09 October 2012

The Triumph of Pleasure: Vauxhall Gardens

When I was a kid it was always a big deal when we went to an amusement park and in Southern California we had three to choose from. They offered everything a child and the child within could want for pleasure: exciting rides, various sugary comestibles that stuck to everything, shops, places to sit, plants and flowers, hormonal teens and young adults engaged in secret assignations, and lots of interesting people of all shapes, sizes, nationalities and classes mingling as equals. Little did my 10 year old self know that the amusement park had been around for centuries, though called by a different name, and that people did in them essentially the same things they do today.

London was no exception when the fashion of the pleasure garden made its way from the continent in the 17th century, with at least six of them dotted about the city. With the restoration of Charles II to the throne, fun and frivolity were back on the menu, a savory delight to be enjoyed by all (if you had the chinks to pay for it). The pleasure garden was a place for those of quality and gentility to seek amusement and diversion, a place to see and be seen, to be entertained, and to experience the newest thrilling industrial innovations. One such pleasure garden, and a leader of these novel venues, was at Vauxhall in Lambeth. Situated next to the Thames just south of the city, it was one of the prime social destinations of its day.

Promo for the Pleasure Gardens, c. 1850
Rather coincidentally (or not), the pleasure gardens at Vauxhall opened the same year that poor Nicolas Fouquet threw a lavish party to show off his new house at Vaux le Vicomte to a jealous and enraged Louis XIV, who threw Nic in jail and commenced building the ultimate pleasure garden, Versailles. The takeaway lesson: One must never outshine the Sun King.

This map, dated 1753, clearly shows the location of Vauxhall Gardens (marked in pink), then known as Spring Gardens. For reasons unknown, the bottom of the page is north.
In England, things were a bit different and the monarchy were among those who frequented the city's pleasure gardens, though they had resplendent royal gardens of their own (think Hampton Court and Kensington Gardens).

Vauxhall takes its name from the landowners, the Fauxe, or Vaux, family derived from Falkes de Breauté, a mercenary working for King John, who acquired the land by marriage. Sometime after 1615, the land was sold and the development of the pleasure gardens began. The name changed over time - Falkes, Fox, Faux, Vaux - and the existence of a manor house, or hall, would logically give rise to the name Vauxhall. There are Vauxhall Gardens named after the English original in Canada and the US, and the Russian word for railway station is vokzal (Вокзал), attributed to a communication glitch between a delegation of Russians and their English hosts in the late 1800's. Oh, and the griffin emblem used by the car maker? It came from the de Breauté coat of arms.

Prior to that, the land surrounding Vauxhall had been marshland belonging to the manor of Lambeth in the 13th century. It wasn't until the marshlands were drained that the area became arable and began to be developed. Until the completion of Westminster Bridge in 1750 the only crossing on the Thames was at London Bridge, a fair distance away. No matter, the Thames was the M1 of its day and people made the boat journey to Vauxhall quite frequently. The celebrated gardener and diarist John Evelyn visited the gardens when they first opened in 1661, but the first mention of the pleasure gardens came from Samuel Pepys, who visited at least two dozen times, probably more.

In his diary, Pepys wrote of his first visit to the Pleasure Gardens: "Thence home, and with my wife and the two maids, and the boy, took boat and to Foxhall, where I had not been a great while. To the Old Spring Garden [at Charing Cross], and there walked long, and the wenches gathered pinks. Here we staid, and seeing that we could not have anything to eat, but very dear, and with long stay, we went forth again without any notice taken of us, and so we might have done if we had had anything. Thence to the New one [the New Spring Gardens at Vauxhall], where I never was before, which much exceeds the other; and here we also walked, and the boy crept through the hedge and gathered abundance of roses, and, after a long walk, passed out of doors as we did in the other place, and here we had cakes and powdered beef and ale, and so home again by water with much pleasure" (29 May 1662, a Thursday).

The Grand South Walk 1744
Addison describes his visit to the gardens in The Spectator, May 1712: "As I was sitting in my chamber, and thinking on a subject for my next Spector, I heard two or three irregular bounces on my landladys door; and at the opening of it, a loud cheerful voice inquiring whether the philosopher was at home. I immediately recollected that it was my good friend Sir Roger’s voice, and I had promised to go with him on the water to Spring Garden, in case it proved a good evening...we made the best of our way to Fauxhall. We were now arrived at Spring Garden, which is exquisitely pleasant at this time of year. When I considered the fragrancy of the walks and bowers, with the choir of birds that sung upon trees, and the loose tribe of people that walked under their shades. I could not but look upon the place as kind of Mahometan paradise. Sir Roger told me it put him in mind of a little coppice by his house in the country, which his chaplain used to call an aviary of nightingales...a mask who came behind him gave him a gentle tap on the shoulder, and asked him if he would drink a bottle of mead with her, but the knife, being startled at so unexpected a familiarity told her she was a wanton baggage, and bid her go about her business. We concluded our walk with a glass of Burton ale and a slice of hung beef. As we were going out of the garden, my old friend, thinking himself obliged, as a member of the quorum, to animadvert upon the morals of the place, told the, mistress of the house, who sat were more nightingales and fewer strumpets".

A general prospect of Vauxhall Gardens c. 1751 (The Foundling Museum)
From 1728 under the astute management of Jonathan Tyers, son of a leather merchant, Spring Gardens as it was then called enjoyed tremendous popularity and patronage. Known for the quality of its art - which was aided by Tyers's new friend William Hogarth - and music, visitors who could afford the shilling entrance fee (about £7 in today's money; quite a bargain compared to Disneyland) mingled with royalty, aristocracy, and the new wealthy landowners and merchants. A season ticket made of silver and engraved with your name on it could be had for a guinea (about £150). You paid extra for refreshments but the music, art, dancing, and fireworks were free (hey, that's how amusement parks today are set up - wicked!). Men and women could also, er, mingle in the long leafy avenues or steal a quick snog among the bosquets. And just like the parks of today there were hair-raising rides in that gravity-defying new invention, the hot air balloon. Food, drink, music, fireworks, exciting rides and secret assignations -  all rather familiar, wouldn't you say?

Balloon ascents were the E-ticket* ride of the 1850's
The gardens were at their heyday in the mid 1700s then slid into seediness over the next 100 years. Cut off from the river by the new rail lines and facing tougher competition from the Crystal Palace at the 1851 World's Exhibition in Hyde Park, the company visiting Vauxhall became unruly and the garden flowers were replaced with highly painted prostitutes until the gates were finally closed in 1859. The land was sold and developed, with all traces of the lovely walks and shady bowers erased. By the late 1800's no trace of the gardens remained.

Detail of Stanford's Geological Survey map of 1878 showing the new developments over the former garden site
The gardens might have been lost forever had not war intervened nearly a century later. During WW2 the area was bombed and received extensive damage. Of all the sites the bombs could have fallen, they fell on the site of the gardens. The target was likely the railway lines but apparently the enemy missed. In a commendable incidence of municipal foresight (or hindsight, as the case may be), instead of rebuilding the area it was landscaped and is once again a public garden.

Current Ordnance Survey map of Vauxhall
The elaborate Rococo bandstand has been replaced with a basketball court, and the grand walks and flower gardens are hidden under earthworks which very well may cover heaps of Victorian rubble.

This street sign on the Albert Embankment still shows the way to Tethered Balloon Rides, a local attraction until 2002, until the London Eye won out for best and highest panoramic view of the city.

Even though the park is open to the public, it bears no resemblance to its former glorious setting and I found nothing about it even remotely amusing. There are no elaborate bandstands, no supper boxes, no art, no music (except on pedestrians' ear buds), no glittering lamps and no gardens. Just humps of lawn, some trees, the enclosed basketball court and a few benches. The few times I was there people were simply passing through, not lingering as they would have done when the gardens were at their peak which is a shame because the park could be so much more inviting.

A mural on the pedestrian tunnel leading from the railway station hints at the gardens' history, street names like Spring Gardens Walk, Lilac Place, and a pub called The Jolly Gardeners indicate some manner of floriferousness in the vicinity but there isn't a flower garden to be seen, not even a window box or hanging basket at the pub.

Mural on the wall of the pedestrian tunnel under the railway tracks shows the splendor of the gardens

My question is: why not honor the gardens' past by planting some, well, gardens? When you look at other public spaces around London such as the Embankment Gardens, the rose garden in Hyde Park, the sunk garden at Kensington Gardens, and the flower beds at Regents Park, not to mention the countless public and private squares throughout the city, one wonders why the Borough of Lambeth has not considered a flower garden at Vauxhall Gardens a municipal necessity?

From what I understand, after the demise of the pleasure gardens the area went downhill pretty rapidly and is still economically depressed but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries there were girls' and boys' schools, an art school, and a vocational training program all within spitting distance of the gardens. Surely the creation of a garden would not only engage the community and provide educational initiatives for local school children, but would be an appropriate nod to the region's fabulous and long-reaching history, something which England has been known to be particularly proud of when it comes to conservation and restoration measures.

What Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens needs is more gardens
Perhaps in future the city council will look back in order to look forward and see fit to resurrect something of the Gardens' horticultural glamor. Perhaps then the Pleasure Gardens will triumph once again.

*Anyone born before 1982 might remember when Disneyland sold ticket books with alphabetically labelled tickets. An 'E' ticket was reserved for the most thrilling rides in the park, giving rise to the phrase, "An E-ticket ride", which I've often used to describe bus rides over narrow country lanes or certain friends' driving.

Edited to add: I neglected to mention a guided walk of the area lead by Ken Titmuss at, who kindly emailed an article detailing the history of the gardens. The walk does not focus on the history of the Pleasure Gardens so much as the development of the area after they closed. Still, the walk is enjoyable and ends at a charmingly restored tea room.

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