Georgian entertainment: from pleasure gardens to blood sports
- Article by: Matthew White
Illustration of Sadler's Wells TheatreView images from this item (1)
TheatreThe 18th century was the great age of theatre. In London and the provinces, large purpose-built auditoriums were built to house the huge crowds that flocked nightly to see plays and musical performances. A variety of entertainments were on offer, from plays and ballets to rope-walkers and acrobats.
Poster advertising a variety of theatre entertainments, 1787View images from this item (1)
Theatre-going was a very different experience from that of today. Theatre audiences could be rude, noisy and dangerous. Alcohol and food was consumed in great quantity, while people frequently arrived and left throughout the duration of the performance. Audiences chatted amongst themselves and sometimes pelted actors with rotten fruit and vegetables. Others demanded that popular tunes be played over and over again. James Boswell described mooing like a cow during one particularly bad play, to the great amusement of his companions. Rioting at theatres was also not uncommon. The Drury Lane theatre in London, for example, was destroyed by rioting on six occasions during the century.
Audiences were a mixture of both rich and poor, and sat in different parts of the theatre depending on whether they could afford cheap or expensive tickets. ‘Persons of quality’ were seated in boxes placed alongside the stage, while working men and women were squeezed into hot and dirty galleries. In front of the stage, young men would drink together, eat nuts and mingle with prostitutes down below in the notorious ‘pit’.
Illustration of entertainments at Ranelagh pleasure gardensView images from this item (1)
Pleasure GardensLike the theatre, pleasure gardens were the great melting pots of 18th-century society. London pleasure gardens in particular were incredibly successful. First opened in 1746, Ranelagh pleasure gardens in Chelsea boasted acres of formal gardens with long sweeping avenues, down which pedestrians strolled together on balmy summer evenings. Other visitors came to admire the Chinese Pavillion or watch the fountain of mirrors and attend musical concerts held in the great 200-foot wide Rotunda. Novelist Fanny Burney described how the nightly illuminations and magic lanterns at Ranelagh ‘made me almost think I was in some enchanted castle or fairy palace’.
The Inside view of the Rotunda in Ranelagh Gardens with the company at breakfastView images from this item (1)
Originally designed to appeal to wealthier tastes, pleasure gardens soon became visited by rich and poor alike: both aristocrats and tradesmen enjoyed the entertainments side by side. The entrance price to Vauxhall gardens was just one shilling throughout the century and therefore remained affordable to most people. 12,000 people arrived at Vauxhall gardens in 1749 to watch Handel rehearse his Fireworks Music. Elsewhere in London, people drank tea and strolled together in smaller private venues, of which there were over 60 by the second half of the century. Most provincial towns also boasted their own pleasure gardens that were often modelled on the most fashionable London attractions.
A Perspective View of Vaux Hall GardensView images from this item (1)
FairsIn most towns across the country, fairs and traditional holidays remained important parts of the yearly calendar. Wakes were traditional fairs linked to local saints’ or feast days, while other fairs accompanied markets and civic celebrations. Many fairs lasted for a week or more, and were attended by thousands of people, who hurried to attend them from across the surrounding area.
Entertainments on offer at Bartholomew Fair, 1721View images from this item (1)
Copyright: © Wellcome Library, London
Illustration of Bartholomew FairView images from this item (1)
Curiosities, exhibitions and crazesExhibitions of curiosities regularly drew large crowds of fascinated sightseers. Up and down the Strand in London, exhibitions of imported exotic animals could be seen in taverns and assembly rooms: birds and monkeys from Africa, for example, or even lions, tigers and zebras.
Poster advertising the exhibition of a rhinoceros, zebra and alpacaView images from this item (1)
See and believe! An exhibition of the 'Royal Lion'View images from this item (1)
Poster advertising the exhibition of a mermaid and Toby, the performing pigView images from this item (1)
Illustration of Bedlam, by William Hogarth, 1735View images from this item (1)
Copyright: © Trustees of the British Museum
Poster advertising Mr Henry Blacker, 'the British giant'View images from this item (1)
Poster advertising Mrs Bark, 'the Nottinghamshire Giantess'View images from this item (1)
A Representation of Mr Lunardi's Balloon, as exhibited in the Pantheon, 1784View images from this item (1)
Blood sportsAnimal baiting and organised blood sports remained extremely popular during the 18th century. Bull baiting was one such example, in which an animal was tied to a stake as dogs were sent in to attack, while a cheering and expectant crowd watched from the sidelines. Many provincial towns had specific bull-rings built for this purpose, and baitings often took place in busy market places or town squares. Badgers and bears were also occasionally used in this manner. Alternatively, bull-running was often organised in towns. Angry bulls were sometimes set free in the streets, and pursued from place to place by crowds of excited spectators.
Illustration of cock fighting, from the Microcosm of LondonView images from this item (1)
The popularity of many blood-sports began to disappear by the end of the century. They became less frequent, due to changing attitudes to animal rights. Animal baiting was eventually made illegal by Parliament early in the 1800s.
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