As soon as the great pleasure garden of Vauxhall Gardens closed its doors for the final time after the ‘Last Night Forever’ on 25 July 1859, the twelve-acre site was cleared of all traces of the entertainments that had stood on that spot since the Restoration.
One of the reasons why Vauxhall closed when it did was that the land had become more valuable as a development opportunity than it had been as an entertainment venue. The timber and slates from the old buildings were sold to builders, paintings were sold to dealers and collectors, the mass of famous glass lamps were all sold, even the furniture and crockery were sold; the splendid old Gothick Orchestra stand was knocked down for £99 only, and the supper-tables, made in 1754, fetched just a few shillings each; the few surviving trees, where the nightingales had sung, were chopped down and sawn into joinery timber and firewood, and the ground, now surrounded by the expanding city and the new railway line, was left bare and bereft. The writer Wilkie Collins recorded his impression of it in his novel No Name first published in Dickens’ periodical ‘All the Year Round’ VII (1862):
And here – most striking object of all – on the site where thousands of lights once sparkled; where sweet sounds of music made night tuneful till morning dawned; where the beauty and fashion of London feasted and danced through the summer seasons of a century – spreads, at this day, an awful wilderness of mud and rubbish; the deserted dead body of Vauxhall Gardens mouldering in the open air.
In what was fast becoming one of London’s poorest and most deprived areas, houses, pubs, commercial premises, schools, and streets were created where once the most fashionable and wealthy of London’s citizens had promenaded, listened to music, and gazed at each other. Just one of the new buildings at Vauxhall became a worthy successor to the elegant Rotunda and Pillared Saloon where Georgian ladies and gentlemen had gathered and listened to concerts, and that was John Loughborough Pearson’s distinguished new church of St Peter’s, consecrated just five years after the gardens closed.
In the 1983 revision by Bridget Cherry of Nikolaus Pevsner’s London 2: South (page 338), the authors, having stated that St Peter’s Church was built on the site of the historic Vauxhall Gardens, add in brackets that ‘the high altar stands on the site of the Neptune fountain.’ These are claims that need to be examined closely, because they are the kind of seductive ‘facts’ which, once authoritatively published, will stick in the mind, and be endlessly repeated; Pevsner was by no means the first or the last to do so.
So, was the church built on the site of Vauxhall Gardens, and, if so, does the altar stand where the Neptune fountain was? It is well established that Vauxhall Gardens itself occupied the site, today mostly a city park, bounded by Goding Street on the west, Kennington Lane on the south, St Oswald’s Place on the east, and Darley House and part of Vauxhall Walk on the north. This adds up to nearly twelve acres, more than eight of which were soon devoted to dense housing, with nearly 300 artisans’ houses crammed into half a dozen streets. A triangular area of about three acres at the eastern end, between Tyers Street and St Oswald’s Place was kept for community use, and mostly either given, or sold for a fraction of its market value, to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. This site included a house originally built in 1793-4 for Margaret Tyers (c.1722-1806), the widowed daughter-in-law of Jonathan Tyers the self-styled ‘original projector’ of Vauxhall Gardens; it is now no. 308 Kennington Lane, and was, for some time, known as The Manager’s House. It is the only building on the site of Vauxhall Gardens to have survived both the demolition of the gardens in 1859 and the slum clearances of the 1970s. The new St Peter’s Church was built to the north and west of Mrs Tyers’s house, so is consequently well within the bounds of the old gardens. Once St Peters Church was built, Mrs Tyers’s house became the parsonage.
The fact that the church is indeed on the site of Vauxhall Gardens is confirmed by a short article in the Builder magazine of 30 June 1860, which tells of ambitious plans for the site and its auspicious beginning:
Extensive schools are about to be built for the populous district of St. Mary-the-Less, Lambeth, on a site formerly part of Vauxhall Gardens, and in connection with those a building is to be erected exclusively devoted to art education. On Wednesday last [27 June], HRH the Prince of Wales worthily commenced his public career, so to speak, by laying the first stone of it, amidst the loud plaudits of a large and distinguished assemblage.
The eighteen year-old Albert Edward (‘Bertie), later King Edward VII, would have been well aware that previous Princes of Wales had famously patronised Vauxhall Gardens ever since its relaunch by Jonathan Tyers in 1732, and that they were, in fact, the gardens’ ground-landlords as owners of the Duchy of Cornwall estates. What he may not have known is that the art school was actually being built almost exactly on the site of Vauxhall’s Neptune Fountain.
The fountain had been installed in 1838 at the far end of the Grand (or King’s) Walk, and it remained in place until the gardens closed in 1859. The Times newspaper of 19 June 1838 reported that the sculptural group of Neptune drawn in a marine chariot by five horses was ‘one of the novelties of the season, and certainly not the worst of them.’ In fact, the fountain not only spouted water from the nostrils of the horses and from Neptune’s trident, but it also gushed steam, and possibly even flames, produced by gas boilers integral to the mechanism – an impressive sight, especially after dark. It is possible to ascertain the position of the Neptune fountain relative to today’s topography fairly exactly by overlaying a modern map of the streets onto one of the measured plans of the gardens produced in the mid 19th century; this clearly shows the topographical match between the art school and the Neptune Fountain. So the altar of St Peter’s church, sadly, cannot be on the same spot.
In fact, using the same simple technique, it is possible to show that the altar of St Peter’s Church stands more or less on the site of the castellated ‘Moorish Tower’ or Firework Platform of Vauxhall Gardens; built in 1823 by Mr. Shaw, head carpenter of the gardens, this stood at the far end of the Grand South (or Italian) Walk, providing a focus for the spectacular exhibitions of fireworks which formed a regular and popular feature of Vauxhall’s evening programme. It is no great surprise to read in press cuttings of the time that the firework tower was itself destroyed by fire on 2 July 1837. Of course, the proprietors at the time ensured that a stage for the firework displays was quickly rebuilt on the same site, and in 1853, a new 150 foot high tower was raised there, ensuring that the fireworks could be seen for miles around; sadly, however, the old Moorish Tower, unkindly apostrophised by Charles Dickens in ‘Sketches by Boz’ as ‘that wooden shed with a door in the centre, and daubs of crimson and yellow all round, like a gigantic watch-case!’ was no more.
A lesser claim to fame for the church is that its nave stands on a corner of the wooded avenue called the Lovers’ (or Druids’) Walk, a section of the old Dark Walks around the outer edge of the gardens, where, in the unlit shadows, and accompanied by the song of the famous Vauxhall nightingales, the reputations of young ladies could so easily be lost. The last chance for virtue to be endangered in this way came in the summer of 1859. A public notice of 8 July signalled the final closure of Vauxhall Gardens, which had first opened as a rural tavern in 1661, and been transformed into the greatest of all Georgian London’s pleasure gardens by Jonathan Tyers in 1732:
The Public is respectfully informed that this celebrated Place of Amusement after an existence of nearly a Century and a Half, and receiving within its Portals the élite of the World, is doomed to be Destroyed. On Tuesday, July 26th, Workmen will commence taking down the whole of the Buildings, and clearing the Ground, in order to let it for Building purposes.
Under the patronage of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the Royal Family, the final evening of Vauxhall on Monday 25 July 1859 attracted a huge crowd of 15,000 people to see the end of this pleasure resort which had become such an ancient and revered institution, serving many generations of Londoners not merely as an entertainment, but as a favourite romantic rendezvous, where many of them had experienced their first amorous adventures. After the final song ‘Nevermore’ sung by Russell Grover, the festivities for the evening were wound up with one last rendition of the national anthem as dawn broke; after a pause, the crowd fell on any little souvenir of Vauxhall that they could take away with them, from oil-stained twigs off the trees, to bits of crockery and glass, and even posters and menus stuck on the walls. The following day, the demolition teams moved onto the site to dismantle all the public buildings, the temporary structures, the scenery and the service buildings, so as to make the site ready for the disposal by auction of all the moveable property at the end of August, and of the estate itself the following February.
Although the contrast between the wealth and fashion of Vauxhall Gardens in its heyday and the corrosive poverty of the Vauxhall district of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was as stark as it could be, Jonathan Tyers would certainly have been delighted to see the success of the art school, with alumni as distinguished as Arthur Rackham, Charles Ricketts, George Tinworth and the Martin Brothers, and he would have appreciated the strong musical tradition that St Peter’s church has maintained ever since the installation of the grand organ in 1870. Music and the visual arts were at the very centre of Tyers’s strategy for Vauxhall; the fact that they still thrive on the site of his pleasure garden today, and that trees and grass once more hold sway over bricks and mortar, almost three centuries after Tyers first leased the ground, is truly remarkable.