London’s Tea Gardens – part 7
An essay by William B Boulton
From the first we hear of musical rarities at the gardens. There was Mr. Stanesby, jun., for example, who in 1738 produced “two grand bassoons, the greatness of whose sound surpass that of any other bass instrument whatever,” and a little later Mr. Ferron performed on “the Pariton, an instrument never played in publick before.”
For thirty years, too, there was a succession of famous vocalists. Mary Anne Falkner, the pretty ballad singer, who fascinated half the young men of the middle century; Tommy Lowe, the tenor, whose warblings were for many seasons one of the attractions of Vauxhall, and Mrs. Vincent, who sang “Let the Merry Bells go Round,” to the accompaniment of “a new instrument called the tintinnabula “; Charles Bannister gave his ‘popular imitations of other well-known singers, anticipating a favourite entertainment of our own variety theatre; Nan Catley, the prima donna from Covent Garden; Defesch, the famous violinist; Dibdin, of Drury Lane; the fresh full voices of “the young gentlemen from St. Paul’s choir,” and scores of others, made the groves of Marylebone melodious for two generations.
The great Handel himself was often in the gardens listening to the performances of his own cantatas, and Dr. Arne was to be seen conducting his own glees, with a visage “like two oysters in a plate of beet-root,” as Mr. Sheridan unkindly recorded in describing the Doctor’s eyes and complexion. Harmony and decorum were the features of Marylebone Gardens at its prime, broken rarely by a quarrel under the trees, or the rudeness of a royal visitor like the burly Duke of Cumberland.
The pleasant amenities of the place appear even in the announcements of its simple pleasures. The naive and quaint advertisements of Miss Trusler, the daughter of one of the proprietors of the place at its best, could never have issued from the raffishness of Islington or the vulgarity of Bagnigge Wells. Said this lady in 1759, “Mr. Trusler’s daughter begs leave to inform the nobility and gentry that she intends to make fruit tarts during the fruit season, and hopes to give equal satisfaction as with the rich cakes and almond cheesecakes. The fruit will always be fresh gathered, having good quantities in the garden, and none but loaf sugar used and the finest Epping butter. Tarts of a twelve-penny size will be made every day from one to three o’clock. New and rich seed and plum cakes are sent to any part of the town.”
Marylebone, to be sure, was an Arcadia under the presidency of such a genius as this. It was, in fact, a place where the gentry who had country houses in the village hard by could send their children and their nursemaids in the summer days and evenings without fear of untoward molestation, and where they themselves could, and indeed often did, take their breakfast under the planes in the sun and the gentle breezes of the hayfields with which the gardens were surrounded.
Not that Marylebone was without its mild excitements on occasion. It is recorded that pretty Miss Fountayne, a relation of “Dr. Fountayne’s, a dean of the Established Church, “was one day taking the air in the gardens when she was saluted by a young man of a gallant bearing, who boldly kissed her before all the quality. The lady started back shocked and surprised, as in duty bound. “Be not alarmed, madam,” said the gentleman, “you can now boast that you have been kissed by Dick Turpin.”
On an occasion of a much later date it is painful to record that Dr. Johnson was concerned in a slight disturbance at Marylebone. The place was then on the downward grade, and its good musical attractions had been diluted by more or less unsatisfactory displays of fireworks, displays which generally marked the beginning of the end of the better class of the London al fresco. The Doctor had been attracted by the fame of Mr. Torre’s fireworks, and went to see them with his friend George Steevens. The afternoon had proved wet, there were few people present, and the management announced that the fireworks, “being water-soaked,” could not be fired. “This,” said the Doctor, “is a mere excuse to save their crackers for a more profitable company; let us both hold up our sticks and threaten to break those coloured lamps, and we shall soon have our wishes gratified. The core of the fireworks cannot be injured; let the different pieces be touched in their respective centres and they will do their offices as well as ever.”
Moved by this very Johnsonian eloquence, some young men broke the lamps; but the respective centres of the different pieces remained untouched, and the uninjured cores still refused to do their offices. Such troubles, however, were rare at Marylebone, and its decorous joys, its harmonious concerts, its simple banquets of syllabubs and negus, of coffee and plumcake, are the theme of a score of kindly allusions in the memoirs and diaries of the past.
Its groves and its great room, its latticed arb ours and its fine company are reflected in the fine engraving published by J. Tinney in 1755, and many knowing connoisseurs contend that its simple beauty inspired the lovely painting by George Morland called the” Tea Garden,” the plate after which by Smith is now one of the prizes of the sale rooms. We have described at some length these three old places of amusement, because they are, as we believe, typical specimens of the very numerous class of similar establishments, usually of smaller extent and fewer pretensions, but still having each its own special attraction for a special body of patrons, and each with a record of prosperity, fleeting often, but real at one stage or other of its career.
There was often a prodigious competition between neighbouring establishments. Islington Spa, for example, had an enterprising competitor at its very gates in the London Spa, a name gi ven to a spring discovered in a tavern garden on a spot marked now by the junction of Exmouth Street and Rosoman Street. This institution was advertised by its proprietor, Mr. Halhead, as as good, if not better, than the opposition affair over the way “so mightily cry’d up.” He produced something in the shape of a garden, and London Spa became famous as a rendezvous of milkmaids on May day. His “chalybeate,” when brewed, made ale of a surpassing richness, with which the pleasure-seekers of the Welch Fair in the adjoining Spa Fields were accustomed to wash down the orthodox dish of roast pork eaten at those merry-makings in pleasant derision of the Jews. Within a hundred yards of the London Spa were the New Wells, with a reputation from quite early times for a quasi theatrical and spectacular entertainment.