Dreads and Drolls, by Arthur Machen

Before Wembley

It is to be gathered from all sorts of sources that the great Exhibition at Wembley did not go so prosperously as might be desired. I wonder why. I believe the reasons are composite. In the first place, I suspect that the Exhibition was much too big; the Great Exhibition of 1851 went into the Crystal Palace. Then it was too technical. I think I have heard that six acres — the area of Trafalgar Square — were devoted to engineering exhibits. Perfectly enchanting — to engineers. But how I should loathe seeing six acres of wheels going round. And, lastly, there is the matter of “closing hours.” It is said that the first remark of the late Lord Tennyson on entering the Exhibition of 1851 was “Can one get a decent bottle of Bass here?” It is deplorable, no doubt; but to the average male mind Exhibitions and the modern closing hours are incompatible.

It seems to me that we should begin by separating things which don’t go together in the least. Let the Engineers hold their exhibition at Olympia, or at the Agricultural Hall, Islington; let the Builders follow them; let the Dominion Products have their due turn. But what London wants of a summer night is a place of moderate size where, amidst agreeable surroundings, it can sit and eat and drink and smoke in the open-air, and listen to a band or two and dance a dance or two, and perhaps see a revue or two, with a few variety turns now and then, and a cabaret performance and an occasional concert. Fireworks, of course; and I think a Grand Guignol theatre, with the audience in the open air on fine nights. I doubt whether there would be room for an Amusement Park. The fact is, I am for a return to Vauxhall, and all that sort of thing, with all the improvements that modern ingenuity can suggest. Here is a note of a pleasant evening spent at Vauxhall, just 175 years ago.

“I had a card,” writes Horace Walpole, “from Lady Caroline Petersham, to go with her to Vauxhall. I went accordingly to her house, and found her and the little Ashe, or the Pollard Ashe as they called her; they had just finished their last layer of red, and looked as handsome as crimson could make them. . . . We marched to our barge, with a boat of French horns attending and little Ashe singing. We paraded some time up the river, and at last debarked at Vauxhall. . . . Here we picked up Lord Granby, arrived very drunk from Jenny Whims (a Chelsea tavern). At last we assembled in our booth, Lady Caroline in the front with the vizor of her hat erect, and looking gloriously jolly and handsome. She had fetched my brother Orford from the next box, where he was enjoying himself with his petite partie, to help us to mince chickens. We minced seven chickens into a China dish, which Lady Caroline stewed over a lamp with three pats of butter and a flagon of water, stirring and rattling and laughing, and we every minute expecting the dish to fly about our ears. She had brought Betty, the fruit-girl, with hampers of strawberries and cherries from Roger’s, and made her wait upon us, and then made her sup by us at a little table. . . . In short, the whole air of our party was sufficient, as you will easily imagine, to take up the whole attention of the Gardens; so much so, that from 11 o’clock till half an hour after one we had the whole concourse round our booth; at last they came into the little gardens of each booth on the sides of ours, till Harry Vane took up a bumper and drank their healths, and was proceeding to treat them with still greater freedoms. It was three o’clock before we got home.”

The company, as you perceive, was high, though distinctly jolly. Indeed, a contemporary writer describing Spring Gardens, as the place was then called, declares that they were laid out “in so grand a taste that they are frequented in the three summer months by most of the nobility and gentry then in and near London; and are often honoured with some of the Royal Family, who are here entertained with the sweet song of numbers of nightingales, in concert with the best band of musick in England. Here are fine pavilions, shady groves, and most delightful walks, illuminated by above a thousand lamps, so disposed that they all take fire together, almost as quick as lightning, and with such a sudden blaze as is perfectly surprising.” In the generation before this Sir Roger de Coverley visited Vauxhaul “exquisitely pleasant in summer,” as his friend, the Spectator, declares. “When,” he says, “I considered the fragrancy of the walks and bowers, with the choirs of birds that sang upon the trees, and the loose tribe of people that walked under their shades, I could not but look on the place as a kind of Mahometan Paradise. Sir Roger told me it put him in mind of a little coppice by his house in the country, which his chaplain used to call an Aviary of Nightingales. He here fetched a deep sigh, and was falling into a fit of musing when a Mask, who came behind him, gave him a gentle tap on the shoulder and asked him if he would drink a bottle of Mead with her? But the Knight being startled at so unexpected a familiarity and displeased to be interrupted in his thoughts of the widow, told her she was a wanton baggage, and bid her go about her business. We concluded our walk with a glass of Burton ale and a slice of hung beef.”

The gardens lingered on, I believe, into the fifties of the last century, but the shady groves had got too shady to be agreeable. The Mask or Baggage still frequented the walks, but the nightingales had flown away, and with them Lady Caroline Petersham, the little Ashe, Horace Walpole, Lord Orford, the Marquis of Granby, Harry Vane, Sir Roger and the Spectator. The last real party who went to Vauxhall were Amelia Sedley, Jos. Sedley, George Osborne, Dobbin, and Becky Sharp; when Jos. drank too much rack punch and called Becky his diddle-diddle-darling.

Vauxhall had many competitors, on the large scale and the small. In 1740, Ranelagh was begun on a site near Chelsea Hospital. “Vauxhall under cover” it was called: there was a Rotunda with balconies full of little alehouses. Of course, Horace Walpole went to Ranelagh.

“Two nights ago Ranelagh Gardens were opened at Chelsea; the prince, princess, duke, much nobility, and much mob besides were there. There is a vast amphitheatre, finely gilt, painted, and illuminated, into which everybody that loves eating, drinking, staring, or crowding is admitted for twelve pence. The building and disposition of the gardens cost sixteen thousand pounds. Twice a week there are to be ridottos at guinea tickets, for which you are to have a supper and music.”

Horace was inclined to sniff in a languid manner when Ranelagh was opened. Vauxhall, he thought, was “a little better.” But in two years the fashionable success of Ranelagh was assured, and the languid sniff has changed into a shrill squeak. “Every night constantly I go to Ranelagh, which has totally beat Vauxhall. Nobody goes anywhere else — everybody goes there. My Lord Chesterfield is so fond of it that he says he has ordered all his letters to be directed thither.” One of the first of the entertainment gardens of London was old Spring Gardens, close to Charing Cross, and it is strange to think that this place, with its grave, late memories of the serious and salutary labours of the London County Council, owed its name to a piece of simple jocularity. There was a jet, or spring, of water there, and a German, travelling in England in Queen Elizabeth’s days, writes:

“In a garden joining to this Palace (Whitehall) there is a jet d’eau, with a sundial, at which, while strangers are looking, a quantity of water forced by a wheel, which the gardener turns at a distance through a number of little pipes, plentifully sprinkles those that are standing around.”

The joke was improved later. A trap was contrived on the ground, and whoever trod on this trap was immediately deluged. There were other amusements, a bathing pond, a pheasant yard, and a bowling green. In the time of King Charles I:

“There was kept in it an ordinary of six shillings a meal (when the King’s proclamation allows but two shillings elsewhere), continual bibbing and drinking wine all day under the trees; two or three quarrels every week.” There was also “a certain cabaret, in the middle of this paradise, where the forbidden fruits are certain trifling tarts, neats’ tongues, salacious meats, and bad Rhenish.”

Then there were Cuper’s Gardens just opposite Somerset House, which became Cupid’s Gardens in the famous old song, and Marylebone Gardens, and Bagnigge Wells, and Sadler’s Wells, all popular in their day.

I believe I saw the last of the tribe one day in Camden Town. In a dreary street there was a drearier public house, with the dreariest little triangle of a garden beside it. Two dusty trees, six dusty bushes, four metal tables, and twice as many chairs, a small pipe from which a small jet of water might sometimes issue, traces of fairy lamps. . . . Such was the last echo of gorgeous, gay Vauxhall.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58