Georgian London boasted unparalleled opportunities for leisure and pleasure. An irresistible magnet to the landed elites, as well as many others, visitors flocked to London in their droves from across the British Isles, the rest of Europe and the expanding British empire. The relative wealth and social aspirations of the capital’s surging, youthful population, together with the uninhibited commercialism of metropolitan society, also shaped its leisure cultures.
The conservatively-minded were perturbed at the spectacle of people from across the social spectrum mixing at the capital’s sites of public entertainment, such as the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. Opened in 1732, Vauxhall exemplified the entrepreneurialism of the capital’s pleasure brokers. Bouncers were employed to keep out the ‘unrespectable’, but payment of a shilling bought you a ticket of admission.
One of the objects used as a token for a child left at the Foundling Hospital was a 1737 metal season pass allowing repeat entry to the Gardens. Vauxhall was carefully promoted by its owner, Jonathan Tyers, as a place of refined entertainment. However, just as his Gardens retailed illusion – with artificial scenic effects and careful candle lighting – Tyers and his hired publicists were seeking to distract from what else was on offer – frequent drunkenness, violent conduct, sexual intrigue, the commercial sex trade and predatory male behaviour.
The capital’s myriad taverns competed for a predominantly male clientele by offering games of various kinds – ninepins, cards, dice, billiards – usually involving recreational betting. Gambling was pervasive. Gaming houses spread out from their heartlands in and around Covent Garden and St James’s Street, brazenly resisting periodic efforts to suppress them. Gaming tokens – such as this fish-shaped token – were widely employed in gaming houses, where eye-watering sums could be gained and lost in a moment.
London offered shows and ‘curiosities’ of bewildering variety, including the state lottery draw, an elaborate spectacle staged at the Guildhall. Lottery Offices lured in the unwary with promises of vast fortunes won with a ‘lucky ticket’, while less well-off men and women bet on the outcome of the official lottery draw at unlicensed lottery offices and through their agents, the ‘morocco men’. Such was the mania for betting of this kind that the radical politician Francis Place alleged that lottery insurance ‘carried devastation all over the metropolis’, ruining hundreds of thousands of people.
Entertainment took place in the home as well as in multiplying public venues. Domestic entertaining involved dancing, dining, visiting or tea parties. Card playing was ubiquitous across society, and at least twenty playing cards were left as Foundling tokens. ‘[T]he D.[evil] take the Fellow who first invented Card playing’, half-joked one husband whose wife was forever going out ‘carding’.
The ways in which people sought pleasure and entertainment varied according to income, available time, gender, age, location and mobility, as well as inclination. The appetite for leisure and entertainment became deeply embedded in Georgian London, but how it expressed itself revealed vast differences in an ‘overgrown’ city characterised by its many and stark contrasts.