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Sydney Gardens

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Feb 2019

Ghosts in the Garden

Today it is a tranquil green space in which you can retreat from the busy bustle of Bath but 200 years ago Sydney Gardens was at the centre of the entertainment industry of the city, hosting gala suppers, dances, fireworks and music concerts. The history of the gardens and especially the unfortunate story of one of its impresarios was the subject of Professor Steve Poole’s talk to the February gathering of Thornbury History and Archaeology Society.

Vauxhall Gardens in London had been at the vanguard of the fashion for pleasure gardens during the 18th century. It began as a pub garden in around 1660 when the government decided that entertainment was not necessarily a one way ticket to hell and restrictions were relaxed. The owner decided to arrange musical events and charged for tickets. More and more lavish entertainments were organised and Vauxhall gardens became the fashionable spot to see and be seen. A certain Samuel Pepys just couldn’t keep away from the place, and many towns and cities jumped on the bandwagon.

Sydney Gardens were begun in the 1790s as part of a new-town development across the river Avon from Bath town centre. Owned by the corporation, they were leased by an entrepreneur who had to get paying punters through the gates in order to stay afloat. The current Holburne museum started life as the Sydney Gardens Hotel, with curved wings of compartments (now demolished) projecting into the garden, at which one could partake of breakfast, tea or supper. The garden itself had meandering paths in the latest ‘picturesque’ style, a bowling green, Italianate loggia, ruined gothic castle, maze, swings (not for children) and equestrian rides. The price of 6 pence per visit was comparatively high in order to keep out undesirables, but generally the gardens were open to any respectable person, even members of the royal family.

From refined and genteel beginnings the attractions were ‘improved’ in order to compete in the entertainment industry of Bath and keep the turnstile ticking. This effectively meant making everything bigger, bolder, louder, faster. The musical gala evenings turned into all-night raves (I exaggerate of course), ‘unproductive’ areas of garden are given over to dancing, minstrels, balloon launches and variety acts such as tightrope walkers. A forerunner of the roller-coaster called the Russian Mountain was installed. ‘Plus ça change plus ça meme chose’. Needless to say some Bath residents were less than amused. Letters were written. The ‘fashionables’ deserted to Cheltenham. The proprietor went bankrupt.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. William Bridle had been a successful governor of Somerset County Jail, transforming it into a model establishment. He vowed to make Sydney Gardens better than Vauxhall, renaming it the Sydney Gardens Vauxhall, installing new flower beds, grottoes, a water mill, aviary and hermit’s cottage complete with mechanical hermit. He raised the perimeter walls to 7 feet and improved security to deter pick-pockets and prostitutes. He improved the gala evenings of music and fireworks, of which Jane Austen approved (she lived at no. 4 Sydney Place). Thousands flocked to these events. The gardens were saved. The corporation held a dinner in William Bridle’s honour. What’s that thing they say about pride?

Henry Hunt was a radical firebrand who, as a result of inciting riot at the Peterloo Massacre, had been sent to jail, William Bridle’s jail. Initially they had got on well but when Hunt’s privileges were withheld the relationship had deteriorated. Henry Hunt was not a person of whom to make an enemy. On his release, Hunt accused William Bridle of assault, bribery and embezzlement, using his powerful contacts to pursue the case. Now in Jane Austen’s day respectability and reputation were of primary importance, and once Bath Journal, which supported Hunt, got its claws into Bridle there could only be one outcome. They wrote ‘if wives and daughters are to enjoy the entertainments of public gardens, their safety depends upon the character of the man who conducts them’. (Wink, wink). The corporation raised the rent. Bridle went bankrupt with £4,000 debt, ending up in Bath workhouse.

Sydney gardens declined through the 19th century, the final nail driven right through the middle by I K Brunel in the shape of the Great Western Railway. But they still exist as the last remaining pleasure garden in the country. Many thanks to Steve Poole for his entertaining talk.

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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