In 1863 the American artist James Whistler leased a house in Chelsea overlooking the Thames. The river, its bridges and boatyards became one of his principal subjects, and featured in a series of night-time paintings he called Nocturnes.
Whilst most of these are evocative views of the river itself, some of them also captured the ephemeral spirit of the pleasure grounds of Cremorne Gardens in the years just before they closed in 1877. As a result while the gardens have disappeared under bricks and mortar, these paintings, and others by Whistler’s sometime friend and collaborator Walter Greaves, help them live on.
Whistler wasn’t trying to record the reality of Cremorne or the Thames. Instead he saw his pictures as a step back from the contemporary world into an almost abstract zone. “A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form, and colour first.” In other words it was art for art’s sake. Despite that what he did was to leave behind a completely different impression of Cremorne which was, in its heyday, the liveliest public space in London.
Soon after his arrival in Chelsea Whistler met the Greaves family who were watermen with a boatyard nearby. Walter and his brother Henry ended up as his studio assistants, pupils and close friends for over 20 years until around 1880 when Whistler abruptly dropped them from his circle. Together they visited Cremorne in its final years.
Whistler and Greaves knew Cremorne as noisy and colourful, packed with people, and they could hardly have imagined that the gardens were to close as abruptly they did, or that closure was inevitable.
In 1860 Thomas Simpson the lessee decided to raise more cash by trying to turn Cremorne into a limited company. A committee of suitably aristocratic names headed by Lord Henry Gordon, a younger son of the Marquis of Huntley, was formed to promote the idea and raise £100,000 by issuing 20,000 £5 shares. The scheme flopped and that may have been the reason that Simpson retired the following year.
Management now passed to Edward Tyrrell Smith, a man according to Warwick Wroth, “of boundless energy and resource, and a lucky, if wayward, speculator, who was everything by turns and nothing long.” Although he was the son of an admiral he had settled for quite lowly jobs before Cremorne: Bow Street runner, auctioneer, vintner, tavern-keeper before running a string of London theatres and circuses as well as Highbury Barn pleasure grounds. He even managed to take over the Sunday Times, although it was not then quite such a prestigious paper. Smith was to run Cremorne until 1869.
Smith clearly had a finger in many pies, but, surprise surprise, very little money of his own to finance all these ventures. Instead he relied on others who believed in what Warwick Wroth called his “speculative flair“.
One good example of that is the way he hired a £1000 banknote from a money-lender at the rate of £1 a day—not to spend, but to carry round and use as deposit or to inspire confidence in his finances.
His first major event was a novelty even for Cremorne. Madame Genevieve attempted to cross the Thames on a tightrope about 100 feet above the river.
Watched by thousands The Female Blondin whose real name was Selina Young, set off and successfully negotiated the central section, and then rested on the ledge of one the supports of the last section. The last section of rope began to sway because someone had cut the guy ropes, she dropped her balance pole and had to descend painfully hand over hand until she reached a boat and safety.
A week later she tried again and to everyone’s amazement managed the crossing and walked down the wire to the Chelsea shore to the tune of Hail the Conquering Hero Comes, played by the Cremorne Orchestra. Unfortunately the very next year she was performing at the Highbury Barn pleasure grounds fell from a rope and was crippled for life.
While Cremorne had always been sedate during the day it became raucous in the evening however complaints had only been sporadic in the early days. They started to gather speed from 1857 when the Chelsea vestry presented the first of many annual petitions against the renewal of the garden’s license. They argued about the inconvenience of the late hours, the immoral character of many of the women who visited the garden, and [of course] the effect on property prices.
As the 1860s rolled by more and more brawls and disturbances ended up in the police courts and inevitably in the press. They were particularly noticeable on special occasions such as Derby Day. There was a slow drip drip effect of constant complaints and petitions from then on.
Smith retired in 1869 and his place was taken by John Baum, who like his predecessors was always on the lookout for new and unusual attractions. He too invested heavily, opening another theatre, the fourth on the site, mainly for comic opera and ballet. He also raised the entry price to a shilling.
There’s no sign of the steamier side of Cremorne in any of Whistler’s work. He also ignored the dancing, the music and the other attractions which were its major features, and instead focused on the more mysterious and ephemeral activities, such as the nightly display of fireworks. Look closely at the painting above and you can just make out the crowd of spectators, their backs turned to us, watching a Catherine wheel revolve in the night sky, and throwing off a shower of sparks.
In case you’re wondering how Whistler managed to paint in the dark – he didn’t. He wasn’t trying to capture the reality but the mood so these scenes were painted from memory in his studio, working quickly with his own recipe of thinned oil paint laid on in washes which he wiped over again and again to give a smokey effect. He then dripped paint across the surface to create the effect of the fireworks, before finally adding the figures with a brush.
John Ruskin hated pictures like this and commented: “I have seen, and heard, much of cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Whistler was furious and sued Ruyskin for libel. He won but it was a Pyrrhic victory since he was only awarded a farthing in damages and had to pay his own costs.
It’s a great pity that neither artist recorded the new and very daring act that was advertised in July 1874: Monsieur de Groof The Flying Man. De Groof was a Belgian and although he didn’t quite have real wings he had invented a flying machine looked like a giant bird. His waterproof silk wings stretched 37 feet from tip to tip and could be flapped realistically. Its 18ft tail resembled that of a peacock and it too could be waggled about.
However De Groof didn’t attempt to fly under his own power by flapping his wings and tail. Instead the contraption was attached to a balloon. On that June evening the balloon took off with the “bird” carried along underneath. The intention was simple: once De Groot was at a reasonable height he would be cut loose and flap his way down into the gardens to the amusement and applause of the crowd. Unfortuantely the wind blew the balloon rapidly away eastwards over London and both it and de Groof eventually came down safely in a field in Essex.
Back at Cremorne however crowds felt they were cheated and so about 10 days later there was a repeat performance. This time the wind was very light and for about half an hour the balloon and “bird” merely hovered over the garden before it suddenly picked up and the balloon sped away in the direction of St Luke’s Church in Chelsea. Afraid the bird would hit the church tower the balloonist is alleged to have shouted “shall I cut you adrift” and got a “YES!” in response “I will fall into the graveyard”. Tragically that was very appropriate. De Groot missed the graveyard and fell instead into the middle of the road where a great crowd had collected. Although he was taken to nearby Chelsea Infirmary he died soon afterwards. Meanwhile the balloon had a lucky escape because it was blown over London and came down on the Great Eastern railway line just avoiding a collision with a passing train.
But as time passed Cremorne was becoming more and more difficult to manage. It may have been that the police were more active, or the complaints were being monitored more closely by the vestry but the police courts were hardly ever without drunken disorderly cases from the gardens as well as cases involving violence or aggression. There was also plenty of space and opportunity for what might politely be called “unauthorised activities” such as bare-knuckle boxing, and associated illegal gambling to say nothing of prostitution because Cremorne became renowned as a honey pot for “ladies of the night”.
The efforts by complainants to get the license stopped were renewed with more vigour from about 1870 onwards with the arrival of Canon John Cromwell as the principal of the new St Mark’s teacher training college just down the road from Cremorne’s main gate. He was a formidable opponent, even if he was satirised and ridiculed in the popular press.
Tthe streets near Cremorne were, he claimed, ‘infested with prostitutes’ who represented a danger to the boys in his care, to his family, and to the respectable men and women of the neighbourhood (Times 10 October 1874).
The protestors were actually quite few in numbers but led by the canon and Chelsea vestry they were very effective. They argued the gardens to be ‘the greatest curse of anything in the parish’ (Chelsea News 7 October 1871) with ‘crowds of noisy, disorderly inhabitants, and forming an accumulation of vice and immorality which shocked the respectable inhabitants’. It was claimed that ‘Gentlemen were afraid to allow their female servants to go beyond the doors after seven o’clock at night’ (Reynolds News 15 October 1871). For the vestry Cremorne was palpably immoral, ‘a pestilential hot-bed, mis-named “a garden,” where the very flowers seemed to drop their heads in shame, and the trees threw more sombre shadows than is their wont to veil in darkness that which dare not brave the light’ (Chelsea News 21 October 1871).
The Gardens had plenty of supporters. They had much of the press on their side, and were by far the biggest local employer to say nothing of thousands of visitors. Their counter petitions argued the gardens were ‘the habitual resort of large numbers of the respectable portion of the inhabitants and their families…[and] no expense has been spared to render the Gardens attractive and to supply amusements of an unobjectionable character’ (Petition in support of the licence, GLRO, MR/LMD 19/2).
For more on the morality debate around Cremorne see https://silo.pub/entanglements-of-power.html and scroll down to p.47 but be warned it has ads the canon and his supporters would have found shocking
Matters came to a head in 1876 when a pamphlet in verse entitled The Trial of John Fox or the Horrors of Cremorne was circulated locally. [Unfortuantely I can’t find a copy on-line or in the British Library.] Witten by the local Baptist minister it was an indictment of Cremorne as “the nursery of every kind vice”. John Baum went to court claiming libel because Cremorne was “most respectfully conducted”. The jury eventually found in his favour but awarded him only a farthing in damages and left each side to its own cost. You can guess the consequences, particularly as Baum had no money. Although plans were made to request a renewal of his licence, when it came up before the bench in October 1877, to the astonishment of everybody Baum withdrew his application. The licence lapsed and Cremorne closed at the end of that season. It did not re-open.
The owner of the freehold Mrs Simpson (I suspect the wife of the previous licensee) lost no time in letting virtually the whole site for housing.
In April 1878 auctioneers began with a five day sale of Cremorne, lock stock and barrel. Apart from Ashburnham House and and Cremorne House themselves none of the gardens buildings had been constructed to last long and they went for virtually nothing. It was a great chance too to buy cheap furniture, booze and fancy dress with upwards of 6000 costumes from the four theatres for sale, along with lot 1080: “a large balloon (the Cremorne) with car ropes et cetera.”
After more than 6 months of neglect between the closure and the sale the gardens looked unkempt and overgrown, and were soon stripped of their ornaments. You could have bought several statues of Cupid, Venus, Laocoon or the Dying Gladiator as well as several “females supporting gas burners” and a range of urns and pots. Even the beautiful mature trees that survived from Viscount Cremorne’s original planting were sold off as “growing timber” to be cleared before development started.
A fraction of the garden did continue to have horticultural use for a few years longer. Part of the grounds of Ashburnham House had already been leased to Mr Wimsett, a successful local nurseryman who now took over the fernery and hothouses. He removed the plants and sold off the fittings such as the rock work. Meanwhile William Bull who had already got nursery grounds on the Kings Road took a lease of another 1.5 acres to expand his business. He built two massive ranges containing a total of 18 new glasshouses which so impressive that they featured in a half page article in Gardeners Chronicle.
Sadly none of this lasted long either… but that’s a story for another day.
For more information about Cremorne a good place to start is the blog of Kensington & Chelsea Library which has a large archive about the gardens. Warwick Wroth’s 1907 book on Cremorne is the most comprehensive early account, and there is also a lot of material in Lee Jackson’s new book Palaces of Pleasure published in June 2021. He has also written a crime novel, The Last Pleasure Garden, set in and around Cremorne