The Pleasure Garden is inspired by the licentious history of the park that borders Above the Stag Theatre, where the new musical premieres this month. Author Glenn Chandler takes us on a walk through the centuries of south London’s Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.
Take a walk into the park behind the theatre. Imagine there are no houses, no railway arches, there is no railway line, no Above The Stag. Welcome to the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, to which you probably came by boat up the Thames, away from the grime and noise of London.
Here was arcadia, walkways lit romantically by thousands of gas lamps, secret arbours, supper boxes in which you could enjoy a meal and a secret assignation and, if you were inclined, a very lethal punch. There was entertainment if you were culturally inclined. Concerts, ballet, opera, circus acts. You might thrill to the spectacle of a lion tamer putting his head in the creature’s mouth. Or you could climb into the basket of Mr Green’s hot-air balloon and sail up into the sky from where, on a clear day, you might glimpse France.
Mr Green incidentally wanted to take a lion up in his balloon, but those damned Victorian health-and-safety government officials stopped it, though he did manage to lift a large pony up in the air. And If you stayed late into the evening, and most visitors did, there would be grand firework displays lighting up the night sky.
There was a hermit too, who lived in a cave (a cave, you ask, in Vauxhall?) and who probably knocked off with the rest of the staff when the gardens closed. And if you thought you heard a nightingale, think again and look more closely. That’s a bird impersonator paid to move from tree to tree to fool visitors. And if the food was not up to much, and grossly overpriced – the ham was particularly notorious being described as sliced cobwebs – then you were only experiencing what we today call a rip-off.
It is satisfying to know that the Victorians and those who came became before them were just as much prey to gross commercialism. And yet they came back. The heyday of the gardens was the eighteenth century. They were at their most fashionable then. But the Pleasure Gardens go much further back, to the 1660s in fact, when following the Great Fire, London was in the grip of the Black Death and people felt safer out of the city.
They were called the New Spring Gardens then – take a look at the name of the road that runs under the railway. It was little more than a rural brothel then, a former plantation that catered for young men and women and their ‘country pursuits’. The first famous visitor reputedly was Samuel Pepys, the well-known diarist, who while dressed in the height of fashion enjoyed a few bawdy pursuits himself.
The 18th century saw a determination to do away with licentiousness. A gentleman called Jonathan Tyers took over and reigned over the burgeoning gardens for half a century. He said that the public did not want immorality, but they did want conviviality. He would not be the first to decide what the public wanted and did not want. He introduced the arts and music and culture to the gardens, and made it a place of education, not drunkenness and sexual freedom. The numbers dropped off. Or to put it more bluntly, no one came.
The 18th century saw a determination to do away with licentiousness.
Enter the great artist William Hogarth who said “give me a try!” Hogarth is famous for the engravings Beer Street and Gin Lane which depicted the consequences of alcoholism. Hogarth sincerely believed that the lower classes needed to be set an example by their betters, namely the upper classes, which was probably the worst idea in history. The Pleasure Gardens became classless. Lords and ladies and even royalty came to the gardens, where they mingled – or rather kept a safe distance from – the shopgirls and the labourers and the young people who still came there to mate and get drunk.
The great experiment did not work. One problem was the levelling of this microcosm of English society by the lack of toilets or sanitation. The history of the gardens is largely silent on that matter, unsurprisingly. There is a brief mention of ‘rude huts’ but if taken short a lord was in exactly the same position as a carpenter. You went into the bushes and dropped your trousers.
With such an enormous crowd of different ranks and classes flocking to Vauxhall every season, gay society, which has always been classless, would have thrived. There was reputed to be a part of the Pleasure Gardens where they congregated but this author has been unable to identify it.
By the 1800s, the gardens – now the Royal Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens after regal patronage – were well established, and starting to look a little bit tired, like the visitors. Grand architecture had grown up on that once sylvan land, there were temples, colonnades and statues. Orchestras played in the open air. There were masques and ridottos, and even Prince Frederick of Prussia attended. Unfortunately, the prices had gone up to a guinea a ticket and the ordinary people who had been the life blood of the gardens began staying away. Eventually, the price tumbled to half a crown, and then a shilling. There were plenty of amusements in London. Why travel to Vauxhall for entertainment when there were music halls in the capital?
The final years of the Royal Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens coincided with the Crimean War, a dreadful and appallingly managed conflict which set the British, French and Turks against the Russian bear. The gardens presented a grand diorama of the taking of the Russian base Sebastopol on the Black Sea, a somewhat misplaced celebration as the war was afterwards reckoned to be a disaster, the infamous charge of the Light Brigade being only one sorry episode.
It was the last hurrah forever for the gardens. The people who lived in the new streets surrounding the site no longer wanted firework displays, noise, drunkenness and rowdiness on their doorsteps and complained bitterly. In 1859, the pleasure gardens closed and a feature of life in Vauxhall that had survived for over two centuries was swept away by progress.
So after the show, if you have a mind, take a look at the park. Imagine yourself back in time and think of the characters in The Pleasure Garden. They are fictional but their counterparts are not. All life came to Vauxhall. It still does, and will continue to do so.
The Pleasure Garden runs until 17 October 2021 at the Above the Stag Theatre, 72 Albert Embankment, London SE1 7TP, with performances Wednesdays to Saturdays at 7.30pm, matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 3.30pm. Tickets from £24. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!