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A potted history of pleasure gardens

In my tenth novel, Small Eden, I tell the story of how Robert Cooke creates a pleasure garden in memory of his infant sons.

What exactly is a pleasure garden?

The short answer is that it’s an outdoor space dedicated to pleasure. Before the eighteenth century, London had few places that fitted this description. Perhaps a piece of land attached to a tavern on which games of bowls might be played. But for the upper classes, taverns were places to be avoided. 

There had been a public garden at Vauxhall since 1661, then known as New Spring Garden.

The diarist Samuel Pepys was a regular. In 1667, he wrote:

‘A great deal of company, and the weather and garden pleasant: and it is very pleasant and cheap going thither, for a man may go to spend what he will, or nothing, all as one. But to hear the nightingale and other birds, and hear fiddles, and there a harp, and here a Jew’s trump, and here laughing, and there fine people walking, is mighty divertising.’

Entrepreneur Jonathan Tyers realised there was a market for paid entertainment. And so in 1729, Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens opened its gates on the south bank of the Thames.

‘Pleasure of reason, pleasure of imagination, and pleasure of sense’.

Think of an escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. Imagine picturesque planting, winding paths, boating lakes, tumbling waterfalls and cascading fountains. Musical concerts were the chief draw, everything from contemporary composers to Italian opera. But there were also masquerades, theatricals, hot air balloon demonstrations and ascents and acrobatics. Something for almost every taste, plus the opportunity to mingle with London’s high society in their shimmering silks and their finery.

Not only was Vauxhall probably the first of London’s pleasure gardens, it was also its most popular. Visitors arrived by boat, alighting at the Vauxhall Stairs where the main entrance fronted the Thames. From the gates, pleasure-seekers would proceed along the Grove where fifty large supper boxes lined the walkway. On offer were any number of novelties. Paintings by William Hogarth and Francis Haymen were displayed in a fashionable Chinese pavilion, making it Britain’s first public art gallery. During the 1730s and 1740s, Handel was a kind of composer-in-residence. But it was at night that the gardens really came alive. As dusk fell, servants lit thousands of lamps positioned strategically about the gardens. The effect is said to have been sensational.

Because tickets only cost a shilling, they were affordable.

Not to everyone. No one wanted to mix with the riff-raff. But to the emerging middle class. On high days and holidays, they went to be shocked by the antics of the upper classes and weren’t disappointed. At one masquerade in 1749, the twenty-nine-year-old Duchess of Kingston Elizabeth Chudleigh (known for her ‘adventurous lifestyle’) went as the classical figure, Iphigenia, her costume nothing more than a thin scarf draped around her.

Unfortunately, its affordability meant that Vauxhall’s wooded groves and ‘dark walks’ became popular hideouts for pickpockets, prostitutes, and other criminals.

‘Humble imitations’

But, despite its seedy underbelly, Vauxhall’s only real rival was the more exclusive Ranelagh. With tickets costing two shillings and sixpence, patrons were assured that they wouldn’t have to rub shoulders with the lower classes. Today, visitors to the Chelsea Flower Show may be unaware that they’re walking within the footprint of one of the capital’s most spectacular gardens.

In this piece, Robert Cooke tells his wife about his plans:

“Pleasure gardens?” His wife is pacing, pacing. He can hear the rustle of petticoats, the curt clip of heels. “Have you taken complete leave of your senses?”

Robert has waited a week to break the news to Freya. Now he wishes he’d waited longer. “Rosherville Pleasure Gardens was built in a disused chalk pit.”

He would not distress her, so he does not share his intentions. He doesn’t tell her, ‘I dream about them.’ Thomas and Gerrard – who appeared robust, with chubby arms and legs, but then the flush of Thomas’s cheeks, the red bumps on his chest – Gerrard’s too – the swollen glands at their necks, and the shivering. The doctor came with his Epsom salts and his razor to shave their poor heads, but no amount of cool rags could soothe them. In the end it just seemed to be something to keep Robert occupied while Freya was instructed to keep her distance. (At least he’d insisted on that.) ‘Change the rags,’ Dr Stanbury said. ‘See if they won’t take a little broth.’ He doesn’t tell Freya and so she cannot ask, ‘Do they look happy?’ In his nocturnal world, his shadow-sons thrive. Thomas is already waist-high, Gerrard not far behind. They age at the same rate as their girls, their Estelle and Ida. He doesn’t tell Freya that Thomas has lost a front tooth, or about the faces Gerrard pulls behind his brother’s back. Superstition tells Robert he ought to be worried that he sees himself in dreams, but he can’t regret this second life he leads, hearing the boys’ laughter, watching the delight on their faces. And now he will create for them a place to play.

Which pleasure gardens would have overlapped with Cooke’s?

Rosherville Gardens, survived for seventy years, finally closing just before the First World War. George Jones, an Islington businessman, formed the ‘Kent Zoological and Botanical Gardens Company’ persuading members of the public to become shareholders. The company leased a disused chalk pit near the Thames in Northfleet, Kent. Gardens were laid out with a terrace and winding paths, a bear pit, an archery ground and a lookout tower on a spur of rock. But Jones failed to attract wealthy visitors as he’d hoped. He was forced to lower his prices and import more entertainments. From 1842, the focus was music, dancing and theatre. There were tightrope walkers, balloon ascents and fortune tellers. Rebranded thus, they became a roaring success with Londoners, who flooded in on the steamboats, landing at the nearby Rosherville Pier.

If pleasure gardens were such a sensation, why did they go into decline?

For Marylebone Gardens, the long wet summer of 1767 took its toll.

For Vauxhall, it may have been that its managers drank their profits. Or that in 1836 (four years before they were declared bankrupt), they funded Charles Green’s ‘Royal Vauxhall’ balloon. Although it broke records for distance of travel (to Nassau, Germany) and ‘scientific ascent’ – a dizzying height of 27,146 feet – the investment didn’t pay off.

There were complaints too. London was spreading ever outwards. Inhabitants of the new houses didn’t appreciate the sound of fireworks.

And as demand from housebuilders grew, land became more expensive, an issue this short extract addresses:

Cane in hand, Robert moves among the crowd, every inch the proprietor, ensuring that his visitors have everything they need – preferably things that have to be bought and paid for. He looks about, searching among faces for a Carlisle, a Colman.

“Don’t know what to make of it. If Cremorne couldn’t turn a profit, what makes Cooke think he’ll fare any better?”

But you’re here, aren’t you? He sets his face into a smile. Under his topper, Robert’s hairline already itches with sweat. The afternoon is going to be a scorcher.

“Roll, bowl or pitch! Three balls a penny! You knock ’em down, we pick ’em up.”

The girl who had been selling paper windmills outside the gates is now inside. She has stopped a couple with a child – a boy – and asked him to blow. When the windmill spins and blurs, he reacts with delight, demanding, “Again! Again!”

“I think it’s well-placed. The reason London’s pleasure gardens failed is that as the city expanded land became a valuable asset.”


For Rosherville the decline began in 1878 with the sinking of the Princess Alice paddle steamer which left 650 dead. In 1900 Rosherville Gardens went bankrupt and many of the fixtures and fittings were sold off, but new management meant a temporary reprieve. The theatre became a restaurant. Films were shown in the Gothic Hall. A small menagerie was acquired, including a baby elephant called Kim. Despite their best efforts, Rosherville Gardens still lost money, finally closing in 1914.

But perhaps the greatest threat was the rise of the urban park.

Urban parks

In 1833 Great Britain’s first urban park opened its gates in Preston, followed quickly by Birkenhead, Derby and Southampton. And why would you pay for a ticket if similar facilities were available for free?

“There we have it, Frank,” Robert says. “It’s a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Frank sits with his hands on his knees, looking towards the gates. Robert wonders if he ought simply to leave, to give Frank time to get used to the idea, but he delays. Eventually Frank says, “So that’s that.”

Robert can smell the liquor on his breath. Perhaps, he too, sensed what was coming. “My solicitor will draft a clause so that I have the final say in how the houses will look.” He stands and makes as if to leave.

“You wouldn’t be having to do it if more money was coming in.”

“No,” he concedes. At the back of his mind he may have thought Frank would find a solution. Build a wooden frame and pour concrete in it. Construct a perfect octagonal and roof it with dragon’s scales. Transform a bandstand into an amphitheatre. Graft hardwood from one rose onto another.

“The locals still show their faces. It’s the day trippers who don’t come in the same numbers.”

“I need to advertise more.”

Frank purses his lips. “Gerrard doesn’t think that’s the answer.”

“You’ve discussed it?” Of course they have.

“The boy talks to people, Londoners especially. They still want to get out of town and visit gardens, but public parks are opening up – parks with no admission charges.”


Built on public subscription, parks provided opportunities for investors, because plans included select housing built around their perimeter, the idea being that a house overlooking a park was a highly desirable asset.

In the 1850s, two new acts of Parliament stimulated donations of land for parks, and building them helped solved another problem: unemployment. Miller Park in Preston was built by unemployed cotton workers following the ‘cotton famine’.

The Public Health Act of 1875 enabled local authorities to maintain land for recreation and to raise funds for this specific purpose. It was supported by organisations such as The Commons Preservation Society, whose aim was to ensure that people had access to what was formerly common land.

These were followed by the Open Spaces Act of 1881 which considered the need for smaller parks for local people and the Disused Burial Grounds Act of 1884, which prevented the building of dwelling-houses on them. Towards the end of the 19th century, the Open Spaces movement campaigned to keep natural spaces on the edges of towns – ‘green belts’ around our cities, such as those at Hampstead, Barnes, Clapham, Wimbledon and Blackheath in London.

‘If Epping Forest had been lost to the public, I think your Lordships will agree it would have been almost a national calamity; yet if money had not been forthcoming, and in very large sums, owing entirely, I may say, to the munificence of the Corporation of London, it would not have been possible to acquire that magnificent open space, over 5,500 acres in extent, which, I am proud to say, is the largest municipal park in the world.’ The Earl of Meath, reading of the Open Spaces Bill.

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