The English Pleasure Garden 1660-18


The English Pleasure Garden 1660-1860 by Sarah Jane Downing

The story of the Pleasure Gardens starts from the time of the Restoration of the monarchy, becoming the most fashionable place to be for style conscious Georgians, only coming to a close at the height of Victoria's reign.

The Gardens showcased the finest musicians and artists of the day, hosting Mozart's English debut, and exhibited fine art in a public setting for first time. Providing literary inspiration for Pepys, Thackeray, Austen and Dickens, they were also the subject of poetry, painting, and opera and became the living epitome of the Romantic Movement.

In an age almost as celebrity obsessed as our own, it was the place to see and be seen, the colonnades and walks became the catwalks for society ladies anxious to show off their often amazing finery and be admired.

Everyone visited the Pleasure Gardens, the Prince of Wales was such a regular visitor he had his own pavilion at Vauxhall Gardens, and at the opposite end of the social spectrum, Dick Turpin attended Marylebone Gardens which was a known haunt for highwaymen.

After the privations of the civil war and the repression of the puritan era, England was determined to have fun. London was increasingly crowded, new building piled on top of the medieval city, the streets filthy with sewerage and dangerous from the threat of cutpurses and thieves and frequently impassable except by sedan chair.

There were various entertainments available from the newly restored theatre to the lowliest cockpits and dens of vice, but with the threat of the plague and the pox casting a murky shadow, people were wary of crammed social gatherings.


The first garden was New Spring Gardens which opened to the public in 1661, and as John Evelyn recorded in his famous diary, it was "a prettily contrived plantation'.

Samuel Pepys was one of the many visitors who would spend happy sun drenched afternoons there with his family gathering fruits and flowers away from the foetid smells of the city.

Initially the entertainment was little more than the beautiful surroundings, accompanied by birdsong from the resident nightingales and wrens, but by the beginning of the 18th century it was becoming more sophisticated and rather more seamy.

There began to be tales of rowdiness as young gallants burst into the private supper boxes and insulted the ladies, and it became known that anyone venturing into the dark walks might find themselves involved in a secret assignation or romantic rendezvous.

Joseph Addison visited in 1712 and commented in The Spectator that his friend had told the proprietor that "he should be a better Customer to her Garden, if there were more Nightingales, and fewer strumpets'.

Anxious to raise the tone, when Jonathan Tyers took on the lease of what he was to transform into the great Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in 1732, he reputedly consulted Hogarth for his ideas.

Tyers created a beautiful Arcadian retreat, each neat sanded walk gently meandering to a classical statue, obelisk, or picturesque ruin, or leading to The Grove where the Grand Orchestra dominated, providing the latest music from Handel and Mozart.

From the first season it was established as the most fashionable place in London as the royalty and nobility of the court took great delight in taking their entertainments outside.

Despite its prestige, Vauxhall Gardens made the radical step of allowing entrance to anyone who could afford the entry price, which was unknown outside of Beau Nash's sphere of influence in Bath.

The 18th century saw the halcyon days of the Pleasure Gardens as more and more sought to capitalise on the huge success of Vauxhall Gardens. By the end of the century there were 64 gardens in London with others at Bath, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Norwich, and Newcastle.

The most serious rivalry came from Ranelagh which opened on the site adjacent to The Royal Hospital, Chelsea in 1742. Always a cut above, Ranelagh gained the reputation of being the "divinest place under heaven' although there were those who thought the formal elegance rather dull.

Ranelagh's jewel was the vast Rotunda which was designed to resemble the Pantheon in Rome. This beautiful inside space had supper booths on 2 levels surrounding a huge central fireplace which was a blessing on chilly summer evenings and allowed Ranelagh a longer season than the other gardens.


Elizabeth Chudleigh, later the Duchess of Kingston, appeared as Iphigenia…

At the Pleasure Gardens the social season was a round of concerts, balls, public breakfasts, firework displays and the ever popular masquerades.

Always stunning, with a vast array of costumes depicting famous people from history or fanciful exotic costumes, many adorned with hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of jewels. Masquerades were condemned by contemporary moralists who felt that masked anonymity would only lead to licentiousness – and of course they were right!

Although possibly the most scandalous masquerade event took place unmasked. At the Ranelagh May Ball in 1749 Elizabeth Chudleigh, later the Duchess of Kingston, appeared as Iphigenia undressed for the sacrifice, her wisp of a costume so diaphanous that it was said she appeared "so naked, the high priest might easily inspect the entrails of the victim'!

By the beginning of the 19th century the Romance of the gardens was beginning to fade and the beautiful fairyland with trees glimmering with variegated lamps, tinkling fountains, and soft music was being replaced.

After the Montgolfier brothers launched their first successful hot air balloon ascents, balloons became all the rage at the Pleasure Gardens.

Entertainments began to change offering remarkable spectacles such as full scale battle re-enactments, the Siege of Gibraltar re-enacted as a firework display, and a medieval tournament with a stunning display of costumes and weaponry.

The dawning of the Victorian era brought further change.

The emphasis on family values meant family entertainments and the gardens opened for a new daytime clientele offering animal exhibits and ice-cream along with a series of frequently bizarre entertainments.

Much to the annoyance of those who lived on the King's Road next to Cremorne, the most fashionable of the Victorian Pleasure Gardens, in the evenings much of the grounds were crowded by noisy revelers fuelled by "the insidious 'long drinks' of soda and 'something'.

After dark the old immoral associations were renewed when the dark corners of the maze, were taken over by the "Fulham Virgins' who plied the oldest trade at the gates as a place to take their clients.

As the middle of the 19th century approached times were changing. The railways had cut a swathe across the countryside making it possible for the first time to be able to travel long distances within a day.

Travel was far more affordable even to a meagre budget and the seaside was fast becoming the place to be.

Where a day spent at a Pleasure Garden had been the perfect way to spend a day off when a holiday was only a single day, as more and more people were gaining longer holidays, the seaside holiday became a Victorian "must have'.

The Pleasure Gardens began to be forgotten, and as they fell further into decline, with property at a premium their prime land was eagerly taken over by the ever expanding cities.

Sarah Jane Downing is the author of The English Pleasure Garden 1660-1860, published by Shire Publications priced at £5.99

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