Vauxhall Gardens stood on the Surrey side of the Thames, a short distance east of Vauxhall Bridge, and was a popular place of public resort from the reign of Charles II almost to the end of the 19th century. The Gardens were laid out circa 1661 and originally called New Spring Gardens, to distinguish them from the Old Spring Gardens at Charing Cross. Admission was free and the Gardens could only be reached by water via a sixpenny boat ride until Westminster Bridge was built in 1750. On 30 May, 1668, Pepys recorded in his diary: "Over to Fox Hall, and there fell into the company of Harry Killigrew, a rogue newly come back out of France, but still in disgrace at our Court, and young Newport and others, as very rogues as any in the town, who were ready to take hold of every woman that came by them. And so to supper in an arbour; but Lord! their mad talk did make my heart ake." At this early stage, Vauxhall was comprised of little more than a few walks and arbors where supper was served, the attraction being the chance to commune with nature or to be accosted by the masked ladies of dubious repute who frequented the Gardens. Vauxhall was transformed into a fashionable favourite when Jonathan Tyers assumed management of the Gardens, remodelling and reopening them on 7 June, 1732, with a Ridotto al Fresco, at which Frederick, Prince of Wales, who had come down on his barge from Kew, was present. Two thirds of the company arrived in masks, dominoes or legal robes, with admission tickets selling for a guinea each. It was rumoured that the idea for the entertainment had in fact been William Hogarth's.
Tyers bedecked the Gardens with every appointment possible, commissioning Roubiliac to create a statue of Handel for the entrance to the Gardens, whilst Hogarth executed several pictures for the rooms. Tyers afterwards presented Hogarth with a gold admission medal for himself and his friends, bearing the inscription, "In Perpetuam Beneficii Memoriam." Originally, the only building on the grounds was the proprietor's house, which Tyers transformed into a footman's waiting and cloak room. He added supper boxes decorated with paintings, statues, arches and a cascade. Also installed were a music room, Chinese Pavilion and a Gothic orchestra boasting fifty musicians.
An Irish gentlemen visiting the Gardens in 1752, whose name is not recorded, wrote: The garden strikes the eye prodigiously; it is set with many rows of tall trees, kept in excellent order, among which are placed an incredible number of globe lamps, by which it is illuminated, and when they are lighted the sound of the music ravishing the ear, added to the great resort of company so well dressed and walking about, would almost make one believe he was in the Elysian fields. In the middle of the garden are two semicircles which appear like an amphitheatre, in which are placed a great number of small booths which may contain about six or eight people apiece, where they commonly refresh themselves with sweetmeats, wine, tea, coffee, or suchlike. The backs of these boxes or booths are adorned with curious paintings, all which are enlightened to the front with globes. They are all numbered, and very just attendance is given by a vast number of warders kept for that purpose. Near to this is a grand orchestra, where the music plays in fine weather; but this night the concert was held in a magnificent hall neatly furnished. At one side of the orchestra is a noble statue of Handel. The music no sooner began than we entered the hall, where fifty-four musicians performed. Mr. Lowe soon sang, whose character I need not here mention, and after him the inimitable Miss Burchell.
At first, the Gardens were open every day except Sundays, from May till September. Admission was 1s until the summer of 1792, when it was raised to 2s. Vocal music was introduced in 1745, with some of the greatest singers of the day performing at the Gardens, including Mrs. Arne and Mrs. Beddeley. Fireworks were not displayed at the Gardens until 1798 and even then did not become a mainstay. In 1748, the and the little Ashe, or the Pollard Ashe as they call her; they had just finished their last layer of red, and looked as handsome as crimson could make them . . We marched to our barge, with a boat of French horns attending and little Ashe singing. We paraded some time up the river, and at last debarked at Vauxhall . . . Here we picked up Lord Granby, arrived very drunk from Jenny's Whim . . At last we assembled in our booth, Lady Caroline in the front, with the vizor of her hat erect, and looking gloriously jolly and handsome. She had fetched my brother Orford from the next booth, where he was enjoying himself with his petitie partie, to help us mince chickens. We minced seven chickens into a China dish, which Lady Caroline stewed over a lamp with three pats of butter and a flagon of water, stirring and rattling and laughing, and we every minute expecting the dish to fly about our ears. She had brought Betty the fruit girl, with hampers of strawberries and cherries from Roger's and made her wait upon us, and then made her sup by us at a little table . . In short, the whole air of our party was sufficient, as you will easily imagine, to take up the whole attention of the Garden; so much so, that from 11 o'clock till half an hour after one we had the whole concourse round our booth; at least, they came into the little gardens of each booth on the sides of ours, till Harry Vane took up a bumper and drank their healths, and was proceeding to treat them with still greater freedom. It was 3 o'clock before we got home.'
The famous walks themselves were graveled and of the Grand Walk, a stately avenue of elms nine hundred feet long and thirty feet wide and, parallel with it, the South Walk, spanned by three triumphal arches, which were a part of a realistic painting of the Ruins of Palmyra. From a distance, many visitors thought the ruins authentic. On Gala nights, this painting was replaced with one depicting a Gothic Temple, with an artificial fountain at it's center. This walk was approximately the same length as the Grand Walk. To the left of the Grand Walk and parallel with it was the smallest walk, known as the Hermit's Walk, due to the transparency of a hermit seated before a hut at it's upper end. Traversing these walks was an avenue called the Grand Cross Walk, which ran through the whole Garden at right angles. The approximately 125 feet between the Grand Walk and the South Walk was an area known as the Grove.
The fashionable promenaded through these avenues, Peace of the Aix-la-Chapelle, which ended the War of Austrian Succession, was celebrated with a "masquerade in the Venetian Manner." However, Walpole wrote: "It has nothing Venetian in it, but was by far the best understood and prettiest spectacle that I ever saw . . nothing in a fairy tale ever surpassed it . . It began about three o'clock, and at about five (o'clock) people of fashion began to go. When you entered, you found the whole garden laid with masks and spread with tents . . in one quarter was a maypole dressed with garlands, and people dancing round it to a tabor and pipe and rustic music, all masked, as were all the various bands of music who were disposed in different parts of the garden. "That Vauxhall's popularity was by this time secure is evidenced by various contemporary reports. "The Gentleman's Magazine" carried the following report on Friday, 21 April, 1749: "Was performed at Vauxhall Gardens the rehearsal of the music for the fireworks (Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks"), by a band of 100 musicians, to an audience above 12,000 persons (tickets 2s 6d). So great a resort occassioned such a stoppage on London Bridge (then the only bridge over the Thames below Kingston), that no carriage could pass for three hours. The footmen were so numerous as to obstruct the passage, so that a scuffle happened, in which some gentlemen were wounded."
And again from Walpole, dated 23 June, 1750: "I had a card from Lady Caroline Petersham to go with her to Vauxhall. I went accordingly to her house and found her the young bloods lying in wait for unprotected females on the lesser avenues, known as the Dark Walk, the Druid Walk and the Lover's Walk. Much of Vauxhall's attraction lay in these romantic thoroughfares, where behaviour of the guests was not always above reproach, leading the Magistrates to order Tyers to fence them off in 1763. It was not unusual for young men to ogle the ladies as they passed and newspaper ads were taken out by bloods who had taken a fancy to a certain lady, expressing his passion for all to read. Let us not forget John Keats, who titled one of his works, "Sonnet to a Lady Seen for a Few Moments at Vauxhall."
In the Grove, the square enclosed by the principal walks and the western wall of the Garden, were built temples and pavilions and a colonnade for use during bad weather. Under this were over one hundred supper boxes, each with a mural by Francis Hayman, which had to frequently be touched up due to their being examined by the curious. Each box had seating for six to eight persons and the sparse food served within quite costly, with a dish of thinly sliced ham costing one shilling. It was said that the Vauxhall carver could cover the whole Gardens with the meat from a single ham. In 1817, a minute portion of ham and two tiny chickens cost eleven shillings, assorted biscuits and cheese cakes were another four shillings, sixpence and a quart of Arrac fetched seven shillings. Perhaps one saving grace was that the wines served at the Gardens were of the best vintages. The Gardens wee also known for it's arrack punch, a heady liquor made from mixing grains of the benjamin flower with rum.
A description of the Gardens written circa 1850 shows that their arrangement had remained pretty much the same over the decades, "On entering the turnstile in Bridge Street, the Grand Quadrangle lay to the right, shimmering with thousands of variegated lamps hung among the foliage of the trees and festooned from branch to branch in tasteful patterns. The quadrangle was formed by four colonnades, enclosing a space surrounded with walks and planted with trees. This was known as The Grove, and in the Grove was the orchestra, glittering with lights, and resplendent in its bastard Gothic design. Beneath the colonnades of the Quadrangle were boxes for supper parties, and facing the orchestra stood a pavilion called the Princes's Gallery, in honour of Frederick, Prince of Wales, who had frequently diverted himself in the Gardens. In addition to these buildings, there was the Rotunda, a theatre capable of holding some 2000 persons, where ballets and light theatrical turns were frequently given, and horsemanship feats, rope dancing, and the inevitable dioramas exhibited. Beyond the Quadrangle, at the eastern end of the gardens was a large space in front of the firework tower where scenic displays of various kinds were held. In later years this was turned into the Polar Regions, making a setting for the reproduction of Ross's Arctic voyage."
Another dazzling draw at the Gardens was the famed Cascade, which could only be viewed at nine in the evening for fifteen minutes. The theme of this extravaganza changed over the years in order to keep the fashionable entertained. The clang of a bell signalled that it was time to view the entertainment, which came to include a miller's house set by a rippling waterfall, complete with a froth of water at the bottom which drove a miller's wheel. In later years, the backdrop was changed to a mountain scene.
Tyers died in 1767, with management going to his sons, Jonathan and Tom, who was a great friend of Dr. Johnson, himself a frequent visitor to the Gardens. Tom sold his share in the Gardens to Jonathan in 1785, when the Gardens' name was changed to Vauxhall Gardens, the annual license still being taken out in the name of Spring Gardens. In 1786, a jubilee was held (four years late) for the 50th anniversary of the Gardens. Over 61,000 people attended in fancy dress, along with the Prince of Wales, with tickets costing half a guinea. In 1792, Jonathan Tyers the Younger died and management was passed to his son in law, Bryant Barrett. When Barrett himself died in 1809, his son, George, became manager, raising the admission price to 3s 6d and opening the Gardens only three nights each week.
On 20 July, 1813, a grand fete was held to celebrate Wellington's victory at Vittoria and was attended by the Prince of Wales and all the Royal dukes, with admission for the night being a staggering two and a half guineas. In 1816, Madame Saqui ascended and descended a tightrope fixed to a sixty foot mast whilst accompanied by a firework display. Her appearance was rather masculine, her legs worthy of a circus strong man. Dressed in tinsel, spangles and plumes, she was sometimes accompanied by her husband and child in her act and it was rumoured that she earned around one hundred guineas per week.
In 1814, at the end of the Grand Walk, a Naumachia, or Sea Battle Enactment, was built. Cannons were fired during the display and burning ships sank amidst clouds of smoke. The permanent Colonnade was erected in 1810, when part of the Grove and Grand Walk were razed in order to accommodate the structure. Awnings had always covered parts of the walks since 1769, but the new Colonnade was much welcomed, being brightly lit by lamps. In 1815, the Gardens for the Season on 8 June, under the patronage of the Prince Regent. A featured performer was Signor Rivolta, who played six to eight instruments at the same time.
In 1821, the London Wine Company bought the Gardens, raising the admission price to four shillings, sixpence. In 1825, the magistrates again ordered the dark walks to be lit and in 1827, the Battle of Waterloo was re-enacted by one thousand soldiers. By this time, the musical entertainment at the Gardens consisted of two acts, with music provided by Hayden, Handel and Hook. Between the two acts, the bell was rung to signal the start of the Cascade. Mrs. Bland, the ballad singer, gained attention at the Gardens from 1802, as did Charles Dignum, a popular vocalist. During the same period, a whole host of death defying feats were featured at the Gardens. A major attraction in 1802 was the astonishing fire balloon ascent performed by Mr. Garnerin. That same year, the Rotunda was converted into The Pavilion of Concord, complete with allegorical devices representing the four corners of the globe.
In the late 1850's, a Mr. Timbs wrote: Though Vauxhall Gardens retained their place to the very last, the lamps had long fallen off in their golden fires; the punch got weaker, the admission money less; the company fell off in a like ratio of respectability, and grew dingy, not to say "raffish" - a sorry falling off from the Vauxhall crowd a century before. Low prices brought low company; the conventional wax lights got fewer; the punch gave way to fiery brandy and doctored stout. The semblance of Vauxhall was still preserved in the representation of the orchestra printed upon the plates and mugs, and the old firework bell tinkled away as gaily as ever; but matters grew more and more seedy; the place seemed literally worn out; the very trees grew scrubby and shabby, an looked as if they were singed; and it was high time to say, as well as to see in letters of lamps Farewell."
The Gardens opened for the last time on the night of Monday, 25 July, 1859.