History falls… to parking lots and shopping malls

I will give you two examples of the way that society in the 19th century decreed that pleasure should not be un-policed. The first in this post was the fate of the Cremorne Gardens by the river in the Chelsea district of London.

cremorne map

It is 1877. The poor and immoral had been invading the space that the increasingly puritanised post-Georgian, post-Regency establishment had lately marked off for the well-to-do. There was a degree of class miscegenation that was unacceptable to the control-freakery that was instinctive to social ayatollahs. The Tivoli-style pleasure ground known as Cremorne Gardens had to close — and so it did. A petition from the locals, annual objections to the dancing licence, a libel suit from the lessee to defend his Cremorne’s reputation that resulted in him winning just a farthing damages all presaged the ending of an era.

Chelsea was the artists’ quarter. Whistler painted the Cremorne many times, as it was just outside his door. The accusation by Ruskin that Whistler was “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face” was over one of these Cremorne paintings.

One of Whistler's modernist Cremorne paintings

One of Whistler’s modernist Cremorne paintings


Artists lived there because it was cheap; DG Rosetti lived up the street. A cynic might add that the brothels around the Cremorne gave them another reason to inhabit south Chelsea, but progress was threatening. What were once open fields around the Cremorne were no more. Though the ground was unstable mud flats and sand, it was ripe for speculative building. In the 20 years to 1877 11 new streets and 500 houses in what were once fields of  vegetables and lavender hemmed in the gardens.

Looking back, a chronicler of Victorian reminiscence, Donald Shaw remembered the Cremorne’s last years this way: “Cremorne in those days was a delightful resort, with an excellent band, and frequented by the most exalted of men and the most beautiful of women.”

cremorne rotinda

Class warfare between what he styled the bloods and the shop boys was the spark that could set off a conflagration of misbehaviour that often spread to riot in the streets. Said Shaw: “Occasionally big rows took place, affairs that originated in some trifle, such as the irritation of an excitable blood on seeing a harmless shop-boy dancing in the ring. A sight such as the above was like a red rag to a bull, and in no time the fight became universal and furious. Gas was turned off, the ringleaders bolted, pursued by police. A run as far as Chelsea Hospital with a “bobby” in full cry was by no means an uncommon occurrence.”

But most of the time it was Pickwickian high jinks, according to Shaw. “Cremorne on a Derby night baffles description; progress round the dancing platform was almost impossible. The “Hermit’s Cave” and the “Fairy Bower” were filled to repletion, and to pass the private boxes was to run the gauntlet of a quartern loaf or dish of cutlets at one’s head. Fun, fast and furious reigned supreme, during which the smaller fry of shop-boys and hired dancers pirouetted within the ring with their various partners.”

A more clinical and yet humanistic analysis of the Cremorne phenomenon came from William Acton in his Prostitution: Considered in its Moral, Social and Sanitary Aspects. Acton’s Cremorne is a sad, rather than a bad place. He writes: “By about ten o’clock, age and innocence, of whom there had been much in the place that day, had seemingly all retired, weary with a long and paid bill of amusements, leaving the massive elms, the grass-plots, and the geranium-beds, the kiosks, temples, ‘monster platforms’, and ‘crystal circle’ of Cremorne to flicker in the thousand gas-lights there for the gratification of the dancing public only.

“On and around that platform waltzed, strolled, and fed some thousand souls – perhaps seven hundred of them men of the upper and middle class, the remainder prostitutes, more or less prononcées. I suppose that a hundred couples (partly old acquaintances, partly improvised) were engaged in dancing and other amusements, and the rest of the society, myself included, circulated listlessly about the garden, and enjoyed in a grim kind of way the selections from some favourite opera and the cool night-breeze from the river.”

Acton reckoned you would find more debauchery at a picnic in the woods at Burnham Beeches than you would at the Cremorne. Women were not soliciting, nor were they dressed or made up in the uniform of prostitutes, though he acknowledged that no offer to buy them a drink would have been refused.

With surprisingly modern acuity, Acton’s accusations were directed more towards the men who were potential clients than the women themselves. He notes a scene that is played out nightly in hostess bars around the world to this day when he observed: “two rosy capitalists (their wives at Brighton or elsewhere) were pouring, for mere distraction’s sake, libations of fictitious Möet, to the memory of auld lang syne with some fat old dames de maison, possibly extinct planets of the Georgian era.”

He remarks that the people you were most likely to find were lonely, middle-aged and midlife crisis-threatened males attempting to relive their youth — himself included. He says: “The extent of disillusion he has purchased in this world comes forcibly home to the middle-aged man who in such a scene attempts to fathom former faith and ancient joys, and perhaps even vainly to fancy he might by some possibility begin again.

“I saw scores, nay hundreds, about me in the same position as myself. We were there – and some of us, I feel sure, hardly knew why – but being there, and it being obviously impossible to enjoy the place after the manner of youth, it was necessary, I suppose, to chew the cud of sweet and bitter fancies; and then so little pleasure came, that the Britannic solidity waxed solider than ever even in a garden full of music and dancing, and so an almost mute procession, not of joyous revellers, but thoughtful, care-worn men and women, paced round and round the platform as on a horizontal treadmill.”

Coming up: What harm could there be at an aquarium?


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