April 19, 2013


Vauxhall Gardens

Sometime back in the early 1970s I took a summer class under Judith Plotz at GW. I was working on my English M.A. at the time, and my recollection is that we were supposed to read 3 books one week. If I recall correctly I think they were Pickwick Papers, Vanity Fair, and David Copperfield, a total of well over 2,000 pages. Needless to say since I was working fulltime for the sphincter ani of the Federal government, General Services Administration, I didn't get very far in any of them. The thing that stuck about Vanity Fair though was the visit to Vauxhall, and Jos Sedley being overcome by the Vauxhall punch.

Freud in his essay on Gradiva describes the unconscious as being like an ideal Rome in which the Roman Forum exists in its original shape, along with the buildings that cover it, and all of the artifacts from different eras are there and are accessible. For the student of English literature I think there's an ideal England or an ideal London in which The Tabard Inn, The Globe, The Mermaid Inn, Dr. Johnson's coffeehouse, Vauxhall, and the Crystal Palace all still exist, and it's a vast disappointment to finally visit, and traverse these areas, and find they've all gone, vanished into the aether.

Vauxhall existed in one form or another from 1660s until 1859, at which point it was sold and broken up. What remains on the site today is, judging from the pictures, a rather dull and unimaginative urban park.

The authors of the present volume have gone to considerable effort to acquire and reproduce a number of images of Vauxhall, and people associated with Vauxhall in the course of its history. To the extent that the authors can have a hero or protagonist in their history, that would be Jonathan Tyer who made Vauxhall into a pleasure garden that catered to people of all classes, and one that was easily affordable by many. They go into considerable detail describing the grounds, the food, and the music, which included compositions by Handel and Arne.

The gardens passed from Tyer and his family to other hands, and by the 19th century the public taste had changed. Entertainment now included not just music but rope dancing, i.e., tight and slack rope walking.* Other entertainment included aeronautics.

*I haven't really though about her or heard from her in about 40 years but one of my classmates at GW, Jean B_, claimed to have been either a tight or slack rope walker. I forget which. Update—A quick Google shows that she's still in DC and runs an editing/proofreading service.

If you're like me you're probably vaguely aware of the fact that the first balloon ascent was made in the late 18th century by a Frenchman, and that there was sporadic use of balloons in the American Civil War. You may have see Hell's Angels which features a bunch of crazy Germans who lighten a dirigible by taking a long walk out the balloon, so you might think that parachutes are something invented around the 1920s or 1930s. In fact they around in the late 18th or early 19th centuries, and one features tragically in the history of Vauxhall.

Robert Cocking noticed that earlier parachute designs had a problem with stability, and decided that he knew how to fix it. What he came up with was a design like an inverted umbrella. The illustration on the left, and the larger version that it links too, shows what his parachute looked like. The top part was attached to the main gondola of the balloon, and Cocking rode in the secondary gondola under the parachute. Apparently the inverted umbrella part was to separate from the top-most structure and carry Cocking safely to the ground. Now if you've ever looked at a parachute, you''d think it would be pretty obvious that it rides on a column of air, and that the inverted umbrella design would put the air pressure on the wrong side for support. Evidently it wasn't obvious to Cocking. He rode the balloon up, and released the parachute at 5,000 feet. The chute promptly collapsed, and so did Cocking when he hit the ground. RIP Robert Cocking.

Vauxhall experienced financial problems, and was eventually forced to close. It's final night in 1859 was well attended, but as with so many things it had outlived its moment.

As for Vauxhall punch? You can look around and find recipes for it. Basically it's made with rack, or arrack, a whiskey made from coconut palms, lemons and sugar. Unfortunately the authors don't provide any recipes.*

*You can find a discussion of rack punch here. There is a link to recipes, but the link is broken. You can buy arrack through a web site that advertises on Amazon.

The book is pricey, and may tell you more than you want to know about Vauxhall, but it is lavishly illustrated, and the pictures are worth the price.

Next up, a book by David Weber that's set in the Honorverse.