?
Shakes he no more his locks at me?
Charms he no more night's ear?
He who bless'd breakfast, dinner, rout,
With 'linkéd sweetness long drawn out;'
Why is not Dignum here?
"Oh, Mr. Bish!—oh, Mr. Bish!
It is enough, by Heaven! to dish
Thy garden dinners at ten!
What hast thou done with Mr. D.?
What's thy 'Wine Company,' thy 'Tea,'
Without that man of men?
"Yet, blessed are thy suppers given
(For money) something past eleven;
Lilliput chickens boiled;
Bucellas, warm from Vauxhall ice,
And hams, that flit in airy slice,
And salads scarcely soiled.
"See!—the large, silent, pale-blue light
Flares, to lead all to where the bright
Loud rockets rush on high,
Like a long comet, roaring through
The night, then melting into blue,
And starring the dark sky!
"And Catherine-wheels, and crowns, and names
Of great men whizzing in blue flames;
Lights, like the smiles of hope;
And radiant fiery palaces,
Showing the tops of all the trees,
And Blackmore on the rope!
"Then late the hours, and sad the stay!
The passing cup, the wits astray,
The row, and riot call!
The tussle, and the collar torn,
The dying lamps, the breaking morn!
And hey for—Union Hall!"
Dr. C. Mackay, in his "Thames and its Tributaries," writes:—"Famous is Vauxhall in all the
country round, for its pleasant walks, its snug
alcoves, its comic singers, its innumerable lights,
its big balloons, its midnight fireworks, its thin
slices, its dear potations, its greedy waiters, and its
ladies fair and kind, and abounding with every
charm except the greatest that can adorn their
sex." The old guide-books almost always call
Vauxhall an "earthly paradise;" and Addison, as
we have seen above, speaks of it as a "Mahomedan
paradise;" whilst Murphy, in his Prologue to
"Sweet Ranelagh! Vauxhall's enchanting shade!"
Where in all England, it might be asked, was there a spot more renowned among pleasure-seekers than—
"This beauteous garden, but by vice maintained?"
as Addison expresses it, paraphrasing the words of Juvenal.
Albert Smith gives us the following reminiscences
of Vauxhall Gardens in his "Sketches of London
Life," published in 1859:—"The earliest notions
I ever had of Vauxhall were formed from an old
coloured print which decorated a bed-room at
home, and represented the gardens as they were
in the time of hoops and high head-dresses, bagwigs and swords. The general outline was almost
that of the present day, and the disposition of the
orchestra, firework-ground, and covered walks the
same. But the royal property was surrounded by
clumps of trees and pastures; shepherds smoked
their pipes where the tall chimneys of Lambeth
now pour out their dense encircling clouds, to
blight or blacken every attempt at vegetation in
the neighbourhood; and where the rustics played
cricket at the water-side, massive arches and mighty
girders bear the steaming, gleaming, screaming
train on its way to the new terminus. I had a
vague notion, also, of the style of entertainments
there offered. In several old pocket-books and
magazines, that were kept covered with mould and
cobwebs in a damp spare-room closet, I used to
read the ballads put down as 'sung by Mrs. Wrighten
at Vauxhall.' They were not very extraordinary
compositions. Here is one, which may be taken
as a sample of all, called a 'Rondeau,' sung by
Mrs. Weichsel; set by Mr. Hook:—
"'Maidens, let your lovers languish,
If you'd have them constant prove;
Doubts and fears, and sighs and anguish,
Are the chains that fasten love.
Jacky woo'd, and I consented,
Soon as e'er I heard his tale,
He with conquest quite contented,
Boasting, rov'd around the vale
Maidens, let your lovers, &c.
"'Now he dotes on scornful Molly,
Who rejects him with disdain;
Love's a strange bewitching folly,
Never pleased without some pain.
Maidens, let your lovers, &c.'
"I was also told of hundreds of thousands of lamps, and an attempt was made to imitate their effect by pricking pinholes in the picture and putting a light behind it—for the glass had disappeared at some remote period, and had never been replaced; and for years I looked forward to going to Vauxhall as a treat too magnificent ever to take place."
He tells us that the time came, though not until he was twelve years old, and then it was to celebrate his promotion into a higher form at Merchant Taylor's School. "Twenty years have gone by," he writes, "since that eventful night, but the impression made upon me is as vivid as it was on the following day. I remember being shown the lights of the orchestra twinkling through the trees from the road, and hearing the indistinct crash of the band as I waited for all our party, literally trembling with expectation at the pay place. Then there came the dark passage, which I hurried along with feelings almost of awe; and finally the bewildering coup d'æil, as the dazzling walk before the great supper-room, with its balloons, and flags, and crowns of light—its panels of lookingglass, and long lines of radiant stars, festoons, and arches burst upon me and took away my breath, with almost every other faculty. I could not speak. I heard nothing that was said to me; and if anybody had afterwards assured me that I entered the garden upon my head instead of my heels I could scarcely have contradicted them. I have never experienced anything like the intensity of that feeling but once since; and that was when I caught the first sight of London by night from a great elevation, during the balloon ascent last year which so nearly terminated in the destruction of all our party.
"The entire evening was to me one scene of continuous enchantment. The Battle of Waterloo was being represented on the firework-ground, and I could not divest myself of the idea that it was a real engagement I was witnessing, as the sharpshooters fired from behind the trees, the artillerywagon blew up, and the struggle and conflagration took place at Hougoumont. When I stood, years afterwards, on the real battle-field I was disap pointed in its effect. I thought it ought to have been a great deal more like Vauxhall.
"The supper was another great feature—eating by the light of variegated lamps, with romantic views painted on the walls, and music playing all the time, was on a level with the most brilliant entertainment described in the maddest, wildest traditions of Eastern story-tellers."
Mrs. Weichsel, mentioned in the above quotation, was the favourite singer here a century ago: she was the mother of the famous actress, Mrs. Billington. Ame and Boyce composed music for these gardens; and nearly all the vocal celebrities of the latter half of the last century and the first thirty years of this appeared in the orchestra, where all the instrumentalists wore cocked hats.
Some idea of the place in 1827 may be gathered from the remarks of a "wonder-struck boy," Master Peter, given in Hone's "Table Book":—"Oh my! what a sweet place! Why, the lamps are thicker than the pears in our garden at Walworth What a load of oil they must burn!" Master Peter's wonderment did not stop at the lamps, for he was equally enraptured by the orchestra and the "marine cave;" and even the fireworks and the refreshments are all "taken off" in the same style.
Another writer about this time, in the Worla (No. 63), gives vent to the following bantering remarks:—"I have heard that the master of Vauxhall, who so plentifully supplies beef for our bodily refreshment, has, for the entertainment of those who visit him at his country house, no less plentifully provided for the mind; where the guest may call for a skull to chew upon the instability of human life, or sit down to a collation of poetry, of which the hangings of his room of entertainment take up, as I am told, many yards. I wish that this grand purveyor of beef and poetry would transport some of the latter to his gardens at Vauxhall. Odes and songs pasted upon the lamp-posts would be, I believe, much more studiously attended to than the price-list of cheese-cakes and custards; and if the unpictured boxes were hung round with celebrated passages out of favourite poets, many a company would find something to say, who would otherwise sit cramming themselves in silent stupidity."
"Vauxhall Gardens have undergone," writes the Rev. J. Richardson, in 1856, in his "Recollections," "little change within my recollection. The place was certainly attended, fifty years ago, by people of a more aristocratic rank than it has been of late years. George IV., when Prince of Wales, and his brothers, were formerly amongst the visitors; and their presence attracted other people, who thought it expedient to do as their betters did, and imitate the practices of the great. It was at that time decorated with better pictures than the daubs by which the walls of the boxes are now covered; but the amusements, the fireworks, and the illumination of the coloured lamps, were neither so much diversified, so numerous, or so brilliant. I never recollect it resembling the account given in the Spectator, either as to the warbling of the birds or the beauty of the groves, &c. The slices of ham were as transparent fifty years ago as they are now; the chickens were as diminutive as now-a-days; the charges were equally extravagant. People did not drink so much champagne, but they contrived to get the headache with arrack-punch, and kettles of 'burnt' wine were in more request than brandy and water. The vocal performances were better, the concerts were better conducted; the dancing was much the same as now, and those who took part in it were neither morally nor physically any better than their successors." In his subsequent pages Mr. Richardson sketches off some of the "characters" connected with Vauxhall: such as Bradbury, the clown; Mr. Simpson, the arbiter elegantiarum; and the Nepaulese princes, who, on their visit to this country, were great patrons of Vauxhall.
A good story is told in the Connoisseur of a century ago about a parsimonious old citizen going to Vauxhall with his wife and daughters, and grumbling at the dearness of the provisions and the wafer-like thinness of the slices of ham. At every mouthful the old fellow exclaims, "There goes twopence! there goes threepence! there goes a groat!" Then there is the old joke of the thinness of the slices of ham and the expert cutter, who undertook to cover the gardens—eleven acres—with slices from one ham!
The author of "Saunterings about London" (1853) thus sums up Vauxhall Gardens and the entertainments provided here:—"Vauxhall was born in the Regency, in one of the wicked nights of dissolute Prince George. A wealthy speculator was its father; a prince was its godfather; and all the fashion and beauty of England stood round its cradle. In those days Vauxhall was very exclusive and expensive. At present it is open to all ranks and classes, and half-a-guinea will frank a fourthrate milliner and sweetheart through the whole evening. A Londoner wants a great deal for his money, or he wants little—take it which way you please. The programme of Vauxhall is an immense carte for the eye and the ear: music, singing, horsemanship, illuminations, dancing, rope-dancing, acting, comic songs, hermits, gipsies, and fireworks, on the most 'stunning' scale. It is easier to read the Kölner Zeitung than the play-bill of Vauxhall. With respect to the quantity of sights," adds the writer, "it is most difficult to satisfy an English public. They have 'a capacious swallow' for sights, and require them in large masses, as they do the meat which graces their tables. As to quality, that is a minor consideration; and to give the English public its due, it is the most grateful of all publics."
Fireworks were occasionally exhibited here as far back as 1798. Four years later the first balloon ascent from the gardens was made by Garnerin and two companions. In 1835, Mr. Green ascended from these gardens, and remained up in the air during the night. On the afternoon of November 7th, in the following year, Messrs. Green, Monck, Mason, and Hollond ascended here in the monster balloon, called afterwards the "Nassau." They effected their descent next morning near Coblentz, having accomplished nearly 500 miles in eighteen hours.
In June, 1837, these gardens had a narrow escape from destruction by fire, which broke out one night in the firework tower, a lofty structure eighty feet in height, from which the pyrotechnic displays were exhibited. At the top of this tower was a large tank, containing 8,000 gallons of water; this fell in with a tremendous crash, but, curiously enough, it produced not the slightest effect upon the flames. The whole of the tower, including the paintingroom (the largest in England), was totally destroyed, together with its contents; likewise fourteen or fifteen tall trees were burned to the ground, and twice as many damaged. In the following month Mr. Green again ascended here in his great balloon, with Mr. Cocking in a parachute; but this performance, unfortunately, was attended with fatal results, for the latter was killed in descending.
In 1838 Mr. Green, accompanied by Mr. Edward Spencer and Mr. Rush, of Elsenham Hall, Essex, made another ascent in the "Nassau." They descended at Debden, near Saffron Walden, fortyseven miles from the gardens, having accomplished the journey in one hour and a half, the highest altitude attained being 19,335 feet, or nearly three and three-quarter miles.
For some time ballooning served as the staple feature in the programme, and an attempt was made to render these gardens attractive by day as well as by night. Readers of "Boz" will not forget among them a chapter descriptive of the gardens by day, and of the ascent of Mr. Green in a balloon along with a "live lord;" or his remarks on the cruelty of the disillusion practised on the public by Mr. Simpson admitting visitors within its precincts when the veil of mystery which night and oil or gas lamps had previously hung around them were removed. "Vauxhall by daylight, indeed! A porter-pot without the porter, the House of Commons without Mr. Speaker; pooh! nonsense! The thing was not to be thought of." But "thought of" it was; the experiment was tried, but was soon given up.
Jonathan Tyers ruled over the destinies of Vauxhall for many years. He died in 1767; and we are informed that "so great was the delight he took in this place, that, possessing his faculties to the last, he caused himself to be carried into the gardens a few hours before his death, to take a last look at them." After Tyers' death the gardens were conducted by different managers, the bestknown of whom was a Mr. Barnett; but the property still remained with Tyers' family until 1822, when it was sold to Messrs. Bish, Gye, and Hughes for £28,000. Mr. Gye was afterwards M.P. for Chippenham, and father of Mr. Frederick Gye, the lessee of the Italian Opera.
In 1831 the proprietors endeavoured to secure
the musical aid of Paganini for fifteen nights; but
he demanded £10,000, and his terms were declined. Mr. Wardell was some time the lessee of
the gardens; then came the era of Simpson—"Vauxhall Simpson," as Cruikshank styles him in
his "Comic Almanac"—with a "million extra
lamps," and balloons, and horse-riding, and tumbling, and Van Amburgh with his wild beasts, and
panoramas, and popular nights, at a shilling entrance! but
"The glories of his leg and cane are past;
He made his bow and cut his stick at last."
In 1840 the estate, "with its buildings, timber, covered walks, &c.," was offered for sale by auction, but bought in at £20,000. "At this sale," as John Timbs tells us, in his "Curiosities of London," "twenty-four pictures by Hogarth and Hayman produced but small sums: they had mostly been upon the premises since 1742; the canvas was nailed to boards, and much obscured by dirt. By Hogarth: Drunken Man, £4 4s.; a Woman pulling out an Old Man's grey hairs, £3 3s.; Jobson and Nell in the Devil to Pay, £4 4s.; the Happy Family, £3 15s.; Children at Play, £4 11s. 6d. By Hayman: Children Bird'snesting, £5 10s.; Minstrels, £3; the Enraged Husband, £4 4s.; the Bridal Day, £6 6s.; Blindman's Buff, £3 8s.; Prince Henry and Falstaff, £7; Scene from the Rake's Progress, £9 15s.; Merry-making, £1 12s.; the Jealous Husband, £4; Card-party, £6; Children's Party, £4 15s.; Battledore and Shuttlecock, £1 10s.; the Doctor, £4 14s. 6d.; Cherry-bob, £2 15s.; the Storming of Seringapatam, £8 10s.; Neptune and Britannia, £8 15s. Four busts of Simpson, the celebrated master of the ceremonies, were sold for 10s.; and a bust of his royal shipmate, William IV. for 19s.
Then came fitful seasons, sometimes lasting only a few nights, and generally during St. Swithin's, till the rain became a standing joke, in which even the temporary lessees shared, sending out announcements printed on huge umbrellas; and last came the fatal day when the "Royal Property" was broken up by the auctioneer's hammer, the domain became a wilderness, and Vauxhall was no more.
The gardens were already on their decline in the reign of William IV., if we may judge from allusions in the newspapers and magazines of that time. That they had begun to lose their attractions, and were no longer patronised by the "upper ten thousand," may be gathered from the fact that in Bohn's "Pictorial Handbook of London," published in 1851, these historic grounds are dismissed without any description, and with only the curt remark that they were "long a favourite place of public amusement, in which music, singing, and ballets are performed during the evenings of the summer months," and that "the admittance varies, being sometimes a shilling and sometimes half-a-crown." Alas! how are the mighty fallen! how transitory, after all, is the reign of fashion.
Mr. Timbs, in his "Curiosities of London," writes:—"Though Vauxhall Gardens retained their place to the very last, the lamps had long fallen off in their golden fires; the punch got weaker, the admission money less; and the company fell off in a like ratio of respectability, and grew dingy, not to say 'raffish'—a sorry falling off from the Vauxhall crowd of a century before, when it numbered princes and ambassadors; when 'on its tide and torrent of fashion floated all the beauty of the time, and through its lighted avenues of trees glided cabinet ministers and their daughters, royal dukes and their wives, and all the red-heeled macaronis.' Even fifty years before the close of the gardens the evening costume of the company was elegant; head-dresses of flowers and feathers were seen in the promenade; and the entire place sparkled as did no other place of public amusement. But low prices brought low company. The conventional wax-lights got fewer; the punch gave way to fiery brandy and doctored stout. The semblance of Vauxhall was still preserved in the representation of the orchestra printed upon the plates and mugs, and the old firework bell tinkled away as gaily as ever. But matters grew more and more seedy; the place seemed literally worn out; the very trees grew scrubby and shabby, and looked as if they were singed; and it was high time to say, as well to see in letters of lamps, 'Farewell.'"
Colin's description (to his wife) of Greenwood
Hall, or the pleasures of Spring Gardens, gives a
lively description of this modern Arcadia as it was
a century before its abolition:—
"O Mary! soft in feature,
I've been at dear Vaux Hall;
No Paradise is sweeter,
Not that they Eden call.
"At night such new vagaries,
Such gay and harmless sport;
All looked like giant fairies
At this their monarch's court.
"Methought, when first I entered,
Such splendours round me shone,
Into a world I'd ventured
Where shone another sun:
"While music never cloying,
As skylarks sweet, I hear;
Their sounds I'm still enjoying,
They'll always soothe my ear.
"Here paintings sweetly glowing
Where'er our glances fall;
Here colours, life bestowing,
Bedeck this Greenwood Hall.
"The king there dubs a farmer;
There John his doxy loves;
But my delight's the charmer
Who steals a pair of gloves.
"As still amazed I'm straying
O'er this enchanted grove,
I spy a harper playing,
All in his proud alcove.
"I doff my hat, desiring
He'll tune up 'Buxom Joan;'
But what was I admiring?
Odzooks! a man of stone!
"But now, the tables spreading,
They all fall to with glee;
Not e'en at squire's fine wedding
Such dainties did I see.
"I longed (poor country rover!),
But none heed country elves.
These folk, with lace daubed over,
Love only their dear selves.
"Thus whilst' mid joys abounding,
As grasshoppers they're gay,
At distance crowds surrounding
The Lady of the May.
"The man i' th' moon tweer'd shyly
Soft twinkling through the trees,
As though 'twould please him highly,
To taste delights like these."
It should be explained that the allusion in the sixth stanza is to three pictures in the Pavilion, which represented "The King and the Miller of Mansfield," "Sailors Tippling at Wapping," and "A Girl Stealing a Kiss from a Youth Asleep;" that the "harper" is the statue of Handel; and that the "Lady of the May" is the "Princess of Wales sitting under her Pavilion."
No public favourite ever had so many "positively last appearances" as Vauxhall. For years Londoners were informed, at the conclusion of each season, that Vauxhall would that week "close for ever;" and for years, at the commencement of the succeeding one, they were assured that it would re-open "on a scale of magnificence hitherto unattempted." But, as we have said, the end eventually came; this was about the year 1855.
In the autumn of 1859, a vast number of persons were attracted to the gardens by the announcement that "the well-known theatre, orchestra, dancingplatform, firework-gallery, fountains, statues, vases, &c.," would be sold by auction. There were, in all, 274 lots, and many of them were knocked down at the lowest conceivable price. A deal painted table, with turned legs, one of the original tables made for the gardens in 1754, was disposed of for 9s. A large historical painting in the coffeeroom, representing the King of Sardinia, with the Order of the Garter, being introduced by Prince Albert to the Queen, brought only 35s.; while an equestrian picture of the Emperor and Empress of the French at a hunting party, in the costume of Louis XIV., was sold for the ridiculous sum of 22s. The great feature of the day's sale, it is stated, was the circular orchestra, for which a gentleman of the Jewish faith offered £25; but several persons seemed anxious about the lot, and the price ran up to £99.
Shortly afterwards the Prince of Wales went to Vauxhall, but it was to lay the foundation-stone of a School of Art, on the spot where, in bygone times, lovers whispered their "soft nothings" in the dark walks to the music of pattering fountains; a church has arisen on what was once almost the centre of the gardens; the manager's house is now the parsonage, slightly enlarged, but otherwise unaltered; and all is respectable and artistic and decorous, though there are no coloured lamps and no fireworks.