The scandalous origins of the amusement park

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The 18th century London’s hedonistic “Pleasure Gardens” captivated the public with a heady mix of fantasy and vice. Then, over time, they evolved in an unexpected way, writes Cath Pound.

Disneyland Paris, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, provides a magical realm to lose oneself in for a few precious hours or days. It is the epitome of family entertainment, but its roots can be traced back to a far more hedonistic type of park, Regency England’s Pleasure Gardens. While the entertainment in such gardens might have made Walt blush, and the entertainment offered by Disneyland and the countless theme parks it inspired is undeniably chaste, the history and evolution of such venues demonstrates our never-ending desire for environments in which we can cast aside reality and immerse ourselves in fantasy and fun.

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Dyrehavsbakken in Denmark is thought to be the first amusement park. When a natural spring was discovered there in 1583, it drew large crowds, who were accompanied by entertainers and vendors. The concept of leisure, however, was transformed by London’s Pleasure Gardens. They captivated the public with their heady mix of culture, fashion, and vice, offering an environment in which societal norms could be cast aside, if only for a few hours. 

Spring Gardens, London’s first Pleasure Garden, opened in the 1630s, though bowls was the only entertainment available. Pleasure Gardens matured in the 18th century, during the reign of the two greatest gardens, Vauxhall and Ranelagh. Vauxhall in particular captivated the public’s imagination, both at home and abroad, with its astonishing variety of entertainments set out in attractively landscaped gardens. According to historian Jonathan Conlin, editor of The Pleasure Garden, from Vauxhall to Coney Island, the public “wanted a place that had all the sophistication, culture, and crowds of the city but with a kind of theme park pastoralism thrown in.”

If you interacted with people inside the gardens it was kind of like Vegas – what happened in Vauxhall stayed in Vauxhall – Jonathan Conlin

Vauxhall, as depicted in the recent Netflix drama Bridgerton, was at the centre of the capital’s social scene. There was a theatre, concert pavilion, supper room, and bar in addition to an ornate salon and picture gallery. Lavish supper boxes created in the 1740s were decorated with paintings, the majority of which were by Francis Hayman from designs by Hayman himself, Hubert Gravelot, and William Hogarth, making them the first public display of paintings by native British artists. The gravel walkways where visitors promenaded in the latest fashions to see and be seen were embellished with massive false perspectives that created the illusion of distance or transported the viewer to sites associated with antiquity or the Grand Tour. 

The gardens truly came to life at night, when they were dramatically illuminated by thousands of lamps, and visitors were dazzled by firework displays and other illuminations. Masquerades provided a much-desired frisson of danger and intrigue. With identity concealed, the suffocating boundaries of class and gender could be abandoned. Those looking for more excitement could visit the notorious “Dark Walks,” which were intentionally left unlit to provide cover for lovers who wanted to throw social convention to the wind, as well as for well-dressed sex workers to ply their trade. “There wasn’t necessarily a clear division between light walks and dark walks, it was a question of how far you were willing to go,” Conlin tells BBC Culture. 

And if respectable young ladies chose to enter them, the gentlemen they met might assume they wanted to go further than they would outside the gardens. Evelina, the eponymous heroine of Fanny Burney’s 1778 novel, becomes stuck when the foolish Branghton sisters persuade her to enter the Dark Walks. They are approached by a gang of drunken young men who mistake them for “easy virtue” ladies. Evelina flees, only to be accosted by another group. She believes she has found her saviour when she recognises her admirer Sir Clement Willoughby, but he also tries to take advantage of her. Conlin believes that by going there, she is demonstrating her willingness to try new things. 

The mixing of social classes particularly impressed foreign visitors. “The French in the 18th century are constantly anticipating a revolution in London. They couldn’t figure out how mixing could result in stability rather than instability “Conlin says.

However, mixing was only permitted within the confines of the garden. “If you interacted with people inside the gardens, it was kind of like Vegas – what happened in Vauxhall stayed in Vauxhall – if you made someone’s acquaintance there, you couldn’t assume anything else,” Conlin says.

Becky Sharp, the heroine of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 novel Vanity Fair finds this to her cost. On an evening stroll through the gardens, the inebriated civil servant Jos Sedley makes amorous advances toward Becky, who believes he can save her from a life as a governess. But in the cool light of day, spurred on by the snobbish mockery of George Osbourne, Jos’s ardour diminishes, and she finds herself condemned to her fate.

The gardens quickly became a tourist destination, inspiring a slew of imitators both in England and around the world, with the term “Vauxhall” appearing in French, Dutch, Swedish, German, and Russian. 

The Pleasure Gardens of Paris were part of “an Anglomania that takes off after the astonishing defeat of the much larger and more powerful French in the Seven Years’ War,” according to Conlin. While imitating the original, they also adapted it, including unusual additions such as fighting cocks, which the French saw as uniquely English. After the French Revolution, they became a great centre for Royalist scheming as well as the site of Bastille Day celebrations, demonstrating their ability to provide something for everyone.