Tea-gardens, the smaller cousins of the more famous Pleasure Gardens, flourished during the latter half of the 18th century. Mostly in the suburbs they were popular destinations for the Sunday outings of the middle classes. Tea was taken in the tearoom or in the rustic arbors set among lawns, ponds, walks, and statues. Decline set in in the early 19th century with the arrival of the railway. R. L chambers, in his Book of Days (1863) takes u on a tour of the gardens. We begin by gathering beside the “unfragrant Fleet ditch and make our through the fearsome Hockley-in-the-Hole to the glories of Sadler’s Wells.”
London has so steadily enlarged on all sides, and notably so within the past century, that the old suburbs are embraced in new streets; and a comparatively young person may look in vain for the fields of his youthful days. “The march of brick and mortar” has invaded them, and the quiet country tea-garden to which the Londoner wended across grass, may now be transformed to a glaring gin-palace in the midst of a busy trading thoroughfare.Readers of our old dramatic literature may be amused with the rustic character which invests the residents of that portion of the outskirts of old London comprehended between King’s Cross and St. John’s Wood, as they are depicted by Ben Jonson in Tale of a Tub. The action of the drama takes place in St Pancras Fields, the country near Kentish Town, Tottenham Court and Marylebone. The dramatis personae seem as innocent of London and its manners as if they were inhabiting Berkshire, and talk a broad-country dialect. This northern side of London preserved its pastoral character until a comparatively recent time, it being not more than twenty years since some of the marks used by the Finsbury archers of the days of Charles II., remained in the Shepherd and Shepherdess Fields, between the Regent’s Canal and Islington.From White Conduit house, the view was unobstructed over fields to Highgate. The pretorium of a Roman camp was visible where Barnsbury Terrace now stands; the remains of another, as described by Stukely, was situated opposite old St Pancras Church; and hordes of cows grazed where the Euston Square terminus of our great midland railway is now placed, and which was then Rhodes” Farm. At the commencement of this present century, the country was open from the back of the British Museum to Kentish Town; the New Road, from Tottenham to Battlebridge, was considered unsafe after dark; and parties used to collect at stated points to take the chance of the escort of the watchman in his half-hour round.Hampstead and Highgate could only be reached by ‘short stages,” going twice a day; and a journey there, once or twice in the summer, was the furthest and most ambitious expedition of a Cockney’s year. Both villages abounded in inns, with large gardens in their rear, overlooking the pleasant country fields towards Harrow, or the extensive and more open land towards St Alban’s and the valley of the Thames. “Jack Straw’s Castle” and “The Spaniards” still remain as samples of these old “rural delights.” The features of the latter place, as they existed more than a century since, [consisted of] the formal arrangement of trees and turf, in humble imitation of the Dutch taste introduced by William III., and exhibited at Hampton Court and Kensington palaces.For those who cared not for such distant pleasures, and who could not spare time and money to climb the hills that bounded the Londoner’s northern horizon, there were “Arcadian bowers” almost beneath the city walls.Following the unfragrant Fleet ditch until it became a comparatively clear stream in the fields beyond Clerkenwell, the citizen found many other wells, each within its own shady garden. The Fleet was anciently known as “the river of wells” from the abundance of these rills, which were situated on its sloping banks, and swelled its tiny stream. “The London Spa,” gave the name to the district now known as Spafields, Rosomon’s Row being built on this site. Situated in the low land near by (sometimes termed Bagnigge Marsh) was a well and a pleasure-grounds known as “Black Mary’s Hole.” Spring place, adjoining Exmouth Street, marks its locality now; it obtained its name from a black woman named Mary Woolaston, who rented it in the days of Charles II.Another “hole” of worse repute, was in the immediate vicinity, and is better known as “Hockley-in-the-Hole.” There assembled on Sundays and holidays, the Smithfield butchers, the knackers of Turnmill Street, and the less respectable citizens of Field Lane, for dog-fights and pugilistic encounters. “That men may be instructed by brutes, Aesop, Lemuel Gulliver, and Hockley-in-the-Hole, shew us” says the author of The Taste of the Town, 1731; adding with satiric slyness: “Who can view dogs tearing bulls, bulls goring dogs, or mastiffs throttling bears, without being animated in their daring spirits.” It became the very type of low blackguardism, and was abolished by the magistracy at the close of the last century.A short distance further north, in the midst of ground encircled by the Fleet River, stood the more famous Bagnigge Wells, long the favoured resort of Londoners, as it added the attraction of a concert-room to the pleasure of a garden. The house was traditionally said to have been a country residence of Nell Gwynn, the celebrated mistress of Charles II., and her bust was consequently placed in the post of honour, in the Long Room, where the concerts were given. The house was opened for public reception about the year 1757, in consequence of the discovery, by Mr Hughes, of two mineral springs (one chalybeate, the other cathartic), which had been covered over, but by their percolation, injured his favourite flower beds. Mineral waters being then much sought after, he took advantage of his springs, and opened his gardens to the public with much success.The gardens at that time were extensive, and laid out in an old-fashioned manner, with clipped trees, walks in formal lines, and a profusion of leaden statues. A fountain was placed in the centre. A Dutch Cupid, half choking a swan was the brilliant idea it shadowed forth. The roof of the temple is a circular domed colonnade formed by a double row of pillars and pilasters; in its centre was a double pump, one piston supplying the chalybeate, the other the cathartic water; it was encircled by a low balustrade. A grotto was the other great feature of the garden; it was a little castellated building of irregular hexagonal form, covered with shells, stones, glass etc., forming two apartments open to the gardens.The waters were drunk for the charge of threepence each person, or delivered from the pump-room at eight-pence per gallon. As a noted place for tea-drinking, it is frequently alluded to by authors of the last century. The gardens were much curtailed in 1813, when the bankruptcy of the proprietors compelled a general sale on the premises. They gradually sank in repute; the Long-room was devoted to threepenny concerts; and the whole was ultimately destroyed in 1841, when a public-house was erected on the site of the old tavern.A relic of the oldest house remained over a side-door at the end of the garden, consisting of a head in high relief, and in inscription: “S.T. This is Bagnigge House near the Pinder a Wakefeilde. 1680.” The latter was a sign of another house of entertainment in Gray’s Inn Lane; and nearly opposite to it, within a short distance of King’s Cross, was another garden, where St Chad’s Well offered its cure to invalids. The New Underground Railway cuts through the whole of this marshy district, once so redolent of healing springs, and to which we may bid adieu.Passing along the great main-road to Islington from Smithfield (St John Street Road), we find on the banks of the New River, at that point where it crosses the road, a theatre still bearing the name of Sadler’s Wells, and occupying the site of that old sanitarium. The well was a medicinal spring, once the property of the monks of Clerkenwell, reputed for its cures before the dissolution of the priory in Henry VIII’s reign, when this well was ordered to be stopped up as a relic of superstition.In the reign of Charles II., the house and grounds were in the hands of a surveyor of the highway named Sadler, who employed men to dig gravel in his garden, leading to the rediscovery of the well under an arch of stone. This happened in 1683. With great business tact, Mr Sadler engaged a certain “T.G., Doctor of Physick” to write “A True and Exact Account of Sadler’s Well; or, the New Mineral Waters lately found at Islington,” in which it was recommended as equal in virtue as that of Tunbridge. He built a music-house, and succeeded in making it ‘so frequented, that there are five or six hundred people there constantly every morning.” After a few years, the attraction ceased; but as a place of amusement, it never failed in popularity. In 1690, it was known as Miles’s Music-house; to him succeeded Francis Forcer, the son of a musician, who introduced rope-dancers, tumblers etc. for the public amusement; no charge was made for this, but only paid for in the drink visitors ordered. While under these managements, the premises appear to have been a tea-garden with a music-room, on the plan of Bagnigge Wells; but in 1765, one Rosoman, an eminent builder, took the lease, pulled down the old building, and erected a theatre on the site. Opposite to the Wells, on the south side of the New River, was another favourite tea-garden, “The Sir Hugh Middleton,” which still exists as an ordinary public-house, minus the garden.