As London became more built up in the 17th and 18th centuries, Londoners began to need open spaces to relax in. Pleasure gardens were built at the edge of the city and were privately run with the most famous being the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.
Originally, the people who went to the gardens were the highest in society, including members of the royal family. Similarly to the hordes of Londoners who hot-foot it to the Heath or London Fields on a sunny day, people originally flocked to the pleasure gardens to escape from the noise and pollution of the city. Opened to visitors in 1661 under the name ‘New Spring Gardens’, at first Vauxhall Gardens could only be reached by sailing up the Thames. An excellent opportunity to show off the latest fashions, Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens were also considered to have health advantages, providing walkers with ‘fresh air’ which was a marked contrast to the smoggy, coal reliant city.
However, despite their appearance, the gardens weren’t a perfect oasis. Women were cautioned about ‘overly-friendly’ men and watchmen were employed to try to stop pickpockets. Samuel Pepys wrote in 1667 that there were ‘…young gallants misbehaving, breaching supper boxes uninvited and insulting the ladies’.
At the Museum of London we have scores of bold and eye-catching bills advertising the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens – as the printing industry developed, promotion became easier and cheaper. The types of entertainment were various, outrageous and exotic. They included lion-tamers, balloon ascents, trampoline clowns, fortune tellers, ventriloquists, troupes of acrobats, monkeys, dogs, jugglers, horses who danced to a waltz and fire walkers!
Want to recreate the experience of visiting the pleasure gardens? No need for a time machine – stroll through the museum’s Galleries of Modern London and see a recreation for free!