A Visit To Vauxhall
I set off to do my reading in Vauxhall last night and thought about how it had changed since the days of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, which was a popular theme park for London for two hundred years from the middle of the 17th century.
The gardens reached the height of their popularity in the early 1800s, with 20,000 visiting on one night in 1826. Their winning formula combined music, illuminated fountains, fireworks and light refreshments in an Eden-like atmosphere. The gardens originally combined genteel areas (amphitheatres where orchestras played and visitors promenaded in their finery) and ‘dark walks’ where couples could enjoy each other’s company in some privacy. This combination took some policing, and the owners employed their own policemen, probably the first organised police force in London.
Here’s how Canaletto saw the gardens.
One well known visitor was Casanova. His memoirs record his friend saying: ‘It was one evening when I was at Vauxhall, and I offered her twenty guineas if she would come and take a little walk with me in a dark alley. She said she would come if I gave her the money in advance, which I was fool enough to do. She went with me, but as soon as we were alone she ran away.’ Yes, Casanova may have been a great lover but his mates were mugs.
Growing competition from early music halls and other public entertainments caused the proprietors to become increasingly innovative and offer a wider range of attractions, such as lion tamers and tightrope walkers. The gardens became particularly famous for balloon ascents.
Inevitably the place acquired a dodgy reputation, and a number of brothels became well established in the surrounding streets, including at “Sluts Hole” – now a stables in Fitzalan Street. One visitor told the owner that “he should be a better customer … if there were more nightingales and fewer strumpets”. Ironically, the advent of the railways killed off the gardens and they closed in 1859.
But the Pleasure Gardens are still there in Vauxhall, although they’re back to their original name of Spring Gardens. The area is no longer filled with thousands of candlelit globes, but it’s a very pleasant place that looks like this.
The rambunctious, licentious behaviour of Vauxhall lives on in the area’s many late night clubs, of course. After my reading, an act came on as part of the Hot August Fringe Festival being held there, and I found myself watching a deranged (and surprisingly clever) Italian punk performer from Vatican City of all places, storming up and down stage in Nazi leathers. So the spirit of Vauxhall survives.
Leaving, it was a little sadder to find that The Elephant & Castle (a notorious old Thames lighterman pub entirely unconnected with the Elephant & Castle, apart from the statues on its roof) was now – yes, a Starbucks. But at least the building is there.