Vauxhall Gardens: A History
David Coke & Alan Borg
The Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens is one of the places I’d love to slip back in time to visit, just to catch a glimpse of what it was like. After recently splurging to buy this lovely coffee-table book, I thought it might make a wonderful subject for a new blog series. But do buy the book too, if you can! The photos are fabulous!
Financial Setbacks & Bankruptcy
Vauxhall had suffered financial setbacks regularly over the years, but especially in its later years, when it changed hands frequently. Bankruptcy was declared in 1840, when the gardens were closed and auctions were held for “all sorts of fittings and decorations from the gardens, including many of the paintings; the Royal Nassau balloon, which had originally cost over £2000 was sold to [balloonist] Green for £500.”
Nevertheless, it opened again in 1841, when George Catlin’s “Red Indians” were introduced to the gardens. These tableaux vivant were made up of, in Catlin’s own words:
twenty living figures in Indian costumes, forming groups of their ceremonies, domestic scenes and warfare. These were got up and presented with much labour to myself, and gave great satisfaction; as by them I furnished so vivid and lifelike an illustration of Indian life as I had seen it in the wilderness.
From the satirical magazine Punch:
We wended our way to the ‘royal property’, to take a last look at the long-expiring gardens. It was a wet night—the lamps burnt dimly—the military band played in the minor key—the waiters stalked about with so silent, melancholy a tread, that we took their towels for pocket-handkerchiefs; the concert in the open rain went off tamely—dirge-like, in spite of the ‘Siege of Acre’, which was described in a set of quadrilles, embellished with blue fire and maroons, and adorned with a dozen drums, thumped at intervals, like death notes, in various parts of the doomed gardens. The divertissement was anything but diverting, when we reflect upon the impending fate of the ‘Rotunda’, in which it was performed.
Although it was announced that ‘Vauxhall would positively close its doors for ever’ on September 8th, 1841, it did open again for the 1842 season, but despite new acts such as Ducrow’s questions (now under the management of his black protégé, Mungo) and the exhibition of Napoleon’s state carriage taken from Waterloo, the gardens remained unprofitable. Vauxhall did not open at all in 1843.
In 1844, the new lessee brought the “Ioway Indians” to Vauxhall. An native encampment was established “on the old Waterloo Ground, from which the party of fourteen (three chiefs, five braves, four squaws, a child and a papoose) emerged from wigwams. They performed only in the afternoon and stayed in lodgings at night.”
This arrangement was one of very great pleasure to the Indians, as it allowed a free space to exercise in during their leisure hours, amongst trees and shrubbery, affording them almost a complete resumption of Indian life in the wilderness, as they had the uninterrupted range of the gardens during the hours that the public were not there to witness their amusements.
The next few years, surprisingly, were quite profitable for Vauxhall, with upgrades and new acts such as Monsieur Musard, “Napoleon of the Quadrille,” with his band of a hundred musicians.
One of the most famous of all Vauxhall performers, William Henry Lane, was an import from the saloons and dance halls of Manhattan.
Playing the banjo and the tambourine, he was known as the “Dancinest fellow ever was’ and hailed as the inventor of tap-dancing. Dickens made him famous in his American Notes, describing a lively young negro, who is the wit of the assembly, and the greatest dancer ever known. He never leaves off making queer faces, and is the delight of all the rest, who grin from ear to ear incessantly.”
Originally one of six so-called “Ethiopian Serenaders”, Juba was unquestionably the most talented although it was at Vauxhall where he became a star attraction. From the Illustrated London News:
How could Juba enter into their wonderful complications so naturally? How could he tie his legs into such knots, and fling them about so recklessly, or make his feet twinkle until you lose sight of them altogether in his energy. The great Boz immortalised him; and he deserved the glory thus conferred.
The Final Seasons
In spite of continued financial problems, Vauxhall limped on a few more years, with a lion tamer renowned for putting his head the lions’ mouths (Van Amburgh), the Algerine Family (“clothed in rich Arabian silks and reclining on luxurious divans”), boat races, masquerades, the Great Italian Singers (1851), military fetes featuring the Crimean War, and the American bareback rider, Mr. James Robinson in 1859.
But when the last night came, on 13 October, it must have been clear to all that Vauxhall could continue no longer.
Susana’s Vauxhall Blog Post Series
- Vauxhall Gardens: A History
- Vauxhall Gardens: Jonathan Tyers—“The Master Builder of Delight”
- Vauxhall Gardens: A New Direction
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Orchestra and the Supper-Boxes
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Organ, the Turkish Tent, and the Rotunda
- Vauxhall Gardens: Three Piazzas of Supper-Boxes
- Vauxhall Gardens: “whither every body must go or appear a sort of Monster in polite Company”
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Competition
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Artwork, Part I
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Artwork, Part II
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Music, 1732-1859
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Business Side
- Vauxhall Gardens: Developments from 1751-1786
- Vauxhall Gardens: Thomas Rowlandson’s Painting (1785)
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Third Generation of the Tyers Family and the Jubilee of 1786
- Vauxhall Gardens: An Era of Change (1786-1822), Part I
- Vauxhall Gardens: An Era of Change (1786-1822), Part II
- Vauxhall Gardens: An Era of Change (1786-1822), Part III
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Final Years, Part I
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Final Years, Part II
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Final Years, Part III
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Final Years, Part IV
- Vauxhall Gardens: Farewell, for ever