Where Londoners once had fun

BEFORE THE COVID19 PANDEMIC gripped the world, many Londoners made outings to pleasure grounds such as Legoland, Thorpe Park, and further afield to Disneyland near Paris. During the late 18th century, Londoners seeking entertainment headed for places such as Vauxhall Gardens, Ranelagh (now, the grounds of Royal Hospital Chelsea, site of the Chelsea Flower Show), and Cuper’s (across the Thames opposite Somerset House). These pleasure gardens began to decline, some before and others during the 19th century. However, in their wake, another such place came into existence in Chelsea, Cremorne Gardens.

Thomas Dawson, 1st Viscount Cremorne (1725-1813), an Irish landowner, possessed a plot of land on the north side of the Thames, just west of Battersea Bridge. There he had a mansion, Chelsea Farm, which was often visited by King George III, his wife Queen Charlotte, and the future George IV. In 1825, the property came into the possession of Granville Penn (1761-1844), a cousin of Cremorne’s widow.  Penn’s claim to fame is that he was involved in the establishment of what is now The Royal Veterinary College in London (www.rvc.ac.uk/about/the-rvc/history). Penn did much to improve the grounds of the estate, but later sold it. The house and grounds were bought in 1831 by Charles Random De Berenger, Baron De Beaufain (www.rbkc.gov.uk/leisure-and-culture/parks/), who created the Cremorne Pleasure Gardens.

The great beauty of the grounds led it to being opened by De Berenger as a public pleasure ground known at first as ‘The Stadium’. De Berenger was:

“… a sportsman and in the grounds opened Cremorne Stadium. Members who paid their two or three guineas could, under the Baron’s instruction, shoot, box, and practise “manly exercises generally” in the grounds.” (https://www.rbkc.gov.uk/pdf/CRA_Historical_Survey.pdf).

Today, there is a Stadium Street located in what would have once been part of Cremorne’s estate.

The Baron died in 1845 and the estate grounds were sold. They were laid out tastefully and the place, opened as a public pleasure ground that attracted large crowds of people seeking pleasure and entertainment, who were willing to pay modest fees for it. The gardens flourished between 1845 and 1877. In 1850, they came under the ownership of Thomas Bartlett Simpson, who also purchased Ashburnham House (an 18th century edifice) on the west side of the estate, which he used to house some of his visitor attractions. The grounds offered visitors many attractions including dancing; meals; secluded areas; firework displays; theatres for farce and vaudeville; ballets; puppet shows; trapeze artists; tight-rope walkers; a maze; and balloon ascents.

In his 1880’s “Old and New London”, Edward Walford describes some of the exploits with balloons, which were not without excitement. In 1839, whilst the gardens were owned by De Berenger, a Mr Hampton equipped with a parachute ascended two miles above the ground with a balloon and then descended to the ground with his parachute.  Some years later, Vincent De Groof ascended from Cremorne Gardens in a contraption, designed to help him fly, suspended from a balloon. After reaching a high altitude, something went wrong and poor De Groof fell to his death.

By the 1870s, the Cremorne Gardens were becoming disreputable, especially becoming notorious for prostitution. After they closed (for financial reasons), the land became used for building houses and other buildings including the Lots Road Power Station.

In about 1846, the artist JMW Turner (1775-1851) moved into a house by the river on what is now Cremorne Road, close to Cremorne Gardens and to the Cremorne Pier. He constructed a kind of gallery on its roof, from which he could sit and observe the changing light on the river. According to a biography by Peter Ackroyd, Turner was unwell whilst he lived there, suffering from dental problems that caused him to lose all of his teeth, and consequent dietary-related illness. He remained in Cremorne Road until the last year of his life and died there.

Today, little remains of Cremorne Gardens except a few street names and a small park close named Cremorne Gardens next to the river. This delightful, small open space has a paved section as well as a lawn. It is a tiny fragment of the original Cremorne Gardens but a fitting memorial to a place that provided entertainment for Londoners over many years. A couple of piers project into the river. These were originally landing stages for visitors arriving at the Gardens by river boat. Another souvenir of the heyday of the Gardens is a pair of wrought iron gates that stand in the present plot, but not in their original position, now built over. Small though it is, with its superb views of the Thames, the present Cremorne Gardens is a pleasant place to visit, within a short distance from the fashionable Kings Road.

Scottish reels

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

BOXING DAY IS the day after Christmas Day (25th of December), the 26th of December. Traditionally, it is the day on which money or gifts are given to persons in need or those offering services, for example servants.

For many years, I used to spend the Christmas Season with my old (and now sadly deceased) friends Robert and Margaret at their large country home outside London. The first time I was invited to do this, Margaret checked with my mother that she did not mind me being ‘dragged’ away from our family festivities. My mother had no objections because by then, in the late 1970s, we never celebrated Christmas ‘en-famille’.

Robert and Margaret celebrated Boxing Day on the 26th of December, whether it was a weekday or not, in an especially enjoyable way. They invited friends to their home for an evening of Scottish dancing. The living room at their home was large but filled with furniture. Beneath the carpets, there was a wooden parquet floor that my friends laid down as a dance floor when they moved into the house many years before I met them.

After breakfast on the 26th of December, everyone staying with Robert and Margaret over Christmas began working. In the kitchen, vast amounts of food were prepared for the evening:  goulash or curry and accompanying rice and vegetables; meringues; fruit trifles; peppermint creams and homemade fudge; mince pies; a cheese platter etc. Also, Robert spent hours at one of the stoves, stirring ingredients for concocting two different alcoholic punches, guided by the recipes scribbled in his almost illegible handwriting in one of his numerous notebooks. The kitchen was a hive of activity.

A few yards away from the kitchen, heavy physical work was underway. Almost every item of furniture had to be moved from the living room into either a room called ‘the library’ or into the long corridor between it and the living room. We used to shift heavy armchairs and even heavier sofas, smaller chairs (some of them quite fragile), occasional tables, oriental rugs, framed photographs, and ornament cases containing fragile objects including an ostrich egg. Fortunately, we did not have to carry the family’s upright pianoforte or the large decorated Christmas tree out of the room. After almost all the furniture had been removed, the two enormous floor carpets had to be rolled up tightly. One of them had to be carried into the library and the other was rolled up to remain in front of the huge Christmas tree at one end of the room.

With the floor cleared, the beautiful parquet floor became exposed to view. Floor polish was then sprinkled on to the wood and rubbed into it with an electric floor polisher, a job I often performed after helping to shift furniture. The floor had to be polished until it was shiny, which was easy to achieve with the machine.  

The dining room also required preparation. The heavy large antique wooden dining table that had been acquired from University College London when they were discarding it had to be shifted to one side of the room, where it would serve as the place on which the evening buffet was to be laid out. Dining room and other chairs were arranged for those who were sitting out from the dancing and for those who preferred being seated whilst eating. Also, cutlery, plates, various kinds of glasses, and coffee cups with saucers and spoons had to be placed in readiness for the evening.

After lunch, there was a short period of ‘calm before the storm’. Afternoon tea was served as usual in the living room, but we took it seated on the floor instead of on the comfortable furniture which had been moved earlier. Margaret retrieved her two books of dance instructions, one of which made little sense to me. She also made sure that the records with Scottish dance music were near to the gramophone turntable and explained to me which record was suitable for each dance. For, usually I was to be responsible for finding the right tracks on the LPs (including music performed by Jimmy Shand and his band and by Jimmy Mc Cleod) and playing them on the turntable before dashing back to join the dance.

Guests began arriving in the early evening. Everyone was handed a glass of one of Robert’s special warmed punches on arrival and was invited to help themselves to mince pies and other confectionery. When there were sufficient people to perform at least one eightsome, the dancing commenced. The evening’s proceedings continued with dancing the ‘Dashing White Sergeant’, a good warm-up routine. It was not that people needed warming up because there would be a good fire burning in the hearth at one end of the living room.

For about an hour and a half, we danced the ‘Eightsome Reel’, The ‘Duke of Perth’, ‘The Reel of The 51st’, ‘Petronella’, and others whose names I cannot recall. The “Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh” was too complicated for us to master. The dancers varied in skill from expert to almost clueless. Margaret issued instructions, other guests contradicted her, but we all had much fun. As for me, I usually knew where I was supposed to be at any instant during a dance and got there, but without being able to execute my dance movements with any degree of elegance.

By 9 pm, everyone, up to thirty people, was exhausted and hungry, but feeling exhilarated. The hot food was brought from the kitchen to the dining room, which in true English tradition was further away from the kitchen than any other room in the house. It was wheeled on a rickety trolley held together in places with string. People helped themselves to servings of the meat dish and accompanying vegetables and washed this down with glasses of the second punch that Robert had mixed earlier. Then fresh plates were supplied for the trifles and pairs of meringues stuck together with whipped cream. Coffee was served.

Then, it was back to the dance floor. You would have thought after such a hearty supper that it would have been impossible to resume dancing, but this was not the case. However, by then the living room was getting quite warm and it was necessary to open a door that led to the draughty conservatory next to the living room. Dancing continued, sometimes as late as midnight. For me, the highlight of the second part of the evening was a riotous dance called ‘Strip the Willow’. Margaret was usually my partner in this potentially energetic dance. To see her in action either in this dance or on a tennis court, one would not be able to believe that she was as old as she was. In fact, until the last few years of her life, she was a perfect example of a ‘live wire’.

All too quickly, the evening drew to an end. The guests stumbled out into the darkness and retrieved their vehicles from the large gravelly car park. We, the house party, breathed a sigh of relief because the party had been successful; it always was. When I first attended these parties, we used to retire to bed and leave rearranging the furniture to the next morning. However, after a few years Margaret’s son-in-law and I agreed that it was dreadful waking up the next morning with the prospect of furniture shifting. So, we agreed that despite being tired, it was best to do this awful job before retiring for the night and while the excess adrenaline we had generated during the dancing was still flowing through our blood vessels. This proved to be a real improvement.

All of this was long ago. The house where it happened has been demolished and Robert and Margaret are no more than wonderfully warm memories. I am eternally grateful that I knew them and was able to partake in their memorable celebrations and other activities. I am pleased that they did not have to experience this covid19 pandemic, which we are enduring this year. I dread to think what their reaction would have been had they been around when the British Government had effectively ‘cancelled Christmas’ this year. Although they were not deeply religious, Christmas and the day following meant a great deal to them, as it does to many of us who have survived them.