Georgian England and Popular Amusements

Georgian England was filled with numerous exciting public amusements for eighteenth century people to enjoy. Among these amusements were several theatres that provided such entertainment as melodramas, Italian operas, or French ballets. Georgian people also had the opportunity to witness equestrian performances, vaulting, pantomimes, dancing, and even a circus. There were also pleasure gardens, which offered not just beautiful grounds to stroll but also concerts, rides, and zoos or menageries to visit. A few of the places that offered such public amusements were Astley’s Amphitheatre, Covent Garden Theatre, Drury Lane Theatre, Little Theatre, Ranelagh Gardens, Sadler’s Wells, and Vauxhall Gardens.

Satire of “Scene in the New Political Pantomime.” Courtesy of British Museum.

Astley’s Amphitheatre – This Georgian England venue was founded in 1772 by the supposedly handsomest man in England. His name was Philip Astley. Originally when Astley’s opened, it consisted of nothing more than a “temporary erection of deal boards.”[1] It always opened on Easter Monday and closed in October or November. Admission ranged from one, two, or four shillings. Astley was the main performer, and he displayed equestrian feats and was assisted by two fifes, a drummer, and a clown. In 1780, it was covered, divided into pits, boxes, and galleries, and became an amphitheater. By 1786 it was known as “The Royal Grove,” and, by 1792, it was known as “The Royal Saloon, or Astley’s Amphitheatre.” Under that name it became home to the circus with “fireworks, slack-rope vaulting, Egyptian pyramids, tricks on chairs, tumbling, etc.”[2]

Georgian England - Astley's Amphitheatre in 1777, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Astley’s Amphitheatre in 1777. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Covent Garden Theatre – This royal theatre of Georgian England was located in Central London in Covent Garden, hence its name. For the first 100 years it was primarily a playhouse. It was originally constructed in 1732 and called the Theatre Royal. The first ballet was presented there in 1734, and, soon after, operas were presented. It was plagued by two disastrous fires: One in 1808 and another in 1856.

Georgian England - Interior of Covent Garden Before it Burned in 1808, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Interior of Covent Garden before it burned in 1808. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Drury Lane Theatre – This Georgian England royal theatre was located in the west end of London and open nine months out of the year. Plays rather than operas or concerts were the focus at this theatre. Similar to Covent Garden, this theatre was plagued by fire. The theatre built in the early 1660s caught fire. It was rebuilt and reopened in 1674 and lasted until 1791, at which time it was demolished. A new theatre opened in 1794 and patrons like Eliza de Feuillide, her husband Henry Austen, and her cousin Jane Austen attended performances. However, the theatre caught fire in 1809 and a new building reopened in 1812. That building still stands today.

Georgian England - Public Amusements in Georgian England: Facade of Drury Lane in 1775, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Facade of Drury Lane in 1775. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Little Theatre – Also known as the Theatre Royal Haymarket or Haymarket Theatre, it opened in 1720 with a French cast of actors and limped along. Later it became associated with farces and burlesque. After the famous British Dramatist Samuel Foote became involved, it became established as a regular theatre. It was also considered a theatre for legitimate dramas — meaning spoken dramas were performed, rather than concerts, operas, or musical plays. Although it operated year round, plays were only performed during the summer months — May to September — when Drury Lane and Covent Garden theatres were closed.

The Little Theater offered a wide variety of entertainments during the 1700s. When plays were not performed there were sometimes puppet shows. Once, there was someone known as “The Bottle Conjuror” who claimed he would stuff himself in an empty wine bottle in full view of the audience. He never materialized and the audience rioted. In 1777, there was a series of comedies with dancing and pantomimic entertainments.

The Little Theatre also replaced other venues due to accidents or construction. For instance, when the Opera House was accidental destroyed by fire in 1789, Italian operas were presented for one season. In 1793 and 1974 when Drury Lane Theatre was under construction, the Little Theatre used Drury’s patent to temporarily perform plays.

Samuel Foote by Jean François Colson, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Samuel Foote by Jean François Colson. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Ranelagh Gardens – These pleasure gardens appeared about 1733 and, at the time, were located just outside London in Chelsea. They acquired their name because they occupied the site of the Ranelagh House, built by the First Earl of Ranelagh in the late 1600s. The centerpiece of the gardens was the rococo rotunda with an orchestra in the middle, and the gardens quickly became more popular than the older Vauxhall Gardens. Many famous people visited Ranelagh and were awed. For instance, Dr. Samuel Johnson exclaimed:

“When first I entered Ranelagh … it gave me an expansion and gay sensation in my mind, such as I never experienced anywhere else!”[3]

Horace Walpole was likewise taken aback. He wrote frequently about Ranelagh and in a letter to a friend noted:

“[E]very night constantly I go to Ranelagh, which has totally beat Vauxhall. Nobody goes anywhere else — everybody goes there.”[4]

Georgia England - Ranelagh Gardens Rotunda, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Ranelagh Gardens Rotunda. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Sadler’s Wells – It got its name from the property’s owner Richard Sadler. He discovered the monastic springs on the property and popularized the waters as healing. Some of the illnesses the water supposed cured included gout, rheumatism, severe coughs, “nervous, hypochondriac, hysteric affections, asthmas, indigestions, swellings, and eruptions.”[5] The waters attracted so many people, Sadler opened the “Musick House” in 1683, despite the area still being considered rural. This theatre operated in the summer months when Drury Lane was closed and traditionally opened on Easter weekend.

The theatre, which was replaced twice, offered a wide variety of entertainments over the years. After Sadler died, and between 1711 and 1730, rope dancing, vaulting, and tumbling were performed. By the 1740s, performances were usually related to burlettas, musical interludes, and pantomimes, and, during the early years of the 1800s, many famous actors appeared. Beginning in the 1860s, melodramas regained popularity and were presented there. In 1885, it was a roller skating rink and later a prize fighting arena.

Sadler’s Wells. Public domain.

Vauxhall Gardens – These pleasure gardens of Georgian England were accessed by boat and located on the Surrey side of the Thames near the Vauxhall Bridge. The gardens were founded in 1666 and originally named “The New Spring Gardens.” The garden fell out of use around 1712 and then revived in popularity after 1732 when an event known as Ridotto al fresco was given. The Prince of Wales appeared at the event, as did others wearing “masks, dominoes, or lawyer’s gowns.”[6] Vauxhall featured a variety of entertainments in the 1780s that included hot air balloon ascents, concerts, orchestras, tightrope walkers, and fireworks.

Georgian England Vauxhall in 1751, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Vauxhall in 1751. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

  • [1] Wheatley, Henry Benjamin, London, Past and Present, Vol. 1, 1891, p. 76.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Knowles, R.B., ed., The Illustrated London Magazine, 1867, p. 29.
  • [4] Wheatley, Henry Benjamin, London, Past and Present, Vol. 3, 1891, p. 148.
  • [5] Old and New London, 1881, p. 290.
  • [6] Chamber’s Journal, 1859, p. 159.

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