Say Chelsea Stadium to most people and they’ll think of football but Stamford Bridge wasn’t the first stadium in Chelsea. The earlier one had beautiful gardens and was a venue for sports of all kinds [apart from football]. Sadly all that’s left of it is a small patch of public park sandwiched in between a busy road and the Thames.
Chelsea’s first stadium later became what Illustrated London News in 1851 called the “pleasure resort” of Cremorne Gardens. It soon gained a reputation for being rather racy where “students and shop girls, soldiers and civilians, dissipated young bloods, paterfamilias with their better halves, schoolboys and children’s nurses” all mixed. “It is not an edifying place” instead it’s one where “Londoners leave their prudery at home.” So what’s the story of this unedifying place where prudery was not much in evidence?
The story starts off extremely respectably – Cremorne, after all, is in Chelsea by the river, a place which has always attracted the rich who wanted country retreats within easy reach of London. It begins in 1740 when Sir Hans Sloane the Lord of the Manor, sells the lease of Chelsea Farm and 3 acres to Theophilus Hastings, the ninth Earl of Huntingdon. Surrounded by markets gardens and water meadows and running down down to the Thames it must have been an idyllic spot but the farmhouse was not grand enough for the earl, even for a weekend cottage so he had a 3 story villa built next door and then laid out formal gardens.
His widow [she of the “Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion“] sold it in 1750 and it then passed through the hands of a string of aristocratic owners who each managed to acquire more land until in 1778 a wealthy Irish landowner Thomas Dawson, Lord Dartrey, bought it. By then it stretched over 9 acres and extended as far north as the King’s Road. Although it was still only an occasional home Dartrey decided that even the villa wasn’t grand enough and called in James Wyatt to give it a makeover. A few years later Dartrey was elevated in rank and became Viscount Cremorne. As both his sons predeceased him the title became extinct on his death and Chelsea Farm passed first to his wife, Philadelphia, the grand-daughter of William Penn, who founded Pennsylvania, and then when she died in 1825 to her cousin Granville Penn, who immediately tried to sell it.
Eventually, in 1831, a long lease was bought by Charles Random, a colourful character who styled himself, with not much cause, Baron de Berenger. He had already served a year in prison for his part in a stock exchange fraud that scandalised the country, but somehow had come into enough money again to acquire Cremorne House and 24 acres of land.
He set up the “National Sporting Club”, or “The Stadium”, in the grounds for ‘the cultivation of skilful and manly exercise‘, which included a huge range of activities including fencing, shooting, archery, sailing and even things like boomerang practice. These sports were captured on an engraving of the Chelsea Stadium Shield by Robert Cruikshank. others were covered at greater length in the pamphlet Berenger wrote promoting The Stadium.
Berenger also taught a range of self-defence techniques and he wrote a book about them. Membership was by subscription only, although visitors were allowed on occasions. He also used Cremorne for competitive events such as swimming championships in the Thames, Olympic Weeks and Berenger Games with prizes! [Star 20.6.1831]
The grounds were improved and turned into what Illustrated London Life later called “this Chelsea Elysium” with “a grove of trees brought down to the waters edge, with, beyond, artificial grottoes and perling streams, spanned by a bridge and bordered by a choice collection of flowers and exotic plants.”
Berenger’s venture started off well. He hosted charity events and was patronised by royalty and the aristocracy. At one such gathering it was reported that “the whole of his romantic grounds were brilliantly illuminated, ornamented with tasteful devices, and decorated with appropriate banners. Extensive marquees, also illuminated, were erected for dancing and refreshments. Bands of music was stationed in different parts of the ground, and during the evening a variety of entertainment were exhibited.” (Evening Chronicle 1/9/1837). His license was renewed that autumn with the magistrates commenting ‘it was a well conducted and helpful place of manly recreation” and they wished “there were many more such respectable places in the metropolis where persons could indulge in innocent recreation.” [Little did they know what was to come!]
Unfortunately, however The Stadium was not a great financial success and so the baron began to add other attractions including a Ladies’ clubroom not open to men unless “by the the consent of the ladies occupying such”. There was pony racing, circus clowns, and balloon ascents and in August 1839 an appearance “by some of the knights of Lord Eglinton’s tournament” None of this seems to have altered the Stadium’s financial fortunes and by 1841 it seems to have been heading downhill fast. ‘The society was dissolved and with the exception of an occasional shooting or swimming match” there was, according to Illustrated London Life [23/7/1843] “little to bring Cremorne House before the notice of the public.” Berenger also ended up losing a court battle after a row with the tenant of the on-site bar ended up in fisticuffs . [Morning Herald 4/8/1841] This led to opposition to the renewal of his licence.
Quite what happened next is unclear but Berenger then seems to have gone abroad and also sold an interest in the grounds and their management to other people. Certainly by the summer of 1843 the day to day running seems to have passed into the hands of Renton Nicholson who was paying £500 pa rent, with James Ellis as his subtenant. Both were colourful characters to put it mildly. Nicholson had risen from a pawnbroker’s assistant to being a jeweller supplying “the ‘swells’ of the day and their female friends”. In 1837 he had opened a scurrilous journal called The Town, which featured sensationalism and semi-pornographic content.and then in 1841 he became proprietor of the Garrick’s Head in Bow Street, where he presided over mock trials based on salacious contemporary divorce cases. He also started the short-lived Illustrated London Life magazine which only ran for a few months in 1843 but which unsurprisingly promoted Cremorne. According to Warwick Wroth who wrote the first serious account of the history of London’s pleasure gardens in 1907 Nicholson was “impudent in manner, obese and sensual in appearance, yet a man of real talent and geniality, gone hopelessly upon the wrong track.”
Nicholson and Ellis started out well. The grounds were beautiful, there was lots to amuse and entertain visitors and admission was only 6d and in theory even free on Sundays if a 6d refreshment voucher was bought. Importantly too it was easily accessible. Plenty of omnibuses passed the main Kings Road entrance while a pier provided easy access to the southern gate for customers who took the short trip on a river steamer down from the city.
Although his own journal Illustrated London Life reported that “the revival of old English sports, and the attractions of the great stars of the present day, will lend new lustre ” this was a little over optimistic. It began with Nicholson organising a 3 day fete in the late summer of 1843, which was covered by a whole page article [follow this link to read it]
The first day featured 3 military bands, gymnastic exercises, Morris dancing, a comic tournament, country sports, maypole dancing, climbing a greasy pole competition, a monkey riding in horse race against human jockeys, clowns, opera singers and finished with a grand concert and ball which included “the most distinguished performers including “a celebrated banjo player and Virginian melodist.” Day two opened with “the dancing girls of Switzerland and Savoy… humorists of all Nations, ballet nymphs and wandering minstrels” while “Mr Charles Green, the Columbus of the skies, will ascend in his magnificent balloon. ” It finished with another Grand concert and ball. The last day, Wednesday 2nd of August, commenced with “a grand Chinese dance and ballet of action, and wizards from the four points of the compass” while”in the evening Mr Matthews will dance his celebrated cachucha and cracovienne… in the manner of Harlequin and Columbine” in “a brilliant melange of music and offerings to Terpsichore.”
The gardens “will be brilliantly illuminated with Chinese lanterns in characteristic and elegant devices, flinging a flood of splendour over the entire scene making it one of matchless enchantment… And what is the public to pay for this transcendent soirée of amusements? Echo answers, one shilling… who will fail to be there?” The report on the 3 day fete makes its seem like it was well-attended and fun yet it covered up what was fast becoming a major problem: various kinds of impropriety and crime. These were loudly complained about when the licence came up for renewal that autumn. There were many “irregularities of the house… Gambling, drinking and all sorts of revelry…. All the vagabonds about town were drawn there to the annoyance of the neighbourhood.”
The magistrates refused to renew the licence renewal which was a potentially disastrous decision since it was, as always, refreshments that made up the bulk of the profits. If they couldn’t eat, and more importantly drink, the public would not come. Nicholson later claimed in court that he had increased the footfall at Cremorne from 800 a day to 8000 but, despite that, by the spring of 1844 the game was up. Nicholson was declared bankrupt again [the third time in his life] and the lease of Cremorne House and the Stadium grounds were put up for sale by auction again. The advertisement for the sale reveals all sorts of details of what was in the grounds. The new leaseholder was Thomas Bartlett Simpson, although rather than run to himself he continued to sublet to James Ellis, while Nicholson still somehow retained had a stake in the proceedings. Simpson and Ellis began to invest heavily.
Although many of the sporting facilities were maintained the grounds were remodelled and reopened in July 1845 with terraces, fountains, Chinese- lantern walks, grottoes, a maze “larger than the one at Hampton Court”, restaurants, theatres, a hotel and “delightful lavender bowers” which could accommodate 1500 people. They also employed leading entertainers notably Tom Matthews “the modern Grimaldi”. It meant they could boast 10,000 visitors a day in August 1845. What really stole the headlines and, as before, bought in the punters was ballooning. As we have seen There had been some flights in Berenger’s day but now they seem to have become regular occurrences. Some were “fixed” ascents with the balloon tethered and taking small parties up a few thousand feet, but others were free flights where the watched as the balloon went where the winds took it.
Many of these flights were undertaken by Charles Green the leading “Argonaut” of the day. Newspapers often carried reports detailing the path the balloon took, where it set down – often way outside the city – and how the aeronauts were regaled with refreshments before travelling back to Chelsea.
They were especially fond 0f the stunts that were pulled. Some flights took animals such as pony or a cow others were more adventurous including a lion in a cage, or monkeys with parachutes on trapezes hanging underneath the basket. The gardens were seasonal – between Easter and late October – and closed again as usual over the winter of 1845/6. Ellis applied as usual for the renewal of the alcohol and music licences in March 1846. This time the bench decided against renewing because ” the entertainments hitherto carried on in the premises have been the means of collecting together immense numbers of disreputable characters, especially on Sundays, to the annoyance of the inhabitants.” [Daily News 18/3/1846]. It meant the reopening had to be postponed and an appeal against the magistrates decision was launched. Local clergy organised a petition against renewal arguing that “very improper and immoral acts take place within the walls of the gardens, and to the demoralising effect it would have upon the minds of the people if the license were granted” Witnesses were called who spoke of the “continual disturbances which took place nightly after the amusements of Cremorne gardens were over.” To their horror the licence was restored and the gardens re-opened.
The gardens and its attractions once again became very popular but Ellis was “led by the great influx of visitors to an outlay… that was far too lavish and beyond his means.”and he went bankrupt in 1849 after four years of running Cremorne, with others having a financial stake in the proceedings. His improvements cost about £8000 but he ended up in debt to the tune of more than £16,000. It didn’t help that he was also trying to run a casino [a new thing in London] and providing catering at several other major venues in London. If you’re interested in the financing of the garden then look at the detailed Morning Post’s coverage of Ellis’s bankruptcy.
With Ellis off the scene, indeed probably in prison for 3 months, Simpson stepped in again taking back control but handing management over to a Mr Cooper who turned out to be his brother-in-law. All these financial shenanigans caused more objections at the next licence renewal. [Full details in the Morning Advertiser 6 March 1850] but in brief a senior magistrate called “for the vengeance of God upon the gardens” blaming the “infamy of Mr Ellis that quiet looking man who had the daring of, and dealing with, the devil, who had induced him to light up the gardens on Sunday evenings.” But there was worse because “where there was before but one streetwalker there is now upwards of twenty and where there was only one brothel in the neighbourhood there was now one in almost every street.” To be fair this reflected a large scale public and press debate about prostitution that was going on at the time. Nevertheless Cooper and Simpson were given their licence and Cremorne re-opened once again that summer and remained open until 1877. Next week we’ll look at Cremorne in its heyday, but also what, rather surprisingly, became of Mr Ellis
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