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I first wrote a version of this blog in 2011 when I’d just purchased a new research book, Vauxhall Gardens: A History by David Coke and Alan Borg, a coffee-table sized volume brimming with everything you’d want to know about these historical pleasure gardens. It was worth every penny I spend on it and I spent a lot of pennies!

During this pandemic year, though, I came across a lecture on Vauxhall that gave some new information. More on that later.

I think of Vauxhall Gardens as the Disneyland of its time, a place people of all walks of life and social classes flocked to for recreation, to see wonders that thrill, amaze, or simply entertain them. Things like fireworks and tightrope walkers, musical performances, frescos made so real you felt transported to a different land, spooky dark walks featuring a hermit at the end. There was food special to the place, just like the special foods we find at amusement parks or State Fairs. Paper-thin slices of ham, tiny whole chickens, orgeat (the soft drink of the day), poor quality wines, cider and ale.

Jonathan Tyers opened Vauxhall Gardens in 1729 and from the first made no distinctions between the classes. Everyone paid the same price of admission, so from the first, the classes mixed in the various entertainments like a Venetian Carnival. Throughout the years Vauxhall Gardens entertained visitors with music, a mix of performances from serious styles of music to light-hearted popular tunes of the day. A grand organ was included. Popular vocalists appeared. Handel was featured. In fact–new information–Handel’s Fire Music was first played at Vauxhall. Music was often advertised as coming first to Vauxhall, a way to increase attendance.

Artwork was always a part of the gardens, including paintings by Hogarth and sculpture. A statue of Handel came to personify Vauxhall and remained in the gardens most of its almost 200 years.

Other entertainments appeared, some from the beginning and some as years went on. Fireworks. Fountains. Lamps which were lit all at once. A rope dancer named Madame Saqui. I once mentioned Madame Saqui in one of my books and received a letter from a reader in the UK whose last name was Saqui. She’d not known of this possible ancestor until reading of her in my book.

Some more new information from the lecture–the servants Tyers hired to serve the food were highly trained to be as unobtrusive as possible. Like Disneyland employees? Also unobtrusive (and new information to me) were guards who patrolled the Dark Walk and also snatched up drunk young men and put them in a cage to sober up. Wouldn’t one of these guards be a good character for one of our Regency books?

Speaking of possible Regency characters, the lecture also revealed that the casual pick-ups at Vauxhall were not typically the prostitutes, but other young women looking for that sort of good time. The nearby inns and taverns provided the rooms for such goings on.

Although entry cost a shilling, policing legitimate attendees was a challenge. Some gained entry through counterfeit tokens; others by climbing in from the riverbank. Tyers built a haha as a barrier, but this did not stop the most intrepid trespassers.

I’ve loved using Vauxhall Gardens as a setting in my books. Flynn, my hero in Innocence and Impropriety became smitten with Rose as she sang at Vauxhall Gardens. In A Reputable Rake, Morgana brought her courtesan students to Vauxhall Gardens to practice their lessons. A masked Graham Veall chose Vauxhall Gardens as a place to meet Margaret and hire her as a temporary mistress in my homage to Phantom of the Opera, The Unlacing of Miss Leigh.

I also used Vauxhall Gardens for A Not So Respectable Gentleman?, the last of the Welbourne Manor books. That book was set in 1828 and my wonderful research book told of several new events at Vauxhall that year.

New was the Grand Hydropyric Exhibition, consisting of cascades of colored fire and water. A new vaudeville called The Statue Lover was introduced, as well as a short comic ballet called The Carnival of Venice. Even though there had been complaints of excessive noise the previous year, a reenactment of the Battle of Waterloo took place on the battle’s anniversary. They also introduced a lottery with dozens of different prizes.

Are you planning any summer outings? It may take us all a while to feel comfortable in the sort of crowded summer settings like Vauxhall, I think. No matter what, this summer is bound to offer more entertainments than last summer!

Let’s look forward to it!

My family and I recently returned from what for us is a rare activity–a vacation! We had a thoroughly lovely time at the two Universal Studios theme parks in Orlando, Florida (and came home just in time for the blizzard that affected much of the northeast U.S.). My husband’s random comment that much of what we did and saw “could barely have been imagined even fifty years ago” started me thinking about which aspects of our vacation might or might not have been at least recognizable to a Regency time traveler.

The notion of a theme or amusement park itself would certainly not be foreign to our visitor, for the fairs and pleasure gardens familiar to him or her were exactly the roots of the “Magic Kingdoms” and “Islands of Adventure” we have today. The history of fairs as gathering places for both trade and amusement goes back to ancient times well before the Middle Ages, and both the Bartholomew Fair, a chartered London fair held in the fall from 1133 to 1855, and the Sturbridge Fair, held in Cambridge (1211-1882 or longer), are historically famous in England. If you look carefully at the 1808 illustration of the Bartholomew Fair, you can see all the familiar elements – throngs of people, and vendors selling wares, spectacle/show stages and also rides –note the giant swings at the right, and the “spin-around” on the left (we had one of those in my schoolyard when I was a kid). There is even a “pleasure wheel” (an early form of ferris wheel) in the background. Granted, a large number of the rides at Universal are roller coasters of various sorts, but a little research reveals that roller coasters originated in Russia during the 1600s in the form of ice slides –70-foot ice-covered ramps with wooden frames for riders to slide down. By 1784, wheeled vehicles were being used (powered by gravity, I suspect), and by 1812 in Paris they had even learned to lock the cars onto the tracks! I did not find evidence that these had reached England by then, however. More investigation needed!

Bartholomew Fair 1808

The idea of a fair running all year long on a permanent basis might surprise our Regency friend at first, but not after the example of the pleasure garden is considered. Pleasure gardens date as far back as the mid-16th century, providing a permanent acreage set aside for entertainment and recreation. Pavillions and long walkways were standard landscape features, all illuminated by hundred of oil lamps. Vauxhall Gardens in London (originally opened in 1661) is the one most associated with our period as Ranelagh Gardens closed in 1803, but there were similar gardens in many places. Games, dancing, concerts and fireworks, tightrope walkers, hot air balloon ascents, re-enactments of sieges and battles, illusions of exotic places…gee, with the exception of the hot air balloons, I think I saw all of these at Universal. Do you see a similarity in the two pictures below?

Universal Gateway

Vauxhall Grand Walk 1791

Modern technology has given a new spin to all of these time-tested crowd-pleasers –computers now control everything and video enhances many of the rides. The big thrill in Hogwarts in the Harry Potter section of Islands of Adventure is basically riding a moving gyroscope, a very new way to use technology that was only in its infancy during the Regency. The fireworks display and waterworks we saw in the evening at closing time at Universal included a fabulous light show and projection of images on the constantly changing configurations of fountains and curtains of water well beyond anything Vauxhall would have been able to produce. But you know, the descriptions of period illusions and shows they did manage to put on are quite impressive, even by today’s standards.

My husband pointed out that the biggest difference that might have truly frightened our visitor is the speed of everything. Coming from a world where people were frightened by the speed of trains when they were introduced at 35mph, and where at one time 20 miles was considered a full day’s travel, to our world where 20mph is considered an annoying snail’s pace, our Regency time-traveler might think twice about going on a rollercoaster traveling at 90 miles an hour. I know I passed on some of those myself! I think in the end that he or she would have been more astounded by this and by the building technology in the parks, the moving sidewalks, the acres of parking lots and rows of huge parking garages, the cell phones and cameras (and the skimpy clothing on the tourists) than by the parks or entertainments themselves. But since our visitor is obviously intrepid (having time-traveled, after all), after equipping him or herself with an appropriate t-shirt, I am certain he/she would have enjoyed the time spent there every bit as much as we did.

For more information about VauxhallGardens, I recommend these websites (among many):

www.vauxhallgardens.com

www.vauxhallandkennington.org.uk

www.history.co.uk/explore-history/history-of-london/pleasure-gardens.html

Gail Eastwood
www.gaileastwoodauthor.com

 

Life is sort of insane at the moment and since Guy Fawkes day (November 5) is almost upon us, I’m recycling a post about fireworks from 2009.

Occasionally people ask me if Halloween is celebrated in England and I tell them that now it’s quite a big deal. I’m surprised that the sweet-loving English took so long to figure out that any day when candy is given away is worth adopting. But when I was growing up we preferred to burn Catholics in effigy. You can read some earlier Risky posts about the Gunpowder Plot, Diane’s in 2007 and mine in 2005, so today I thought I’d talk about fireworks (and who hasn’t written a Vauxhall Gardens scene with fireworks?)

Like so many other inventions, fireworks originated in China, possibly as early as the ninth century, the legend being that common kitchen ingredients, saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal combined to explode. So the early emphasis was on loud bangs, thought to scare off evil spirits. When fireworks came west and were adopted by the royal courts of Europe in the Renaissance, the color scheme was somewhat limited at first, mostly in shades of amber, so the emphasis was on elaborate structures built to display the fireworks. The Italian style featured fake buildings, decorated with painted allegorical figures or flowers, whereas the German (Northern School) preferred one centerpiece, such as a figure of Cupid, from which the fireworks emerged.

By the eighteenth century more colors were added to the repertoire and public firework displays became elaborate affairs, often with music, and frequently lasting a couple of hours. The illustration at left is a detail of a fireworks display in Green Park, London, in 1763. One of the most interesting things about this print is that it’s an early 3-D experiment known as a vue d’optique–the words inside the explosion are Vivat Rex in reverse, because the print was designed to be viewed through a mirrored viewer. You can read more about it here.

One of the most famous public fireworks displays was the one in 1749 to celebrate the end of the war for Austrian succession. Handel was commissioned to write the music (Music for the Royal Fireworks), the “machine” from which the fireworks were to be set off took four months to build and 11,000 fireworks were designed by an Italian team led by the noted Gaetano Ruggieri. But the English technicians appointed to set off the fireworks got in a fight with the Italians and half of them were set off prematurely. The rest were never set off. Several spectators died in freak accidents–drowning, falling out of trees. When Princess Di and Prince Charles married in 1981, an attempt was made to replicate this firework display, and it was a dud then, too–“Wedding 6: Fireworks 0” according to the Evening Standard.

One intriguing fact that came out when I was reading about fireworks was that many of the manufacturers were family businesses that spanned several generations. Brocks Fireworks, the oldest English company, was founded early in the eighteenth century and started a tradition of public firework displays for the general public in 1826, and given at the Crystal Palace after 1865. The company was eventually bought out by the now defunct Standard Fireworks. More info on English firework companies and some quite gorgeous artwork here.

Do you have a favorite fictional fireworks scene? Or, do you celebrate Fireworks Day?

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