London’s Tea Gardens – part 10
An essay by William B Boulton
South London, however, was not without its open air attractions, which had a flavour of their own, differing widely from that of the places we have already considered. The attractions of the South London districts were less simple and less respectable. With an unconscious humour, many of them advertised their mineral waters in competition with the spas of the north; waters pumped from wells which would fill at a few feet below the surface of what was practically the huge marsh between Rotherhithe and Vauxhall; waters which Dr. Rendle opines could have been nothing more than the mere soakage of a swamp.
But their main attractions were more or less feeble imitations of the glories of Vauxhall, and their patrons were, speaking generally, of a less innocent cast of mind and less easily amused than the citizens who flocked northward to Islington or Hampstead, or westward to Marylebone. One of the chief of the South London group which shared with the peerless Vauxhall the distinction of an approach by water, was Cuper’s Garden, on the south side of Waterloo Bridge, through the very centre of which modern progress drove the Waterloo Bridge Road. Cuper’s Garden took its name from an old servant of the Howard family, who, just at the end of the seventeenth century, laid out a big patch of the marsh land with walks and bowling-greens, contrived to give it some flavour of dignity and distinction by dotting the place with mutilated statues presented to him by his patron upon the demolition of Arundel House, and opened the place as a public garden, which had a measure of success for some sixty or seventy years. At first music and dancing were “the chief attractions, and ‘prentices and sempstresses the chief of its patrons, and there is a not untuneful set of verses which reflect some of the simple joys of those early days, beginning:
“‘Twas down in Cupid’s Gardens
For pleasure I did go,
To see the fairest flowers
That in that garden grow.”
But under subsequent proprietors, notably one Ephrain Evans and his widow, the place developed more upon the lines of Vauxhall, with orchestras, fireworks, and illuminations, and promenades under the trees, where “pretty young women were accustomed to parade dressed like young men, and wearing swords.” Such diversions at times attracted a deal of fashionable company, Horace Walpole and the Prince of Wales among others, who gave distinction to the assembly and occupation to the pickpockets.
It was upon that rock of careless management that Widow Evans, “a well-looking, comely person,” finally split, when the Act of 1752 established authorities for the” better regulating of places of public entertainment,” and licences became necessary for such as Widow Evans. Cuper’s Garden was refused a licence amidst the lamentations of the widow, who was forced to retire upon the tavern and a mere tea garden. The widow was apparently a woman of some resource, for when her orchestra was thus silenced she advertised her tea and the subdued attractions of the place, with the remark that there still “remained some harmony from the sweet enchanting sounds of the rural warblers.”
Finch’s grotto was another South London garden in what is now the Southwark Bridge Road, where the proprietor, Finch, inheriting a house and garden, was not long in discovering the inevitable spring of medicinal water, and made “a grotto and a natural and beautiful cascade,” aspired to the dignity of season tickets, and returned a modicum of refreshment, “half a pint of wine, cake, jelly, or cyder,” in exchange for the one shilling admission. Stray royalties, like the wild York and the silly Gloucester, would come to listen to the music at Finch’s, or perhaps to gaze at the singers of such beauty and notoriety as Sophia Baddeley of Drury Lane and Vauxhall, the heroine of many wicked stories of those days.
The present Spa Road, Bermondsey, takes its name from Bermondsey Spa Gardens, where Mr. Keyse, the self-taught painter, enclosed some acres of waste ground, discovered the usual spa, and with pis pictures of green-grocers’ stalls and butchers’ shops, his cheery personality, his cheery brandy, his lamps in imitation of Vauxhall, his prima donnas and burlettas, contrived to keep the place open for thirty yearS.
At the Helena Gardens, Rotherhithe, the tradition of the at fresco lingered perhaps latest of all. There singers warbled and dancers capered, infant prodigies of six delighted or bored audiences, and orchestras scraped until the year 1881. At the Belvidere Gardens, just above Cuper’s Garden, on the Thames, the proprietor advertised” the choicest river fish which they (his patrons) may have the delight to see taken.” The Flora Gardens, the Temple of Apollo, and the Temple of Flora were classically named establishments near what is now the Westminster Bridge Road, one with an “Apollonian promenade and a pallid moon between brilliant transparencies,” and claiming credit for” the superior excellencies of music and wines, and the chastity and dignity of the place,” all of which virtues and advantages, however, did not avert the suppression of the place by the magistrates in 1793. The Dog and Duck, St. George’s Spa, on the site of the present Bethlehem Hospital, was an al fresco entertainment which had its origin in the popular sport of duck hunting, ran through the whole gamut of mineral water, tea gardens, musical entertainments, and fireworks, and expired finally in an atmosphere of raffishness and blackguardism.
To conclude, and not to omit mention of any notable district which was a centre of at fresco entertainment, we may notice the little group of tea gardens for which Chelsea was famous: Strombolo House, the beauty of whose fireworks enabled the proprietor to charge the high price of half a crown for admission, and anticipate the glories of the Crystal Palace to-day; Jenny’s Whim, with its bowling-green, cock-pit, and ducking-pond, its alcoves and prim flower-beds, its pond where mechanical mermaids and fishes rose at intervals to the surface, and its recesses where Harlequin and Mother Shipton started up when an unseen spring was trodden upon by the visitor.