The illuminations began before we arrived, and I must confess that, upon entering the gardens, I found every sense overpaid with more than expected pleasure.
Oliver Goldsmith, The Citizen of the World, 1760
Long before the invention of Disneyland, Georgian Londoners enjoyed their own type of amusement park: the pleasure garden. For a modest entry fee, people from all walks of life could escape the noise and squalor of London's streets for a diverting evening of al fresco entertainment, socialising, romance – or even scandal...
Pleasure gardens featured every sort of attraction, from the sedate to the salacious. There were manicured walks and impressive fountain displays, light refreshments, classical concerts, exotic street entertainers and even fireworks. Away from the prying eyes of polite society, they were ideal places for romantic trysts. Their darker corners were also rife with prostitution...
The magical – and somewhat edgy – air of the gardens was largely down to lighting. In the days before electricity, the sight of hundreds of oil lamps illuminating the trees and bushes must have been sensational.
The most famous pleasure garden was on the south bank of the Thames. It began its life in 1661 as New Spring Gardens, a few acres of attractively planted walks, hedged with fruit and vegetables. But it was transformed under the ownership of a young entrepreneur called Jonathan Tyers, who remodelled and re-launched it under the new name of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in 1732. Four hundred people, including Frederick, Prince of Wales, paid a hefty one guinea to attend the masked gala, which went on until 4am. Vauxhall's future was assured.
In fact, it remained successful for the next two hundred years – thanks largely to Tyer's commercial acumen. After the opening, he reduced the entrance fee to a modest shilling (and kept it there for the next 60 years), making the gardens accessible to almost everyone. He even introduced one guinea season tickets: silver discs with classical imagery on one side and the bearer's name engraved on the other. On top of the cost of the ticket, visitors to the gardens paid for their refreshments, but all the entertainments, including the music, singing, and artworks were provided free.
Music was a major attraction of pleasure gardens and most featured an orchestra building where live bands would play popular tunes of the day as well as perform new works by major composers such as Handel and Mozart. In 1769, 12,000 people arrived at Vauxhall to watch Handel rehearse his Fireworks Music.
Al fresco dining was also a highlight. Vauxhall featured fifty or so 'supper-boxes': private alcoves hung with artworks where parties of ten to twelve people could enjoy cold meats, salads, cheese, custards, tarts and strong punch.
Others were quick to see the potential and pleasure gardens soon opened around the world; many called 'Vauxhall' after the original. Vauxhall was only rivalled in London by Ranelagh pleasure gardens which opened in 1746 on the site of today's Chelsea Flower Show. To recoup its extravagant £16,000 construction cost (£2.5m in today's money), it charged a higher entry fee than Vauxhall, in turn attracting a more wealthy and fashionable crowd.
The popularity of pleasure gardens persisted right through to Victorian times. Without them, today's multi-million pound theme park industry wouldn't exist.
Did you know?
The ham at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens during the 1700s was famed to be cut so thinly that you could read a newspaper through it.