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London’s Tea Gardens – part 2

London’s Tea Gardens – part 2

An essay by William B Boulton

The alfresco entertainments of the aristocracy were the great gardens of Vauxhall and Ranelagh, and these two famous places of resort had a character all their own as such, which makes it desirable to treat of them in a separate chapter. In this, we ask the reader to follow us through the more humble of the tea gardens and spas, most of which had some special attraction of cake and ale, or bowling-green or fives court of its own, which might recommend it to the patronage of a special clientele in a day when competi-tion between such places was often severe.

The first alfresco entertainment in London of which there is anything like a full account, although open to the public, was not, it is true, of a very democratic character, or supported by the patronage of any but persons of a certain condition. Spring Garden at Charing Cross was of royal origin, and Charles the First was there accustomed to rub shoulders with his subjects in what was practically a part of his own royal gardens at Whitehall. The place took its name from a spring or fountain, which, in the pleasant fashion of those times, was contrived to sprinkle those who came to consult the sun-dial.

It is difficult to understand how the public first gained admission to Spring Garden. Its earliest attraction seems to have been a bowling-green, “and there was kept in it,” says Gerrard, writing to Strafford in 1634,” an ordinary of six shillings a meal, continual bibbing and drinking of wine all day under the trees; two or three quarrels every week. It was grown scandalous and insufferable, besides, my Lord Digby being reprehended for striking Will Crofts in the King’s Garden, he answered that he took it for a common bowling-place where all paid money for their coming in.” This irregularity of Lord Digby and Will Crofts led to an interference by the royal authorities. We are told that Spring Garden was “put down for one day,” but Queen Henrietta inter-ceding, “it was reprieved for this year, but hereafter it shall be no more bowling-place.”

This garden, therefore, which we take to be the forerunner and the model of the later alfresco enter-tainments of London, was obviously in full swing in 1634, and the displeasure of King Charles and of others in authority later notwithstanding, it survived, with some temporary eclipses, for -thirty years at least. It is difficult to think of Charing Cross as a sylvan retreat at this moment, but there is surely fascination for the Londoner in this description of the place by Mr. Evelyn in 1658: “The enclosure not disagreeable for the solemness of the grove, the warblings of the birds, and as it opens in the spacious walks of St. James’s,” and it is recorded that ten years earlier, viz. in 1648, James Duke of York and Colonel Barnfield passed into and out of Spring Garden in making their escape from the Palace of St. James’s” in the guise of gallants come to hear the nightingale.” To think to-day of nightingales at Charing Cross!

There were other aspects of these gardens which commended themselves less to the sober lover of trees and solitudes, although he appears to have made much use of the place. A great deal of what is known of Spring Garden, indeed, is owing to Mr. Evelyn’s re-corded observations. “The thickets of the garden,” he said, “seem to be contrived to all advantages of gallantry, for it is usual here to find some of the young company till midnight after they have been refreshed with the collation which is here seldom omitted at a certain cabaret in the middle of this paradise, where the forbidden fruits are certain trifling tarts, neats’ tongues, salacious meats and bad Rhenish; for which the gallants pay sauce, as indeed they do at all such houses throughout England.” We learn elsewhere that the collation was at the rate of six shillings a head, which, allowing for the increased value of money and the poorness of the Rhenish, is surely a not ungenerous figure for a meal of cold meat.

It is not surprising to learn that Spring Garden attracted the serious attention of the Puritans. The jocular doings under the trees, the wine-bibbings and the quarrels, were reasons enough for the benevolent interference of the Parliament, It is quite in the natural order of things therefore to read that” Cromwell and his partizans had shut up and seized upon Spring Garden, which till now (1654) had been ye usual rendezvous for the ladys and gallants at this season.” We again quote Mr. Evelyn. In the year of the Lord Protector’s death, however, the place was again in full blast, and Mr. Evelyn, after going to see a coach race in Hyde Park, “collationed in Spring Garden.”

This collation, indeed, was the great attraction of the place. It was difficult in those days to get a meal anywhere away from home, the coffee-houses had not yet arisen, and most of the taverns lay far eastward of Charing Cross. Great people then lived either in the city or just out of it, and Spring Garden, with its luncheon, was a convenient halting-place for refreshment on the way to, or returning from Hyde Park, where the promenade of the ring, the foot and chariot races, were at this time great attractions. “The manner is,” says Mr. Evelyn, “as the company returns (from Hyde Park) to alight at the Spring Garden . . . but the company walk in it at such a rate you would think that all the ladies were so many Atalantas contending with their wooers.” One of the last references to the place is from the invaluable Mr. Pepys, whose fuller report on the doings there would have been very welcome. He went there, it seems, in May of 1662, with his wife’s maids, “and the wenches gathered pinks. Here we staid, and seeing that we could not have anything to eate, but very dear and with long stay, we went forth again.” But the days of Spring Garden were already numbered. It occurred, no doubt, to the keeper of the Privy Purse of King Charles the Second’s needy Court that the situation of the place was adapted to more profitable uses, and it was soon devoted to those of building. Here arose the groups of houses first known as Inner and Outer Spring Garden, where lived a succession of people of condition till the tide of fashion again flowed westward. The name of the Spring Garden was adopted by the New Spring Gardens at Lambeth, which we examine elsewhere under the title of Vauxhall, but it still lingers about the spot where the County Council deliberates to-day upon the licensing of other forms of entertainment for Londoners. The al fresco tradition of those days was supported by another garden farther west, the Mulberry Garden, which covered the site of the present Buckingham Palace and gardens. We take little account of a bowling-green opened in 1635 by “a gentleman barber,” during a temporary eclipse of Spring Garden, “in the fields behind the mews in Piccadily,” because it was really a gaming establishment, “made to entert ai n gamesters and bowlers at an excessive rate. . . where they bowl great matches” (Gerrard to Strafford). It fulfilled the usual destiny of such places, became known as Shaver’s Hall, in pleasant allusion to the” gentleman barber” who founded it, and its remains could be traced in the tennis-court at the corner of James Street until quite recent times. The Mulberry Garden, however, was of the true class of open-air entertainment, “ye only place of refreshment about ye town for persons of ye best quality to be excessively cheated at,” says Mr. Evelyn in 1654, Cromwell at that time having laid his heavy hand on Spring Garden.


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