Pleasure Gardens: 18th Century England’s Wild Nightlife Scene
If you think that people living in Georgian and Victorian England were a bunch of uptight prudes, think again. Amid the era’s restrictive rules on courting, chaperones, and clothing – heaven forbid a lady show her ankles! – there were the pleasure gardens. If you are a fan of Bridgerton, you have already been introduced to pleasure gardens. It is hard to point to a modern-day equivalent to the pleasure gardens. Picture Coachella, with its life music, art, dancing, drinking, drug use, and scantily clad women … now picture the festivities happened every single night for several years. That will give you a rough idea what the pleasure gardens were all about. Let’s explain…
The Rise of Paid Entertainment Options
Beginning in the mid-1600s, society was changing in London. We see the emergence of the middle class for the first time. Income was up and more people had entrepreneurial opportunities open to them, like becoming merchants, tailors, or craftsmen. They had a little bit of disposable income, but more importantly, they longed to socialize with others in their socioeconomic class and the upper class. There were already paid entertainment options at this time, like theatrical plays and orchestra concerts, but the public yearned for a place where they could meet and mingle, see and be seen, and eat and drink. The pleasure garden checked all these boxes and more.
What Were Pleasure Gardens?
Pleasure gardens were beautifully landscaped outdoor entertainment venues. Guests had to pay a fee to enter the garden – a ploy that was meant to keep out the pickpockets and prostitutes, but that didn’t really work as planned, as we will see. The gardens included a network of walkways connecting small garden spaces, fountains and ponds, walls and hedgerows. There were open places where musicians could perform, and guests could dance. Sculptures and paintings were on display. Poets gave live readings of their works. Throughout the garden there were places where guests could purchase a drink or food. There were dining areas and cozy benches for two. Every evening, the garden was ablaze with candles, lanterns, and lamps. Well, not the entire garden.
Vauxhall in London was the city’s largest, most-popular, and most-notorious pleasure garden. It opened in 1661 and officially closed in 1859. There was a vast variety of entertainment options at Vauxhall and the place was frequented by all the most fashionable people. It was such a staple of London life that we see references to this pleasure garden in books written at the time, including the works of Charles Dickens and Frances Burney.
Bringing the Exotic to London
Vauxhall changed things up from time to time to keep guests coming back. Periodically, a temporary attraction was erected, often bringing a bit of a foreign land to the pleasure garden. There was a Chinese pavilion, styled to look like a pagoda, where tea and Chinese food was served by workers in costume. A French pavilion was set to look like Versailles. A Roman area gave guests a reason to wear togas and sandals to the garden.
The Dark Side
There was a notorious side to Vauxhall and other pleasure gardens of the time. One reason was the popular ‘dark walks,’ unlit paths with secluded nooks and corners that were ideal for young lovers who wanted a little privacy. Well-dressed prostitutes and their Johns could also be found on the dark walks. Yes, the one shilling admission charge was supposed to discourage open prostitution in the pleasure gardens, but ladies of the evening soon realized that it was worth the investment because it put them in contact with well-to-do paying customers. The dark walks also provided an opportunity for same-sex couples to have an intimate encounter away from prying eyes.
Of course, the dark walks could be a dangerous place to be. Like the prostitutes, pickpockets figured out that they could hit a lot of targets in a short amount of time if they just paid the admission fee. Sexual predators also frequented the dark walks looking for easy targets. This was not the place for a young lady to be alone.
Drinking and Debauchery
Wine, ale, and other alcoholic beverages were a central part of Vauxhall and other pleasure gardens. In his novel Vanity Fair, William Thackeray wrote, “there is no headache in the world like that caused by Vauxhall punch.” Alcohol wasn’t Vauxhall’s only vice. Guests visited the pleasure garden to find someone selling opium or another drug. Small groups of addicts could slip away to one of the dark walks to get high.
Gossip, Rumors, and Scandals
The pleasure gardens provided a chance for guests to rub elbows with royalty and the rich and famous. It was a place where one could let down inhibitions and shirk off those stuffy social rules, if only for a few hours. Folks visited the pleasure garden to see who else was there, what they were wearing, who they were dancing with, and who they went on a dark walk with. The pleasure garden was the setting for intrigue and gossip. It was the starting point for rumors and scandals.
One such scandal involved a courtier named Elizabeth Chudleigh. In 1749, Vauxhall hosted a great masquerade ball. Elizabeth Chudleigh showed up dressed as Iphigenia, a character from classic literature. She wore a thin, gauze scarf draped around her otherwise naked body. As you can imagine, she caused quite a stir, and her name was the talk of the town … which is just what she wanted.
The End of an Era
Vauxhall closed for business in 1859, bringing the era of the pleasure gardens to a close. The pleasure gardens represented a unique period in time. It was a place for every member of society that was simultaneously a concert hall, art gallery, and fine dining restaurant mixed with sexual depravity, scandal, lust, and prostitution. A strange combination indeed.