The London tea gardens of the eighteenth century first brought tea out-of-doors in England. One of the reasons why gardens in the suburbs began to be more frequented than the centrally located but wholly masculine coffeehouses was that they offered their attractions to the fair sex as well as to the men. All sorts of beverages were served, including tea, coffee, and chocolate; but tea soon acquired an outstanding vogue.
The public gardens of the seventeenth century, known only as “pleasure gardens,” were tealess; many of them were pretty rough. But the tea gardens of the eighteenth century were places where the best people went for relaxation and amusement. Many of them incorporated the word “tea” in their names, like the Belvedere, Kensington, and Marlborough tea gardens—to mention only three—but all of them offered tea as one of several fashionable and popular beverages.
The tea gardens provided flowered walks, shaded arbors, a “great room” with music for dancing, skittle grounds, bowling greens, variety entertainments, concerts; and not a few of them were given over to gambling and racing. Their season extended from April or May to August or September. At first there was no charge for admission, but visitors usually purchased cheese, cakes, syllabubs, tea, coffee and ale. Later the Vauxhall, Marylebone, and Cuper’s gardens had a fixed admission charge of a shilling, in addition to the price of any refreshments that might be purchased. At Ranelagh, an admission charge of half a crown included “the Elegant Regale of Tea, Coffee, and Bread and Butter.”
Vauxhall and Ranelagh gardens were the best-known. It was at Ranelagh that Emma Hart, “the teamaker of Edgware Road,” who later became Lady Hamilton, scandalized her lover, the Honourable Charles Greville, younger son of the Earl of Warwick, by singing to the assemblage from the front of the box where he thought he had hidden her safely from prying eyes while he went to call upon some of his society friends in other boxes.
Today the eighteenth century tea gardens with their thousands of twinkling candle lanterns, exquisite belles, and perfumed beaux are but ghostly memories in the romance of tea. Not one remains.
Excerpt from The Romance of Tea by William Ukers, 2017 Benjamin Press edition annotated by James Norwood Pratt and edited by Bruce Richardson.