The Dangers of the Victorian Pleasure Garden

The Dancing Platform at Cremorne Gardens by Phoebus Levin, 1864.

When thinking of nineteenth century pleasure gardens, most of us instantly conjure up images of Vauxhall. But those in the Georgian era weren’t the only ones to enjoy a pleasure garden in London. In 1830 Cremorne Gardens was opened in Chelsea. Over the decades that followed, it offered concerts, circuses, dancing, and fireworks. It also offered military exhibitions and feats of dangerous daring, including high-wire acts and balloon ascents. Though many of these feats were successful, earning acclaim for various wire-walkers and aeronauts, still others ended in tragedy. Gruesome injuries and even fatalities occurred with some regularity—in full view of the Victorian public.

The Collapsed Platform

In 1855, during a military fete at Cremorne Gardens, a platform collapsed under the weight of sixty soldiers carrying their muskets and bayonets. According to an 18 August 1855 edition of the Huddersfield Chronicle, the soldiers were comprised mostly of Grenadier Guards who were enacting “the capture of the Mamelon and rifle pits by the allied troops before Sebastapol.” The performance had received the patronage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, as well as of “the highest military authorities.” Both the Household Troops and Royal Artillery were in attendance.

Banqueting halls at Cremorne Gardens, mid-19th century.

To enact the mock siege, stages of various heights had been constructed. As the Huddersfield Chronicle reports:

“Just as the spectacle was reaching its close, when the defenders of the Mamelon and the rifle-pits had been driven to the highest part of the staging by the assaulting columns below, the gallery on which they stood gave way, bringing some 60 men, with bayonets fixed on their muskets, crashing to the ground through a fall of at least 20 feet.”

During the fall, some of the men were bayoneted on their own weapons. Others broke their legs or fractured their ribs and limbs. No soldiers died at the scene, but one is reported to have suffered serious internal injuries.

The Broken Wire

An even more frightful accident occurred at Cremorne Gardens in June of 1863. The public had gathered to watch a show put on by the acclaimed acrobat Carlo Valerio. For the past two months, the twenty-five year old Valerio had been performing a high-wire act at the Gardens during which he walked along a wire cable that measured 600 feet across. The 27 June 1863 edition of The London Daily News reports that, on the night in question:

“He had advanced nearly to the point from which he usually returned backwards, when the wire rope suddenly gave way, and he fell heavily to the grassplat, a distance of upwards of sixty feet.”

Valerio’s injuries were severe. He suffered a fractured skull, a broken collar-bone, and many other injuries. According to a graphic first-hand account published in the 30 June 1863 edition of the Dundee, Perth, and Cupar Advertiser:

“When the wire slackened the unfortunate man staggered, and was precipitated violently to the ground on the back of his head, the blood pouring profusely from the wound and from his ears. Numbers of persons, particularly the females, were dreadfully shocked and affected, many of the corps de ballet being afterwards scarcely able to go through their performance. He was immediately removed, and the dance and music proceeded.”

The Ashburnham Pavilion at Cremorne Gardens, Illustrated London News, 1858.

The London Daily News states that Valerio was taken to Chelsea Hospital where he “lingered in great pain” until three o’clock in the morning, at which point “he expired” from his injuries. His death prompted an outcry against dangerous exhibitions. It was reasoned that, since acrobats would continue to test their skills in ever increasing feats and since the public would continue to arrive in droves to see such performances, it was up to the proprietors of places like Cremorne Gardens to prohibit exhibitions which put performers’ lives at risk.

In fact, Valerio’s death prompted Mr. E. T. Smith, then the proprietor of Cremorne Gardens, to write to the editor of The Era declaring just that. His letter, printed in the 28 June 1863 edition of The Era, reads in part:

“The sad accident that occurred at these Gardens on Thursday evening to the unfortunate Carlo Valerio during his performance on the wire rope, and which no person can more deeply regret than myself, induces me, with your permission, to seek the earliest moment of announcing, through your columns, that no such exhibition will ever again be permitted to take place here as long as I remain the Proprietor.”

The Flying Man’s Shroud

Unfortunately, Valerio’s death was not the last fatality to occur as a result of an exhibition at Cremorne Gardens. In 1874, crowds again gathered to watch a death-defying feat. This time, the stunt was performed by M. Vincent de Groof, a thirty-five-year-old performer known as the Flying Man. According to the 11 July 1874 edition of the Belfast News-Letter, M. de Groof promised to:

“Fly a distance of 5,000 feet through the air by means of a pair of wings shaped like a bat’s, which were fixed to his shoulders and worked by his arms.”

Balloon Ascent at Cremorne Gardens, Walter Greaves, 1872.

M. de Groof ascended into the air by means of a balloon, from which he was suspended by a rope “about twenty feet below the car.” As the balloon rose to a height of approximately 1000 feet, M. de Groof flapped his wings, making for a churchyard some fifty years away. When he hit a favourable current of wind, he cut the rope, fully expecting to fly free of the balloon by virtue of the wings attached to his arms. Instead, as the Belfast News-Letter grimly relates:

“He came crashing through the air; the wing closed around him like a living shroud, and narrowly escaping the outer parapet, he fell with fearful violence on his head and right side in the road, immediately opposite the front entrance of St. Luke’s Church. Hundreds of persons immediately rushed to his assistance, and found him bleeding violently from the nose and ears, and without any sign of life.”

A Few Final Words…

As the decade progressed, Cremorne Gardens’ reputation as a popular venue for wholesome entertainment began to sink. After the sun had set and Victorian families had departed, it transformed into what one Baptist minister of the 1870s referred to as “a nursery of vice.” Robberies and assaults were regularly reported, as were the activities of prostitutes and their clients. In the end, it was this less gruesome but rather more unsavoury aspect of Cremorne Gardens which led to its closure in 1877. An increasingly prudish Victorian public objected to the goings on there, especially after dark.

**Author’s Note:  This article was originally published in September 2017 at the English Historical Fiction Authors Blog.

Mimi Matthews is the author of  The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th CenturiesA Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty (Pen and Sword Books , July 2018), and The Lost Letter: A Victorian Romance. She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

Belfast News-Letter (Antrim, Northern Ireland), 11 July 1874.

Dundee, Perth, and Cupar Advertiser (Angus, Scotland), 30 June, 1863.

Elgin Courier (Moray, Scotland), 17 August 1855.

The Era (London, England), 28 June 1863.

Guard, Richard. Lost London. London: Michael O’Mara Books, Ltd., 2012.

Huddersfield Chronicle (West Yorkshire, England), 18 August 1855.

Illustrated London News (London, England). 5 June 1847.

London Daily News (London, England), Saturday 27 June 1863.

Thomas, Donald. The Victorian Underworld. London: Orion Publishing Group, 2014.


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E A M Harris
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Fascinating article. Thank you for posting.

Cynthia Strauff
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always a treat to read your posts…

woostersauce2014
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Fascinating. Many thanks for this.