Cremorne Gardens: Drinking, Dancing and Danger!

Chelsea, nowadays largely the playground of the rich, was in the middle of the 19thc the playground of every class of Londoner, with almost every form of popular entertainment on offer on the banks of the Thames at Cremorne. Whether you liked the circus or carousing, ballooning or ballet,  fireworks or freak-shows,  danger or dancing, Cremorne  became THE place to go.  

Last week we looked at the rather shaky early days of the gardens and today’s looks at what happened after  Thomas Simpson the new lessee took over in 1850. He expanded the site to about 20 acres, investing huge amounts of money  remodelling the gardens, adding new attractions and hiring entertainers from all round the world.  

In the end there was  almost too much to do  and all for one shilling admission.

The earliest Ordnance Survey maps of this bit of London don’t appear until quite late and show the area was being rapidly urbanised. Although there were still nursery grounds to the west, the south bank of the Thames opposite was being covered with industrial buildings and housing was creeping up from the west.



But in 1850 when Simpson took over the area  was still relatively undeveloped  and Illustrated London News, comparing Cremorne Gardens to Vauxhall, its great rival across the river was able to say it was “a real pleasaunce surrounded by magnificent trees, with well-kept lawns and lovely flowers, and melodious singing birds. Nothing was pleasanter in the summer-time than to saunter in at midday or in the early afternoon (for the gardens were not properly open till three or five), and find Mr. Simpson’s daughters there with their work-baskets.”   

But when the gardens did open properly for the day -or rather evening and night – there were endless things to see and do, so let’s take a tour.



Entering from the main entrance on the Kings Road, on the right there was a circus tent, where  Simpson hired a range of different circuses and troupes including the famous Parisian circus of Franconi. and later Souillier’s Cirque Orientel, as well as many  well known [at the time!] individual performers of all kinds such as the American acrobatic star Professor Risley who was to go on and introduce circus arts to Japan, and the Chantrells. 


The circus wasn’t the only place you could see unusual animals or performers. Others were on display all round the garden.  In 1858 for example  you could see “Peto, the giant of Fychow” whose “height was stupendous, his strength Herculean and his weight four tons.”  Peto was an elephant, but that wasn’t mentioned in any of the advertising because I suspect it was intended to confuse readers and make them think of Chang the Fychow Giant...

who was not  to be confused with either The American Colossus or  Joseph Brice the French Giant who stood nearly 8 feet tall and who resided in an Indian Temple in the gardens,  which he refused to share with “the Woolly Woman of Hayti“.


Plants were also promoted as a popular attraction and tucked away behind the circus were several greenhouses, including at least one hothouse,  and  a fernery reported to be full of several thousand pounds worth of both exotic and hardy ferns. [West Middlesex Advertiser 10/10/1860] 



On the left of the entrance Simpson added a marionette theatre, which became  a great favourite of the public and of his as well because, as he said,  ‘the little beggars  never came to the treasury on Saturday.’   But it was not just home to puppets.  For example in 1867  the stage was occupied by a large glass tank of water – 9ft x 5ft and 6 ft deep- which was to be the temporary home of Natator, the Human Frog. In reality he was a young man named Cooper who performed stunts like smoking under water. 

Two years later the tank became home to The  Beckwith Frogs. These were not normal amphibians – far from it – but human ones trained by their father,  none other than Professor Beckwith who also trained Matthew Webb, the first person to swim the Channel.

“Master Willie Beckwith goes through a series of acrobatic gyrations under water. Like a perch among minnows, he darts past the startled goldfish, and dives from one end of the tank to the other, until it is a relief to see him rise to the surface to regain breath. He plunges to the bottom again, and walks on his hands; and, still immersed, gracefully performs a number of somersaults.” He is outperformed by the Professor’s  assistant Thomas Attwood who manages to  eat, drink, and even smoke under water.  ” Clad in fleshings and drawers… these adroit young divers flash about the aquarium with a fishlike facility that is extraordinary enough to draw all London Cremorne-wards to see them.” [Penny Post 19/6/1869] 

Other  “small scale” entertainers such as magicians and conjurors who used what was sometimes known as  the Bijou Theatre  included Professor de Vere “the Renowned Prestidigitator” [real name Herbert Williams,  who also had a successful career touring Europe].


Tucked away behind the theatre was a diorama as well as  a shooting gallery which may have been left over from the gardens earlier incarnation as The Stadium.   There were also two “caves”  near the entrance, one apparently hung with stalactites which was home to a fortune teller.   These all stood in  formal gardens with walks, shrubberies  and flower beds with several fountains.

Beyond them towards the centre of the site was an avenue of trees which led to an American-style  Bowling Saloon, a gypsy grotto, the  firework gallery and an area for “Chinese Games” [whatever they might be].






Nearby was  a broad oval lawn where events such as maypole dancing were held, and   in the early days, where balloon ascents took place. 





There were regular static ascents taking up small parties of the public…


..and, weird to relate, often  there were also stunts which involved taking up animals BUT not in a basket.  For example in August 1852  the Parisian balloonist Eugene Poitevin made several ascents on horseback, as did his wife on a white pony that was “full of life!”  In September she arrived in a Roman chariot, ‘in the character of Europa,’ followed by a bull  “dressed as rather a nervous “Zeus”.

from Illustrated London News

They had often made flights like this in Paris and such stunts proved popular with a certain element of the Cremorne crowd BUT there were plenty of  complaints in the press, and by the RSPCA about cruelty.  


The Poitvins and Simpson  were summonsed by Westminster magistrates,  and fined by the Ilford bench after an animal was injured on landing there. The result was that the next time Cremorne’s  licence came up Simpson had to promise to stop the practice. 

Other balloonists were merely cruel to themselves! In August, 1852, two acrobats  Edouard and Jean Bouthellier who were performing in the circus as The Italian Brothers  first singly and later together ascended on a trapeze attached underneath a balloon. One report said that “at a respectable height he began to twist himself round ‘almost in a knot,’ then to untie himself, and finally to suspend his body as he hung, first by his neck, then by his heels.”  All ‘to the evident mingled alarm and pleasure of the spectators,’ which was thought to ‘rebound greatly to the credit’ of Mr. Simpson.  The authorities took a different view and it was banned by police on the instructions of the Home Secretary .

Illustrated London News 18th September 1858

There were plenty of other dangerous activities including  those of  “The Italian Salamander”, Cristoforo Buono Core, who in 1858  walked through a specially constructed  fiery furnace. He had patented “a liquid or composition which when applied to substances of any kind (would) render them fire-proof or unimflammable” and wrapped in treated clothing he walked through a blazing tunnel saying afterwards only that it made him very thirsty!

Mr Brown’s Ashburnham House [hidden behind the formal fencing and trees] and Cremorne House, from the 1829 Panorama of the Thames

Simpson managed to acquire the lease of the neighbouring property, Ashburnham House in 1850 and a  huge hall was constructed along the former boundary between it and Cremorne.  This was used as a  venue for exhibitions of all kinds including those of nurserymen like Waterers but also dog shows,  flower shows, and grand dinners.

A display of American Plants inside the Ashburnham pavilion
Illustrated London News 12th June 1858

Perhaps the most spectacular of these events took place in July 1863 when the hall played host to  the Cremorne Tournament. There had been a small scale version of the Eglinton tournament of 1839 many years earlier [see previous post] but this was  “a whole Ivanhoe in motion.”  300 performers took part  although rather than being largely  aristocratic the knights and squires of Cremorne were theatrical and circus artists  while  the ladies  ‘no strangers to the choreographic stage’  led by  Madame Caroline, a circus-rider.  Over the course of 3 days there was jousting, tilting at the ring and the quintain before the grand finale of a pitched battle. It was all accompanied by  music and  ‘jesters,’ but although “at first exciting and a fine spectacle, though they tended to grow monotonous”.

Illustrated London News 18 July 1863



Built onto the southern end of the hall  was the stereorama, a “novelty in dioramic or panoramic painting” which opened in 1860 with a vast landscape painting of “the finest scenery of Switzerland” by Grieve and Telbin who were probably London’s best theatre painters.

The Swiss scenery in the Stereorama


Later in 1866 an amphitheatre was erected behind the Ashburnham pavilion for gymnastic and equestrian performance, but also ballet  which  all “gave a new tone” to Cremorne [Times 4/6/1866].

Down at the Thames end of the gardens the original Cremorne House was extended and turned into a hotel, and for the season of 1861 the nearby walks were “decorated with countless additional lamps and… The introduction of large mirrors of plate glass within and without the hotel. Some of them are so happily arranged that at certain points a new garden, unaccountably peopled, seems to burst upon the eyes of spectators who for several yards literally walk along a wall of glass” [Times 6/8/1861].  

Next to it  the New Hall or theatre opened for the 1862 season. Most of the programme was vaudeville, farce and comedy, but perhaps surprisingly there was also a serious ballet programme.  There were regular concerts with popular but now long forgotten comic singers such as Sam Cowell Robert Glindon and Jack Sharp .

But it’s the building that stood between the Stereorama, the hotel and the New Hall that was, and still is,  the most iconic of all Cremorne’s buildings. Called  the Pavilion or as on the Ordnance Survey, the Pagoda it served as home to an orchestra  and stood in the middle of a vast dance floor that could host hundreds of couples.  From 1862 it was overlooked by double height sets of private booths and “commodious supper room” attached to the hall and hotel.  There, and in the large restaurant in the hotel itself were  half-crown suppers, and visitors could partake of  Cremorne sherry, “a  fine old wine”, “free from acidity”, and “highly recommended to invalids. There were of course plenty of other cheaper refreshment stalls and other venues all over the grounds.



Finally in the stretch of gardens between Cremorne House and the Thames, across the road from the entrance to the garden that served those arriving by boat, there were more formal gardens and a maze larger than that at Hampton Court.

The riverside and the pier were the scene of some amazing spectacles. In 1851, for example, there was a Naval Fete or Aquatic Tournament.  For this a fort had been constructed which was attacked by  a fleet of fifteen steamers of the Citizen Company, one of which was a hulk packed with burnables. Inside the fort a battery of fireworks  was launched against the invaders and after suitable exchanges the old hulk went up in smoke much to everyone’s satisfaction.  In 1855 it was a re-enactment of the recent Siege of Sebastopol which led to a large number of injuries [Punch 25/8/1855]. Sadly there don’t seem to be any images of these events.

Apart from these major venues the gardens were dotted with stalls, kiosks and side shows and parts of it must have resembled a fairground, but, the underlying structure of the original gardens of Chelsea Farm and  Cremorne House remained recognisable, notably some specimens trees and what Warwick Wroth called  “the encircling fringe of ancient trees.”

Successive lessees were keen to keep the gardens in top shape and to add improvements.  Milner designed an American Garden which was according to George Glenny, ” planted with the most choice rhododendrons and azaleas, …the scene was complete and unquestionably beautiful. We seemed in another world, or at least in another country.” The whole area was “closed in with canvas” keeping it separate from the more colourful and raucous world outside. 

Such isolation was used elsewhere for example in 1854 The Field described one of the “prettiest new arrangement of the life like statues, in representation of Burns’ carter’s fireside. The apropos grouping of them being embedded in Scotia is native heath, and the title fence which surrounds them render them an object worthy of praise.”  There was even a large “Boundary Picture” which covered 60,000 square ft of canvas – in 1865 it was a painting of the city of Florence.

An American visitor thought Cremorne  “probably the finest of these places of public entertainment… Garden brilliant with flowers… Kept in as perfect order as that of the horticultural society; that to roll the walks mow the lawns, and dressed the flower beds, keeps employed 15 gardeners.” 

Since, as usual, I’ve gone on longer than I originally intended and there’s still lots to say about Cremorne, I’m going to finish here and return to it – and its decline and closure very soon. I’ll include a full set of references and further suggestions then.








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