Vic Keegan’s Lost London 205: The moral descent of Cremorne Gardens

Vic Keegan’s Lost London 205: The moral descent of Cremorne Gardens

The decline and fall of London’s pleasure gardens, once imitated around the world, reached its nadir with what became the seediest of them all – Cremorne Gardens

This 19th century pleasuredome stretched from the King’s Road to the Thames, where the World’s End multi-storey housing estate now stands. Unlike its two major rivals, Vauxhall Gardens and Ranelagh Gardens, whose landscapes you can still walk around, Cremorne Gardens have disappeared except for a small and altered remnant by the river at the start of Lots Road where their restored original gateway can be seen.

This has been moved from its original position on the King’s Road near the junction with Edith Grove, so I have produced an image of where it first stood in the composite photograph above. The re-located gateway has been given back its former splendour, complete with golden pineapples, a symbol of hospitality, at the top. It is the only significant artefact that remains (almost) in situ as a memorial to the golden age of pleasure gardens, but if you walk around the World’s End estate it is possible to imagine that some of its lovely green gardens are part of the old Cremorne land.

The Earl of Cremorne’s former estate had various dodgy owners from the early 1830s until it was acquired around 1846 by Thomas Bartlett Simpson, the former head waiter of a pub off Drury Lane. He somehow found £5,000 to enlarge and upgrade the gardens with a banqueting hall, a theatre and “delightful lavender bowers” so that the anticipated 1,500 guests could do whatever one does in lavender bowers.

Cremorne had full panoply of entertainments, including a circus and numerous side shows. It maintained the tradition of balloon ascents pioneered by earlier gardens, but pushed them to new and eventually tragic heights. According to a contemporary report, in 1853 a French balloonist called Bouthellier rose on a trapeze attached to the base of the balloon’s basket and, after twisting himself “almost in a knot”, unravelled his body to hang by his neck and then his heels to the consternation of the watching crowds. That same year, a Madame Poitevin went too far. She ascended on a heifer attached to her balloon, resulting in she and the Gardens being fined for cruelty to animals.

The aerial experiments ended in tragedy when a 50 year-old man, Henri Latour, went up lashed to a parachute attached to a balloon, which failed to detach itself as intended. The balloon was blown to the marshes of Tottenham and where landed with fatal consequences for Monsieur Latour.

Attempts to move the gardens “upmarket” failed, most notably on 9 July, 1858, when an Aristocratic Fête arranged by “a committee of gentlemen” and assisted by lady patronesses turned out to be on one of the wettest days of the year, thrusting the aristocratic ambitions of Cremorne into reverse.

For much of its existence activities there were fairly respectable but, as with other pleasure gardens, it became vulnerable to pleasures of a baser kind. In 1857, the Chelsea Vestry submitted the first of a series of petitions against the renewal of the Gardens’ licence, quoting the inconvenience caused by its late hours, the immoral character of its female frequenters (not, curiously, the male ones) and the bad effect on the morals of the neighbourhood. The downward effect on property prices was also a factor. As time went on, wantonness grew and eventually brought about Cremorne’s demise.

Its series of unusual proprietors included Edward Tyrell Smith, whose CV said he had been a policeman, run pubs and theatres (including Drury Lane, the Lyceum and Her Majesty’s), managed Astley’s circus by Westminster Bridge, and founded the Alhambra in Leicester Square. He also appeared to have been proprietor of the Sunday Times. At Cremorne he introduced a female answer to the tightrope walker Charles Blondin. In his final year (1869) he exhibited a balloon which could hold 30 people and provide an aerial voyage across London at 2,000 feet.

The Gardens’ last proprietor, John Baum, arrived in 1870. One his innovations featured a flying machine in which a Monsieur de Groof attempted to fly using 37-foot long wings, inspired by the flight of a bat. The wind carried the attached balloon to Brandon in Essex, where de Groof emerged unhurt after a dangerous landing. He later died after a similar flight elswhere.

By this time, Cremorne itself was in descent, resulting from dozens and dozens of cases reaching the police courts, often related to tanked-up young men returning from the races. Complaints about immorality continued to be led by the Vestry. The end came after Baum was sued for the goings-on in the garden. He won the case, but was left with a farthing in damages and hefty costs. He withdrew his application for a licence and thus, in 1878, ended the last of London’s great pleasure gardens.

All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here and a book containing many of them can be bought here. Follow Vic on Twitter.

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Categories: Culture, Lost London

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