If you visited Vauxhall now – dominated by its big bus terminal and a railway that ploughs through its centre – you might find it hard to believe that this was once the site of vast public gardens where eighteenth century high society socialised. In fact, the gardens got going during the Restoration of the monarchy in the 1660s under Charles II. The diarist John Evelyn wrote in 1661 that he had been to see “the new Spring Gardens at Lambeth, a pretty contrived plantation”. Samuel Pepys in 1668 alluded in his diary to young gallants forcing themselves on women at Vauxhall and dragging them off into the hedges.
One 17th century commentator called it a “Mahometan paradise” – presumably referring to the perceived decadence of the Ottoman empire with its harems, silks and questionable morals! Sir Roger de Coverley pompously lectured the “mistress” of the Gardens that she might make a better manager of the place if there were “more nightingales and fewer strumpets”. The early years of the next century saw Hogarth paint several walls of the pavilions while Roubiliac unveiled a sculpture of the composer Handel.
1732 saw the Gardens re-launched at a prestigious event with Frederick, Prince of Wales, as the guest of honour. There were just four hundred people present – a sharp reduction on the usual crush – and tickets were a guinea each. Guards were posted all round the gardens to keep the riff-raff out. But it wouldn’t last. In the months that followed, Westminster Bridge was crowded with people trying to get to Vauxhall and many opted to come by river to avoid the press of the mob on land
The artistic community descended on the Gardens including all the leading lights of the Georgian era: Oliver Goldsmith, Sheridan, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Dr Samuel Johnson. An account in 1751 describes “fine pavilions, shady groves and most delightful walks, illuminated with above one thousand lamps”. In 1798, there were the first recorded firework displays, which were a central feature of celebrations in 1813 for the Duke of Wellington’s latest victories against Napoleon.
In 1817, the entertainment was dominated by Madame Saqui – a tightrope walker “sparkling with spangles and tinsel and her head canopied with plumes of ostrich feathers”. Quite a sight! She ascended above the crowd and trod the wire at midnight illuminated with blue lights while rockets were fired around her. Not in the least bit distracting!
Vauxhall was something of a social equaliser – in that anybody could go provided they could afford the extortionate entry prices. Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that quite ordinary people were prepared to scrimp and save to get in. This included highwaymen dressed up to the nines in the company of prostitutes pretending to be ladies of high society.
All this fun had to come to an end. And in 1859, the site was auctioned off for development. Maybe the bacchanalia was not to Victorian tastes. The Gardens were built over until the post-war period when the area was cleared and grassed over to be a green space once more. It’s not exactly recaptured the grandeur of the past – hemmed in by a busy road and railway line. Though nearby is the Royal Vauxhall Tavern where on Saturday nights for the last decade, a cabaret night called Duckies has kept the flame of old Vauxhall burning.