Where did 18th century Londoners go to have a good time and relax in the summer months? They gravitated to pleasure gardens, which were new and appealing entertainment spaces in the city.
The most popular pleasure garden was one at Vauxhall. Each year, at the beginning of May, it opened its doors to the public. As it was located on the south side of the river, people arrived either by carriage, crossing over Westminster Bridge, or hired a waterman, at one of the city’s Thames-side stairs, to row them there by boat.
You had to pay an admission fee of one shilling (five pence) to enter. Inside, there was an enclosed space with tree-lined walks, fountains and out-door lighting. An orchestra and singers performed the latest music from a raised bandstand. Food and drink were served. The most famous item on the menu was “Vauxhall ham”. It was so thin that it was claimed you could see through it if you held it up to the light! There were supper boxes decorated with painted scenes. Looking out from them, diners could observe the fashionably dressed clientele as they promenaded up and down. The evening often ended with a firework display.
When it became dark, a whistle was blown and a number of the garden employees touched matches to fuses and, as if by magic, the garden was suddenly illuminated by over a thousand oil lamps. Later in the evening, the bolder visitors would stray into the area known as “the dark walks”, the site of amorous liaisons.
You can stroll through the Museum of London’s beautifully recreated 18th century pleasure gardens in the Expanding City: 1666-1850s gallery. Or, visit the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, now a public park which underwent a regeneration project and was re-opened last year.