Established in 1729 by Jonathan Tyers, Vauxhall Gardens was an exotic outdoor pleasure ground and social venue, the likes of which had never been seen before the Regency era.
Wandering the pleasure gardens during eighteenth or nineteenth century London, one experienced a plethora of sensory delights ranging from evening illuminations and fireworks to operas, masquerade balls, en plein air picnics offering both punch and alcoholic beverages, and even prostitution.
Vauxhall is infamous for its masquerades where visitors wore outlandish costumes and masks to conceal their identities, which encouraged outlandish behavior. Popular costumes worn by women and men were classical heroes and goddesses. Masquerade balls originated from the Venetian private gambling salons where members of all class ranks would meet to dance, flirt and engage in promiscuous behavior.
Vauxhall: A Den of Scandal
Since masquerades hid the identities of those attending such parties, the normal conventions of polite eighteenth-century society were ignored. As a result, Vauxhall Gardens soon gained a reputation for disreputable behavior, especially in the evening hours.
On one infamous occasion in 1749, a woman by the name of Elizabeth Chudleigh arrived dressed as Iphigenia wearing a gauzy scarf wrapped around her naked body.
The wooded groves, dark mazes, and shady alleyways offered secret alcoves for assignations and all forms of promiscuous behavior. Well-dressed prostitutes were commonly seen searching for clients to pleasure in the gardens. Prostitution trade took place frequently enough that the London shops memorialized this trade by selling prints of The Vauxhall Demi-Rep, similar to the archived print below:
Vauxhall: A Center of Culture
During the 1730’s and 1740’s, the famous composer George Frederic Handel was in residence at Vauxhall. Handel came to England as the Kapellmeister, or master of music, to King George I.
Many of his works were performed in the gardens, including the Vauxhall Hornpipe, written for the Vauxhall Garden venue. On April 21, 1749 when Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks was rehearsed in the gardens, 12,000 Londoners caused a three hour traffic jam as carriages tried to cross London Bridge, the only bridge to the gardens, to view the event. Since the famous composer was an iconic mainstay of the gardens, a statue of Handel was commissioned under the craftsmanship of the leading sculptor at the time, Louis-François Roubiliac, and erected at Vauxhall in 1738.
In 1764, a charitable benefit concert was put on for none other than the eight-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart performed his own compositions on the harpsichord and piano. Londoners went into raptures over musical skills given his young age.
Additionally, the well-known works of William Hogarth and Francis Hayman were displayed in intimate supper booths, beginning the first form of a public art gallery in Britain.
Other forms of entertainment ranged from acrobats, tight rope walkers, to fortune tellers (pictured below). The famous Madame Saqui performed at Vauxhall from 1816 to 1820. Balloon ascensions and the reenactment of famous battles were other forms of entertainment one might see at Vauxhall.
Not only could one indulge the visual, physical, and audible senses, Vauxhall Gardens was highly unusual in that it offered open-air dining with seating at the garden centre.
For two shillings and a sixpence, visitors could enjoy roast chicken, roast beef, or ham with bread, butter, olives and a salad. A small loaf of bread costs only a penny, but drink was much more expensive.
One could also enjoy a bottle of champaign for eight shillings, whereas the less wealthy clients could purchase a quart of weak beer for fourpence.
Unlike conventional dining for the time, Vauxhall was a unique venue where the elite of London mixed with the working class. During the Regency, the working class typically ate at taverns and chop houses in London. On occasion when traveling through town, the aristocracy might partake of food at the same tables; however eating in public was predominantly done by males. Woman, on the other hand, were expected to retire to their hotel room with a tray to remain out of public view.
Vauxhall Gardens marks the first time in history where the wealthy and prosperous middle classes ate together in public, rather than the privacy of their homes. The mingling of respectable and unmarried women in public was one of the reasons why moralists claimed Vauxhall was a den of iniquity.
Arrival at Vauxhall
The gardens were entered via a boat ride across the Thames. A romantic view of the gardens lit by candle and lamplight beneath the stars was a sight to behold. When Vauxhall Bridge opened in 1816, most visitors arrived by coach or sedan.
Depending on the weather, the Vauxhall season ran from May to August and may have extended into September if the weather permitted. Originally, Vauxhall was open every day of the week, but was closed on Sundays beginning in the 1760s. By 1808, Vauxhall remained open only three nights a week.
The cost of admission to Vauxhall was one shilling, which was intended to deter pick pockets and prostitutes, however the cost did not prove prohibitive even after it was increased several times:
- 1792 the admission fee was raised to 2 shillings.
- 1808, the price was raised to 3 shillings 6 pence.
- In 1821 the price was 4 shillings.
- A season ticket for two was 1 guinea and 3 shillings.
- For special charity events higher admission would be charged.
To read more about exciting events at Vauxhall Gardens, refer to the next newsletter Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens Part II, which covers:
- The famous Cascade waterfall that ran for at fifteen minutes a night, and
- The fatal parachute descent by which Mr. Cocking lost his life.