Tucked away in Vauxhall down a poky alley behind the Zeitgeist at the Jolly Gardeners – London’s German pub – there are two small cottages that have stood the test of time. While much of Georgian heritage in the area has been swept away during the rapid urbanisation of the 19th century, these properties have survived. One is just a room deep and the lady who lives there pops her head out the door to tell us that is was built in 1710 or 1715. It was once one of a row of four cottages, but now just two survive – the other being larger and dating from the 1770s.
Given that the area changed so much during Victorian times, with the construction of back-to-back terrace houses, factories, workhouses, ragged schools and other public buildings, it’s amazing the quirky properties survive. They hark back to before Vauxhall became grimy from dirty industrial processes. The cottages were built when the nearby Vauxhall Gardens was in its heyday and was one of the most fashionable places in London.
The entertainment site, originally called New Spring Gardens, was opened in 1662 and was mentioned by the diarist Samuel Pepys. Vauxhall was open fields then and so the gardens were visited by those wanting to get away from the hustle and bustle of the City of London. Initially they consisted of several acres of trees and shrubs with attractive walks. Entrance was free with food and drink being sold to support the venture.
But as more attractions were added over the course of the 18th century an admission was charged. On a warm summer’s night Vauxhall Gardens (the name adopted in 1785) up to 5,000 people ate, drank, flirted, enjoyed concerts and watched tightrope walkers, balloon ascents or fireworks. For special events, like when the resident conductor Handel performed with a 100 piece orchestra there could be up to 12,000 in the crowd.
Sir John Hawkins in his General History of Music (1776), described the transformation of the site from 1730 when Jonathan Tyers became manager. He added “a great number of stately trees, and laid out in shady walks” to gardens and the proprietor’s house was converted into “a tavern, or place of entertainment, was much frequented by the votaries of pleasure.” Hogarth painted pictures for the rooms and, with visitors coming to see them, it became the first public art gallery in the world.
These entertainments were repeated in the course of the summer, and numbers resorted to partake of them. This 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 a band of excellent musicians; he issued silver ticketsat one guinea each for admission, and receiving great encouragement, he set up an organ in the orchestra, and, in a conspicuous part of the garden, erected a fine statue of Mr Handel.
M. Grosely, for his 1772 Tour to London, visited a number of pleasure gardens, including Vauxhall and noted “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.”
Writing earlier in the 18th century, James Boswell said Vauxhall Gardens ”is peculiarly adapted to the taste of the English nation; there being a mixture of curious show, — gay exhibition, musick, vocal and instrumental, not too refined for the general ear; — for all of which only a shilling is paid; and, though last, not least, good eating and drinking for those who choose to purchase that regale.”
Decline set in for Vauxhall Gardens in 19th century, with Dickens noting in 1836 in Sketches By Boz that “if there had been any magic about it at all, was now decidedly disenchanted, being, in fact, nothing more nor less than a combination of very roughly-painted boards and sawdust.” The venue can be seen on a map from 1831 – probably one of the last plans before it was lost to development. Nearby is Vauxhall Square, a fine residential development built when the area was fashionable and now completely lost. On the edge of the Vauxhall Gardens itself is a ‘blob’ marking the house where the venue’s manager lived – the place where stars would have popped into before making their way onto stage. The building, dating from the early 19th century, survives to this day, having been used as a vicarage when St Peter’s church was built.
The entertainment venue was closed for good in 1859, but part of the original site survives as a public park that Lambeth Council has in the last few years re-named Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. For some this labelling is bizarre. Nice as the open green space is, there is no-where near the glitz and glamour that would have greeted visitors in the 18th century. In reality it’s just an open patch of grass. When I visit on a dreary February Saturday morning the only people I spotted were dog walkers and footballers braving the rain to play on astroturf pitch that Lambeth had installed as part of a major renovation project in 2011.
Much of the site was lost when a railway viaduct was built in 1848, dismembering the park. And by 1870 the entire park was built over by terrace housing and the area became a place of heavy industry. Although slum clearance in the 1970s opened a new chapter for the site and it became an open space again (Vauxhall Spring Gardens), the area gained a bad reputation. It was an intimidating place for to go (especially after dark when the park was used for illicit pleasures), while sports pitches were under-used and in a poor condition.
The most striking aspect of the park’s re-opening in 2011 following a £200,000 cash injection was that there were two 18-metre high cylindrical concrete pillars at the Kennington Lane entrance, next to the Royal Vauxhall Tavern (the popular gay venue where Paul Grady started out on his cabaret career in the 1980s). The architects wanted people from far and wide to see to that the park remained and was open for all. Trees were planted and parts were re-landscaped, with the sculpting of hills and mounds.
Today the signs of gentrification are appearing all around the park, with the nearby Tea House Theatre having restored a former strip pub to its Victorian glory. Guests enjoy homemade sandwiches and afternoon tea in a setting that evokes the elegance of this area in the 18th century. It is a great place to grab a window seat and ponder how the patch of grass outside was once the most fashionable place in London.