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The History of the Pleasure Gardens

We've all become highly acquainted with our local parks and gardens over the past year. But this isn't the first time in history that they have become the de rigueur destination for all of London society. Fortnum's archivist Dr Tanner takes us through the history of these sensational spots, that are credited with the existence of theme parks today.

Pleasure is inexorably associated with tea, and the creation of a peculiarly English phenomenon in the 18th and 19th centuries – the pleasure garden. London boasted three major pleasure gardens: Ranelagh, Vauxhall and Cremorne. They were all established on the banks of the Thames, and were intended to allow people from every walk of life (for a modest ticket price) to listen to music, look at paintings, stroll, drink and flirt until long after dark.

Pleasure gardens featured every sort of attraction, from the sedate to the salacious. There were manicured walks and impressive fountain displays, light refreshments, classical concerts, exotic street entertainers and even fireworks. Away from the prying eyes of polite society, they were ideal places for romantic trysts. Their darker corners were also rife with prostitution...


The magical – and somewhat edgy – air of the gardens was largely down to lighting. In the days before electricity, the sight of hundreds of oil lamps illuminating the trees and bushes must have been sensational.

The most famous pleasure garden was on the south bank of the Thames. It began its life in 1661 as New Spring Gardens, a few acres of attractively planted walks, hedged with fruit and vegetables. But it was transformed under the ownership of a young entrepreneur called Jonathan Tyers, who remodelled and re-launched it under the new name of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in 1732. Four hundred people, including Frederick, Prince of Wales, paid a hefty one guinea to attend the masked gala, which went on until 4am. Vauxhall’s future was assured.

In fact, it remained successful for the next two hundred years – thanks largely to Tyer’s commercial acumen. After the opening, he reduced the entrance fee to a modest shilling (and kept it there for the next 60 years), making the gardens accessible to almost everyone. He even introduced one guinea season tickets: silver discs with classical imagery on one side and the bearer’s name engraved on the other. On top of the cost of the ticket, visitors to the gardens paid for their refreshments, but all the entertainments, including the music, singing, and artworks were provided free.


Music was a major attraction of pleasure gardens and most featured an orchestra building where live bands would play popular tunes of the day as well as perform new works by major composers such as Handel and Mozart. Mozart himself played there at the age of 9. In 1769, 12,000 people arrived at Vauxhall to watch Handel rehearse his Fireworks Music.


Al fresco dining was also a highlight. Vauxhall featured fifty or so ‘supper-boxes’: private alcoves hung with artworks where parties of ten to twelve people could enjoy cold meats, salads, cheese, custards, tarts and strong punch.

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!