With fireworks in the night skies this week as both Canada and the US celebrate their birthdays, I got to thinking about Vauxhall Gardens where fireworks were a common entertainment in the Georgian and Regency periods.
During the Regency, the relatively cheap price of admission (about 3 shilling and sixpence during the early 19th century) and a growing middle class drove the popularity of Vauxhall Gardens. You could go and listen to an orchestra play, see the fireworks, and find light refreshment or cold suppers served in one of the boxes or alcoves.
Like going to the fair today, the cost of such fare was not cheap. In 1817, a small dish of ham, two small chickens cost 11 shillings and dessert of assorted tarts, custards and cheesecakes were another four. Notably, the ham served was pronounced to be “as thin as muslin” or “able to read a newspaper through it”. The Gardens was also known for its arrack punch, made by mixing arrack (an Indian liquor derived from areca nut, a palm seed originating in India from the areca tree), rum and sugar.
One feature of note, especially to writers and readers of fiction in this era, was the practice of chartering boats from Whitehall and Westminster to reach the gardens located in Kennington, on the south bank of the Thames. This was an option for those who could afford it instead of crossing Westminster Bridge, which made the gardens accessible by road after 1750, and provided a way to show off their status.
The grounds of The Gardens were lush and expansive, decorated with waterfalls, stone and thatched pavilions, and a canal running through with two elegant cast-iron bridges, in the Chinese manner. A sham castle was also prominent and planted with several pieces of cannon, bowling greens, swings, and thatched umbrellas as a shelter from sudden rains and storms.
Another feature often mentioned in Regency Romances are the many paths illuminated by as many as 15,000 colorful glass lanterns hung among the trees. Most famous of these were the Grand Walk, a wide avenue lined with stately elms that was over 900 feet long, and the “Dark Paths”, a collection of less illuminated serpentine walks, which were far more suited to seduction and discreet rendezvous for the romantic leads.
By the Georgian era, The Gardens could accommodate crowds numbering above 60,000 for the jubliee celebration in 1786 with nightly entertainments that began in the month of May. In 1813, a fête was held on June 20th, to celebrate the victory at Vittoria. All sorts of people visited The Gardens ranging from families, to businessmen, to vendors looking to make a profit from visitors, to the cream of society wishing to be seen.
The wide variety of entertainments included acrobatics and tightrope acts, equestrian feats, and balloon ascents, and in 1827, the Battle of Waterloo was re-enacted with 1,000 soldiers participating. But as the 19th century progressed, the gardens fell into disrepair and the crowds and entertainments became less reputable as well and the popularity of the gardens faded and closed in July of 1859.
To learn a bit more about the history from 1660 to the present of these pleasure gardens, Jane Austen’s World has a wonderful blog post, A Visit to Vauxhall Gardens by Tony Grant, that includes a detailed map of Vauxhall dating from 1800.
More information regarding a variety of other Regency-themed topics including other Regency London Landmarks can be found on my Regency Resource page. If you’d like more information on a specific place or topic, please let me know in the comments section below.