LambethThe origins of the Thames-side district Lambeth’s name are not as obscure as it might at first seem.

First recorded in the 11th century, the second part of the name – which apparently is related to/a derivative of the word ‘hithe’ or ‘hythe’ – means a riverside landing place while the first part of the name is exactly what it seems – ‘lamb’. Hence, Lambeth was a riverside landing or shipping place for lambs and cattle.

There has apparently been a suggestion in the past that the word ‘lamb’ actually derived from an Old English word meaning muddy place, hence the meaning was ‘muddy landing place’. That theory, however, is now generally discounted.

Lambeth these days is still somewhat in the shadow of the much more famous Westminster river bank opposite but among its attractions is the Imperial War Museum (located in the former Bethlem Hospital, see our earlier post here), Lambeth Palace (pictured above) – London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and, of course, the promenade of Albert Embankment (sitting opposite Victoria Embankment).

The headquarters of MI6 is also located here in a 1994 building designed by Terry Farrell (among its claims to fame is its appearance in the opening scenes of the James Bond film, The World Is Not Enough).

Lambeth – the name is also that of the borough in which the district is located – was formerly home to the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens which closed in the mid 19th century (see our earlier post here).

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First laid out in the mid 17th century, Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, on the east bank of the Thames just south of Lambeth, rose in fame to become one of London’s leading public entertainment venues.

The gardens, initially known as New Spring Gardens, are believed to have opened around the time of the Restoration of 1660 on a site which had been formerly an estate owned by vintners John and Jane Vaux (Jane was apparently widowed).

Initially apparently no more than an ale-house with a garden attached, the gardens grew to span several acres and featured a central hub and long avenues for strolling. Admission was initially free with money made from food and drink sold there. Among the earliest recorded visitors to the gardens was John Evelyn in 1661, describing it as a “pretty contrived plantation” and diarist Samuel Pepys, who wrote of a visit he made on 29th May, 1662 (he is known to have returned numerous times).

From 1729, the gardens came under ownership and management of John Tyers, entrepreneur, property developer and patron of the arts, and it was he who, until his death in 1767, oversaw the transformation of the area into an arts hotspot which included sculpture (in particular a fine statue of the composer Handel), music, painting and architecture. Thanks partly due to the patronage of Frederick, Prince of Wales, the gardens become the fashionable place to be seen.

The variety of entertainment on offer at the gardens – the name of which was only officially changed to Vauxhall Gardens in 1785 – grew substantially over the years: from concerts and fireworks displays to performances by tight rope walkers and lion tamers and even re-enactments of famous battles. The gardens became renowned as site for balloon ascents and, for its architecture – the number of buildings there grew over the years to include a rococo ‘Turkish tent’, Chinese pavilion, and, another rococo building, the Rotunda (where concerts could be held in wet weather). There was also a cascade and private ‘supper boxes’ for those who could afford them; those who couldn’t could dine at tables set under the trees.

From the outset, Vauxhall was known as a place where the sexes could mix freely and, therefore, for romantic assignations – in fact, one area of the gardens became known as the ‘Dark Walk’ for the fact it was, unlike other areas of the gardens, never illuminated by lamps and it was in this area, frequented by prostitutes, that many of the more illicit liaisons took place.

By the late 1700s and early 1800s, the gardens, one of a number of pleasure gardens in London, had reached the height of their popularity with reportedly more than 60,000 people said to have  attending a fancy dress party held one night in the late 1700s.

Those who attended events in the gardens included royalty as well as the likes of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell (see Thomas Rowlandson’s image above, Vauxhall Gardens, showing the likes of Johnson and Boswell, along with Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire, and the future King George IV, at the gardens in about 1779) as well as, much later, Charles Dickens (by the time Dickens visited, however, the heyday of the gardens was already well over).

The gardens closed in 1859 due apparently to declining popularity and were eventually replaced with housing. After being badly bombed in World War II, however, the site once again returned to being a garden, known as Spring Gardens. The gardens (pictured) still occupy the site not far from Vauxhall tube station – part of them is used by the Vauxhall City Farm as paddocks for horses and livestock and they also contain a multi-use games court.

For an authoritative and comprehensive work on the Vauxhall Gardens, try David Coke and Dr Alan Borg’s Vauxhall Gardens: A History. There’s also much more information on David Coke’s website here. There’s also a detailed history here.

David Coke is curating an exhibition at The Foundling Museum, The Triumph of Pleasure, which looks at the way in which the gardens and the establishment of the Foundling Hospital in 1739 “changed the face of British art forever”. Runs from 11th May to 9th September. For more, see www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk.

PICTURES: Wikipedia and David Adams

A new pleasure garden will be built in the city’s east as part of celebrations for next year’s Diamond Jubilee. London Pleasure Gardens, announced back in March, will be built upon a 60,000 square metre site at Pontoon Dock, opposite the ExCeL Exhibition Centre, and consist of an “ever-evolving creative playground for both resident Londoners and tourists alike”. The gardens, which will feature landscaped walkways, a floating cinema, an ‘adult’s playground’ and a range of facilities such as a ‘glass cafe’ – are expected to be open for the Queen’s Jubilee Weekend on 1st June. It’s expected that more than 40,000 people a day will pass through the site during the Olympics. London has had a long association with the concept of pleasure gardens – places where people gathered to listen to music, see art, eat and drink and talk, the most famous of which was the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. But the Royal Docks also had its own pleasure gardens in the past – these existed between 1851 and 1884 and were named the Royal Victoria Gardens.  For more, see www.londonpleasuregardens.com.

• Music hall star Dame Gracie Fields has been honored by English Heritage with a blue plaque on the Islington house where she lived for three years in the 1920s. It was while living at 72a Upper Street with her parents and first husband Archie Pitt, that she consolidated her reputation as one of Britain’s most popular performers and it was also during this time that she recorded for the first time (she was to become a regular on the BBC and by 1933 had cut a massive four million discs) and appeared before King George V and Queen Mary at a Royal Variety Performance. Following her success, Fields and Pitt built a mansion in The Bishop’s Avenue, Hampstead, called ‘The Tower’ in honor of the show which had made her a star – Mr Tower of London. She later separated from Pitt and married an Italian born director Monty Banks. They moved to the US in 1940 amid fears her husband would be interned and, after the war, she settled on the Italian island of Capri where, following Banks’ death in 1950, she married again. She made her final appearance on the London stage in 1978 – closing a Royal Variety Performance – and died back in Capri the following year.

• And, briefly…..A new species of dinosaur – Spinops sternbergorum – has reportedly been discovered at the Natural History Museum, identified from bones previously gathering dust on a shelf at the museum.

On Now: Imagined Lives: Portraits of Unknown People. This exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery centres on a group of 14 portraits from the 16th and 17th centuries which depict unknown people. Originally thought to represent famous figures like Queen Elizabeth I, the identity of the sitters is now considered unknown. In response to the pictures, eight internationally renowned authors – from Alexander McCall Smith and Joanna Trollope to Julian Fellowes and Terry Pratchett – have written imaginative short stories about the portraits, bringing them to life. The exhibition was originally shown in Somerset but is now running at the NPG until 22nd July. Admission is free. For more information, see www.npg.org.uk.

On Now: London and the Olympics. The Museum of London is hosting a new display which looks at the 1908 and 1948 Olympic Games held in London but, in twist, looks at not only the experiences of Londoners but those of the 41 man team Peru sent to the 1948 games. Pictures included in the display come from an album made by one of the athletes, Enrique Mendizabal Raig, recording the team’s visit (you can find the images on Flickr here). Entry is free. Runs until September. For more, see www.museumoflondon.org.uk.