Wednesday, 8 January 2014

London Then and Now: Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens

An overview of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in the 18th century.
Photo courtesy of the Foundling Museum
Ever since visiting an exhibition about the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens at The Foundling Museum, the history of the gardens has fascinated me. So for my first foray of the New Year, I visited the site of the old Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens to see if any of the great 18th century attraction has survived to the present day.
'You are Here' - arriving at Vauxhall tube station.
The site of the old pleasure gardens just a short walk away.
On the south bank of the Thames, the gardens' popularity peeked in the Georgian era. Under the proprietorship of Jonathan Tyers, they grew from the equivalent of a pleasant (well, if you ignored the prostitutes and pickpockets!) country walk near a tavern, to a trendy place of entertainment with sensational lights, exotic buildings, first class music, dancing and romantic walks. Tyers was an entrepreneur and ahead of his time because he had a canny talent for advertising and marketing. 
The Grand Walk, Vauxhall - as portrayed in this
painting by Canaletto.
Arriving at Vauxhall station, my first task was to orientate myself. Needless to say the area looks hugely different to in Jonathan Tyers day. Part of the reason for Vauxhall's success was that the gardens were an earthly 'Elysium' - a verdant paradise away from the hustle, smells and congestion of an expanding city. This is the sight that greeted me...
Here I'm standing with my back to the current entrance
and facing towards the Thames. The railway line is visible leading
to the station on the left of the picture.
The current entrance is view an innocuous pavement with two tall columns (not at all sure what the significance of the columns are -it's almost as if someone thought they were a good idea at the time)
Standing in the gardens facing the new entrance.
Note the two tall columns marking the entry.
However, in the 18th century the main entrance was through the Proprietor's House, along what is now Goding Street.
The original entrance ran parallel to the modern railway line (see pic above)
Visitors passed through the main entrance to the Proprietor's House
which is the building to the left of this painting.
The original gardens closed in mid-Victorian times and housing was built on the area. These estates were badly bombed in the Second World War  and in the 1950's a decision was made to convert some of the land back to greenery in tribute to the Pleasure Gardens. Because of this, nothing of Tyers gardens remains, but using a variety of old maps (from 1813, 1850) and a present day map, I found as best I could, the equivalent locations. As you will see, things don't compare favourably.

This approximates to where the Proprietor's House was,
and also the Grand Walk (as shown in the Canaletto painting)
The 'Grand Walk' January 2014
What never ceases to surprise me about London is just how close everything is. From the modern gardens you can see the Shard.
The Shard - centre - as seen from Vauxhall Gardens
And turning around to face the Thames are a number of modern landmarks including MI6's 'secret' offices.
MI6 -to the right of centre.
Indeed, the 18th century visitor from London would cross from north of the Thames on a special wherry and land very close to what is the modern MI6 building. (Hubs, who was with me, got very nervous about me taking photos of MI6...)
As close as I could find to the original slipway on the Thames.
MI6 to my left ,with the gardens behind me.
Standing on the same spot but turned through 180 degrees.
The gardens are behind the 'bathstore'.
An 18th century visitor landing by wherry,
to visit the gardens.
It's not all bad!
Standing on the slipway, facing the Thames but with the camera pointing
to my right.
And finally, Jonathan Tyers loved his creation - the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. He was a London man and when he died was buried near his birthplace in Bermondsey. No marked grave exists and so his memory continues in a number of streets in Vauxhall that carry his name

[The gardens are featured in Verity's Lie. They are also the inspiration behind my new series based on the fictional Foxhall Gardens. #1 The Ringmaster's  Daughter is released on February 1st, 2014.]


  1. Like you,one of my favorite places! In my imagination I can stand behind a dejected Jonathon Tyer and listen as Billy Hogarth gives him some ideas to develop the gardens!

    1. Obviously a like minded person, Gem! I was SO disappointed - not necessarily in the site itself, but that I couldn't summon any 'tingles' about how it must have felt in the 18th century. Most historic places the stones absorb echoes of the past -but there - sadly nothing! Still, it was good to get a feel for how close the Thames is, and i was surprised by the proximity to MI6 (and I didn't get arrested for having a camera ...)
      Thanks for leaving a comment.
      Grace x

  2. I fell asleep last night dreaming of my version of Vauxhall - pieced together from many books! I am visiting London this year and have been wondering how I could visit Vauxhall. This has helped SO much! Thanks!

  3. A fellow addict who imagines the Georgian world! When you write 'your version of Vauxhall' does it exist solely in your imagination or are you a writer? If the later, do share you books - I love reading stories featuring Vauxhall.
    And what was you decision? Is visiting modern Vauxhall now off your itinery?
    Grace x

    1. No, I am not a writer, just a history fan.
      I will definitely visit Vauxhall. I will be staying on that side of the Thames anyway. I know full well that the 19th century London in my head no longer exists. A few things do - Hatchards (do they sell your books?), White's, Fortnum & Mason, Ten Bells... There is even horseback riding in Hyde Park, but I do not know if they have sidesaddles!

    2. Hatchards is a must to visit - lovely creaky wooden floors - but sadly they don't sell my books :-(
      If you get the opportunity to visit Apseley House (home of the Duke of Wellington) there is a lovely view from one of the long galleries of Hyde Park and the sandy gallops.
      Hope you have a great visit.
      Grace x

  4. Many thanks for this article.
    It has brought back some happy memories of that place.
    I used to work there many years ago & have always been interested in the history

    1. Where was it you worked, Spencer?
      Thanks for visiting.
      Grace x

  5. Fascinating article and so sad that any real sign of Vauxhall is now gone. Hopefully in today's world we'll take better care of ancient buildings, gardens and woodland in future. If there are any politicians listening, please take note. Lovely piece and every success with the book Grace.

    1. Thank you for visiting, Freda. A gentleman tweeted me saying I'd missed a part of the historic gardens that still exist...but tantalisingly he didn't say what or where. I'm hoping he gets back to me - could mean another visit!
      Grace x

  6. Madame! Fate has returned me to Vauxhall somehow!..and what a pleasure it is! I remember standing in the shadows listening as Madame Gilflert and Master Hogarth gave advice on The Gardens to Master Tyers!...and he took their advice!!!! Huzzah! Like you,I walk the Georgian dream-from Seven Dials to Tyburn-from Brighton to Bath,and all in between. I shall take great pleasure in subscribing to your book,Madame.

  7. What a lovely article! :) And thank you for including all the pics, too. Like you, I went in search of any traces of Vauxhall a year ago, and found that the railway, etc. dampened all the magic of the 18th century for me. A great shame!

    It's a great shame also that almost nothing remains - those pavilions look absolutely enchanting in the Canaletto! :)

  8. does anyone have a photo of Goding Street Vauxhall before the houses were knocked down. they were still there in 1952, I dont know when they were knocked down but my grandfather lived in one of them in 192. I have been trying for years to try and find a photo.


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