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 management of Ranelagh Gardens introduced many new entertainments, including the masquerade, which had formerly been a private, aristocratic entertainment. At its heart was a rococo rotunda, which was a prominent feature when seen form the river. It was open all year round, offering tea and musical concerts. Mozart played there, aged 9, in 1765, and the interior was painted by Canaletto on two occasions.
In addition, Ranelagh boasted a Chinese pavilion, an ornamental lake and several walks. Today it is the site of the annual Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show.
The popularity of pleasure gardens persisted right through to Victorian times. In fact, Horace Walpole wrote:
“It 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.”
Charles Dickens wrote of a daylight visit to Vauxhall Gardens, in Sketches by Boz, published in 1836:
“We paid our shilling at the gate, and then we saw for the first time, that the entrance…That the place where night after night we had beheld the undaunted Mr. Blackmore make his terrific ascent, surrounded by flames of fire, and peals of artillery, and where the white garments of Madame Somebody (we forget even her name now), who nobly devoted her life to the manufacture of fireworks, had so often been seen fluttering in the wind, as she called up a red, blue, or party-coloured light to illumine her temple!”