Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens

Vauxhall Gardens painted by Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768)

Vauxhall Gardens painted by Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768)

The following description of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens is quoted from, “a letter from a Foreigner to his friend in Paris”, that appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine (Volume 12) in August 1742.

“…………… English Gentleman had the goodness to be my guide, from whom I readily accepted an invitation to spend an Evening at a noble village in sight of the Town, and situate by the side of the River Thames.

I repaired to the rendezvous, which was the Park adjoining to the Palace Royal, and which answers to our Tuilleries; where we sauntered with, a handful of fine company, till it was almost twilight; a time, I thought, not a little unseasonable for a tour into the country.

We had no sooner quitted the Park, but we found ourselves in a road full of people, illuminated with Lamps on each side. The dust was the only inconvenience, but in half an hour, we found ourselves at a gate, where money was demanded and paid for our admittance; and immediately my eyes were struck with a large building of an orbicular figure, with a row of windows round attic story, through which it seemed to be liberally illuminated within; and, altogether, presented to the eye such an image as a man, of a whimsical imagination, would not scruple to call, a Giant’s Lanthorn.

Into this enchanted place we entered with more haste than ceremony; and, at the first glance, I, for my part, found myself dumb with surprise and astonishment, in the middle of a vast amphitheatre, for structure Roman; for decorations of paint and gildings, gay as the Asiatic; four grand portals, in the manner of the ancient triumphal arches, and four times twelve boxes, in a double row, with suitable pilasters between, form the whole interior of this wonderful fabric, save that, in the middle, a magnificent orchestra arises to the roof, from which depend several large branches, which contain a great number of candles enclosed in crystal-glasses, at once to light and adorn the spacious Rotund.

Groups of well-dressed persons were dispersed in the Boxes, numbers covered the area, all manner of refreshments were within call; and music of all kinds echoed, though not intelligibly, from every one of those elegant retreats, whither pleasure seemed to beckon her wanton followers.

I have acknowledged myself charmed at my entrance; you will wonder therefore when I tell you, that satiety followed: in five minutes I was familiar with the whole and every part, in the next five indifference took place, in five more my eyes grew dazzled, my head grew giddy, and all night I dreamt of Vanity Fair.

The Evening following this, was one of those which this climate so seldom enjoys, and which the happiest might envy: it was just hot enough to render what little air was abroad refreshing, which rather fanned than rustled the leaves, rather kissed than disturbed the stream.

I mention the last, because the scene was now changed to the water. On the Thames we had a noble prospect of that renowned Capital, which those Frenchmen who have never seen it, only affect to despise, and in the midst of several little pleasure boats , all filled with the gay, the fair, the happy, and the young, after a very short voyage, we landed on the opposite shore.

The orchestra at Vauxhall Gardens painted by Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768)

The evening had again almost overtaken us: we were to pursue the rest of our way on foot, and not a single lamp appeared to comfort us; I had the prudence, however, to hold my peace, and was again introduced to a place of a very different kind, from that I had visited the night before: vistas, woods, tents, buildings, and company I had a glimpse of, but could discover none of them distinctly, for which reason I began to repine that we had not arrived sooner, when, all in a moment, as if by magic, every object was made visible, I should rather say illustrious, by a thousand lights finely disposed, which were kindled at one and the same signal; and my ears and my eyes, head and heart, were captivated at once.

Right before me extended a long and regular vista; on my right hand, I stepped into a delightful grove, wild, as if planted by the hand of nature, under the foliage of which, at equal distances, I found two similar tents, of such a contrivance and form, as a painter of genius and judgment would choose to adorn his landscape with. Further on, still on my right, through a noble triumphal Arch, with a grand curtain, still in the picturesque stile, artificially thrown; over it, an excellent statue of Handel appears, in the action of playing upon the Lyre, which is finely set off by various greens, which form, in miniature, a seat of woody theatre.

The grove itself is bounded on three sides, except the intervals made by the two vistas, which lead to and from it, with a plain, but handsome colonnade; divided into different apartments, to receive different companies, and distinguished and adorned with paintings, which though slight, are well fancied, and have a very good effect.

In the middle centre of the grove, fronting a handsome Banqueting Room, the very portico of which is adorned and illuminated with curious lustres of crystal glass, stands the orchestra, (for music is likewise here the soul of the entertainment) and at some distance behind it, a Pavilion, it beggars all description; I do not mean for the richness of the materials, of which it is composed, but for the nobleness of the design, and the elegance of the decorations with which it is adorned: In a word, Architecture, such as Greece would not be ashamed of, and drapery, far beyond the imaginations of the East, are here united in a taste that, I believe, never was equalled, nor can be exceeded. Both the centre, and the several divisions round it, which are all open to the eye, are hung with crystal lustres: And the whole together, with so many groups of happy people, gratified in almost every sense at once, underneath it, make me fancy that another Armida was the Goddess of the place, and had exhausted all that art and nature had to boast of, in order to rival paradise itself, and render us frail creatures thoughtless of an hereafter.

I must avow, I found my whole soul, as it were, dissolved in pleasure; not only you, but even Paris itself was forgot – discourse, while there, was a rhapsody of joy and wonder. Assure yourself such an assemblage of beauties never, but in the dreams of the poets, ever met before – and I scarce yet believe the bewitching scene was real.

See here the taste of Britain! and reason like a philosopher and a politician upon the consequences! – I add no more, but am now awake, and very sincerely, Yours, &c.”




Three letters from S.Toupee to The Scots Magazine.

The letters from a certain S.Toupee to the Scots Magazine play an important part in our understanding of everything that went on at Vauxhall Gardens, which in turn played a very important role in the country’s artistic and social development.  The letters tell in wonderful detail how an evening there was passed, including how folks travelled there, what they ate and drank when they got there and even who looked after their dogs whilst they enjoyed the music!  The letters bring to life this classic Eighteenth Century Londoners’ night out.


London, May 28, 1739

An Evening at Vaux-Hall


We find so much difficulty, at present, to render this season of the year tolerable, in point of pleasure and entertainment, that there is some difficulty in accounting for that cheerfulness  which we meet with in the writings of our forefathers on the approach of spring, and the evening breezes of June and July : for, so far are the beau monde from prizing the charms which nature has so long disclosed, without any variation, that the simple woods and groves, the meads and passing streams, have lost the power to please : And the additions made to these, to render them more capable of yielding delight, are such, as for many centuries were judged ridiculous in themselves, and irreconcilable with our genius and clime: but thanks to the assistance of some kind visitors from other nations, we have surmounted the difficulties nature and custom laid in our way, and Italian riditto have been seen amongst us, [in] spite of the inclemency of evening damps or British rusticity.

The annual improvements in Vaux-Hall gardens, and the great resort of personages of the first rank, have, for the five last years, drawn a multitude of people together every fine evening during the entertainment of those honoured walks ; and the practice of having tickets for the season, to admit two persons every night, does not a little add to the number of the company, by putting it in a Gentleman’s power, for so small a charge, to oblige his friends with so generally approved an amusement.  The price of admittance, without a ticket, is one shilling for each person; from which last article alone it a computed, that, one night with another, not less than one thousand shillings are received each evening of performance during the season.

Your distance from a kind of entertainment so new amongst us, and so much approved, especially by the Ladies, may make an account of it acceptable to such of your readers as have a taste for polite amusements: Wherefore, in order to give a more perfect idea of the time spent in this fashionable diversion, the most natural method I can think of, will be to divide the three hours, usually bestowed on a visit to this melodious grove, into separate articles, and under each to give the truest description I can of the manner in which it is employed.  It will not be amiss to apprise you of its lying on the other side of the river from London and Westminster, about a mile from the first mentioned city.  The three hours are those from seven till ten.

The First Hour

About Westminster and Whitehall stairs, barges with six or four oars each, attend (hired, most of them, at ten shillings for the barge, and a crown each oar for the evening) till the Ladies have done tea: by the help of coaches, chairs, etc. about seven they arrive at the water-side; and with many expressions, and some apprehension of danger, they are, by the aid of the Gentlemen who accompany them, and the watermen’s assistance, got on board; and Tom, who generally can blow the French horn, is placed exactly with his back against his Lady’s shoulders.  The putting off the barge from shore occasions several Oh’s! and gives opportunity for any kind fair-one to distinguish her favourite by a close cling to his side, and a pinch in the arm.  After repeated cautions to the watermen to take care, the vessel leaves the shore; and the air proves sharp enough to oblige the Ladies to vail their necks by the envious cloud of a handkerchief, tied with such a designed carelessness, as gives even a grace to that impertinent screen of beauty.  Tom plays an air from the last new Opera; and the company regale themselves with a glass of citron or plague-water, or ratafia; and Miss Kitty, by mamma’s command, sings the last song her master, Sig. C——-i taught her, with applause of all present; her papa being engaged elsewhere for the evening.  Several boats with young Gentlemen only, approach within oar-length, and ogle the Ladies; who, with a pleased disdain, correct their freedom and both agreeable part, in hope of a second interview in the gardens.

At Somerset (the place to take water from Covent-Garden) and the Temple stairs, a number of young fellows are hurrying into boats; who, though they set out by themselves, seldom return without female companions.

At all the stairs from the Temple down to the Bridge the watermen are busily employed in taking their company on board; which consists of various degrees.  Sir John, from Fenchurch-street, with his Lady and whole family of children, is attended by a footman, with a hand-basket well crammed with provisions for the voyage.  The boat sallies at setting off; but the Knight laughs at the fear of his spouse and the young Ladies his daughters, declaring, the danger that scares them to be nothing, compared with what he came through in his voyage from Operto.  Misses give an entertaining account of dress and choice of partners at the last city-hall; which, though mamma smiles at, Sir John corrects, with doubting whether they give equal attention to the sermons they hear; which his youngest daughter answers prettily enough, by assuring him, for her sisters and self, that they do not take more notice of people in any place whatever than at church.  My Lady grows sick; a glass of wine and drops (no water being in the boat) is instantly given her; and on her recovery, eldest Miss cuts the cake, and distributes it among the company, and a glass of wine is drank round.

At the next stairs, Mr Williams, an apprentice in Cheapside, by the contrivance, of her confident, who accompanies them, is taking water with Miss Sukey, his master’s daughter, who is supposed to be gone next-door to drink tea, and to meet an uncle coming out of the country.  The thought of having deceived the old people makes them laugh immoderately along the street, and almost totter over the boat instead of getting into it.  They are sooner seated, and got from shore, with hearty wishes that they may meet no body that knows them, than the Ladies find, one of them through hurry had forgotten her handkerchief, and the other her snuff-box.  The subject that employs them the whole passage is the admirable thought and contrivance that brought them out with such secrecy.  The watermen beg leave to stop to drink, which is denied, on account of their not having seen the gardens this year, and being obliged, at all events, to reach home by ten.

An honest old mechanic and his spouse come next.  He assures her his Royal Highness himself favours Vaux-Hall with his presence almost every week; and that it is said to be so much improved since he was a young man, that he was resolved to see what new-fangled notions they had got now-a-days, to exceed what were in fashion then.  He gives the watermen some drink, asks their names, whether they are married or single, how many children they have alive, etc. which, with the frequent interruption of observations on the companies that overtake them, and descriptions of the barges they pass by, fills up the time of their voyage.

Being all landed, they proceed in cavalcade, through a lane of watermen, to the entrance of the gardens; where, (no dogs being admitted) after Chlo is huffed by one passage keeper, Pug beat by another, and Pompey feared by a third, they are all trusted to the care of their several watermen; and after shewing tickets, or paying money, the Ladies and Gentlemen walk in, survey the coop made to keep the footmen in, just at the door, take a hasty circuit round the walks, the paintings not being yet let down, take a view of Handel’s bust, carved on a fine block of marble, and placed on one side of the garden, striking his lyre: but before they have observed half its beauties, the music striking up, the whole company crowd from every part of the gardens toward the orchestra and organ; which gives a fair opportunity of meeting one’s acquaintance, and remarking what beaus, bells, and beauties are present; a part of the diversion as agreeable as any to [myself].


London, June 28, 1739

The Second Hour

After the piece of music is finished, a silence ensues, of a length sufficient to allow the company time to take a circuit of the gardens before an­other begins; which is the same be­fore each piece; and those intervals are chiefly employed in visiting the walks, remarking the company, and viewing the paintings, which have been put up the last spring to protect the Ladies, while sitting in the arbours, from catch­ing cold in their necks by the incle­mency of the evening-breezes.  These paintings forming something like three parts of a square, the Prince’s pavilion (so called in honour of his Royal Highness, who always honours that place with his presence when he visits these gardens) and the house belonging to the manager, form the fourth.

In the mid­dle of this square, which takes up about a fourth part of the gardens, stands a beautiful orchestra for the band of music, which consists of the best hands upon every instrument in modern use: and from that a little bridge of four or five yards reaches to an elegant edifice, wherein is placed an excellent organ; which has lately been fitted to several new pieces of entertainment, particu­larly a symphony of singing birds, which never fails to meet with the loud applauses of all present.   Many little no­velties are contrived to yield a greater variety to the audience on the other instruments; and a set of small bells have been introduced in a tune which meets with a very favourable reception.

The walks leading close by the front of the arbours, (each of which is large enough to entertain ten or twelve persons to supper) the paintings at the back of every arbour afford a very enter­taining view; especially when the La­dies, as ought ever to be contrived, sit with their heads against them.   And, what adds not a little to the pleasure of these pictures, they give an unexceptionable opportunity of gazing on any pleasing fair-one, without any other pre­tence than the credit of a fine taste for the piece behind her.  To preserve these pieces from the weather, they are fixed so as to be in cases, contrived on purpose, from the close of the enter­tainment every night, to the fifth tune of the evening following; after which, in an instant, they all fall down; and, from an open rural view, the eye is re­lieved by the agreeable surprise of some of the most favourite fancies of our poets in the most remarkable scenes of our comedies, some of the celebrated dancers, etc. in their most remarkable attitudes, several of the childish diversions, and other whims that are well enough liked by most people at a time they are disposed to smile, and everything of a light kind, and tending to unbend the thoughts, has an effect desired before it is felt.

By the time the next piece is begun, the gardens being pretty full, the company crowd round the music and, by being forced to stand close, have an op­portunity of taking a strict observation of every face near, and, as it frequently happens, of picking out companions for the remaining part of the even­ing.  Sir John Trot points out to his Lady, who has not before crossed the water for twenty years, the motion of the Gentleman who beats time, the manly strokes of the Kettle-drummer, and the wonderful strength of lungs with which Mr S sounds the trumpet.

The Petit Maitrets at the beginning of a solo on the last mentioned instrument, fixing their toes in a proper position, pull out their snuff-boxes; and, after an emphatical nod at setting off, take a pinch, in exact time; till the martial notes raising, by slow degrees, their un­tried courage, they discharge the whole force of their valour upon the eyes of the Ladies who stand next them who, generally, receive their fire with great revolution, and make a defence often fatal to the assailants.  Mrs Flimsy finds in the softer music something so like the ravishing softness of the Italian operas, that, in an ecstasy of pleasure at the bewitching notes, she is upon the point of falling, when the young Lord Shallow, with a complaisance hereditary in his family, interposing his kind hand, startles her with an agreeable surprise, and occasions as many apologies for the freedom on one hand, and acknowledgments for the obligation on the other, as, by a mutual display of the most engaging rhetoric lay the foundation of an acquaintance that lasts, perhaps, for some hours.

Gentlemen who come alone are open to the overtures of any amiable companion, and Ladies who venture without a masculine guide, are not, generally speaking, averse to the company of a polite protector.  The music again ceasing, and dusk approaching, the green walks are filled; at the termination of which stands a man in the posture of a Constable, to protect the Ladies from any insult, etc. and at the bottom of the grand walks, by the help of a ha-ha wall, the top of which, standing in a trench, is on a level with the ground, the prospect is open to the country and a hideous figure of Aurora on a pedestal interrupts, I cannot say terminates the view.

Soft whispers begin now to murmur through the trees; and, the shade of the evening favouring the Ladies with a convenience of blushing without being perceived, or of avoiding any hard thought for omitting that pleasing mark of innocence on occasions when it may happen to be expected, the lofty trees, which form a grove that must be called delightful, and every fanning breeze, by waving the garments of sylvan Deities (the only ones we know) yield a double delight, and resemble, as much as we can guess at this distance of time, the most delightful scenes of old Arcadia: And when the music plays at a distance, so far as to be heard through the leaves in one connected sound, without any distinction of one instrument from another, the enchanting harmony produces a pleasure scarce to be equalled by nature, not easy to be conceived in imagination; and I cannot help confessing that, according to what I can judge from my own experience, the breast must be a stranger to the soft passion that feels not a tender bias to love, and a powerful one indeed if any object of affection chance to be near; for every return of the artful symphony through any chance vacancy of the grove, fresh fans the glowing flame, and irresistibly increases the influence of the fair-one, who yet has more charms added by every melting effect the melody has on her mind and gesture.

In this situation, if soft ideas prevail more than elsewhere, those only will wonder at it whose minds are proof against Cupid’s painful delight, and whose ears are deaf to the power of harmony, and armed against all the accidental motives to love that are apt to prevail upon a mind bent on pleasure.  A few turns round the shades make the Ladies glad to think of sitting down to rest themselves; and the gentlemen assiduously seek the most agreeable arbours to regale them with a repast suitable in elegance to the elevation of their ideas; which usually happening about nine o’clock, the description thereof will naturally fall into the next letter you receive from [me].


London, July 31, 1739

The Last Hour

The chief part of the company having seated themselves in the arbours, five hundred separate suppers are served in an instant: and as a proper judgement of this entertainment cannot be fully formed without a knowledge of the expense attending it, it may be necessary to inform you, that the prices of provisions are printed, and fixed up in several parts of the gardens, to prevent the guests from being imposed upon by the waiters; each of whom has a number painted upon a small tin plate, and fastened to his breast, on the outside of his coat, and a certain number of tables committed to his charge, being obliged to pay at the bar for everything as he has it.

The price of a bottle of French Claret is 5s. of one cold chicken 2s 6d. quart of small-beer 4p. slice of bread 2p. of cheese 4p. and everything else in proportion, which raises an elegant collation to a high rate.

But that is not much thought of here; the music plays, the Ladies look pleased, and the Gentlemen forget the expense, by having their minds busied upon thoughts more delightful.

Glass candlesticks with wax lights are mostly used; and, with the addition of the Chine dishes, plates, etc. in which everything is served up, greatly increase the beauty and elegance of the covered tables.  I must confess when this custom of supping before the public first came in fashion, I was far from approving it: but powerful use has familiarised it; and we are now no more surprised to behold a young Lady dissect a pigeon, or swallow a plate of ham before three thousand people, than to see her take a pinch of snuff at church.  Tarts, custards, cheese-cakes, etc. are supplied [to] the younger company in great perfection; and, with the power of a few glasses of wine, the men grow more complaisant and not less amorous, the Ladies lose some of the constraint under which their eyes before laboured, and a cheerful freedom spreads itself through the place.

The night grows cold, and towards the close of the entertainment some of the best pieces of music are performed with the utmost skill and care, in order to leave the stronger impression upon the audience of the elegance of the entertainment.

The more considerate part of the company think of getting upon the water on their return home before the crowd at the water-side is too great.  When the music ceases for the evening, the chill of the night hurries the company to the water-side, through a lane of watermen, each waiting for his passengers, who generally call by name the men who brought them thither.

The throng on the edge of the water is so great, that it is with much difficulty the Ladies can be handed to their seats: the boats, by pressing all to land at a time, (the place for stopping in being scarce big enough for ten to lie conveniently, though frequently more than four hundred attend) keep one another in a continual coggling motion, and often endanger oversetting; though seldom any other mischief is done beside the breaking some watermen’s heads, and the bottoms of boats, poles, oars, etc.  In this hurry and confusion some miss of their boats, and others rush into such as are at hand without enquiry.  On these occasions words often arise, and sometimes not without just cause: for you must acknowledge it highly provoking, between 10 and 11 o’clock, at such a distance from home, to see the boat one provided to return in, crammed full of other people, who force the watermen to leave you, without a prospect of crossing the water all night, unless by chance, for most exorbitant hire, you get some boat to give you a cast to the other side, after which, many a mile to trudge before a coach can be got to ease the fatigue of the journey.

But to return to the stairs at Vaux-hall: Most of the boats being hired, it is very common to see a polite Gentleman begging room for a Lady, or for himself: And some young fellows with a glass extraordinary in their heads, take a pleasure in following any Lady they affect to admire, into whatever boat she enters, and, sometimes, maintain their ground sword in hand: though I must confess, how gallant so ever such actions may appear to the fair-sex, they are too rude to be calmly approved of; especially by Gentlemen to whom these insults are offered, who are under a necessity either of disputing with a stranger at the hazard of every life in the boat, or of sitting to be pestered with his impertinence to the end of their voyage, and thereby do a real service where a toss over-board would be more critically just.

Most of the boats have a covering over them; and the silence of the night is interrupted by nothing but the sound of a few French horns, and the tedious groanings of the oars.  The Ladies now earnestly desire to reach home, and the Gentlemen find enough to do in diverting them from giving too much attention to the cold that now very sensibly seizes their tender shoulders: A song is of some use here; though it is frequently succeeded by a yawning chorus.

The landing is attended with no danger nor trouble, unless at Westminster or Whitehall stairs, where there is sometimes a little hurry: at the others people go on shore with great deliberation, when the nights are dark, and gladly stretch their legs, which are commonly benumbed and crippled by the shallowness of the boats used on this river.

You see, Sir, our journey to Vaux-hall is a human enjoyment; having fatigue enough attending it to heighten the entertainment.  I was going to recommend an imitation of it near Edinburgh: but, perhaps your evenings are too cold, and luxury within better bounds than with us; for though Vaux-hall certainly must please most men, yet I know not whether the money laid out upon it be of proportionable use to the public.  I am, Sir, Your very humble servant, S. Toupee.


3 thoughts on “Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens

  1. I found your site quite by accident while Googling for the music of William Croft. It is outstanding. I really enjoyed reading the contemporary description of Vauxhall Gardens.
    Best regards,

    • Many thanks for your comments. Glad you enjoyed the contemporary description of Vauxhall Gardens. It certainly helps our understanding of that very important part of London musical life. Thanks again for commenting.

  2. Just released Handel at Vauxhall – great CD from Signum Records conducted by Bridget Cunningham wonderful notes by David Coke author of Vauxhall – A History (Yale) and Bridget on the music of Handel, Arne, Boyce, Worgan, Hebden. Part of a New Handel Series featuring London Early Opera with singers including Sophie, Mary & Benjamin Beva . Volume 2 follows Spring 2017.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *