London’s Tea Gardens – part 11
An essay by William B Boulton
Finally Brompton had its Florida Gardens just west of Gloucester Road, on the south side of the present Cromwell road, a rural retreat with clipped hedges, terraces, and shady walks, “well adapted for gallantry and intrigue,” where Mr. Hiem grew cherries, strawberries, and flowers, supplied “fresh fruit every hour in the day, ice creams, wine, cyder, tea and coffee,” also “Berne Veckley, an elegant succedaneum for bread and butter, and eat by the noblesse of Switzerland.”
It was among the delights of such places as these which we have endeavoured to visit in the spirit that former generations of Londoners took their modest pleasures and the life of a couple of centuries of London displayed itself. As a conclusion to our inquiry it may be of interest to speculate for a moment on the causes of their decline. It would be easy to account for the disappearance of the old London pleasure gardens by pointing to the necessities in the matter of building sites of a town which, since the first vogue of the alfresco entertainment, has grown into a province – a province of bricks and mortar.
But such a proposition would be merely plausible, because it is certain that the London tea garden was moribund before cheap corn created a vast population, and easy communications distributed it in very unequal patches over a country where most interests of beauty or enjoyment have been sacrificed to the exigencies of an industrial commercialism. The decline of the London al fresco, we believe, followed a change in the taste of the people themselves, that taste itself an inevitable consequence of an increasing population and an increasing prosperity. The simple pleasures which satisfied the London of Charles the Second left the London of George the Third unmoved, and the pleasure-seeking citizen of the London of William the Fourth had a soul altogether above the placid joys of the London of George the Third. If you seek conviction on the point, read Pepys and Horace Walpole, Harry Angelo, Pierce Egan and Captain Gronow, and compare the different accounts of the pleasures of the town by each of those recording angels.
It is quite easy to trace this change of taste in the records of any of the old places of amusement we have been considering. There was always the increasing splendour of Vauxhall to be reckoned with by the managers of them all, a sort of bull amongst tea gardens, against which every frog as time went on found it necessary to distend itself, and usually burst in the process. And so we find the harmless dissipations of the teapot and muffin gradually supplanted by fare of a headier character, and the simple pleasures of the organ in the Long Room, the ballad-singer, and the prim decorum of the promenade yielding to joys of a fiercer kind and forgathering of a different character, a change which led often to presentations by grand juries and contests with magistrates, and a change invariably ominous of the end. At Bagnigge Wells the Long Room became a concert-room, where serio-comics gave” turns” much as they do at the Pavilion to-day, and balloon ascents in the garden became necessary to tickle the jaded palates of spectators surfeited by promenades among clipped hedges and fountains.
For years before White Conduit House had closed its gates, forgotten and unregretted, it had run through the whole changes of a variety entertainment and the amusements of a country fair. The fish-pond had been drained and filled in to make room for a dancing saloon dedicated to Apollo, the healthy joys of the early place, with its cricket and white bread, had been exchanged for cheap fireworks, tight ropes, and conjurers like Mr. Chabert, who swallowed arsenic, oxalic acid, boiling oil and molten lead, and “entered a large heated oven supported on four pillars and there cooked a leg of lamb and a rump steak,” which he obligingly divided among the spectators.
Grand galas there and elsewhere rendered necessary the attendance of vigilant officers to prevent the entry of “persons in dishabille.” At the delightful and decorous Marylebone, conjurers’ entertainments and” Forges of Vulcan” in pasteboard and red-fire took the place of Acis and Galatea and “Where the bee sucks,” and fetes champetres, “which consisted of nothing more than a few tawdry festoons and extra lamps,” only moved more sophisticated audiences to resent the extra charge of five shillings by breaking the lamps and demolishing the scenery. The careers of the less famous gardens of the south and the west were almost invariably concluded in even less reputable circumstances, where the conduct of the raffish audiences attracted by their debased pleasures brought upon them the interference of the authorities.
There were others, of course, which were merely absorbed by the advancing wilderness of London, which planted gasometers in their pleasant parterres and dried up their springs for ever. Of these the elegists are topographers and antiquarians like Mr. Hone and Mr. J. T. Smith, who witnessed and regretted their departed glories. There is an almost touching description, for instance, by Mr. Smith of his visit to Bermondsey Spa in the days of its decline: Smith himself the only visitor, with his solemn banter of the artist proprietor’s pictures of savoy cabbages and knuckles of veal, and the prima donna in silks and rouge singing her solo according to contract and bowing her thanks for the applause of the audience of one.
Hone will tell you of the forlorn aspect of St. Chad’s Wells when its waters remained undrunk and its patrons had sought their pleasure elsewhere; of the “scene which the unaccustomed eye might take for the pleasure-ground of Giant Despair;” of “trees standing as if not meant to vegetate, and nameless weeds straggling weakly upon unweeded borders.” Such, however, were only the lamentations on the short period of the decline of a phase of social life which had fulfilled a purpose and had amused a large proportion of the inhabitants of London for two hundred years. It is pleasant sometimes to think about the London al fresco in its prime, and the delight and enthusiasm of Londoners in the simple pleasures it afforded, an enthusiasm which surely inspired the poet who sang the beauties of the New River in those haunting lines:
“Farewell, sweet vale, how much thou dost excel
Arno or Andalusia.”
It is pleasant at times, as we say, to call their forgotten pleasures to mind, to trace their forgotten boundaries, and to hope perhaps for their resurrection in a translated form. We may remember, if we choose, that London has received and is receiving, in exchange, parks and open spaces on a splendid scale, generously, and even royally administered in every respect except that of provision for its hunger and thirst. Mr. Pepys we feel convinced, could he revisit his beloved town, would not be enthusiastic about the buns and ginger-beer of, say, Regent’s Park, or think that he had made in those viands a good exchange for Shere’s Spanish olio at the Mulberry Garden. There are signs, however, that the taste for the alfresco amongst Londoners is not extinct; the success of such enterprises as the concerts at the Imperial Institute, at Earl’s Court and elsewhere, the breakfasting in Battersea Park connected with the fashionable cycling of a few years ago, even the much abused Summer Club of Kensington Gardens, may be taken as signs of the times.