Some of you may recall one of the early roles played by Aidan “Poldark” Turner, as Dante Gabriel Rossetti in a lively version of the story of the Pre-Raphaelites called Desperate Romantics. As I recall it (and I apologise for any inaccuracy in my recollection) Rossetti and his friends had a few scenes hanging out and picking up girls at Cremorne Gardens, the celebrated / notorious pleasure gardens which was located at the western end of Chelsea, from the 1840s until its sudden demise in the 1870s.
It’s been a long while since we were at Cremorne for blogging purposes. I concentrated back then on the sensational entertainments – the balloons, the high wire acts and other death-defying feats hyped on the posters and handbills. But along with the big events, the most regular and consistent activity at Cremorne was dancing. Pepper’s Ghost, the learned dogs and monkeys, the prestidigitation, the necromancy (really?), the double-sighted boy and the Italian Salamander were all very well but for most of its young visitors the biggest lure was the dancing platform.
Any activity at Cremorne was a bit of a high wire act. It is said that during the day there were the verdant gardens, the edifying displays and exhibits, theatrical performances and ballets. All quite respectable stuff.
Ladies and gentlemen, strolling, sitting and taking refreshment. And there were perfectly acceptable entertainments.
Who could deny the allure of the demure Viennese Female Orchestra?
But in the evening, its critics insisted, Cremorne took a dive into immorality. Not that dancing itself was immoral of course. But some of those young people were taking the pleasure of the pleasure gardens just a little too far.
Because this wasn’t your staid middle class drawing room dancing. These were wild polkas and even a dance called the gallop.
And as far as I can tell the Gallop consisted of couples running clasped together from one side of the famous Chinese Pagoda dancing platform to the other.
And when the clerks and assistants, the shop girls and the parlour maids took a breather from the dancing they could just hang around just like any of the toffs.
There were plenty of those too, slumming it at the edge of London.
See those three gents at the front, holding each other up in a last ditch effort to look sober and respectable. Then look over at the couple on the left – he with his excessively long mustaches, her with her neat little veil. They could be off to one of the many little cubicles located around the dancing platform.
Where mixed parties could have a little privacy, take some rest after their exertions on the dance floor, and spy on each other. Rumour had it that there were even more secluded spots in the exuberant foliage which filled the gardens, where depravity could ensue, if you were so inclined. But obviously we won’t be following anyone there. On with the dance..
There are stories to be told of the nights at Cremorne.
A sad tale of a servant at a great house forced to wait at tables:
The Broken ‘arted butler hof Bel-grave- yer – A pathetic ballad dedicated to the Duke of Smother’em, Commander of the Fire Brigade (Words and music by T Blewit Pearce)
Or there was the fate of the Aristocratic Fete, an attempt to raise the tone of the evening at Cremorne.
Unfortunately washed out by a fearsome downpour. In July as well.
Face it, “Royal” Cremorne (as it was sometimes styled by optimistic proprietors) was never going to be an upmarket palace of fun.
The pleasure seekers raise their glasses. Even the guy under the table resting his weary head against the frills and flounces barely covering the lady’s leg.
[Trivia lovers. Where have you seen this image before? You’ll need to remember when Ted Danson was a young chap… the picture was used in the opening credits of Cheers. If you knew it, does that date both of us?]
Cremorne was a byword for illicit pleasure by the end of its tenure, as demonstrated in this cartoon.
The young swell has a damn good time mooching around and carousing, but in the centre picture it’s all swirling around him in a phantasmagoria of regret. He’ll probably be back for more though.
The forces of morality (and falling profits) eventually closed Cremorne and with indecent haste the property developers moved in to clear the site and start building. But we’ve time for one more story.
Oh, I met her on a steamer as I journey’d to Cremorne
Crinoline, a pork-pie hat her figure did adorn
Our glances met, she smil’d at me, then as if unawares
My arm it slipp’d around her waist, whilst on the cabin stairs
I ask’d her if she’s go with me, she said yes if I’d let her.
T’was just as good as going home.
Yes as good and a great deal better.
So we went into the Gardens, dan’d the Polka and Quadrille
From nine till half past eleven at night
Stood not ten minutes still
Then to the supper rooms we went and had a first-rate spread
With lots of wine, Oh t’was very fine, but it got into my head.
For after when I tried to dance I tumbled and upset her.
I really felt as good as tight
Yes as good and a great deal better.
The young gentleman proposes the same evening. Having been told she lives in Belgravia, he imagines she is an heiress. But when he turns up on the steps of the church, she is there accompanied by a personable young policeman. She, a servant in Belgravia as it happens, tells him that she would rather marry the policeman and that he should pay out fifty pounds or face a claim for breach of promise. (This all sounds very unlikely, but let Mr Burnot have some artistic licence. )
So mind all fast young gentlemen who journey to Cremorne
Or any other gardens, or where crinoline is worn
Do not propose to wed strange girls, however well they dress
Or else like me you perhaps may get in such another mess
Be sure you know her station well before you say you’ll wed her
A little care is good enough, as good and a great deal better.
Personally I think he deserved it. This is an example of a moment when the lower orders could get one over on their betters by the simple expedient of dressing well. There would be a lot more of that in the years to come in the arenas of mass entertainment and elsewhere.
I’ve used the final picture before I know but I think it deserved a second outing in a more detailed context. (It was back in the early days of the blog). There’s an excellent book which covers Cremorne and other entertainments of the age – Victorian Babylon by Lynda Nead (Yale University Press 2005). And I can also recommend The Last Pleasure Garden by Lee Jackson (Arrow 2007), a crime story set partly at Cremorne . (Lee also does serious history as well of course like Dirty Old London: the Victorian fight against filth (2015) also worth reading.)
Many people have researched Cremorne at the Library, but I’m dedicating this post to the most assiduous researcher I know, Gill Best.