Where An 18th Century Londoner Went For A Night Out

By Danielle Thom Last edited 19 months ago
Where An 18th Century Londoner Went For A Night Out
Vaux Hall, by Thomas Rowlandson (1784), aquatint etching. © Metropolitan Museum of Art

18th century London was very different to the capital we know today: quieter, smaller and with under a million inhabitants. Even so, if you knew where to look, and carried a few shillings in your silk pocket, you could have a good night out in the city long before £15 cocktails and queuing outside Fabric became a thing. The period saw an explosion of dedicated commercial public spaces for entertainment, most of which have disappeared under concrete in the last two centuries. But, armed with a map and a sharp eye, it's still possible to trace the outlines of the nightlife enjoyed by peers and prostitutes alike in the 18th century.

Vauxhall Gardens is a small park on the north side of Kennington Lane. Today it's a simple green space, but its earlier incarnation was much more elaborate. In 1729 the land was leased to the entrepreneur Jonathan Tyers (after whom nearby Tyers Street is named). He transformed it into a luxurious garden where anyone could enter for a shilling fee, building an orchestra pit and a series of open-air 'supper boxes' where you could eat while other people gawped at you. The boxes were hung with paintings by William Hogarth and Francis Hayman, making them the first public art gallery in Britain; and surrounded by a densely wooded, poorly-lit series of paths which became a noted spot for romantic assignations. Home to masquerades, concerts and exhibitions, the gardens were finally demolished in 1859.

Pantheon in Oxford Road, anonymous (1775). Engraving. © Trustees of the British Museum

If you find yourself on Oxford Street, walk eastwards to the art deco Pantheon building which houses Marks and Spencer. It stands on the site of an earlier building which went by the same name, built in 1772. This was a domed assembly hall, based on the ancient Pantheon at Rome. Modelled along classical lines, it appealed to an educated elite as a place for opera and conversation. The first hot air balloon in England was even exhibited floating inside the dome, in 1784. The not-so-elite were also in attendance, and polite visitors complained that the Pantheon was full of well-dressed prostitutes on the prowl for clients. It burned down in 1792, and despite being rebuilt in 1795 and again in 1833, it ended its days as a wine warehouse before being replaced by the present structure in 1938.

Detail from The Four Times of Day - Morning, by William Hogarth (1738). Engraving. © Metropolitan Museum of Art

Further east, Covent Garden is full of the ghosts of wild nights. Although the Piazza began as a fashionable neighbourhood in the 1630s, a century later it was a disreputable red light district. One of the most infamous spots was Tom King's Coffee House, a shed on the south of the Piazza, approximately — and appropriately — where Shake Shack is now. It was such a symbol of the rougher side of London nightlife that it appears in the Hogarth print Morning, where the last revellers of the night can be seen brawling inside the doorway, wigs flying. Tom himself was an old Etonian done bad, who married Moll King, a market trader. Together, they ran an establishment where dukes rubbed shoulders with thieves, and grew so rich that they built a row of houses on Haverstock Hill – still there, opposite the Sir Richard Steele pub.

A Bagnigge Wells Scene, or No Resisting Temptation, by John Raphael Smith (1776). Mezzotint. © Trustees of the British Museum

Right on the edge of London in the 18th century — but now swallowed up by EC1 — Bagnigge Wells was a health spa and pleasure garden. It was located near the junction of King's Cross Road and Calthorpe Street, and was originally the summer home of Nell Gwynne, actress and mistress of Charles II. Mineral springs were discovered there in 1760, and Londoners flocked to drink the waters for their health. Bagnigge Wells was less stylish than Vauxhall, its proximity to the City making it more popular with middle class merchants than leaders of fashion; but the ubiquitous 'well-dressed prostitutes' were still a feature – 18th-century men were seriously worried about picking up an incurable STD. Today, 1930s blocks of flats named Bagnigge House and Gwynne House, on nearby Margery Street, are reminders of a more raucous history.

Last Updated 06 April 2017