London’s Tea Gardens – part 4
An essay by William B Boulton
Like many other of the north London pleasure gardens, it owed its origin to the discovery of a spring of ” chalybeate” water, and a year or so after tbat event there is mention of one of its early proprietors in the London Gaiette (1685), “Mr. John Langley of London, merchant, who bought the Rhinoceros and Islington Wells.” For the ten years following it had quite a vogue as a watering-place, and became the frequent theme of the poets of Grub Street, who were employed to sing its praises. When the eighteenth century opened Islington Spa was a fine going concern; to the medicinal attractions of its waters were added the amusements of a tea garden, and the amenities of the place, like those of many others, began to expand in sympathy with the more generous views of life then becoming common among Londoners. Ned Ward will tell you of its lime trees, its coffee-house, its dancing saloon, its raffling shop, and its gaming tables. A tame doctor was kept on the premises to administer the waters, which were supplementary now to the pleasures of music, dancing, and the promenade. Islington Spa became a great place of popular resort, where city madams, sempstresses, and clerks could rub shoulders on occasion with people of a higher rank, and its arbours were much affected by city apprentices and their sweethearts with a weakness for plum cake.
Other less desirable visitors followed, as was usually the case in these public places-sharpers, frail women, and pickpockets, and even on occasion gentlemen of the road. They took my Lord Cobham’s watch from him there about the middle of the century, and doings at the play-tables were not above suspicion.
Like many of its competitors Islington Spa had varying fortunes until, in 1733, in the month of May, it occurred to the Princesses Caroline and Amelia to attend regularly and take its waters. These royal ladies were duly saluted with twenty-one guns, and all London flocked to the gardens to see a real princess. Their visit brought sudden prosperity to the place; the proprietor, it was said, took £30 of a morning in entrance money alone, and Mr. Pinchbeck, the toyseller, seizing the psychological moment, did a large trade in fans bearing a representation of the place, which may still be found in collections of those interesting objects.
It was in that very year that Mr. George Bickham, jun., made a very pretty drawing of Islington Spa, and engraved it at the head of a copy of verses set to music, which celebrate some of the charms of the society which gathered there. The engraving shows the company taking the waters in a very quaint and delightful courtyard and garden, and assisted by a contemporary letter from a young lady who was there soon after we can revive the pleasures which such places afforded for our ancestors, and measure the gulf between the Islington of that day and this. “New Tunbridge Wells is a very pretty and romantick place,” says the letter, “and the water much like Bath water, but makes one vastly cold and hungary.” It made Lady Mary Wortley Montagu giddy and sleepy, it seems, but her ladyship left it on record that she derived much benefit from its use.
Even as late as 1803 we learn from Malcolm, in that valuable work of his where are preserved so many interesting particulars of the life of the century which had just closed, that “the gardens were very beautiful, particularly at the entrance. Pedestals and vases are grouped under some extremely picturesque trees, whose foliage is seen to much advantage from the neighbouring fields.” We do not doubt it; a garden of any sort of a century old has a beauty of its own, but there is pathos for a Londoner in the thought that such a picture existed in Clerkenwell during the present century. The beginning of the end, however, came soon after. Charlotte Street, afterwards Thomas Street, arose on part of the site in 1810, and Eliza Street was built over the original entrance, a new one being made from Lloyd’s Row.
The gardens, thus curtailed, struggled on till 1840, when the end came by the building of two rows of houses, known as Spa Cottages. The well itself was enclosed in an outhouse of the dwelling of a former proprietor, and its waters, were offered at sixpence a quart by an enterprising surgeon. It seems almost incredible that they continued to run until the year 1860. But all interested in the past of this enormous County of London will be grateful to Mr. Philip Norman and Mr. Warwick Wroth, who visited the spot independently in 1894, and after “a search in the outhouse discovered a cellar containing the old spring, dry, indeed, but still surrounded by the remains of its grotto, its steps, and its balustrade, the relics of its better days.
A similar institution, which proved a formidable rival to Islington Spa, was the famous gardens of Bagnigge, opened by a Mr. Hughes in 1759, in grounds which are now covered by the Phoenix Brewery, a little north of Clerkenwell Police Court, and by part of the great building yard of the Messrs. Cubitt in the Gray’s Inn Road. There were traditions of merrymaking about this pleasant spot long before Mr. Hughes made his venture.
Bagnigge House, which gave its name to the gardens and wells, was a country residence of Nell Gwynn, where King Charles the Second and his brother James delighted at times to take breakfast with that lady. Mr. Hughes appears to have discovered the capabilities of the place quite by accident. As a great amateur of gardening he was much troubled by the difficulty of growing his pansies and carnations, and in seeking for the cause he discovered that their roots were beset by the percolations of two springs of water.
Analyses of these waters disclosed the fact that one was “a chalybeate of a ferruginous character, with an agreeable subacid tartness, apt to produce a kind of giddiness, and afterwards a propensity to sleep if exercise be not interposed.” Thus Dr. Bevis, the analyst and adviser to Mr. Hughes. The other, we learn on the same authority, was a “carthartic, which left a distinguishable brackish bitterness on the palate,” and three half pints were sufficient for most people.
The ingenious Mr. Hughes sank wells to collect these health – giving streams, ran pipes into an ornamental dome supported on pillars in the classic taste, which he called the Temple, and provided Londoners with a new spa or watering place-just as George the Third mounted the throne of his grandfather.
Such was the origin of Bagnigge Wells, a place of resort for the true-bred cockney for half a century. Nell Gwynn’s dining-room, the banqueting-hall of Bagnigge House, a room of a generous spaciousness nearly eighty feet by forty, provided a pump-room or promenade. The old gardens were laid out with clipped hedges of yew; formal walks ran between alleys of box and holly; there were arbours covered with sweetbrier and honeysuckle for tea-drinking; ponds containing gold fish, then not often seen; a fountain with Cupid bestriding a swan, and leaden statues of Phyllis and Corydon – perhaps those very figures which today give a quaint interest to one of the galleries of South Kensington.
The Fleet River, crossed by three rustic bridges, divided the gardens into two unequal parts, the eastern and smaller portion being devoted to people whose tastes were less modish than those of the patrons of the pump-room. Here pleasant seats were provided on the banks of the stream for such” as chuse to smoake or drink cyder, ale, etc., which are not permitted in other parts of the garden.”
The severity of the formal garden too, as we read, declined upon the eastern bank of the Fleet and melted away into the pleasing rusticity of willows, elder bushes, burdock and water plants, which were well known to artists seeking opportunity for the study of natural foliage.