London’s Tea Gardens
An essay by William B Boulton
LONDON has always shown a disposition to make the best of a short summer and a fickle climate. You may turn to the letters, or diaries, or news-sheets of any period since that of the Stuarts, and find continuous record of a public ever ready to support an entertainment which included among its attractions the consumption of victuals in the open air. The peg upon which this attraction was hung has never been a matter of great moment. Highly-born people flocked to Spring Gardens in the days of Charles the First without intending to play bowls. The Mulberry Garden of the same times was only an attractive title for an open-air restaurant. Music and the promenade were the excuses for eating suppers at Vauxhall. The waters of Bagnigge Wells were little drunk by the humbler people who flocked there, except in the form of tea. And coming to more recent times, the fireworks and the twenty thousand additional lamps of the Vauxhall and Cremorne of the first half of the [twentieth] century had less to do with the success of those famous institutions than the bad food and worse liquor, which Londoners are ever ready to pay for at exorbitant rates if only served out of doors.
There is, in fact, an unbroken tradition of al fresco entertainment in London over a period of two centuries at least. From the days of Charles the First there is continuous record of junketings in one part of the town or another. Let us turn to the accounts of these old merrymakings, scattered in newspapers and magazines; preserved in advertisements, often of an almost touching quaintness; in letters and memoirs, and chance phrases of the diaries of generations long since asleep; in the records also, it must be confessed, of police courts and hostile licensing authorities. The draughtsmen and the engravers of a century were often busy with the doings at these places, and will give us much help in repeopling their forgotten shades and arbours, and in recalling a phase of social life which provided one of the chief relaxations of numbers of our citizen ancestors.
We know little or nothing of the al fresco entertain-ment in London before the days of Charles the First, and its vogue may be said to have come to an end with the extinction of Cremorne within the memory of those not yet past middle age: just as the need of open air relaxation in London was growing sorest, as it would seem. That, as we say, gives a period of over two centuries during which the alfresco entertainment flourished, a space of time in which London and the needs of its inhabitants have been totally transformed. It is important to remember this fact, and to think of the London of all but the present century as a great centre of population indeed, but compared with its present huge bulk, as a relatively small town. Take any old map, for example, of the middle years of the period we have marked out as that of the London al fresco, 1750 to 1760, the palmy days of its vogue, and trace the boundaries of London upon it.
When George the Third came to the throne, London, including Westminster, was bounded by Oxford Street and Holborn on the north, by the river on the south, by the outer boundary of the city on the east, and by Hyde Park, Arlington Street, and St. James’ Street on the west. All the rest of modern London was suburban merely, or open and pleasant country interspersed with wild heaths, and dotted with ancient villages. That country stretched out fingers and touched the city wall itself at Finsbury and the Tower. The fashionable dwellers in the Savoy and t he lawyers of the Temple looked across the river to t he hills of Surrey and Kent; and there is room for reflection in the fact that the Zoological Gardens, which were not opened till 1828, had for years to be fenced against the hares and rabbits which nibbled the hark off their shrubs and dug up their bulbs.
It was in and about a town of such dimensions then, and with such surroundings, that the al fresco entertainment took origin and developed, a town thickly populated and stuffy, it is true, the bulk of whose inhabitants lived and died within the limits of their own streets, but still a town whose innermost slum was within easy walk of a delightful country, and whose suburbs were without the distressing squalor, and vulgarity of architecture which make for some of us the oldest part of London to-day its most cheerful part.
It was the citizens of such a town, sober merchants and shopkeepers, apprentices, sempstresses, and artisans who worked continuously, but leisurely and without much stress, during the week and spread themselves over an area of many square miles on Sundays, who formed the chief patrons of the al fresco entertainment. The lawyers and military men who filled the chief of the few recognised professions of the last century, supplied their quota of course, and the aristocracy came to most of the alfresco entertainments at one time or another, but merely as incidental visitors.