Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Odd People in Odd Places, by James Greenwood, [1883] - At a Fourpenny Garden Party

[back to main menu for this book]



The tea gardens of the olden times - Love's young dream, and the unromantic necessity for eating and drinking - The modern so-called tea gardens - ' Fours'' of spiritous liquour - A tea garden east of St. Paul's, and its patrons - Its attractions for working girls, and their sacrifices for it - Which shall it be, dinner, or flowers for my hat?- Vanity wins - The road to the tea gardens not the highway to matrimony - The ugliest blot on the picture -The lampless garden boxes.

THERE is something in the appellation bestowed on that good old-fashioned place of resort, the "tea garden", that, for a sufficiency of reasons, recommends it to public favour. As a garden, it must necessarily be a healthful haven of temporary rest after the long and pleasant walk through country lanes and across the flowery fields and meadows; and in what other little word of three letters is so much of comfort and coziness expressed as in "tea"?
    It does not mean merely the invigorating beverage so named. The term "tea" includes, when taken in connection with "garden," the luscious home-made wheaten loaf, the pat of butter bedewed with the milk from which but an hour since it was churned, the freshly-laid eggs, the mellow and streaky bacon rasher, with a farm flavour about it that is sought in vain in meat of a kindred kind purchased of the cheesemonger! The wayside country inn, with its ancient porch overshadowed with a wide-spreading tree, from a jutting limb of which hangs the sign-board, creaking lazily with every vagrant breeze that stirs it, with a sound that, to the dusty traveller who, having slaked his thirst, puts his feet up on the bench to rest awhile, is suggestive of the creaking of the wicker cradle and of rocking to sleep - the wayside inn, I say, is an admirable institution in its way, and despite all that anti-alcoholic crusaders may opine to the contrary, there are many honest folk who, after years of experience, are still prepared stanchly to maintain that, for the thirsty pedestrian whose protracted wayfaring has fairly earned for him the reward of a "modest quencher," there is nothing for the purpose to equal a deliberate and steady pull at a cool and shining pewter measure, filled to the brim with genuine and [-198-] unadulterated nut-brown ale. But, without desiring for a moment to dispute the soundness of this time-honoured proposition, it must be admitted that ripe ale, however excellent and deserving the high commendations of those who have attained to manhood's lusty prime, is scarcely the sort of refreshment to be offered without limit or restriction to the rising generation - to mere lasses and lads and sweethearting couples, who are the individuals of all others most likely to betake themselves of summer evenings to suburban regions where the lanes are the shadiest and the grass the greenest. It is for young people that the tea garden, with its flower-beds and the innocent seclusion of its rosy arbours, is such a pleasant convenience. Billing and cooing are all very well. Indeed, taking a retrospective glance from the top of the hill it has taken him fifty years to climb, a man will seldom be able to look back to anything that was more completely to his heart's content than that delightful time when he was privileged to partake of the sweet enjoyment. But billing and cooing are not enough of themselves to sustain the most devoted couple through a long afternoon and a six-miles walk, with the uncompromising prospect of the same distance back home again. "Love's young dream" is not proof against that exceedingly vulgar feeling known as a sinking, and which commonly, and in the female as well as the male sex, attends fatigue, and the unromantic ailment is to be cured only by eating and drinking. Generally speaking, the means of gratifying such cravings were near at hand. There was the rustic tea garden, with its home comforts and matronly management, and to which any young lady might accompany a young gentleman without so much as an abrasion, let alone a breach, of the proprieties.
    Such, at least, was something like the state of affairs but a few years since. How lamentably the suburban "tea garden" has in modern times declined from respectability needs no telling. The reason why would not be easy to explain, or how the evil first crept in, hut it is an undeniable fact that, of all the many establishments of the kind that were flourishing wholesomely round about the metropolis a quarter of a century ago, there was scarcely one that did not forfeit its fair reputation and sink lower and lower, until, at last, it became little better than a haunt of vice and profligacy, patronized chiefly by fast [-199-] young shopmen in the habit of taking liberties with the money- till, with dissipated apprentice and factory lads, and their equally precocious and unscrupulous young female companions, whom they either took with them or appointed to meet there.
    There was hardly a suburb of London that was not afflicted with at least one of these dens of iniquity. Under the new system it was a profitable business, and there were not wanting speculators of a certain class ready to back up an old scheme or start a new. The old name, "tea gardens," was adhered to, but it was all fudge. Folks who had a sober regard for the teapot were not wanted there. The mildest liquid refreshment on draught was bitter ale or stout; but spirits and water was the favourite drink - fours of gin or whisky, not much as to quantity, but make up for it in quality: nice fiery stuff that made its effects felt, and set the blood simmering the moment it was swallowed. A stimulant less brisk and potent would not have sufficed to "keep the game alive" - the said game being disporting on the dancing platform, where the hand invited, and between whiles retiring in the gloom of the "refreshment boxes," where hovered the cat-like waiters, who knew their business so well they could have gone about it blindfold. Indeed, it came to much the same thing. At length, however, the scandal made such alarming headway that the police authorities could no longer overlook it, and such significant warning was given to the proprietors that, very much to the satisfaction of the outraged respectable inhabitants near whose habitations the gardens were situated, they deemed it prudent to close the gates for good and all.
    Indeed, so thorough seemed the extinction of the establishments in question, that it was not until my attention was drawn to a placard making known the fact, that I was made aware than an eastern suburb could still boast of a "tea garden," provided with a band, and a dancing platform so extensive as to accommodate, unless the placard exaggerated its size, several hundred dancers at one and the same time. Refreshments, including ale and spirits, the public were informed, were to be obtained at the gardens at popular prices, and the charge of admission was but fourpence. Making inquiry, I was informed that the place of amusement indicated was extensively patronized by young men and women, especially on Saturday and Monday evenings, the [-200-] great majority of the visitors being girls of the warehouse and the factory, and youths and lads engaged in the same kind of industries. On a Saturday evening, therefore, I arrived at the gardens in good time, and, joining the fast-arriving throng, paid my fourpence and passed in.
    And I hasten to state, and am much pleased to be able to do so, that a prettier place or one more carefully arranged it could not be easy to find. The flower-beds, the garden-paths, the broad patches of green are all as nice as possible, and exactly the place to which a working man would delight to take his wife and family now and again by way of a rural treat. I am no judge of dancing, or of the perfections of a platform dedicated to that pastime, but judging from the vast number of young females who had arrived there before the band, and who were seated around or lounging in groups of three or four, evidently bent on joining in the fun at the earliest possible opportunity, there could be no doubt that the arrangements in this department were well appreciated. It was as yet early daylight, indeed, and the dancing was not announced to commence until it was nearly an hour later; but the young ladies who, as far as I could see, were not one out of three accompanied by a male companion, must have numbered more than fifty.
    Their appearance said much either for the prosperity of the trades they worked at, or for their self-denial in setting aside for dress so large a proportion of their wages, supposing the latter to be moderate only. A keen-eyed critic might perhaps have discovered that in many cases the silk skirts were adaptations from the cast-off dresses of fairer wearers, and that those unmistakably new were of the flimsiest material procurable for money; but there could be no denying that but one fashion prevailed, that being the very latest. But the most amazing part of the display were the feathers these young work-people wore in their hats. It might be that a young lady could not afford herself a pair of kid gloves, and had to make do with cotton ones; or that her once white kid dancing shoes had been cunningly inked to make it appear as though black was their original colour, and to hide their defects and blemishes. These were but trifling drawbacks if the plumage of the ostrich adorned her head-gear. It did not seem to matter much as regards colour or how it matched with the complexion, so that it was large [-201-] enough, and it could not be too large. Purchased new, many of the feathers I saw would have cost a guinea and a half at least; but there is a way of managing such affairs.
    I remember, a year or two since, and in the bleak winter-time, being one day in the neighbourhood of the City Road, just at the time when the hundreds of persons employed in the warehouses and factories of that busy neighbourhood were turning out for their dinner-hour. There is a paper-colourer's somewhere thereabout, the employées being seemingly chiefly females - young girls from thirteen to seventeen. As I passed up the street they came trooping along, and one of them made a sudden halt at the window of a "wardrobe-shop," where there was exhibited for sale a quantity of artificial flowers. They had already seen service, but though considerably crushed and faded, they were still gay even to gaudiness, and they were ticketed "twopence halfpenny the lot." It was evident that the young lady alluded to, who was an ill-clad poor little creature, with dilapidated boots and a miserably thin shawl over her narrow shoulders, was on her way to purchase something for her dinner. She carried in one hand a small yellow basin, and in the other a few halfpence. She lingered wistfully at the flowers, chinking the money in her hand, and as though half resolved to enter the shop and make a bid for them, when just at the moment there chanced to pass another young female, who had already been to the cookshop and was returning with her purchase. She, too, was provided with a little yellow basin, and in it was a small portion of roast pork, together with a liberal allowance of gravy.
    The weather was piercingly cold, and the savoury sage and onions flavoured the nipping air with a fragrance such as to sharpen to its keenest a youthful appetite. Seeming to sniff afar off a similar banquet for herself, the girl at the wardrobe-shop window turned from it, though not without one long lingering backward look, and marched resolutely in the direction where roast pork awaited her. But her mind was not so completely and thoroughly made up as she had supposed. From the opposite side of the way I observed her steps abate in briskness as she approached the cooked meat establishment, and when she reached it, instead of going straight in, she paused at the threshold to survey the smoking joints displayed within. In small things, as well as great, it is sometimes curious what [-202-]  trifles help us to a prompt decision. It happened that, to make a more imposing show of his stock, the cookshop proprietor had a looking-glass at the back of his show-board, and this, besides repeating the viands baked and boiled, showed the factory girl her old bonnet that twopence halfpenny-worth of second-hand artificial flowers would make smart again. It must have been a hard wrench, for where she now stood she was in the midst of savoury odours, but the way to screw up her courage for the sacrifice was to steadfastly contemplate her shabby bonnet, and she did so, till presently she turned about abruptly and faced for the wardrobe-shop again.
    There was no hesitation this time. In she went, as though she had never been actuated by any other intent, and after several minutes, spent I have no doubt in an endeavour to bate the wardrobe woman of the odd halfpenny, she emerged with the precious prize in her hand. But she was not satisfied to depart with her treasure and gloat over it in private. She must needs try the effect of the flower in her old bonnet without a moment's delay. There was the gateway of a builder's yard close by, and slipping in here, she sat down on a log, and taking the bonnet in her lap, adjusted the trimming with a dexterity and taste betokening that it was not the first time she had engaged in such a task. Evidently she was pleased with the result; but though the bonnet might look well enough in hand, it by no means followed that it suited the style of her hair-dressing - which, by-the-bye, was highly fashionable - or her complexion. She knew where there was a looking-glass. Pocketing the tiny yellow basin, she put on the renovated head-gear and arranged the flimsy old shawl over her shoulders negligently, and as a young lady taking a walk, she walked with a genteel gait up the street again, and as if by the merest accident looked in at the cookshop window.
    But it was no longer a puzzled and pondering little face that was reflected in the mirror. What remained unsold of the baked leg of pork was still there, simmering in its own gravy, and the crispy crackling and the lusciously saturated sage and onion were delightful to behold; but, after all, what where they but fleeting pleasures? The artificial flowers were not. They were things of beauty, and though they could, perhaps, hardly claim to be a joy for ever, they would serve in that capacity for a considerable time. With ingenious contrivance, a month [-203-] hence they would still be a source of pride and satisfaction to the wearer, and enable her to carry her head at least three inches higher than any girl of her stature. What was the inconvenience of going dinnerless, compared with the triumph of appearing in that bonnet, when, her day's work being done, she took the arm of the youth of her choice, and accompanied him to the gardens herein mentioned, or any other popular place of amusement?
    I do not, however, wish it to be inferred that the majority of. young females whom I found at the gardens were of a class as poor as the little heroine above alluded to. As a rule they were older. Many of them, indeed, had so far passed the bloom of girlhood as to suggest the melancholy reflection that, highly as girls of the working class prize their liberty, and great as are the sacrifices they cheerfully make to do justice to it, it does not tend much to help them to a suitable and respectable partner for life. Young fellows do not frequent such places to cultivate sweethearting of the sort that culminates in matrimony. No doubt there are hundreds of silly girls who think differently, but they never did, nor ever will, in all their lives, make a greater mistake or a sadder one. Sad is the word. They might be counted by dozens, these poor jaded-looking women of from five and twenty to thirty, - honest hard-working souls probably, and sticking to business from morning till evening, but still possessed of the delusion that they are as attractive as other girls of their station, and as likely to discover in the gardens a young man who will take a fancy to them, and after a while approach them with serious and honourable proposals. It is marvellous how their vanity blinds them. Hobbledehoys and grinning louts of seventeen pass them with disdain, or "just for the lark of the thing" stand up with them for a few minutes, for the fun of laughing over their shoulders with their companions, who are similarly amusing themselves. It would not matter so much if these - well, elderly girls - appeared in becoming guise. There is no reason why a female of seven and twenty, if she be that way inclined, should not seek amusement at a public gardens, where dancing is going on; the absurdity of the thing is when she affects the finery of the flaunting young miss of fifteen, and makes a bungling attempt to reproduce, by artificial means, the natural ruddiness that long since has deserted her cheeks, and which is as glaring a [-204-] falsehood as the celebrated "peach-bloom" (fourpence halfpenny a box) with which her forehead and her arms are powdered.
    After all, however, it is purely a personal question, and if these past-prime belles of the garden can still find fun, or even bitter-sweet satisfaction, in making themselves conspicuous there, he must be a curmudgeon indeed who would begrudge them the poor privilege. And perhaps I was premature with my pity for them. It was only, as I afterwards discovered, while the daylight lasted that the majority sat neglected and forlorn. After dark, when the plat form was illuminated and the crowd thickened, and the dancing, though still as decorous as the vigilant M.C. could manage it, became more free and easy in its character, the elderly lasses as well as the young ones found male partners in proportion to the supply of the latter, which was about as one to two of the other sex. There was plenty of mirth and laughter, and not over-much drinking, though, faithful to the advertisement, there was a drinking-bar at which, at moderate prices, spirits and beer were dispensed.
    There was only one feature to find fault with, and that, unfortunately, is a fault so grave as almost to outweigh all that deserves favourable mention. The abominable "refreshment boxes" were there, dark as caverns, and as perilous as that in which the maiden-devouring dragon of Wantley made his lair. And this last is an unpardonable and deliberate iniquity on the part of the proprietor of the gardens that cannot be overlooked or forgiven. There was plenty of gas in the other parts of the ground, but the long range of boxes against the garden wall were in such gloom, it was quite startling when a young gentleman, one of the party partaking of refreshment within, ignited a fusee to light his pipe or cigar. A policeman with his bull's-eye lantern would have been a useful person, but, as far as I could see, the owners of the gardens decide to manage their affairs without the assistance of Scotland Yard, preferring to rely on the vigilance and the moral rectitude of their waiters.