Cuper's Gardens

Paul F. Rice, Memorial University of Newfoundland
November 2022

The history and importance of Cuper’s Gardens has been largely neglected in favour of studies on the larger enterprises at Vauxhall and Ranelagh. While it is true that the Cuper’s enterprise had passed out of prominence by 1755, its earlier activities are of significance and its subsequent closure casts light on the effects on the pleasure gardens of the expanded licensing requirements introduced in 1752.

Shortly before his death, Thomas Howard, 21st Earl of Arundel (1585−1646), leased three acres of his land to his former gardener, Abraham Boyder Cuper. This land was on the south side of the Thames in Lambeth (opposite Somerset House), at what is now the north end of Waterloo Road. Either Cuper or his son eventually turned the land into a public garden and the enterprise retained the Cuper name thereafter. In 1686, an additional seven acres of land were added to the enterprise, thus making the gardens of considerable size. The elder Cuper had also obtained ancient Greek and Roman statues from Thomas Howard and these created a dignified ambiance in the gardens. The site’s location was propitious for visitors as it was close to the City and easily reached by water. City clerks and younger members of the genteel trades were initially attracted to the site, perhaps contributing to the popular name of “Cupid’s Gardens.” There was also a waterside tavern known as the Feathers where patrons could obtain food and drink.

A significant change in the activities of the gardens came after Ephraim Evans (d. 1740) became proprietor in 1738. It is evident that Evans wanted to make the enterprise a serious rival to the Vauxhall Gardens further upstream on the Thames. On May 2, 1740, the London Daily Post and General Advertiser published Evans’ proposed changes. These included the addition of Serpentine Walks, and a new Orchestra, “erected in a magnificent Manner in the Modern Architecture, different from and superior to any other yet erected; with a large fine Organ fixt therein, by Mr. Bridge.” Unfortunately, Evans did not live to see the benefits of these improvements because he died on October 14th of that same year. The enterprise was continued by his widow Nem who displayed considerable business acumen, but who seems to have been unable to prevent less desirable elements such as pickpockets and ruffians from entering the gardens in spite of the admission charge of a shilling. As a result, the gardens soon achieved a reputation of being unsafe for unescorted women. Still, the entertainments attracted people of quality, with the Prince and Princess of Wales being occasional visitors.

Cuper’s Gardens became especially noted for its displays of fireworks which emanated from both the grounds and the adjacent canal. Some of these displays were elaborate and included depictions of wheels, fountains and large sky rockets. On one occasion there was even a depiction of St. George slaying a dragon. Viewing such displays in the night sky overlooking the Thames must have been particularly attractive. Music, too, was much associated with entertainments at the gardens. Handel’s music was frequently presented there and the London Post and General Advertiser (July 10, 1741) reported that the composer’s Fire Music as performed in the opera Atalanta accompanied the evening’s display of fireworks. This was not the composer’s famous Royal Fireworks Music from 1749, but a reference to the spectacular display of fireworks that had concluded the premiere of the opera on May 12, 1736, at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. Presumably, it was only orchestral music from the opera that was performed at Cuper’s Gardens on the occasion.

Choral music was heard on occasion, with choruses from various oratorios by Handel predominating. Prior to 1744, however, none of the London pleasure gardens had attempted to present solo singing in an outdoor environment. The Marylebone Gardens presented the Scott sisters in July of that year and the Daily Advertiser (August 30, 1744) records that a Mr. Jenkins Williams had attracted very large audiences at Cuper’s Gardens for his singing of favourite songs “for three Nights past.” Both pleasure gardens had stolen a march on Vauxhall which did not introduce solo singing until the following year. The Daily Advertiser subsequently reported (September 6, 1744) that Williams had been replaced with another singer so as “to oblige the Town.” Thereafter, vocal and instrumental music was heard regularly in the concerts. The General Advertiser (June 25, 1750) announced: “THIS Evening several Grand Pieces of Musick will be performed, composed by the Best Masters. Singing by Signora Sibilla PINTO. Master [George] MATTOCKS [in] the First Act sings The Reasonable Love, set by Mr. [Thomas] Arne; and The Highland Laddie, set by Master [Michael] Arne.” For the next several years, Thomas Arne was a regular presence at the gardens, both in person and through the performance of his music which featured his students such as Mrs. Pinto (1720–66) and his son Michael (c. 1740−86).

While the concerts at Cuper’s Gardens never achieved the same status as those at Vauxhall or Ranelagh, they were still held in high regard. Matters changed, however, after 1752 when all public gardens had to be licensed. The application by Mrs. Evans was refused in 1753, likely owing to the numerous reports of pickpockets and immorality. Thereafter, Mrs. Evans ran the gardens as an unlicensed tea garden, something that was likely not as profitable as her previous business. Mrs. Evans then decided to evade the licensing authority altogether by offering her entertainments by private subscription. On April 25, 1755, the Pubic Advertiser announced a subscription concert and display of fireworks at the gardens in honour of the Duke of Cumberland. The next day, the same paper stated that “The Subscription for the Entertainment at Cuper’s Gardens ... goes on so extremely well that the Number of Subscribers propos’d is nearly compleated.” The event took place, seemingly without interference from the licensing authority and, on May 27, 1755, the Public Advertiser announced a subscription for fifteen further evenings of concerts and fireworks at a cost of one guinea. Each ticket would admit two people. Warwick Wroth writes that “it is to be suspected that the subscription was mythical,” but offers no proof to support his suspicion―(The London Pleasure Gardens, 1896). What can be proved in the subsequent advertisements is that a “subscription” for single tickets could be purchased for a shilling and six pence. These tickets had to be purchased in advance and were presumably not available on the evenings of the events. This was splitting hairs very finely in terms of the requirements of licensing. The experiment was not repeated between 1756−59 when the enterprise reverted to being a tea garden associated with the Feathers Tavern. The entire operation was closed in 1760 after Mrs. Evans died. By 1814, part of the original gardens had been appropriated to make an adequate approach to the first Waterloo Bridge opened in 1817.