Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens ballooning poster, 1830-1836
Regular balloon flights took off Vauxhall. ID no. A9172.
So vivid was the idea of the London pleasure garden as a place of danger, debauchery and drunkenness that it was frequently used as a backdrop for contemporary novels, ballads and prints. The heroes and heroines of numerous 18th and early 19th century novels end up in a pleasure garden at some point, and usually worse off at the end of the evening than at the beginning of it – from Frances Burney’s virtuous Evelina, pursued through the trees of Vauxhall by men intent on harassment and maybe worse, to William Thackeray’s comic character Jos Sedley, in Vanity Fair, suffering literature’s worst hangover after a night of Vauxhall punch.
There was nothing quite like the London pleasure garden, and no modern equivalent exists. It was a place where the glittering world of wealth, fashion and high culture showed off its seedy underside; where princes partied with prostitutes, and the middle classes went to be shocked and titillated by the excess on display. Simultaneously an art gallery, a restaurant, a brothel, a concert hall and a park, the pleasure garden was the place where Londoners confronted their very best, and very worst, selves. When Vauxhall finally closed in 1859, it was the end of an era, never to be repeated.