Monday, 2 April 2018

The Streets of Old Lambeth: Vauxhall - Pleasure Gardens and Glass Works

A visitor to London, exploring the Borough of Lambeth, and, having viewed the Garden Museum, can continue southwards along the Albert Embankment towards Vauxhall Bridge. The current bridge was opened in 1906, replacing an earlier one (originally called Regent Bridge), built between 1809 and 1816. At low tide (the Thames is tidal as far as Richmond), rows of wooden posts can be seen on either side of the modern bridge: those downstream of the bridge have been dated by archaeologists to the late Mesolithic or early Neolithic period (c 4500 BC); those upstream to the Bronze Age (c 1500 BC). It is unclear whether these represent early bridges, or ritual features/symbolic boundaries such as those discovered at Flag Fen, near Peterborough. Further information can be found here.

Old Vauxhall Bridge in 1816 (Image is in the Public Domain). Part of the Millbank Penitentiary can be seen, under construction, on the right.

New Vauxhall Bridge. Photo: Marxville (licensed under CCA).

The Vauxhall riverside is today dominated by the headquarters of the UK's Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), designed by the architect, Terry Farrell, but throughout much of the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Centuries, it was a place of leisure and industry. 

The less-than-secret headquarters of MI6 at Vauxhall Cross. Photo: Laurie Nevey (licensed under CCA).

Vauxhall and Westminster in 1746, by John Rocque (image is in the Public Domain): ferries, rather than bridges, provide crossing points.

There are gardens to the east of the building today, but they are a pale reflection of those to be found on the riverside from the Seventeenth until the mid-Nineteenth Century. Samuel Pepys visited in June, 1665:

" ... I took boat, and to Fox Hall, where we spent two or three hours talking of several matters very soberly and contentfully to me, which, with the ayre and pleasure of the garden, was a great refreshment to me, and, methinks, that which we ought to enjoy ourselves in." 

Another diarist, John Aubrey, tells us that:

"Sir Samuel Morland built a fine room, anno 1667, the inside all of looking glass, and fountains very pleasant to behold, which is much visited by strangers: it stands in the middle of the garden, covered with Cornish slate, on the point of which he placed a Punchinello, very well carved, which held a dial, but the winds have demolished it."

Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in 1751, by Samuel Wale (image is in the Public Domain).

The entrance to Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, c 1790, by Thomas Rowlandson (image is in the Public Domain.

Later attractions included a "Turkish Tent," "Chinese Pavilion," bandstand, ruins, and arches. In 1749, a rehearsal of Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks" attracted an audience of twelve thousand. In the Nineteenth Century, the gardens were lit by fifteen thousand glass lamps, and visitors could ascend in a hot-air balloon to take in the view. Yet, as the Victorian age rolled on, the gardens became less fashionable: catering was notoriously expensive, and poor value (sandwiches reputedly made with ham cut so thin as to be transparent); and the shrubbery provided hiding places both for prostitutes and their clients, and for pick-pockets. Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens closed in 1859.

Plan of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in 1826 (image is in the Public Domain).

Industry co-existed with the pleasure gardens, and continued in the area after they had closed. Sir Edward Zouche established a glass-works in 1612. This later passed into the hands of the second Duke of Buckingham, described by Dryden as a "chymist, fiddler, statesman, and buffoon," who employed Venetian glass-workers in an attempt to manufacture plate glass for windows. This factory continued to operate until the 1780s.

Vauxhall Glass Works in 1746 (image is in the Public Domain).

Archaeological research, in advance of the construction of the MI6 building, revealed the remains of a second glass-works, established by John Baker in the Seventeenth Century, and which produced wine bottles among other products. Charles Kempton and Sons continued making glass in Vauxhall until 1928, when they transferred their operations outside of London.

Catalogue of glassware from Charles Kempton and Sons (image is in the Public Domain).

Nor was glass-making the only industrial activity taking place in Vauxhall. The Vauxhall Iron Works were established in 1897, and, in 1903, they branched out to encompass the new technology of the automobile age. The Vauxhall Motor Company produced cars here from 1903 to 1906, when operations moved to Luton.

An early Vauxhall car, in a German motor rally of 1931. Photo: German Federal Archives, Bild 102-12207 (licensed under CCA - CC-BY-SA 3.0).

Industrial Vauxhall way badly damaged by bombing during the Second World War, and, in the second half of the Twentieth Century, the district took on the largely residential character that it retain to this day.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

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