Posted on Sep 02, 2002 – 07:32 AM by Anthony Waldstock
London in the eighteenth century was teeming with pleasure gardens and tea gardens. The best remembered now are the great Pleasure Gardens of Vauxhall and Ranelagh in Chelsea. The tea gardens were smaller affairs but the available refreshments were not in the least confined to that beverage. Competition was fierce and the proprietors of these establishments were constantly on the look-out for new gimmicks to attract customers. One of the most unusual was this small tea-garden in Pimlico.
Jenny’s whim was a tavern and tea garden which stood at the south end of the wooden Ebury Bridge spanning the reservoir for the Chelsea waterworks. It was celebrated for the “amusing deceptions” in the gardens. Scattered throughout the walks were a number of devices operated by hidden springs. When a stroller set off one of these springs he was immediately confronted by a figure of a harlequin or monster springing from the vegetation. There were also floating models on the lake which gave the impression of mermaids and fish rising from the water. The price of a pot of beer included the entrance fee for Perrot’s Inimitable Grotto. A decanter of Dorchester cost sixpence and brought with it the right to a spot of duck hunting. It also hosted the popular sport of *****-fighting. Walter Thornbury, in his Old and New London, written in the 1890s, has left us the following detailed description of the place and its history:Another tavern or place of public entertainment in this neighbourhood, in former times, was “Jenny’s Whim.” This establishment, which bore the name down to the beginning of the present century, occupied the site now covered by St. George’s Row, near to Ebury Bridge, which spanned the canal at the north end of the Commercial Road. This bridge was formerly known as the “Wooden Bridge,” and also as “Jenny’s Whim Bridge” and down to about the year 1825, a turnpike close by bore the same lady’s name.A hundred years ago, as is clear from allusions to it in the Connoisseur and other periodicals, “Jenny’s Whim” was a very favourite place of amusement for the middle classes. At a somewhat earlier date, it would appear to have been frequented alike by high and low, by lords and gay ladies, and by City apprentices; and indeed was generally looked upon as a very favourite place of recreation.
The derivation of the name is a little uncertain; but Mr. Davis, in his “History of Knightsbridge,” thus attempts to solve it: “I never could unearth the origin of its name, but I presume the tradition told me by an old inhabitant of the neighbourhood is correct, namely, that it was so called after its first landlady, who caused the gardens round her house to be laid out in so fantastic a manner, as to cause the expressive little noun to be affixed to the pretty and familiar Christian name that she bore.”
In the “Reminiscences” of Angelo, however, it is said that the founder of “Jenny’s Whim” was not a lady at all, but a celebrated pyrotechnist, who lived in the reign of George I. If so, this assertion carries back the existence of the “Whim” as a place of amusement to a very respectable antiquity. Angelo states that it was “much frequented from its novelty, being an inducement to allure the curious to it by its amusing deceptions.” “Here,” he adds, “was a large garden; in different parts were recesses; and by treading on a spring, taking you by surprise, up started different figures, some ugly enough to frighten you outright – a harlequin, a Mother Shipton, or some terrific animal.” (Something of the same kind, it may here be remarked, was to be seen in the days of Charles I., in the Spring Garden near Charing Cross.) “In a large piece of water facing the tea alcoves,” adds Mr. Angelo, “large fish or mermaids were showing themselves above the surface.”
Horace Walpole, in his letters, occasionally alludes to “Jenny’s Whim,” in terms which imply that he was among “the quality” who visited it. In one of his epistles to his friend Montagu, he writes, rather spitefully and maliciously, it must be owned, to the effect that at Vauxhall he and his party picked up Lord Granby, who had arrived very drunk from “Jenny’s Whim.”Granby, John Manners, was the eldest son of the Duke of Rutland and Colonel of “The Blues”. The hero of the spectacular victory at the battle of Warburg he was feted and acclaimed everywhere This visit to Jenny’s whim was in 1750 when he had dined at there with Lady Fitzroy whom he shortly after married. He left her in the tea gardens playing at brag with Friends. [Note 1] Walpole was not a fan and sneeringly referred to him as “The Mob’s Hero”.”In 1755, a satirical tract was published, entitled, “Jenny’s Whim; or a Sure Guide to the Nobility, Gentry, and other Eminent Persons in this Metropolis.” “Jenny’s Whim” has occasionally served the novelist for an illustration of the manners of the age. Let us take the following passage from “Maids of Honour,” a tale tempus George I.: “Attached to the place there were gardens and a bowling-green,” writes the author; “and parties were frequently made, composed of ladies and gentlemen, to enjoy a day’s amusement there in eating strawberries and cream, cake, syllabub, and taking other refreshments, of which a great variety could be procured, with cider, perry, ale, wine, and other liquors in abundance. The gentlemen played at bowls–some employed themselves at skittles; whilst the ladies amused themselves with a swing, or walked about the garden, admiring the sunflower and hollyhocks, and the Duke of Marlborough cut out of a filbert-tree, and the roses and daisies, currants and gooseberries, that spread their alluring charms in every part.”
No doubt, therefore, we may conclude that a century, or a century and a half ago, “Jenny’s Whim” was a favourite meeting-place for lovers in the happy courting seasons, and that a day’s pleasure near Ebury Bridge was considered by the fair damsels of Westminster and Knightsbridge one of the most attractive amusements that could be offered to them by their beaux; and many a heart which was obdurate elsewhere, gave way to gentle pressure beneath the influence of its attractions, aided by the genius loci, who is always most complaisant and benignant on such occasions.
“Sometimes,” writes Mr. Davis, “all its chambers were filled, and its gardens were constantly thronged by gay and sentimental visitors.” We may be sure, therefore, that always during the season – in other words, from Easter-tide till the end of St. Martin’s summer, when the long evenings drew on – “Jenny’s Whim” was largely frequented by the young people of either sex, and that its “arbours” and “alcoves” witnessed and overheard many a tale of love. It is well perhaps that garden walls have not tongues as well as ears. But, in any case, it is perhaps a little singular that a place, once so well known and so popular, should have passed away, clean forgotten from the public memory.
All that appears to be known in detail about the house is, that it contained a large room for parties to breakfast in; and that the grounds, though not large, were fairly diversified, as they contained a bowling-green, several alcoves and arbours, and straight, prim flower-beds, with a fish-pond in the centre, where the paths met at right angles. There was also a “*****-pit” in the garden, and in a pond adjoining the brutal sport of duck-hunting was carried on. This feature of the garden is specially mentioned in a short and slight sketch of the place to be found in the Connoisseur of March 15th, 1775: – “The lower part of the people have their Ranelaghs and Vauxhalls as well as ‘the quality.’ Perrott’s inimitable grotto may be seen for only calling for a pint of beer; and the royal diversion of duck-hunting may be had into the bargain, together with a decanter of Dorchester [ale] for your sixpence at `Jenny’s Whim.’ ” Mr. Davis states, in his work above quoted, that the house was still partly standing in 1859, when his book was published, and might be easily identified by its “red brick and lattice-work.”The popularity of the gardens waned towards the end of the eighteenth century and by 1804 only the tavern remained. The premises were demolished in 1865 when Victoria Station was extended.