London’s Tea Gardens – part 9
An essay by William B Boulton
White Conduit House, too, has an interest of its own for most Englishmen, for did not Mr. Bartholomew the proprietor, in 1754, provide bats and balls for his customers, and encourage the game of cricket in the adjoining meadow, and so lay the foundations of the Vast organisation of the modern game? There is no doubt about it at all. The place continued the headquarters of cricket in London for twenty years; men of condition played their matches there, and in 1784 the club which met in that meadow included the Duke of Dorset, Lord Winchilsea, Lord Talbot, Colonel Tarleton, and no less a light of the cricket world than Thomas Lord, the founder of the Marylebone Club.
The history of these and a score of other entertainments in the open air is recorded in the fugitive literature of their times, admirably collected and arranged in works like that of Mr. Warwick Wroth of the British Museum, with its orderly references and authorities which make it a model of what such a work should be. In such records you may learn how the “Three Hats” at Islington was perhaps the home of the modern equestrian entertainment, afterwards brought to perfection by Philip Astley, where “Johnson the Irish Tartar rode a single horse standing on his head;” how citizens with a taste for the placid old game of bowls went to Dobney’s in the Pentonville Road, to the Belvidere Tea Gardens hard by, to the Black Queen Coffee House and Tea Gardens, Shacklewell Green, or to Cuper’s Gardens over the river. Dobney, we find by the way, had another curious attraction about 1772, when Mr. Daniel Wildman, the Bee Master, gave a fearsome exhibition on horseback, “standing upright, one foot on the saddle and the other on the horse’s neck, with a curious mask of bees on his face; he also rides, standing upright on the saddle, with the bridle in his mouth, and by firing a pistol makes one part of the bees march over a table and the other swarm in the air and return to their places again.”
Each one of all these humble places had some special attraction of its own. There was Copenhagen House, on the site of the Clock Tower of the Cattle Market at Islington, famous for its fives, where John Cavanagh, the prince of fives players, whose fine play is commemorated in an essay of Hazlitt’s, was wont to astonish spectators with his skill at the game, eschewing the volley, “but seldom missing a return off the ground, though it rose no more than an inch.”
There is a human story of the origin of fives at Copenhagen House, telling how the maid of the tavern, hailing from Shropshire, meeting an acquaintance from the same county, and talking over the game, which was one of the diversions of their native place, improvised a fives ball, made an appointment for a day later, and played a game against the end of the house, which delighted the onlooking topers and so started the tradition of fives at Copenhagen House. The very gable where the maid and her friend played their historic game remained the theatre of the famous contests which followed, and the cooks in the kitchen were said to recognise the severe returns of Cavanagh on the wall, and, “as the meat trembled on the spits,” to remark, “There’s the Irishman again.”
All the roads, indeed, that led out of London to the north and west, were avenues which led pleasureseekers to open air entertainments of one sort or another. Belsize House was a country mansion on the west side of Haverstock Hill, opened in 1720 by a Welshman “with an uncommon solemnity of music and dancing,” with a park wilderness and garden a mile in circumference “filled with a variety of birds which compose a most melodious and touching harmony,” as we are assured. Cakes and ale were much in evidence at Belsize House, and foot and galloway races” six times round the course.”
In 1726 they “hunted a fat doe to death with small beagles,” when sportsmen were invited “to bring their own dogs if not too large.” Farther north still was Hampstead with its famous wells and gardens, and a local clergyman and chapel for those amorous couples who could not afford the journey to Gretna Green. Its later Assembly Room with its fugitive fashion is embalmed in much of the fiction of the last part of the century, and there Mr. Samuel Rogers “danced minuets in his youth and met a great deal of good company.”
Visits to Hampstead in those days were in the nature of an expedition which called for the services of the daily stage coach. Perhaps the most northerly point of attraction for pleasure-loving Londoners was the Spaniards Tavern, unless Kilburn Wells or New Gorgia in Turner’s Wood, or Hornsey Wood House, could claim that distinction. The Spaniards had its pebble walks laid out by the ingenious Mr. Staples with curious devices of the Signs of the Zodiac, the Tower of London, Adam and Eve, and the Great Pyramids and its “prospect of Hanslope Steeple within eight miles of Northampton and Langdon Hill in Essex, full sixty miles east,” unless the imagination of its advertisers betrayed them.
Between these outposts and the Thames, Bayswater Gardens in the Bayswater Road on the west, and Spring Garden in the Mile End Road on the east, there were a dozen or it may be a score of similar places which claim and receive attention in a history of the town, but must be passed over here with such mention.
We have been concerned so far with the places of entertainment which flourished on the al fresco tastes of the Londoner at various periods, but nearly all lying on the north side of a line continued east and west of what is now approximately Oxford Street. It was on this side of London that the al fresco tradition of the tea garden attained its greatest splendour, mainly, as we believe, from the natural love of a town dweller for rising ground and brisk air, partly from the variety which two little rivers gave to that country, and also by reason of the attractions of the semi-fashionable crowds who at times gathered round one or other of its numerous spas.